An Island of Words

When I first met Luisita López Torregrosa, I’d just finished reading her literary debut, The Noise of Infinite Longing: A Memoir of a Family — and an Island. This was three weeks ago, while I was on vacation in New York, and we met at a small, upscale Mexican restaurant in the meatpacking district. I expected a tall, forceful woman — an image I’d preconceived from her author photo, a handsome, smiling woman peering between fingers at the reader — and from knowing that she’s an editor at The New York Times, and from her muscular, passionate and rigorously honest prose. Instead, I spotted the photograph’s face on a tiny woman with bright, very large, deep, dark eyes. We sat and ate and talked, and her lean strong hands moved in rhythm to her speech with great expressiveness. She spoke about this complex first book and her family members who people its pages with touching passion, honesty and directness — the same factors that make her memoir compelling.

The story, says Torregrosa, had been in her mind since 1986, “but only in freeze frames, small scenes, I had nothing coherent. It took a ton of experience, emotional experience, including the death of my mother, to start making sense of all that.” She wrote the book, while working at the Times, at night and on weekends and vacations (with long stretches off for magazine and newspaper work). The Noise of Infinite Longing tells the story of her extended, educated, cultured but not particularly wealthy family, and of her growing up in Puerto Rico.

Torregrosa’s mother, a spirited beauty, was already in law school when she chose the wrong husband; Amaury, a moody man from a good country family, had never set foot in a theater and did not read for pleasure, nor did he feel compelled to curb his appetites or his rages. The young couple moved to small, uncomfortable housing in rural Puerto Rico, then to Mexico City as Amaury pursued his medical degree, then back to another country village on the island. Meanwhile, the children arrived thick and fast: the author first, followed by five siblings. The father, alternately loving and short of temper, began beating the children, taking his belt to the beautiful, sensitive Angeles for not eating (eating will become a life-long issue for her) and to Luisita for getting a C in deportment. The mother, paralyzed in her role as a traditional Latin wife, looked on cowed and helpless.

When their marriage finally ended, the family dispersed. Torregrosa, at 15, went to a girls school in Pennsylvania and never returned to Puerto Rico except to visit. Her mother remarried and wound up in Texas, where she had a seventh child. Amaury, the one brother, a drummer, led the nocturnal, alcohol- and drug-soaked life of a musician until, after a bad car wreck, he took the well-trod route from San Juan to New York City. Torregrosa’s closest and most beloved sister Angeles helped form the short-lived Sandinista government in Managua, Nicaragua, before retreating with her princely husband to his birthplace, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Torregrosa herself moved frequently from college onward, to New York, the Carolinas, Philadelphia, Manila, New York again, Tokyo, and New York again, in an ongoing effort to become all of who she is: a writer, a lesbian, an editor, a loving member of her family.

Torregrosa’s memories and family history are carefully, deftly related in smoothly executed time shifts. Each chapter but the last begins in 1994, at Torregrosa’s mother’s funeral, where all the siblings have gathered for the first time in 15 years. They rifle through old family photographs, drink and reminisce; it’s clear that each has a different take on the past. At some point, in each chapter, the narrative slides seamlessly, naturally into those earlier times, the family story vividly rendered. Unsentimental, passionate, at times angry and always gorgeously written, The Noise of Infinite Longing is made of prose at once lush and well-modulated. Consider the title passage, late in the book, when the author returns to Puerto Rico in 2001:

For so may years I hadn’t remembered much about the place, but the color blue, all the shades you see all over Latin America, and the noise that fills the spaces in those towns, the noise of people who explain their lives on the street, in bar corners, at the drugstore, the noise of infinite longing.

Like many editors, Torregrosa had always wanted to write a book. Of course, she has for years written for newspapers and magazines, including long features for Vanity Fair and the The New York Times Magazine; but The Noise of Infinite Longing is the kind of writing she always wanted to do. “I didn’t have the courage, I suppose, to leave a very good newspaper career to write full time,” she said. The seductions of an editorial job — the security, the promotions, the titles — she told me, have at times been an irresistible temptation. At other times she has spurned these lures with a vengeance to pursue her own writing. In 1986, she resigned from the Philadelphia Inquirer to fly to Manila and join her lover, Elizabeth, and commit herself to writing. “Everybody said I was insane to go,” she says, “everybody! But it is the greatest decision I ever made. I knew if I didn’t leave newspapers, I would never really write.”

In the memoir, she speaks of the consequences of this big decision: “In one year, I had transformed my life, had willfully destroyed the career of editor I had carefully made step-by-step . . . I had left the hemisphere I knew, the people closest to me . . . because of a mere notion that I had to break free and find a way down to the bottom where the words I wanted to write had long drowned . . . And I had to go that distance to understand passion. Words and passion came at the same time. It was no coincidence that Elizabeth and writing become one and the same. One could not have lived without the other.”

The writing Torregrosa did in Manila, she says, “was like a rehearsal, or a tryout, bits and pieces, and some of it, in some way, exists today in The Noise of Infinite Longing.” Torregrosa would, in fact, write two books prior to her memoir, one about her time in Manila, which she tossed out — “Really, I have no copy” — and another, which she has shelved and whose content she hopes to plunder for a future project. Since her prose is so sensual and vivid, and her imagination seems to strain so right up against the facts of nonfiction, I wonder if she isn’t suited to write fiction. Torregrosa agrees — an idea is already under way — and she’s as restless and determined as ever to find more time for her lifework.

“Writing,” she says, “is the hardest thing on Earth. Really. I’m talking about literary writing. It takes it all out of you and often gives you little else back but the pride of having done it . . . But in my mind, there is nothing that someone with the gift to write can ever do but write, regardless of the public, regardless of critics, regardless of money . . . I could not not do it. What was the point of living if I didn’t?”


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