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St. John’s Spanish professor receives royal award

A St. John’s University professor of Spanish studies who has written more than a dozen books on Spanish and Latin-American writers was recently honored with an award from Spain that recognizes people who have made exceptional contributions to the arts, literature and sciences.

Marie-Lise Gazarian received the Civil Order of King Alfonso X el Sabio award on April 7 at Spanish Ambassador Emilio Cassinello’s house overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. The award, given by Spain’s minister of education, culture and sports on behalf of King Juan Carlos I is a golden cross that bears the effigy of King Alfonso X, who was a great patron of the arts and a poet himself during the 13th century.

“Why did I receive this great honor from the government of Spain? Actually, I don’t know,” said Gazarian, who has been teaching at St. John’s for more than 40 years. “I did contribute to literature quite a bit by my writing and exposed (Spanish and Latin American) authors to a greater audience outside their own countries. ... I’ve promoted Spanish and Hispanic literature at St. John’s and in the U.S. and everywhere I’ve gone.”

Gazarian wrote the first of her 14 published books on the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the only Latin American woman writer ever to receive a Nobel Prize.

Gazarian met Mistral in the 1940s through the United Nations, where her brother worked. Mistral inspired her by her humility about her own work and her dedication to teaching.

“She was like a second mother to me,” Gazarian said. “She impressed me by the beauty of her poetry and her personality because she was so spiritual. Reading poetry is like words that have wings. It uplifts you.”

After writing her book on Mistral, entitled “Gabriela Mistral, la maestra de Elqui” (the teacher of Elqui), which was published in 1973, Gazarian interviewed more than 100 other Spanish and Latin-American authors. Some of the interviews were compiled into a television series that was aired on CBS, ABC and the St. John’s University television network during the 1980s. Others were published in books about one or more of the authors.

“My books are about writers, their lives, their works, what words mean to them,” Gazarian said. “A word can be like a jewel if you know how to polish it, to use or not to use it.”

Besides Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, other authors Gazarian has interviewed in-depth include Carmen Conde, the first woman to be accepted into the Spanish Royal Academy, the academic institution that governs which words are put into the Spanish-language dictionary; Camilo Jose Cela, the Spanish writer who won the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature; Chilean writer Jose Donoso; Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes; Mexican journalist Elena Punia Towska; and poet/philosopher Fernando Rielo, who lives in Briarwood.

“When I do an interview, I’ve read everything that the author has written, so my questions are based on his or her work,” Gazarian said. “You have to find the key which will open the inner world of a writer. The key is usually one of the words or one of the characters in the work of the author.”

One of Gazarian’s most recent books is about Henri Troyat, a prolific French writer. It is her first book written in French, her native language, which she says she spoke even at an early age with a Spanish accent.

As a teacher, Gazarian emphasizes creative writing in addition to analysis of Spanish and Latin-American writers’ works. She oversees the production of “Entre Rascacielos,” which means “Between Skyscrapers,” a literary journal created by the Spanish honor society, Sigma Delta Pi.

“Sometimes you don’t know you have it in you, that inner knowledge to write. Then suddenly you discover if you’re asked to write a poem you end up with something very beautiful,” Gazarian said.

Gazarian is the coordinator of St. John’s University’s graduate program in Spanish, which has about 20 students. She has lectured and researched in Spain, France, Russia and many Latin-American countries including Chile, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia.

    Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

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