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Author Spotlight: Jessica Talbot



What does home really mean? Is it where we were born or where we choose to live, if we are lucky enough to have a choice? Do we really have to pick just one? These are questions likely to, well, hit home with many expats who have made Buenos Aires theirs, at least for the moment. What is it about the city that draws foreigners back for another trip because the first two-week vacation wasn’t quite enough? How does one visit lead to the search for an apartment, to plans to find a way – any way – to stay on in the city?

New Zealand author and psychologist Jessica Talbot has an idea or two. She has lived in Buenos Aires for ten years now, and in her novel ‘Picaflor: Finding Home in South America,’ she shares the adventures and misadventures that lead her to Argentina by way of Australia and Peru.

‘Picaflor’ is part travel memoir, part exploration of the psychological and emotional drivers behind Jessica’s search for home. It is rich with travel tales both bitter and sweet and full of light. Vivid descriptions of place — Cuzco’s bustling streets, a bumpy bus ride north in Peru, porteño neighbourhoods and night life — make up a backdrop against which we meet travel companions and love interests, and learn of the loss carried so close for so long. Jessica is a keen observer and the cultural differences she describes are likely to resonate with other expats living in the city.

I talked to Jessica about the journey from New Zealand to Buenos Aires that begged to be told, the process of writing it down, and what it is she believes foreigners find in the city.

How did you come to write Picaflor?

It was a whole series of little events and little things that sort of built up. I never imagined writing, but then, on the journey itself, there were so many moments that were interesting, and I kept meeting people and I’d tell them a bit about my story and they’d say, “Oh, that’s a great story, you should write that.” You know, they just threw it out there. After years and years of hearing that and meeting people with similar kinds of stories, I just thought well, why not?

I also kept meeting people like me, in their early thirties, travelling in Peru or Buenos Aires, a bit lost, a bit disconnected, sort of free floating, like the dandelion seeds that are a metaphor in the book. I thought, how do we become like that and how do we overcome it? How do we find ‘home,’ how do we find a place where we feel good about ourselves and a place where we belong?

What was the writing process like?

First of all I started writing emails to myself and finding old emails I’d written and expanding them into a kind of scene and then I patched them together. Finally I put it into a Word file called Hummingbird – ‘Picaflor’ came later. Then I just built on it until it became a 140,000-word rambling document and I said, “This is a book,” and gave it to all my friends and they went, “Yes, it’s great, but um, it’s kind of long and sounds a little bit like a diary.” So that’s when I got some help from an editor, a mentor really, from Australia. Then later I found an amazing editor from England, who lives in BA. It wasn’t quick, this whole process took more than three years. So I’m pleased with it. I’ve come out of it having a whole different skill that I never imagined in a million years I would have, and a new passion.

Jessica Talbot

Jessica Talbot

You’ve lived in Buenos Aires for ten years now. What was it that initially attracted you to the city?

I think there was something special about the way people had friendships, the way people touch here, the way people kiss here…. A lot of people come here, though there were a lot in Peru too, for a period of time and they end up staying, not always because there was a boy or a girl involved, though sometimes that was the initial spark, a romance or something. There’s something about the culture. New Zealanders and Australians are great people, they are great countries to live in but you know you just don’t get touched, you don’t get kissed as much. Between my students, friends, and the parents at kindergarten were my little boy goes, I get kissed at least thirty times a day, and I never had that growing up…. I guess it was something I needed and I got it here. I think perhaps that happens for other foreigners too. You feel a part of something bigger, more connected somehow.

So there’s something about the way people relate to each other and the relationships they form that you think leads foreigners to make Buenos Aires a permanent home?

People really go out of their way to build friendships, to see you. It’s not, let’s book a time two weeks from now where we might go for dinner, it’s like I’ll pop around tomorrow, let’s have an asado on the weekend. You feel much more in people’s minds. It’s partly a cultural thing, from the background, from the Italian, from the Spanish, but it’s also a product of the history too….

I think when a country is ‘easier’ to live in, like perhaps your country Canada or New Zealand, Australia, I think people can drift so far, even accidentally, and they don’t know how to come back from it. You’re encouraged at 18 to be out of the house, get a job, be independent and I think it’s too soon. I think people need to be closer. It’s human nature to have, like I talk about in the book, a tribe of friends and family, of connected people around you that care about you and you care about them and you do things for each other. I think in countries where things are easier, your tribe is smaller, like two people pairing up. It’s a different attitude to family and friendships…. You ask an Argentine, “Why don’t you leave Argentina?” They always say, it’s almost like this echo, “My friends and family are here.” It’s like they look at you as though you’re crazy. You ask a New Zealander or an Australian and it could be something like they miss the food or they miss the beach that they went to all the time. Friends and family are down the list somewhere.

In Argentina, family, friends, fire (the asado!) and food are still the main things that fuel most people’s lives, and that’s something core to human existence. I think we need that more than ever in this rapidly changing world.

Also I was fascinated with that concept of making a nest where we land, how we do it and what we bring into it. I didn’t have one before, not in my home country, not in Australia; I always felt free floating, on my own, and I don’t anymore. So the book was about that psychological, emotional journey and I think a lot of people have similar journeys, especially other expatriates here in Argentina.


(an excerpt from the opening chapter)

BRIGHT RED DROPLETS FORM, break and then weep into each other. A tissue wipes them away. There’s a buzzing, rattling sound as the machine’s needle digs into flesh, ploughing in the ink. It’s muggy in the small room above a busy restaurant. I smell garlic mingling with the metallic odour of blood. I look up at the tattooist’s face. He’s concentrating hard; translucent drops of sweat fall, catch in his eyebrows and trickle down his nose. His hand seems shaky. I wonder if he’s high. Cusco is known for its coke.

It feels as if a sharp knife is being drawn slowly along my skin. It’s excruciating, but oddly calming at the same time. I ride a surge of endorphins as they well up to dull the sting. I understand why they do it now, the girls and boys at the clinic where I worked, ‘the cutters’. They want relief. They wait to be soothed by the gentle waves of our body’s natural painkillers. Some cut because they crave a point of pain in the sea of overwhelming angst. Others do it to feel something, anything. They seek pain in order to confirm that they exist.

Is that what I’m doing? Is this crazy?

No, I tell myself. It’s the opposite. I’m doing this to mark the end of numbness. It’s been two months since I landed. Two months in this dusty country, where the light shines differently. I’m aware my feelings are unravelling still; they are no longer knotted together with sadness. I can differentiate one from another. Through the blur, I can sense colour coming back…


‘Picaflor: Finding Home in South America’ is available for Kindle from Amazon.com. Readers interested in picking up a hard copy can do so at Walrus Books or visit http://jessicatalbot.net or https://www.facebook.com/HummingbirdJessicaTalbot for more information.

Jessica will be presenting the novel alongside Argentine author Emiliano Néspola at the event ‘Kiwi Latino’, which will take place on 23rd September. Admission is free of charge though it is necessary to RSVP to lcoca@eduargentina.org by Friday 19th September. 

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Author Spotlight: Guadalupe Muro

Time spent, even if only briefly, in a country where the language spoken is not your own can be a pretty frustrating experience. It’s one that many an anglophone in Argentina is all too familiar with—there are the words that almost, but don’t quite, say what you would like them to, outright errors, awkward pauses, the perfect expression in English that has no equivalent in Spanish, or vice versa. There are words that simply don’t come, or those that do, but that are mispronounced to so great an extent as to totally misconstrue their meaning.

Naturally, said situation is further complicated when romance is involved and all you want is to be understood, precisely, by the love interest in question.

So it was for Argentine poet and author Guadalupe Muro during a visit to the United States. Homeward bound, mid-flight, she began a letter in English destined for the lover she was leaving behind. She never sent it, or those that followed; instead, the pile of letters grew, revealing themselves to be her forthcoming novella ‘Air Carnation’ which will be published in April 2014 by the Canadian publisher BookThug.

Poet and author Guadalupe Muro

Poet and author Guadalupe Muro at Banff Centre, Canada (photo: Annik Adey-Babinski)

Muro is also the author of the book of poetry ‘¿Con quién dormías?’ (‘Who were you sleeping with?’) published by Huesos de Jibia in 2007, and is currently working on a collaborative literary project called ‘Las cartas de Guadalupe’ (‘Guadalupe’s letters’). Thought up as a means of financing the artist residency at the Banff Centre where she worked on ‘Air Carnation’, the project involves hand-written letters sent to and received from strangers who sponsored her enrollment in the program. The letters will be compiled into a book and published in the coming year by The Funesiana Publishing House. It will also be available for digital download.

I spoke to Guadalupe Muro about the novella, what it’s like to write in English compared to Spanish, and the trappings of bilingual love…

Can you tell me about the origins of ‘Air Carnation’ and why you decided to write it in English? 

I had never planned to write a novel in English, goodness I hadn’t! Even today with the book in press I feel overwhelmed by that idea! It was a consequence of circumstances. This book was born as a letter, the addressee for that letter was a man with whom I fell in love and that man spoke English…

I was babysitting [in the United States] for the summer and lacked the visa or the money to stay longer, so after we said goodbye at the airport, sitting on a plane on my way back to Argentina, feeling like a kid with a sugar rush, I took out my notebook and I started to write him a letter. I had this urgency to tell him everything, to be sure that he would comprehend where I came from, how I was raised, the chain of causes and consequences that lead me to think the way I thought at that time (like a girl who lived in Communist Russia -in fact, ‘To Live In Communist Russia’ was my first option for the title during almost three years of writing), because, to be clear, this wasn’t about Argentina and its traditions, it was about me. And the experience of trying to explain all the time where I came from and who I was in English to my lover and my new friends and then suddenly being on a plane coming back home, led me to feel like a puzzle half solved.

My lover, my original addressee, was an artist and I looked at his paintings without needing an interpreter. But when I tried to translate my poems from Spanish to English for him, the poetry was lost; what remained was only meaning, coarse and insipid meaning. How could I give him a taste of my poetry? Well, by learning how to write in English.

So my reasons changed a dozen times in the process, they were not the same when I was writing the first three pages sitting on a plane as when I was correcting the ninth draft. I hope I did my job well so the reasons, fortunes, misadventures, doubts, insecurities, and tribulations of its writer won’t be a concern of the book.


Guadalupe Muro (self-portrait)

Guadalupe Muro (self-portrait)

How does writing in English compare to writing in Spanish?

Before this book, I always wrote poetry, and the few attempts I made at writing narrative in Spanish were exceptionally boring. I wrote eternal descriptions, texts where nothing happened and where I was falling with every step I took in every commonplace imaginable. But my level of English was basic, I had no tools to spend an entire page describing a room and that drew a clear limit. In that economy of language my thinking and my writing got dynamic and richer. Limits are a challenge for creativity. And English was concise, effective and clean, and that’s what I needed to put some order in my mind. I was dealing with autobiographical themes and writing them in English gave me a distance, some leeway to write that I didn’t have in my own language.

While moving along in the writing I found that the things I wanted to say were getting complex and that many times the words that English had to offer for a mirror to my Spanish world were too small, too much meaning was left out and I was not about to let that happen. Writing became some kind of game then, a riddle. When I couldn’t find the exact terms for what I wanted to express in English I worked my way to do it anyway, making English sound like Spanish, blooming like Spanish. But it also worked the other way around, English turned out to be an arrow; it goes straight to the point and hits you with one word…. 

I know that I use English in my Spanish way and that there is a trace of my language structure that refreshes sound and meaning. I had this long sentence in my book describing how a character felt, “in panic as a deer standing in the middle of the road watching a car with its white blinding lights coming straight to it,” or something like that and my good friend Tanya Davis, who is a Canadian writer, told me laughing, “Oh, that’s what we call a deer in the headlights, darling.”

Do you find that certain things are easier for you to write in English, others easier in Spanish? 

Well yes, actually I do! And that’s my favorite part! There is especially one simple but exquisite combination of three words in Spanish whose meaning I find difficult to say/write in English….

Some months ago I was in a writing residency in Canada. There I met a beautiful man and I dated him for almost ten days. It was a very charming romance and when the sun rose over our last night together, it found us in a hurry to tell our feelings to each other, which for me was easy to say with three words: “te quiero mucho”… which doesn’t mean I love you, doesn’t mean that I just I like you and doesn’t mean I want you, but can mean the three of them at one time.

Well, he needed a paragraph. He said, “I’m not going to say that I love you because we don’t do that, but I want you to know that I really enjoyed your company, you are a beautiful person and I hope we meet again someday, you touched my heart….”. I knew, and he knew, what the feeling was, and I thought: “Oh, poor lovely thing! His mother tongue doesn’t have a word to offer him to express it….”. Language is a tricky, tricky thing!

Isn’t it thrilling to think what other languages, that we don’t know, might have to offer to our own self-knowledge? Like when you have that kind of mixed feeling of sadness and longing, close to melancholy, but you are also happy and delighted in feeling longing. In English and Spanish it’s very confusing, but here comes Portuguese and tells you, “Hey! You have ‘saudade’. People who speak Portuguese have ‘saudade‘ all the time, don’t worry.”

Poet and author Guadalupe Muro (photo: Alejo Yael)

Poet and author Guadalupe Muro (photo: Alejo Yael)

What has it been like to translate ‘Air Carnation’ into Spanish?

If I had to answer with two words I would say ‘painful’ and ‘hilarious’ and I’m not willing to do it ever again….

…at this point I’m too obsessed with meaning and that’s an obstacle for poetry. I mean, I’m trying to translate word by word, I’m worse than Google Translator! I’ve never translated anything before and I don’t think I can be a good translator, not yet. I’m too literal and too stubborn and that’s not good for a translator. A translator must be flexible, bend the text to make it fit in the new language without breaking it.

There are some beautiful words in English that I learned while writing this book and pronouncing them, having them in my own text, gives me an intimate brief childish moment of joy: mingling, popping, nodding, brunette, awesome, mumble, gorgeous, grapefruit. It is kind of sad for me not to have those in the Spanish version.

‘Air Carnation’ can be pre-ordered online from BookThug and more information on ‘Las Cartas de Guadalupe’ and on the author herself can be found at http://lascartasdeguadalupe.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/lascartasdeguadalupe


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Author Spotlight: Daniel Link

Daniel Link might object to the label, but he is indeed a public intellectual of the most traditional sort. His public interventions are scattered across a variety of mediums, from novels to literary criticism, blogs and weekly newspaper columns, and though diffuse they form a net that Link casts about to capture the elusive nature of the “contemporary”.

By turns authoritative and provocative, highly erudite and risqué, Link manages to bridge the divide between institutional respect as chair of 20th Century Literature at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and champion for the young, the marginal, and iconoclastic. Amid his frenetic schedule of conferences, teaching, and writing, Link was kind enough to speak with The Argentina Independent about contemporary Argentine literature, the creative uses of obsolete technology, and how “good literature” is passé.

Daniel Link (photo: Sebastián Freire)

Daniel Link (photo: Sebastián Freire)

You’re currently director of the program ‘Estudios Literarios Latinoamericanos‘ at UNTREF (Universidad Nacional Tres de Febrero). How are you thinking these days about “Latin American literature”, particularly contemporary Latin American literature. Is there something about the present moment that led you to establish the program?

In the last few years I’ve been thinking more and more obsessively about the “Latin America issue” and in my last book of essays, ‘Fantasmas‘, I outlined the coordinates for that obsession (which included, like the stories of Borges or ‘The Name of the Rose’, a “missing book”). The last section of ‘Fantasmas‘ (‘Ghosts’) is a probing interrogation of that issue that coincides, I feel, with the turn of the century, and, therefore, with a paradigm change from the Cuban dilemma to the Bolivarian trilemma [ed. The interviewee is here referring to a shift away from dualisms typical of the 20th century, i.e. liberation vs dependence; civilisation vs barbarism, etc., to a more contemporary regional and multi-polar vision of the world].

It seems to me that the experience of Chavismo in Venezuela (independent of the opinion one might form about that government) has forced us to think about Latin America along new lines, or along lines that were already there, but had not been sufficiently examined, like Mercosur, whose fundamental milestone was the expansionary model of Alfonsín’s Republic.

Then, there are always the relations of friendship and fascination (in my case, for Brazil, Mexico, and the Andean cultures). Not so much a question of identification – I have nothing in common with those traditions – as one of desire. Why am I drawn to that which I am not?

If you look at the most prominent Argentine authors of the last ten years, it becomes clear that few of them are writing what you could call “classical novels”; that is to say, realist novels, or even the “total” novels of the ‘Boom’ period. Do you think it’s fair to say that it’s a death sentence for the novel?

I don’t know if I share that perception. I feel that Argentine literature experienced a great moment of expansion (like exhaling after a race) around the figure of César Aira, who enabled a number of operations that would otherwise have not been accepted. Later, that wealth of strange narrative forms seemed to disappear into thin air and now again we have very auto-referential literature, rooted in patriotic issues, sealed-off from the fluid relations between text and life, and rooted in literary protocols of the 20th century.

Naturally there’s not much realism being written, because realism is a bit old, but moreover because realism requires a series of operations (description, narrative coherence) that nobody wants to take seriously.

My general sense of “the novel” is that it’s an impossible genre – after the ‘Boom’, or, let’s say, after (Manuel) Puig. In my case, I resolve that impossibility via the “qualified novel”. I write, although with increasing difficulty, “historical novels” or “feuillotines” or “genealogical novels”, but never straight “novels”.

Daniel Link (photo: Nora Lezano)

Daniel Link (photo: Nora Lezano)

In your own literary works, one of the connecting threads is the incorporation of non-literary elements – the messages of an answering machine, for example – which makes me ask then, what techniques do you use when you sit down to write a book?

It all depends on the instant of danger that a given technique presents. I like to interrogate the narrative possibilities of certain technical inventions that quickly disappear (the very logic of technology) without letting them fall so easily into oblivion. In general these inclusions come from a brief moment of astonishment. I mean: when I had my first answering machine, the ones that had a double cassette, an apparatus that no longer exists, a completely obsolete technology, the story that was produced when you came home and listened to the messages was completely bizarre. I don’t know…I always say that I have an ambiguous relationship with the effects of technology, one of identification but also distance.

But lately I’m trying to finish an epistolary novel; that is, I’m returning to even older technologies.

You’ve played a considerable role in the recuperation of certain literary figures who for a long time were regarded as marginal by the Argentine literary establishment. Taking Copi as a prime example, do you think in the present it would be possible to speak of the emergence of alternative cannons as against the more traditional one?

I don’t think it has to do with an “alternative cannon”, necessarily, because Copi, who was an admirable novelist, as well as a theatrical author with a great sense for scene, could hardly be thought of as a canonical author (in the sense of a model to follow, or easy to incorporate within a scholastic curriculum). It seems to me that it has more to do with vanishing points in relation to whatever is considered “good literature” – the bien fait, which is of such little interest. Copi is an author that risked everything with every new thing he did, and that’s what interests me about his literature and why I’m happy to have played a part in his recuperation.

On the other hand, whatever “national tradition” there is in Copi exists in the necessity to flee from it. Copi mixes the gauchesco with Apollinaire, not in order to create a new “fusion” for discerning palates, but rather to produce, like in ‘La torre de la Defensa‘, a completely inedible meal: rat-filled-snake-filled lamb shank.

Argentina is unique for the sheer number of books produced and consumed, not just by the larger publishers but by smaller DIY publishing groups. Given the dizzying number of new books being published each month, is there ever such a thing as “too many books?”

One could definitely conclude that there are “too many books”. But any other form of thinking the relation between writing and publication seems to me an act of censorship. After all, books never obligate us to read them. It’s good that they exist, let them multiply, let a thousand flowers bloom…

The guardians of the market will warn us that in such a situation the market for “truly good books” will be ruined, but that’s the equivalent of the base assertion that some authority can hold a kind of power over aesthetic judgement.

Speaking of censorship, one noteworthy development in world literature in recent years has been legal/editorial censorship for infringements of copyright and plagiarism. Argentina has seen its share of “scandals”, from ‘Bolivia construcciones‘, to ‘El Aleph Engordado‘. Since you’ve been active in these debates, do you care to comment on the subject? [ed. Bruno Morales, writing under the pseudoynm Sergio Di Nucci, was stripped of the Premio de la Nación literary prize when it was found that portions of his novel ‘Bolivia construcciones’ has been plagiarised from Carmen Laforet’s ‘Nada’; ‘El Aleph engordado’, a literary experiment by Pablo Katchadjian that turned Borges’ classic story into a full-length novel, was successfully removed from public sale after a lawsuit was filed by Borges’ heiress, Maria Kodama.]

I took part in the polemic around ‘Bolivia construcciones‘ which, nevertheless, didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, because soon enough outdated “morals” were brought up as well as ad hominem attacks. Sergio Di Nucci – and the group of which he, at that point, was the visible head – did the right thing, except for not having prepared any indication that would connect the text of ‘Bolivia construcciones‘ with the text that was being “plagiarised”.

The operation of plagiarism itself is totally legitimate and interesting, and it unveiled the ignorance that prevails within the award system, journalistic criticism, etc. But, furthermore, it’s interesting for what it tells us about literature itself, the ways in which it manifests and circulates. The same can be said of ‘El Aleph engordado‘, which didn’t inspire as much scandal because the authoritarian character of the heirs of the Borges estate is widely recognised. The case of [David] Leavitt is more complex because there what was under debate in the trial were arguments about sexual morals, which for us, having read Lamborghini from the end of the ’60s, strike us as provincial and untenable. [ed. the case of David Leavitt concerns his 1993 novel ‘While England Sleeps’, which incorporated sexually graphic episodes of poet Stephen Spender’s memoir] Spender was wrong on that point, although he wasn’t so much mistaken in insisting on some indication that would connect his story – no matter whether it’s fictional or not – with the story concocted by Leavitt. At that time I wrote about the matter, because I felt bad that David’s best novel should suffer due to circumstances completely unrelated to literary matters.

It’s become a common place now to refer to the impact of new media and technologies in the cultural sphere. Nevertheless, your reflections on the particular challenges that they represent for cultural workers and critics have been quite interesting. What are those challenges, exactly?

The challenges we face always have to do with critical interrogation, because the ideas we have today are no better than those of the Greek philosophers or Roman poets in their time. In any case, it’s about how we can update that thought with new technologies, studying their uses, if they have one, and in what moment they might turn into the Terminator. With respect to the Internet, for example, one can historicise the creations present and see that the tools for writing, publication, and archiving – from blogs to youtube, which has been like the Big Bang of our present moment – are a different kind of technology from those associated with the “social networks”, which I personally consider decadent and hostile to any form of critical thought.

Today one can’t produce art and culture with their back turned to the new technologies (and if one were to do it, the very gesture would become so strange that it would be interesting to take into account) but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything that is produced and circulates is worthy of being read, seen, or heard. In some sense, if you are sensible to the Sirens’ song, as you should be, the new technologies obligate us to listen with fresh ears to our own history.

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Author Spotlight: Fabián Casas

To read an exclusive English-language translation of Fabián Casas’ short story, ‘The Fantastic Four’, click here.

Ciclo de escritores y escritoras - Víctor Santa María

Author Fabian Casas. (Photo: Víctor Santa María)

We found Fabián Casas waiting for us in an old bar in Colegiales. A stack of empty coffee cups and the complete works of Chekhov, 300 pages deep, has us wondering if we had arrived late, but Casas received us warmly and before long we were talking freely about poetry, travels, language, and what it’s like to be a great author with no imagination.

The author of fiction, essays, poetry, and screen plays, Casas is above all a deeply reflective person and the fact that he is having something of “a moment” doesn’t escape him, nor does it make him uncomfortable. His most recent books of fiction, ‘Ocio’ and ‘Los Lemmings’, have gone through successive reprints, only to sell out again. Lately, he finds himself rejecting the label of “Argentine writer”, indicative at once of a certain humbleness and his growing stature nationally and internationally. Generous with his time and his words, Casas opened up to us about becoming a “famous author” and how his head-space looks something like the bar from Star Wars.

What are you working on these days?

I spent all of last year writing a movie script, and this coming week we’re going to start filming. [Vigo] Mortensen is coming down, he’s going to act and produce the movie. [Lisandro] Alonso is the director. I’d never written for film before. I’m also writing an essay about Tolstoy, a very long essay that I’ve been working on for the last three years. I spent two years reading different authors talking about Tolstoy, in different languages, books that I found during my travels. And I finally sat down to write it, because I have to hand it over this year to Emecé so they can publish it.

I’m also working on a novel that I have to turn in next year, since I was contracted to submit two things. The novel I’ve been working on quite a bit. Lately I’ve been reworking it, and I like it better now because you can’t understand a word of it.

I like when I’m writing to feel as if I have a rock in my shoe, something that makes you ashamed, or uncomfortable. I’m not really sure what it is. Something about co-existing with the uncertainty.

You’ve also written some children’s literature. Is that something you will continue to work on?

Actually, just now I have a friend whose name is Nahuel Vecino. I had the urge to write something called “Mi Vecino Nahuel” [My Neighbor Nahuel] for kids. Because, since I don’t have imagination, the development of my books always comes from direct contact with people’s names.

Given the strong following you’ve developed over the years, do you have a sense of your audience, of who reads you?

When I used to write poetry, it appeared in small books that sold out quickly. They were small editions, for a limited audience of poetry specialists. And then ‘Lemmings’ was the start of something new. Now I don’t know who reads me. People stop me in the street, famous people call me saying they’ve read my books. It’s strange. But for me fame is worthless. It´s still strange to me how this all started, all different people from different places. Still, I couldn’t say if I have a particular reader or not.

Suddenly people are calling me, they write from Germany, from Brazil, from Italy. That´s what´s great about books, you don´t know where they are, but they´re circulating.

You’ve travelled quite a lot over the years. Some time ago, when you were working as a journalist with Olé you were awarded a grant to spend time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What was that experience like?

I made good use of the grant. Aside from the workshop, I was swimming, running, eating. The truth is I had a great time with the grant. There are people though who get depressed, because it’s a long time and some people can’t handle it. I got to travel. I went to San Francisco, to see [John] Ashberry. That is, you had to explain why you were traveling, so I went to City Lights Books, where I read Ashberry, and later I went to see him. It was great. I also went to Portland and New York.

If you could meet any poet, living or dead, who would you like it to be?

I would have liked to have known Beckett. Still, you know how it is, you find yourself with the guy and you lose the urge. In general you have to read writers and not meet them, you know? But, as an idea, I would like to know Beckett. He’s an author that I’ve read a lot and his personality has always intrigued me. I’ve read at least three biographies about him, how he developed his writing and the things he had to break through and take apart to find his own voice. He’s an example of a really great author who took a long time to find his own voice. That part of him has always interested me.

You mentioned that at some point you had been translating the Objectivists poets from North America. How do you feel in the role of translator?

I don’t consider myself a translator. I do it because, it’s an activity, like…like going to see a movie. I went to see the Master, and I told all of my friends “go see it, it’s fantastic”. But with the Objectivists the deal was that they didn’t exist here. I had become fascinated with how the Objectivists were a small group, hidden within the North American canon, somewhere underneath the Beatniks, who are an international export. The Beatniks have their good writers, I don’t mean to say they don’t, but they’re easier to sell, to export, along with the whole outsider identity.

Later I was working on John Ashberry, who as a poet really blew my mind, but you have to spend a lot of time with it. So it came from wanting to share the poems.

Basically, as far as my relation with translation goes, I don’t produce, I don’t read books about translation, nothing. I read the translation that you guys did and it seemed like you had captured a certain intensity in the text, it seemed good to me.

And when they translate you, do you evaluate the translation?

If I can read the language, of course. Recently I was reading the Portuguese translation of ‘Lemmings’. And with Portuguese you can really work with the slang since it’s similar to our own. But then you also get the “false friends”, words that are so similar you thing they must mean the same thing and it ends up being a terrible mistake.

You’ve worked as a journalist, writing about football among other things, and it’s striking how you can speak in the same sentence about literature, football, philosophy, and so on. With such diverse interests and activities, how do you define yourself professionally?

I’m always aware when I’m working for a specific group and that you have a certain framework in which you have to work. For me, due to my training, there was never any difference between high and low culture. If there exist differences they exist to be criss-crossed. There are many times when my ideas about Lacan come to me when something happens while I’m watching a football match or something is said during the game. Or I see a popular movie, and that gets stored somewhere inside along with Hegel, and from there I start thinking, as if I were a welder. But I’m not original in that way, Walter Benjamin already did it a long time ago and he did it better. He was thinking in the bar, with his book about the Arcades, with his passage about how high and low culture are resignified. It seems to me like a very productive exchange.

I always prefer being a ‘welder’ to be being a ‘warrior’. Like the bar in Star Wars, with the guy with a fish head, and the girl with three tits [from the film Total Recall], I think that those are the ideal places where the things that really interest me start to emerge. The vital things, because they’re different, that’s where the exchange takes place. For me that kind of crossing is the anti-fascist place par excellence. Finding myself here with a Muslim, a woman, a man, a Jew, a black guy, it’s great. When you find yourself with the same set of people, who think the same, that’s where fascism comes in.

The bar from Star Wars is an interesting reference. Would you say you’re writing has some affinity with that space?

For me that’s where interesting things take place, always the great literature comes from there, from syncretism. I don’t know if it’s something you can detect in my literature, but it’s part of my personality, something I enjoy

Speaking of fascism, you’ve been called the “last author of the left”. How do you react to that label? Is it fair or accurate to call your writing “political”.

It makes me laugh. I consider myself a man of the left but I’m not a leftist militant. I identify the right with a certain view of nature. Because nature would have it that the weakest of the pack gets eaten by the lion and that way the herd is purified. The ones that remain are the best. I’m against all that, I want the weakest to have support, that they have their advocates. That they be protected. I consider myself leftist in that sense.

My cousin was always a reference point for me, like an older brother. He was an important figure in the JP [Juventud Peronista] and he took me along to places where they had occupied the university, and there was a kind of excitement in the 70’s that for me was beautiful, amazing. The type of thing, where people act politically and commit themselves to politics, to changing the world.

The Pope is Argentine, and he says that everything spiritual, the church, is apolitical. I think the exact opposite, everything spiritual is part of political progress, I can’t think about anything spiritual outside of politics. For me Christ was a completely non-transcendent figure. I don’t think anything exists up above, nothing at all, I think that’s a way to manipulate things. But I do believe that Christ was a political and spiritual leader. The spiritual acts he committed were also political acts. For example throwing all those guys out of the temple was a political act. It’s what the church needs to do. But I think that it’s impossible to change the church, for me change is always going to come from the outside. The counterculture is always invisible, you don’t know when it will appear.

What you’re describing reminds me a bit of Saint Augustine’s book, The City of God.

The story of Christ influenced me ever since I was little because I came from a Catholic family, and it always moved me to see Jesus washing people’s feet, to see Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Everything about him seems extraordinary to me, what he says and the way in which he says it and the way he reaches down to the people around him.

When we started translating “Los cuatro fantásticos” we wanted to capture some of the intensity in that story. In fact, the writer Alan Pauls has written a long essay, where he says of your books that this intensity has to do with how you employ proper names and “naming”, calling things, streets, people, songs by their names. Have you ever reflected on that aspect of your writing?

What I can say regarding the subject is that that I pay close attention to lexicon of the people I speak with. It seems to me that there in language, that’s where ‘Being’ is situated. It’s the same as when you are aware of the things that give you life, that give you pleasure. Because when you’re going to live, to live well, and you want to feel right, except when you might have some masochistic urge, you look to connect with the things that make you feel right, you don’t try to connect with the things that make you feel bad. Involuntarily, since none of us are Krishnamurti, you fall on bad times, moments of sterility and stupidity. But when you get in touch with good things, you connect with what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing, you try to find yourself with the things that transmit intensity, which for me is the opposite of cynicism and irony. For me wherever there is irony there’s no intensity.

So for me, I always have my ear trained and I look to capture something. Then I think how I would be able to take the word, cleanse it of the ordinary meaning it has and put it back in circulation with a new power.

You always have to listen. When I was a kid, in my neighborhood, when you played with figurines, when you lost them they used to say “melado”. I don’t know who invented the word, but there’s a ton of those kids, from different neighborhoods who are the same age as me and when I ask them “Do you remember the word “melar?”, this word that disappeared from the language. They say “Yeah, yeah, ‘melar‘ was when you lost all of your figurines” Who invented the word? Evidently, it wasn’t a word from the adult world, because it part of the kids’ code. Some kid invented it and it got around. But also these words, at some point, leave the language, stop working, and people stop saying them. And sometimes it’s a good thing, because you take that word, you use it again. You revive it.

Your texts are not only intense, they also tend to be very funny. Are you motivated to find humour? If so, does it come easy or is it something you labor over?

Humour feels totally natural to me. Actually, it doesn’t form any kind of a priori program for my writing, because I like a ton of things that aren’t at all funny, and are really dense. It’s just part of my nature, my personality. I think life is hell, and if you can’t introduce some humour… or at least some degree of excitement…You would go crazy if it weren’t impossible to convert the horror into laughter. You can’t go on. In that sense, it seems like a good counterweight. I also like people who can laugh at themselves, because when people don’t laugh at themselves, they spend their time thinking they’re important and that will destroy you.

Los Lemmings has made a great impact here in Argentina. Do you think that that impact has to do with a certain nostalgia or even melancholy for “the neighborhood”, which doesn’t exist anymore or has somehow transformed?

From my point of view, I see melancholy as a capital sin, as something really unproductive and negative. Especially now that I have a daughter I see it like that. I’m seriously happily with the life I have these days, I’m in a state of pure presentness. The past doesn’t interest me at all. I remember with fondness the good moments and the bad moments with sadness, but I don’t wish to be there again.

Everything I write springs from the fact that I lack imagination. It seems important to me that people, in whatever setting, whatever they’re doing, are able to recognise their own limits. “I am this person, this is what I do, I’m bald, I don’t have curls, I don’t look like Brad Pitt, I practice karate.” That’s what you are, what you do. I practice karate whenever I can, with my abilities, and just the same I write what I can.

So ‘Lemmings’ is a work about the things I know, not because I’m interested in defending that position, but instead searching among those things that happened to me for something that seems worth transmitting. Not to affirm that “I want to do populism” or “the neighborhood is my ideal”. I can only put forth what I know. Tolstoy could write just as much from the point of a Count or a peasant, that explained everything, but he was a genius. And the whole idea of the “literatura chabón”, for me literature can never be contained within all that. The moment you pronounce it, it’s no longer useful. Literature is the place where dogmas are broken, so it’s difficult to maintain labels.

You’ve said on various occasions that you don’t consider yourself an “Argentine writer”. How did you arrive at that?

I think sometimes that for me the most important thing is to not lose the human element. That can happen when you spend your time within certain norms that are really unproductive. So if you see yourself as an Argentine writer you can’t write. It destroys you. If you see yourself that way you can’t even think. I think [the label] serves insofar as something to repurpose, to take apart, to basically work against. The same thing happens when you start writing and discover some strength, over the course of many years writing becomes a strength. I have that strength, but for me writers have to work against their own strength. And in life, speaking from my own experience, comfort can be totally debilitating. I’ve realised this. I’m a person that can easily obtain a lot of things through work or whatever. But the comfort that brought was weakening me, instead of making me into something better. When I was a little kid, I lived in a poor family and that’s how I grew up, humble. We were really happy, I have really happy memories of my childhood. Not that I would want to glamorise poverty, of course.

The Japanese have a concept, one that I always liked. I travelled through Japan, and there I heard some guys talking about “wabi”, the idea of voluntary poverty. I travelled quite a bit. When I turned 22 I took off for two years traveling, and one of the things a person learns when they travel is you don’t want to have a heavy load. For me this applies to practically everything. You can’t carry too much, can’t be heavy, you can’t carry the weight of your parents demands or the idea that you have to be the great author of Boedo, or Argentina, that you have to have a girl, all of these things will destroy you.

You’ve travelled quite a lot through Latin America, right?

Yeah, I was gone from the time I was 21 to 24. At the time I almost needed my parents’ authorization to travel. I wanted to do Che’s journey, but without anybody dying. Even the literature I read there, Castaneda, etc. was very stimulating for me. The truth is I was very happy. Always throughout my life I had a certain nostalgia for that time period, up until I finally rid myself of that nostalgia, when I started to really feel self-realized.

I’m not saying that everything is always good, it’s not that kind of evangelical joy. I have my job, my partner that I enjoy, I have a very intense relationship. I adore my daughter. I never thought I would enjoy being a father so much. I enjoy what time I have to read. The friends I have are very important for me, they’ve supported me a lot, I couldn’t live without them. I feel good.

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The Fantastic Four, by Fabián Casas

As part of our author spotlight series, we present an English-language version of Fabián Casas’ short story, The Fantastic Four, from the book ‘Los Lemmings y otros’, translated for The Indy by Agustina Santomaso and Nicolas Allen. To read out exclusive interview with Casas, click here.

There was someone before, but I never met him. Although lots of people say that I have his mouth and a bit of his personality too. That kind of thing. I’m not too worried about looking like anyone else though. There are so many faces in this world that, sooner or later, you’ll end up being the same as someone else. No, I want to talk here about the ones I knew. Each one came and tracked his footprints through my life, and I think the way to remember those who passed through me is to explain who they were, what they taught me. That kind of thing.

Around that time Mom was working in the Peter Pan lingerie factory. What a great name. I wonder if it’s still running. Mom, according to what everyone tells me, was a bombshell, a real glamour model. Legs, ass, hips. We lived in the Once neighborhood in a tiny apartment that I imagined was something like the pipe of Hijitus: Mom’s bedroom, the living room where I slept on a sofa bed and a kitchenette pegged to the wall. That was it. Mom’s clothes were scattered everywhere. And cosmetics and magazines that were brought back from her friend’s salon. My mom was a big reader. Sometimes when she went out dancing, I would stay with mom’s hairdresser friend, a Paraguayan woman who would tell me about her kids who, she said, were around the same age and lived with their father in Asunción. I didn’t associate “Asunción” with a physical place, it struck me more as a verb.1

In my memory, the first guy was Carmelo. Squat, muscular, a retired boxer. Mom introduced him one night when he came by to pick her up. I was watching something on a tiny miniature TV that the hairdresser had brought us from Ciudad del Este. You see? “Ciudad del Este” sounded like a real place.

Carmelo walked up and shook my hand. I thought he was going to give me a kiss, because I was a kid and that’s what people usually did when they first met me. But he shook my hand with his huge, calloused telephone-of-a-hand. I liked the gesture. From that moment forward Carmelo was always coming by the house, and more and more when he came by to get Mom he would also sit around with me, talking about his exploits from his boxing days. And one day on an outing to the park, under the sun’s light, the most incredible thing happened: in the fresh air, Carmelo’s skin looked the color of Scotch tape. I want to be clear. It wasn’t as if he was covered in Scotch tape, like some kind of mummy; he actually was the color and consistency of Scotch tape. So I baptized him- to myself- “Carmelo Scotch”. I bet he looked amazing, half naked, under the lights of the ring.

When I got bronchitis, Mom had to bring me to the hospital to get treated. They had me use a humidifier, they gave me some shots, and told me that I had to get more sun. Carmelo was especially concerned about my health, and he told my mom that I had to get more exercise, run, jump. That kind of thing. He showed up in gym clothes the next day and told me that he had a plan to turn me into an athlete. He unfolded a diagram across our little orange formica table with all the different exercise routines that he felt would alter my body. We started to work out in the mornings in the gym where Carmelo worked. Abdominals, short sprints, track. It was fantastic. He stood by my side while I poured sweat, and shouted at me: “Come on, harder. Feel the burn! Feel it!” Then we headed off to the showers together. One day,while we were drying off, he told me about the greatest moment of his life when he fought the opening fight for Nicolino Locce. “You don’t know what it is to step into the ring of Luna Park when it’s packed…only you under the lights and all the people looking at you…the red lights of the cigarettes in the blackness of the stadium…” It ended in a draw.

To this day I still hear the war cry of Carmelo Scotch: “Feel the burn!”

One afternoon, Mom told me that he had been relieved of his duties. She had to endure a week of my harassing her before she said why. “ Because he raised his hand to me.” Mom was always firm. And when choosing her boyfriends, she showed herself to be a true renaissance woman. And so she changed from Sports to the Arts. The second candidate she snatched up from right under my nose: Professor Locasso had come to the school as a substitute, and no doubt, to earn whatever he could while doing practically nothing. He would show up in class, put his breakfast of pastries or meringues on the desk- I went to school in the morning- cross his legs and stuff his face. He told us that we must paint whatever came to us in the moment. During Locasso’s class, we were free to space-out all we wanted. So we took the paper and we painted whatever. When we brought him the paintings to take a look, as he chewed and set aside the newspaper, he would glance at our artwork and utter his famous pet phrase: “More color, children. More color.” Even if the paper was smeared with tempera like a cake, he would repeat “More color, children. More color.” It was fine. It made us laugh. Naturally, we changed his name from Professor Locasso to Professor More Color. Imagine my surprise when I saw him one night without his smock, in a dark suit that fit him a bit big, holding a bottle of wine and standing in the doorway of my house. Professor More Color was a man of some forty years, with a horseshoe of white hair that rested on his neck, always a bit long and unkempt. His forehead shone like a billiard ball. His athletic body, when it walked around the school yard, moved in strides.

According to what I gathered much later, More Color came across my Mom at school during the events of July 9th, the same day I stepped forward and recited a poem to mark the occasion. The school was overrun with people and the night before I had been really nervous. I was afraid that when it came time to deliver the poem I would draw a blank. But it was glorious. With every new verse, I revealed my talent for reciting poetry and all during that patriotic week my schoolmates and teachers couldn’t stop praising my performance. But getting back to my mother’s love affair. It goes without saying I was the center of attention. All of my friends knew that my mom was going out with More Color. Sometimes, during recess, some kids went so far as to ask me if it bothered me. I asked them: “that you know about it or that they’re going out?” Silence. Other schoolmates tried to be more understanding, still, they told me that it would have been better if my mother went out with the Math teacher- a really hard subject- instead of Art class. They were right. I can’t deny that I had already thought the same thing.

My mother’s romance with More Color lasted almost two years. When they broke up I was in the fifth grade. Unlike my relationship with Carmelo Scotch, my relationship with More Color was easy-going. The guy slept over twice a week and sometimes the three of us went out for a walk. Only once did the two of us go out together. He took me to see an exhibition of Salvador Dalí, a painter that he really admired. He liked that kind of twisted stuff. Bent clocks, crucifixes from outer space. That afternoon in a cafe, we had the following dialogue:
– Would it bother you if I spent more time at your house?- he asked me.
-No- I told him after thinking about it for a moment.
– I think it would be better if there was a man at home, and I’m thinking about marrying your mom. I still haven’t proposed to her because I want to get your opinion first.-
-The only problem is that the house is really small.- I said.
-If you and your mother agree, we could move to another place. With a patio. Would you like to have a patio to play in?-
-Yes.- I told him after thinking about it for a minute.

More Color seemed satisfied with my answer. We shook hands and he took me to catch the subway. He showed me all the possible connections and the different kinds of trains that there were. When we got home, late, he went to talk with my Mom in the bedroom. It seemed to me like they were arguing. I put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night, and it seemed more clear that they were fighting. The next week More Color didn’t even sleep over for an hour and even if he called on the phone to talk with Mom, I started to sense that something was off-color. I tried to remember the conversation that we had to understand where he had gone wrong. And I drew the following conclusions: it was no doubt convenient for Mom to have a man at home. What’s more, she was always saying to the Paraguayan hairdresser that she wanted to find me a substitute father. Which seemed reasonable to me. When I went to my friends’ houses, I envied how they could feel so sure of themselves and brag about their fathers. So, regarding marriage there shouldn’t have been any problem. I think the conflict had to do with the possibility of moving. For some unknown reason that I couldn’t and I can’t understand, my Mom loved that pigsty in Plaza Once or “The Eleven Park”, as she called it. Something in that house touched a chord with her and it’s impossible to go back on that kind of thing.

One afternoon in winter, while Mom was putting her hair in rollers, she told me that More Color had entered her hall of fame. Today I think that my childhood was separated into different moments in which my mother told me about the boyfriend she’d just dumped. I continued to see More Color during the next three years-5th, 6th and 7th- but, except uncomfortable greetings when we ran into each other in the school yard, we avoided each other. Although, it’s fair to say, thanks to him, I know all the subway lines across the city to perfection. I could never get lost.

More Color was already history when I signed up in the Rec center at the church to play football every afternoon. The priests drew you in with an amazing football pitch and, in exchange, they asked you to take communion. So I went straight to the catechism and I ended up as an altar boy in a couple of masses. One afternoon Mom came to pick me up, and she told me to wait for her because she wanted to give confession. The gesture seemed strange, coming from her. But it’s true that around that time she was spending a lot of time in bed, as if something had broken her spirit. Father Manuel listened to her in silence, in the confessional booth. Mom started to come every other afternoon to give confession, or to to walk around chatting with Father Manuel. She told me that the priest- who was very young- was giving her the will to live. “Mom, why don’t you want to live?”, I asked her. “It’s not that I don’t want to live, it’s that I don’t have the will.”, she answered me.

One night when I was returning late from my friend’s house, I happened to see Father Manuel leaving my building. What surprised me most was that he was dressed like a normal guy. He didn’t see me, but I saw him clearly because I was on the other side of the street. I didn’t make a peep. When I got home, Mom’s eyes were all red, as if she had been crying. The day after, she spent the whole day in her bedroom with the Paraguayan hairdresser. Whenever they opened the door, to go to the bathroom or to look for something in the kitchen, there was an awful smell of cigarettes. I think that’s why I never smoked.

I decided to talk to Father Manuel after I found Mom sitting in the living room with huge bags under her eyes. It looked like she had been sitting there since puberty. “All of the appliances decided to commit suicide,” she said with a hoarse voice, hardly seeing me. The mini-fridge and the television weren’t working, and the water heater made a terrible noise when we turned on the hot water.

Father Manuel was in his bedroom reading, they told me. I told the nun that I needed him urgently. Soon, I saw him coming down the hallway. This time, he was wearing his impeccable robe. He patted my head as we walked across the football pitch that at that hour- 2 in the afternoon- was empty. It was a spring day.
-Father, I don’t know what’s going on with my Mom- I told him.
I felt my voice emerging from deep in my chest.
-Son- he said, even though he was very young- do you know the story about Calvary and our Lord Jesus Christ?- he asked.
-The whole bit about the Romans and the crown of thorns and the betrayal of Judas?-
-Exactly. I want you to think about that part of our Lord’s story. Because often in life adults have to make great sacrifices. Do you understand?-
I didn’t understand a bit of it, but I agreed. He was selling me a line.
-Your mother is an exemplary woman. I want to be clear about that. And more often than not, people of integrity suffer greatly. Now we’re going to to go to the church and we’re going to kneel and pray for her.-

And that’s what happened. We prayed in silence. To be honest, I didn’t pray. My mind jumped from one image to another like a video game. I saw Father Manuel in his robe, then I saw him in street clothes, like I saw him when he was leaving my building, then I imagined him in his underwear, then playing football. Finally, he took my hand and told me not to worry, that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

What’s certain is that Mom didn’t go back to church, and a few months later they moved Father Manuel to a convent in Córdoba. The Lord knew what he was doing alright, because Mom began to feel better and she started coming out of the depression that she’d been stuck in. We fixed the TV, the mini-fridge, we took out the water heater and replaced it with a better one.
Throughout the rest of secondary school Mom didn’t bring home any other boyfriends.
And, just when I was preparing to start University, the last and, for me most important boyfriend arrived. His was name Rolando, he worked installing antennas on rooftops, and he was pivotal because he talked to me for the first time about my father. Because he was obsessed with whoever it was that my father was.

Mom met him in a group that got together every Sunday in Hospital Pena. It was a psychological support group to deal with Sunday sadness. It wasn’t that my mother got depressed on Sunday, she was really accompanying the Paraguayan hairdresser who on Sunday around 7pm, invariably, wanted to kill herself. Rolando was going because his football team had descended to the B league, and for that he had to suffer game-less Sundays. According to Mom, he was a devastating arrow straight to the heart. Rolando had curls, a prince valiant haircut and a gravelly voice. I took an immediate liking to him. And even more when I found out that he spent his time on the roofs of buildings fixing and installing antennas.
I love people who spend their time up on roofs, I love jumping from the roof.

So quickly- I was seventeen- I started going along with him. It was grand. In the summer, we climbed to the peak with a cooler and a six pack. Sometimes, if we hadn’t eaten, we brought cheese and membrillo in a tupperware. After fixing the antennas, we sat down to, as he said, have a little chat. Rolando was obsessed with other people’s lives. “Look at the guys who go around the world playing against the Harlem Globe Trotters. It’s crazy. Showing up so that those black sons-of-bitches can make you look the fool. Some people’s lives are insane, right?”. And always, after the beers were done, he talked to me about my dad. “I don’t know how you’re mother could believe anything that that imbecile told her. Did you know that your dad was caught up with the guerillas, and that he preferred that to having a family, taking care of you, seeing you grow up…And your mom thought he was a great guy, brilliant! You seriously never saw a photo of him?”.

One afternoon, as we watched the sun set from the roof of a tall building, he told me: ” You know that I love you right?”. “Yes”, I told him and I felt goosebumps. “But before I couldn’t even look at you because I could only think about how you were your father’s fuck-made-flesh.” I didn’t answer because I was left thinking about his expression, and I remembered when Father Manuel said that Christ was God “made-flesh”. Rolando downed all of the beers and said : “in Italy they call this time of day the Pomeriggio, do you know why?” I didn’t make a peep. “Because Pomeriggio means tomato. Do you see the color of the sky?” What a guy. The sky was completely red. He added “You see, from here we can see all across the city. Isn’t it great? Most of the people don’t know that we’re up here, watching them. We’re like gods.”

Sometimes, before sticking an antenna in the roof, he would raise it high with one hand and shout: “I’ve got the power!”. And we would die of laughter. Other times, he would get melancholy and say to me: ” Swear to me that if your father comes back, you won’t get sucked-in by him.” “Where is he going to come back from, Rolando?” , I asked him. “From Timbuktu, how should I know?”, he replied.

Some time passed and I was drafted into military. I was assigned to ground troops, and so I had to come down from the roof. I spent a year in hell as an assistant to a military general. At some point that same year, my Mom and Rolando broke up. She told me so in a letter. When I came back home, I found a job fixing antennas. I never saw Rolando again, but I heard about him from a doorman of one of the buildings. He told me that he had an attack of vertigo and that’s why he had stopped working at heights. It sounded to me like science fiction.

Sometimes when I am up high, with my lunch, I realize how wonderful it was that he let me go along with him and learn the profession. Because the roof’s dizzying heights is a solitary calling. For mythical creatures. You don’t need anyone up here.

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Author Spotlight: César Aira

César Aira (Photo courtesy of New Directions)

Near the end of ‘Varamo’ – the latest novel by César Aira to make its way into English – the title character, an unmarried, fifty year-old civil servant, wanders into the company of some men who work in publishing. They urge him to write a book. Writing is “very easy” and can “be done very quickly”, they explain to Varamo, who’s never written before: “Do you have anything to do tonight? No? It shouldn’t take you three or four minutes to fill up a page, if you concentrate. That’s twenty pages an hour. In four or five hours you could finish off a decent little book.”

A decent little book, indeed. The joke is that Varamo will go home to write a “celebrated masterpiece of Central American poetry”, the “dazzlingly innovative” poem ‘The Song of the Virgin Child’, and that he’ll do so by stringing together words from scraps of paper left in his pockets, notes from a failed fish-embalming project, and code from a notebook he’s been asked to re-scramble. If it sounds fanciful or odd, that’s the point: Aira’s literary terrain, trod consistently and copiously in 80-some novels since 1975 (no one seems able to keep a proper tally) is all about stringing together sequences of unlikely events – and like Varamo’s poem, the results are often dazzling, and always odd.

‘Varamo’, published in Spanish in 2002, is the sixth of Aira’s “decent little books” (they’re usually around 100 pages) to be issued by New Directions in English translation; in 2010, New Directions’ President Barbara Epler declared Aira heir-apparent to Chilean dynamo Roberto Bolaño (also published by the press). Released this month in the US, ‘Varamo’ will join ‘An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’ (2006), ‘How I Became a Nun’ (2007), ‘Ghosts’ (2008), ‘The Literary Conference’ (2010), and ‘The Seamstress and the Wind’ (2011) on Aira’s North American bookshelf. In the coming years, New Directions plans to release six more.

This is good news for English readers. Aira’s novels, or novellas, or nouvelles, or novelitas, as they’re varyingly classified, really are best when read in bulk. Each single book is almost too peculiar, too idiosyncratic, to stand on its own – as if Kafka had written ‘In the Penal Colony’ and nothing else. And this is Aira’s intention. Known as much for his method of production and the rate of his output as he is for any individual work, Aira claims as his predecessors process-obsessed avant-guardists like John Cage (“a musician…with cork in his ears”) and the Dadaists.

The long tradition of writing at a cafe. (Photo: John Althouse Cohen)

Alternately called “the continuum” and “a forward flight” (fuga hacia adelante), Aira’s chosen ‘procedure’ is this: every day, he sits in a café and writes a page by hand. He perfects it through the evening, but never, in the days that follow, goes back to make changes or revise. The result is a string of stories that are digressive and unpredictable, and uniformly so. Freed from the conventions of “high” literature – among them quality (what he calls “the well-made”) and narrative consistency – he relies instead on improvisation and surprise.

‘Varamo’, in this way, is a typical Aira affair: we meet our protagonist and are immediately swept into the random peregrinations that precipitate his penning of a major literary work: payday, buying candy from a street vendor, dinner with his mom. The events are both mundane and uncanny, often jumping between the two (he’s paid in counterfeit bills; the candy from the street vendor attracts a swarm of pecking birds; his mother cooks quasi-embalmed fish), and the novel, like all of Aira’s work, follows these conflicting whims until they reach an unlikely resolution – in this case, the writing of an avant-guard classic by a civil servant who fails at fish embalming.

What’s really unique about Aira’s output, considering the speed with which he ‘flies forward’ (seemingly by the seat of his pants), isn’t that he produces so much work, or that it’s fanciful and odd, but that what he’s produced forms a coherent body of work – and one that’s consistently enjoyable to read.

Born in 1949 in the Coronel Pringles, a small town 500km south-west of Buenos Aires, Aira spent years writing and publishing novelistic installments in relative obscurity – until 1998. That year, Random House Mondadori published ‘How I Became a Nun’ in Spain and out popped a literary career, Athena-like, fully-formed: Aira has gone on to publish over 50 more novels, some which had been written in the 80s and 90s (perhaps on scraps of paper stored in his pockets, like Varamo), and the rest produced since, at the disarming rate of two per year.

My favourites are those that juxtapose social reality with the absurd: like ‘Ghosts’, which manages to portray the life of a transient Chilean family in ‘80s Argentina against the sexual awakening of a teenage girl befriended by a band of naked, semi-visible phantoms. A similar feat is achieved in ‘How I Became a Nun’, where class anxiety and social unease permeate a novel about ice cream aversion and identity confusion in a six-year-old child, who, while narrating the book, is also already dead. Odd mixtures, sure, but Aira performs delightfully, without ever taking himself, or his reader, too seriously.

The six New Directions offerings all come from Aira’s prodigious pre-fame era. With a half-dozen more to come, here’s my request: give us some written on this side of the 20th century—after Argentina experienced its 2001 economic collapse. Since Aira’s procedure allows him to incorporate whatever is going on around him directly into his work (“if a little bird enters the café where I am writing…it also enters into what I’m writing”), I want to see him process a society unhinged and chaotic—you know, like ours is right now.

My suggestions: ‘La Villa’, an asburdist rendering of life in a downtown Buenos Aires Hooverville; or ‘Las noches de Flores’, which opens with an elderly couple taking up pizza delivery to make ends meet. Argentina seems to have made it through its difficult time in (mostly) one piece; perhaps a dozen “decent little books” by César Aira helped tip the scales toward recovery. Odder things have happened on the path to great literature.

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Author Spotlight: Oliverio Coelho

Oliverio Coelho (Photo: Lola García Garrido)

When I track Oliverio Coelho down, he’s in China. That’s not unusual for the Argentine writer; he’s often far from home. Sometimes that’s literal—he’s held writing residencies in Mexico, New York and South Korea—and sometimes it’s literary: his stories, of which he’s published one collection (‘Parte doméstico’, 2009), often take place in foreign locales, and when they don’t, a pervasive otherness permeates ‘domestic’ Argentine settings. Among his six published novels, one is called ‘Borneo’ (2004), another, simply, ‘Ida’ (2008)—departure. After his last extended stay in South Korea, he edited an anthology of contemporary Korean fiction entitled ‘Ji-do’ (2009).

Coelho was born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and continues to make his home in the city. When he isn’t writing fiction, or spending time in transit, he’s a contributor to the culture pages of La Nación, El País, Clarín, Perfíl and Los Inrockuptibles. For the latter, he regularly covers the publishing industry, a task which he characterized thusly for Granta magazine, when, in 2011, they named him one of the ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’: “to my thinking, the best way to play a role in public life nowadays is to risk thinking outside the box and to convey an ethic in any literature-related public involvement.”

In ‘Death of the Critic’, published here in an exclusive English-language debut, Coelho’s out-of-the-box sensibility is on full display. The piece, originally the closing story in ‘Parte doméstico’, was also published last year in Los Noveles, an online literary journal, and this past August in La Nación. Like Coelho’s other Korean tales—in particular ‘Sun-Woo’, a story which will soon be available in English as part of the translated anthology ‘The Future is Not Ours’ (Open Letter Books, 2012)—‘Death of the Critic’ exhibits a cruel world: dangerous for those who are creatively predisposed, bitter for those who aren’t.

Luckily, when I ask Coelho to answer some questions, his disposition is somewhat brighter. “I’m traveling around China,” he tells me. “But I’ll do everything I can to respond in my free time—in general I get back at night full of wonder and write a bit.” He spoke to us via email, full of wonder, and en route back to Buenos Aires.


Your work is just starting to make its way into English—coming out in the Open Letter anthology, and being featured in last year’s Granta #113. But you’ve written a great deal that has yet to be translated. Can you give us a primer on that work? What else would readers find if they were to read the complete collection ‘Parte doméstico’, and not just ‘Death of the Critic’? 

Readers would find a synthesis of my universe. Story collections can sometimes give writers the chance to concentrate their concerns. In my case, the story functions like a laboratory. It’s a place for tests; without these stories I never would have written novels. In a way, the characters are guinea pigs. Through the characters I attempt to explore certain power relations, especially romantic relationships that, in a sense, reflect the social crisis of 2001. The stories were written when Argentina was disintegrating. Those with ‘Eastern’ themes were written later, 2007, 2008… And they relate to the rest of the book through contrast; they are stories that take place in another world, but address the same problem: romantic relationships as mediated by the capitalist logic of success and failure.

What motivates you to write about life outside of Argentina — and, as in the case of ‘Death of the Critic’, Korea in particular?  Is it freeing? What does it help you achieve as an artist?

Having lived abroad, especially in South Korea, allows me to metabolise experiences that changed my literary universe. It’s inevitable that the Eastern way of life would be the subject of my fiction, after living there. I don’t think it has contributed to any artistic achievement, however; more likely it’s just made me more honest with myself about my curiosities and concerns. Nor do I think the experience has been freeing, per se. But it is comforting to know that I have that parallel landscape in which to develop my stories and that I can, whenever I feel like it, leave behind the field of inbred tensions that is Argentina.

Much of your work seems to challenge the distinction between moral and immoral. The protagonist of ‘Death of the Critic’, Min gyu, for instance, is both a “guilty” and “a victim.” Without giving away the ending of the story (though perhaps I just did), tell us a bit about what brought you to create Min gyu in particular, and what you think he’s up to over there in the deserted suburbs of Seoul.

Well, ‘Death of the Critic’ was the first in a series of stories that I never completed and that had to do with men consumed with bitterness. The story originated in a conversation I had with an Indian writer I met in Seoul. One night we had a good laugh speculating on a resentful writer who decides to kill a literary critic who’s ruined his life. Even though the story doesn’t replicate that plot line, I can point to it as the point of departure. Here, the protagonist becomes the killer by chance, in a miraculous way, and cuts short a relationship developing behind his back. But first and foremost, Min gyu is a victim of existence, of the survival of the fittest.

Can you tell us a bit about your influences, Argentine and otherwise, and how these predecessors or peers have influenced your work? Who else should we be reading in order to understand ‘Oliverio Coelho’? 

I don’t think that in order to understand my books you have to trace influences, antecedents, etc. Books are enjoyed or discarded for what they are. A reader is an instinctive creature, not a rational one. Those who look for precursors and influences are literary critics, and because they look for associations that are valid, often end up talking more about their own reading. In other words, I don’t think the writer is the ideal person to detect his influences. One can feel influenced by a writer, but that might not be reflected in the work. And what might be reflected is a writer that you never paid much attention to and who isn’t one of your favorites, but because of a shared temperament is always present. In my case, Céline.

What’s next? Any plans for other work to appear in English? Or for new work in Spanish?

I’ve been working on a novel for a number of months, I’d say more than a year, and still I’m quite a ways from finishing it… I can’t say too much more, there have already been so many changes of direction that any ‘coming attractions’ could spoil the plot. At the same time, I’m also working on a fictional diary that is based to a degree on my recent experiences in Seoul. The protagonist gets evicted and narrates his experiences in the pools, saunas and dating sights for foreigners. Bit by bit, it’s beginning to coalesce around a young, pretty Russian woman who, because she works twelve hours a day, on top of commuting to and from her home, has lost touch entirely with her own sexuality.


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Author Spotlight: Ezequiel Zaidenwerg

I met Ezequiel Zaidenwerg in August, 2008. I was spending a semester in Buenos Aires as an undergraduate exchange student and he was teaching a seminar on poetry translation. At the time, I harbored vague, earnest, poetic (in the pejorative sense) notions of what the process of translation was—in fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even think of it as a “process.”

Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, poet and translator (Photo: Valentina Siniego)

So, it came as a surprise when Ezequiel briskly set out, in the early minutes of Day One, to give us a crash course in poetic meter. The first thing I learned from him was the word “heptasyllable.” As Ezequiel presented it, translation involved a tireless kind of imagination, but one that necessarily operated within an elegant structure; it involved, for that matter, structure. You had to be a cover artist, not a composer. And you needed chops. So, first order of business: scales.

For a while, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about all this. But I came around. And as I got to know Ezequiel, as a professor and later as a friend, my enthusiasm for translation continued to grow.

When Ezequiel and I coincided in Mexico City—the city where I currently live and which is threatening to adopt Ezequiel—we decided to collaborate on the translation of several of his new poems. These poems, taken from his second book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ (Lyric Poetry is Dead, 2011), display his fierce poetic intelligence, both sprawling and precise, and his vast and focused imagination: his language, equal parts learned and off-the-cuff, manages to praise and problematize both our current (literary, cultural and political) moment and the legacies that have borne it out.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1981, Ezequiel has published one other collection of poetry—’Doxa’ (2007)—and two collections as translator: ‘Me va a encantar el siglo XXI’ (2011), poems by Mark Strand, and ‘El club del crimen’ (forthcoming), poems by Weldon Kees. He also maintains the celebrated poetry translation blog, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, where he publishes poems newly rendered in Spanish twice a week.

In the following conversation, conducted during our time in the Mexican capital, we discussed topics of great poetic importance including, but not limited to: inspiration, freedom, Lorca and monsters.

Can you talk a bit about your most recent book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ [‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’], in terms of what prompted you to write it, how it came to be, how it’s structured?

I started writing ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ when I was 24 as a kind of invective against my elders. However, the project kept expanding, and, as it expanded, I myself continued to grow and change my ideas about poetry. The statement “Lyric poetry is dead” is an (ironic) quote from an Argentine poet, Alejandro Rubio, of the generation before mine, who, in an ars poetica included in the anthology ‘Monstruos’ [Monsters] that collected poets from the ‘90s, made this provocative declaration.

My initial proposal was to refute it; that said, as time went on, the book’s agenda ceased to be a defence of lyric poetry (which, in any case, doesn’t need my help or anyone else’s) and instead became an elegy for the loss of the idea of transcendence through poetry. In some way or other, the book’s thesis is that lyric poetry is a zombie — dead from the start, but continually reviving and reincarnating itself in order to terrorise us (or question us). As for its structure, it’s a unitary poem divided into thirteen narrative vignettes; in each one, lyric poetry is personified by a famous cadaver from recent Argentine history or the history of literature. As a kind of coda, the book concludes with a poem called “What Love Does Unto Poets,” which doesn’t strictly belong to the previous series, but which is intimately connected to it.

How do you think ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ most strikingly differs from your previous (and first) book, ‘Doxa’? To put it more broadly, what are some of the ways in which you feel you have “evolved” as a poet?

I wouldn’t know how to say whether I’ve evolved as a poet, or even if I’m really a poet, or what it means exactly to be one. Apart from that, I think that ‘Doxa’, my previous book, with the exception of the homonymous poem, was rather, on the one hand, a metrical exercise, and on the other hand an attempt to cloud the waters so that they’d appear more profound, to appropriate Nietzsche’s metaphor. Additionally, there was a conscious mission on my part to create radically different books, which has to do with trying not to fall into the comfort zones in which those who write poetry and sustain this foolish passion over the long term often fall. I firmly believe that, more than writing against tradition or against other poets, one writes against oneself.

Do you find yourself repeatedly revisiting particular “terrain” — certain subjects that continue to fascinate you, individual ideas or images, styles or forms you’re attracted to or comfortable with — over time? In other words, are there recurring motifs, or even recurring obsessions, in your work?

I suppose so. I think one (very) weak point in my poetry is the scarcity of physical images. Unfortunately, my poetic sensibility is eminently linguistic, so my poems tend to be constructed, almost without exception, from ideas (to be clear, let’s say that all have some kind of thesis); in addition, I think that what gives them poetic density, if indeed they have it, is the search for verbal imagination. Consequently, I suppose some of the elements that recur in my poems are humor, or at least a certain kind of sarcasm or irony; the mix of references from different cultural registers; and an almost unhealthy obsession with meter.

(Photo: Valentina Siniego)

Both your poetry and your translations are always written in meter. Why? Can you describe the importance of meter as you see it?

I can’t say (although I’d certainly like to) that metered poetry is better than unmetered poetry. There are abundant examples to prove it. However, for me personally, the use of more or less established metric schemes allows me to organise myself when I write; I believe, like Luis Cernuda, that freedom isn’t of this world, and I find it impossible to write amid the chaos constituted by total boundlessness. I think that, in the field of the arts, formal limitations don’t pose a restriction, but rather a condition of possibility.

Your blog of poetry translations, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, is widely read and respected. What has the experience of maintaining this blog been like for you — both as a translator, period, and as a kind of “messenger” among various audiences and contexts?

Well, to tell the truth, I owe the entirety of my meager literary career to the blog. Although, perhaps rightfully, I’m known almost exclusively as a translator, posting some of my poems on the blog has helped give my poetry some visibility. With respect to the experience of maintaining it, this year will mark its seventh anniversary, and the third anniversary of its religious twice-weekly updates. I should confess that there have been moments of great enthusiasm and others in which, amid the tumult of life, only my sense of duty has prevented me from abandoning the routine of publication.

As for my responsibility to the public, I don’t consider myself a “messenger” of anything. The blog was born in a period of time when I found it completely impossible to write a poem of my own, and translation helped me stay in contact with the “kitchen” of poetry. I never thought of diffusion as my objective, nor am I interested in upholding the tabernacle of the “original” as something inviolate. About the translator’s role, my creed is effectively platonic: I believe in a kind of platonic

heaven of poetry, where poems exist separately from the particular linguistic embodiment dictated by the original; the translator’s job consists of seeing those ideal forms and adapting them to the conditions of production in the given language and the context in which the translation is carried out.

What is the relationship between your work as a translator and your own writing? Do these roles directly inform each other somehow?

Yes, obviously. I suppose that the fact of writing poetry and possessing a certain technical repertoire helps me connect a little better with that platonic heaven I mentioned before. As for the second part of the question, I hope that translating such diverse poems by such distinct poets has allowed me to enrich my arsenal of poetic methods.

Poetry, like any art, strikes me as a strange social beast. On the one hand, it’s intensely solitary by nature. On the other hand, people make a lot of noise about different kinds of literary “scenes,” which of course vary by place: readings, workshops, festivals, university programs, etc. How much literary “community” — formal or informal — do you need, or do you feel comfortable with? What is the relationship between solitude and collectivity like for you?

The poetry world, like all professional communities, is contemptible by nature. It’s full of hypocrisy, envy, and resentment. However, I don’t harbor the childish illusion of being able to change it: I participate, since in order to be a writer it’s necessary to disseminate what you write, but I don’t take it too seriously. I do believe in the fundamental importance of having interlocutors one respects and hopefully admires, and fortunately I have a small group of this kind. I should also mention that it’s difficult for me to feel comfortable in the context of Argentine poetry, given that I generally don’t have anything in common with the conception of poetry that many of my compatriots tend to have, especially when it comes to the technical dimension. Strangely (or not), I’ve found in other Latin American countries, above all in Mexico, a group of poets whose work, poetic and theoretical, inspires and nourishes me.

Could you tell us some of the poets — or poems — that have been most important to you over time?

I discovered poetry when I was 15, when my high school literature professor brought a poem to class by Federico García Lorca, “Oficina y denuncia” [Office and Denunciation”], which is part of his book Poeta en Nueva York [Poet in New York], and it made me see that there was something fascinating there, radically different from prose, which until that time I had read avidly and attempted to write. Later I discovered by chance, on the cover of a now-discontinued Argentine literary journal, a poem by Oliverio Girondo, ‘La mezcla'(The Mixture) from ‘En la masmédula’ (In the Masmédula). I didn’t know it yet, but what fascinated me about Girondo’s poem, more than his syntax and verbal experiments, was his incantatory use of rhythm. Some time later, when I bought my copy of ‘Trilce’, the incredibly famous and also experimental collection by César Vallejo, I completed my first trinity of books that inspired in me the desire to read and write poetry.

The second and more lasting revelation took place a few years after that, when I set out to read the authors of the Spanish Golden Age, from whom I finally learned classical technique. In sum, I’d say that my trajectory has gone from the avant-garde, or rather from experimental poetry (one couldn’t say that Lorca, Girondo, or Vallejo are truly avant-garde poets), toward a certain classicisim. More authors would come later, many of them from the US, whom I came to know intimately through translating them, as well as many others in my own language. In any case, as time went on, I went from thinking of poetry in terms of poets to beginning to think of it instead in terms of poems: in this sense, I firmly believe that poetry is a collective creation, a gathering of poems rather than poets; it’s for this reason that even those considered “great authors” leave only a handful of poems to posterity.

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Author Spotlight: Guillermo Martínez

Photo courtesy of Guillermo Martínez

Over email, Guillermo Martínez suggests we meet at a cafe on a quiet street in Belgrano. When I arrive on foot, it’s an arty espresso bar that wouldn’t be out of place in an American college town—studious patrons sit in groups, sipping coffee and cradling laptops. Which is fitting, since our interview will focus on his most recent book: the tragicomic tale of an Argentine writer’s year as a visiting professor in just such a college town in the American South. The book, ‘Yo también tuve una novia bisexual’ (‘I Also Had a Bisexual Girlfriend’), excerpted in English here, follows our accidental tourist as he journeys deep into the heart of the former Confederacy, acquiring an intimate knowledge of America’s strengths and foibles along the way. It’s a travelogue, a campus novel, and a sexual coming-of-age.

Guillermo Martínez is a novelist, essayist and short story writer. His books—which include ‘Infierno grande’, ‘Acerca de roderer’, ‘La mujer del maestro’, ‘Borges y las matemáticas’, ‘Crímenes imperceptibles’, ‘La fórmula de la inmortalidad’, and ‘La muerte lenta de Luciana B’— have been translated into 35 languages and published around the world. ‘Crimines imperceptibles’, as ‘The Oxford Murders’, was released as a feature film in 2008 starring Elijah Wood. Recently, Martínez became the only writer after Borges to have a story published in the renowned American magazine The New Yorker.

In Belgrano, I ordered the cafe doble con crema—the drink my college-self would have wanted—and we spoke about ‘Yo también tuve una novia bisexual’, what it takes to write about sex, and why the least shocking thing about the novel is the bisexuality of the narrator’s girlfriend.

Cover for ‘Yo también tuve una noval bisexual’

This novel is erotic; there are a lot of passages that describe sex in detail. Was it hard for you to write so explicitly about sex without descending into comedy or melodrama?

There are a lot of difficulties that arise from writing about sex. Broadly speaking, there are two literary traditions: there’s the nineteenth-century tradition, wherein sex is sentimental and romantic, described in metaphorical terms and used as a metaphor by the author. In the narrative, it happens behind closed doors. Offstage. Then there’s the twentieth-century model, wherein sex takes on a certain gross, sordid realism, and inhabits some of the same territory as drugs, violence, and other kinds of squalor. It ends up verging on banality just from repetition–it loses all of the romance and sentimentality, all of its transcendence. I wanted to tell the story of an intense carnal relationship but without resorting to either of these cliches. I wanted to capture something of the happiness–the ecstasy–of lovemaking.

So writing this novel was a tightrope walk over an abyss. The theme was so personal–distinctive, individual–the true sense of sex, that it is erotic, that it is about these two people and their particular connection. I had to write with a great deal of empathy for my characters. I had to create scenes that were obscene, sacred, literary and real at the same time. It was helpful to read other sexual biographies and other erotic literature: Moravia, the biography of Casanova, some of Erskine Caldwell’s work.

Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the work? It seems like a departure from some of your earlier work—lighter, less directly philosophical.

This was my first novel to deal with sexual themes. The story began as a short story in a collection of stories about sex and death. Then it expanded into novel form. That expansion was a natural process–the skeleton structure of the story took on more depth and complexity. I wrote very much from a symbolic point of view. It was the story of a couple from different backgrounds, who came together by chance. And it was the story of the young woman–the titular novia bisexual–her history and eventual outcome.

It was interesting to write about a bisexual character–and to deal with some of the differences between her and the average heterosexual girl. But bisexuality itself wasn’t so important to the story. Bisexual women have more intimate, possessive relationships with women–and they often have less intimate, romantic relationships with men, more like “friends with benefits.” She loved women, and it was a woman who hurt her. There was also her interest in striptease and soft-core pornography–she’s clearly not your typical girl.

But the novel contains some volatile political subject matter, as well. The campus interactions—between the American university, the faculty and the Argentinian visitor, for instance. And then, of course, the attacks of September 11th, which serve as a catalyst for the climax of the novel.

The novel isn’t a political novel, really, but I did want to study the effects of the attack on the couple, to show what would happen to this very private relationship when the real world interfered. But I wanted the political themes to emerge naturally, through the individual reactions of the people I described. Politics is another genre. Political themes certainly emerge throughout the novel, and in the interactions between the characters; they’re a big part of the story of the relationship. They provide the impetus for the trouble between the two lovers, and threaten the career of the narrator-professor. They spotlight the political, national, and personal differences between the two people–and all of the other characters in the book.

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Author Spotlight: Ana María Shua

Ana María Shua – born in Buenos Aires in 1951 – is famous in Latin America as an author of microfiction. Her many books in the genre (including ‘La suenera’, ‘Casa de Geishas’, ‘Bontanica del caos’, ‘Temporada de fantasmas’, ‘Los días de pesca’, ‘Viajando se concoce gente’ and ‘Como una buena madre’) have received national and international prizes and have been anthologized in collections around the world.

Ana María Shua at work (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

She began her career as a poet; ‘El sol y yo’, her first collection, was published in 1967. Since then, she has produced more than forty books. In 1980, her novel ‘Soy paciente’ won the Losada Prize; other novels include the Guggenheim-winning ‘El libro de los recuerdos’ and ‘La muerte como efecto secundario’, which received a Municipal Prize in the novel category. Her latest novel, ‘El peso de la tentación’, was published in 2007. In 2009, ‘Cazadores de Letras’, collecting four of her microfiction books in one volume, was published in Madrid. ‘Que tengas una vida interesante’, an omnibus collection, was published the same year in Buenos Aires.

This year, her most recent collection of microfiction, ‘Fenómenos de circo’, was published simultaneously in Argentina and Spain.’Fenómenos de circo’ takes as inspiration the circus, portraying notorious impresarios, freaks, and feats across a series of incredible, paradoxical and ludicrous vignettes. Houdini has a cameo, as do more fanciful circus archetypes like the Magician, the Sword-Swallower, and the Tattooed Woman. Like a series of circus acts themselves, the stories burn for an instant and then disappear – readers are left beguiled and enchanted, with no choice but to start again from the beginning.

We caught up with Ana María Shua in her home in Palermo and spoke about the circus feat that is writing, and the inspiration behind her circus-themed collection.

Tell us about your writing process – and specifically about the process as it pertains to this new collection of circus-themed microfictions?

I usually start with a single story, and then write them down as they come to me. [This time,] when I had gathered ten or twelve short stories, I started reading about the history of the circus, the biographies of famous circus performers, and I identified different people and different circus phenomena. My research gave me more ideas, and I went on from there.

What does the phrase “Fenómenos de circo” (Circus Phenomena) mean to you?

Well, phenomena as in “freaks” – unusual people; people with deformities, different bodies, strange abilities – but also in general terms: all the components of the circus. The freaks, the performers, the trainers, the impresarios, the animals. Everything that belongs to the circus. But I also have a special interest in freaks.

Why is that?

They’re part of the history of the circus. They’re still out there on television. For some reason, our society considers it politically incorrect to exhibit them as freaks in person, but has no problem with gawking at them as long as it’s through a camera. The Discovery Channel documentaries, for example, the Tree Man, the subject of the documentary – the man with the branching tumors. I believe there’s nothing wrong with curiosity about the strange and the different. It’s a way for the performers themselves to support themselves, when their circumstances would otherwise prevent them from working a normal job. It’s a way for them to become famous, and to travel, and to live interesting lives. They can also earn a great deal of money.

So, why microfictions? These short-shorts and circus acts; the brief glimpses into performers’ lives and their routines, their “numbers” – they make for an interesting pairing. Was that your intention?

I enjoy the extreme condensation of the form—the condensation of a profound sensation or idea into a few words, a brief significance.

Circus acts are very brief. They’re quick because the artists have to demonstrate their abilities before a demanding public. They have to show off because the audience will stop paying attention right away. They’re always trying to surpass themselves, because the audience gets bored. That’s why nobody ever does three front flips in a row on the trapeze – by the third one, the audience has stopped watching.

It’s interesting to see these long, eventful, and sometimes disjointed histories condensed into such a short lyrical form. Do you have difficulty restraining yourself as you write, choosing what to include and what to leave out?

Never. When I write in this format, my mind is set to this pattern. My stories are born brief. I don’t have to cut details or condense an idea. It never happens that a long piece of work comes to me as a short story.

Big Top Circus (Photo: Tim)

You include a long and detailed historical appendix to the collection; brief biographies of all of the circus performers that appear in your short short stories.  Why?

I wanted people to know what was invented and what was real. In the first part, I worked with historical information to create short fiction. This follows the way that I worked chronologically: I started with my own ideas and impressions, memories from childhood, impressions of the circus and the idea of the circus. Then I started to read about famous people in the circus, about the origins of the circus and its various incarnations. I wrote, and then I investigated, and then I wrote some more.

It was important to me, however, that the reader understand what actually happened. It’s very important to me that they read the historical appendix. That they share my curiosity. Also, the authentic has a great deal of prestige in our society. Something on film, in photographs – it’s important that people understand that these things did occur, that these people did exist.

What sorts of things did you look for? Did you seek out a particular type of story?

Not really. Whatever jumped out at me as I went along.

The story that interested me the most was the story of the monkey woman who married her impresario and then died after giving birth to a child who looked just like her. Their corpses were subsequently exhibited, sold to a Russian university, exhibited, bought back, exhibited, lost, recovered without her child’s corpse, and exhibited again. She is currently on display in Oslo, at the university, but anyone who wants to visit her has to get special permission. The archbishop of Oslo is campaigning to have her buried. It seems like there is always someone trying to display her and someone trying to inter her. It’s a fascinating story in all, a terrible story – I didn’t add much.

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