Felipe Restrepo Pombo: “Any writer who wants to specialize has to be a voracious reader": A Conversation with Claudia Cavallin
Through the use of journalistic and literary language, Felipe Restrepo Pombo, director of Gatopardo, directs us to search for the interpretation of an experience. In Formas de evasión [Forms of evasion] (2016), Restrepo Pombo ties together certain conditions that adhere to the novel, based on a philosophical element narrating the link between what didn’t happen and what takes place, between what is and what is done; a sort of confrontation of narrative identities that leads us to delve into other forms of writing, including crónica, or chronicle. In his recent visit to the University of Oklahoma, we talked about his narrative work and the tiny, unstable border between literature and journalism.
Claudia Cavallin: Welcome. I always read your interviews, but today you’re the “interviewee…”
Felipe Restrepo Pombo: Yes. I sometimes conduct interviews, and today I’m the interviewee. When I’m answering questions, as an interviewee, I always try not to recite some speech, like some people who always repeat themselves. People who are interviewed often tend to do that, they learn a speech and repeat it, regardless of the questions, they only say “catchphrases.” I like questions that make me think further beyond. I always try not to pronounce a repetitive speech, I like to steer clear of that, and I love being asked questions that really make me pause and reflect: “I hadn’t thought of that before.”
CC: Since we’re taking the path of the interview, and reflecting on various connections, let’s talk about what you just mentioned, linking it to “eternal return.” In journalism and in literature, there initially existed writers who, while writing fiction, published accounts of personal experiences in the newspapers of the twentieth century. Does contemporary chronicle again fit into this dialogue in which personal experience forms a part of the events of a journalistic reality? Is there a new connection that refers back to the old one?
FRP: Yes, and in fact I always tell an anecdote that happened to me at a festival, or a book fair, I don’t quite remember, where the organizer had a group of guests and he suddenly said, “Okay, we’re going to do an activity: writers on this side and chroniclers on the other.” It was funny to me because I think the chroniclers I’ve edited, worked with, published in books or in the magazine Gatopardo, are all writers; they work the same way, with the same rigor, with the same care as a novelist or a poet or an essayist. I don’t like to think about those divisions. When writers are doing chronicle and journalism they have to follow certain rules, and the main one, of course, is that they’re talking about real subjects and real stories, about real people, with facts, with data, where the work of verifying the facts and reporting must be impeccable. That doesn’t happen in fiction, where the only rule is dictated by the imagination, but the technical part, the part that has to do with polishing texts, with working the language, with self-editing, with care for the rhythm of the voice and the scenes, works in exactly the same way as a novelist would work it. When I decided to write a novel, I started with journalistic research. It was a subject I had thought of as a long profile of a character I once met, who told me the story of his life, and I started to put it together. At one point, I realized journalism wasn’t the proper scaffolding to tell that story, I needed to move to another platform, and that was when I made the jump to fiction. Something I often ask myself is: why does a journalist decide to switch to fiction? I had doubts about whether or not I could do it, thinking about how difficult it is to confront a story of those dimensions, the amount of work it implies, but I never questioned whether or not a journalist could move to that genre. For me, it was a very natural leap; journalism really helped me find that rhythm I wanted to work with and be more precise with everything in the novel that, while fictional, is somehow tied to real events. I wanted it that way. I wanted the protagonists, even if they were people who don’t exist, or who only exist in my imagination. to live alongside historical characters, alongside realities that I researched and that really happened.
CC: That historical and fictional dynamic of the novel is exactly what made me recall the importance of the writer in a story like this, where some things are real and others are not. The writer always has a certain power, because you come from the chronicle, and in chronicles the importance of the word and the one who writes it is vital. The beginning of Formas de evasión immediately traps the reader. When you cite Foucault in The Order of Things, where he references the idea that there is nothing more empirical (at least in appearance) than the establishment of an order of things, that order based on the reader’s experience, does you suggest establishing a connection with the novel in which even the reader’s doubts end up strengthening the plot? These doubts about what was real and what is not, what happened and what didn’t happen… Do you think the link between reality and what happens in the reality of fiction is changing today into something that will finally end up as two variations of the same thing? Can we discover what happened in a novel, in a newspaper, however we prefer to understand it?
FRP: It’s a rather complex question because, in its specific case, the novel has always served to inform us, in some way, of what’s happening. I don’t mean there have to be “newsworthy events” in a novel, but any novel is an important thermometer to measure what’s happening in its time. I like to think of novels as “forms” that authors take on in order to understand the world in which they live. A novel seeks, through a story and narrative storylines, to reflect the author’s vision of the world, their approach to reality. I think, for example, of the case of Flaubert, in Madame Bovary, which looks like a story that occurs in a specific place where a woman confronts her personal drama; in the end, it’s a novel that relies on a certain intimacy, and the greatest part of a novel like this is that, through an intimate story, through the characters, it manages to talk about the spirit of a time. When we read Madame Bovary today, we don’t only understand her conflict and her historical moment, but also many of the problems of the human condition that have always been there. It’s true that, perhaps, with journalistic genres we can have more precise information, but novels also serve to understand a reality and a time. The same thing happens in film, or other genres that move in that direction. A filmmaker who decides to tell the story, to film the story of something very small or intimate, is also referring to the time in which that story occurs and how that story resonates with whoever sees it, beyond the reference point of reality.
CC: So, we find ourselves amid that valuable connection between journalism and literature, somehow linked to the things we learn as students when we want to be journalists: the famous unions between informative journalism and the ideal of the “truth.” We often try to inform people of what is truly true, through the 5W1H: who? what? when? where? how? But can the answer to the “why” be assumed from literature and journalism?
FRP: Yes, I think narratives should be included in the papers, not only in their magazines or supplements, but in every story they tell. Traditional journalism, the kind you mention, built on the inverted pyramid of the 5W1H, forms a base, of course. It’s the start of something, and I would never say it’s a bad idea to do informative journalism: it’s an important genre and it’s very respectable. What I think is that the journalism that limits itself to simply giving facts or responding to specific questions, or giving the “hard” news of the day, with no narrative context, seems less interesting to me. For me, it’s all about short pieces of journalism or newspaper articles, sometimes half or a quarter of a page long, or a column, that can offer an entrance into another world through narrative writing. Part of the crisis of traditional media, when they say nobody reads newspapers anymore or young people have no interest in them, or the same thing in reference to news programs, could be a consequence of the fact that certain media have never found an attractive way to tell stories. I would never say that the information is not more important, especially in the case of the daily roundup, mentioning what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean there is no attempt at narration there. Everything can be narrated, and I think it ends up being much nicer for a reader to be told a good story and, at the same time, to be informed by that story.
CC: So we really notice the power of reading when information is narrated to us in a particular manner. I grew up reading Truman Capote, Ryszard Kapuscinsky, Oriana Falacci and Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s death made me remember his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (about the West Coast of the United States), which was called a way of explaining the cultural events of present-day identity. Do you think the brevity of chronicles and the dynamic of the present day allows us to better explain what’s happening, to better explain cultural events beyond the limits of older novels? Does literary, historical journalism exist today? In the future, will it form part of a new literary aesthetic?
FRP: Well, I can’t predict the future. I think that limit has never been so clearly marked. I think that sometimes schools, especially schools of journalism, are very strict with students who are only just getting started, who are interested in journalism, and that’s good because it gives them a very solid base. I see a lot of young chroniclers who want to write chronicle in a first ambitious, complex attempt, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but prior to that they haven’t been educated in harder journalism, in the reporting that I think represents the key moment to later tell any story; in research, in rigor with sources, in carefully telling the information. They end up thinking that making a chronicle is simply telling “what I saw,” “what I thought,” and “what I felt,” and I don’t defend that. I think when I talk about journalism with an “I,” it’s not necessarily a grammatical “I,” the “I” is a perspective that gains power through writing. A way of observing the world, a way of positioning yourself before a story that implies a huge amount of work to form its base because, without it, narrative journalism cannot exist, nor can chronicles sufficiently powerful to maintain it. I think there’s a similar path in literature, and whoever wants to write chronicles or any other narrative text, must be, above all, a reader. For me, that is the school. Like we were saying, we have to read Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, so many others, like Kapuscinsky, in the end, hundreds of authors. Any writer who wants to specialize has to be a voracious reader.
CC: Let’s talk about contact with readers. Do trends in contemporary reading, including texts published by alternative means, like on webpages, for example, lead us toward a future of dynamic readers and brief texts? Or do we still need wide-ranging, profound texts? Will we become electronic readers or will we continue to adhere to the limits of paper?
FRP: I don’t have the slightest doubt that books will keep existing, and I’m not so concerned about whether they exist on paper or in a digital format. I think the ones that have existed for centuries and that will keep existing, in spite of all the predictions and bad omens, are the good texts. I don’t know if we’ll be reading differently in fifty years, or if some sort of mix between paper and screen will exist. What I do believe is that good content will last. Nor am I concerned about length, I don’t agree that the shortest texts are the ones that generate the most intense reaction in the reader, or those that have a more immediate response. The proof is that, in Gatopardo, we publish really long pieces, several pages, that require a lot of time to read, and in our print edition there’s no way to know if people read them or not, but on our digital platforms, where we publish exactly the same content, we can see everything: the surprise is that people spend a long time reading the complete texts. Sometimes the longest texts are the ones that generate the most debate, the ones that get readers hooked. That’s the irrefutable proof that journalism isn’t going to become a war of 280 characters. On the contrary, readers like being challenged and seduced by the content. Facebook and Twitter don’t matter if readers can find something that draws them in, because then they reach a place where what really matters is the use of narrative to tell stories. Through digital platforms, we can build a bridge to reach thousands of places, thousands of readers who later come back to the magazine’s pages from the most unexpected places.
CC: So, using our magazine Latin American Literature Today to connect with other places and events through digital platforms, I read another interesting conversation online: when you were talking to Mario Vargas Llosa about the eloquence of a certain silence in the novel, it read as two connected visions in the world of literature. But there are always differences between any two writers; so, to paraphrase your book, can foxes see through the darkness?
FRP: Good interviews have always existed, and it’s interesting that you ask me that question. In the case of Vargas Llosa, one might not entirely agree with the character one is interviewing, you might even disagree completely. I think, in order to do a really interesting exercise of narrative journalism, you have to stop thinking things are “the way I like them” and empty out your prejudices, stop seeing the world through extremes, and, rather than judge, stage, show, storytell. The reader should be the one who decides what he thinks about the character. As documentary makers, or as chroniclers, it’s not our mission to give value judgments. I think the facts are very easy to prove because they’re there, and it’s more interesting to reveal the processes, whatever leads people do be what they are. I’m so glad you noticed the specific case of Vargas Llosa because it was indeed a discussion, a really long conversation—when I was with him in his house for two whole days—and if I can say anything about the experience, it’s that I was tremendously thankful for his generosity. He gave himself over completely to that discussion, he showed me his archives, his charts, his readings, his place of work. He told me about his creative process in detail, and I see that as a privilege that very few people have had: to spend time with someone so relevant in literature. Again, I may or may not agree with his political ideas, with his perception of literature, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t able to have an open and pleasant conversation. We created that important dialogue together.
CC: We already built a little bridge, via Vargas Llosa, to think again about writing the novel. Let’s talk again about your book Formas de evasión. The philosophical walking stick of fatalism that Victor Umaña carries: does it really work as a connection between reality and everything we don’t want to see, or all the paths down which we don’t want to travel, and the need to be there in reality, to confront it through literature? Is it a sort of travel that readers undertake through days, events, experiences?
FRP: I think reading a novel, like a sort of movement, based on an interrogation of what’s real, is one of the points that most interested me. It was born out of an unease based on journalism. The novel tells of a certain reality, and the reader makes a pact with the text, of course, by thinking that everything this narrator is telling me is truthful and, at the same time, is a subversion of the facts. The reader thinks he can accompany the narrator and believe in him, in what he’s telling, through the pages of the novel. Recently I’ve been wondering what happens if, approaching the end of this narration, the reader discovers that, perhaps, none of it happened like the narrator says; and his experience, the experience the reader just had with this text, is in reality completely biased by what the narrator sought to tell, by his fears, his obsessions, his own perspective. That’s how the novel is constructed, in fact. The narrator has no name because I wanted to maintain that ambiguity, without harming the plot, so the reader could finally pose a series of questions: What are they telling us? Why are they telling us that? How is our relationship with what they’re telling us?
CC: Connecting to the reader directly…
FRP: Directly. It’s in no way technological, but the novel, in general, is a sophisticated artefact, and books are still complex symbols.
CC: Can we also connect through identity?
FRP: Another question I think is relevant regarding literature and the novel is a return to the subject of identity. How is identity changing? How does our identity shift with time? How does the past change, and how does everything become something that is constantly present in that change? I think I wanted to do that with the story of my novel, starting with the character, the narrator who is obsessed with Víctor Umaña, and starts to construct him in all possible ways. I think that form of storytelling can finally lead us to ask ourselves about the matter of identity. I think there’s a very important connection between creativity and the present moment. In all respects, a creative exercise can be linked to a vision of the world. All that is created serves to allow each of us to question the exercise of the real. Moments of crisis are precisely when creative work must be most relevant.
April 5, 2018
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Felipe Restrepo Pombo is a Colombian journalist, editor and author. In 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under 40 organized by the Hay Festival every decade. He studied Literature and started his career as a journalist at the news magazine Cambio, under the direction of Gabriel García Márquez. He is the author of the novel Formas de evasión (Seix Barral, 2016); the biography Francis Bacon: Retrato de una pesadilla (Panamericana, 2008); and two collections of journalistic profiles: 16 retratos excéntricos (Planeta, 2014) and Nunca es fácil ser una celebridad (Planeta 2013). His books have been published in Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay. In 2013 he was a guest editor for the prestigious Paris Match magazine in Paris and he has been the magazine's correspondent ever since. He is the editor behind the books The sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose, 2016) and Crónica: the best narrative journalism in Latin America (UNAM, 2016). He was a fellow at the Fundación Prensa y Democracia at Iberoamerican University and he attended workshops at the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo with Tomás Eloy Martínez, Carlos Monsiváis, and Martín Caparrós. He was the Latin American editor of Esquire, the cultural editor at the news weekly Semana, the director of Arcadia, and a columnist at El Espectador and Gente magazine, and he has contributed to several international publications such as El País, GQ, Travesías, El Universal, SoHo, Qué Pasa, La Nación and La Tercera, among others. He teaches narrative journalism at several universities throughout the continent and he is currently the editor-in-chief of the acclaimed Gatopardo magazine in Mexico City.
Claudia Cavallin is a writer, journalist, and university professor, and she serves as Media Manager of Latin American Literature Today. She is the author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguage que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012).
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro.