“The Mother is the Homeland and One Has the Right to Die in Her”: An Interview with Karina Sainz Borgo


Venezuelan writer Karina Sainz Borg. Photo: Jeosm.

From a journalistic point of view, Venezuela is, on a daily basis, news that move with the speed of current times, where one lead is immediately substituted by another that eliminates the most recent facts and replaces them with new situations. In such cycles, readers are informed, but rarely are deeply connected with what happens since if the reading experience is made distant by the culture or the geography that separates what happens from the reader, Venezuela just transmits the information, detailed or not, of what happens. Only in certain cases, literature manages to transgress these limits between the informative and the lived. It is precisely Karina Sainz Borgo, who by means of her novel La hija de la española (Lumen, 2019) manages to link her readers, near and far, with what has happened in a deeper way, transgressing the borders between reality and fiction so that each page of her novel can connect not only with an event, but also with a time, a space, a gaze, and an experience. When we leave our country there is always a part of it that moves with us through our memory, and in this interview for Latin American Literature Today, we talked about the interplay between memory and reality.

Claudia Cavallín: Your first novel, La hija de la española, is excellent. In your words, it is “an unpredictable book, almost a forest fire that has expanded,” and it is here where a dynamic and detailed account appears about the experiences of a daughter and her mother, a teacher who dies after a long illness. We immediately get to the links between the protagonist and the dead neighbor, the reality of her city, and the cruelty in her country. In the initial pages of La hija de la española there are two striking references, one from “El hueso pélvico” by Yolanda Pantin and the other from “El resentimiento” by Jorge Luis Borges, where the defeat of the power of intimidation and exile are highlighted. What are the deepest emotions that adhere to the protagonist of this story as she confronts an extreme situation?

Karina Sainz Borgo: Adelaida Falcón is the prototype of a woman who dwells in orphanhood. She is someone who is pierced by rage, someone who wants to survive, but feels guilty for being able achieve that survival. Written with a profound awareness of up-rootedness, softened by the sensation of carrying the weight of the poverty and death of a country that is disappearing, this novel sinks its roots in a society accustomed to dying by killing, and a world built by women, who are the principal force of this story. Women give essence and body to survival as an act of love and cruelty. In La hija de la española, the mother is an almost telluric, boiling force. The mother is the homeland and we have the right to die in her. I don’t believe in the least that this story refers only to one country and one period of time. All those who have lost or who have had their place in the world taken from them have ended up there, in her. When Adelaida Falcón—that daughter without children as understood by María Fasce—buries her namesake mother, she confirms the loss of a country that cannot even bury its dead. La hija de la española recounts the transformation experienced by those who are torn from one nature and thrust into another.  Adelaida will have to cross the Atlantic, using someone else’s name and life. In that fix, she will illuminate herself and, at the same time, offer a song of fury, love, and sadness. It is fury then, the ancient fury of Achilles, that holds and nurtures these pages.

C.C.: In the novel, the problem of identity is also debated. For multiple adverse and related reasons, the protagonist has to adjust her role in the face of the existence of a possible escape in another body. Her unconscious gives her away through a brief dream that comes near the end of the story when she thinks and feels that another voice tells her, “Too many questions. Do you want to go ahead or turn back? Is your name Adelaida Falcón or Aurora Peralta? Did you kill her or was she already dead? Does she flee or steal?” Melancholy, emotional failure, nerves, economic problems…Is the protagonist a sort of “Venezuelan Madame Bovary” who, as Mario Vargas Llosa once said, also lives in the abyss between illusion and reality?

K.S.B: No, I’m afraid that Adelaida, far from being Emma, cannot even choose dissatisfaction. She is dead yet seeks to live. She does not have a handful of arsenic in her hand; she has been forced to swallow that poison all at once. In this story there is no food, no peace, no compassion…there is not even the most basic compassion when burying the dead. The role of hunger in this novel is of a force that is unleashed because none of the characters can make up their minds about it. Nobody can control that sensation from hell. Adelaida nourishes herself with her memories.  She attempts to resist in a world that is collapsing in pieces. All the moments of light in this book about this horror are memories. I was born in place where even the flowers are hunters and this conditions you when you look and recount.

C.C.: Isaiah Berlin left us his reflection about the connection between freedom and equality, that they can be found among the basic goals that humans have been searching for many centuries. According to him, absolute freedom for the wolves means death for the lambs; absolute freedom for the powerful and for the talented is not compatible with the right for a decent life for the weak and the less gifted. The novel’s protagonist remembers having told her mother of the existence of the limits: “That is why I was talking to you about the sides, the one who steals, and the one who turns a blind eye. About the one who kills without killing.” In your novel, who might have been the wolves? And who the lambs? Does an aporia of freedom and equality exist in each one of them?

K.S.B: I grew up in a very violent society, where life has so very little value that you can die because someone wants to take from you something so basic as a pair of shoes. That was one of the things that stood out to me when I was ten. A society whose relationship with what is important, with life, with a human being, is intervened by doing harm, by violating. The problem is that violence was transformed into a political element. That generates in you a sensation that you are in the midst of a war in which there are no tanks, there are no missiles, but you are in a war for survival. For me, death is a very natural thing and it is one of the subjects that fascinates me the most. How can death dominate a society, how can it configure that society? As the novel says, “more than funeral homes, the city had ovens because people would go in and then come out of them like bread,” or “she did not live in a country, but rather in a meat grinder.” Life is worth little; there are no official figures. The executioners are allegories, like La Mariscala or the phantasmagoria of the Revolution…everyone is a victim, even the reader. The problem, the real fundamental problem, is the way in which that victim—gripped by punishment and desperation—is also a predator.

C.C.: In La hija de la española when the protagonist, adhering to her double identity which is essential for leaving Venezuela, is already on the plane, her thoughts are described with these sentences, which are like semantic and grammatical comparisons: “I boarded the plane and took my seat. I turned off my phone and with it my nerves. I looked through the window. It was nighttime and an electricity of misery and beauty coursed over the city. Caracas shone inviting and terrible at the same time, the hot nest of an animal that was still looking at me in the darkness with its fierce snake eyes. Only one letter separates ‘partir’ (to depart) from ‘parir’” (to give birth). Is the power of words what separates the novel from reality?  Is there an invisible structure behind the visible?

K.S.B: In La hija de la española, I aspire to induce the same sensation that books such as Esperando a los bárbaros by Coetzee produce in me. I read that book when I was very young and it moved me.  I wanted to write a good novel and I felt that I was mature enough to be able to tackle this subject that pierces me, being uprooted, being far away. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt. The survivor has to overcome violence and harassment, so that this can be transformed afterwards. If (the novel) is political, it is because it poses a fundamental question: what happens to the individual in a totalitarian society? Something very large imposes itself and ends up blurring you. In this long path toward tragedy and death, I was enlightened by the clairvoyance of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That book’s reality is a debate between the hell of the present time and the evocation of the possible country, the lost country, the one that aspired to progress and found itself yearning for it in the middle of nothingness, in the middle of complete destruction.

C.C: Let’s leave your novel aside for now but continue talking about Caracas and your publication Diario Barbitúrico, which we can read through Zenda, a space in the Spanish journal XLSemanal, distributed by 23 leading journals and which has been conceived as a “territory of books and friends.” Using your “Barbitúricos Ciudadanos,” we read about diverse situations such as the immense collapse of the electrical system in all of Caracas, or about the effects of dark theater chairs as a kind of blank page. Here we connect with the disappointing reality and with other critical situations that are sadly usual in Venezuela.  Do you believe that we can rely on the power assumed by a literature linked to journalism to bring us closer to the brief everyday stories, so that readers can begin to feel in a more personal and profound way the suffering of those who live in Venezuela? How should we do it?

K.S.B: Journalism is literature. I don’t separate them.  I don’t segregate them.  Just as Ian McEwan says that he writes to know where he is going, I do as much with journalistic prose and with fiction.

C.C.: Finally, I reiterate that you are a marvelous narrator and an outstanding author. Paying attention to your journalistic focus on questioning rather than answering, what question would you wish to pose to the readers of Latin American Literature Today (LALT), who regularly go beyond the limits between the real and the imaginary to delve deeply into what happens in Venezuela?

K.S.B.: What size is the map of your language?

Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis


Elena Poniatowska in LALT
Number 11

In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elena Poniatowska

Dossier: Enrique Lihn




Indigenous Literature


Brazilian Literature


On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene