“Limits and constrictions are usually stimulants for creativity”: An Interview with Luisa Valenzuela
Luisa Valenzuela has been recognized as an author raised among authors. Her mother, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, was a noteworthy author and frequently contributed to the cultural supplement of La Nación. From a young age, she had the privilege of frequent visits with Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. For her, literature has always been constructed like a bridge that allows for the empowerment of social and cultural spaces through the connection between writing and experience. In each of her works we can see the conflicts of everyday violence in our societies which continue, day by day. Her writing is populated with stories within stories, where writing always finds an adjective that depicts an inert body, a noun that defines the absent reality, and a verb associated with a fractured memory.
Claudia Cavallin: In the Literary Salon of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, you mentioned that “in books and utopias, realized dreams and dreams yet to come await us, that which we discovered we knew even without knowing it, even absolutely answers that are absolutely individual.” In this context, what would be the utopian thought closest to your work?
Luisa Valenzuela: I had the honor of giving the opening conference of what would become the literary part of the book fair, and therefore I didn’t concern myself much with my own work but instead spoke in general terms, mainly focusing on the vast thoughts of the great Carlos Fuentes. I titled my lecture “Letters, the True Space of Freedom,” and maybe in that phrase resides my greatest approach to utopia. Because in general, if I think about my fictional texts, I suspect that you could also talk about dystopia; and “suspect” is the exact word for it because it is a reference to an old essay by Nathalie Sarraute, “The Age of Suspicion,” which questions all existing thought around the idea of the classic novel.
C.C.: Literature has quickly accelerated in our current world, a change which has resulted in the development of new dimensions of its relationships with diverse spaces, from publishing houses to social media. Do you think that the limits of genre and of belonging to a nationalist identity will continue within the vastness of writing?
L.V.: Limits and constrictions are usually stimulants for creativity, and writing, especially fiction, is a living and mutating entity, just as identity is. I don’t believe in nationalism, but I do believe in national identity, which forms our imagination. The language we speak, the land we inhabit, and the grammar we use (or don’t use) color our view of the world. In fact, as almost all writing is a desperate attempt to derive meaning from this senselessness that we are immersed in and call reality, the unconscious mission of those who work with words is, precisely, to push the limits in a simultaneously desperate and stimulating effort to achieve the evasive essence of language, from our very diverse perspectives.
C.C.: Do you think that the return to historical experience moves through literature in the same way real experiences did in the fragmented city of memory? Is literature a way to “dream” reality?
L.V.: What a beautiful and complex question! My direct response would be “I don’t know,” but the topic deserves reflection. Returning to the initial topic, I ask myself, “What would Carlos Fuentes say?” because Fuentes is the author who in our America has most dealt with historical and urban questions, memory, and that network of conjunctions that arises from these presuppositions. But it is enough to read his works to obtain answers, which are as rich as they are varied. Having said that, I really like the idea of “dreaming” reality. It seems like a good revenge against that bitch (begging pardon of the noble canine species) we call reality and that, we could well suppose, dreams all of us.
C.C.: How do you think the power of the oppressed is exerted through literature in our current literary context?
L.V.: Much of classic literature focuses on the oppressed and the oppressor, but every period has its protagonists and our readings of them. Every period also has its systems of oppression, some more perverse and hidden than others. Sometimes they carry the simple and even innocent (at first glance) name of neoliberalism. In these days of “fake news,” lawfare, and other perversions—with gringo names, because they were the ones who first came up with them—the power of the oppressed, if such a thing exists, must reside in mistrust, in the capacity to reach one’s own conclusions. But of course (returning to the issue of the gringos), that would be a catch-22 because that clever person would automatically cease to be the oppressed without therefore moving on to the nefarious condition of the repressor.
C.C: In your books we have read stories with an abundance of proper names, and others with an absence of identity. Specifically in the case of Other Weapons, do you think that the absence of memory among the victims of violence, which can’t be narrated in detail in the stories, is reconstructed in the mind of the reader? Is the narrator a valuable, mutilated witness?
L.V.: What’s interesting about these questions is that they make me reflect on theoretical suggestions that I never asked myself when I was writing. My stories and novels have generally been inspired by a simple first sentence, or an image, without any forethought or outline. They arise, as Cortázar would say, from a long bewilderment… But it is true that the topic of names has been crucial throughout time, even before the ancient Egyptians, who had to say their whole name when they died in order to pass through the doors of the beyond. The last military dictator in Argentina restored names to their almost sacred status when he tried to force people to disappear along with their names and attributes, which is why the themes of memory and proper names are closely related. Back to the question, I think that all texts are reconstructed and live diverse lives in the mind of the reader. Therein lies their charm and also their threat. As far as the author as a mutilated witness, who bears witness to the witness? Adorno somehow proposed this impossible enigma, because in this case the mutilated epithet takes on profound meaning.
C.C.: In The Lizard’s Tail, the incomprehensible figure of a dictator appears, from within the dictatorship itself. In this novel, the minister of Social Welfare and Perón’s personal secretary, José López Rega, is inserted as a fictional character who doesn’t obscure his similarities to the real person, from his experiences narrated in the book and through the way in which terror and its atrocities are turned into metaphor. Now I’d like to ask a question that keeps coming back to my mind: within the confines of shadows and evil, can you convey horror without conceding greatness to it?
L.V.: That’s the dilemma. It’s a diabolical greatness, but greatness all the same, and that was my personal conflict in (or with) The Lizard’s Tail. Because from the beginning I understood that, if I assumed the authorial voice, I wouldn’t be able to avoid judging and condemning Brujo, the protagonist. And judging is not the function of literature, much less condemnation. So I let him talk, with all his logorrhea, megalomania, and grandiloquence, presenting him in a mocking tone. But unwittingly, the protagonist took revenge on the author and began to take on a disproportionate life of his own. So I tried to take back the reins of the matter, with the inevitable failure that I note in the writing of the novel. In another instance, when I wrote La máscara sarda [The Sardinian mask], I once again found that voice of López Rega, this time giving him his real name and responding to his whims. I felt more comfortable, and from the beginning I assumed a leading role, taking on the mask of the Filonzana, one of the three characters from the Mamoida carnival to which the story refers. But now I have been faced with a larger challenge with a new novel that has Brujo as the main character, and in this case there isn’t space for dark humor or monstrosity, and I don’t know if I will be able to face that terrible and devouring greatness of the main theme, which is evil.
Translated by Ardyn Clayton
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).
Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina) is a fiction and short story writer. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she currently lives. She has published thirty books; among the most recent are the novels El Mañana (Buenos Aires, 2010), Cuidado con el tigre (Buenos Aires, 2011), and La máscara sarda, el profundo secreto de Perón. Her text Novela negra con Argentinos was re-published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 2016. Her published short story collections include Cambio de armas y otros cuentos políticos(Buenos Aires, 2015). Among her published essays are Cortázar-Fuentes, Entrecruzamientos, (Alfaguara, 2014); El Entusiasmo, Lección de Arte (Fineo, Mexico, 2014); and Diario de máscaras (Capital Intelectual, 2015).
She has won numerous prizes and grants and been widely translated into various languages, and her stories and essays have been included in countless international anthologies. She is also a Doctora Honoris Causa at Knox College, Illinois, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Ciudadana Ilustre of the City of Buenos Aires, and President of the Argentine PEN Center.
Ardyn Clayton is currently pursuing an MA in English-Spanish Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. She previously attended Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where she obtained a BA in Spanish before deciding to pursue translation and interpretation at Middlebury.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo