“I See Myself as a Latin American Writer”: An Interview with Mariana Enriquez
Arthur Dixon: You published your first book, Bajar es lo peor [Coming down is the worst], in 1995. Your latest book, Nuestra parte de noche [Our share of night] was released in 2019 and won the Herralde Novel Prize. How does it feel to write and publish now that you have so much recognition (working with a major publishing house, translations to different languages, etc.) in comparison with your work as a writer when your career was just starting? What has changed for you?
Mariana Enríquez: Almost everything has changed. In 1995 I was almost a teenager, and the first time I was published it was almost by chance, I had no intention of being “a writer.” I had written a novel for me and my friends, in a very DIY, punk spirit, on a typewriter, with no contact with publishers, just for fun. I wasn’t thinking about publishing. It just so happened that the sister of a friend of mine, who was a journalist, found out then that her publisher was going to launch a collection of “young” literature—not YA, not children’s, but with young authors and topical subjects, like rock music, for example, or fashion—and she found out about my novel. She asked to read it. I think she didn’t like it because she noticed its autobiographical elements, lots of drugs, lots of nightlife. She was taken aback by the life we were living with her sister, but anyway, she thought it might be of interest to an editor. And she was right: I revised it for a few months with an editor and then it was published. After that, it was ten years before I published again: those were the years when I learned to write, to read, and to work as a journalist. That book was a small local success, thanks to my age and my attitude, and because the novel’s main characters were a gay couple. Today we might call it a queer novel. Now I work with an agent, I’ve been translated, I have more readers. What hasn’t changed is my drive to write what interests me and what I like; that is to say, I keep working with elements of my world and my imagination, like I did back then. I don’t think I’ve lost those obsessions, and I don’t think much in terms of global readers. But, professionally, everything is different, and personally, I now know I want to write. Back then I wasn’t so sure: I had only written one novel.
A.D.: You’ve spoken in several interviews about writers and books that have had privileged places on your nightstand. From a different angle, where would you situate your work with respect to current Argentine literature, where women writers have a great deal of clout? Do you think of yourself as part of a particular movement or generation? How do you see your work within the Latin American literary tradition? Or do you consider yourself more “global”?
M.E.: I see myself as a Latin American writer, and I feel close to many women writers, but not necessarily in terms of style or concerns. Maybe there is something we do have in common, but it’s something historical: all the Argentine women writers of my generation were born in a dictatorship, and that’s a framework we come to terms with in different ways. In other countries, they grew up in civil wars or with internal conflicts, like in Peru or Colombia. Even if we haven’t suffered it with our own bodies, we still suffer the framework of political violence in this continent: we suffer it in our subjectivities. And this shows through somehow in literature, sometimes obviously, sometimes more obliquely, but I think it’s inevitable.
A.D.: Speaking of your writing itself, what are the differences between writing relatively short short stories, like the ones in Things We Lost in the Fire, and writing a novel as long and complex as Nuestra parte de noche?
M.E.: It’s very different. For one thing, it demands another form of dedication, another sort of immersion. I can barely remember the characters in my stories, for example; with short fiction, I usually have an idea, sometimes very concrete and sometimes more climatic, more abstract, and I develop it, but the characters are a very minor concern. The short story is also more technical, more like a song, perhaps; I’m concerned to make sure it works, to make it hard to forget. In my novels, the characters are in charge. The story is theirs, and in the case of Nuestra parte de noche, what’s more, I display a whole constellation of my obsessions and concerns: politics, the powerful, bodies and their fragility, youth, occultism, the horror genre, poetry… a range that would be technically impossible in a short story. And the novel is a process of greater immersion, it means living in a parallel world for a long time. For me, that’s a much more powerful experience.
A.D.: I’ve heard you speak about your literary influences, including many English-language writers from the U.S., like Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, etc. What is the importance of the U.S. horror tradition in your work? How does it feel to see your own texts, sometimes influenced by these authors, translated to English and published in the U.S.?
M.E.: The thing is that the horror tradition in Spanish is very erratic. I would go so far as to say there is no tradition. Maybe gothic literature, but horror as a popular, well-defined genre is almost nonexistent. Cortázar wrote horror stories, but within a very diverse body of work. That’s how it goes in most cases. A tendency recently started to appear, in the past few years, but it’s still minor. And it’s not just the U.S. tradition: I read the British tradition too, the “Anglo-Saxon” tradition, as we would say. But when I make horror, I try to make it Latin American. To reimagine the subjects in accordance with our realities, to include indigenous mythologies, local urban legends, pagan saints, local murderers, the violences we live with, the social problems we suffer. Just like Carrie talks about bullying and a school massacre and religious fanaticism—problems that don’t exist on the same scale in Latin America, not because they don’t exist, but because every society has its particularities—I talk about institutional violence, popular beliefs, poverty, economic uncertainty. I try to reimagine common tropes, from cosmic horror to the ghost story, with content belonging to my own history and my own culture. In reality, I think I’m trying to contribute a different point of view to horror, with another viewpoint and another way of rereading these authors.
A.D.: There’s a telling difference between the academic reading of your books and the reading that’s published in magazines and other literary media. The academy repeats a more political reading; however, press criticism tends to emphasize your contributions as a genre writer to a much greater extent. What do you think about these different readings? Do you think a literature like yours needs criticism that assumes, from the start—and perhaps as a starting point for other reflections—the conventions of the horror genre in order to understand the contributions and innovations made by your work?
M.E.: I don’t just write genre fiction—my first novels were not genre pieces, and I also write nonfiction—but I definitely write horror. I understand why the academy is more interested in the political side because I think that’s the standard viewpoint from which to think of Latin America, and also because there’s still a certain prejudice or a certain impossibility of thinking that both things can exist together.
A.D.: Something I appreciate about your books is how they touch on political realities through codes belonging to horror literature, such that the reader reconsiders apparently normal behaviors, without moralizing or prescribing solutions. In the current COVID-19 crisis, many publications have presented the pandemia through the codes of horror or related genres: dystopia, the apocalypse, zombie movies, etc. How are you doing during these hard times? How does a writer like you get through the quarantine?
M.E.: Terribly, like everyone else in the world, and not just as a writer, but as a citizen worried about the pandemia’s consequences in a country that’s currently experiencing an economic crisis and that has a fragile health system. I’m not thinking about literature right now, and I think there are times when literature falls decidedly into the background. This is one of those times.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Mariana Enriquez (Buenos Aires, 1973) is an Argentine writer whose work includes novels, short stories, and journalism. She works as a journalist and as deputy editor of Radar, the arts and culture supplement of Página/12. Her published novels include Bajar es lo peor (1995), Cómo desaparecer completamente (2004), Éste es el mar (2017), and Nuestra parte de noche (2019). She has also published the short story collections Los peligros de fumar en la cama (2009) and Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego (2016), as well as the book of chronicles Alguien camina sobre tu tumba: Mis viajes a cementerios (2013) and the biography La hermana menor: Un retrato de Silvina Ocampo (2014). Her latest book, Nuestra parte de noche, was awarded the Herralde Novel Prize.
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 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.