The Mestizaje of Genres: An Interview with Ernesto Carrión
La Carnada (Seix Barral, 2020), the ninth novel by Ernesto Carrión (Guayaquil, 1977), was released at the end of last year, during the worsening of the pandemic. It’s a sign: his narrative crosses a series of layers with the word crisis as a nucleus that generates the disintegration of quotidian life before sight and language. What gravitates around that nucleus is what Carrión refers to as “mestizaje1 of genres,” a type of spillover that floods the narrative support with poetic rhythms, structures from essays, news, testimonials… achieving the genesis of a divergent form of storytelling.
Such defamiliarization of the writing space had already revealed itself in the poetry collection titled Ø, which compiles 13 books included in the volumes La muerte de Caín (2007), Los diarios de una cabeza sin mundo (2012) and 18 Scorpii (2018). This collection made Carrión well known throughout Latin America. “In effect, I stopped writing poetry. Then I dove into writing novels, at a rhythm of two or three per year since 2015,” he says from his native Guayaquil. During that voyage he was won, among others, the Casa de las Américas Prize for his novel Incendiamos las yeguas de madrugada (2017), and the LIPP Prize for his novel El día en que me faltes (2017). “A novel can be a monologue, a dialogue, a fragmented diary, a series of interviews, it can hide a screenplay and erase itself toward the end of the story, etc.; in other words, a novel can be constructed as a game that, regardless of the materials it employs, condenses meaning in what it’s said but especially in what it’s not said, as it ends,” points out Carrión, who in this interview reflects upon the connections he finds within his poetry and prose work, the signs of language with which his writing space is built, the challenges of fiction and its dialogue with history—in the midst of a city that reinvents itself constantly.
Víctor Vimos: After your poetic project Ø, your transition toward narrative has been seen as a transformation. How do you see the connection between poetry and prose in your language?
Ernesto Carrión: If you check out the book El libro de la desobediencia (2002), the first in the tetralogy La muerte de Caín, you will find prose as well as dialogues between characters (Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel). The same happens in La bestia vencida (2005), where I make Hölderlin, trapped in his madness, dialogue with his alter egos. My idea, around that time, was to create a poetry that would become enriched through a mestizaje of genres, that did not respect forms nor formulas, and that would instead move along the leaves of its caprice—even the caprice of the multiple voices and characters that appear in the 13 books that make up Ø. That’s why this lyrical treatise contains verse, prose, narrative, dialogue, screenplays and even essays. The move toward prose can be considered a natural transition, despite the fact that there are enormous differences between poetry and prose. However, when I write novels, I can’t avoid poetry.
V.V.: This mestizaje of genres you refer to, what kind of dialogue does it have with authors you’re in communication with (local or foreigners)?
E.C.: I think I have dialogued with the narrative of authors such as Severo Sarduy, Jorge Eduardo Eielson and Truman Capote. I’m also interested in what Alberto Fuguet and Chuck Palahniuk achieve. The same goes with Mario Levrero, Virginia Woolf, Juan José Saer or Djuna Barnes. This is a dialogue in the sense of being able to search the interior of its searches (pardon my redundance, which is also a literary quirk), a new form for my searches. Additionally, the literary mestizaje that interests me is that which collaborates with the idea of taking a specific genre and crossing it and turning it into something else. This is something I did, for example, in El día en que me faltes, which I conceived as a noir novel as well as a horror story. All under the idea that narrative can also be that: an aesthetic transgression against any canonized form, thus seeking to provoke new experiences in readers.
V.V.: A place where your narrative overflows is the descriptive phrase and its relation to poetic rhythm. What do you find in poetic rhythm to help you sustain descriptions?
E.C.: The narrator’s voice is what conducts the orchestra. There are novels, such as Cementerio en la luna (2015), where the narrator’s voice is that of a young poet who is foul-mouthed, vicious and neo-baroque. In other works, such as Incendiamos las yeguas en la madrugada (2017), where the omniscient narrator is, at the same, the protagonist, he turns his pauses into frozen moments of contemplation about the past lives of five youngsters from the south of Guayaquil in the nineties. In any case, I trust in that sometimes lyrical, other times character-narrator-led rhythm that sustains descriptions and plot.
V.V.: A good portion of your narrative project appears to be directed toward re-writing Guayaquil. What’s your version of this city?
E.C.: It would seem as though I cannot escape Guayaquil. Truly, I have never written under the guise of trying “to make the all-encompassing novel of a specific city.” It just so happens that here is where I’ve been able to birth many characters and plots. Mi vision is different from what we have seen in other novels. On the one hand, I don’t blindly (without criticism) love my city; and on the other, I seek to cover as much of it as I can. The murder and kidnapping of transvestites in the nineties (Tríptico de una ciudad); the eighties and the fear with which a boy watches the news about the rapist and murderer Camargo and the guerrilla fighters of Alfaro Vive (Un hombre futuro); the abandonment of two brothers in downtown Guayaquil during the feriado bancario and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians at the turn of the millennium (El vuelo de la tortuga); billiards, drugs, sales of passports with American visas, tensions between the south and the north in the lives of teenagers (Incendiamos las yeguas en la madrugada); Che Guevera’s transit through a city that appeared not to have memory (Triángulo Fúser); the violence and complicity of upper-class people who move to the Salinas beach resort for recreation (La carnada), etc. In these works, there’s movement throughout Guayaquil, its streets, social classes and decades, with the idea of questioning and offering different views of the past and present. But I have also written other books, such as Cursos de francés, that don’t take place there.
V.V.: In the 13 poetry books that make up Ø, your personal experience is included as a trigger for expanding language. How does that find its way into your novels?
E.C.: The raw material of poetry is language. But sometimes its raw material is also the absence of language. What I’m saying is that poetry begins when the poem is read, when it starts to swirl in the reader’s head and generate new associations and, luckily, to place him/her before a shattered reality. What poetry does with us is resurrection. Novels don’t do that. It seems to me that way. Novels expand, thanks to fiction, panoramic ideas or events—invented, recreated, or not—which finally increase our understanding. A society that reads—these are not my original words—is a more mature society, which doesn’t let itself be manipulated by governments or trivialities. In any case, I don’t think they work in the same way. Personal experience is useful in both genres. In fact: a poem has the “obligation” of placing the future corpse of the writer in front of us. A novel doesn’t. In spite of this, the ability to work with memories and experiences is also a revitalizing source of creativity for narrative.
V.V.: We often find breathing moments in your dialogues that show the orality of your characters. What do you find in those particularities of speech?
E.C.: When I write a novel, perhaps a large number of the ones I have written so far, I imagine it as a movie. But also as a map where there are inventions, reality, reconstructions and fables—where everything is true and a lie at the same time. Tension in the plot, the development of characters, the atmosphere, dialogue with its breaths and precipitations, its accents and particular idiomatic registers—those are part of the effort to provide verisimilitude to what I’m doing. I don’t know if this can get us close to a particular idea about the novel. It could be. I believe verisimilitude, beginning to read and not feeling that we are reading a work of fiction, is important. Not repeating yourself is important, too. Every time I start a novel, for instance, I set my mind to trying to learn to write again, to playing, to seeing to what extent I can stretch everything and make it explode.
V.V.: Some of your narrative recreates, as background, historical moments your country has experienced. How do historical facts and information mingle with fiction in your writing?
E.C.: Some of my novels I wrote with the idea of covering events erased from history. Or revising, through fiction and the lives of the characters, moments that seemed interesting to me to tackle. I knew I could only do that through fiction, and that in doing so I would make readers responsible for what they were about to read. In Tríptico de una ciudad, I interrogated the kidnapping and murder of transvestites and transexuals in the nineties. My interest extended into the desire to have readers acknowledge that Guayaquil is also that city: of crimes resulting from discrimination that continued to occur for decades. And a city that refuses to stare at its full reflection on the waters of the great Guayas River. Another example is Un hombre future, my only auto-fictional novel. It begins with the murder of my father, who was a prosecutor and a judge in Ecuador; and whose body appeared after being locked for three days in the freezer of a discotheque in Guayaquil’s Zona Rosa district. I start there, with that news, but the novel transforms into a son’s search for his father’s identity. It turns into the initiation story of a young man and his contact with a Marxist father, friend of the guerrillas, who for years brought his son along that blurred journey through bars, proclamations and revolutionary songs—to bear testimony of how his father and his friends continued living in a drunken dream of Che Guevara and what they were never able to achieve for the country. And that’s how the decade of the eighties emerges with its political violence, whose perpetrators are yet to face justice.
V.V.: You show the struggle, not just between the north and the south of Guayaquil, but also between social hierarchies whose differences have exacerbated. Do your novels reflect a transfiguration of power?
E.C.: I believe they’re a space for any mental rebellion, for any boycott. I’m not referring to political or sociological aspects. Because a novel is not required to educate or manipulate, let alone to be militant. A novel will always be a victory, of everyday lives and their own dramas, over ideologies. It can be a space where others talk and tell us their borrowed or silenced stories, regardless of the reason. A space to understand ourselves through our differences. To filter out various layers, sensibilities, moments and urgencies that are not always ours. So that the “official history” begins to tumble. For example: to be able to understand what was in the mind of a young man who watched MTV in the nineties and made a living stealing and selling passports in order to buy a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle; or how a boy’s childhood unfolded in the central quarters of the city, after his mother left for Spain to make a living following the feriado bancario and he had to stay with his grandfather who died soon after and his older brother who couldn’t take care of him; or the bad times experienced by a journalist who’s demoted from writing crime news to doing the horoscope and the crossword puzzle, as if she weren’t capable of writing serious articles for the newspaper, etc. All those lives, all those circumstances, can be made visible in a novel.
V.V.: In a city so hard-hit by the pandemic as Guayaquil, how do you see those divergent narratives challenging the “official history” that the state, for example, is bent on repeating?
E.C.: I believe the pandemic will generate its own narrative, one that will be saturated by a number of versions and which will arrive in countless shapes. We will have pandemic stories in the next twenty years, I predict. And we will surely see the real drama experienced by many people in Guayaquil—transformed into poems, songs, films and plays. If history has taught us anything, it’s that it is comprised of minuscule stories, hidden or rejected by official sources. And it is there where good art feasts and plots its vengeance.
V.V.: Those who follow your work agree in labeling you as a prolific author, producing constantly. What’s ahead?
E.C.: I see a few more novels ahead. Until I get tired. That will happen when I feel I’m repeating myself. Because I try to stay away from that: having a literary style. To me, that’s how art dies, in a boring repetition of what I could create. At that point I will escape to the theater or to screenplays to live there for a few more years.
Translated by Mauricio Espinoza
1 Mestizaje is a Latin American concept that refers to racial or cultural mixing.
Mauricio Espinoza is assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He has co-translated (with Keith Ekiss and Sonia Ticas) the work of Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio into English, including the bilingual anthology Territory of Dawn: The Selected Poems of Eunice Odio (Bitter Oleander Press, 2016) and The Fire’s Journey (Tavern Books, 2013-19). His translation of Costa Rican poet Randall Roque’s collection Hago la herida para salvarte / I Make the Wound to Save You was published in 2020 by ArtePoética Press.
Victor Vimos is an anthropologist currently completing postgraduate studies in literature at the University of Cincinnati. His book Acta de Fundación received the second Premio Internacional de Poesía Pedro Lastra in 2020.
Ernesto Carrión is a poet, novelist, and screenwriter. He has received, among other awards, the Premio Lipp de Novela (Spanish-language version of the Prix Cazes of Paris’s Brasserie Lipp) (2017), the Premio Casa de las Américas de Novela (2017), the Premio de Literatura Miguel Riofrío de Novela (2016), the Premio Único Bienal de Literatura de Poesía of the Universidad Católica Santiago de Guayaquil (2015), the Premio Pichincha de Poesía (2015), the Premio de Poesía Jorge Carrera Andrade (2013), a fellowship from the Programa para Creadores de Iberoamérica y Haití en México (Fonca-AECID) (2009), the Premio de Poesía Jorge Carrera Andrade (2008), the Premio Latinoamericano Ciudad de Medellín of the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín (2007), and the Premio de Poesía César Dávila Andrade (2002). Some of his titles include Cementerio en la luna, Un hombre futuro, Ciudad Pretexto, Incendiamos las yeguas en la madrugada, Cursos de francés, and La carnada. As a poet, he wrote the lyrical treatise titled “Ø”, which collects 1,500 pages of poetry in three volumes: La muerte de Caín, Los duelos de una cabeza sin mundo, and 18 Scorpii.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.