George Salis: The children of writers often struggle to get out from under the shadow of their literary parents, yet you’ve had tremendous success. Can you reflect on what it was like growing up with a mother who was also an accomplished writer? Did she encourage you to write? Were there any challenges that resulted from this family dynamic?
Luisa Valenzuela: Let me see. My mother never encouraged me to write, but at that time writing was not my aim in life. I wanted to be a scientist, which she discouraged; and an explorer, but that was part of my private dreams, I wanted to be everything, learn everything. So at quite a young age journalism appeared as a compromise and appeased my mother. Anyway, at twenty I married a Frenchman and left Argentina and my mother’s entourage for good.
GS: According to the Paris Review, your mother, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, had a home that “was a gathering place for Argentina’s literary community—Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, among others, were frequent guests—and Valenzuela, an omnivorous reader, started writing at an early age. She published her first story, ‘Ese canto,’ in 1958.” Can you reflect on this aspect of your upbringing? To be more specific, here is a guest question from Garrett Rowlan: “Did you ever hear Borges and/or Cortázar discussing B’s story ‘The Library of Babel’?”
LV: It was great. The house was a sort of literary salon, and I really enjoyed their conversations, private lectures, and discussions. But I felt completely detached from the idea of becoming a writer. I was a great reader and quite a witty, impertinent kid who made them laugh. As for your guest’s question, the answer is no, Cortázar was not at all part of the gang. I suppose he was already in Paris by then.
GS: Borges has since become something of a mythic figure. Not only referenced and alluded to in literature but sometimes featured as a character, among other manifestations. What are your thoughts on this? Is this a form of literary sainthood that should be avoided or perhaps encouraged? Would you object to being posthumously mythologized in literature?
LV: Funny question. Why would one worry about what happens when one is gone? On the other hand, it reminds me of a sort of quiz that went around the group then: what do you prefer, to sell one book now, ten books in ten years, or one hundred books in a hundred years? Not difficult to guess the answers then, but just imagine the humility of it all! Those were the times, and Borges was already considered a sort of genius but “a writer for writers,” nobody else would be able to understand his stories. Or buy his books, for that matter. Much later things changed dramatically, and now his oeuvre is a worldwide reference. One could write forever about this phenomenon. And many many books have been written: Borges and mathematics, Borges and the Kabbala, and so on.
GS: You have a passion for masks. Can you talk about this passion? Where does it stem from? What’s one of your most prized masks?
LV: Passions generally grow on you silently, with no previous warning. I suppose it grew from my very early fascination for all things other, the distant worlds and civilizations. Mostly those worlds erroneously called primitive have such rich cosmologies.
All my masks pertaining to ceremonies and rituals and carnivals are my favorites. I wrote a general book on them, Diario the máscaras, and then a very intimate one: Conversación con mis máscaras.
GS: You lived in New York for over a decade. What are some of your fondest memories of that time?
LV: Incredibly enlightening friendships: Susan Sontag, Jerome Bruner…. My time there was the thrilling, crazy eighties, so my fondest memories would fill whole volumes! I did write a couple of novels that could summarize some aspects: Black Novel with Argentines and the as-yet untranslated La Travesía, which I consider a sort of apocryphal autobiography. Not to speak of Dark Desires and the Others….
GS: In a 1991 Bomb interview conducted by Linda Yablonsky, you mentioned that “New York was becoming too hectic. I was dreaming in English, I was thinking in English—I didn’t want that anymore.” Are you comfortably dreaming in Spanish again? Do you ever dream in English these days or is that a phenomenon of the past?
LV: Most important of all, I don’t speak to myself in English any longer, except for very special situations, such as finding answers to this interview.
GS: Speaking of English, have you ever considered writing fiction in English or would that be too jarring, too alien?
LV: Never for fiction…I treasure language too highly to betray it, one way or the other.
GS: In the interview previously cited, you said that “when I write I become a vampire. I suck cold blood from anything for a novel.” Continuing this metaphor, what’s the garlic, the holy water, the crucifix that can prevent you from finishing a project or that negatively affects you in some way?
LV: Oh, forget that vampire quote of mine. What was I thinking of then? I suppose it was some sort of boutade…anyway, there are so many impediments and temptations to avoid writing. But self-censorship is never one of them.
GS: What have you been working on recently?
LV: I am happy to say that a brand new character popped up a little over a year ago, a very unusual ex-police inspector named Masachesi. He is the protagonist of my latest novel, Fiscal muere, and insists on living on and dictating me more stories.
GS: From The Lizard’s Tail to He Who Searches, both identity and gender seem to be fluid concepts in your work. Can you reflect on what these concepts mean to you in terms of your fiction and in general?
LV: Oh gosh. Wish I knew. These subjects develop naturally in my creative process. I work blindly, without maps.
GS: If you could choose just one of your books to be translated into all languages, which one would you choose and why?
LV: I suppose El Mañana is my ars poetica. A complex thriller on language. It took me seven years to complete and was finally published in 2010.
Ten years later, for the new edition, I found all the sidelines that I had ultimately discarded, so a log book appeared, the Carta de Navegación de El Mañana.
GS: Gabriel García Márquez didn’t take to the term “magical realism” because to him and his people, the magic was as real as anything else in their world. To be more specific, he said, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Is this how you view the magic in your novels and stories? Does surrealism come from the reality of Argentina?
LV: Argentines are not tropical, at least my co-citizens the porteños are not, so our approach to whatever form of realism is not what we would call magical.
GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?
LV: The latest novels by my compatriot Cristina Siscar: País de Arena and Vestigios which will appear soon. I think she is the best (unfairly) kept secret in recent Argentine literature.
GS: Among other things, one of the criticisms of Carlos Fuentes’ The Great Latin American Novel is that it largely overlooks female novelists. What female novelists would you invoke to correct Fuentes’ omissions?
LV: Why should anyone correct another writer’s “omissions”? I could write my own list, but that is all.
GS: Could you indulge me with that list?
LV: Though Fuentes mentions more recent writers in his book, myself included, here’s a very short list of Latin women novelists I think should have been considered part of the Boom:
- Mexico: Elena Garro, Rosario Castellanos.
- Costa Rica: Carmen Naranjo.
- Brazil: Clarice Lispector.
- Uruguay: Armonía Somers.
- Chile: María Luisa Bombal.
- Argentina: Silvina Ocampo, Nora Lange, Elvira Orphée, and (why not?) my mother Luisa Mercedes Levinson who was a very original writer. If we can stretch it a little I would add Sara Gallardo.
GS: Is fiction the best place to explore truth, even if it’s through the ostensible artifice of the imagination? Or is that best left to journalism, something you’ve had plenty of experience with?
LV: In these times there is no bigger liar than hegemonic journalism! So good fiction does a great job of teaching us how to read between the lines and explore the complexities and contradictions of language which are often manipulated.
GS: Your work is no stranger to political commentary and satire. Do you believe that the situation in Argentina has gotten better? In comparison, how would you characterize the situation in the United States?
LV: Eerie question now that the situation is getting political and very difficult in the whole world….
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Luisa Valenzuela was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 26, 1953. She lived for several years in Paris and New York, with long stays in Barcelona and Mexico. During her career, which spans fifty years of uninterrupted dedication to literature, she has published more than 30 books, including novels, volumes of short stories, micro-stories, and essays.
A recipient of the National Fund for the Arts, Fulbright (International Writers Program in Iowa City), and Guggenheim scholarships, among others, Luisa has honed her skills as a teacher, leading courses and workshops, especially in universities in the United States and Mexico.
She has worked for Crisis and was a columnist and contributor to many different magazines and newspapers in Argentina and the United States, earning her the Kraft National Award in 1965 for her intrepid work. Since 1989, she has lived in Buenos Aires. Her website is here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.