Arthur Dixon: First, thank you for this interview. I know you’ve given a lot recently after the release of your new novel, Kentukis, and I imagine they get tiring! I’d like to start by discussing all the interest your books have generated in the academic world. In that context, how does it feel as a writer to be the subject of other writing, in academia or journalism, to find your work in reviews, to see interviews, to hear about dissertations, etc?
Samanta Schweblin: It feels strange, of course, because the moment of writing is something very intimate, it happens to me in absolute solitude and I’m its only spectator, a little like when you get dressed or brush your teeth. So at the start, when academic works started to appear or when I read the first reviews of my books, it didn’t just feel unusual to hear about any kind of analysis about how I do these things, it filled me insecurities. I thought, are my texts really good enough for someone to spend so many hours studying them? I felt a mixture of guilt and a little imposter syndrome, like being afraid that someone, sometime would notice the fraud. Then I got used to it, and like with anything you get used to, I stopped thinking about it. At any rate, it’s something that happens to the books, or that’s how I prefer to think about it.
AD: The subject of literatura fantástica, or fantastic literature, appears in many reviews of and interviews about your work, and it seems that many critics have tried to place your work on a sort of sliding scale between realism and the fantastic. What do you think about this apparent insistence on placing your work in the category of fantastic literature, fantastic realism, speculative fiction, etc? Have you ever thought about such categories while writing?
SS: I don’t think about genres when I write, not at all. A literary genre is, above all, a series of limits—limits in the best possible sense, a set of rules and possibilities imposed upon a particular world, which at the same times allows for unprecedented, original movements. So, two stories that could feasibly be categorized, for example, as belonging to the fantastic literature of the Río de la Plata could contain very different, even contradictory limits. For me, what exists in any case is not the limit of a literary genre, but the limit of a particular story, an internal logic of what can or cannot be done. And, of course, the closer you come to crossing those limits, the more powerful the stories become. And that thin line that divides the real from the fantastic, for example, I don’t think about it from the perspective of genre, I can’t think that if I take a step forward I’ll be in the fantastic, if I take a step back I’ll stay in realism. It’s all there for me, at the same time. Absolute realism is what lets the fantastic come close without ever breaking the link with the world where we live—or where we think we live—and the imminence of the fantastic is what makes the real world more defined and menacing. They go hand in hand.
It is also common, especially in my stories from Mouthful of Birds, that the same story can have a realist reading and a fantastic reading. But in these stories, the fantastic always takes place in the reader’s head, in the construction that the reader makes of their reading. There is no line in the text that one can underline and say “here the text jumps into another territory.” So we should think about why we use the word “fantastic”—something that can’t happen, that belongs to another world—to describe something that happens in the intimacy of our own thoughts, which are absolutely real, and perhaps form the only world in which we can trust.
AD: On several occasions, you’ve mentioned some of the central authors of the twentieth-century Argentine literary tradition of the among your initial influences—especially Adolfo Bioy Casares, a writer whom I also like a lot and whose influence can be seen in your writing. What’s the relationship between your work and the canon of Argentine literature, or literature from the Rio de la Plata region in general? Do you see your writing as part of a specific national or regional tradition, or do you prefer not to categorize it in that way?
SS: It’s hard to think about that sort of thing in relation to my own books. It’s a little like self-analyzing, or picking out your friends for yourself but not caring if the feeling is mutual. I recognize myself in the fantastic tradition of the Rio de la Plata, where the fantastic is not a final revelation but a menacing atmosphere within the codes of the real, a “widening” of the real, let’s say. Where there is something in the plot that brings the fantastic back to the real. But I also feel very connected to more absolute realism, the American tradition of Carver, Cheever, Berlin, Hempel, Paley, Wolff. I spend my twenties devotedly reading American realism, but writing fantastic literature. I remember reader friends who would ask me why I was reading so much realism just to end up “Cortázaring,” and the question unsettled me. It was as if they were demanding some sort of faithfulness that I never quite understood. If the fantastic of the strange is constructed purely in the stakes of a reality that is “real” and “ours,” then the construction of realism, which always takes up more than half of a fantastic text, is as or more important than the construction of the event that shatters it. You need to have something to break if you want to break something, right?
AD: I was happy to read that a film will be released soon based on your novel Fever Dream, directed by Claudia Llosa. I understand that you worked with her on the screenplay, and also that you studied film as part of the program in Image and Sound Design at the University of Buenos Aires. What have you liked most and what has most surprised you about the process of turning the book into a film?
SS: That’s write, I wrote the screenplay along with Claudia Llosa, and it was a really interesting process. I learned a lot and I found new things that I even regretted missing in the novel. It was very interesting to finally see clearly, in very concrete forms, which aspects of literature are transferable to audiovisual media and which aspects aren’t, and how they can be translated such that, using very different resources, we can emotionally carry the viewer to the same place that the reader gets to. And of course, if was also a reunion with that other passion of mine, which is film. One of the biggest challenges—and one that worried me a lot in the process of thinking about this story on screen—was the voiceover. The whole novel is structured as a dialogue, that is one of the most particular resources of the story and that is what, to a large extent, drives the book’s tonal tension. But voiceover in film is dangerous. It tires out the viewer, or even distracts them. So we worked a lot on that point, taking care not to lose the most important moments of those voices while transferring as much as possible to the visual and the material.
AD: A lot of your writing seems quite cinematographic: what other text of yours would you like to see on the big screen?
SS: Any of them, just for the curiosity of seeing how they would turn out. There’s an Argentine film by Laura Casabé about the story “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides” and there are also short films about “The Test” “Nada de todo esto” [None of all that], and “Mouthful of Birds.” And stage plays based on “Un hombre sin suerte” [A man without luck] and Fever Dream. I like to know that the stories keep growing and being rethought by others. But it’s also a little intimidating, especially when it comes to widely distributed productions, as in the case of Fever Dream. These wide circuits bring in many more readers, and that always makes me happy, but they also fix one particular reading of the book in the viewers, which isn’t mine as a writer, nor theirs as readers.
AD: Your texts have a lot to do with the physical spaces where they take place: I’m thinking of the domestic settings of Siete casas vacías [Seven empty houses], the agricultural fields of Fever Dream, the various geographical locations of Kentukis, etc. Do you think certain stories belong to certain spaces? Do you write your stories starting with the places where they happen, or is it the other way around?
SS: Yes, it’s true that there is something strong for me in spaces. Now that I think about it, until I can clearly see all the spatial and atmospheric elements that surround a character, I can’t move forward. I guess that’s the source of a large part of the materiality that serves to build a certain climate. In fact, when I start with a new idea, I often have a very clear image of some particular moment of the story, generally in relation to the beginning or the end, and this image never comes with information about the plot, or the theme, or the characters, it’s just a spatial image, an atmosphere that visually carries a particular emotion.
AD: In Kentukis, you present a vision of the hyper-technologized world in which we already live. It’s clear that mass communication technologies are changing the ways we read and share literature, just as they are changing how society communicates in general, as you show in your novel. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the literary representations of these changes in the present day, as you offer in Kentukis—not as a part of some science fictional future—are surprisingly rare. What are the challenges of presenting and problematizing present-day technology in literature?
SS: I agree very much with that observation. I think we quickly naturalize this hyper-technologized world, but when that new reality passes into literature we continue to classify it as science fiction. I’m fascinated by that leap: what exactly can be read as science fiction in Kentukis, when there is no technical or temporal advancement? Maybe the problem is that we adopt these technologies with absolute naturality, but we haven’t yet taken the time to think about them, much less to socially delineate their moral, ethic, legal limits. I think that’s the dangerous part of these technologies, our using them on a daily basis before fully understanding them.
AD: Many of your texts center on violence—I’m thinking in particular of stories like “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides” and “The Test,” which are very disturbing, as well as the violence—not so graphic, but equally serious—that exists throughout Fever Dream. What are the challenges and strategies of representing violence in literature?
SS: I think violence always happens for more or less the same reasons: incommunication, misunderstanding, frustration, fear. And in fiction, violence materializes all those things that can sometimes be a little abstract or intangible, it exposes them and translates them into action. Violence corners the characters. If they are experiencing situations in which we might see ourselves represented, violence forces them to move forward, forcing us to walk down those possible paths, to try them out and take our own measure, even to put our own morality in check. All of these areas are interesting to think about. Also, perhaps, and more personally, there is a lot of violence in my texts because it’s my way to push it off from on top of me. Violence immobilizes me, physically and mentally. It leaves me stunned, muted. Literature is my way of processing it, of thinking through it and trying to understand it.
AD: You’ve been awarded many prizes, among them the Premio Casa de las Américas for Pájaros en la boca, the Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero for Siete casas vacías, and the Premio Juan Rulfo for your short story “Un hombre sin suerte,” and you’ve been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for the translation by Megan McDowell of Distancia de rescate, titled Fever Dream. Does winning prizes influence your vocation as a writer in some way? How do you measure success in literature, if it can be measured?
SS: Winning prizes influences the visibility of the books, and that’s it. I would even say it influences more in the legitimization of the books, not so much in their visibility. Although that legitimization also depends on what prizes the books win, there are some very commercial prizes that can even be counterproductive for some readers in that sense. In any case, I always try to think of prizes as something that happens to the books, not to me. What the prizes and the greater circulation have brought to my life is the possibility of finally living from literature, even if only for a few years. That does change my conditions, due to the simple fact that, since I became economically independent, I’ve always had two jobs: writing on one hand, which was always a serious job for me, and on the other hand any other job that paid money and allowed me to buy my free time for writing. And god knows how expensive free time is on this planet. The prizes, and above all the translations, gave me that advantage, which I consider an absolute privilege, an opportunity for great freedom and also great responsibility. I suppose that is success, the unusual opportunity to dedicate yourself completely to something you like, with the support of family, friends, and readers.
AD: In an article published last year in El País, Paula Corroto mentions you, along with other Argentine writers like Mariana Enríquez and Pola Oloixarac, as part of a new “boom” of Latin American women authors. What do you think about the notion of literary “booms”? Do you think Paula Corroto is right to identify a current “boom” of women writers from Latin America, and from Argentina in particular?
SS: I think literary booms are always questions of the market, even when the literature involved is good. That’s why I also think it’s very important not to call what’s currently happening a “boom.” Literature written by women isn’t a new trend, it’s what the other half of the world writes. I’m sure that goes along with Corroto’s argument, but if we add in the word “boom,” perhaps we’re not measuring the true dimensions of what’s happening. I also think it’s subjective to say that literature written by women is “the best that’s being written in Latin America,” as I once said myself and as is being said in many spaces. What this literature has is unprecedented strength and originality, like any voice that’s been screaming for a long time but has just recently started to be heard.
AD: In an interview published in Revista Diners, you mention a really nice example of everyday imagination: the instant of “getting on a bus and seeing that a woman has big hunch on her back and thinking for a moment, of course, her wings are sprouting. It’s a split second, but for a split second it’s true.” It reminds me of what Julio Cortázar said about the fantastic when he visited us here at the University of Oklahoma for the Puterbaugh Festival in 1976. I’ll quote the translation of his speech by Margery A. Safir: “…there are moments in my life (and they are not exceptional moments; they can occur during a subway ride, in a café, in the middle of reading a newspaper) in which for an instant I cease to be who I habitually am in order to convert myself into a type of passageway. Something opens up in me or outside of me, an inconceivable system of communicating receptacles makes reality as porous as a sponge; for one moment, unfortunately short and precarious, what surrounds me ceases to be what it was, or I cease to be who I am or think I am, and in that terrain where words can only arrive late and imperfectly to try to say what cannot be said, everything is possible and everything can surrender itself”. Do you think this ability to perceive the impossible within the possible or to imagine other realities within the real is necessary in order to write literature?
SS: Wow, I didn’t know that passage, it’s great, very Cortazarian, and it feels very close to my own experience. I think, beyond genres, and beyond that line, which is so disputable for me, between the strange and the real, literature is the practical exercise of empathy. It is leaving behind one’s own judgements and one’s own experience, if that’s really possible, and thinking from another place. In fact, that is precisely the greatest tool that human beings have in literature: there can’t be, in any other art or technology, the possibility of submitting to our own doubts and fears, of looking our deepest fears in the face and testing ourselves, taking our own measure before them. The possibility of testing the paths of our deepest inner wars and returning to real life with vital information. Returning with the knowledge of how much things hurt us, but without a single real wound.