It was the first time that she had visited Ecuador. She called me but wrote again later: “I’m the Argentine writer, Hebe Uhart, I can’t hear you very well over the phone. I’ll arrive in Quito on Monday, March 10th at noon and I’ll stay at a hotel called ‘Mansión Real’ (capitalized because it is an impressive name). I’m going to get to know the area and if I want to, I can write something for the culture section of El Pais in Montevideo. I’ve written several travel notes for them. If you want me to bring you a book or CD from here, tell me and I’ll bring one along.” So I proposed that we meet for a talk at the FLASCO on Wednesday, March 12, and she responded: “I have a plan on Wednesday along the lines of a ‘city tour’ but that should be in the morning, and if not, I’ll make it work (and I’m flattered by your invitation). I can bring some of my books; they’re short stories. I like speaking informally, fielding questions from people. The knowledge of cultured people piques my curiosity. You don’t have to worry about putting together some massive talk. I do better, and think it’s more useful (at your discretion) if there are only a few people there, or at least not too many.” Then I told her that it would be exactly as she suggested, and that we would speak about “The kitchen of her writing” and she wrote back: “A paper in Buenos Aires asked me to answer the question, ‘Why do I write?’; I didn’t give them a serious answer. That would be my sort of presentation for that talk. Anyway, thanks for deferring to me.”
So she arrived in Quito on the 10th of March of 2008. My friend, the poet Cecilia Romano, put me in contact with her. She came with a bundle from the hotel; there was no need to greet her at the airport. We met up at the “Mansión Real,” which was really just a small, middle eastern style palazzo right in the middle of Mariscal. She brought her own books and music from the actress and singer Soledad Villamil: tangos performed with the great Edmundo Rivero. She introduced me to Ada Falcon, the one behind “Yo no sé lo que tienen tus ojos.” Her books—Camilo asciende y otros relatos, Guiando la hiedra—came accompanied by a novelette successful in Argentina: La asesina de Lady Di, by Alejandro López. We met in a small room near the hotel’s entrance. She was a slim woman despite her age, with short hair and tiny eyes, brown and lively, with a sharp sense of humor that even made her laugh as though she couldn’t believe it. “Now you can see the majesty of my Royal Mansion,” she said, as we sat on the sofa in front of the reception desk.
“Does it rain a lot here?” she asked as she watched the standard drizzle of an afternoon in Quito. She said they had already hooked her up with a tour of Otavalo, but that she also wanted to go to Cuenca. She was very curious about indigenous culture.
When she returned to Argentina she left me book (along with postcard from Cuenca): Una excursión a los indios ranqueles by Lucio V. Mansilla, with a note: “Do you like this kind of reading?” It was a historical narrative in the form of letters published almost daily by the friend of the author and director of “La Tribuna” in Buenos Aires from May 12, 1870, until September 7th of that same year. Later, I found out that that book had fascinated her because it showed her a different country, an unknown Argentina. From there, I could gather her interest in Otavalo and indigenous Ecuador.
On Wednesday, the talk was at 6:00 p.m. with my students, along with several other invitees. She explained that she also gave workshops at home and that she needed them too. “You can only teach about writing if you write, too,” she said. This was also a maxim of Miguel Donoso Pareja, who insisted that a workshop should be led by an active writer.
She spoke about humor in literature and in her stories. She mentioned that she does not like intellectual characters, preferring simple people who have a different way of looking at things and addressing them. I believe that for Hebe Uhart, “looking” was the most authentic way of writing, as if her arrested and thoughtful gaze over characters was carried into the words that formed their stories. That is what captivated me about her stories: apparently simple, but with a dash of exile or threat, like Carver, but her own, with a Latin American culture that make them our characters; like his, but with Argentine eyes. That is what they seemed to be to me, at the time that I read them, even though it can now be said: Carver is Carver and Uhart is Uhart, as powerful and unique as ever. Perhaps since she came to Ecuador, she deserved greater attention and her books, once known only to a minority have become known to an ever-greater-majority.
That Wednesday, after the talk, we invited her to dinner. It was a pleasure to listen to her, curious as a little girl that wants to climb a tree to see if it has a nest. She had such a sharp ear that she pronounced quiteñismos with a mix of surprise and inquisitiveness. She laughed as she rattled off diminutives: “There’s a lluvecita that won’t stop” or “He’ll get a pochito because of the cold.” Her eyes lit up asking questions and talking about how she wanted to go overland to Cuenca. That night, we marveled at having her with us. It was an entertaining meal and, as my wife said, instructive, because we learned about the humility and lucidity of a lightning strike that she used to place words, making even their dark sides shine. For example, she asked me: “Why is it that when a person is called, they respond, mande?” Then, she reflected upon its roots in subjugation, perhaps from the colonial burden that still exists. The truth is that she had never stopped to think about that quiteño answer. Still, I told her that when my mother called me and I responded with “What do you want?” or simply, “What?”, she would correct me, telling me that that was not how one should answer. Rather, they should say, “Mande mamá,” because she was not just my friend. Hebe laughed and said that one should obey their mother, but that she was nobody here; she asked the hotel employee, “Fabián, can you tell me which way I go to get downtown” and he responded with “Mande!” The close attention to phrasing, in words, in idioms, in the twists and turns that speaking takes in Latin America, (in our case, crossing Quechua and Spanish), greatly interested her. That night, she wanted to get to know more things and talk about more places. As I tried to satisfy her thirst for knowledge, I ended up recommending Ecuador: identidad o esquizofrenia, by Miguel Donoso Pareja and Mestizo by Manuel Espinosa Apolo. She wanted to see everything, even though she also said that she didn’t have time to be in Quito and travel to Cuenca because she was going to write about that trip, and that she was thinking about returning another time to go to Otavalo.
Indeed, after that first visit to Ecuador, she wrote a chronicle and sent me a copy, saying, “I’m sending you my story about Quito, a little worried that it’s not good, but here it is.”
That chronicle, which is still in my inbox, has seven parts: Ecuador, Quito, La plaza de San Francisco y otra yerbas, Camino a Cuenca, Cuenca, Artesanías, Pintura y escultura, and Conclusión.
In it, she says things like, “There is a common strip of mountains that stretches from Ecuador in the North down to Argentina. This is demonstrated by language: words like cucuyo, pachamama, chacra, choclo, tambo, chasqui, huaca, guagua and tatai are in common use throughout the entire region. The same goes for customs and dress: El velorio del angelito, for example, or the clothing of the indias and the cholas: each with regional variations, but always a hat, a poncho, and a colorful skirt.”
Since her visit coincided with Holy Week, she wandered into practically every church in Quito’s historic downtown: “In their churches they keep true works of art (many of the churches themselves are works of art). The majority have portraits from colonial Quito, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From every corner one can see the mountains covered by little houses with red-tiled rooftops, as if they were meekly climbing over them.” Later, she describes some of the churches and describes the people, signs, and things, with that look accustomed to writing the subtleties of minutia that pass by unperceived before the common eye.
When she refers to the Plaza de San Francisco, it is incredible how she dwells upon an unlikely conversation and captures its every detail in a single paragraph:
“In a sunny corner, there is a debate between a free thinker, a Taoist, and a Catholic, surrounded by throngs of the poor. The free thinker says that the majority of our needs are not really needs at all, and that his daughter asked him for a laptop. The Taoist is in agreement with the free thinker about the world, but he feels that his bit and space have been usurped, so he starts handing out flyers just to do something. The Catholic goes third: “You must search for the kingdom of God and his justice.” He finishes quickly. The free thinker and the Taoist agree that we are sitting upon ground overflowing with riches but that we do not see them; the people listen, somewhat skeptically, and a man in the audience begins to speak about material needs. A smiling young man that was just there to have fun doesn’t hold back and says right in front of Taoist that the he is crazy.”
This way of tackling the chronicle from the periphery, supported by sociology and history, turns it into something literary. Hebe stopped writing stories to start writing chronicles of her travels, which have become her books in the last decade.
Last year we visited her at Francisco Acuña de Figueroa 296, 9, around the corner from the Italian Hospital in Almagro, Buenos Aires. She had the flu, and how couldn’t she, she asked; “my house is an incubator for students. On the fifth, two students came with the flu, and, well, it will pass.” There, my wife and I once again enjoyed her conversation. She said that when her editor asked her about the book she would write, she said she would do one about animals. “Yes or no? Everyone has animals, and they’ve realized that the pets are their owners. Yes or no? The other day on the bus, I said to the lady next to me: Ma’am, how many animals do you have? And she tells me just one little one. Notice she said little one, as though it were part of her family. The other day when I was out in the country, I stayed at a hostel that had a monkey. The monkey was part of the family and sat at the table with them. I was impressed, watching how before dinner, when they said a few prayers and the owner crossed himself, the monkey did the same thing.” Hebe imitated the piousness of the monkey, keeping us laughing without a break. “How am I not going to write about animals,” she said, “when they are just like their owners? Yes or no?” That was the last time that we saw her, Saturday the 17th of June of last year. Her book, Animales, came out January of this year.
In 2012, taking advantage of the fact that one of my books was published in Buenos Aires, I was invited by Hebe to participate in one of her writing workshops. Just by seeing her balcony, I realized that her notable story, “Guiando la hiedra” came from there. “Here I am taking care of the plants, so they don’t invade one another’s space, nor have dead branches or ants. I feel pleased watching them grown up from so little; if these are small, they could be smaller, and if they have space, they grow up more. They are different from people: some people, with a miserable base, end up growing out leafiness that hides their true size. Others, with good hearts and great capabilities are crushed by the weight of life.” This was a metaphor for people, produced from observing and caring for plants. Seeing herself as a witch, and through them, a witch that, like all witches, has her days of obstinance and control, not just to do evil, but to do other mundane things, like remembering dead friends, or cleaning all the dead leaves off the ivy, and telling oneself, what a beautiful life! It is a simply dazzling metaphor.
On that occasion, I spent time with her students, and not without noticing the devotion that they felt for her. Hebe Uhart, the writing teacher, that shows other dimensions in detail, all from the minimal or simple parts of life and the world. A personality that with every gesture or action, taught humility, authenticity, honesty and disregard for fame’s caress. Only she would respond as she did when I expressed my excitement at the recognition she had received in Chile, the Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas 2017: “Thank you for the email. Nowadays people know about everything, even from far away. Hebe.”
Translated by Michael Redzich