Everyone knows the story. An anthology of Spanish-American and Spanish authors edited by the Chilean duo Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez, inspired (partly) by a scandalous American editorial rejection supposedly “for lacking magical realism,” for not conforming to the foreign expectations of exoticism and tropicalization and kneeling before the “Archangel Saint Gabriel” (García Márquez, obviously), for not believing that in Latin America “everyone wears sombreros and lives in trees,” as the editors would maintain in the polemical prologue.
In 1996, together with the Crack manifesto/movement, McOndo provoked a minor revolt in the Latin American literature of the nineties and continues to be a point of reference today. But how? Of all short story and poetry anthologies, McOndo is among the most cited, even despite (or perhaps thanks to) the visceral reactions it triggered in literary reviews and in the academy, which, at that time, seemed unwilling to understand the legitimate concerns and artistic solutions of this new generation of authors.
Thomas Nulley-Valdés: Can you tell me about McOndo’s origins? Your “personal history of McOndo,” as it were. To what extent is McOndo autobiographical?
Alberto Fuguet: I believe it is, but not in the literal sense, obviously. At that time, I was lost at sea, I didn’t feel I belonged to anything, anyone; I didn’t even feel a part of the “young writers” who attended the writing workshops of José Donoso and Antonio Skármeta. I only made real connections with the two older writers who ran the workshops. McOndo, in that sense, was how I went about refining my daddy issues. Without a doubt, I felt that desire to have friends, to not be the only one who was supposedly odd, weird, or hybrid in Latin America. I wanted to start a band. Not to be the vocalist but to be part of something more. Perhaps it was a kind of “Boom” envy. I felt that, if in “La Zona de Contacto” (a youth supplement in the newspaper El Mercurio with certain literary inclinations) there were people like me—something that in Chile had given me a certain level of comfort or a safe space—how could there not be writers like that of more or less my age in Latin America? In other words, if here at the edge of the world, in a pre-internet era, we compiled Cuentos con walkman, how could I not find peers in the rest of Spanish-America. I was going around looking for doppelgängers, perhaps. I thought there had to be people writing—while not exactly like me—but who were interested in rock, in pop, in cinema, Manuel Puig, that we had values in common. And I think that in some senses there were, but they were dispersed or were about to debut in a literary sense.
Secondly, in Chile the idea of the anthology was going around. By the time we released McOndo, I had already participated in at least three, and afterwards, with “La Zona” we had published Cuentos con walkman, a selection of texts by authors younger than 21 or 22 who had been previously published in the supplement. There was an obsession with doing anthologies, it was like there was something in the water. It was the fashion. It was the new dance style of the times, at least here. So, to me, the idea of organizing one wasn’t at all strange.
Besides, as I had been a student of José Donoso, I felt that, if once upon a time people I knew had produced a “Boom,” in a way I could also create one. Perhaps in my unconscious mind I had a sense that we were next. And since nobody was inviting me to any projects: I did it, and especially after receiving something of a “blank cheque” from Grijalbo, who offered to publish it not only in Chile, but in Spain and Mexico too—difficult places to access and where I hadn’t entered yet.
One last thing, a bit of trivia. In my novel Por favor, rebobinar, published at the end of 1994, one of the characters, Baltasar Dasa, is a young author with a certain level of recognition. He is envious of the power of rock and the energy of his friend Pascal Barros’ album Caída libre. So, Barros tells someone that what he desires “is to write a saga, but without falling into the magical realist formula. Pure virtual realism, pure ‘Mc-Condo’ literature. Something like The House of Spirits but without the spirits.” In 1994, “Mc-Condo” had a dash and a C for condos and condoms or something like that. There is also a column I wrote for Mundo Diners about Miami (I think) and the Northamericanization and neoliberalization of Chile which was called “McCondo,” and that article, or text as the experts in “McOndo” who have never read McOndo nor any of my works would call it, is from 1993.
TNV: To a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone knows of and admits McOndo’s faults and failings. However, in the very anthology you and Sergio Gómez said that it was all “a joke, a satire, a quip.” Do you think it was misunderstood?
AF: First and foremost, I want to say that what was said about us leaving out women writers was an unjust critique, because at that time within the parameters which we set—to find authors born around the sixties with at least one published book—there were few women authors. The term parity didn’t exist, or at least people didn’t speak about that. And I tried, I don’t know if to make amends, but we confronted that critique with Se habla español, where there really was a considerable quantity of women writers.
Now, in terms of the joke, firstly, anybody who knows anything about Freud knows that jokes are how the unconscious frees itself. Secondly, it was catchy! It was pop! And obviously the idea was to play and flirt with García Márquez’s Macondo. Those who think I committed a “deicide” can go ahead and think it, but anyone who was raised in the pop world beginning in the 1960s knows that even satire is a form of recognition. And this project wasn’t intending to demolish Gabo, but to give a nod and laugh a bit at the narrow editorial vision of the supposed First World. And, in a sense, it achieved this: look at all the Latin American authors translated into other languages, especially English. None of them are magical realists and some of them don’t even feel they have to write about their time or context. McOndo was understood (or misunderstood) because perhaps I wasn’t ultra-explicit enough, and we wanted to do a prologue where the idea was to show more than to guide or “hand-hold.” I felt that you only had to read the stories to have an idea about how the panorama was changing, but of course pretty much no one read them. Those who became obsessed with it looked no further than the title and the prologue. I insist, it’s possible I didn’t explain myself well enough. But my impression was that it wasn’t necessary, it seemed obvious to me. I had travelled through Latin America, and I had noticed that this happened everywhere. And the poorer the country, the more McOndo everything was: the newspapers were crazier, television was crazier, you couldn’t believe the stuff that was going on.
I think I was too naive, that was my mistake. It never occurred to me that the prologue would be a polemical topic. Maybe if I had given it a title like “New End-of-Century Latin American Writers” we would have been greatly applauded and congratulated. But I had the feeling that it had to have a catchy name.
TNV: One of the problems with McOndo’s reception, perhaps, was that the difficult situation for authors of your generation was not recognized. This is something that critics are now acknowledging, considering; McOndo as a response to the relationship of dominance and dependence on Spanish publishers in Spanish-America, the balkanization of national literary fields in Spanish-America, the hyperpresence of the “Boom” writers, the politicized and exoticized horizon of expectation, and much more. Can you give us an idea of what it was like to be an author with international aspirations during the nineties?
AF: I don’t know if my goal was to become an international author. I suppose so. More than to be translated into 32 languages, I wanted to get to Lima, Monterrey, Córdoba, or Cali. I knew it was difficult. We weren’t in the era of the “Boom”, and I didn’t have Balcells looking after me. So, I thought: maybe a short story anthology. Maybe imitate some things which were done during the “Boom.” In a sense to fuse Cuentos con walkman, but in an international way, including Spain. Another inspiration was the book Los nuestros by Luis Harss, but instead of interviews, to show our stories. At that time, especially post-Iowa and after being labelled as not very Latin American, it was clear as day that nobody was going to do an anthology like I would. So, I did it. And if, well, I’ve said it was a mistake, it was to heal my wounds caused by the bullying. But not anymore. Twenty-five years of solitude have passed and now it is better to celebrate audacity and insanity, maybe even the ability to be a forerunner. Now that everything is falling to pieces, at the very least Latin America as a continent is more McOndo than Macondo. A sum of the two most potent doses of insanity and inequality, technology and insanity (once again).
TNV: It was misunderstood then?
AF: They didn’t want to understand. It didn’t suit them to understand… but how could they not understand! Were they stupid? I don’t think so: maybe my other interpretation might separate them from their prejudices. These critics of McOndo were supposedly people who had lived in their countries of origin, they were bilingual. It’s not that they couldn’t see or understand the situation, they didn’t want to see, it didn’t suit them. Shame on them, because you can’t tell me that the critics who lived in Connecticut, or in Oregon, or worked at Rice University were underprivileged, or in a vacuum of ignorance about their motherlands. Maybe it bothered them in some sense that I was writing about them, or proposing a way of understanding this displacement. I didn’t do anything that terrible and now I understand that, in a sense, I was exploring my own sense of extraterritoriality, which I felt couldn’t be something just in me, it belonged also to a much larger group. And it wasn’t just with respect to language anymore, but also geography. In McOndo 2.0 the great Venezuelan-Chilean novel will be released, or a female Paraguayan writer of Syrian descent will write a manga or something of the sort. McOndo isn’t about being obsessed with the North American empire; rather it understands that everything is a remix, that everything is hybrid, that the Japanese and the Limeños live side-by-side to the sound of Justin Bieber, ceviche, and hentai.
TNV: One of the most notorious critiques of McOndo—advanced early on by the critic Diana Palaversich—was the supposed reductionism of Latin American discourse: in other words, that the anthology replaced the Third World, folkloric, indigenous, “authentic” Macondo with a First World and neoliberal McOndo. The anthology is still interpreted this way. How would you respond to this critique?
AF: I think that critique has a measure of bad faith, with a critical stance and a very clear agenda. What does First World mean? What does Third World mean? Define it for me first. What does folklore mean? Isn’t Soda Stereo also folklore, perhaps? It seems to me that if someone wants to study Latin America, and they speak with terms as old as First World and Third World as opposites, then that person is desperately in need of a reality check, and a reboot. All it takes is a look at the Rio Grande and El Paso, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or La Paz, to notice that there are seven or more worlds combined, and that folkloric music coexists with electronica. And this hasn’t been solely since the nineties, this has been since the founding of our countries. And I’m not saying critics can’t criticize, but my impression is that her reading—which is something critics should definitely know how to do—is too capricious and is very near sighted. What happened with this critic is that she came to speak to me, I suppose that’s what she wanted, I don’t remember, it was all in a hotel room she invited me to, and she wanted me to prove her theories. I didn’t agree. I suppose she believes more in her own prejudices or her theories than in the truth. Fake footnotes, you could say. Maybe she has a right to write and criticize. You say notorious. Maybe she achieved a certain notoriety, though I suspect not very much. McOndo is stronger than Lacanian obsessions from Buenos Aires.
TNV: Speaking of the stories, something very few people have underscored are the queer themes in McOndo, evident both implicitly and explicitly in your story and those by Gustavo Escanlar, Jaime Bayly, Rodrigo Fresán, José Ángel Mañas and Antonio Domínguez. How do you see the queer themes of the anthology?
AF: Pure chance. If I had known, if you had told me in those days, I would have probably changed or rejected them in a gay panic or something. I knew mine was experimenting with sexual tension. But I don’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t something I went looking for, but I’m glad it occurred and, in that sense, McOndo could also be seen as ahead of its time, because if you jump headfirst into hybridity, queerness, gender, and race or whatever you like, they all have a place because that is the benefit of hybridity: everyone fits, it’s not a homogeneous space. McOndo perhaps unknowingly helped to visibilized queerness. It’s not that there weren’t homosexuals in Latin America, but even though it was something you could practise and discuss secretly, there was a strong sense that an author could be anything they wanted except gay. That’s a private issue. It was even accepted that they write about certain topics, but you couldn’t acknowledge it. For that reason, important gay authors never came out of the closet publicly, including the great Manuel Puig, or Sergio Pitol or Carlos Monsiváis, who avoided the question. Donoso couldn’t be himself, even afterwards, because the “Boom” didn’t accept anybody who wasn’t an alpha male. But it’s always a topic that’s present in Latin America because it’s a prohibited issue; maybe it was time for it to surface and that’s why it appeared there.
TNV: Some critics have noted McOndo’s double-edged maneuver: that in attempting to break from the “Boom,” by treating the figures of the “Boom” as significant points of reference, this simultaneously ends up subordinating you as writers. How do you see McOndo’s relationship to the “Boom”?
AF: Extremely close. A heritage. A response. A copy. It’s a taking of the baton. It’s plagiarism, imitation, understanding, appropriation and, of course, finding a new path. Look, something which is commented on very little, Thomas, is that McOndo attempts to process García Márquez’s Macondo and proposes another vision of Latin America, but let’s take a proper look, and remain attentive: of Latin America, not somewhere else. We didn’t (or I didn’t) intend to reprocess the diaspora in the US, or gender identity or Queer Studies, but rather something even more basic than that: to offer another perspective from within Latin America. I insist: of Latin America. Of the Hispanic. Some people forget that the book, the prologue, the stories, and the authors write in Spanish. Including in my case, where my mother tongue is English. McOndo isn’t a CIA operation, as the twisted paranoiacs believe, but an act to broaden language, continent, fictions, possibilities.
The “Boom” came before. And they’re better, perhaps. Do I feel inferior compared to them? Why not? Who cares? Or, if I feel inferior to tradition? I sometimes want to feel inferior, or as homosexuals say with their own slang, sometimes I want to be dominated, why feel embarrassed? They came before me, they also come from others, they have also processed Spanish, Latin American, and especially North American literature like Faulkner. The only way to start a revolution is criticizing and changing. And I’m not the only one who says this, any psychologist will tell you. A child, to grow, needs to have some level of conflict with their parents. But I think I’m a very good son, much better than other writers.
With some things I’m immature, but not so much as to think that everything that came before me is worse. I realize now that I have a lot of material written about the figures of the “Boom.” And, of course, I think García Márquez is a classic, and I’m learning more from him all the time. I admire him much more than people think or believe. And even though he never spoke about McOndo, when he released Noticia de un secuestro, I felt, this one’s for me. I’ve always felt it’s a book dedicated to me. It was as though he were telling those poncho-wearing Pittsburghers who open cafés called Macondo that he is much more than that, and he could write about whatever he fucking wanted, and that they had eaten it all up. Clearly Noticia de un secuestro is a McOndo book, about a fractured, modern Colombia destroyed by narcos, by the media, by avarice and by Americans.
TNV: McOndo was an anthology for the future; it took a chance on these young writers. Considering all that has happened in the last twenty-five years, the tendencies and writers who have triumphed or not, in what sense do you think McOndo was right?
AF: Obviously there are authors of all types younger than me, some very good, some mediocre, and some bad. And I do believe there are very important authors that have made names for themselves. Authors like Liliana Colanzi or Rodrigo Hasbún, writers very concerned with their emotions, their private lives, their affections, with finding their place in the world. The Ecuadorian Juan Fernando Andrade is another one I love, and he writes about what it’s like being a rocker in a town on the Pacific coast. Jeremías Gamboa, for example, is ultra McOndo, among other things, because he has read the “Boom” very well and he is daring enough to write from the heart.
But compared to McOndo, I don’t see any other anthology which has made so much noise. But maybe that’s unfair. They transmit with another frequency, their noise is more soft, low-fi. McOndo isn’t an issue of Granta or the Bogotá 39. It’s more than that. I don’t think anyone has dared to get involved in an anthology of this kind and deal with the shrapnel. Those anthologies are collections. They are cute, twee, nice. Those anthologies are interested in being marketing tools. McOndo dreamed of being a group of guys who wanted to form a band. After McOndo, I think, people know that to try and arrange the map or propose a way of seeing, ordering and of course reading can be received as though it were a bomb. They know what can happen because they know what happened to me. I don’t have tattoos, but I do have the scars from the McOndo bomb. In any case, I show them off with pride. Before I wouldn’t take off my shirt, and it was embarrassing for me being behind this supposed conspiracy, but not anymore. I believe in McOndo, though I admit the name is a little noisy. Contemporaries, perhaps? Post-Post “Boom”? Pre-Digital Analogues? Whatever the case, we needed a cartography. And even if I don’t see a real grouping in the next generation, I don’t know if they are McOndo, but nobody is writing magical realism. People who are experimenting with genres, such as Mariana Enriquez, have nothing to do with folklore, quite the opposite. I think they are authors who are extremely comfortable with their influences. Mariana isn’t embarrassed to say, “I love Stephen King,” and to me that’s a sign of liberty. And the triumph of Mariana Enriquez is the triumph of McOndo; she achieved what others couldn’t achieve, such as Gustavo Escanlar.
TNV: Your relationship with McOndo has changed over the years: maybe you began with a certain hope, perhaps later after the criticism you were regretful. How do you feel about the anthology now?
AF: I did it as a gesture to free myself, to have a good time, to have colleagues, to not feel isolated, something I continued with Se habla español, Mi cuerpo es una celda, and Todo no es suficiente. And suddenly there appeared this storm of bitterness, of cruelty, of violence. But of course, it was one thing to receive bad criticism in Chile, but quite another was the international criticism. I decided to hide. It embarrassed me, it shocked me, I couldn’t believe I was so badly misinterpreted. And then I got tired, I guess, as if to say, well, in those days I had a weird haircut and I don’t anymore. I felt there wasn’t any way to rein in the prejudice and the only way to rein it in was writing books and making movies.
But with time I realize I didn’t do anything that terrible, I didn’t do anything harmful, didn’t mean to hurt anyone; on the contrary, I think they’ve hurt me. On the one hand, it didn’t matter so much that they had hurt me, my feelings or whatever, who cares. But I felt it was a way of obstructing, as if to say this person can’t be part of the canon, this person isn’t serious or is stupid. They kicked me out before I could get my foot in the door. They have ruined my career in terms of translation, in terms of prizes, in the same way they have ruined my career as a serious writer. That being said, I recognize that the negative criticism of McOndo has helped me, that I’m going to belong to that group of outsiders, and that has given me an immense amount of liberty. I’m no longer so afraid, a lot less than before at least.
I think that if for some reason I left some people out, that’s not a crime, it’s an omission. If I made them question themselves, well, that’s my duty as a writer, I’m not a therapist. And if I made some people laugh, or if I scandalized or annoyed, well, congratulate me. What do you want me to do? I’m not in the business of greeting cards or aromatherapy.
I’m never going to write exactly what you want me to write, I’m not a “stenographer of your fantasies.” I’m a broken mirror that’s going to make you want to turn off the light as quick as you can.
In the end, in any case, we managed to give an anthology of unknown authors some press, so we did something in that sense. And here we are talking about it twenty-five years later.
Translated by Thomas Nulley-Valdés
Interview conducted on October 9, 2021
Translator’s Note: Italicized sections were in English in the original Spanish interview.