With her 2020 novel Mugre rosa, (to be published in English by Scribe as Pink Slime, translated by Heather Cleary), Uruguayan author Fernanda Trías (Montevideo, 1976) won the 2021 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1993 to a novel written by a female author in Spanish, and which in previous years has been won by the likes of Argentina’s Camila Sosa Villada, Colombia’s Laura Restrepo, and Mexico’s Ana García Bergua, Margo Glantz, and—on two occasions—Cristina Rivera Garza. Mugre rosa also won the Bartolomé Hidalgo Prize in 2021, awarded by Uruguay’s Publishing Chamber, in the narrative category.
Mugre rosa tells an unsettling story that is nevertheless all too familiar to us all, of an epidemic that descends upon humanity in the form of contaminated air, provoking the appearance of a strange and at the same time curiously beautiful pink algae and threatening the coastal city inhabited by the characters in Trías’ novel: a woman who is separated from her husband, whom she visits in hospital; her mother; and the small child whom she cares for, who suffers from a malaise that leaves him perpetually insatiable. A dystopian novel written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mugre rosa is perhaps even more unsettling for its portrayal of a reality that closely resembles the experience humanity has been enduring over the past two years, and the global feeling of uncertainty, fear, and tension that gives the work an ineludible relevance.
The Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize was awarded to Trías at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) in December, at a ceremony in which the FIL’s director Marisol Schulz described the novel as “a necessary, intense, and pertinent book”. For her part, Trías took advantage of her acceptance speech to talk about the themes the book deals with and the threat humanity faces through climate change. “People have already told me I predicted the pandemic. If each generation imagines an apocalypse, I belong to the generation that is living through climate terror. The story has something of the fantastical to it, but in the double meaning of the word, and if it felt fantastical it was precisely because it was real,” she said. “The question therefore should not be, ‘why write a climate dystopia,’ but why not write one?” And she revealed that the creative process of Mugre rosa began with a recurring and terrifying dream.
She also used her speech to bemoan the recurring question in numerous conversations and panel discussions about whether there currently exists a boom in literature written by women in Latin America. “I could say that in every discussion I have participated in, that question was never lacking. Never in the history of literature, or in the history of humanity, have women writers been as visible, and we are still invited to participate in panels at which a phenomenon is discussed that is without a doubt extra-literary. And the question is insistent because it appears to be looking for an answer in the wrong place, ‘something is happening with the quality of their work,’ they seem to say, unless we are talking about a brilliant, exceptional generation. The story of this award proves that this is not so,” she said.
And she also took advantage of being in Mexico to thank the country for the solidarity shown to her compatriots, “because I am Uruguayan, because I was born in a dictatorship, and Mexico and its embassy in Montevideo stretched out their hands to hundreds of the persecuted, victims of state terrorism. I hope we never again have to resort to your solidarity.”
Trías sat down to talk with Latin American Literature Today in Guadalajara about her novel, her trajectory, and her writing, which she describes as both “super Uruguayan” and as a kind of hybrid work that reflects the influences that have permeated after having lived for more than a decade and a half outside her home country, in several Latin American cities in addition to Europe and the United States.
Adam Critchley: You were born in Uruguay during the dictatorship (1973-1985), and your novels The Rooftop and Mugre rosa describe a certain fear or disquietude in your characters, either due to a tangible threat, such as an epidemic, or to an invisible or underlying threat, as in The Rooftop. How much has your experience of the dictatorship influenced your writing?
Fernanda Trías: I think it is present in my writing in the way it was present in my life, in an underlying, subliminal way. I lived under the dictatorship for the first eight years of my life, but it was not something that was talked about. Each person lived it in their own way, and in my case it was a question of a silence that was interspersed with murmurings, whispers. As a child I knew that there was something going on, but I didn’t understand it completely. I have some memories of tense moments, for example at school, people were taken away, there were soldiers, and so there are certain memories that remain, like a fog. And there have been a lot of narratives since the return of democracy about that dark time, and when I began to write I felt that it was a theme that had been dealt with, but it is not a theme that is exhausted. There are still crimes that remain in impunity, there are people who remain in impunity, there are many people who remain missing, and the theme is not closed, but rather it is still there, there are open wounds. And so there is always the question of how to write about those things, and there are references, such as that sensation of living with that fear, with that tension, with a certain hostility toward the other, when one didn’t know if the other person was one who could inform on you. I grew up with that sensation. And a silence, the sense that you couldn’t talk about all of those things. I inevitably absorbed all of that and it is present in my writing.
A.C.: In Mugre rosa you create tension that provokes a question in the reader of what is going to happen, an atmosphere that makes one wonder what it would be like to live under a dictatorship.
F.T.: It has a lot to do with that tension. What terrifies me the most is when you know that, at any moment, something could happen, but when it doesn’t happen it creates more tension, a psychological terror that begins to weigh on people’s psyche. In my poetics there is always a tense silence, something latent.
A.C.: Some critics have called this novel “science fiction,” but I see it more as speculative fiction, a term British author J.G. Ballard preferred to use when his works were classified as science fiction, although all fiction is speculative by nature, of course. Are you interested in science fiction as a genre, or do you seek to recreate reality but somehow stranger?
F.T.: That was precisely my intention. I wanted to work on reality gone awry, and that awryness I think is enhanced when the dystopia resembles the real world more closely, when difference is just by degrees, which is more unsettling than creating a futuristic world, set on a space station in 2050, for example. I like the term speculative fiction—it’s sometimes used to separate a text from the science fiction genre, which is sometimes considered a minor genre, but I don’t have a problem with Mugre rosa being called science fiction. Argentine author Juan José Saer said that his novels were speculative anthropology because what he was doing was an x-ray of human life, and I identify with that a lot. When I write I don’t care about genre, those have more to do with the critics, who put texts in certain categories. I have always worked a lot on the construction of characters, and I wanted to do what I have always been doing, which is to write a novel of characters, very psychological, but in a very dystopian context, and with that mixture of focusing on the conflicts of people within an environment in which a dystopian conflict has occurred. In the end I think it’s very interesting to find a way of mixing everything, and it’s not so important if it’s realism or science fiction, which have to do with marketing.
A.C.: There is also a melancholic mood that permeates Mugre rosa, which has to do with the situation the characters are experiencing, but I also feel that it goes beyond that, that in your writing there is a certain melancholy per se. Do you see it like that?
F.T.: I have always written melancholic characters, all of my characters are melancholic, and that is something that is very Uruguayan. There is a personality trait, from tango, from that enjoyment of sadness, our music, our literature, with Juan Carlos Onetti, for example, there is always some melancholy, something a little dark, and that is part of me, I can’t avoid it.
A.C.: However, you have been living outside of your home country for many years—do you still consider yourself a Uruguayan writer? Roberto Bolaño said, for example, that rather than considering himself a Chilean writer, he saw himself as a Latin American writer.
F.T.: In terms of writing I still have a strong link to that literary tradition in Uruguay, which I like a lot: Onetti, Mario Levrero, Cristina Peri Rossi, Felisberto Hernández, who are all very different, but it’s a tradition that I feel very close to. Now I have influences from other places and that has opened me up a little more, and I like that, I have always liked that mixture and hybridization of genres, and I like opening myself up to other, very different influences so that the mixture that emerges is very personal. And now that it’s been 16 years since I left Uruguay, even my accent, which is obviously still River Plate but now has certain Colombian inflections, now nobody can work out where I come from, and now I think to myself that “now that this mix has happened you can’t do anything about it, so you better just join in with it, and let that mix happen, and let’s do something that reflects that diversity.” I do feel like that, a Latin American writer, but I also understand that that could also bother some Latin American writers who see the importance of defending a “national” literature, so that, above all in the U.S. and Europe, we are not just read as one mass, and I do understand the importance of highlighting that Latin America is not just a bloc, that there are very different literatures and very rich regionalisms, and that diversity needs to be reflected. When I lived in New York you could feel a very Latin American spirit, there were people from all the countries of Latin America, and we were all talking to each other and we were all learning words from other countries, and that is part of the spirit of that city. And then when I lived in Europe for five years I started to think about the concept of Latin America, and I also lived in Chile, in Argentina, Colombia, and I feel closer now to that idea of “Latin American.”
A.C.: But there is also a tendency, from outside the region, to group all Latin American writers together, as if it were a homogeneous region.
F.T.: In the country I live in, Colombia, and here in Mexico, and in many other Latin American countries, there is the problem of violence, and those are problems that mark writers a lot, but in Uruguay there is none of that. If we talk about narratives of Latin America being narratives of violence, Uruguay has no place in that. I have influences from all over, although I also understand the importance of defending “national” literature. For example, Mugre rosa is a Uruguayan novel, and in it I worked on a reconstruction of the streets and Uruguayans know which streets I am talking about, and so on the one hand it is super Uruguayan, but on the other hand I can also see the Colombian influences—for example, things that have to do with a certain state violence, the state being very violent in its controls, with its impositions, its very tangled bureaucracy, and I realize those are influences from my time in Colombia.
A.C.: Perhaps you had to leave your home country, artistically, to let yourself be influenced.
F.T.: You have to let yourself get contaminated, and perhaps not try to defend yourself too much from that contamination, maybe the solution is to open yourself to the other and discover that the other is not a threat. But artistically, that movement toward the outside, toward the other, has been to become contaminated, you have to let yourself become contaminated.
A.C.: There is a lapse of 15 years between the publication of The Rooftop and Mugre rosa, and at the presentation of the former book at the FIL you talked about the process of revision you undertook prior to the book’s publication in 2021 by Mexican publisher Dharma Books. When you undertake a task like that, revising an older text, how do you see the evolution of your own writing through the years, which led you to write Mugre rosa?
F.T.: I very much see the connection and the road between the two books, which was a long and winding road. Although they are quite different books, they have many things in common. The fear that is present, the nostalgia, those lost affections are present in both; oppression, confinement, all of those things the two books have in common. What I feel is the life that occurred between those two books, those 15 years, allowed me as a person to develop the vital maturity to go much deeper into the characters, into those human conflicts, those tensions between mother and daughter, for example. These have been years of searching and stylistic experimentation, and they allowed me to search with language, which is more poetic now, and to go further, to carry out a more poetic search in which I experiment more with language, and I feel that during this time I have been able to continue with the same, repeating themes. And I also wrote other things in which I was also searching. I wanted to take my work with language further. In The Rooftop the narrative machinery had to be very controlled and well thought out, I was still very young, and in Mugre rosa there is more freedom, but it is also very thought out, as if I were moving like a fish in water.
A.C.: The story in Mugre rosa is punctuated by short dialogues, without the reader knowing who is speaking, which appear to tell a parallel story, a more hidden story, but one that also contributes to creating that tension, that sense of disquietude.
F.T.: That was precisely my intention, not to reveal who is speaking, and therefore open the possibilities and generate the impression that everything is floating, up in the air.
A.C.: As you describe the pollution, the effect of that epidemic on the environment, you create beautiful landscapes. It’s interesting that the “grime” is pink—it reminds me of those effects we see as a result of the environmental damage we have wreaked, which are sometimes beautiful, like a sunset seen through the smog. The effects are devastating, tragic, but at the same time produce a beauty that is often extraordinary, and which is something the aforementioned J.G. Ballard worked in very well.
F.T.: Beauty can be found in everything. It seems to me that humans are programmed to find beauty in everything, even in ugly things. There are moments of happiness in everything, even though they are very small, even within pain, and that is what makes for human complexity and all that we are experiencing. Humans are not horrendous monsters. That is the problem—if not, the decision would be easy.
A.C.: After writing this novel about an epidemic and its publication coinciding with the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, how did you feel? Did it make you shiver?
F.T.: At the time I was so engrossed in the story of the book that, when the pandemic was declared, and I had delivered the manuscript to the publisher, I didn’t realize the novel was becoming reality. In my mind I was still thinking about the algae. It was other people who made me see it, and that’s when I began to see that there were all these coincidences, the masks, the hospitals, the health controls, and how the Health Ministry suddenly became an authority and gained control, and was on the TV news every day and everybody started to follow it on Twitter. It took me some time to realize that reality was beginning to resemble the novel.
A.C.: And reading it during the pandemic, the novel becomes even more chilling, like some kind of chronicle foretold.
F.T.: We are never going to know how it would have been to read the novel without the pandemic; evidently that world would have appeared much stranger, more unlikely.
A.C.: You are also a professor of creative writing at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. How does that process of working on texts with your students in a literary workshop provide you with feedback?
F.T.: I take things from it. Sometimes there are very interesting texts that make me think about things I hadn’t thought of, for example, but also the fact that I am thinking about all the possibilities of a text makes me focus my eye a lot, and I acquire a sense of how a text can be worked so that it takes on the form it needs—the way of structuring a story, for example, if there is a great story but the way of telling it is not working. That has very often challenged me, how I have to think differently, and often, with the contribution of all the students, we get somewhere. I really enjoy the learning process, of language, of history, it’s very enriching.