With a career spanning decades and various genres, Giovanna Rivero has established herself as one of the definitive voices of contemporary Bolivian narrative. Reading her latest short story collection, Tierra fresca de su tumba, I was struck by both the unpredictable twists and turns of her prose and the uniqueness of her haunted, out-of-place characters. Giovanna and I talked via email about the collection, its rural settings and reflections on illness, and the late-coming recognition of Latin America’s longstanding Gothic tradition. Tierra fresca de su tumba will be published in English translation by Charco Press in 2023.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon: You’ve worked in several genres. We read the review of your novel 98 segundos sin sombra in LALT No. 19 with great interest, and I was moved by the short stories of Tierra fresca de su tumba, published last year by Editorial Candaya. Do you feel more comfortable working in one genre or the other? In your opinion, what are the benefits and challenges of the short story, a genre that’s often undervalued in the book market?
Giovanna Rivero: The short story is, to me, a demanding genre in every sense of the word. The tension, the narrative arc, and the characters’ depth all have to play out within a relatively limited space. Even though I tend to write long stories, almost nouvelles, I think the short story has what we might call an “obsessive” quality to it, in the way it tries to gnaw down to the character’s bone, pushing their conflict and circumstance to the ultimate consequences. This radicality is what always entices me about the genre. But I am also fascinated by the challenges and opportunities offered by the novel; for me, it’s like an invitation to explore unknown places, where a lion could jump out in front of me just as easily as a white rabbit or a venomous spider from some endangered species. This rhizomatic possibility of the novel, the way it can take you from a nuclear conflict to some other conflict that perhaps you didn’t have in mind, strikes me as a real provocation. On the other hand, the boundaries between the genres are growing ever more blurred, and the fog in-between is another territory that feeds into the desire to keep writing.
A.M.D.: I was happy to hear Tierra fresca de su tumba will be translated to English and published by Charco Press. How does it feel to know you’ll soon be having your English-language debut? Do you know who’s going to translate the book? What are your hopes for the translation?
G.R.: I’ve been writing for many, many years, and being translated into English and other languages has always been a hope of mine—one I could only glimpse on a far-off horizon before, since I’m not a high-profile writer. Now, however, Carolina Orloff, the director of Charco Press, is backing my work with a passion that moves me. I trust her to make the best possible decisions when choosing a translator. What I hope for from this journey into English is the same thing that happened with the translation into Portuguese by Laura Del Rey, published by Editora Incompleta and Editora Jandaíra. She connected deeply with the book’s literary language, but also with each character’s cultural roots. She and I talked about it as a double translation, semantic on the one hand and dialectical on the other, since Tierra fresca de su tumba is full of characters who, while speaking Spanish, don’t speak the language so straightforwardly. Rather, their speech is “stained” with localisms, with life experiences, with social class. I hope the English-language translation also takes that into account.
A.M.D.: You participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. At LALT, we are interested in seeing how creative writing programs influence writers’ evolution across linguistic and geographical barriers. How was your experience in Iowa? What impact did it (or does it) have on your literary career?
G.R.: Writing residencies are tremendously necessary for writers, especially those of us who come from countries where state support for art, and literature in particular, is minimal. Besides the tangible support, a writing residency like the one offered at the University of Iowa allows you to experience—if only for a few months—the emotions of deterritorialization. The landscape, time, the air, everything comes through with a different texture; and when I say “texture” I can’t help but think of its link with the textualization of life. Perhaps we need that “room of someone else’s” in a different, provisional home in order to project our imaginations from uncomfortable or unique places.
A.M.D.: There is a critique of certain hypocrisies and injustices of the contemporary academy in your story “Hermano ciervo.” How do you see the relationship between literature and academia at the moment?
G.R.: I think the academy in general still casts a suspicious eye on those who, besides being academics, are also writers. Or, I should say, those who are the other way around. I’ve often wondered why this is the case, when the subject matter of the literary academy—and of much of the humanities—is supposedly literary discourse. One of the answers I’ve come to is that there is a fear of the imagination being aimed at the creation of alternate worlds, and so this imagination is separated from all other intellectual production and is even scorned, perhaps considered a handicap to theoretical abstraction, to the formulation of ideas that aspire to a certain rigor. Of course, within the academy there are also wonderfully sensitive people with the courage to make space in their writings for pursuits and proposals that are not always canonical. This pact is not so common, but it does exist, and I am thankful to know that kind of thinkers and professors.
A.M.D.: You were born in the city of Montero, and you grew up in the department of Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Landscapes and characters from Santa Cruz often play important roles in your fiction. How does your place of origin influence your practice as a writer, and your fiction itself?
G.R.: I’ll never stop being from the provinces, even if I move to Saturn. That belonging, beyond its telluric strength, is an ontological aspect of my self that has deeply marked my writing. Also, ever since I was little, I’ve noticed that visual representations of Bolivia prioritize mountainous landscapes. This preeminence of Andean beauty leaves out other landscapes, which is to say, other framings of reality and the subject’s relation to that reality. I’ve been very aware of this exclusion, and it’s something I take on when I write.
A.M.D.: While many of the characters of Tierra fresca de su tumba are anchored in Santa Cruz, they often also lead cross-border lives: they are members of migrant communities, Bolivians who have migrated to other countries, and other beings displaced in one way or another. Why do you feel drawn to such characters, whose lives cross borders?
G.R.: I think I survived the suffocation of provincial life thanks to reading comics. Heroines and heroes like Gilgamesh and the Priestess of Light, who could cross the borders of historical eras and inhabit unknown spaces, affirmed for me that the imagination is the true vessel in which to travel. Constant movement between my small town and the capital, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, made me a migrant ever since my infancy. I didn’t know it, of course. That back-and-forth, of just fifty kilometers, articulated the notion of landscape and horizon. Out the window of the bus that would take us to the city to take care of important business, like going to the doctor or handling legal matters, I would see the huge green expanses and the identical evening suns. It all left the stamp of a great melancholy on my spirit. My characters serve to metabolize that old feeling. They leave their places of origin to prove the horizon is always distant, even as they travel kilometer after kilometer in pursuit of an ideal place.
A.M.D.: Another motif that frequently crops up in Tierra fresca de su tumba is rurality. Several of its stories take place in the midst of the enormity of fields or forests, and rural space itself sometimes takes a leading role in your stories. Why—and how—do you write the rural world?
G.R.: As I was saying, my place of origin, my provincial condition, the distance/tension between me and the capital, all told, made me well aware of non-hegemonic spaces from an early age. I remember the syllabi of my school’s language and literature classes were made up mostly of novels whose characters lived on the high plateau. Everything important or meaningful took place against a horizon that to me, as a little girl, seemed too far away. The message seemed to be that nothing of historical value or cultural transcendence could happen in eastern or Amazonian spaces. The status of narrative space, therefore, did not apply to my known world. In Tierra fresca de su tumba and in my other books, the rural universe, the woods, the tropics and the heat permeate the characters’ subjectivity to define an ontology and even a set of rules for life. In the end, the cutting of reality that is the landscape configures the temperature and colors of the world. It’s a matter of intuiting the cosmos in that which is closest to us, be it a tree, a parrot, or the baroque fertility of a patio.
A.M.D.: The theme of illness—physical, mental, or both at once—also touches many of the stories in Tierra fresca de su tumba, in which we see bodies deformed and minds disturbed by various ailments, often as spiritual as they are bodily. I think the theme of illness has concerned us with greater gravity than ever in the past couple of years, on a global level, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you handle this theme, which is so universal and so personal all at once, in your literature?
G.R.: It seems to me that illness, whether mental or physical, is a reminder of death and irrefutable proof of our imperfection. Illness imposes a painful limit. The ways in which we have responded to this limit has given rise to the most hair-raising of literature. I feel compassion for my sick characters, but this compassion, this empathy is precisely what leads me to tear them apart. Perhaps I dramatize my own weaknesses, over and over, when I push my characters to experience their own deaths, to look at their own wounds, their scars, to tear up the self-centric unity—now so fragile, incidentally—of the personality. They suffer because I have suffered and seen people close to me suffer, struggle against the body, against the psyche. I saw my younger brother suffer endlessly due to bipolar disorder. I think writing about sick characters is a somewhat strange way I have of loving literature and accepting existence. On the other hand, narrating illness opens up a different epistemic space; something is learned and something is uttered from that experience, which is non-transferable but common nonetheless.
A.M.D.: We read quite a lot today about “the Latin American gothic,” or regional variants like “the Andean gothic”: terms used by critics to describe the turn toward darkness in Latin American literature, a turn along which some critics have placed you. What do you make of this categorization? Do these terms seem useful to you? Do you think they represent something new, or rather a recognition of something that has existed for a long time in Latin American letters?
G.R.: I think what’s new is the interest in this old darkness. I agree that we are experiencing a sort of coincidence of writings, above all by women, that manifest a specific sensibility: reality that is stained, that yields before the energy of the ghostly and the extraordinary. Calling this phenomenon “the new gothic” is one way to understand it, as is regionalizing it such that even the landscape forms part of this renewed expressionism. Nevertheless, I think “buying” this category without putting much thought into it, looking only at the most superficial and cosmetic traits of the gothic, impoverishes our ways of reading and imagining. It’s always better to read and write without pigeonholes, without some checklist of current market expectations. In any event, I heartily concur with something Flannery O’Connor put forth as one trait of the southern gothic. She claimed the writings of the south were resistant to the cultural hegemony of the north, whose fiction was granted prestige thanks to its non-negotiable worship of realism as a means to interpret historical events. The cultural field of the north tended to look over its shoulder at the writers settled in the lands of the United States’ big plantations, where slavery was so hard to erradicate. For O’Connor, the southern gothic focused on the “freaks”; she didn’t call them monsters or ghosts, and she was not obsessed with absolute mimesis, if such a thing is possible. The freak, for O’Connor, was always at the margins: the anomalies of their spirit and body, their theological contradictions demanded that they flee any center. That’s exactly what I try to do in my writing.
A.M.D.: Lastly, which writers would you recommend to a reader who enjoys your books?
G.R.: I would tell them to read instinctively. If my books remind them of other writings, even very tangentially, they should follow the path of their reader’s heart. That’s the kind of reader I am: I like to discover other worlds at the margins, not from the echo that sounds from the center of a particular moment. If the reader wants to read some sisters of mine, I recommend Daniela Alcívar, Solange Rodríguez, Claudia Aboaf, Fernanda Trías, Betina González, Ana Llurba, Magela Baudoin, Liliana Colanzi, Gabriela Ponce, Ariadna Castellarnau, Fernanda García Lao, Natalia García Freire, Ana Paula Maia, and María José Navia. And, of course, not only writing by women. There’s so much to explore! And they should read poetry, please. And the literature of other eras too. Taking some distance from the immediate, the contemporary, provides another kind of oxygen.