In the nineteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today, last August, we published a preview of the English translation of the novel Home Reading Service, translated by Curtis Bauer and published by Other Press. The novel came to bookstore shelves last November, as planned. Six months later, with its journey through the U.S. book market underway, we spoke with the novel’s author, Fabio Morábito.
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza: Fabio, it’s been a year since your novel Home Reading Service became available in English (it was originally published by Sexto Piso as El lector a domicilio in 2018). Tell us a little about the publishing and translation process, especially considering that you’re also a translator and are therefore well aware of the complexities of that work.
Fabio Morábito: Since I only have very meager knowledge of English, I limited my intervention in Curtis Bauer’s translation of my book to resolving just a few doubts he had about the text. In other cases, such as the recent anthology of my poetry that came out in France, for example, I have intervened more deeply, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the translator to lend the translations the musicality of the originals, which sometimes led us to change the original meaning of certain verses, which the translator would not have done of her own volition; my interventions went so deep that we had to add an explanatory note to protect her against any suspicion that she might have translated the poems badly.
AGP: What are your feelings thus far about the novel’s reception in the United States and other English-speaking countries?
FM: Some very favorable reviews have come out, but I don’t know how it’s going as far as sales. Generally, my books—in their original editions and in translation into other languages—have found their way slowly, without making much noise, getting better known mostly through word-of-mouth, which in the end is the best thing that can happen to a literary work.
AGP: It’s obvious that you’ve never intended for your writing to be representative of Mexican culture or literature, or of Latin American culture or literature for that matter. The presupposition that literature must have some instrumental function, seeing Latin American literature as useful first and foremost insofar as it offers a more thorough understanding of Latin America’s social, political, and cultural problems, is still a significant limitation to the study of this literature in academic spaces. Have you ever come up with a particular stance on this issue? Are you conscious of the valuable uniqueness your work offers, and of the possible opening-up to other ways of reading literature produced in Latin America that might come of reading your work in such restrictive environments?
FM: It’s a case of the old colonial mentality to which the United States and Europe are still very prone when it comes to Latin America. There is an expectation that any literary work produced in our continent should be a faithful reflection of the various tragedies that befall our region. We should recall Sartre’s well known, sad statement that a writer from an underdeveloped country, faced with the dilemma of whether to write or serve his country in a political role, must give up on literature and stop writing—something Sartre never dreamed of demanding of a French writer. It’s almost like saying: in the First World we can devote ourselves to the spirit, in the rest of the world there are other priorities. When Breton came to Mexico, he defined it from the start as a surrealist country. This quote got famous and there are still people in Mexico who repeat it proudly, not realizing that it’s just another example of that colonialist attitude that feels entitled to brush off the countries on the so-called margins with a formula as brilliant as it is reductive, a mental attitude that the “colonized” themselves reproduce. That’s the source of this rash of alarmist literature, based first and foremost on the subject of drug trafficking, that has recently plagued Mexican letters.
AGP: Since we’re talking about the release of Home Reading Service into the English-language book market, could you tell us about some works that interest you or that you see as in-line with your own pursuits within the English-language literary universe, of fiction and of poetry?
FM: I don’t want to give one of those long lists of names that tend to come out of questions like this one, so suffice it to say that a great recent discovery of mine in U.S. poetry has been reading Sharon Olds, who had an anthology come out in Argentina with wonderful translations by Inés Garland and Ignacio di Tullio. A remarkable poet.
AGP: I understand that reading your novel has had major, or at least unexpected, consequences outside the world of fiction: it has led to the sentence or role of “home reader” finding its way into the real world. Could you tell us about that?
FM: Hahaha! The consequences haven’t been major, but they have been curious. The protagonist of my novel has committed some misdemeanor—we are told nothing specific about it—and been sentenced to community service. In his case, due to his university education, instead of having to clean toilets or something, this service consists of reading aloud in people’s homes. It turns out that, as a result of my novel, a similar program has been put in place in Mexico City to punish people who’ve committed traffic infractions, some of whom can opt to do it instead of paying a high fine—that is, they read some book to patients in a hospital or residents of a nursing home, after having been properly trained to do so. It doesn’t surprise me in the end, I must say. After my book was published, I searched “lector a domicilio” one day in Google, out of mere curiosity, and I found that some people do offer such services. I said to myself, “If I had known, I would have interviewed them. I’m sure they would have given me some ideas for my book.”
AGP: Lastly, I’d like to ask you specifically about your work as a novelist. Home Reading Service is your third novel. Before that, you published Cuando las panteras no eran negras in 1997 and Emilio, los chistes y la muerte in 2009. As a writer who has cultivated various literary genres, what can you tell us about your experience as a novelist? How is the relationship between the novelist, the poet, the short story writer, and the essayist? What have you learned as a writer from working as a novelist?
FM: Home Reading Service almost wrote itself. The story came to me without difficulty, but still I went about discovering it step by step, almost line by line, I’d say. Every night, when I laid down in bed, the next episode would come to mind, following what I had already written, and I stayed faithful to that order of events until the book was finished. In that sense I acted as a poet, more than a fiction writer. In fact, I have forayed into the novel more as a poet than as a novelist. I mean to say that—just as a poet writes verse by verse, not knowing what the verse following the one he has just written will bring—I wrote my novels with the same indeterminacy. I can’t see myself laying out a plan for the story, taking preparatory notes, subdividing the plot into chapters or reading up on any particular aspect. Rather, I start writing with a very generic idea of what’s going to happen—an idea that usually, while I’m writing, gives way to another, sometimes even to its own opposite. This method is influenced by my fondness for short stories, which thanks to their brevity can be written almost as poems are written; that is, starting from a predetermined situation, but not knowing how that situation will develop. On the few occasions when I’ve written a story already knowing everything that’s going to happen in it, I’ve felt uncomfortable, without freedom of movement.