The winner of many important literary prizes, Liliana Colanzi is a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking literary world. In March of 2022, she received the Seventh International Ribera del Duero Prize for her short story collection Ustedes brillan en lo oscuro, further evincing the tremendous talent of this Bolivian writer whose fiction has opened up new spaces in our literature for the strange and the fantastic. Or, as she says herself, for stories that cannot necessarily be classified within “the fantastic,” but that instead present “eerie atmospheres and landscapes.” Colanzi is the author of three other volumes of stories: Nuestro mundo muerto (2016), La ola (2014), and Vacaciones permanentes (2010). In 2018, Latin American Literature Today had the privilege of publishing one of her remarkable stories, translated by Auston Stiefer, entitled “The Eye.” In this interview we discuss her own writing, the fantastic in Latin America, current Bolivian literature, and much more.
Marcelo Rioseco: In a book by Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why (2001), the US critic distinguishes between stories after Chekhov, which never resolve their plot and read as fragments from a few characters’ lives, and stories after Edgar Allan Poe, which read as high-precision clockwork. I’d like to begin this conversation by asking you about your writing practice. Starting from this idea of Bloom’s, how would you describe the kind of story you write?
Liliana Colanzi: My stories follow pathways so intuitive that it would be hard to call them clockwork; they might be fragments from a few characters’ lives, although I also have stories like “The Cave” in which human beings form only a part of life’s mosaic, and where the main character is a cave. Sometimes I think of the story as a detour that takes you strange places, other times as an Ayacucho altarpiece: an Andean miniature crammed with all kinds of things. Very different elements can be juxtaposed in a story. I take materials from different places and periods of time, and see what relationships emerge between them.
M.R.: This brings me to the transition between your book Permanent Holiday (2010) and Our Dead World (2016). The writing in the latter collection of stories incorporates a certain degree of strangeness, which runs throughout the book. The stories oscillate between the strange, the unusual, and the fantastic. How did you come to write like this? To put it another way, how did you come to write about the topics you did?
L.C.: I published a book in realist mode, and when I tried to write other stories in that same vein, I felt that the path was exhausted for me. I wanted to experiment with those other possibilities fiction can offer, and the literature of irreality let me sink into a stranger world: it was a canal that I could pass through to speak about liminal states of the consciousness like mental illness, mystical experience, or drug-induced psychosis, and also to take on temporal scales larger than those inhabited by human life. Not all of my stories after Permanent Holiday have a fantastical element, but there are many eerie atmospheres and landscapes.
M.R.: A now-canonical book by Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), makes a distinction I think synchronizes with the ideas of Our Dead World. Jackson argues that the fantastic can take the form of manifestation (her examples come from writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) but also expulsion, revealing a disturbing element in what has previously been hidden, and registering the unseen and unsaid. There seems to be a threatening element of great tension in your work, where it feels like something might appear at any moment, expelled from its darkness. Do you think some of your stories could be read from this perspective?
L.C.: María Negroni sees the Latin American fantastic as a derivation of the gothic. In the gothic tradition (and in much of the Latin American fantastic), the “other” is presented as a threat, as what produces fear and friction, unlike in the English fantasy genre where the strange element is incorporated as if it were natural, and a talking animal or dragon can form part of a world rather than exist as anomalies. To me, the fantastic was especially useful for talking about issues that have been repressed, but act as hidden or silent forces: indigenous history, fear of the other, feminine sexuality, the energy of the subconscious.
M.R.: I see that you’re co-editing a volume called “Horror and the Supernatural in Latin America” for the journal Hispanic Issues, scheduled to come out this year. Within this context, I’d like to know what you think about the fantastic in literature, particularly now that many of its aspects are experiencing a kind of renaissance (the gothic, the uncanny, horror, etc.). What can the fantastic say that realist literature cannot? In other words, why the fantastic?
L.C.: In the case of this volume, we were surprised by the number of proposals to study the work of female writers: the call for papers didn’t explicitly mention the work of women, but the majority of essays are dedicated to writers like Juana Manuela Gorriti, Amparo Dávila, Silvina Ocampo, Griselda Gambaro, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Agustina Bazterrica, Mariana Enríquez, Giovanna Rivero, Mónica Ojeda, Vanessa Vilches Norat, Lola Ancira, María Fernanda Ampuero, Adriana Díaz Enciso, Samanta Schweblin, and Claudia Hernández, among others, which speaks to the important contribution by women to a long-marginalized literary genre. For many of these female writers, the source of the horror is patriarchy, femicide or violence toward women, topics that have been normalized and silenced, but that the horror genre makes visible. There is also an interest in understanding the way monsters return and take on new meaning: the female vampire, witch, and pishtaco (also called kharisiri) say a lot about different historical moments and what a society considers to be abject or dangerous; the monster in the 21st century is also linked to various political struggles. The witch, for example, has become a symbol of feminist protest. To take another case, eco-horror is a vehicle for speaking about the environmental devastation of the present: from the disappearance of animals, to the contamination of nature, to the effects of pollution on health, issues that have been approached more frequently from the literature of irreality.
M.R.: The traditions of indigenous peoples are well represented in your work, and are treated in a very original way. What is your interest in these traditions? Where does this interest come from?
L.C.: I think it would be odder not to be interested in these traditions and cosmovisions, coming from a country with over thirty indigenous nations. The strange thing is that all of these languages, these ways of seeing the world that we could learn so much from, have occupied such a marginal place in our history. There is an intense and very painful self-hatred in the negation of the Indian, proof that we continue to operate according to colonialist dynamics. I try to explore these themes in some of my stories.
M.R.: Sometimes it can be hard for those in other parts of Latin America to keep track of what’s happening with Bolivian literature, but it does seem that many new writers have emerged with high-quality work. How do you see the current state of Bolivian literature?
L.C.: Despite being a country without policies that encourage the arts, and with a precarious cultural infrastructure, Bolivia has a vital literary tradition, even if it remains largely unknown outside its borders. That said, despite the difficulties of our echo chamber in relating to other literatures of the continent, this is a moment in which other countries are discovering Bolivian classics like Hilda Mundy, Jaime Saenz, or María Virginia Estenssoro. A variety of authors are being read outside of Bolivia, which speaks well to the production of contemporary Bolivian writers: the Argentine publisher Caja Negra is publishing its first book of fiction, and it’s by Maximiliano Barrientos, while the first fictional work from the Spanish branch of Mexican publisher Almadía is by Edmundo Paz Soldán; the latest book of stories by Giovanna Rivero is now a reference for the Latin American gothic, and there are new books by Guillermo Ruiz Plaza in Spain and Gabriel Mamani in Argentina, as well as English-language translations of poetry by Iris Kiya and Rocío Ágreda Piérola. There are authors with powerful and very different bodies of work like Rodrigo Urquiola, Juan Pablo Piñeiro, Rodrigo Hasbún, Carmen Lucía Carvalho, Adhemar Manjón, Paola Senseve, Elías Caurey, César Antezana, Quya Reyna, Magela Baudoin, Marcia Mendieta, Aldo Medinacelli, Sebastián Antezana, Elvira Espejo and Rodrigo Villegas, to mention just a few… The list is long.
M.R.: I have to ask about your relationship with the university institution. Do you think it is a good place for a writer? How do you live your life as a writer in the academy?
L.C.: I’m lucky enough to belong to a faculty where I can write both fictional and academic works, which hasn’t always been the case and is not possible in all universities. Previously, if you wrote fiction in a US university, you had to erase your books from your CV, because it meant you weren’t a serious academic; books of fiction didn’t count as academic production, either. It makes me happy to see that changing. Fiction is another form of thought and political intervention.
M.R.: What are you reading at the moment? Very briefly, what would you recommend to the readers of Latin American Literature Today?
L.C.: I recommend Love, Rage and Madness by the Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet. Right now, I’m reading Worry Worm by Layla Martínez.
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) has published the short story collections Vacaciones permanentes (Permanent Vacations, 2010), Nuestro mundo muerto (Our Dead World, 2017), and Ustedes brillan en lo oscuro (You Glow in the Dark, 2022), and has edited La desobediencia, antología de ensayo feminista (2019). Our Dead World has been translated into five languages. She won Mexico’s Aura Estrada Literary Prize in 2015 and the Ribera del Duero Prize for Ustedes brillan en lo oscuro in 2022. The Hay Festival Cartagena included her among the best Latin American writers under 40 (Bogotá39, 2017). In 2017 she started the literary press Dum Dum editora in Bolivia. She teaches Latin American literature and creative writing at Cornell University.