After an eventful year and a lot of media exposure, in November 2021, we sat down to talk with Pilar Quintana. Not only had her novel Abyss received the Alfaguara prize earlier that year, but also The Bitch (2017), translated into German by Mayela Gerhardt and into English by Lisa Dillman, had received the LiBeraturpreis in September. In Colombia, we had been reading her for years. The stories of Caperucita se come al lobo (2012) resonated in different contexts, and her previous novels, Conspiración iguana (2009) and Coleccionistas de polvos raros (2010), presented thematic and formal explorations relevant to what was to follow. It was in that November conversation that the following interview began to take shape.
Ingrid Luna López & Óscar Daniel Campo: Tell us about your experience in this cultural landscape in Colombia still dominated by men. How has your experience been? Do you think we are at a different juncture for women writers?
Pilar Quintana: I come from a conservative society and family who fancy themselves liberals. I was always much more liberal than my family, my schoolmates, or my cousins. I was always a feminist. But until the mid-2000s, the word “feminist” had a negative connotation. Feminists were bitter ladies who burned bras and hated men, who had mustaches and armpit hair, and what a pain in the ass those ladies were. When I was 15, I had a very heated and childish argument with a cousin who said that men should carry our suitcases and move our chairs. I used to ask her, “Why? I can carry my own suitcase.” Now I don’t mind them carrying my suitcase. I was always a feminist, but I didn’t identify as such. My process of calling myself a feminist had a lot to do with the things that happened to me in my life, later, professionally, and then when I wanted to be and became a mother. That’s when chauvinism slapped me in the face.
I got out of college and worked as a television scriptwriter; I have always made a living from writing, not from books at first, but always from writing or writing-related professions. I had good jobs until I decided to quit everything and become a writer. In the first interview I had after publishing a book, I was asked if my writing was feminine. The question seemed absurd to me because Ricardo and Antonio, two writer friends of my generation, were never asked if their writing was masculine. Their writing was literature. Mine was always labeled feminine or erotic. It made me very angry because I began to realize that this was misogyny. Since I am a woman, they have to separate my writing and put it in a different library, giving it that label because, in reality, literature is done by men. Women do this thing called “erotic literature” or “women’s literature.” I began to fight against that in interviews and at the tables they placed me at, saying, “I don’t want to talk about this. I want to talk about literature. Ask me how I build my characters, how I write.” That has since been my position.
ILL & ODC: From that place, though, you ended up taking on the challenge of coordinating the Library of Women Writers of Colombia’s Ministry of Culture. What has that been like?
PQ: When I published my first novel, Laura Restrepo won the Alfaguara prize. I saw that and said to myself, “A woman, who’s also Colombian, is capable of winning that award.” For me, that was very important. I think she was the first Colombian woman writer I read, and I was already 32 years old. Then, when I began to call myself a feminist, I realized how little women’s literature I had read, versus literature by men. My literary tradition was masculine because I had only read men from the Colombian literary tradition. At school, I never had to read a single female Colombian writer, and I had an outstanding literature teacher who was also a close friend of Elisa Mújica and María Mercedes Carranza. It’s not that my teacher didn’t know them; they were friends. Building Colombia’s Library of Women Writers, you see how they were all inseparable friends. They had read each other, but, at school, we did not read a single woman. So, in the same way that I know my Colombian literary tradition made by men, I must also know my literary tradition made by women, those who made it possible for me to become a writer. That was tremendously enlightening for me, because we think we are talking about motherhood, breastfeeding, abortions, and losses merely now, as if this were not the case before. You read women from 1500 onwards, and they are writing about what we women are writing about now. For me, this was very enlightening because it is not that they did not exist, nor that we are the geniuses who are only just discovering these topics. We are not discovering anything. We are following a tradition.
ILL & ODC: Indeed, the different types of maternity form a through-line in your work. In The Bitch, for example, Damaris longs to have a child, but she is an infertile woman in the most fertile place in the world. We have Claudia and Gloria Inés assuming the cost of motherhood. We also see moms who are in the public eye because they are celebrity moms. We see a “spectrum of maternities,” to avoid the term “failed maternities” that has been linked to your work and which you resist. Why are you interested in this subject? And how was the process of discovering it?
PQ: When I lived in the jungle, I read Yerma, by Federico García Lorca, a story of an infertile woman. I said, “Great, I like it a lot. I would like to read this story told by a woman.” Not because Yerma was wrong, but because I wanted to see how a woman would narrate her own infertility and that of other women. I didn’t want to have children at the time, so I thought I would not be able to tell that story.
A subject I was interested in—and now I realize it is the only thing I have always talked about—is the animality of the human being. I believe we are guided by instinct and rationality does not separate us from animals; rather, rationality is an animal trait in itself. Just as fireflies have a light in their bellies, we are rational. Rationality is animal. I always loved exploring that. My first works are about sex and people fucking because by fucking, you take off your mask and take off your clothes, and if you don’t let your instinct take you there, it’s a bad fuck, or am I wrong? Desire is not rational. Desire is instinct.
When I felt the desire to have a child, I saw that desire was not rational either, that it had the same nature as sexual desire. You don’t say, “Oh, I want to have a child because it’s wonderful!” You have a child, and when you do, you say, “What the fuck did I do?” But the desire to have a child, as it happened to me (because there are different ways to have a child), is overwhelming and does not go through the rational. Having him in my belly, giving birth to him, breastfeeding him, loving him as much as I do, that doesn’t pass through rationality either. That love is like that of a lioness who loves her cub. That’s when it became a great subject. That was when I said, “Sex? I’ve already done plenty about sex. Here I found a vein. I found a vein to explore animality.”
When I started writing The Bitch, the feminist movement was very visible in media. All the time, I saw the demands of women who didn’t want to have children. I think that is awesome. I was one of those women. But I used to ask myself, “Who vindicates women who do want to have children? If you do want to have children, how do you feel as a woman and a feminist? How do you feel when your aunt, your grandmother, and the whole community asks you: ‘When are you going to have babies?’ and you can’t say, ‘Oh shit, I’ve been trying for two years, and I can’t get pregnant because that’s a forbidden subject.’” That’s when The Bitch was born.
When I wrote The Bitch, a novel called Canción dulce by Leila Slimani had just come out. I read reviews of both books that said they were about failed motherhood. Leila’s book is about a woman who has two children because she wants to, decides to have them, and says, “I don’t want to stay at home. What a bore! I want to go to work because I like to work and develop that part of my life.” The reviews kept saying that the book was about failed motherhood—fuck, so all fathers in the history of the universe are failed fathers because they go to work and they like going to work more than staying at home taking care of their kids? I thought, “What an unfair thing to judge a woman who wants to continue working and is a mother!” It’s as if a woman who is a mother can only be a mother and can only be with the child: “I only work out of necessity. What I really want is to be at home with my children.” No. I work because I want to and because I like it, because I also enjoy not being with my son, because motherhood is hard. I wanted motherhood, and I loved my son, but it is also delightful to travel for five days and be in a bed alone with no one to bother me. That is not a failed mother. That’s just a mother. All moms feel that way. We just can’t say it.
I want to tell people that the experience of motherhood is not one but multiple. That a woman can be happy being a mother one day, and the next want to run away from home and never see her husband or children again. That she can fantasize about going to a desert island and not being bothered by anyone, but that she will not do it because she loves her children. I want to narrate that.
ILL & ODC: You mentioned that your first stories were about sex and its animal nature. We want to pause on that point; in your book Caperucita se come al lobo, there’s a very disturbing story titled “Violación,” which is Spanish for “rape.” You get to the end rather quickly—it’s a three-page story—and you know where it’s going, but you kind of don’t want to read it. We want to ask you about that ending. The tendency when you read about abuse is to show guilt, disgust, resentment, violence. But here, you narrate the abuse from a more intimate, subtle, and ambiguous angle. Why were you interested in approaching abuse from there? What were the challenges? What do you want the reader to take away from this story?
PQ: I wrote that story when I was living in the jungle. I used to go down to the village and chat with some friends who had a hotel there. There had been a case of a thirteen-year-old girl, about to turn fourteen, who had a twenty-four-year-old boyfriend. In other words, it was legally rape, right? Because, in Colombia, at fourteen it is no longer rape; that is the age of consent. She was like a girl on the edge; I believe the girl in my story was fourteen. We were discussing whether that was rape or not.
The man went to jail, and the girl cried because he was her boyfriend. She didn’t want that to happen and kept asking her father, “Why are you reporting him?” That’s when I asked myself: “When is it rape?” I read the penal code about rape, carnal access, and consent. That night I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes, there are stories I write in a kind of delirium. These stories come to me, and that only happens to me with short stories. I get scared of those stories because they are usually very strange, horrible, and I abandon them somewhere. This one was like that. I wrote it down in a notebook and left it hidden somewhere. I thought, “No, that thing I wrote is so horrible… A girl who enjoys rape. Fuck… What a vile thing,” and I left it hidden there. Then months went by. Sometimes I read it and corrected a word, but not much. One day I got a call, and was asked for a story for an anthology, and I had nothing but that one. I sent it to my editor and asked if it was publishable. He said yes. And that was it. I published it. We corrected and edited it a little bit; not much, though. The story was the same. And I published it.
I often reflect through the readers. Works are only completed with the reader. I began to reflect on the story with the readings of others. I discovered that in my imagination, and in what we were taught in school or by our mothers, we women had to be careful in the parks and not go out at night because that’s where the rapists were. The most they told me about how rape could happen was to watch out for soda or drinks at parties. That was like… the closest rapist. But the closest rapists are in your house, and they are the man you trust, your father, your cousin, your uncle, your stepfather… this story tells us that.
A friend of mine has a reproductive rights foundation in Cali. She loves to have “Violación” read by the girls and boys she works with. I asked her, “Why do you do that?” She said, “Because here, most girls who come in after having been raped don’t know they were raped. They were seduced, and they were in love. This story helps me discuss the questions: what was it? Did they fall in love, or was it rape?” That’s when she opens up the discussion and, in the end, the girls say, “I was raped.” That is the great drama of rape, that when we are raped we cannot go to the police and say, “They raped me. They pulled a knife on me and forced me.” Because the girls don’t know they were raped. They think they did it for love. And they realize at 35, in therapy, that they were raped.
ILL & ODC: After the Alfaguara Prize, you did many interviews focused on Abyss and motherhood. The flip side of that is the paternities that you present: fatherhoods that range from the stepfather in the story “Violación” to that father who is an abyss in himself, an abyss of silence, Claudia’s father in Abyss.
PQ: A writer is like an actor who must be able to put herself in other people’s shoes. I’ve been interested in telling the story of the society I grew up in, as well as the ones I’ve seen. The one in The Bitch is not the society I grew up in, but rather another society that also imposes straitjackets. I like to look at those straitjackets that society puts on people. I’m interested in what those straitjackets, the patriarchy, do to us and also what they do to men.
Now, like I said when I was talking about Yerma, I would like to see men sharing what the patriarchy did to them. Colombian and Latin American men of my generation are not doing it as much as we women are doing it. I want to read a novel by a man who says, “I had to fuck all the women who asked me to because I was educated to fuck all the women who asked me to, even if I didn’t want to.” I would like to see those kinds of stories told.