Nefando, Ecuadorian writer Mónica Ojeda’s second novel, hit the market in 2016. This year, 2023, the fifth edition is coming to light along with the eighth edition of her third novel, Mandíbula (2018), both in the hands of the Catalan publisher Candaya. The irresistible energy of these and other works by the Guayaquilean author now living in Spain is boundless. In Mónica’s work, there are various avenues of analysis and interpretation that examine elements of horror, the psychological thriller, the immersion of the digital world in literature, the conversion of the poetic to prose, and vice versa, and, more recently, the Andean Gothic. I had the opportunity to speak with her about the intersection of these themes in her work and her consideration of these aspects in her writing.
Andrea Armijos Echeverría: In your work, reality coexists with impossibility, implausibility, the gloomy, and the mundane. One could say there is a routine of the extraordinary in your writing. Did you decide to use these parallel atmospheres and features to characterize your narrative or was it something that emerged in your creative process?
Mónica Ojeda: I believe my writing makes the decisions, not me. Writing is always a kind of digression from what one chooses or believes they choose. Or at least that’s what happens to me: when I make a decision, it rarely endures throughout the writing process, as if this other growing language has desires that work beyond my attempt to control them. So, my answer is yes, it’s something that emerges in the creative process. I think that’s how my mind functions: galloping between the real and symbolic, the plausible and implausible, the modern and mythic, light and dark, etc.
AAE: We are celebrating the eighth edition of Mandíbula and the fifth of Nefando right now. These are novels that disrupt notions of perversity, terror, shock, but that are still extremely real. How do you think the reception of these stories has changed over time?
MO: I’m really happy these books are still alive despite the passage of time (Nefando came out in 2016; Mandíbula in 2018). Happy and astonished, because as the years go by, I feel increasingly distant from them. Not because I don’t recognize them as mine, but because for me they were an intense passion while I was writing them, and that passion started to die the moment I wrote the final period. When I have to talk about them, I talk the way one talks about a past obsession, that is, something that no longer obsesses, a fire that was put out, but that is recalled with amazement. Nevertheless, they are alive, not for me, but for others. It’s as if the fire and obsession has been passed on to people I don’t even know. That’s beautiful. Much has happened over the years to generate a favorable landscape for my novels to continue being read. One of them is that, at least in Spanish-speaking countries, there has been a renewed interest in books that work with fear, violence, terror, and the fantastic, but from perspectives other than the English-speaking ones, from dissimilar traditions. For example, I never considered myself a horror writer, but now there is a much broader conceptualization of the genre, much more hybrid, and from this new perspective I understand that yes, my books deal with fear, desire, and violence, and though they do so in a form distinct from classic horror, they fit perfectly in the experience of fear. Because what are violence, taboo, and desire but the preferred spaces of fear?
AAE: Violence is at the core of your narrative, especially embodied violence. Why is this theme so relevant in your work?
MO: There is no violence without the body: the body is what is violated. Even when the damage is psychological, that psychology is contained and manifested in a body that bears the blow. That body contracts, hurts, and grieves. My writing comes from fear and desire, and I write because I’m trying to understand how these two concepts are related. It’s an existential question. I get the impression that you cannot make any kind of art without a physical awareness of how fragile, beautiful, and horrifying we are. Creation comes from this enormous contrast that can never be fully illuminated. Raúl Zurita, a poet I admire deeply, says all art is an act of resurrection. Every time we suffer, we die a little, he says, so we die multiple times throughout our lives, but we come back to life through a poem, song, or painting. If poetry were to die tomorrow, Zurita says, we would die with it. The human would die. I’m also interested in violence as Simone Weil thought about it, as strength. Violent emotions have always been a mysterious place for me, those emotions and/or sensations that pull from you unknown pieces you never imagined you had. It’s the passion of the violence that calls me with all its pleasure and pain.
AAE: Where did your interest in setting your stories in the mystic Andes of Las voladoras come from? How do you characterize the concept of the “Andean Gothic” in your own work?
MO: For me, the volcanoes in my country have always generated a sensation of awe and horror. Ecuador is full of volcanoes, the majority of which are in the Andean range, and in that sense, they have become places of fascination for me. Long before I understood I was interested in symbols, I already embodied volcanoes (volcanoes and crocodiles). So, the Andes, in one form or another, have been in my mind as a beautiful, ferocious landscape with its earthquakes and eruptions and snow-capped mountains. The same happens with many other landscapes in Ecuador, it happens with the coast and its sea and mangroves and crocodiles and humpback whales, with the Amazon and its jungle and neolithic caves. Any landscape that guards within itself the tension between life and death attracts me on a symbolic and poetic level. I really wanted to write a story collection in which Andean symbols were fundamental: the condor, the mountain, volcanoes, shamanism, witchcraft. But I wanted the stories to be fiercely contemporary and recount the lives of certain people who, despite being in hostile situations, find a way to survive. I don’t think all my work can be understood under the label “Andean Gothic,” but it is true that I wrote Las voladoras thinking about exploring what the “Andean Gothic” was for me. I’ve concluded that it has to do with writing the experience of fear with the entire Andes imaginary, its symbols, myths, and history. Every geographic space has its own horrors: fear is geographic, political, historical. The Andean Gothic then, would be an approach to thinking about fear from a specific geography, in this case the Andes mountains.
AAE: Poetry is another nucleus of your work. You could say that the poetry in your narratives disrupts the form, along with many other forms you incorporate. How would you describe the importance of poetry in your work?
MO: Poetry is so free and rebellious that it cares very little about genres and goes wherever whenever it wants. By this I mean that I don’t believe in the formal boundaries of writing and am not very interested in prose that isn’t aware that one is never “just telling” a story but creating it. Poetry is an experience of language, that’s why it goes beyond the poem and any form. Where there are words there can be poetic experience. We know that the form is the content and that the content is the form; there is no possible separation without mutilation. In the end, I write looking desperately for a poetic experience. It’s never a question of telling a story, but of experiencing it in language.
AAE: Of course, there are your two poetry collections, El ciclo de las piedras and Historia de la leche. In the latter, it’s wonderful how you generate a plot that gels throughout the poems. Was this book conceived of first as that story, that plot, or did the poems slowly pull the story together?
MO: I started writing it thinking about the mother-daughter-sister triad, about how to imagine the story of Cain and Abel with women and make it a kind of Greek tragedy. It’s a story of family murder, exile, and revenge: that’s the story of the milk. I always had the sense that the impulse to write this came from the poem, so I started to write poems as if I were using them to tell the story of Caína, Mabel, and their mother.
AAE: Since your inclusion on the Bogotá 39 list and the multiple prizes your works have received, how do you feel about these recognitions? What do they mean for you as an author and, at the same time, as a representative of an emerging literature?
MO: It makes me happy that these lists and prizes have given life to my books and have helped new readers find them. That’s the only thing that matters: the books.
AAE: Having published various first editions outside of Ecuador, what do you make of the editorial industry in the country? Especially for young writers, what realistic possibilities for publication are out there?
MO: Right now in Ecuador there are really interesting independent presses like Severo Editorial or Recodo Press or Festina Lente or Cadáver Exquisito Editores or Fondo de Animal Editores or Editorial Turbina, etc. You have to pay attention to independent publishing: this is the space of resistance. In Ecuador there is no such thing as a publishing industry, nor is there a large library system that operates in every town. People there who publish do it because they love literature and adore publishing, but they do it with very few resources. It’s admirable, it’s nothing like what happens in rich countries like Spain. There’s a kind of heroism in what’s happening in Ecuador. Many tremendous authors publish with presses like the ones I mentioned. I published Historia de la leche with Severo Editorial, and my first novel, La desfiguración Silva, with Cadáver Exquisito.