Jorge Chagas, born in 1957, is the most prolific Afrouruguayan novelist in the history of this small country, having published seven novels between 2001 and 2020. A student of political science while at university, Chagas has combined a career in banking with forays into journalism, history, and, most recently, fiction. Over the last two decades, Chagas has become one of Uruguay’s most original writers of historical fiction, winning many awards from the Uruguayan Ministry of Culture and Education and the City of Montevideo. The multilingual Gloria y tormento (2003) features as its protagonist José Leandro Andrade, a standout soccer player who won the gold in the Olympics of 1924 and 1928 before capturing the 1930 World Cup. La sombra (2014) follows a soldier named Ansina who later becomes the Afrouruguayan hero of that name. La diosa y la noche (2017) reconstructs the life of one of the most famous Afrouruguayan women of the twentieth century, Rosa Luna, a renowned dancer, writer, and activist. History and fiction merge in Chagas’ intellectual project, as indicated in the epigraph of La diosa y la noche: “We use true facts to make fiction and with fiction we narrate true facts.” On a cold and wet morning in August, I spoke with Chagas about his work in El Picotín, a bar in the center of Montevideo.
Jorge Sarasola: What was the life of Jorge Chagas like before you became the historical novelist we know today?
Jorge Chagas: In 1983, I was working on Agraciada Avenue in a branch of Banco de Caja Obrera, which no longer exists today. I was a bank employee in the checking accounts department. A weekly magazine called Aquí began arriving at the bank, and it was opposed to the civil-military dictatorship in charge at the time (from 1973-1985). In reference to the weekly, the branch accountant asked me, “You like to write, don’t you?” “Sure, of course,” I told him. “Okay, I’ll talk to them,” he responded. Because he knew them, he reached out, and I interviewed with Tomás Lihn, one of the main editors. It was Tomás who told me something I’ll never forget: “This is the worst profession in the world, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.” From that point on I began to write as a contributor to Aquí, and my life changed.
I never stopped working at the bank. But I did abandon my law studies, and took up political science instead, where I completed my bachelor’s degree. I also became much more interested in history. And as a journalist, I felt like I was the protagonist in the rebirth of democracy after the dictatorship ended in 1985. I always say that, from my humble position as a journalist, I put my grain of sand on the scale for the reestablishment of democracy.
J.S.: Your first novel centered on our founding father, José Gervasio Artigas. But that text gives us a much more human Artigas, far from the one cast in bronze or discussed in scholarly works. How did La soledad del General come about?
J.C.: Starting in 1983, I developed a taste for journalism and for writing, and I wrote some historical nonfiction, especially about the history of unions. In 1996, fate intervened again. I was still working for the bank and I saw that AEBU, the bank’s union, was holding a short story contest for union members. I submitted a story called “Una carta de verano.” Later they called me and said I’d won special mention. Imagine that, the first time I’d written a short story, and I won special mention. I was overjoyed. One of the jurors congratulated me and suggested I speak to another juror, Professor Lauro Maurada. Lauro invited me to his creative writing workshop, and I’m still a member to this day. Then, in 2001, there was an anonymous donation to the workshop so that ten members could publish their work. I was one of the ten selected. That was the origin of La soledad del General, my first novel, about the figure of Artigas and his exile in Paraguay. After La soledad del General, I wrote Gloria y tormento at the height of the economic crisis (2001-2002), when it seemed like the country was going to fall apart completely.. I didn’t even have a computer back then. I would go to the house of a friend from the workshop to type up my novel. Back then, in those difficult economic moments, I discovered that literature was a faithful friend.
J.S.: From the standpoint of narrative complexity, there’s an important jump between that first novel and the second. La soledad del General is short, with few characters and a first-person narrator. Gloria y tormento has close to two hundred characters, a multiplicity of narrators, and various temporal planes.
J.C.: The Artigas novel is simpler. I envisioned Gloria y tormento as more complex because I understood the complexity in telling the story of José Leandro Andrade. I thought of it like a movie script, traversing various time periods. I even have a script based on that novel. I received first prize from the Ministry of Education and Culture and special mention from the City of Montevideo. Imagine that, receiving first prize from the MEC. I was so pleased, and I thought it was going to open all sorts of doors in publishing for me… but no.
J.S.: They rejected it even though it had won first prize?
J.C.: Yes, three publishers rejected it.
J.C.: The reason is quite simple and not due to any malice on the part of the publishers. The problem is this: this is a small, captured market. Readers aren’t generally willing to risk trying a new writer. The publisher is the one who risks the money and, however well someone writes, the publisher can’t risk taking a loss. This is why my novel was published by La Gotera, a publisher that’s outside the Uruguayan Association of Publishers. Later, when the performance group Yambo Kenia put the story to music and won Best of Carnival in 2008, there was a new impetus and the novel was published in its second edition by Editorial Rumbo.
J.S.: Your next book was La sombra: la novela de Ansina, where you explore the enigmatic figure of Ansina, the most famous Afrouruguayan in our country’s history, even though we know so little about him.
J.C.: Actually, the next one was Agua roja. A forgotten novel that I thought was going to be a tremendous success about the Squadron of Death during the dictatorship (1973-1985). The protagonist is a member of a paramilitary force that committed crimes and the story is told from his point of view. After that was La sombra, which was, in a way, a continuation of La soledad del General after Artigas has died, when Ansina takes over the story. For that, I received second prize in literature from the MEC. I went on to write a musical and play based on the novel, but neither has debuted.
J.S.: The novel is titled La sombra, “the shadow,” and that word appears sixty times in the text, once every two pages on average. How do you view Ansina as a shadow?
J.C.: A shadow necessarily forms part of a person. Ansina can’t separate himself from Artigas, he’s always with him. When I wrote La soledad del General, Ansina was going to have a minor role. But as soon as I began to write, Ansina demanded greater attention. I realized that it would be good to have an entire novel told from Ansina’s perspective, so I wrote La sombra. And what happened? In La sombra appeared the character of Soledad Cruz, the mythical Afrouruguayan lancer. I realized that the feminine voice was missing from the revolution. The persona of Soledad Cruz is more complicated than that of Ansina because, to this day, there is no historical document verifying her existence. The symbol of Mizanga (a collective of Afrouruguayan women) is Soledad Cruz.
J.S.: What do you think of the label Afrouruguayan writer? How would you define Afrouruguayan literature?
J.C.: The label is correct. That’s not to say that all of my books have had Afrouruguayan protagonists. Here in Uruguay there are more Afrouruguayan poets than prose writers. But I believe young Afrouruguayan fiction writers will emerge. When that happens, we’ll have to define what we understand Afrouruguayan literature to be. It’s one thing to tell me that something is written by an Afro writer. It’s another to say that it’s not just written by someone who is Afro, but that it deals with Afro themes: history, challenges, characters. The second definition seems to me much vaster, much richer.
J.S.: Who have been your primary literary influences?
J.C.: From Uruguay I would say Felisberto Hernández, Hugo Bervejillo, Cristina Peri Rossi, and Tomás de Mattos. Outside of Uruguay, García Márquez for the influence of magical realism in my novels, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Argentine writer Andrés Rivera, and the American writer Walter Mosley. I like Mosley a lot because he doesn’t give you a world of good and bad. I try not to do that in my novels either. In the Afro community, we are not pure. We are people who have virtues and defects. We are capable of meanness. There’s a humanization of the characters in Mosley’s novels. It’s complicated how the thread unwinds and I like that in his work.
J.S.: In your life, what changes have you seen in Uruguay with respect to racism and discrimination?
J.C.: In the past, Uruguay was somewhat reluctant to discuss those themes, and I think it’s good that racism and discrimination are talked about more now. There have been important changes. The world of today looks nothing like that of my childhood.
J.S.: For example?
J.C.: For example, there is more visibility for Afrouruguayans. There’s access to better jobs and there are more professionals. One of the things that surprises me the most is the mass production of the musical genre most associated with Afrouruguayans, Candombe. Today, it has spread to all of the neighborhoods in Montevideo and to every department in the interior. There’s been an incredible adoption of Candombe everywhere, and what’s happened? Middle class people and professionals have started to learn Candombe.
J.S.: Has the experience of discrimination changed?
J.C.: It’s changed, yes. But it continues to happen, and I’m afraid it will continue for the rest of time. Like cancer, you can fight it, but it never goes away. That’s as true as my name being Chagas. It’s not going to disappear, but it is going to improve. It’s not something you can solve because it’s in the human soul. For example, there is an important issue with respect to economic conditions. There’s still a lot of people living in poverty. While there’s a group of people who have made it and established themselves, there’s still a meaningful number who are marginalized. One thing missing is to ask ourselves, how many Black lawyers, notaries, architects and engineers are there in our society?