Horacio Castellanos Moya and Sampsonia Way

If you haven’t already come across it, Sampsonia Way is a relatively new web magazine, with a really cool back story:

In the summer of 2004, Huang Xiang became the first writer in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s exiled writer-residency program. He immediately made his mark on the city, figuratively and literally, by covering the façade of his residency house on Sampsonia Way with calligraphies of his poetry. This remarkable artwork, called “House Poem,” became an instant landmark celebrating the freedom to write. Since then, it has attracted thousands of visitors and inspired many poets.

Huang Xiang’s “House Poem” motivated City of Asylum/Pittsburgh to create additional writer-residencies on Sampsonia Way, each a rehabbed single-family home with text-based artworks on the facade. Sampsonia Way (in reality, a long, narrow, hodge-podge of an alley) is now a “public library” of “house publications” that you can read any time just by walking down the street.

Anyway, the July issue is available in full online, but to supplement that, yesterday they posted a fantastic interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya (a personal favorite). There’s some great stuff here about his books, especially about the paranoia and humor that run throughout his narratives:

SW: Indeed, “Dance With Snakes“’ reckless pace and deadpan narrator have been described as being akin to some hyper-violent cartoon. Your other books also create comedy out of tension: Senselessness weaves together panic attacks and seemingly mundane events, and “The She-Devil In the Mirror” conveys its unrest through trite, commercial absurdities. Do you see humor as a device that you use to help cope with social problems?

HCM: In the background of all my books is a way of laughing. We are a little bit like that in my country. I think that’s because El Salvador is so small and such a criminal country and our history has been so tragic that the only way of surviving, of getting along, is just laughing. There you cannot take life seriously because life is worth nothing. It’s very easy to get killed and it’s very difficult to survive. So I guess that’s a cultural point. And there are, in Salvadorian literature, many writers that have the same feature, more or less—this way of laughing all the time.

It’s like, if you are in the street and there is a corpse that has been shot, you are not going to go: “Ohh! He’s dead!” You say, “Fuck, what an ugly guy,” because he is not the first dead person you’ve seen. [. . .]

SW: In a lot of your books—especially in “Senselessness” and “Dance With Snakes“—you have a protagonist who is running from something, only to find it again in the end. The plot always seems to follow them, wherever they go. I see a reflection of your own life in the structure of the books: You moved from the violence of El Salvador only to come back and write about the very place that you’ve left.

HCM: I have a book of short stories that is called something like “The Fugitive’s Profile.” And yeah, that’s a factor in my books. Characters are escaping. In my last novel, “Tyrant Memory” [to be published by New Directions in June of 2011], there are two characters who are escaping because if they are captured they are going to be killed for taking part in a coup against the dictator. Most of my books have this kind of character who is escaping. Of course, that’s related with my own life.

But, there are two levels of escaping: there is escaping from danger, from someone who wants to kill you, or you imagine wants to kill you—as Laura Rivera’s escaping of Robocop [in “She-Devil in the Mirror”]. But there is another level of escaping, and that is when you don’t want to be where you are, or you don’t want to be who you are, as is the case with the narrator in “Dance With Snakes.” It’s a way of escaping from yourself.

The other week, I met with John Palattella from The Nation, and we got to talking about the need for “literary heroes,” and how this plays out among readers and the marketplace, transforming decent, good books into The Best Thing Ever. (Probably not hard to figure out the name of one of the two authors we were talking about.) Anyway, this bit about the reaction to Moya’s Bolano, Inc. article (in which he talked about the mythologized image built up around Bolano) reminded me of that conversation:

SW: You were called “jealous” and a “bigot,” and one incensed comment says that you should rot in your own jealousies for the rest of your life. But you’ve published nine novels and five short-story collections translated to many languages. Still, in comparison to Bolaño, in the eyes of the American market you’re relatively below-the-radar. The main difference, maybe, is that you are still alive. In this midst of all these factors and pressures, how do you evaluate and define success? What does success mean to you?

HCM: For me, success would be if I write the books that I should write. If I am able to write and finish the books that are inside me, even if I don’t publish them, that would be success. But let me tell you, success is a very American concept, although now it is everywhere. It’s not a word that defines my work. I do not assume it. That word is related to market, celebrity, fame, and money, and in my case, I became a writer in a place where those values were not related to literature, where to be a writer was nothing. There was no way of getting “success.” There was no way of getting money and celebrity because of writing books. What you could get was to be shot, or to be labeled a communist.

When I was first published, I already had other values; for me, literature was a way of being rebellious against the society where I was, and expressing the rage that that society created in me. Those were the values that I had when I started to write, and in a way some of them are still my values. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like to sell books or I don’t like fame—everybody likes that. But what I mean is that my main motivation to write is not related with that idea of success.

The funny thing is that success is a very American concept, but American literature was created by failure, not by success. I mean, the three founders of American literature as we know them were Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. But those three were losers—American literature was founded by losers! Perhaps that is why there is now such an obsession with success . . .

And for more Horacio Castellanos Moya, you can check out this event that was part of the Reading the World Conversation Series last spring. (Still think this was one of the most interesting events we’ve put on.)

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