Samanta Schweblin [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’ve been highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. Today is the penultimate post in this series. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re featuring Argentine author Samanta Schweblin, whose “Olingiris” was translated for this issue by Daniel Alarcon. And for the record, Emily Davis wrote this and conducted the interview.
Samanta Schweblin, born in Argentina in 1978, has published two books of short stories: El núcleo del disturbio (2002, winner of the National Fund for the Arts prize and the Haroldo Conti National Competion) and Pájaros en la boca (2008, winner of the Casa de las Américas Prize). In 2008 she was awarded a CONACULTA artist-in-residence scholarship to begin working on her first novel in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her stories have been translated into English, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Serbian and Swedish, and she has a degree in film from the University of Buenos Aires.
Her new story, “Olingiris,” is one of the most tightly-crafted as well as one of the most oddly chilling (or is it chillingly odd?) in the Granta issue. It has definitely stuck with me since I first read it, and it led me to her own website to get a taste of some of her other stories. There you’ll find a handful of samples in Spanish (I recommend “En la estepa” in particular, though I may be biased by a long-standing, somewhat inexplicable, attraction to the steppe as a setting in general) as well as a link to the super-weird-in-a-good-way “Preserves,”:http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/preserves/ an English translation by Joel Streicker courtesy of Words Without Borders.
We were able to ask her a few questions about learning to write, being featured in Granta, and seeing her work translated. Her answers are below, followed by a short excerpt from “Olingiris,” translated by Daniel Alarcón.
Emily Davis: You studied film at the University of Buenos Aires. What effect might that background have on your writing style?
Samanta Schweblin: I am convinced that I learned much more about how to tell a story by writing screenplays and working in the editing room than I ever could have learned majoring in literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In general, the “literary” majors do not have much to do with the craft of writing, which is a much more practical and personal journey. As a writer I feel much closer to an artisan than to a professional, so I can’t see how academic degrees could help one to write.
ED: Where did the desire to be a writer come from?
SS: First, from reading. Then, from the enthusiasm that came of discovering that writing stories could excuse me from schoolwork that I didn’t want to do, make my mother cry, or make me stand out from the rest of my friends. I found that it was a good escape mechanism, but also a weapon that allowed me to do things my way, and by the time I came to realize it there was no other way to do it.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
SS: In my early writings, Kafka, Beckett, Buzzati, Dostoyevsky, with them I completely fell in love with literature. Later, the North American line in the tradition of Hemingway, O’Connor, Faulkner, Ballard and the more contemporary Salinger, Donleavy, Cheever, Vonnegut, Yates . . .
ED: Do you have a favorite writer among the others on the Granta list?
SS: I haven’t yet been able to read all of them. But for example, besides the Argentines—all of whom I already knew and had read—I was nicely surprised by Rodrigo Hasbún and Carlos Yushimito.
ED: What does it mean to you to be named by Granta one of the best young writers in Spanish?
SS: I bought my first issue of Granta when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, when the idea of “being a writer” was for me not even a sensible possibility in my mind, and I remember having read in those pages authors like Martin Amis, or Alice Munro, great authors that I continue to admire as masters. Therefore to now be a part of one of their issues is a great satisfaction, and a great responsibility as well. Maybe it’s for that reason that it’s something I prefer not to think about too much.
ED: Your stories have been translated into several languages. Do you sometimes collaborate with your translators? What opinion do you have in general toward translation—what does the act of translation do for—or against—the original work?
SS: So far it has been a good experience. But in my case, since I don’t speak other languages besides a very rudimentary English, it is a question of subjective perception, more associated with feedback that comes to me on the published translations, than with the process of translation itself. There are translators who question everything, they question and requestion so much, that I have found myself with problems or errors that would not have happened otherwise. There are others who, suspiciously, do not ask a single question. I believe that a translation will always be a rewriting as well. This is something somewhat complicated for a writer to accept. But half of what I read is in translation, and still through them—though in some more than others, of course—I can see clearly the hand of one author or another. So I close my eyes, pray for a good translator, and hope that the reader can sense something of that.
ED: What are you working on now?
SS: I am moving forward with a new book of stories, I believe it will be ready by next year.
There was space for six. One was left outside, in the waiting room. She walked in circles about the space. It took her a moment to realize she’d have to stifle her eagerness until the next day, or the next, or until they called her again. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. The ones who entered climbed the white stairs to the first floor. None of them knew the others particularly well. They stepped into the changing room in silence. They hung up their purses, they took off their coats. They took turns washing their hands, and took turns as well fixing their hair before the mirror, tying it back in a ponytail, or with a headband. All friendliness and silence; grateful smiles and gestures. They’ve thought of this all week. While they worked, while they looked after their children, while they ate, and now they are there. Almost inside, almost about to begin.
One of the Institute’s assistants opens the door and invites them in. Inside, everything is white. The walls, the shelves, the towels rolled into tubes lying one on top of the other. The gurney, in the centre. The six chairs surrounding it. There’s also a fan above, whirling smoothly, six silver tweezers lined up on a towel atop a wooden stool, and a woman lying on the gurney, face down. The six women settle into the chairs, three on each side, arranging themselves around the woman’s legs. They wait, observing the body, impatient, not quite knowing what to do with their hands, as if before a table, with dinner set, but unable to begin. The assistant hovers about, helping them push their seats even closer. Then she gives out the hand towels and, one by one, the six tweezers from the stool. The woman on the gurney remains still, with her face down. She is nude. A white towel covers her from the waist to the middle of the legs. She has her head buried in her crossed arms, because it is appropriate that no one should see her face. She has blonde hair, a thin body. The assistant turns on the fluorescent light, a few metres above the bed, which brightens the room and the woman even more. When the light flickers a bit, the woman on the gurney shifts her arms almost imperceptibly, readjusting herself, and two of the women observe this slight movement with reproach. When the assistant gives the signal to begin, the women fold their hand towels in four and place the small cloth square before them, on the gurney. Then some of them push their chairs even further forward, or rest their elbows, or fix their hair one last time. And they get to work. They raise the tweezers above the woman’s body, quickly choosing a strand of hair, and then bring them down open, with purpose. They tweeze, they close, they toss. Each dark follicle emerges perfect and clean. They study it for a second before leaving it on the towel, and they go for the next one. Six seagull beaks pulling fish from the sea. The hair on the tweezers fills them with pleasure. Some do the work to perfection. The full hair hangs from the tweezers, orphaned and useless. Others struggle a bit with the task, making more than one attempt before they manage it. But nothing deprives them of the pleasure. The assistant circles the table. She takes care that they’re all comfortable, that all have what they need. Every now and then, a pull, a pinch, provokes a slight trembling of the legs. And so the assistant halts and turns her gaze to the woman on the gurney. She curses the fact that the rules of the Institute require that they be face down; with their faces hidden, it’s impossible to scold them with a glare. But she has her notebook, which she removes from her apron pocket, jotting down all excesses. The woman on the gurney hears the screech of the rubber sandals when they stop abruptly. She knows what that means. A point deducted, a demerit. Sooner or later they’ll add up and be docked from her pay. Her legs are filling with little pink dots. By now they barely tremble, because the tweezers have numbed her irritated skin, now only vaguely aware of a light burning.
When the woman on the gurney was ten years old, she lived with her mother near the river. It was an area which sometimes flooded, forcing them to move to her aunt’s, who lived a few metres higher, in a house on stilts. Once, when the woman on the gurney was doing her homework in her aunt’s dining room, she saw through the window a fisherman skulking around her house, her mother’s house. He had come on a boat, which he tied to some trees. A pair of high boots protected him from the water, which rose almost to his knees. She saw him disappear along one side of the house and reappear on the other. He peeked through the windows. But at no point did he knock on the door or the glass. When the mother saw him, she gestured for him to come in. The woman on the gurney could see them as long as they stayed near the window. Her mother offered him hot tea and they sat at the table. Then they moved away. When the woman on the gurney returned from her aunt’s house, they spoke of the trips he took, of his work as a fisherman, of the river. He offered to take her out fishing the next day. Because it was the season of floods and there was no school, her mother said it was all right. He took the woman on the gurney to where the river opened into the lake. At that point the boat hardly moved, advancing smoothly along the mirrored water, and she was less and less afraid. It was then she realized she was a little cold, and a little hungry. Day was just beginning to dawn. The fisherman prepared his rod, hooked his bait and began to work. She asked if her mother had prepared them something for breakfast, but the fisherman hushed her and gestured for quiet. Then she asked if he had an extra jacket in the boat. The fisherman hushed her again.
‘Are you my father?’ she asked finally.
The fisherman stared at her for a moment and it occurred to her to smile. But he said: ‘No.’
And they did not speak again.
The mother of the woman on the gurney always wanted her daughter to study and move to the city. She demanded her daughter get good grades and was sure to warn her that if she didn’t work hard now, then she’d pay for it when she was older – and dearly. The woman on the gurney studied. She did everything her mother told her. The school was two kilometres from the house, and she went by bicycle. When it flooded, they read her the homework by telephone. In high school she learned typing, English, a little computing. One afternoon as she was returning home, her bicycle chain broke. The woman on the gurney fell to the mud, ruining the notebooks she carried in her basket. A young man driving a pickup truck along the road saw her fall, drew level with her and got out to help. He was very kind. He gathered her notebooks, which he cleaned with the sleeves of his coat, and offered to take her home. They carried the bicycle in the back of the pickup. They talked a little along the way. She told him what she was studying, that she was preparing to move to the city. He seemed interested in everything she said. He wore a very thin gold chain with a small cross hanging from his neck. She thought it was lovely. She did not believe in God, nor did her mother, but something about the young man made her think her mother would like him. When they arrived, she asked him to come round later, to eat with them. He seemed delighted by the idea, but said: ‘I leave for work soon. I’m a fisherman.’ He smiled. ‘Can I come tomorrow?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think tomorrow is a good idea. I’m sorry.’
The woman on the gurney was twenty years old when she came to the city. She was pleased to see that the houses were not built on stilts, which ruled out floods and fishermen. The city seemed warm, and it made her woozy during those first days. On Sundays she called her mother and told her a few things about her week. Sometimes she lied. She didn’t do it maliciously; she did it to pass the time. She told her mother that she’d gone out with new friends. Or that she’d gone to the movies. Or that she’d had something very tasty in a neighbourhood restaurant. Her mother loved to hear these stories, and sometimes she could hardly wait to hang up and call her sister, so that she might hear the stories too.
The woman on the gurney had some savings and had signed up for a technical degree. But the cost of food, rent and tuition was very high, and soon she had to interrupt her studies and look for a job. One afternoon when she was buying bread, a woman at the store, with whom she sometimes shared her problems, said she had a job for her. She said she’d earn more money, and have time to study. The woman on the gurney wasn’t dumb. She knew the work might be something unpleasant that no one else wanted to do, or something dangerous. But she said that, as long as there was no obligation, she’d be interested to see what it was all about.
The woman from the store took her by car to a nearby avenue, and stopped in front of a two-storey building with a sign on it that read ‘Institute’. Inside there was a confused gathering of women. One of them, wearing a peach-coloured uniform which also read ‘Institute’, asked the women to reorganize themselves into a line and threatened that anyone out of line would lose her turn. The women quickly queued up. Another woman in a suit recognized the woman from the store and immediately came up to them. She ushered them into an adjoining room and asked the woman on the gurney to fold up the cuffs of her trousers so she could see the downy hair on her legs. The woman on the gurney thought for a moment she’d misunderstood the request. But the woman repeated it. And then she thought it was ridiculous, and that this surely was not a job for her. However, she did not see any danger in showing her hair, so she rolled up her trouser legs and showed them. The woman in the suit put on her glasses and studied the tiny hairs, illuminating them with a small flashlight she kept in her pocket. She scrutinized the ankle where the hairs were not yet strong, and also the calf. Only when she appeared to be convinced it would work did she explain what the job consisted of, the general terms and the pay. The woman on the gurney didn’t know what to say. Because the work was very simple, the schedule acceptable and the pay excellent. Her mother had toldher so much about the scams in the city that she forced herself to concentrate on where the danger or the lie might be hidden. But everything still seemed perfect to her. And she accepted.