As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 6 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today’s featured Granta author is Argentine author Luisa Puenzo, whose story “Cohiba” was translated by Valerie Miles for this special issue.
Luisa Puenzo is yet another author featured in Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue who is multitalented and working in more than one medium. In addition to writing several novels—including El Nino pez, 9 minutos, La maldicion de Jacinta Pichimahuida, La furia de la langosta, and Wakolda—she’s directed two movies—_XXY_, which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, a Goya for the Best Foreign Film, and more than 20 international prizes, and El nino pez, which opened the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival and was part of the film festivals in Tribeca and Havana, among elsewhere.
In terms of her films, XXY sounds/looks pretty intense and interesting. Here a short, mysterious synopsis:
XXY is about Alex is a 15-year-old teenager with a secret. Soon after her birth her parents decide to leave Buenos Aires to make a home out of an isolated wooden cabin tucked away in the dunes of the Uruguayan shoreline.
XXY begins with Alex´s parents receiving a couple of friends and their 16-year-old son Álvaro from Buenos Aires. Álvaro´s father is a plastic surgeon who accepted the invitation because of his medical concern for their friend´s daughter. The inevitable attraction between both teenagers forces them all to face their worst fears . . . Rumours are spreading around town. Alex gets stared at as if she were a freak. People´s fascination with her can become dangerous.
And here’s a trailer (with subtitles!):
This interesting interview with Puenzo provides a bit more insight into the literary origins of the movie, what it’s about, etc.
Cinema Without Borders: XXY is a daring and unusual film, what inspired you to make this film?
Lucia Puenzo: XXY is based on a short story called “Cinismo”, from the Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio. From the moment I read that story—the sexual awakening of a young girl who has what doctors call genital ambiguity—I couldn’t take it out of my head. I began to write with that image in my head: the body of a young person with both sexes in the same body. I was especially interested in the dilemma of inevitable choice: not only having to choose between being a man or a woman, but also having to choose between a binary decision and intersex as an identity and not as a place of mere passage.
CWB: How much research was done on the subject before writing the script?
LP: Months of research . . . I worked with doctors, geneticists, teachers, parents of children who were born with different diagnoses of intersexuality, and young adults who had or had not been operated when they were born. The time I lived in Paris, in the Cinéfondation, I contacted Alex Jurgen, a German intersex person who made a documentary of her life (Octopusalarm) in which, after of years of operations and taking hormones to become a man, Alex realizes he will never be merely a man or a woman.
Based on this, it’s not entirely surprising that Puenzo’s short story—“Cohiba”—revolves around a filmmaking workshop run by Garcia Marquez:
At five minutes to ten in the morning, a black car with smoked windows appears like a mirage at the end of the palm-lined road. The ten of us attending the workshop wait in front of the rest of the students, the cameras, the journalists at the bottom of the stairs. There is a rumour going around that this will be the last workshop the maestro teaches. Birri – the school’s director – helps him out of the car. García Márquez emerges sheathed in a blue jumpsuit, cleaning a pair of spectacles that get lost for a moment in Birri’s white beard when they separate from their embrace. Smile for the hyenas, he whispers, giving us hugs in front of the journalists’ cameras. We follow him up a floor, to the classroom. He doesn’t let anyone else in except us. Inside, the microphones are already turned on. Every word is recorded and belongs to the Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. So . . . who has the big idea? García Márquez asks. He’s having fun with us. Or, rather: he’s making fun of us. Your mission is to deliver one good idea, only one, he says, fishing around in his jumpsuit pockets until he finds what he’s looking for: an inhaler. He takes a hit from it and his eyes come back to life. If you don’t have one, then go out and find it. We are intimidated to the point of going mute; when he leaves ten minutes later not one of us has been able to decide yet whether his voraciousness is of the vampire variety or is merely contempt. One thing has become clear: screenwriters, for the maestro, are no more than a breed of lackeys.
So, from the very first day, García Márquez has turned his students into a pack of hunters. The big one is our prey and it can be found anywhere (past, future, fiction, reality). On the second night, standing in the doorway of the theatre, roach hanging from her lips, the Brasileira looks into the darkness and sighs . . . I won’t leave until I find it.
[. . .]
García Márquez is already seated at his desk. The Argentine woman who arrived late, he says. I want today’s big idea. I tell him the story of a student who – for lack of ideas – decides to murder her maestro. He interrupts me immediately (asking for another). There is an exchange of glances. The Brasileira breathes in deeply and explains that she has only a beginning. The maestro smiles: all you need for a story is the beginning. He asks her to speak up, and he zips up his jumpsuit. He’s dressed the same way for four days now, always in a jumpsuit. A blue one the first day, orange the second, brown the third. The fourth one is English racing green. The Brasileira brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the story of a woman who falls in love on her third evening in Havana. She knows the man is hiding something, but it doesn’t matter to her. She would leave everything behind not to lose him. She continues on until the maestro’s snoring interrupts her halfway through a sentence. The worker in charge of taping the workshop presses the pause button. Suddenly, García Márquez opens his eyes, as if the weight of the glances focusing on him were enough to wake him up, and he tells the Brasileira that she has a good beginning. Now she needs an ending.
So no big idea that day. He lets us leave at quarter to one. I spend the next half-hour not being able to leave the bathroom: kneeling at the toilet, vomiting until I’m empty. When I come out, the minibus is taking off for the city, more than a hundred metres down the road. I don’t try to run, my legs are too wobbly. The walk back to the apartment seems to be getting longer and longer. The concrete is burning and disfiguring the landscape. By day, the frogs cede their kingdom to the flies. A car advances behind me at walking pace, keeping a few metres back. The Brasileira is waiting in the doorway in front of me, wearing a sky-blue dress and black sunglasses. Her hair is in a long braid and she’s holding her shoes in her hands. Her smile isn’t directed at me, it’s for the Chevy that is coming up behind me. Cohiba smiles back at us from the other side of the windscreen. The Brasileira doesn’t notice that I am queasy and trembling. She hugs me and moves me towards the car: she wants me to meet him. She opens the back door for me to get in. Cohiba looks at me through the rear-view mirror. He is about to say something when the Brasileira climbs into the front seat and greets him with a kiss on the lips. My friend is coming with us. Cohiba doesn’t say a word. He does a U-turn to go back in the direction of the school. All the windows are open. There is no glass in the rear windscreen. When the car pulls out on to the road, the wind zigzags between one window and the other. The Brasileira shouts so that Cohiba can hear her over the wind and the car’s engine. She tells him her story, that García Márquez says it lacks an ending. Cohiba smiles as if the problem were already resolved. He switches on the radio, puts in a cassette and turns up the volume. He has it up so high it’s impossible to talk.
Aaaannnndddd . . . If you’re not already a subscriber to Granta, you should become one now and receive this special issue for free! (That’s five issues for the price of four. Or, to be more specific, that’s $85 worth of Granta for $46 . . . )
Here’s the final part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here, Part II, here, and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
If a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe, Latin America has always been the literary Far West, offering another way of being European, if you wish, since the traditions there incorporate all sources, not only their own. No other language shares the same territorial expanse (nor population) in contiguous “nations”. Its modernity seemed peripheral until its literature became contemporary of all men in the sixties: it brought about a renovation in the metropolises of various languages, thus moving the periphery into the center. The intellectual meridian has not passed through Madrid for over a century, although the publishing meridian cuts across both Madrid and Barcelona, where writers can be found building their reputations, which then furthers their regional prestige. The controversy over whether there are national literatures in Latin America has long become the stuff of historians, and we prefer to sustain, without excessive romanticisms, that the literary homeland is the language itself. Although in reality all literature is a magma of forces and traditions or trends in opposition, fluctuation and influence; of the living and the dead, of all languages—as is proven by reading the authors selected for this issue—and put in circulation by other hidden legislators: the translators, the editors and the critics (since without criticism there is no literature, either). In order to discover this, though, one needs to know the works, and this can only be done by reading, obviously, in translation. This issue, for example. Need we be reminded that a literary culture in which there is no translation is doomed to repeating the same things to itself over and over again?
This issue is being published almost simultaneously in English and Spanish, as witnessed by the cover. Fifteen years ago, a selection of the best young writers in Spanish would not have encountered such favorable circumstances for translation. Until recently, above all in the U.S. and given the rule of English as lingua franca and the relevance of its publishing industry (although we must not forget that the lion’s share of corporations are owned by the Germans or the French, which is to say Europeans, and London and New York are not the only hubs of power in the literary world), the lack of interest in Spanish language writers has been notable. Perhaps such cultural customs as using the labels of “Latino” or “Hispanic” to things written in Spanish, which seems more to suggest the idea of quotas, confusing literary values with those of integration, could be a culprit in the U.S. A sort of mental isolationism. Perhaps the Latin American authors who were consecrated in the 60s satisfied the scarce curiosity of the wider readership and so there was no more room. Some writers, in search of an audience, went so far as to write directly in English. There are many prestigious examples. But the city with the third largest Spanish-speaking population is in the U.S. and Spanish is the country’s second language. Latin American and Spanish writers have been somewhat perplexed by this lack of interest in translation, given the fact that the foundation for the English literary tradition is itself a translation (the Bible). The center is more provincial than the periphery. In Latin America and Spain literary translation from many languages is the norm, evidenced by the authors admired by the writers chosen for this issue: still Faulkner, Nabokov, Joyce, Bernhard, Cheever, Salinger, among others (Borges and Onetti). Obviously then, although it should be repeated, the intermediation of translation guarantees the exchange between the centers of literary power.
The situation in the U.S. is changing more quickly than in the UK, thanks to a new generation of small independent initiatives in the wake of others like New Directions, which has been publishing translations since 1936. Eliot Weinberger has keenly pointed out that the recent disposition and aperture to translated literature is a consequence of the attacks on September 11th almost a decade ago. The influence of Cien años de soledad on American and world literature and the wide readerships gained by genre novelists, or the recent popularity of authors like Carlos Ruíz Zafón on one hand and the work of Roberto Bolaño among the young writers on the other, or the universal critical acclaim for the work of Javier Marías, have all served to up the ante and renew the narrative credit of Spanish language literature in its diverse strata. The collection of young writers selected by this conspiracy of readers in Granta aims to seal a pact, a secret handshake of sorts, which we hope in ten years will prove the value of this arsenal of shared references, as has been the case in prior Granta selections; in ten years we will see if our choices were correct, how many of these writers will still be read, how many of them will endure.
Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles
Here’s the second part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
To select the young writers within the last named context we invited four writers, who exercise the trade in diverse ways from a variety of origins to serve as jurors, each offering a somewhat detached vision of the spirit of what is being written in this language: the Argentine writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, who has lived between Paris and Buenos Aires for many decades; the British journalist Isabel Hilton, previously a correspondent in South America who currently divides her time between England and China and the jury member who is the most involved in public affairs, together with the novelist Francisco Goldman, American of Guatemalan descent (whose influence has also been decisive in the publication of many Hispanic American writers in the US, among them Bolaño), and who lives between New York and Mexico City; and the Catalan writer and literary critic, Mercedes Monmany, who lives in Madrid. Those who write these lines make up the last two members of the jury, writers and editors, one an American and the other a Canadian-Mexican who have both lived in Barcelona for a very long time. So, endowed with our inevitable prejudices and carefully cultivated arbitrariness, we chose twenty-two authors. We reiterate the fact that this verdict does not constitute any kind of manifesto, nor is it the fruit of a marketing scheme between an editor and a literary agent. Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists aims to offer a true-to-life portrait of the vitality, the diversity—it deals with individual talents—that thrive in the contemporary literature (literatures?) of the Spanish language.
It has been an ambitious endeavor, covering the entire area of the second most widely spoken language in the world, in more than twenty countries. We were as meticulous as possible. The flood of mediocre work, along with the depleted state of literary criticism outside of the academic world spurred our anxiety. We believe that we couldn’t have come up with another list with the same merit as this one with 22 other authors, as one juror had commented to Ian Jack, then editor of Granta, regarding the first issue dedicated to the best young American authors. We searched publicly and privately in the most diverse ways for recommendations and discoveries, from telephone calls to internet blogs and cultural section,s and, of course, to books. Duomo ediciones, the publishing house that sponsors Granta en español in Barcelona, received the work of more than three hundred Spanish language writers from all over the world. We read through everything and came up with a list that included suggestions from members of the jury throughout the course of voting. Early on, we renounced the possibility of a unanimous vote, establishing a system of four rounds in which authors received at least a majority vote. It almost goes without saying that we didn’t take into account the nationality or sex of the candidate, only the certainty, at times more enthusiastic and others less so, that what we read corresponded with our intentions: our reading as vice impuni, to recognize talent that was either already consolidated or that would, in our opinion, strengthen in the passage from objective to accomplishment, as narrative writing with artistic intention (what heresy . . .) and the pretense of perdurability. Members of the jury opposed the inclusion or exclusion of this writer or that one, but in the end the majority ruled. There were laments over writers who were not included. Such a diverse jury found, then, the diversity that the reader is about to discover, which has little to do with creative writing workshops or a pedestrian idea of exoticism: profoundly ironic and demanding female writers on the one hand, but also male writers who represent women in a much less passive and traditional role than earlier generations; there are parodies and formal innovations: revision and even exacerbation, as could be expected, of diverse sentimental customs and literary traditions more or less regional and even local, although not necessarily belonging to the author, since many have chosen to live in foreign countries and are more open, thanks to their own backgrounds, to the inventions of other places.
A necessary digression: the preface to one of the previous Granta selections mentions that already in the eighties attention was being called to the way writers were presenting themselves to the public instigated by agents or editors as personalities who give interviews to the media; not as engaged intellectuals but as celebrities whose physical appearance was also relevant for widespread coverage since it was no longer the work itself, but the writer who spoke to the reader. This type of publicity became routine in Spain since the early nineties, thanks to the fact that the publishing sector is subjected to the same circumstances that have prevailed in the English language for many years. Yet in Latin America it is still not the case, authors tend to be much more reserved since the figure of the celebrity writer who directs their work exclusively to the widest possible audience has not yet been imposed. The changes commented on a quarter of a century ago in this magazine have now given way to the current explosion, unimaginable in those days, of blogs, videos, social networks and all the thousands of new means of promotion, that distract us like fireworks from keeping that minimum amount of concentration needed for considered reading. Most of the writers selected here have had their own blog at some point and some of them have explored the narrative possibilities of this media explosion. Nothing new. But the talent we are searching out could not be evaluated through these accessorial phenomena, as they have not yet encompass the present in full. It’s possible that the reader might expect some sort of a defense of the Internet and the currents of its parallel world in this forward or in our selection, but in light of the enthusiasms of last century’s Futurism, we need not give them any greater literary importance.
Click here for Part III.
This is really cool . . . Over the weekend, Aurelio Major sent me a copy of the foreword that he and Valerie Miles wrote for the special “Young Spanish Novelists” issue of Granta that’s coming out in a couple weeks. According to Aurelio, this foreword—which appears in full in the Spanish language edition—was trimmed for the English version of the magazine, leaving out some of the bits about Spanish and Hispanic American literary culture in order to reach “a wider public with perhaps less concern about context.” Well . . . It’ll be interesting to see what the differences are between this version (which is very well-crafted) and the one that appears in the official issue. Personally, I think the more context the better, although I’d love to hear what all of you think, so please feel free to comment below.
And putting aside any possibile editing controversies, what this piece really does is make me even more excited to read the issue.
The essay is pretty long, so I’m breaking this up over three posts. If you’re impatient, of just want to read the whole thing in one file, you can download the Word doc here.
Granta has never before put together a selection of the best young writers in a language other than English. The first, highly influential Best of Young British Novelists proposed a group nearly twenty five years ago. After that landmark gathering, four more “Best of young” lists were created: two for Young Americans and two more for young British writers. Now, in _Granta_’s first gleaning of young Spanish language talent, we present both renowned authhors, and less familiar names. Only a handful of them have been translated into English. We limited participation to writers under thirty five, meaning they were born after January, 1975; with at least one novel or story collection to their name. Given the proliferation of Spanish language publishing over the past few decades with access to publication made much easier, even when modest, we found it wiser to impose certain limits on such a vast universe to avoid a list of already established authors. But there are other motives. In fact, this issue is a conspiracy.
1975 marked the end of the dictatorship in Spain. It was a year of preludes and apogees of the South American dictatorships and their subsequent exiles, the end of the Viet Nam war and a time when the political opportunism of those who still venerated the other, radiant dictatorship in Cuba became apparent. There were other events: the tradition of the South American émigré writer in Paris came under examination and writers began seeking publication in Spain, first in Barcelona and later in Madrid, as the publishing industry grew in the post-Franco years. For writers born after 1975, the complex, often misleading warp and woof of politics and literature (different after the end of “actually existing” communism in 1989) is more of an exception than the rule. The censorships of the left as well as the right, black lists, forced exiles and persecution, are now ensconced in the process of transition between memory and history (except in modern day Venezuela and Cuba), and these young authors have not suffered the social and moral circumstances that perturbed their elders. When asked, many of the writers gathered here expressed skepticism, in varying degrees of reticence or nervousness or irony, over the idea of an author having an active influence in the public sphere, outside of the work itself, a role which had been an unavoidable engagement for many writers (not always the most lucid) from earlier generations. Yet now there are other perhaps more insidious censorships: those of the cultural powers that be, of the market whose forces erode the pact of a referential consensus, of the attention deficit disorder caused by a sea of virtual autism, of fleeing readerships—without readers there might be books but not literature—censorships that can be contested through strategies like the one we propose here in Granta. It’s obvious that these young writers have to fight other sorts of phobias and restrictions; but they all coincide in their admiration for many canonical authors, almost all of them read in various languages and are confronted by the same inveterate enemies of promise as those that Connolly signaled when he was thirty five: activities outside of the act of creation that serve to restrict or pervert it.
We are writing this forward before the novelists and story writers chosen know who will accompany them in this issue, which represents the culmination of the efforts which began seven years ago with the first issue of Granta en español.
Among those included by the six members of the jury, there are writers who are full of promise. For most their best work is yet to be written. By contrast, Cabrera Infante, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso or Juan Goytisolo had already written some of their fundamental books before turning thirty five. Of course that is not the case with other authors such as Saer, or Benet, who wrote their greatest works later. Despite the fact that some claim that nobody is young after thirty, it is also fair to say that the novel is almost always a product of maturity, of life lived and decanted. We felt the need to impose the thirty-five under stricture because of the eruption of numerous summary anthologies throughout the nineties, more or less improvised, and the plethora of local lists of young writers in all the Spanish speaking countries (one could almost do an anthology of anthologies) and because we wanted to be more forward looking. We had to also take into account here the readers who are not versed in the literary traditions, evolutions, tyrannies, excommunications, revolutions and betrayals of this language. Moreover, a variety of manifestos have been launched over the past few decades emulating the procedures and strategies of ideological opportunism, as a measure for crossing the threshold to recognition by the literary power establishment, in other words, as a means for survival. But time has quickly proven their insufficiencies and even their puerile nature: must it be repeated that despite attempts to collectively interrupt literary tradition (McOndo in Chile, Crack in Mexico, Nocilla in Spain), talent is individual and the irruption of a single writer can suddenly upset all readings of the past and the future? Who could have imagined fifteen years ago that the work of an outcast Chilean washed ashore in Barcelona via Mexico would exercise as wide an influence on enthusiastic young writers not only in Spanish, as Cortázar a few generations earlier? Writers, readers, critics and editors working in Spanish, feel less exasperated now that the English language references to literature in our language are no longer reduced simply to the binomial Borges-García Márquez. Now at least Bolaño is also being mentioned. But this trinity is still not enough.
Since this selection includes authors from a variety of countries and at least four regional hubs (Barcelona-Madrid, Buenos Aires, Lima-Bogotá, México), we should remember four very important moments in the literary relationships of reciprocal influence and cumulative effect between Hispanic America and Spain, always complex and unbalanced due to national peculiarities and collective susceptibilities: the commotion in Spain caused by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s work within the context of the loss of the last Spanish colonies to the US in 1898; the influence of the Spanish generation of ‘27 after the Republican exile throughout Hispanic America principally in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico within the context of the Spanish Civil war at the end of the thirties; the rise of the South American novel in Spain during the sixties in the context of the seismic Cuban revolution; and the present, which appears to be branded by the works of Bolaño and a bit earlier by Marías and Vila-Matas within the context of the radiant plebiscite populism in Venezuela, anti-globalization (anti-Americanism) and narco-terror.
Click here for Part II.
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from the bank of shadow to have watched
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nor their places in constellations
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