31 January 2007

Event #23: Las dos orillas

Guillermo Arriaga (Mexico--absent), Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), Tomás González (Colombia), and Horacio Vázquez Rial (Argentina)--moderated by Pere Sureda (Spanish editorial director of Editorial Belacqva), sponsored by La otra orilla, Grupo Editorial Norma

Pere Sureda began by commenting on the book as connection between reader and writer--that the tangible artifact is the point of unification between the two--and asked the writers their thoughts on this.

Louisa Valenzuela mentioned how she views books as cultural contraband--how writers sneak parts of themselves beneath country boundaries...and how it's always exciting to find out about alternate interpretations of her work. She finds the unexpected reverberations exciting.

Horacio Vázquez Rial commented on a book tour he'd done in Germany, and how startling and surprising it was to encounter his work in an entirely different context.

Tomás González discussed how literature is constantly contributing to the reunification of Latin America--how we share a common universe because of the books we read.

Sureda then talked about a tendency of Latin American writers wanting to be published in Spain, and Spanish writers wanting to be published in Latin America. He asked them, When do you feel fulfilled?--that you've reached far enough beyond your cultural sphere?

Valenzuela asserted that "it's our language that both unifies and separates us". She's against a neutral (which I initially understood as "neutered"!), standardized Spanish and loves regionalisms... That there were huge Spanish publishing houses in Latin America during the epoch of the Spanish Civil War and there was much cultural interchange during that era as a result. She also said that this "fulfillment" really depends on one's own view of it. Some even dream of being translated into English! (This provoked a lot of laughter onstage and off, which I found really interesting. Would my hope of one day translating Latin American novels into English be viewed as an essentially commercial one?)

But Vázquez Rial remarked that things have changed a lot since the '30s--that the perception of the book is very different today from what it was then. He debated a bit in favor of the use of a "standard" or neutral Spanish and stressed its "unifying" effect on readers.

González took the middle ground, saying that either have the potential to be powerful. Valenzuela went on to expound on her origial statements. She considers Argentinians ("mi gente") to be people of exile, which is why it's important to communicate to your own as well as the rest of the world. It's about honesty, not about trying to gain readers by changing your own voice. She believes that identity is part of truth and she refuses to betray her language for the sake of a greater readership. She longs to write ("me muere escribir") for the sake of discovery. This is what impells her.

Vázquez Rial concurred, but continued to say that it's important to reach beyond your own audience as well, while González reiterated that he would never change anything merely for the sake of the commercial.

It was interesting to see how the conversation of the editor and the writers proved how at cross-purposes they can be. Even the tenor of the questions was something that the writers used as springboards to assert different opinions than the editor was (perhaps) expecting. Sureda admitted that his interest is somewhat opposite to that of the writers, but he then asked them which writers outside their community have influenced them.

Valenzuela immediately listed Nabokov, Kafka, Beckett, and Woolf, particularly stressing that Woolf's love of writing is one of the things she loves most about her. (She also mentioned Cortázar, but then withdrew him because he's a fellow Argentinian.)

Somehow the conversation veered toward the issue of translation. González admitted that it was a problem--that writers are at the mercy of their translators. Vázquez Rial wasn't much worried by it. He quoted something Machado said about Tolstoy--that it had been translated from Russian to French to Spanish and it was still great. (That greatness isn't necessarily affected by translation.) Valenzuela again mentioned how she wants regionalisms in the books she reads--she loves discovering new things, new turns of phrase. Vázquez Rial added that the issue of translation itself is exciting because everyone says things in different ways.

Sureda then asked about their thoughts on modern-day bookstores. Readers are growing in numbers... He asked if Spanish-language writers feel threatened by the work of writers of other languages in Spanish bookstores?

Valenzuela doesn't think it's an issue--but she does have a problem with the fact that most Argentinian bookstores don't have display tables for new books by Argentinian writers. It's her big complaint. She admires how bookstores in Colombia (particularly Bogotá) do display new work by Colombian writers, and wishes it were this way in Argentina. She also remarked that she does not think that people read as much today. Vázquez Rial observed that it really doesn't matter that there are so many bookstores these days because they all offer the same things...that the lack of diversity is a sad development. And González said he was more optimistic regarding the modern reader.

Sureda then asked about the tension between reader and writer--which side of themselves robs from the other?

Valenzuela said that the passion is the same for both, but it's difficult to find the same amount of time for reading as it is for her writing. Vázquez Rial (as a literary critic) declared that new books don't excite him much anymore. With most he can't get past the first few pages. But he said that readers and writers in general are much closer to each other now--that the "other shore" is not so far away.

There may have been one last question--all I have here are Valenzuela's comments regarding what her initial thoughts were on hearing that the session was to be about "the two shores." She immediately thought of Henry James' short story "The Private Life" (she referred to it as "Vidas íntimas," so I believe this is the story she meant). She was also reminded of Rabindranath Tagore's "The Other Shore" and her desire to not have to pick sides, but to be everywhere at once, like God. Not wanting to settle anywhere... Her enthusiasm and candor made me smile--she was a joy to listen to.

Then the floor was opened for questions from the audience. Someone asked if there are valid respectful limits for a writer to maintain concerning the reader. Valenzuela commented on how being banned by a dictatorship didn't stop her from writing--that censorship takes all forms and that literature is about confronting our own demons. Vázquez Rial clarified earlier statments and said that his remark in favor of a more standardized Spanish is for the sake of reader understanding, not commercialism.

There was a question for Sureda about translations and he replied that he assigns books to translators whom he believes are appropriate for the respective works, and puts them in contact with the authors. His aim is a rendition that's as faithful as possible to the author's original intent, but with a certain space for creative freedom. González remarked that books that are translated into Spanish must use standard Spanish--that it isn't a bad thing at all in this sense.

Interestingly, later that day, I found a Spanish copy of Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories at the Ábaco bookstore (and coffee shop!) down the street from the theatre. A. began "Parker's Back" immediately, but it wasn't until he was halfway through with "Revelation" that he pointed out what the translator had done to the speech of O'Connor's southerners. The dialogue was full of the costeño way of speaking--dropped consonants and half-spoken words. I'm still not sure if this is an entirely appropriate equivalent...but I think it was a good idea to do something to communicate the "regional" manner of speaking... (Still thinking about this.)

Also (as another aside), here's a recent Semana article on the question as to why Spanish writers aren't read much in Latin America (in general) and Colombia (in particular). Responses come from various participants in this year's festival.

30 January 2007

Weekend in Cartagena

Having been lost to the litblogosphere for nearly two months (due to life changes and certain bizarre experiences that stem from my current situation as a nomadic educator), I now attempt to post something worth your while. I sadly could not contribute to Jeff and Trevor's marvelous Underrated Writers Project 2006, but I think there'll be some names from this post that will crop up in next year's list.

A. and I hopped the bus up to Cartagena this weekend for the Hay Festival, and were able to make it to five sessions. It was a glorious and complex experience. I hadn't been to Cartagena since I was 3, but the circle finally swung 'round and found us exhausted and happy, our heads buzzing with new authors, titles, and renewed longing to spend hours reading in quiet corners.

The weather was perfect--clear sky over a wide sea--and the walled colonial city held lovely sights around every corner: huge wooden gates with life-sized iron lizard knockers, balconies overflowing with flowers and ivy over narrow streets, and people from all over the world conversing about literature.

So this week I hope to post some notes from the many Moleskine pages I filled... (For each events' blurb, see the original program.) Although three of the writers I'd hoped the most to see were inexplicably absent at their respective sessions (Guillermo Arriaga, David Mitchell, and Chimamanda Adichie), my disappointment vanished as soon as the sessions began.