This interview is published in conjunction with five microfictions by Edmundo Paz Soldán, published in this issue.
In contrast with other Latin American countries that are better known for their literary stars and classics, literature from Bolivia remains somewhat unfamiliar to many of today’s readers.
That, however, is changing, thanks to a new generation of Bolivian authors who have increasingly been finding recognition abroad. One of these is Edmundo Paz Soldán (Cochabamba, 1967), a professor of Latin American literature at Cornell University in New York, a Guggenheim fellow (2006), a member of McOndo (the 1990s Latin American literary movement that broke away from magical realism), and the author of nine novels, two of which have been translated into English: The Matter of Desire and Turing’s Delirium.
In his most recent novel in Spanish, Norte, published last year in Spain by Mondadori, Paz Soldán focuses on three radically different stories about the immigrant experience in America: a serial killer who commits most of his crimes near railroads, a self-taught artist who has spent much of his adult life institutionalized, and a young literature student/waitress/graphic novel illustrator in search of herself.
A short story writer as well, Paz Soldán published his first book of “cuentos”, Las máscaras de la nada (Los amigos del libro, Cochabamba, Bolivia), in 1990. The Quarterly Conversation is pleased to present here five samples of his flash fiction, or microficciones, that appeared in that book. The stories were translated into English by author, poet, essayist and teacher Kirk Nesset.
During the 28th edition of the Miami Book Fair International, held last November at the downtown campus of Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida, Paz Soldán presented Norte, and participated in a panel titled Transatlantic Conversations: The Complicated Art of the Short Story. We spoke in the courtyard of the college, not too far from thousands of book lovers.
Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie: In Miami you introduced your latest novel, Norte, but this was not the official presentation, because the Mondadori edition is not the official edition for the United States, right?
Edmundo Paz Soldán: Vintage will release its own edition in Spanish for the United States in June. This was an extra-official presentation, because it was only for the Miami Book Fair International.
JCPD: You began the novel in 2007, and it came out in March 2011, with different versions in between. Would you address what that process of change was like?
EPS: The truth is that I began with an idea that was much more sociological than literary. I wanted to write a novel with a lot of characters showing the diverse aspects of immigration to the United States: the persons who enter in an illegal way, or legal, or through a fellowship, or through an embassy. I began with seven stories, but it was not properly a novel. Eventually all of the stories were going to intersect. When I got to page 70, I stopped because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I realized that this was not working. Going over my characters, I found that three of them were connected to the border. Geographically, they were moving between the north of Mexico and California, Texas, New Mexico. I found something much more enclosed there, that there was a novel.
JCPD: Of the three stories at the heart of this novel, two of them, that of a serial killer you call Jesús, and of a self-taught artist, Martín, are based on real people that had some level of notoriety, in the case of the first one, and recognition, in the case of the second one. I was particularly interested in the assassin, known as “the Railroad Killer”, because this type of character is not one you see every day in Spanish-language literature. What drew you to him? And to the painter?
EPS: In 1988, I was watching CNN, and the news was all about this serial killer who was causing panic in the small border towns between Mexico and the United States. At that time, I didn’t think of writing about him. Later on, when I was searching for characters, I remembered this person and began to investigate. I found a biography written about him as well as many newspaper articles. In 2006, I went into a coffee shop in Berkeley, and I saw a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle there. While buying my coffee, I flipped through the paper and read this article about an unknown Mexican painter called Martín Ramírez. The article explained the importance of the discovery of this artist and indicated that there was an exhibition of his work in San Francisco. And I became fascinated. Afterwards I found other writings on Ramírez. It was in 2007 when I realized that I had a novel in the making.
JCPD: In your 2006 novel Palacio Quemado, you also have real-life characters, such as [current Bolivian president] Evo Morales and [former president of Bolivia] Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, serving as inspiration. So you do research, and have a non-fiction base, which you use to build up your fiction.
EPS: As a matter of fact, in Palacio Quemado, I spoke with a lot of politicians and journalists who had lived during the era of the setting of the novel because I wanted to have the insider’s perspective. I had never lived in La Paz, and before publishing it, I had several friends and politicians in La Paz read it. Because, before convincing any reader, I had to convince those readers who were most informed about the subject. I am not saying this is how things happened, but it was plausible enough, my own version, for these people. For me, it’s not the point of arrival, but the point of departure. Right now I am writing a science fiction novel, and there’s no historical investigation. So the first thing I do is look at other science fiction authors, read their work, and recur to them as a starting point, to see what has been done in the past and how.
JCPD: There are some sci-fi elements in your novel El delirio de Turing (translated into English as Turing’s Delirium and published in that language in 2006). You have a Bolivian setting, but you mix it up with hackers and cryptography and other elements that seem to have more in common with literature from the English-speaking world than with literature from Latin America. What is it that appeals to you, technology? Has it been the genre itself?
EPS: For me, science fiction projects our contemporary anxieties into the future. I am not that interested in what it has to say about the future, but what it can tell me about the present. Novels on biotechnology or cloning and genetics, obviously, have to do with the possibilities that these subjects are exploring today, and with our anxiety regarding what could happen later on. Thus, science fiction novels for me are like doors to the present. In El delirio de Turing, for example, I was interested in the subject of the hacker, who is a character that at that time was marginalized in culture. What I did was not exactly science fiction. It was simply that I made the hacker a more central character in a convergence of science fiction with realism. I was interested in also seeing how I could combine certain social protests, street protests that are very common in Bolivia, for example, with the subject of the protests against globalization through Anonymous [the Internet anarchic group] or viruses. All those things that stem from a more recent, contemporary past.
JCPD: I would say that the themes you explore in that novel are even more prevalent today than when you wrote about them.
EPS: The character [of the hacker] existed back then, but it was very marginalized. The novel first came out in Bolivia in 2003, and in these eight years the subject matter and that character have become more relevant due to the global crisis we’re experiencing today. So in a way, yes, they have acquired a greater urgency. But that’s one thing that you really can’t plan.
JCPD: Are Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, who used the science fiction genre to manifest the fears of present day society, perhaps points of reference for you as a writer?
EPS: For that specific novel, El delirio de Turing, the author that inspired me the most was Neil Stephenson, because he has a novel, Snow Crash , in which there is a place he calls the Metaverse, a sort of Internet, like a virtual second life that for me in the novel became the playground where all these kids have an avatar and an artificial life. Philip Dick interests me a lot, especially for what I’m writing right now. And another author that is indispensable for me is [J.G.] Ballard.
JCPD: During one of the panel discussions here at Miami Dade College, you stated that ‘The great voyage of literature is the internal voyage’. To create your journey, you didn’t stay in Bolivia. You left in 1985 and lived in Argentina, Alabama, California and New York. How important then is geography in your writing, and could you have set your stories in places other than the ones you chose?
EPS: Geography is more present in my work than one might think. In [the novel] La materia del deseo , for example, there is a college town called Madison. That is my version of Ithaca, where Cornell is located, and where I teach and where I’ve lived for over 10 years now. Madison also appears in the novel Los vivos y los muertos . The place where I was born, Cochabamba, appears in three of my novels [La materia del deseo, Río Fugitivo and Turing’s Delirium] as Río Fugitivo.
JCPD: . . . and Río Fugitivo is also the name of your blog.
EPS: It is. For me, a place influences me a lot. I studied for six years in Berkeley for my doctorate, and Berkeley appears later on in La materia del deseo. I lived for a year in Texas, and the city where I lived, Austin, became the city of Landslide in the novel Norte. In my youth, I spent time in Argentina, but strangely enough I have nothing set in Argentina. Once I wrote a story that took place in Buenos Aires about something that had happened to me there, but I lost the file.
JCPD: You do have an Argentine character in one of the stories of Norte, though. The professor, Fabián, who has a Bolivian girlfriend [Michelle], is from Argentina. That story in particular seems to me to be less connected to the other two, the one about Jesús the serial killer and Martín the painter. Is it?
EPS: The fit is that there is a professor of Michelle’s – an ex-professor, because she has left the university – who asks her to write an essay for an exhibit on Martín Ramírez, and she toys with the idea, but in the end decides not to do it. But, the paintings that she sees in the exhibit, inspire her to what she wants to do, which is to write comics. And with that, she writes the comic strip with which the novel ends. That was the connection, but it is true that it was not a connection in which everything had to fit perfectly. I wanted more of a poetic connection among the stories, through themes and symbols. For example, the train that Martín Ramírez paints is the train that Jesús hops on to move around. I wanted this connection to come through the form more than through the plot. And I suppose those are risks, because I’ve been told these are like three short novels. But I saw it all as one novel. It was a matter of following my intuition. For some people that has worked really well; for others, they felt there needed to be a more explicit connection among the characters. It’s a risk I undertook.
JCPD: There are some allusions throughout Norte. I wonder if they are there for more profound reasons, or not. There is an elderly lady that Jesús kills, for instance; her last name is Havisham, reminiscent of the elderly spinster Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations. And then the Argentine professor refers to “Bolaño Inc.” You also wrote the prologue and co-edited Bolaño Salvaje, a book of essays about Roberto Bolaño, in 2008.
EPS: The point is not to abuse this. I don’t want to do metaliterature, but I do know that a text is always a conglomerate of other texts, and many of the things we read come in implicitly or explicitly. The same thing happens with music or with art. They help me build scenes, but if you don’t understand the reference, you’re not missing out on anything.
JCPD: What kind of relationship do you have with your books that have been translated into English? Are you involved in that process at all?
EPS: In other languages, I haven’t had any voice or vote. But in the English versions, the editor has asked me twice for my opinion. In fact, for Turing’s Delirium, there are whole sequences that I wrote directly in English just for that edition. There is a character that if you read him in the Spanish version and then in the English version, he has different motives in each one. The Houghton Mifflin editor made some very valuable suggestions when he read the manuscript in English, and I decided to incorporate them and change the fundamental motivation of that character. And then I went back to the Spanish version and made the same changes, but they appear only in one edition that came afterwards, the one that appeared in Argentina. So, when somebody asks me which Spanish-language version to buy, I recommend the one from Argentina, which, however, is not easy to find. You would have to go to Argentina to get it. The text that is widely circulated is the one from Spain.
JCPD: I heard that you have another book, a little known collection of short stories published in Bolivia, also titled Norte. What’s the relationship to the novel?
EPS: That was a mini anthology of several stories that I had set in the United States. But then, when I began the novel, I realized the title fit perfectly with the novel, and I decided to call it that. I spoke with the editors of the anthology and, as soon as the present edition has sold out, the subsequent edition will be given a new title. Then there will be only one Norte.
JCPD: What does Latin American literature offer a reader not familiar with it?
EPS: A literature where the limit between popular and “high” genres is not clear at all. A literature open to influences from all other literatures. A literature where being experimental can be considered part of the norm. A literature interested in placing the individual within a larger social and political context.
Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie is a Miami-based, Puerto Rico-born writer who’s worked as a bilingual journalist in various media for over 20 years. In 2011 he obtained his MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert Campus. He also holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Universidad Torcuato di Tella, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a BA in mass communications and French from Fordham University in New York City.
photo of the author: Erik Mólgora
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