Ana María Shua, authorFriday, December 23, 2016
‘You are always writing about the society you live in’
Born: Buenos Aires, 1951.
Lives in: Buenos Aires.
Achievements: Her award-winning works have been translated to many languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Bulgarian, and Serbian, and her stories appear in anthologies throughout the world.
Books: Among her poetry books, anthologies of short stories and books for children, the author has released renowned novels such as Soy paciente (“Patient,” 1980), Los amores de Laurita (“Laurita’s Loves,” 1984, later made into a movie), La muerte como efecto secundario (“Death as a Side Effect,” 1997) and El peso de la tentación (The Weight of Temptation, 2007). Her latest novel Hija (“Daughter”) was released earlier this year.
Awards: Konex Award, National Literature Award and Guggenheim Fellowship for her novel El libro de los recuerdos (“The Book of Memories,” 1994), among others.
The release of her novel, Hija (“Daughter”), has confirmed once again that author Ana María Shua can approach very difficult issues and write about them with a style that, at first glance, might seem very straightforward. By the last of the pages, however, the effect is deep and profound.
In her latest novel, the author — who has earned a prominent place in Argentina’s famous writers of fiction and has received repeated awards for her works in almost every genre of writing — tackles motherhood, implying that this stage of life can impose some unexpected situations.
Hija shines new light on issues regarding motherhood that are very uncommon. When a woman is pregnant many tell her they “hope the baby is healthy.” But you have chosen to make readers think into other aspects that have to do with the unpredictable.
Sons and daughters are unpredictable. That is something that for many it’s difficult to accept. Children are the uncontrollable par excellence. Furthermore, many of us have the fantasy of them as some sort of clone of ourselves. All of us think that we are going to have a son that is the automatic continuation of ourselves. And that doesn’t happen at all. So that idea of our children being very different from ourselves can be a bit disturbing for many and also very distressing. But they have their lives, their personalities and that’s part of life. What I wanted to do in the book was to take that to an extreme, towards its final consequences. I thought of a character — in this case the daughter of the novel’s title — that not only was very different if compared to her parents but also with a personality that could destroy them.
It’s funny because the book’s title is “Daughter” but it could have been perfectly “Mother.”
Yes, one of the main characters and the narrator is the mother. So everything we know is seen through her eyes and the other point of view is never seen. That was a choice I made: I like stories told in the first person because of the limits it provides. In fact we never have an actual clue of what happens to others, you can only get to know what they do or what they say.
Between chapters you provide a diary where you tell how you wrote certain episodes or what you were reading when you wrote them. Why did you include that in the book?
Well, there are many explanations to that. On the one hand, as I say in one of the chapters of the diary, I very much liked what Laurent Binet did in his book HhHH when she tells the story of an attack against (German Nazi official) Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. He tells the story while, at the same time, he tells details of his investigation. So I thought “Would it be possible to do something like that with a fictional novel?” Then I found it’s a very different job. At the same time, when I read books, I read very naïvely. I’m an actual wild reader and even after so many years of working in this field I keep thinking “The author surely wrote this in just a couple of days” (laughs). Even though I of course know that books take sometimes years to be finished. As a reader I very much would like to know how authors wrote their books, where does their material come from.
So you don’t mind getting to know the magician’s trick? There are some writers that prefer not to reveal all of their secrets.
As a writer I hide everything I want to hide (laughs). But there are some things that I like to tell because I also want to read about them. In a way writers try to write the books we would like to read. When you are writing, especially if it’s a novel, the whole world around you conveys in some kind of vortex. So everything you read at that moment, everything that happens around you is useful for your novel.
Your book starts with a couple in the exile during the dictatorship era. Why do you think the military years always crop up in Argentine fiction?
For my generation the dictatorship is something very difficult to get rid of. It’s a scar, it’s something that goes right through ourselves. I think that in all of my books the issue is present in one way or another. But I couldn’t write about the dictatorship or the repression directly or as the main theme. It’s always there, but floating.
And what happens to you when you see some government officials discussing the number of the disappeared or trivialising this issue?
Well, this is a government I didn’t vote for — as I didn’t vote for the other option there was in the last election. None of them seemed attractive to me. But I think that the dictatorship issue can be approached in many ways today. There are some that trivialise it — and by using the word “trivialise” I’m giving my opinion of them.
Then there are some others that can’t be detached from it, and that can also be a problem. Anyways, for my generation those were terrible days. For authors of my age it’s something that keeps appearing in our books. For me it’s impossible not to refer in some way to those days. Especially when I’m writing a novel. When you write a novel, even if you are telling a story that takes place a hundred years from now you are writing about your generation, your era, your country. You are always writing about the society you live in. And in our society the dictatorship era is still an issue.
Having written novels, short stories and even microfiction, in which literary genre do you feel more comfortable?
To me writing microfiction is amazing. It’s very pleasant because if you start writing some microfiction and you think that your material isn’t going anywhere, you get rid of it and that’s it. With a novel, that’s not something easy to do. The novel is an awkward genre for writers, it’s terribly uncomfortable. You are writing a novel for days, weeks and even years not knowing exactly what you have in your hands. It’s years of effort and work and you don’t know exactly if what you have is really worthy as for you it’s an endless rough draft.
How do you assess the Argentine publishing industry these days?
Beyond the industry, I’m more interested in the emerging of hundreds of little and independent publishing houses that are showing us many interesting new young writers. It’s very auspicious of what’s happening now.
Are you reading new Argentine authors?
They are so many! Lately I’m with those around their 40s. You have many women, such as Selva Almada, Samantha Schweblin, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. And also very good writers of short stories, such as Federico Falco, among so many others.
What do writers do when they are not writing?
They think about the next thing they want to write about! (laughs). Being a writer is 24-hour job. Because you are all the time thinking and also reading. We also are called to be part of juries in literary contests, we read other writers’ stuff.
In Buenos Aires there seems to be an incredibly huge number of literary workshops.
Buenos Aires is a city in which culture has a very important place. And for some very mysterious reason everyone wants to write. I don’t know why, but it’s as if everyone wanted to leave a trail in this world. I take a taxi, the driver gives me one of his books. I go and buy some bread, the baker starts talking about the novel she’s writing and which are her favourite authors. The guy from the kiosk the other day, when he realised I was a writer, he wanted me to read his poems because he’s going to a workshop. I’m starting to feel afraid! (laughs).