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from the August 2018 issue

Journey to Panama: Pamela Carmell and Christina Vega-Westhoff on the Panamanian Short Story

The guest editors for Words Without Borders’s August feature of Panamanian short fiction discuss the project’s genesis and give readers an insider’s look at the country’s literary scene.

Pam Carmell: As often happens, this project got its start at an ALTA conference. In 2015, you read a compelling short story by Panamanian Melanie Taylor Herrera. Coincidentally I was headed to Panama on a hiking and boating trip a few months later.  

Christina Vega-Westhoff: Yes, that was a fortuitous meeting! I read that night from Taylor Herrera’s “Periplo” ("Journey"), which had just appeared in Brooklyn Rail’s InTanslation. It’s one of Taylor Herrera’s longer, more novelesque historical short stories. How did you become interested in Panamanian literature? 

PC: It all started for me when I began to wonder how the Panamanian writing scene had been affected by the handover of the Canal and the opening of the new locks. I’d read very little by Panamanian writers, and none by younger writers, so I decided to track down some writers during that trip. You suggested I contact Federico Angulo, who ran Exedra Books in Panama City. Inside I found a large selection of literature from across Central America and a crowded coffee shop. Federico eagerly connected me with several younger writers, including Carlos Wynter.  

CVW: It was such a special bookstore—a nexus for the literary community during the fifteen years it was open. I’m so glad you got to visit before it closed in April 2016. Taylor Herrera and I first met there at a discussion on Panamanian literature in January 2008. I was living and working in Panama, where I have family and where my mother was born. It turned out we had a lot of friends in common—artists and feminists. I fell in love with her work—its range, music, and criticality, as well as the way her stories act as counternarratives.  

PC: And it was also at Exedra Books that I came across the literary journal Maga, edited by iconic Panamanian writer Enrique Jaramillo Levi. In it I discovered Wynter’s story “A Hole of Light at the End of a Tunnel of Trees.” His mesmerizing voice and the story’s somewhat existential conflict immediately drew me in. The narrator almost seems to relish, even wallow in, her melancholy assessment of the relationship with her boyfriend and her inescapable, sad future if it falls apart. This story is part of the collection Pecados; spare and evocative, each story considers a challenge that bewilders the characters and seems to defy atonement.  

In Cheri Lewis’s story “Open Hands,” the narrator describes odd occurrences taking place in her home in a bewilderingly calm, almost matter-of-fact voice even when the situation escalates. In the stories in the collection of the same name, familiar moments in a young woman’s life (meeting a guy at a party, falling in and out of love) take an unexpected turn, elevating the commonplace to an almost mythical level, as if some otherworldly force controls the situation.  

CVW: Wynter’s story recalls Taylor Herrera’s “Journey” for me, evoking Panama City’s history, its mythology, parks, and outdoor spaces. The streetcar exists in both as a central character and raises questions about transportation’s role in how we think about and relate to place. And we feel the city too in Lewis’s piece, but in an entirely different way, through a house that though filled seems strangely empty. Taylor Herrera’s story “Dance with Death” also plays with emptiness and gestures outward, multiplying possibilities. “Dance with Death” is drawn from her collection Camino a Mariato, a book whose female protagonists wrestle with negotiated peripheries and notions of otherness.

PC: These stories do have a lot in common. We chose them because they are good reads with an engaging cinematic quality; the plots unfold like tightly edited short films.  But they’re also cautionary tales whose camera pulls back to reveal the universal quality of their characters’ flaws and missteps.

CVW: Yes, in all three I sense an exploration of waiting, continuity, solitude, and destruction. I find depictions of the personality of Panama City. They strike me as vignettes do, with shaded edges of invitation and the thinking and questioning that live there. 

© 2017 by Pamela Carmell and Christina Vega-Westhoff. All rights reserved.

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