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A New Narrative: An Interview with Four Argentine Women Writers

By María Agustina Pardini



Two literary trends have emerged in the last ten years in Argentina. The first is the rereading and reissuing of classics by local writers, such as Silvina Ocampo, Alejandra Pizarnik, Sara Gallardo, Olga Orozco, and Alfonsina Storni, among others. The second has to do with the creation of a new narrative by a new generation of writers, many of them women, including Samanta Schweblin, Virginia Feinmann, Pola Oloixarac, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Magalí Etchebarne, Ariana Harwicz, Agustina Bazterrica, Silvina Giaganti, Cecilia Fanti, and Inés Acevedo.

Writer and literary critic Elsa Drucaroff characterizes the work of these writers as a response to fallout from the Argentine military dictatorship: the return to democracy, the neoliberal cynicism of the 1980s, and the increased political participation in recent decades. Drucaroff notes that their narratives are marked by colloquial and direct language. For example, in the work of Inès Acevedo, syntax is transformed and traditional structures are upended. These characteristics suggest the influence of American writers, rather than the European vanguards that earlier Argentine writers had so admired. Acevedo often uses local neologisms, as well as an abundance of interjections and exclamatory remarks.

The focus in many of these works is on realism and everyday life. Ordinary events take on new dimensions and greater poignancy, as is the case in Samanta Schweblin’s novel Pasa siempre en esta casa, in which she describes the habit of washing dishes as a moment of deep reflection and clarity.

Some of the novels and stories also combine realism with the fantastical or dystopic, making it impossible to classify them in any one genre. Social commentary is often introduced through the depiction of characters living on the periphery or under difficult conditions; the gap between classes often becomes a catalyst for conflict. A clear example of this is Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Romance de la negra rubia, in which the narrator, Gabi, intent on preventing policemen from evicting her from a building, throws kerosene all over her body, which leaves it completely disfigured. The event is embellished by the register Cabezon Cámara uses for the narrator and the policemen. Both parties speak in a highly disrespectful and even violent way, and the aggression is underscored by the officers dragging the narrator and others from the house by their hair. 

Another shift in these new Argentine narratives—particularly in recent years—is the reimagining of the role of women in society. Women characters are able to share their feelings bluntly, with no need to beautify their lives. Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are explored as central themes rather than being stigmatized or stereotyped.

I spoke with four contemporary Argentine women writers who have not yet been translated into English—Virginia Feinmann, Agustina Bazterrica, Cecilia Fanti, and Silvina Giaganti—about their own processes of creation, their literary influences, and what they think about the rise of “women’s literature.”

 

María Agustina Pardini: How would you define your writing?

Virginia Feinmann: In transformation. Willing to convert itself into something else. I used to write classic short stories (a genre that fascinates me), which I published in literary magazines. Then I started writing short pieces on Facebook—micro-stories—and one day a publishing house asked me to transform them into a “sui generis novel,” a complete story narrated in different short sections. That is how my first book was published. Later, a bigger publishing house asked me for the same, and the second book came out. Now I’m really looking forward to going back to short stories.

Agustina Bazterrica: As protest writing. I thoroughly consider the style, which changes according to the work. The style can be dry, narrative, or visual—as in Cadáver Exquisito—or baroque, as in my book Matar a la niña. It can also be full of irony, as in Antes del encuentro feroz. In general, I work a lot on a piece and I revise it repeatedly. For me, one word cannot be easily substituted for another. Despite the result, which will later be judged by the reader, I know that each of my works was the best thing I could have written at that time because it involved my full dedication.

Cecilia Fanti: I believe in stories that impose themselves. I really like nonfiction. I like that, just as Sylvia Molloy claims, we use the right to create. I have written some fiction but what I am interested in is nonfiction and, within that genre, I prefer biographies.

Silvina Giaganti: I am not aware of my writing in a way that I can define in a few words. I can talk about what I have written. Even though my book has a lyrical “I” as the first-person narrator, I’m not sure whether I could call it autobiographical. Autobiographies try to establish a connection between someone’s life and their writing. However, books are made up of words. In fact, to say “I” implies a specific decision in which the writer thinks about the language in terms of mediation. That mediation leads you to a place that is not real because it is a representation. What is not clear or transparent therefore appears. Poetry is a deviation from reality, a deviation from experience. Consequently, every poem establishes a connection with autobiographical elements but is also created through invention.

On the other hand, I argue a lot with my poems and they argue with themselves. I like to explore those tensions. The tension created out of the fusion between romantic love and its fragile and ephemeral nature. The tension between feminism and the admiration for white, heterosexual male writers. The friendship among women and the necessity to be alone.
 

When men write about their world, it is considered to be the real world, the given one, but when women write about it, then it becomes the female world.


María Agustina Pardini: Which women authors have influenced you?

Virginia Feinmann: I don’t know if they influenced me, but I like and enjoy reading Dorothy Parker, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Carson McCullers, and Lorrie Moore, and, from Argentina, Silvina Ocampo, Sara Gallardo, and Tununa Mercado. Claire Keegan has influenced me as a storyteller.

Agustina Bazterrica: Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Flannery O’Connor, Silvina Ocampo, Sara Gallardo, Olga Orozco, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, and Han Kang.

Cecilia Fanti: Katherine Mansfield, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Molloy.

Silvina Giaganti: Sappho, Anne Carson, Patricia Highsmith, Simone de Beauvoir, Maria Moreno, Sylvia Molloy, Reina Roffé, Alison Bechdel, Adrienne Rich, Alejandra Pizarnik, A.M. Homes, Marina Mariasch, Chris Kraus, Virginie Despentes, Mary Oliver, Romina Paula, Lorrie Moore, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Leila Guerriero, Louise Glück, Mariana Enríquez, Eileen Myles, Camille Paglia, and probably many others who I’m not remembering right now.

 

María Agustina Pardini: Which contemporary women writers do you admire?

Virginia Feinmann: I really like Samanta Schweblin, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like others, too. I am still very attached to the classics and I haven’t read many of my contemporaries yet, which I know is wrong.

Agustina Bazterrica: Liliana Heker, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Ángeles Salvador, Esther Cross, and Liliana Díaz Mindurry.

Cecilia Fanti: I really like Liliana Heker, Hebe Uhart, Leila Guerriero, and, again, Molloy.

Silvina Giaganti: Sylvia Molloy, Maria Moreno, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Marina Mariasch, Mariana Enriquez, Virginia Cano, Romina Paula, Magalí Etchebarne, Ángeles Salvador, Malén Denis, Samanta Schweblin, and Verónica Yattah.
 

If we could only write about what we are or what we know, we would be lost.


María Agustina Pardini: Do you believe that women characters written by men can be as rich and complex as those written by women?

Virginia Feinmann: Yes, I think so. If we think about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Felicité from A Simple Heart, the delicacy and intimacy of his female characters is marvelous. Whether we consider Felisberto Hernández’s Úrsula or Sara Gallardo recreating the voice of a male Indian or a Spanish conqueror lost in a cavern, talent does not have gender.

Agustina Bazterrica: Yes, absolutely. Reading Shadows on Jeweled Glass by Juan José Saer or Madame Bovary by Flaubert is enough to confirm the idea.

Cecilia Fanti: No, I don’t think it has to do with the gender. I believe it depends on the writer. The classic writers could work wonders—Tolstoy with Anna Karenina, Henry James with Daisy Miller, Flaubert with Madame Bovary. Some contemporary writers successfully achieve this, such as Gonzalo Castro in Hidrografía doméstica. It does not have to do with being a woman but with the writing, the development, and the imagination. If we could only write about what we are or what we know, we would be lost.

Silvina Giaganti: I don’t believe the richness of a character has anything to do with the writer’s gender. However, I am happy about the fact that in Argentina there are now more women writers publishing and that the best-selling books are written by women.

 

María Agustina Pardini: There has been increasing focus on “women’s literature”—do you feel that label is valid?

Virginia Feinmann: I have always considered it to be a double-edged sword. It can help women to become visible, but it is a label that excludes us from literature itself. For example, when men write about their world, it is considered to be the real world, the given one, but when women write about it, then it becomes the female world. The female world is the same as the male world. I never know what people mean by women’s literature. There are specific categories [that exist], such as trans or lesbian literature. Nevertheless, we need to be careful when labeling something women’s literature so that it does not include stereotypical, submissive characteristics, such as women who need to take care of the house, the sick relatives, the children, their appearance; or even stories that include topics such as craziness or hysteria. I believe that themes that seem closer to “women’s literature” have to do with the role of women in society and issues of sexual abuse.

Agustina Bazterrica: Let’s think about the following labels: “white heterosexual male literature” or “literature written by bold men.” It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I consider the label “women’s literature” to be discriminatory and constraining. Literature is literature; it doesn’t matter what the gender of the writer is. On the other hand, the category of gender is being revisited. The concept of “binarism” is no longer relevant. I understand that nowadays women create many of the most powerful and valuable literary works and that they should get more visibility, which might sometimes lead to reductionism. I hope the day comes when we no longer need labels.

Cecilia Fanti: No. I just think that we have always been silently doing the work and that effort has recently become more visible. What we see in the market is more literature written by women. That means that we have gained a greater presence in contests, libraries, conferences, and lectures. “Women’s literature” as a concept is out of date. In the past, the genre referred to books believed to be read and enjoyed by women. That is to say, we were given some topics and themes considered to be a part of the feminine world, such as romance novels. However, the concept does not have a masculine counterpart; no one categorizes it that way, not even critics, writers, or copywriters. The question we can ask ourselves is: why is one considered literature and the other women’s literature? The answer is the patriarchy.

Silvina Giaganti: It is hard for me to see it as a boom. There have always been women writers. It is possible to trace feminine themes in texts written by women. However, these themes do not always need to appear in the same way. There can also be male themes in work by women writers. It is important to speak about the current hierarchies; for example, if the person writing is a man, the ideas developed will be considered “universal.” Conversely, if it is a woman writing, it will only be considered a single “point of view.” Most importantly, it is necessary to challenge the spaces of power that are still mostly occupied by men: areas related to publication and criticism and academia.
 

It is necessary to challenge the spaces of power that are still mostly occupied by men: areas related to publication and criticism and academia.


María Agustina Pardini: Is it possible to live off one’s writing alone?

Virginia Feinmann: No, absolutely not. It is possible to live off some of the activities that are related to it—such as giving literary workshops and editing other people’s work—but they are always very unstable and are low sources of income. All the writers I know live off something else. In my case, I work as a translator. I would prefer to do a physical job, something that would involve working with my hands and not my brain. Writers who do other jobs can even write about them. Though translating is an alternative way of writing, the physical posture and the mental activity are just the same. When it comes to writing my own texts, I am already tired.

The publishing market in Argentina is in danger due to new policies promoted by our neoliberal government, which has been in office for two years already. Some of the policies include indiscriminately importing books and raising the prices of the materials used to make such books. People have no purchasing power to buy products anymore (due to massive firing, inflation, and rising prices). Bookshops close down every day, publishing houses are editing less content, and all writers can do is cry.

Agustina Bazterrica: Yes, some writers work on commission for newspapers, translate, work in publishing houses, give workshops, and work as editors, teachers, or librarians. Now if the question is whether a writer can live off his or her publications, I would have to say that only a few are able to do so, especially in our country. It’s not easy for authors who write fiction to live off their writing, unless you devote yourself to children’s literature. The truth is that most of us do what we can. Bukowski worked as a postman, Jack London as a seal hunter, and Flannery O’Connor bred peacocks. I know an Argentine writer who cleans swimming pools, another one who sweeps the subway. Another one has a stocking factory.

Cecilia Fanti: I guess that unless you are a very successful writer, you can’t. Writing is just one of the jobs we do. Another job allows us to pay the bills and live but simultaneously takes away our writing time. Oh, paradoxes!

Silvina Giaganti: Not in Argentina. It doesn’t matter if you sell fairly well or if you are prestigious or if you are widely read—the cultural industry is not solvent enough for us to make a living off writing. At least not for those of us who don’t have money or property to live off. Contracts with publishing houses, big or small, offer the author ten percent of the list price. Insane. The good thing is that you get invited to festivals and are asked to write for different media. Many people want to take classes with you, too. But that means living off activities related to writing, not the writing itself.
 

Even though I believe a translation is a creation in itself, I would like the translator to understand and reflect the spirit of my work.


María Agustina Pardini: What do you believe a translator should take into account when translating your work?

Virginia Feinmann: Maybe he or she should focus on colloquial language, rather than formal language—nothing too complex.

Agustina Bazterrica: Even though I believe a translation is a creation in itself, I would like the translator to understand and reflect the spirit of my work and to become equally obsessed with the choice of words.

Cecilia Fanti: I think the translator should focus on local idioms, which are very common in Argentine literature and in my work specifically.

Silvina Giaganti: Everything. There are no individual elements that are more important than others.

 

Virginia Feinmann was born in Buenos Aires in 1971. Her short stories have appeared in Página 12 and other literary magazines, and she published her first book, Toda clase de cosas posibles, in 2016. Her second book, Personas que quizás conozcas, was published by Emecé.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1974, Agustina Bazterrica is the author of the novels Matar a una niña (2013) and Cadáver Exquisito (2017), which won the Clarín Novel Prize. She holds a degree in art history and coordinates the “Sigan al conejo blanco” series of cultural events.

Cecilia Fanti is the owner of the bookstore Céspedes Libros and the author of La chica del milagro, a memoir about her experience of being hospitalized for thirty-five days after suffering a terrible car accident. She studied literature at Universidad de Buenos Aires and did a masters in creative writing at the National University of Tres de Febrero.

Silvina Giaganti was born in Avellaneda in 1976 and studied philosophy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. She works as a teacher and published her first collection of poems, Tarda en apagarse (Caleta Olivia), in 2017. It is still a bestseller.

 

Further Reading

“After Borges: Tamara Tenenbaum and the Search for a New Argentine Literature”

“A Brief History of the Argentine Writing Workshop”

Several Worlds Simultaneously: Seeking Argentina

“A Second Birth: Argentine Master Norah Lange Gets Her Due”

“When the Woman Writes the Poem Herself: On Alejandra Pizarnik”


Published Nov 19, 2018   Copyright 2018 María Agustina Pardini

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