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Alejandro Zambra on His Latest Book, the Protests in Chile, and Giving Away His Personal Library

By Victor Meadowcroft

Victor Meadowcroft attended the 2019 international book fair in Guadalajara, where he interviewed writers María Fernanda AmpueroAriana Harwicz, and Alejandro Zambra, and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press). Read more about his experience at the book fair.

Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean poet, short story writer, and novelist whose work has been translated into twenty languages. He is the author of six books, including My DocumentsNot to Read, and Ways of Going Home, and his stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris ReviewHarper’sTin House, Granta, and McSweeney’s, among others. In 2010, he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and he was a 2015-16 Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library. He lives in Mexico City.

I spoke to Alejandro at the Guadalajara Book Fair, shortly before he appeared on the panel of an event celebrating fifty years of the Spanish independent press Editorial Anagrama. He was joined on the panel by two Mexican authors, Guadalupe Nettel and Juan Villoro, who are also published by the prestigious imprint.

Victor Meadowcroft (VM): This is the second year in a row (at least) that you’ve been to FIL Guadalajara. What is it about this book fair that keeps bringing you back?

Alejandro Zambra (AZ): The pescado zarandeado [traditional grilled fish], without a doubt! Actually, it’s now almost like a family visit. What I like most about this book fair is all the activities for schoolchildren—that makes a lot of sense.

VM: I know you relocated to Mexico from Chile three years ago. How have you found the experience of living here, and have you managed to replace all the books you had to abandon before your move?

AZ: I decided to leave my library there, at a university. It seemed ridiculous to bring everything to Mexico; in Santiago, I’d been feeling for a while like I was living in some kind of book cemetery. So I donated them, although I did bring a small number with me. All the same, I do regret it now. I spend all my time remembering that I need some book I’ve lost, even though I didn’t lose them, I shared them . . . No, I'm kidding. I love that the books I accumulated over many years are now available to a few readers. I'm kidding and telling the truth . . .

However, I didn’t come to Mexico for literary reasons. While living in New York, I met my future wife, and we had to decide whether to live in Mexico or Chile. One of the good things about being a writer is that you’re apparently very portable. So the discussion—as she’s also a writer—was about which of us was more portable. It’s been three years already. We have a two-year-old child who speaks more Mexican than he does Chilean, although I try to teach him Chilean words and the songs of Violeta Parra. But, as I was telling you, my sense of living here has changed a lot since the estallido, the October protests in Chile. I no longer feel so portable. Since we moved to Mexico, I’ve gone through various emotional states, and my current one is difficult to describe: fervent, somber, melancholy, indignant, hopeful. But I expect all Chileans living abroad are experiencing similar things. I talk every day with my friends, of which fortunately I have many, and for a few moments I achieve that treacherous illusion of actually being there.

VM: Your novels have often been described as metafictional. Do you think there is something about having grown up under a dictatorship that makes you distrustful of, or predisposed to question, more traditional narrative forms?

AZ: I’d never thought about it in exactly that way, to be honest, but I suppose it makes sense. In truth, I’ve always been interested in scratching at the meaning of writing and reading in the present, in a world like this, which seems to emphatically reject silence and does not tolerate solitude. None of what I do is programmatic, or, in any case, each book arrives from somewhere different. It seemed natural, for example, in Ways of Going Home, for the protagonist to be a writer, not so much because of a desire to be autobiographical, but rather because I love the frugality of that occupation; a pencil and paper, nothing more. I felt we [Chileans] were all somehow obligated to formulate our experience of childhood and the dictatorship, whether we wrote or not. There are stories in My Documents that aren’t metafictional at all; in any case, I don’t think much about these things except when I’m writing, and writing about something is my way of thinking about that thing.


VM: Speaking of the dictatorship, how do you respond to the troubling events currently unfolding in your home country? Is there a sense of déjà vu, or do you feel this is a completely different set of circumstances?

AZ: Everything begins with the dictatorship, of course, which left behind a legacy of injustice and a complete lack of solidarity. The trampling over human rights, the dead, the wounded, alongside the inertia and stupidity of Sebastián Piñera’s government, incense me at every moment, and I feel a constant desire to be there. I was there for just nine days at the beginning of November. It’s a very vivid and intense sensation in which pain mixes with the excitement and hope you see on the streets, the desire to talk, to participate, to join in, to have discussions.

VM: Much of your writing seems to be set against two major changes that took place during your formative years. One of these was the end of the dictatorship and the move into democracy; the other was the digital revolution and the arrival of computers and the internet. These two themes, the digital and the political, appear to have been brought together recently with the emergence of social media platforms and the rise of far-right movements around the world. How do you interpret these developments?          

AZ: I think the world has become very difficult to read. It always has been, of course, but now that complexity jumps out at you, and nobody can hide it or qualify it, so occasionally people are roused by the promises of some imbecile who claims to have all the answers. And, on the other hand, social networks lead you to believe that you’re making decisions and that you’re autonomous and empowered all the time. That’s why I like what is happening in Chile, which is perhaps also a result of virtual fatigue. The streets are full of people who want to discuss everything again, or discuss things for the first time, and that, in itself, is intrinsically valuable and crucial. We have to come together, to talk about the poems and songs we write, about working conditions or the country we would like to live in, but we have to come together, and for me literature has always been collective; that everyday motion, the daily journey from the loneliness of the apartment you write in to the bar or workshop where you share what you write, that brief or long walk from the I to the we, seems to me to be fertile, decisive, and essential.

VM: Finally, you told me that you've just delivered the manuscript for your latest novel [now published]. Can you tell us a little bit about this new book? 

AZ: It’s hard for me to describe Poeta chileno [Chilean Poet], and I like that it’s hard . . . It’s a book about the relationship between family and literary communities. It’s a book about step-parenthood and poetry . . . It has a number of different origins. I began thinking about a book like this one around fifteen years ago, based on experiences that more or less resulted in The Private Lives of Trees. For me, this novel is closely related to The Private Lives of Trees, and not just because of their literal similarities. I sometimes even think of it as a continuation of that novel, although perhaps only I can see this continuity, because in other ways the two books are radically different, and I couldn’t tell you which of the two is more hopeless. This novel also has a more precise origin in a discarded story from My Documents, which was called “Familiastra” [Stepfamily]. Perhaps this novel is a rewriting of that story, which was about six pages long and would have been the shortest in My Documents; but it still felt embryonic and I liked it too much to expose it to public scrutiny. And, of course, from those six pages came four hundred . . . There’s also something in this novel, perhaps the desire to narrate, that connects it to other stories in My Documents, particularly “True or False,” “Thank You,” and “Family Life.”


Translated by Victor Meadowcroft

Published Mar 19, 2020   Copyright 2020 Victor Meadowcroft

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