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Language as a Virus: Ariana Harwicz on Writing Bilingually

By Victor Meadowcroft

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

Ariana Harwicz is an Argentine author, screenwriter, and playwright whose novels have been translated into more than ten languages. Her first novel, Die, My Love (tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), published in English by Charco Press in 2017, was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2018 Premio Valle Inclán. Charco also published her second novel, Feebleminded (tr. Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, 2019), and will bring out Precoz (Precocious), the final installment of this “involuntary trilogy,” in 2021.

I spoke to Ariana at the Guadalajara Book Fair shortly after her lively and well-attended event with Dharma Books, a newly established Mexican independent publisher who is launching her novel Mátate, amor [Die, My Love] in Mexico.


Victor Meadowcroft (VM): What brings you to the Guadalajara Book Fair this year?

Ariana Harwicz (AH): The truth is, I don’t really like big festivals and big book fairs. Normally, there’s no real discussion of literature. Today was very interesting, but usually there’s no meeting of minds, no debating of literary ideas, and there are lots of people, there’s lots of standing around in hotel lobbies. And, well, it’s logical, right? Lots of mezcal, lots of drinking. I don’t find it very interesting. But what I do find interesting is independent publishers. Honestly. In this case, Dharma Books from Mexico, the biggest literary market in Latin America. To be involved with an independent publisher that’s only three years old and has just started putting together its catalog—it isn’t easy, in a country facing all the realities of being a Latin American country. So supporting this publisher is important. It’s what matters most to me. That’s why I came. 


VM: You’ve been living in France for a number of years now. I’ve heard you claim that your Spanish has become “infected” by French, but do you think your adopted nation has influenced your writing in any other ways?

AH: Yes, because more than being about motherhood, about eroticism, about desire, my novels are also about the way one language, like a virus, infects another. My writing is born from that double influence, and, now more than ever, I can see this in the French translation. I can’t distinguish what comes more from French or from Spanish because it’s born from this monster that is a two-headed monster, like in mythology. Yes, it’s written in Spanish, but conceived of in French. That’s why, for me, translation is so important. Because translation is an extension of my writing. That’s why France is as important to me as Argentina, which is my country of origin. The ideal would be to be able to talk about the novel in both languages, all the time. If I was being fair, right?


VM: Your first three novels, Die, My Love; Feebleminded; and Precoz (Precocious) have been described as an “involuntary trilogy.” What are the elements that connect these books, and to what degree do you feel they are in conversation with one another?

AH: It’s an involuntary trilogy in the sense that it was involuntary. I never, as a writer, made that decision, like a painter who creates a triptych of paintings and brings them together. There was never the Harry Potter–like intention of a saga. The novel just drew me in—I was carried along, as we were saying before, by language. The language of the novel carried me to a common language. What do the novels have in common? To what extent are they in conversation with each other? They have a lot in common. The landscape. The themes: language; foreignness; the interconnection of eroticism, motherhood, and foreignness. It’s as though it were the same landscape, but the camera pans—first, second—the camera keeps panning. It’s like everything is taking place on the same day and is the same movie, but in episodes. I think they have the same atmosphere. So they’re like sisters, cousins. But they’re also independent, and you can start with Precoz, that’s not a problem. Also, each one is a bit more radical than the last. Die, My Love has chapters and lots of characters; Feebleminded has only two characters; and then Precoz is much more radical, because there are no chapters, it’s like one long poem. So they’re sisters, but each one is a bit more “punk.” The last one is the most rebellious.     

“I try to ensure that the feverishness affecting the characters is carried across into language, that the language becomes adulterated, entangled, transformed.”

VM: You’ve described writing as “transferring body fever to syntax.” Can you expand on that?

AH: Yes, because beyond the mixing of languages and syntax and cultures, what is also altered is the grammar. Precisely because sometimes, upon thinking in French but writing in Argentinian—in Spanish—the grammar, the syntactic form, comes from French, but I’m using Spanish words. So I try to ensure that the feverishness affecting the characters is carried across into language, that the language becomes adulterated, entangled, transformed. But it isn’t an affectation, it isn’t a game. I’m not trying to seem experimental. It’s really because that feverishness of the characters translates into language.


VM: When speaking about translation, you’ve said the thing you are most afraid of is that the politics of your books will become “softened.”

AH: The political vision of a work, if it’s changed—for example, if it’s softened, sweetened, distorted to be more politically correct—then that is betraying the politics of a work. The politics of a work is its truth. So translation has the power to do that. A translation wields a lot of power. It’s not just a question of whether a word or rhyme is exact, or whether the wordplay is respected. It’s also about not changing the political root, and not changing it to fit with the times, or softening it, or the reverse. That, for me, would be betraying the intentions of the author. Translation has a lot of power.


VM: Your books have been described as tackling taboos, and you’ve argued that part of a writer’s role should be to work against the censors. Do you believe authors these days are too fearful of causing offense or discomfort to their readers?

AH: I think it’s an extremely difficult moment for writing, for men as much as for women. For men because—obviously, and fortunately—this moment of the century, at least in the West, is shifting its gaze to women. So it’s a difficult role for men—where to position themselves so as not to be sexist, not to be behind the times. But at the same time, it’s difficult for women as well, because they are being observed. And it’s very difficult to avoid writing for the times, like looking in the mirror at what you should be writing about, what the market is asking for. So I think the politics of the times are as difficult for men as they are for women. I think you have to be careful not to write with one eye on the times.


VM: You’ve described your latest novel, Degenerado [Degenerate], as an attempt to get into the mind of someone who you, and society in general, revile. How was this experience different from that of writing your previous novels?

AH: Yes, this novel was very different from the previous ones because there wasn’t the empathy, or the direct empathy, that was there in the previous novels, maybe because they dealt with female characters, or talked about certain taboos, or were just written from the point of view of the body—the geography, the architecture, of the body. This was the polar opposite, right? An old man, a pedophile, a murderer. And yet, none of that matters, because what matters is the reality of the mind. I found it very difficult but very stimulating, very exciting to write. You should only write with the excitement of writing something that hurts, that’s difficult, that risks everything, that attacks your morals, your ethics, that makes you feel shame. It’s almost, therefore, like writing in hell. It was a difficult experience, a difficult thing to write, almost intolerable, like one of those scenes from a Gaspar Noé movie where the butcher kicks a pregnant woman in the stomach; it’s in the realm of the impossible, the intolerable. But that’s why you have to do it, right? Not just write as a provocation, but rather to push the limits.  


VM: Are there any Argentinian writers you wish were being read by more people?

AH: What I notice is that they always call on the same ones. Visibility is a powerful weapon. There are extraordinary authors who nobody knows about, who nobody publishes, and what shocks me is that they always invite the same ones. It’s sort of the law of the market: visibility attracts more visibility. But there’s Flor Monfort, Eduardo Muslip, and Edgardo Cozarinsky, for example.


Translated by Victor Meadowcroft


Read more about the 2019 FIL Guadalajara

Read an interview with publisher Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Published Jan 22, 2020   Copyright 2020 Victor Meadowcroft

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