Literature Is the Minefield of the Imagination: An Interview with Gabriela Alemán

Because I thought the papers would be interested, I included a lot of “real” news in the novel — not just the elections but the fact that a lot of houses were falling down in the outskirts of Guayaquil, mostly due to the new port and the tonnage of the boats passing through. Working with your questions and ideas was somewhat like that — I could see what was too ambiguous in the original, or didn’t work that well. And also because, within that context, it features characters out to uncover facts and truth. Whenever something appeared in the press about the shanty towns of Guayaquil, the women were always represented as victims. I hate rules in fiction, and I love experimentation. So I translated a sample and pitched it as “an eco-feminist thriller with touches of the supernatural and a happy ending.” That editor spent a year trying to sell it to her bosses, then finally told me it couldn’t be done. Poso Wells was and is a way of taking off the mask behind political promises and politicians in power and their dealings with multinationals and global money. Someone — in my book, it’s a journalist — is looking for the truth. I understand that critics need definitions so they can study literature, but the divisions they establish only flatten out the possibilities. Le Guin next to Octavia Butler next to Joyce Carol Oates next to Poppy Z. Gabriela and I have yet to meet in person since Havana — we’ll appear together in the fall for some readings of Poso Wells — but we’ve developed an intense conversation over email, as authors and translators will. In such a recent democracy as Ecuador, it’s easy for populism, with its short-term promises, to gain political power and then suffocate social unrest by force. Wells was so present in the writing, and there are parts of Poso Wells that I thought up in English in my head and later wrote down in Spanish. Because my father was a diplomat, I happened to be born in Brazil, I lived in Geneva as a teenager, and then in Paraguay after that. This is your first book to be translated into English. The female characters were mostly backdrop and weren’t anything close to resembling real women. And to get as close as you can to an objective truth you have to go through tons of materials and archives. Usually without funds to carry out their investigations, usually with the establishment against them, usually without backup or time on their side. Wells’s blind men wanted to put out the eyes of the mountain climber who fell into their valley, because he was too different from them. At some point in the writing, I was reading a lot of Dickens and got to noticing the cliffhangers he wrote for periodicals. I believe literature is the minefield of the imagination — a place of complexities as much as it is a place of discovery and joy. In Latin America, we don’t have a literary tradition of detective fiction, possibly because the figure of the private detective doesn’t exist as a profession in real life. Poso has a number of layers, and one of them is its proximity to detective fiction. Since I started publishing, I’ve been very conscious of what happens with my female characters. As the story develops, these men ally themselves with a corrupt politician, which we have in abundance in Ecuador (and I would say most anywhere in the world). They would only accept him if he were like themselves. Books have offered a safe haven where I don’t feel out of place and borders don’t exist. When you read history, you start to see that it is very close to fiction, you have to look for a way into what you’re telling, you have to adopt a point of view, you have to interpret. The triad of saint, whore, or mother could sum up way too many female characters of 20th-century Ecuadorian fiction. Can you say something about these choices? I loved it — the page-turner qualities, the moral compass, the play with language, the mash-up of realism with the supernatural, of humor and optimism with despair. When you travel a lot, you finally don’t fit in anywhere, or you get stuck making the whole world your home, without ever feeling comfortable in it. It’s strange, but here in this book are all these women caught for years and years in the tunnels of Poso Wells, and it’s as if they were invisible. He is editor and translator of Kill the Ámpaya!: Best Latin American Baseball Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press, 2017) and co-author with Rafael Hernández of History of Havana, a social history of the Cuban capital since its founding in 1519. Your first, Body Time, was set in New Orleans, but in Latin American academic circles there. Basketball, apart from being a great sport, makes you think of yourself as part of a team and not only as an individual. As you mentioned, this was your first book to be set completely in Ecuador. When I lived in Paraguay, I tried to find a place to play and finally Club Olimpia — best known for their championship men’s soccer team — asked if I wanted to play for them and not just practice during the week on their court. And selection is all about literary strategy — for reaching the reader — and point of view. It was like reading a different book with the same characters and situations. Guayaquil has always been a city of contrasts, where financial wealth is set among the poorest neighborhoods in the country. The newspaper idea didn’t work out, but it did help to shape the book. I loved the process. I’ve written fiction, journalism, and history, and I couldn’t agree more. And then, because the novel first appeared 10 years ago, how the “prediction” of what would happen with el Bosque Nublado de Intag, the cloud forest where another part of the novel is set, has horribly come true. My high school team in Geneva, ECOLINT, competed in the Swiss championships. I have a friend who translates his work when he is writing to see whether what he’s saying makes sense. In Ecuador, we were heading into a presidential election that some described as a choice “between cancer and AIDS.” At the same time, there were chronic reports of women “disappearing.” In that political climate, the vision of Ecuador as a country of the blind couldn’t have been more prophetic. In Poso, the reporter is male, but one of the main characters is Bella Altamirano, a grassroots leader in the squatter settlement, and things would be completely different without her. What was new for me in Poso Wells was the amount of humor running alongside the narrative. As for the basketball, an uncle of mine was the first of us to start playing the sport, in the ’50s in Quito, and both my brothers played on a variety of teams. I started writing, and then things sort of fell into place. She told me to come to the presentation and meet the author. I read the book cover to cover on the flight home. Here’s a piece of that conversation. I want to know what you generally don’t get asked about, that you wish you did. “Real” women work, dream, are strong, can be bitches too. I thought teenagers reading in the 21st century would appreciate a different representation of women. I invented a poor neighborhood called Poso Wells. I wanted a strong, believable female character living in the poorer suburbs, where most of the action in the first part of the book takes place. You have to practice every day, meet people from all walks of life, and share your time with them. In Poso Wells, the reporter character, Gonzalo Varas, is male, but in your first novel, Body Time, and at least one of your stories, “Superheroes” (which will be published in English in a forthcoming issue of The Kenyon Review), the reporter is female. I wrote the first five chapters and, with the 2006 elections just three months away, I went to different newspapers hoping to get them interested in publishing weekly installments. JULY 17, 2018

GABRIELA ALEMÁN’S NOVEL Poso Wells features a demagogic presidential candidate, women who vanish from a squatter settlement, international mining corporations, journalism and poetry, birdwatchers and erupting volcanos, a pet poisonous snake, local grassroots organizers and political bosses, and hired guns. But it’s such a crazy book, I said to myself, that however much I’d love to translate it, who’s ever going to publish it in the States? 
So I let it sit for a year, and then, by another accident, I had a conversation with an editor who described her company’s flavor of the month, and I thought, well, who knows? I brought the blind men from the Andes to the coast and the most populated city, Guayaquil. That is completely extraneous to the complex reality of daily life in marginalized areas. I love crossovers between horror and fantasy or historical fiction and suspense or between social realism and poetry. GABRIELA ALEMÁN: When I was 14, I read Wells’s novella The Country of The Blind. If you look at my bookcases, the breaking of boundaries starts out right there. So, thanks! In Spanish, of course, the genres are united by a single word, because “historia” means both “story” and “history.” This leads me to ask about translation. Maybe that’s why I tend to side with the underdog, to ally my point of view with the outcasts of this individualistic society we’re stuck in, which keeps us from seeing that the whole world is becoming the site of the displaced. Finally, I know you’ve done a lot of interviews about Poso Wells, mostly in Spanish. You translate from English to Spanish, and of all the writers I’ve translated in the other direction, you’re the most fully fluent in English, because you learned it as a child and then later you did a graduate degree in the United States. I discovered this manic tour de force at the Havana International Book Fair in 2014. Can you say something about your globetrotting and how it has affected your work? 
Well, I come from a family of both diplomats and athletes. Because the title is half English and half Spanish in the original, my solution was to leave it that same way in English. It was also interesting because H. In a lot of your work, I’ve noticed, there’s a good deal of cultural border crossing. I couldn’t believe one of my favorite English authors had set his fiction in Ecuador. I’m sure this is part of what attracted me to your writing, which often fictionalizes historical characters or events. That was saying tons about where we are now, about blind men who ally themselves to power to perpetuate themselves. For me, one of the most challenging and fun parts of the translation included the banter between Varas and his Mexican poet sidekick, Benito, which involved their local musical tastes and their different regional varieties of Spanish, all of which I had to gently gloss for Anglophone readers so it wouldn’t all be Greek to them. And then, of course, the words you used weren’t exactly the ones I had in my mind, so it was a kind of palimpsest of different versions appearing on the paper. The future survival of Ecuador (and the world) depends on those minerals staying underground. What’s most talked about are the blind men, but not what they did to those women for decades. What was that process like from your end? Aida Bahr, a Cuban writer and editor whom I’ve translated, was presenting a new Cuban edition of Alemán’s novel, which had previously been published in Ecuador and Spain. I always loved to read and at some point, when I started writing, I realized that most of my favorite authors, growing up, had only male protagonists. That’s “debut” in English, of course. I tend to think that journalists in Latin America are superheroes and detectives all rolled into one. What would you say about the mashup of genres? Wells never came here, but he set the story in a valley below Cotopaxi, an active volcano in the northern part of the country, inhabited by a mythical race who are all blind. G. It’s already been selected by the American Booksellers Association as one of the 10 best adult author debut books of the summer/fall season. ¤
Dick Cluster is a writer and translator who lives in Oakland, California. All three genres are all about selection — what out of all that potential material we uncover, whether historical or fictional or contemporary, are we going to choose to include? I love to read history books, and, for some of my academic writing, I’ve had to become a historian of sorts. She said the first chapter was a perfect specimen of noir fiction (novela negra, she said), and the rest of the book … she wasn’t sure what to call it, but it was good. I thought that satire would help the reader navigate the darkness at the center of the book: women kidnapped, ecological plundering, corrupt politicians, economic inequality, racism, classism, gender discrimination. But since I had the sample, I started submitting it elsewhere, mostly to more literary presses, adding “and touches of the intertextual” to the pitch. Yes, I think the book strikes a chord here too because of our political and electoral situation. Years later, around 2004, I was packing for a move and found the book and reread it and thought to myself that I had to do something with it. But you did such a great job that I like your version of Poso more than the one I had in my head. It is planned as a trilogy, so in that way it’s also different from my other books, and it was the first book of mine set completely in Ecuador. Sun Yi, a young woman who comes from the countryside to seek her fortune in Guayaquil, is also a very strong character in the novel. But tell us about the title, H. Also, the bios on your book jackets tend to highlight that you played basketball in Switzerland and in Paraguay. It was an incredible experience. My distrust of rules goes for the distinction between fiction and history too. The closest we get to figures looking with tenacity for the “truth” are journalists. Absolutely. Besides the detective aspect and some inserted newspaper pieces, Poso Wells includes a sci-fi aspect, literary allusions, political satire, and even poems recited or composed by the characters. Wells, and the origin of the book. There is now a joint venture of Chilean and Ecuadorian national mining companies who are ready to pounce on the gold and copper below one of the richest hot spots of biodiversity in the world and, along the way, without much thought, destroy drinking water and every sort of frog, bird, or mammal in the area. G. There is no way of not contaminating the water systems with all the chemicals used by the mining industry. Your latest novel, Humo (Smoke), is set in Paraguay, and a number of the characters are Europeans. Brite next to Kurt Vonnegut next to Neil Gaiman next to Dostoyevsky and Karel Čapek and Bioy Casares and Borges and César Dávila Andrade. I’ve used my experience as a player to write some athlete characters, and there’s a story in one of my collections about Ecuador’s claim to fame in under-14 basketball, when we wound up second in the world in 1967. More positively, because of the traveling, I’ve had the luck to tap into different literary traditions and read books in their original language while I was very young. “Poso” means “sediment,” and it’s not the same as “pozo” (a well), but both sound like the translation of the name of the writer whose story had haunted me all of my life. I have Toni Morrison next to Angela Carter next to Grace Paley next to Eudora Welty next to Silvina Ocampo next to Anne Rice next to Ursula K. Elaine Katzenberger at City Lights was willing to take a chance on it, and the book is out today. Only, my explanation had to do with tunnels below the city, where the disappeared women are held captive by the blind men. Ecuador is not a country that prizes its reading habits, and I was looking for a different way of getting people to read literature even if they don’t usually buy books. ¤
DICK CLUSTER: My challenges in translating Poso Wells began with the title, which is a bilingual double pun. Alemán already has three novels and numerous books of stories in print in Spanish, published by a variety of houses in Latin America and Spain.