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




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. I discovered this manic tour de force at the Havana International Book Fair in 2014. 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. 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. She told me to come to the presentation and meet the author. I read the book cover to cover on the flight home. 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. 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? 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. 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. Elaine Katzenberger at City Lights was willing to take a chance on it, and the book is out today. 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. That’s “debut” in English, of course. 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.

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. Here’s a piece of that conversation.

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DICK CLUSTER: My challenges in translating Poso Wells began with the title, which is a bilingual double pun. Because the title is half English and half Spanish in the original, my solution was to leave it that same way in English. But tell us about the title, H. G. Wells, and the origin of the book.

GABRIELA ALEMÁN: When I was 14, I read Wells’s novella The Country of The Blind. I couldn’t believe one of my favorite English authors had set his fiction in Ecuador. 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. 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. 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. I invented a poor neighborhood called Poso Wells. “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. 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. They would only accept him if he were like themselves. That was saying tons about where we are now, about blind men who ally themselves to power to perpetuate themselves. I brought the blind men from the Andes to the coast and the most populated city, Guayaquil. Guayaquil has always been a city of contrasts, where financial wealth is set among the poorest neighborhoods in the country. I started writing, and then things sort of fell into place. 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).

Yes, I think the book strikes a chord here too because of our political and electoral situation. And also because, within that context, it features characters out to uncover facts and truth.

Poso has a number of layers, and one of them is its proximity to detective fiction. Someone — in my book, it’s a journalist — is looking for the truth. I tend to think that journalists in Latin America are superheroes and detectives all rolled into one. 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. The closest we get to figures looking with tenacity for the “truth” are journalists. Usually without funds to carry out their investigations, usually with the establishment against them, usually without backup or time on their side.

At some point in the writing, I was reading a lot of Dickens and got to noticing the cliffhangers he wrote for periodicals. 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. 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. 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. Only, my explanation had to do with tunnels below the city, where the disappeared women are held captive by the blind men. The newspaper idea didn’t work out, but it did help to shape the book.

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. Can you say something about these choices?

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. 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. Whenever something appeared in the press about the shanty towns of Guayaquil, the women were always represented as victims. That is completely extraneous to the complex reality of daily life in marginalized areas. 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. Since I started publishing, I’ve been very conscious of what happens with my female characters. 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. The female characters were mostly backdrop and weren’t anything close to resembling real women. The triad of saint, whore, or mother could sum up way too many female characters of 20th-century Ecuadorian fiction. I thought teenagers reading in the 21st century would appreciate a different representation of women. “Real” women work, dream, are strong, can be bitches too.

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. What would you say about the mashup of genres?

I hate rules in fiction, and I love experimentation. I believe literature is the minefield of the imagination — a place of complexities as much as it is a place of discovery and joy. I understand that critics need definitions so they can study literature, but the divisions they establish only flatten out the possibilities. I love crossovers between horror and fantasy or historical fiction and suspense or between social realism and poetry. If you look at my bookcases, the breaking of boundaries starts out right there. 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. Le Guin next to Octavia Butler next to Joyce Carol Oates next to Poppy Z. Brite next to Kurt Vonnegut next to Neil Gaiman next to Dostoyevsky and Karel Čapek and Bioy Casares and Borges and César Dávila Andrade.

What was new for me in Poso Wells was the amount of humor running alongside the narrative. 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. 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.

My distrust of rules goes for the distinction between fiction and history too. I love to read history books, and, for some of my academic writing, I’ve had to become a historian of sorts. 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. And to get as close as you can to an objective truth you have to go through tons of materials and archives.

Absolutely. I’ve written fiction, journalism, and history, and I couldn’t agree more. 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? And selection is all about literary strategy — for reaching the reader — and point of view. I’m sure this is part of what attracted me to your writing, which often fictionalizes historical characters or events. 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. 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. This is your first book to be translated into English. What was that process like from your end?

I loved the process. I have a friend who translates his work when he is writing to see whether what he’s saying makes sense. 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. It was also interesting because H. G. 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. 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. It was like reading a different book with the same characters and situations. But you did such a great job that I like your version of Poso more than the one I had in my head. So, thanks!

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. In a lot of your work, I’ve noticed, there’s a good deal of cultural border crossing. As you mentioned, this was your first book to be set completely in Ecuador. Your latest novel, Humo (Smoke), is set in Paraguay, and a number of the characters are Europeans. Your first, Body Time, was set in New Orleans, but in Latin American academic circles there. Also, the bios on your book jackets tend to highlight that you played basketball in Switzerland and in Paraguay. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. Books have offered a safe haven where I don’t feel out of place and borders don’t exist.

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. My high school team in Geneva, ECOLINT, competed in the Swiss championships. 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. It was an incredible experience. Basketball, apart from being a great sport, makes you think of yourself as part of a team and not only as an individual. You have to practice every day, meet people from all walks of life, and share your time with them. 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.

Finally, I know you’ve done a lot of interviews about Poso Wells, mostly in Spanish. I want to know what you generally don’t get asked about, that you wish you did.

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. What’s most talked about are the blind men, but not what they did to those women for decades. 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. 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. The future survival of Ecuador (and the world) depends on those minerals staying underground. There is no way of not contaminating the water systems with all the chemicals used by the mining industry. 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. 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.

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Dick Cluster is a writer and translator who lives in Oakland, California. 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.


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