Real Life Stories: A Conversation with Bel Olid

March 16, 2022   •   By Liam Bishop

CATALONIAN AUTHOR Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds, published in January by Fum d’Estampa Press in Laura McGloughlin’s English translation, is a collection of short — sometimes very short — stories. Originally published in Catalonia in 2016, it features stories set at the crossroads not only of their characters’ lives but of history too. Some of the tales in Wilder Winds play out during civil wars; some take place during revolutions; others feature settings like refugee camps. Even the more mundane realities that Olid constructs can be settings for pivotal and tumultuous feelings and desires.

Diverging from their previous collection, Bad Reputation (Empúries, 2012), which Olid says “had a lot of violence, a lot of miscommunication,” Wilder Winds depicts more hopeful images of LGBTQ+ narratives. This isn’t to say that all of Olid’s stories are about queer desire, or issues of sexuality at all. Their characters sometimes negotiate a feeling of restlessness, a desire to break the norms and conventions they live by, when life, Olid says, “is more powerful than the rules.”

Olid’s résumé is wide: children’s as well as adult fiction, polemics and essays, translations of over 100 works in four different languages. And the teeming bookshelf behind them would attest to this diverse oeuvre (for instance, they’ve recently completed a translation of Judith Butler’s 1990 book, Gender Trouble, into Catalan). A Guy Fawkes mask — the kind made famous by V for Vendetta, now synonymous with contemporary protest movements — also sits on the bookshelf gazing down at us. An icon of the author’s fervent activism, it’s also a reminder of the value Olid places on being out in the world, finding real-life stories to inspire their work, and feeling and experiencing real life itself.

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LIAM BISHOP: This might be the first opportunity English readers will have to interact with your book. How would you contextualize Wilder Winds for those who might be reading your work for the first time?

BEL OLID: I am a little bit nervous, actually. I have a lot of fans in Catalan. A lot of people read English; I’ve discovered authors in English. I’m aware of the fact that being translated into English opens a huge door, a door that is now open for me. But one of my main interests as a writer is miscommunication. It’s become some kind of motto in my life, being a translator, and through my work as a whole, I’m always trying to make communication better. The problems we have today, I think, come from miscommunication.

In Wilder Winds, I wanted to offer some kind of hope. In my previous books — in Bad Reputation, for example — there was a lot of darkness, a lot of violence, a lot of miscommunication. I knew I couldn’t escape the ugliness of the world in Wilder Winds, but I wanted to show people doing positive things in a positive way, even though the characters might be in difficult situations. 

Miscommunication sounds like a benign term considering some of the themes your work addresses. Even in Wilder Winds, while I get a sense you were presenting more positive, hopeful images, there are, as you say, often people in difficult, compromising situations. What inspired your desire to present more hope?

There are characters of all ages — young, old — and some of them are undergoing a sexual awakening. All my characters are at different places in their lives, and they all have received a conditioning, as we do, to endure certain things, and not do certain things, yet some of them still do these things they’re not supposed to do. In “She’s a Woman,” the young protagonist is shocked at seeing another woman naked, and is then seduced by that woman’s daughter. She doesn’t know what to do with this desire. But in “Sea of Maimuná,” a different main character has a desire for another girl and goes along with it and sees how the desire plays out.

The characters are feeling life in a way. Life actually goes against the rules a lot of the time. We’re told you’re not supposed to feel any desire apart from heterosexual desire, and that’s what is seen in the world, and represented in the media and in mainstream fiction. But when you face this other desire, which might not be considered heterosexual, you have to decide what you do with this desire. That’s what I was interested in depicting in these stories: when life goes against alienating rules, when life is more powerful than these rules. This is what, I think, gives Wilder Winds a sense of hopefulness.

Can you tell me about how brevity helps you achieve this?

I take the space I need for every story. Sometimes it’s one or two pages. Sometimes, I’m writing about emotions in certain situations, so I leave a lot of space to make a judgment about the story. In “Red,” for example, there is a young girl who sees a woman giving birth at home, assisted by other women. It’s during the siege of Barcelona in 1714. It turns out that the woman dies before the baby is born, and within a few pages, the baby is taken from her womb. My neighbor told me that story — it actually happened to her, centuries after the time I decided to set the story in, during the Spanish Civil War, and even though 70 years had passed, I could see she was still shocked. I thought, what do you do with that information as a little girl? How do you process that? What is your place in the world? This idea connects with a lot of things, but for me it connects with gender and, when you are raised to be a woman, with the kind of messages you receive about what’s expected from you and what you are supposed to endure silently.

But I let you, the reader, write the context for these situations. I don’t like dwelling on descriptions at all. What the characters look like is not important in my stories, what they feel is. My work is still embodied, and what I’m interested in is how we feel and how the body is a means to feel things.

More often than not, your stories start in medias res: initially, you don’t give us a lot of details about the people and the environment you’re writing about. Why do you choose not to give more details about characters’ appearances?

Ultimately, how we look is a very direct way of dividing us into groups, a way to discriminate. Where I live right now, there’s a question of how we deactivate certain stereotypes. Racism, gender discrimination, transphobia: these are all really, really present where I live at the moment, as they are elsewhere. I lived as a woman for 40 years, but in the last few years, my identity has evolved toward the nonbinary and that makes me think about how society is expecting certain changes in my body to make that identity legible that I am not willing to make. The body can be a place of violence, it can be controlled and used and abused, but we can also heal, overcome the violence, and make the body a home. In my stories, I want to show how the body can be a place of pleasure.

Of course, when you don’t describe a character, the reader’s mind goes to the hegemonic idea of how a person should look (white, cisgendered, able bodied, etc.). I wish readers, in their minds, would make my characters look more like themselves.

In “Wild Flowers,” a story set during the Lisbon Revolution in 1910, a woman escapes to the mountains. She goes there and she starts to feel the sun, the cold of the water, and then she feels the gaze of a shepherd. They make this weird connection. They don’t ever touch, hardly speak, yet still, there is pleasure to be gained from that gaze. I’ve written a lot about how the body can be a place of violence and conflict, but here I wanted to show how, even in these moments, there are different possibilities, the body can be a place of pleasure and reclamation.

I like the moment in “Wild Flowers” where the woman is painting in the mountains, the sheep with their “dark, minuscule, shining eyes,” and how she chooses not to paint the shepherd. You write, “[She] hadn’t painted the man, even though, in some way, he was there.” This formulation, “he was there,” is echoed, in “Sea of Maimuná,” but to a different effect.

That is a different kind of story, based on a time when I visited a refugee camp. I talked to the volunteers about the horrible situation. I saw a teenager there who was the same age as my eldest son, and I was absolutely paralyzed by the thought that we, my family, could be there in that camp, in that situation without schooling, housing, without the most basic things. So that sentence, “I am here, they are there,” was with me for months.

For me, living my life: I open my fridge, there is food, beer, and hot water runs in my shower. “Refugee” does not describe the reality of their situation; it’s a horrible word, because they are seeking a refuge they don’t find, they are there and they don’t have any of these basic things. We are happy to forget people who are in that situation. So, when I wrote the “Sea of Maimuná,” I wanted to write the reality, and I also wanted to write hope. The main character goes to a refugee camp and she meets a girl. She finds out life is stronger than the rules, so life, desire — this desire between these two young girls — is stronger than the horrible situation and horrible politics. That doesn’t mean we don’t change the horrible politics, but while we do this, we can enjoy these bursts of life.

This must be a tricky balancing act. I like how you, as the writer, are not trying to prescribe what the subjective reality of the situation is for your characters. You let the reader construct the reality of the situation. Can you speak about how taking up the perspective of a child helps you do this?

From a literary perspective, it’s really interesting to see the world through the eyes of a child because they are less aware of the rules, and so they can more easily go with life. Children also learn the rules the hard way: they break them, someone then states the rules, and the child learns that that’s a rule, and then they have a choice whether to abide by or cross that boundary again.

But the world is so shocking. I feel a sense of estrangement from the world, and don’t understand what’s going on sometimes. The children I write as characters also feel very weird in the world and not very safe or reassured, which comes from a lot of my experiences as a child. It’s a counterpoint to the fact that, a lot of the time, we tend to romanticize childhood and make it out to be this paradise that we lose as grown-ups. In my experience, childhood was not paradise at all. It was hell, and it was difficult to get through.

There have been a lot of circumstances that situate me in weird places, in weird situations like the characters in Wilder Winds. Jeanette Winterson is very good at this. Her books have child characters who don’t understand what’s going on and why they can’t be the way they are — look at Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, for example — and I’m interested in this perspective when I write and read. 

I’m interested in what “rules” might represent to you, especially when it comes to sexuality and desire.

There is a problem because some rules are good. We have a rule that we should be nice and not hit people. That’s a rule I like. It’s a nice rule, it protects me and other people and helps us live better together. But there are some rules that don’t help us live better together. For example, heterosexuality. That’s not a law in my country now, you can marry a person of your gender, but it is still a rule. And it’s a rule learned very early on as a child. Like, for instance, when you’re a girl and people ask if you have a boyfriend, and you are not given other options to answer this question.

On a personal note, I have lived as a woman for 40 years, but for the last few years, it’s clear I am not a woman, I am gender-expansive, nonbinary. All the rules say I am a woman, but I am not. Living as a woman for 40 years, I suffered the kind of violence women suffer, and now I am suffering the invisibility of being outside a binary. Following the rules makes life easier, but I can’t do that anymore, it’s not a reality. A lot of people are not straight. This rule that heterosexuality is the default doesn’t help anybody: it goes against life. So, when I say life is stronger than the rules, what I mean is that you learn all these rules, and then you overstep a boundary like the girl in “Sea of Maimuná,” and you feel differently about the world.

In that story, desire goes somewhere, and it finds an outlet. Desire must be strong, otherwise people would go by the rules because people don’t want to be picked on or bullied. We don’t know what will happen to the girls in the story, probably not a lot. I left them in a place of happiness, though. In “Wild Flowers,” desire doesn’t really go anywhere in the practical reality of things; it’s an internal movement for the character, and she feels the urge to go back and live her life. In “She’s a Woman,” there’s this shock of seeing the woman shaving, and now she is being seduced and doesn’t feel comfortable in the situation. A lot of the time, we think of desire as this force that makes us do things; sometimes it’s a powerful, internal movement that doesn’t need to be exteriorized.

In Wilder Winds, I write about these constraints that are put there by society but do not always help the characters live better lives. That’s what my fight is against: those rules that don’t give us a better life.

Speaking of wanting to write more hopeful narratives than you might have previously, what inspired you, and what continues to inspire you, to write about hope?

I recently translated Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (2004), and I found it was good for me because it renewed my strength by simply stating that “the struggle will not end.” The struggle has its own rhythm, and you need to realize what the struggle has brought you. Solnit also reminds me that I’m probably not going to see the world I’m fighting for, but if I don’t fight for it, it might never happen. So, I’m fighting in the hope that someone will see what we’re fighting for. Also, there is a lot of joy in doing what you think you believe in, even if it’s tiresome, and I get a lot of harassment for being feminist and queer. I feel a lot of joy too, because I feel like I’m doing something I believe in and hoping it matters to someone.

A lot of readers have said that they read my book and it mattered to them, said it helped them find a home, a literary home. When Jeanette Winterson was in Barcelona a couple of years ago, I interviewed her. She talks about reading and how, when you’re alone in the night, it’s cold, and you’re feeling miserable, you can pick up a book. Suddenly, there’s someone from another century or a different country speaking to you. Winterson says that reading can steady you and remind you that you’re a human being with dignity and a life of your own, not subject to the values of everybody else or the outside.

I get that feeling as a reader a lot, and it’s really powerful for me when people talk about my books making them feel they’re not alone at night. Writing helps me organize my ideas, but it makes sense to publish them because I know my work has provided some company for readers, so I’m happy to go on working.

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Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, United Kingdom. His writing has appeared in Brixton Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, Review 31, and many others. He also interviews writers on the Rippling Pages podcast.

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Featured image: “Il·lumina la llibertat (40376598211) (cropped)” by Òmnium Cultural is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.