Granta has just published its second edition of the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, celebrating 25 new writers from Spanish-speaking countries and championing their English-language translators. Valerie Miles, the co-founder of Granta en Español (started in 2003), is the guest editor of the special issue, which showcases the work of the most exciting novelists under 35 in the Spanish-speaking world. The list beams its spotlight on budding talent, and constructing it involved a consuming jury and editorial process full of fierce commitment and collaboration. The committee of six included Valerie Miles as well as Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rodrigo Fresán, Chloe Aridjis, Aurelio Major, and Gaby Wood. In the resulting issue, there are 13 countries and territories represented: six writers from Spain, four from Mexico, three from Argentina, three from Cuba, two from Chile, one writer each from Colombia, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay, and one who is from both Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. Across the map, we encounter writers who are electrifying language and finding new risks and rewards in storytelling.
Miles is an American writer and translator living in Barcelona, and she is a central figure at the intersection between Spanish- and English-language literature. She established the NYRB Classics series in Spanish and curated the Center for Contemporary Culture’s exhibition dedicated to Roberto Bolaño’s archival papers in Barcelona. She teaches translation and creative writing at Pompeu Fabra University, has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, El País, and the Paris Review, and is the editor of the Spanish-language fiction anthology A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
I asked Miles about the process of putting together the second edition of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
NATHAN SCOTT MCNAMARA: In your introduction to this issue, you write that most Spanish-speaking countries share space with other languages, which “feed into and influence this magma of constantly evolving registers and variations in syntax and lexes.” In Bolivia, for example, there are 37 co-official languages. How do you think this ends up more as a source of electricity rather than a complication for readers in English or Spanish?
VALERIE MILES: If literature is a phenomenon of language, then, as Aristotle said, a poetic language should seem strange and wonderful. It should reenchant the known world by defamiliarizing it and illuminating it so that we see anew the things we had stopped seeing because they are too close.
We know that habituation dulls our senses and that language can get old and tired. Words can be hollowed out and stripped of meaning. But a writer with a keen ear, a particularly sharp wit, or a natural sense of pace, rhythm, and the poetic can shake up that lethargy, toggle reality so that things that are familiar become slightly different, uncanny, enchanted. Or, on the contrary, things that we thought were so different from us, so far away, take on the qualities of the familiar. Roman Jakobson called this defamiliarization through literature an “organized violence committed on ordinary language.” I don’t know if I subscribe to that metaphor in today’s context, but I do think language is supposed to transform and intensify our relationship with the world.
“Language is a skin,” Barthes wrote. “I rub my language against the other.” I suppose the difference between complication and electricity is the level of talent a writer has for using his or her material. But as I say in the introduction to the issue, many words that were once strange and evocative of things unknown are now our tomatoes and potatoes, our toboggans, hammocks, and hurricanes.
You note that for the 2010 list, if you reset the stories geographically and removed specific markers, it would have been difficult to distinguish the nationality of the writers based on their prose. For the 2021 list, you say that’s not the case. What do you think are some of the reasons these writers may be more comfortable forgoing “the idea of a more ‘neutral’ Spanish”?
This is one of the most exciting discoveries of the issue. The trend has been there, but perhaps we hadn’t yet defined it as such, or noticed it as something so widespread. It relates to aesthetics and linguistics, as well as to literary and publishing history. It’s important to note that it’s nothing new in Spanish-language tradition, some examples being Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Juan Rulfo, Manuel Puig, Hebe Uhart or Daniel Sada. But before the new technologies came along, the centers of publishing and the road to accessing them were very exclusive.
When the industry first professionalized in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, there wasn’t much of a reading public outside of the upper classes in Latin America. Then, under Franco, the center of the publishing industry was displaced to Latin America — many of the Spanish intellectuals were exiled there, and the middle class developed. After Franco, the centers of publishing moved back to Spain, and a period of conglomeration meant that Spain, with European knowhow, became the undisputed center. And the transatlantic literary conversation fell silent for a while, save for the writers of the Boom generation who spent time in Paris and Spain. Prizes, reviews, criticism, being taken seriously in the media — all of these were largely reserved for a specific type of writer: male, urban, properly educated, of a certain class, or with the right agent or friends. It was a social club with myriad extraliterary interests.
But creative writing programs have produced, first of all, very discerning and demanding readers, and they have also taught writers the maxim of writing about what you know. A burgeoning indie publishing scene, especially in Latin America, has taken root, opening a more direct channel for writers to access readers. What once gave writers complexes or kept them out of the club — origins, race, gender — is now precious material for storytelling and making connections with readers. Hearing local registers is no longer something to be ashamed of, but to celebrate. Before, writers were standardized, and now the differential is what makes their stories interesting, because it’s what appeals to the readers, not to the centers of publishing power.
Spanish is a fascinating language. Some ask, isn’t this also the case with English, too? English is spoken in so many different registers around the world. Its vocabulary is the largest of them all, at over a million words. It’s a language that absorbs slang so easily and takes in expressions from so many other languages. I may be opening a can of worms here at my own peril, but I throw it out as a topic of discussion: I think it’s easier for a reader from, say, Peru, to read Don Quixote without annotations, than it is for a reader from, say, Arizona, to understand Shakespeare. There’s something about the grammatical structure of the Spanish that allows for lexical boisterousness, panache, without obstructing comprehension. The syntactical scaffolding somehow enables semantic experimentation. I’ll leave that to the experts. But what I can say is that contemporary writers in the Spanish language are on to something. There is an existing tradition to continue forward, and they’re having a field day: Fernanda Melchor, Selva Almada, Andrea Abreu, Paulina Flores, José Ardila, Mónica Ojeda, Cristina Morales, Dainerys Machado, etc.
You note an increase in humor, satire, and irony among the writers on this list. Why do you think these qualities have become more pronounced in this generation?
When Bolaño was given the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1999, the jury said it was in part because he used humor, which was something “infrequent in Spanish-language literature.” I think this is one of the doors Bolaño opened for the next generation, because he shattered some of the prejudices of critics and the complexes of writers about what could be considered “serious” literature. Which is a bit odd when you consider that the whole tradition descends from Don Quixote and the satirical poets from the Golden Age, like Quevedo.
In Spain, and particularly in Latin America, there is a continuance of the French tradition where a literary writer takes on the role of public intellectual, engaged, like Sartre or Camus. So even though Borges and Bioy Casares had already begun breaking down certain prejudices with noir and detective fiction, there remained the idea that genres like science fiction or humor were not in the realm of “high” literature. But writers like Bolaño or Enrique Vila-Matas, who use parody, satire, and varying degrees of tongue-in-cheek, opened the avenue for satire, wit, sarcasm, and a more ludic approach to writing, with the same ambition of “serious” literature. Anyone who reads Bolaño knows how much fun it is, even though his work also takes a plate-eyed swan dive into the abyss of darkness and despair. It’s the paradox of a vibrant, vivid, entertaining style that also obliges us to keep our eyes open to see pure evil. Pathos by way of contrast, and humor as a dead serious business. Honey attracts flies better than vinegar, but the end result is still a dead fly. And nowadays, there’s something ridiculous in that tone of high-seriousness, right? Perhaps because it reminds us of dictators. Laughter is subversive. It’s not a happy laughter, it’s a subversive use of the elements of humor.
Estanislao Medina Huesca, the writer in the selection who is from Equatorial Guinea, said about his readers, living so many years under the Obiang dictatorship with the notorious Black Beach prison on the horizon, that they are “people whose approach to life is mellow and easy-going, who stumble along and laugh so as not to cry.”
You say that two of the most cited influences on these writers are Roberto Bolaño and Sylvia Plath. What do you think it is about these two writers that spilled across this generation?
Esther Greenwood as Lady Lazarus? She’s become a new icon of teenage angst, taking the place that Holden Caulfield held all these years, even in the Spanish. There’s a current among young writers and readers of searching out to read and reconsider women writers who were passed over in their time. Lucia Berlin was another huge success in the Spanish language, Diane di Prima is being translated and published, and, of course, Clarice Lispector and Valentine Penrose. Writers from the language who are recently being read or reread are Emma Reyes, María Luisa Bombal, Marosa di Giorgio, Idea Vilariño, Silvina Ocampo, or Ida Vitale, who, luckily, is still alive.
Bolaño’s humor and use of popular genres opened new possibilities, but opened a lot more than just that. He was also a Chilean writer who wrote the great Mexican novel from Spain. In his notes, he talks about how he was trying to infuse a certain Mexican cadence and melody into his early writing. It didn’t matter that he was or wasn’t Mexican or Chilean or Spanish. Also, Bolaño was an outsider, from an underclass, divested of his natural readership. He didn’t even finish high school, yet he unabashedly took on the good fight with the highest practitioners of art: Dante and Arcimboldo, the troubadours, Nietzsche and Racine. He considered these artists and writers as much his as anyone else’s, and he was in conversation with them, with their work and their ideas. Along with Burroughs and Robbe-Grillet and Borges and Cortázar and his beloved Archilochus, who threw his shield away in battle to save his life. He was omnivorous and unapologetic. He turned the vice of an unstable family background, of being undocumented, into fuel for his art. He completely leveled the playing field.
Do you think the role, image, and perception of the translator have shifted since the 2010 list?
Yes, definitely. The translators have a very important role in the sequence of how a text is not only published, but found. They are important sources of information and arbiters of taste. At least, that’s the case between English and Spanish. The Spanish and the Anglo approaches to editing are at times at odds — for some reason the Spanish don’t like to work with editors as much as the Anglo tradition does. I bring this up often, and we talked about it the other day with Samantha Schnee, who translated the Nicaraguan writer in this issue of Granta. The Spanish-language writers have that old-fashioned French idea that the text descends from genius, the divine, and an editor shouldn’t touch a comma. In my Paris Review interview with Camilo José Cela, he says he’d throw an editor out the window if he dared touch a comma. So often the translator mediates that and works not only as a translator but also as an editor for the English-language edition.
We put the names of the translators in the original Spanish-language edition as well, because of that. As the editor of both the Spanish- and the English-language editions, I had the chance to work with the translators on the second part of the process. First, I worked with the writers editing the original texts, then with the translators editing the translations. And at times there were details that came to the fore that the translator and I would discuss, often bringing in the writers, and we would consider changes in the original Spanish, too, in a constant ping-pong between the Spanish and the English. In other words, translators are also editors, who help interpret and consider meaning in the texts. They helped me, the team of editors at Granta, and the authors consider certain words and expressions and idioms that bled into considerations in the original, too. The translators are part and parcel of the team that not only made the English-language edition what it is but also helped make the Spanish-language edition even better.
What are some of the primary logistical obstacles preventing Spanish-speaking countries not represented in this collection from having the scaffolding necessary to foster novel writing? Are there ways in which national and global changes since 2010 have encouraged the expansion and diversification of this list?
Very clearly, we are seeing an uptick in writers who are writing from the periphery and renewing the center as a result. That is an exciting topological movement. Even in the countries where there is a flourishing literary scene with publishers and booksellers and fairs and festivals, many of the writers don’t come from the urban centers or capitals. In Spain, the writers selected come from Seville, the Canary Islands, Granada, or Mallorca, instead of the traditional axis of only Madrid or Barcelona. José Ardila, the Colombian writer on the list, is from a small town in coastal Colombia, not even Medellín.
While in 2010 there were only eight countries represented, with more than half of the writers from Argentina or Spain, in 2021 there are 13 countries, thanks to the sudden eruption of a group of Cuban writers. It’s an exciting development — it means that Cuba is coming back to the table, as it were, and the selection shows a range of differences: one is a writer who was imprisoned and spends his time in Mexico City or New York, one is an oncologist from Guantanamo who lives in Havana, and the third is the first student to have been given a visa under Obama-era programs — neither exile nor refugee — a scholar earning her PhD in comparative literature in Miami. There are a few Central American writers, too, and writers who are exploring indigenous themes and using original mythopoesis from Ecuador and Peru. There are more than double the amount of women writers on the list this time, though still a few less than men, 11 to 14. What we noticed is that the majority of the writers born in the 1990s were women, which means that wave is coming.
It’s a wildly diverse list, though that diversity is an expression of reality and not an imposition by the jury, which is what makes this issue so valuable and exciting. Granta’s lists only come out once every 10 years. They are meant to be a snapshot of what is emerging in the literature of a specific language in a moment of time. The magazine cares deeply about diversity and its quarterly issues are the best and most uncontestable demonstration of that mission. But these very specific generational snapshots are a tradition that began 40 years ago, responding to a “scientific method” of repeating variables: age, previous publication, fiction, work of the imagination that is not poetry or essay or reportage.
So, the selections detect talent and trends but by no means impose them or impose any canon or try to make a trend appear that isn’t there. They are meant to last over time and need to be plugged in to the spirit of the times — to describe it, not create it. This is key. We read to find writers who are not readers but rereaders, we looked for consciousness captured on the page, strong storytelling, no selfies, no photoshop, but originality, writers who write like their lives depend on it, that urgency, that attitude. The fact that it is a diverse list is that much more exciting, because it means it’s a reality. We didn’t create a list to reflect it, reality itself reflects it: talent is coming from these places of diversity and periphery.
There are some countries not represented, mostly because we didn’t receive candidacies, or received very few of them, such as Venezuela, where we received two, but one was ineligible due to age, and the other writer didn’t make the selection but is given a mention in the introduction. It makes me think that, though we sent our call around as widely and insistently as we could, and though there is an Equatorial Guinean writer on the list who lives in an area that doesn’t even have bookstores — showing the extent of our outreach speaking with writers, editors, agents, journalists, universities — for some reason there were places that didn’t respond. Whether because editors didn’t get involved or journalists didn’t publish the news in their arts sections, or they were skeptical, but in the end, they didn’t give themselves the opportunity to be considered.
The anthology includes those born on or after January 1, 1985 (age 35 or younger), with at least one novel or story collection published or under contract. What are the merits of using age as a regulator rather than opening the list to, say, “emerging” writers regardless of birthdate?
Comparatists and scholars will understand the need for this way of fencing off your area of examination and sticking to a specific criterion. The point of these once-in-a-decade issues is not to say, “These are the writers who excel now.” We’re examining a generational experience, writers who have come into consciousness at a certain period of time, together, 35 years ago at the most. And how a certain language is being expressed, in these years, by people who have developed the same level of consciousness, at the same time.
The pages of Granta are always open to emerging writers regardless of age, and one of our missions in Spanish Granta is to keep open a vigorous conversation between older writers and younger ones. We publish new work by Ida Vitale, who is 97, and we published Aurora Venturini, who emerged at 85 when she was given a prize for a novel that was supposed to be for young people, in Argentina. But if after 40 years we were to change the variables, we would lose the ability to compare historically.
These selections are a long-lasting project, and their interest grows over time. In order to compare, you need the same conditions, or you ruin it and miss the whole point. It’s like throwing the I Ching. You can try to change the variables to four coins instead of three, or use seven lines that transform at two and five, but then it’s no longer the I-Ching. It’s something else.
You say that your jury of six — you, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rodrigo Fresán, Chloe Aridjis, Aurelio Major, and Gaby Wood — “were all in some sense or other outsiders.” What were the perks of being an outsider when it came to building this list of 25 writers? What did your conversations look and sound like?
Our outsider status meant we were intimately familiar with and well versed in different traditions in Spanish-language literature, but we aren’t directly involved in or beholden to local friends or editors or reviewers. It worked for us the first time around, in 2010, so we wanted to repeat that formula. It just frees the jurors from feeling local pressure and avoids the types of friendships or jealousies that could cloud judgment.
I began sending materials to the jury in batches every week. We wrote to each other, read and considered, and then held two long deliberating sessions by Zoom. We came to a consensus on a first group of writers in the first session, but really had to persuade and discuss and describe our choices. Following the first deliberation, we all went off to reread a group of writers in light of our discussions and met again a few weeks later to continue hashing things out. Our deliberations were memorable and intense, and we all commented on feeling separation anxiety afterward. They were vivid, heightened encounters during those scary days of lockdowns and disquieting monotony. Any preconceptions we had about a digital generation with addled brains and nonexistent attention spans fell away. We had a hard time whittling the 200 down to 25, and all of us had to give up writers we felt very strongly about. We weeded through a lot of “selfie fiction” and were very severe on the use of the first person, perhaps because we love it and expect a lot of it: like Emmanuel Carrère and Annie Ernaux, writers who eviscerate themselves in their exploration of self, or Joyce and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But some seemed more like photoshop fiction, and one had to ask: you are writing this because … ?
We read blindly, we didn’t look up the editors they worked with, the schools they studied at, the reviews. That’s the only way it works. Our sessions felt like playing the Ouija board. While discussing our readings and idiosyncrasies of taste: “I love,” “I hate,” “over my dead body,” we said. And a sort of forcefield built up in our Zoom space and we all started swaying this way and that way with our hands on the mouse and it brought us to this spot of 25 writers. And when the hairs on the napes of our necks raised, we said this is it. These are they. And throughout the process, we also breathed a sigh of relief thinking: the kids are going to be fine. Literature is prevailing and just look at this vibrant new scene in the Spanish language, there are some world-class writers coming up the ranks.
You’ve personally had a seismic career in getting Spanish writers translated into English and English writers translated into Spanish. Where did your passion for reading and curation come from?
Some of my earliest memories have to do with the estrangement of language. My earliest memory is when I was calling out a sequence of letters to my mother, and finally one actually happened to spell a word: E-A-R. My first word! And it felt like suddenly the world aligned in a new, strange way. I didn’t know or understand, but I could feel how the universe had just shivered.
When I eventually learned there was another way of saying things, in Spanish, I was hooked. Nobody spoke Spanish in my house, it was very foreign, but the possibility of it felt like a secret refuge, like a way of distancing from the English language that seemed almost invisible to me for being too close. I used to draw the sky purple; my mother would say, But the sky is blue! It was my secret code, just displaced one crayon over in the pack.
I remember reading Madame Bovary as a teenager, and the world shivering again. I remember thinking: how dangerous, how subversive. How angry I was at her fate! I tried to do other things in life, but I just always ended up coming back to reading as center.
I devoured the Lost Generation and Gertrude Stein, and they gave me the model of a life. But that life brought me to Barcelona instead of Paris. I was close to Paul Bowles at the time and taught myself to write in Spanish. First, I wrote about Anglo literature for La Vanguardia, then became an editor, publishing writers that weren’t in print in the Spanish, like Cheever and Richard Yates, and new titles in translation: Lydia Davis, Eliot Weinberger, Colm Tóibín, Jhumpa Lahiri, Susan Sontag, Günter Grass, John Berger, John Banville, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Theroux, Michel Houellebecq, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, to name just a few.
I began also publishing Spanish-language writers like Aira or Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo. My first book, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, came out of my time working in Alfaguara. It’s a series of conversations around what some of the great 20th-century authors consider their best pages, many of whom I’d known or worked with, like Javier Marías, Juan Goytisolo, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Mario Vargas Llosa, Hebe Uhart, Aurora Venturini, Ana María Matute.
Then, I published a Spanish-language line of the New York Review Books Classics collection, because we had been working with Rea Hederman in launching Spanish Granta in 2003, with poet and editor Aurelio Major. Spanish Granta was the space that brought these two worlds together in a single publication, and it has continued doing so ever since.
The cherry on the cake has been working in Roberto Bolaño’s archive for several years, editing a few of his books. We published his second “Infrarrealist Manifesto” in a Spanish Granta issue dedicated to Mexico, and I curated, with the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, the first exhibition dedicated to his archived materials.
Since then, I’ve added more languages to my cache. Spanish is my first love, but it’s amazing how my idea of a window has taken so many new shapes.
I had the joy of digitally attending the press conference for this new list in Madrid, and you also hosted a digital roundtable discussion and launch event. What were the virtues of being forced into thinking so consciously about a digital (as well as in-person) component to these events?
I’m so glad you were able to join us from Rhode Island at a press conference at the Cervantes Institute in Madrid, with writers from all over the Spanish-speaking world! That basically sums up how valuable the digital platforms have become for projects like this once-in-a-decade Granta issue, which brings in so many different countries and continents. It’s been key to celebrating it, and to sharing it, and to the experience of it. I love the hybrid events, too, being in person, but also beaming people in from different places, and addressing people across so many different time zones. In Madrid, we had Estanislao from Malabo introduce himself to the audience, and Eudris from Havana, and Aniela from Mexico City, and Camila from Buenos Aires, and Miluska from Lima, and Dainerys from Miami, while four of the Spanish writers, Irene, David, Alejandro, and Munir, were there with Monica, from Ecuador. And we did the same with the presentation in Casa Amèrica Catalunya in Barcelona, adding Rodrigo Fresán from the jury, and Paulina from Chile, with several others beaming in. We’ve been able to do so many virtual events and bring writers together in ways that would have been prohibitive in person, not only because of COVID: at Harvard’s Observatorio, at Oxford, at the British Library, the Brooklyn Public Library. And we have events coming up at Brazos Books, etc.
It’s always fascinating to see how writers interact with each other and get to know each other’s work in direct communication. We’ll be doing a first in-person signing in Fort Lauderdale at the end of June. I’ll be meeting Michel and Dainerys in person for the first time, but I feel as though I already know them so well from all our virtual conversations!
Having the digital platforms allows us to add a performative dimension to the project, too, and explore new ways of reaching the public. We’ve been doing bilingual readings, and at Three Percent, Chad Post is hosting a series with the writers and their translators, both reading from their work. I’m hoping to do more events that bring the writers and their translators together to talk about how we worked together editing in English, Spanish, and with the Granta team. Granta is not only dedicated to new writing but also to supporting translation. In this issue, we showcase the work of emerging translators alongside some of the heavyweights: Lindsay Griffiths working with Adrián Izquierdo, Lizzie Davis and Lucy Greaves, alongside Margaret Jull Costa, Jennifer Croft, Megan McDowell, Natasha Wimmer, Esther Allen, Katie Silver, and Daniel Hahn.
Writers from the first Granta Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists — such as Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Pola Oloixarac, and Elvira Navarro — have become big names in the English-speaking literary scene. What is it like to work on a list like this and then watch the writers go on to find greater literary traction on a global level?
It’s exhilarating. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than giving a leg up to talent, to watching it take off, knowing that all these remarkable writers needed was a break, a little visibility. Even if sometimes, because they’re young, they can’t quite appreciate it yet, or people around them professionally don’t want to acknowledge you.
A project like this has to come from a deeply personal place, because to me, it feels like doing something to keep the universe shivering. We’ve been publishing Spanish Granta for 20 years to be able to get to this selection, thanks to Sigrid Rausing who gave us the opportunity both in 2010, when we worked with John Freeman, and now in 2021. She’s been a guiding light, a constant source of encouragement, and it’s been such a privilege to work with her and her editor, Luke Neima, with whom we’ve been in close collaboration for nearly a decade now, and the extraordinary team at Granta.
The 2010 list was the first time Granta ever ceded an entire issue to a language other than English. Unusual things take a lot of effort, and I can’t help but want to share with English-language readers the remarkable vibrancy of the Spanish-language literary scene right now, of all ages. It’s an incredible time for writing in this language. This is the good fight. I feel proud whenever I see one of these writers, or others that we have supported in the magazine outside of the lists, thrive.
Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.