Twenty Questions with Angélica Gorodischer
Angélica Gorodischer was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1928 but has lived for most of her life in the city of Rosario. She has published seventeen novels, many of them with fantastic or science fictional themes, and has won numerous awards. In 1996 she received the Dignity Award from the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights on account of her work for women’s rights. Her novel Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was (excerpt), widely considered a classic of contemporary Spanish language fantastic fiction, was recently translated by Ursula Le Guin and published in 2003 by Small Beer Press. Gabriel Mesa began interviewing Angélica Gorodischer by e-mail early in 2003 and finished the interview in person over a long, leisurely lunch at Vong Restaurant in New York City, where the author had stopped for a day on her way to WisCon. The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and then translated into English by Gabriel Mesa.
Gabriel Mesa: Let’s begin with what may be a trivial point, but it will save me some embarrassment when we meet in person. Someone was asking me recently whether there was any question, regardless of how silly, that an interviewer never asks a writer but that I would be curious to have answered. I responded that the first thing I always like to know about anyone, not just a writer, is how to pronounce their name so I don’t seem disrespectful. So, Angélica — is it Go_RO_discher o Goro_DIS_cher?
Angélica Gorodischer: I don’t think it’s a silly question. One’s name is very important. It’s Goro_DIS_cher. It’s my husband’s name. My fellow feminists ask me why I took my husband’s name and I answer: 1) I like Gorodischer more than Arcal (my maiden name); 2) my mother’s name was María Angélica Junquet and she was a writer and signed her name Angélica de Arcal — if I used my father’s last name I would still have to explain that I am not my mother; and 3) last but not least, there are no female surnames, all surnames are male surnames. Even in Iceland, where there are no surnames in the sense in which we use the term, people are called by the name of the father, which when you think about it is rather dubious. The only thing true and proven is that one is one’s mother’s daughter. As for the father… well, he’s the father because the mother says so. And in any event, I am free to choose. I choose my husband’s name: we’ve been married for over fifty years.
Gabriel Mesa: Many people seem to ignore that Argentina is a country that may be as diverse, in terms of the countries from which its population emigrated, as the United States, for instance. May I ask from where your and your husband’s ancestors came to Argentina?
Angélica Gorodischer: At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Argentina said to the world: Come! And the world came, in a flood of people. And our grandfathers and great-grandfathers are still there, at our backs, just as they came from Spain, from Italy, from Syria, from France, from Egypt, from the Veneto, from Lyons, from Russia, from Germany, from wherever. My mother’s father came from France and here he married a local girl. My father’s father came from Aragón in Spain. My husband is himself an immigrant: he’s from a Jewish family and arrived with his mother (his father had come five years earlier seeking a job) from the Ukraine, one of the last few people allowed to leave the Soviet Union legally.
Gabriel Mesa: You are a well-known writer, not only in Argentina but in the entire Spanish-speaking world. In the United States readers are beginning to know you due to the release of your book Kalpa Imperial by Small Beer Press, which was the main motivation for this interview. First of all let me congratulate you, as is this is an important event for those who are lovers not only of the fantastic but of Latin American literature generally. For our U.S. audience, could you give us a brief summary of your career as a writer?
Angélica Gorodischer: Thank you for your congratulations. As far as my career is concerned, at the age of seven I decided that I would be a writer. I had been reading a great deal since the age of five, and as we all know, writers are born from readers. My house was full of books, and books were my toys and my refuge. But then life arrives and smacks you on the head and you have to go to elementary school (“at the age of seven I had to interrupt my education to go to school,” as they say George Bernard Shaw said), then to high school, study languages, fight with your mother and your father and with the world in general, have a few boyfriends (preferably not all at the same time), go to college, marry, have children, etc. Until at the age of 30, the worst time to do these things, since I had a husband, three small children, a house, a garden, a dog, a cat and a job (as a librarian) outside of the house, I said it’s now or never and I started to write professionally. I won a crime fiction contest, and another contest with a book of short stories. I found in my life generous editors (Daniel Divinsky, Paco Porrúa, Jorge Sánchez) that published me even though I was an unknown. I did well. And one day I discovered science fiction, and I said, this is what I want to do. And I did, over the course of four or five books. I’ve written and published 20 books so far, not necessarily all SF, but the mark that SF leaves on a writer is very deep, and you definitely can’t say that I am a “realist” writer. I’ve written about all kinds of things and every one of my books is very different from the others, which delights me. You can say that I have carved a style out of all my various resources, out of being different in every book.
Gabriel Mesa: Looking back, what significance does Kalpa Imperial have to you in your career as a writer?
Angélica Gorodischer: I don’t know if the book is good or bad, that’s something I can’t judge, but I think it has a richness of language and many concepts that fold in on each another. I started out with the desire to write the Western version of The Thousand and One Nights, which was really quite pretentious of me. But Kalpa was what came out, and it tempted me even more as I wrote each story. A critic friend of mine says that it is “a manual for the good ruler.” I like that.
Gabriel Mesa: The translation of Kalpa Imperial was carried out by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of the most important writers of fantastic literature in the United States. What motivated Le Guin to work on this project, given that translation is obviously not her primary vocation? And how was your experience working with her?
Angélica Gorodischer: Ursula Le Guin and I met in 1988 when I was in the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. They took us to Portland and I said, “I want to meet Ursula Le Guin!” And we met at a table in front of a marvelous bookstore, over cups of coffee, very Argentine-style. Since then we’ve sent each other letters and photographs and cards. She’s worked many times on translations, with Diana Bellessi, for example, who is one of our greatest poets. And for me, the fact that we would keep in touch word for word over Kalpa was the source of a very deep joy.
Gabriel Mesa: I understand that Kalpa Imperial was first published in 1983, so that it’s actually twenty years old this year. What do you think finally led to it being translated and published in English after all this time?
Angélica Gorodischer: Our publishing industry has so many ups and downs that seeing a book rereleased is fairly remote. Suddenly Ursula Le Guin read the text and told me she was going to translate some stories. I almost died of delight. She had been translating Borges and between Kalpa stories she also translated various Latin American poets. I believe that there may lie the secret of Kalpa’s publication in the United States.
Gabriel Mesa: The genre of fantastic literature in Latin American is often identified with “magical realism,” where fantasy mixes with a certain social and political reality that is particular to the region and its history. I view Kalpa Imperial a bit differently. With the exception of one section where reference is made to certain music and movie stars of our world, the vast empire of Kalpa Imperial takes place in its own universe, far from ours, although perhaps not entirely isolated. In this manner I find it closer to the fantastical creations of Calvino, Borges and Kafka than of García Marquez, Vargas Llosa or Isabel Allende. What do you think?
Angélica Gorodischer: There is no magical realism in Argentina. The narrative of this country is an urban narrative, if you discount the “gaucho literature” that of course was not written by gauchos but by very rich and important gentlemen who wrote from their position as the masters of the estate. Everything else is urban narrative. If magical realism has been written in Argentina, it does not have any roots in our reality (with the exception of “Los Viernes de la Eternidad” (“The Fridays of Eternity”), by María Granata). There is, of course, a great deal of fantastic fiction, including SF, but no magical realism. And thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting me on the side of Borges and Calvino and Kafka, who are writers whom I respect enormously, and not on the side of those other writers you mention, whom I absolutely do not respect at all, at all, at all.
Gabriel Mesa: Another question, somewhat related to the earlier one. Tolkien was said to become very irritated if The Lord of the Rings was ever interpreted allegorically. Does Kalpa Imperial have any allegorical elements? I ask because I remember having read the comment of some reader that Kalpa Imperial was intended as a critique of the military dictatorship that Argentina suffered during so many years. Was this your intention?
Angélica Gorodischer: No, I don’t believe there is anything allegorical in Kalpa. Now, I did write it during the military dictatorship and maybe that comes through. Not as an allegory so much as in terms of the theme I selected, which is power. But I had no different intention when writing Kalpa than the one I always have when I write: to tell a story.
Gabriel Mesa: What authors would you say most influenced you during the writing of Kalpa? The book as such mentions Tolkien and Andersen. Are there others? I wonder in particular whether you’ve read the Irish author Lord Dunsany. I saw a certain similarity between your work in this book and his, but I ignore whether it’s intentional.
Angélica Gorodischer: Yes, of course I’ve read Lord Dunsany as I’ve read the works of so many people that write fantastic fiction. Of course, one never writes alone. One writes in the company of all one has read. Sometimes I have the sensation that someone (someone very dear) is looking over my shoulder as I write. Probably it’s someone who’s thinking, oh, what silly things this woman is writing! But the important thing is that they’re there. For example, when I wrote Prodigios (Marvels), Natalia Ginzburg was looking over my shoulder, I’m sure of that. That text gave me a lot of trouble, and I think I wouldn’t have finished it had she not been there with me. While I wrote Kalpa, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges watched me write. I suspect they shook their heads because they didn’t like what I was doing. But still, being nice gentlemen they were supportive at all times.
Gabriel Mesa: Kalpa consists of a series of independent but related tales. Were they tales that you wrote separately and then decided to unify or did you have the idea from the beginning that they would be a thematically linked series? Also, I understand that Kalpa was originally published in two parts.
Angélica Gorodischer: Yes, it was published in two volumes because the publisher did not want to take many risks and claimed they didn’t have enough money. The choice was either to publish in two volumes or not to publish at all. I chose the former. But the text is only one. It always was and I planned it as a whole.
Gabriel Mesa: Who are currently your favorite writers, be they Argentine, Latin American or from elsewhere?
Angélica Gorodischer: Borges, of course. Borges always. Balzac, also always. Alejo Carpentier, Clarice Lispector, Armonía Somers, Juan Rulfo, Mercé Rodoreda, Grace Paley, Marcel Proust. Oh, so many people, so many!
Gabriel Mesa: And what about favorite authors who are also influences?
Angélica Gorodischer: Influences are very subtle currents. One doesn’t learn anything directly, one absorbs (at least in my case that’s how it is) and swallows and assimilates and sometimes it comes out in some other way. I consider that my literary father is Borges (together with Balzac, Arlt, Woolf, Flash Gordon and the Duchess of Alba in a portrait painted by Goya).
Gabriel Mesa: In the United States there is mention of a certain rebellion against the fantastic on the part of new Latin American writers, that Macondo has given way to the neorealist “McOndo” movement, which highlights urban reality in the context of globalization. What do you think? What role do you think fantasy will continue to play in literary creation?
Angélica Gorodischer: Maybe it’s so — this rebellion, I mean. I hope so because rebellions in our field are very healthy. But I think that fantasy is inserted in our cells, in the double helix. Sometimes it works and there appear works of pure, magnificent fantasy. Other times authors try to tame her and don’t let her come out, but she’s always there and she ends up doing what she wants. Not for nothing do they call her “la loca de la casa” (“the madwoman in the attic”).
Gabriel Mesa: Your work is very diverse, Angélica, and includes not only works of fantasy and science fiction like Kalpa or Las Republicas (The Republics) but also crime or suspense novels like Floreros de Alabastro, Alfombras de Bokhara (Vases of Alabaster, Rugs from Bokhara) or Como Triunfar en la Vida (How to Succeed in Life) and even historical novels like Prodigios or that appear to combine the picaresque with the historical like La Fabula de la Virgen y el Bombero (The Fable of the Virgin and the Fireman). On the other hand, La Noche del Inocente (The Night of the Innocent) I understand is something of a gothic. In wonder to what extent you still consider yourself a science fiction writer?
Angélica Gorodischer: Well, what do I know. I don’t necessarily consider myself a science fiction writer. I feel comfortable with science fiction, of course, although I don’t write it anymore. But as I said, SF leaves a very strong mark and it always appears in my writing in some fashion. Except perhaps in my latest book, which is something of a summum of the urban novel.
I like to change. If it were up to me I would rearrange my furniture every week. I would move houses every year and so on. I’ve written all kinds of things. I’ve written what some call realism, I’ve written fantastic fiction (not “fantasy,” God save me), crime, SF… The novels that you call historical aren’t really historical. They are set in old times but there is nothing factual about them. Everything, everything, everything is made up. Another critic friend of mine tells me that I am an “atypical” writer. I also like that!
Gabriel Mesa: Writers in the English-speaking world complain that being labeled fantasy or science fiction writers makes it difficult for them to be taken seriously whether by critics or by regular readers. Do you think the same thing happens in Spanish-speaking countries or is there less discrimination of this sort? I remember growing up in South America and it being forbidden in my family that I read science fiction books, which of course only made them more attractive!
Angélica Gorodischer: Of course! Critics and academics are very prejudiced and closed minded. When a friend would see me with an SF book they would put on a face of disgust and ask, “You read that trash?” Those people don’t know what they’re missing. A work is good or bad or mediocre, and that’s all. Neither the theme of the work nor the genre in which it’s written tell you anything. There are a lot of horrible SF stories and novels, those where the little green men with antennas appear and so, which are in fact trash. And then there are marvels like Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and others.
Gabriel Mesa: If after Kalpa you had to choose another of your novels to be translated into English, which would it be?
Angélica Gorodischer: Prodigios, always Prodigios which I believe is the best thing I have ever written in my life. Of course no one would read it because it is a difficult text. In which case it would be Menta (Mint) or Como Triunfar en la Vida.
Gabriel Mesa: One of your books that I most like is precisely Como Triunfar en la Vida, a collection of crime stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries. They are contes cruels to some extent, and remind me of the stories of the American writer Patricia Highsmith. How did you come to write this collection?
Angélica Gorodischer: Thanks for the comparison, I hope to some day have the quality and force of a writer like Highsmith! I wrote this book at the request of Jorge Lafforgue, Argentine critic, editor and writer from Buenos Aires. He called me on the phone and said, “I am preparing an anthology of crime stories and I know that you have some. Could you send me one?” I told him, “Yes, of course, give me a couple of days to look for one to send you that I like.” It was all a lie. I had some crime stories but they were old and I didn’t like them. I started to write one and it didn’t really satisfy me. So I wrote another one I did like. It was “El Beguén” (“beguén” means capricious love in Lunfardo, the slang of Buenos Aires). I sent it to him and he liked it too and included it in the anthology. But then I discovered that it had been a long time since I had written anything in the genre, a long time since I had killed, strangled, poisoned, knifed or swindled anybody or stolen anything or investigated a crime. And that’s when I started to write those stories, until I’d finished the book.
Gabriel Mesa: Speaking of Prodigios, I think that it is a beautiful book but one that stylistically is very different from your other novels, there is a certain density of word and description that surprised me. Was this change intentional or was it a natural evolution within your work?
Angélica Gorodischer: It was intentional. A colleague and I were discussing the job of writing. I said that when you dominate it you can write against the grain, even to the extent of becoming a traitor to your own temperament, style, themes, whatever. She said that no, that that wasn’t possible, that one always wrote the same in the same way even if one’s later books appeared to be different. She had a little bit of truth on her side, but I had all of it on mine. And from a fortuitous, trivial detail that happened to me on the street I decided to write a book that would go contrary to my natural inclinations, style, and so on. That book was Prodigios, and like I said before, I think it is the best thing I’ve written in my life.
Gabriel Mesa: I understand that you were recently at the fantastic literature convention WisCon that is held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. WisCon is known in particular for its feminist leanings. Could you tell us a bit about the convention? Did you participate in any of the panels? Did you meet again with Ursula Le Guin? Did you meet other writers?
Angélica Gorodischer: I had a wonderful time at WisCon 27. I felt comfortable, appreciated, among my peers. And of course, the fact that there is this feminist emphasis is good for my immortal soul and tells me that not all is lost. The convention I felt was wonderful and of an exceptional level. I participated in a panel on Exile, I read two of my stories in public and I gave a talk on madness called “Madness is a Flower in Flames”. My Spanish and my American editors were both there, so I felt like Cleopatra Queen of Egypt. The feeling went away immediately, of course, but those things are good for one’s self-esteem. And meeting Ursula again was one of the greatest luxuries. It was the second time we’d met. I didn’t meet many people but those I did meet were the best: Kelly Link, Justine Larbalestier and others.
Gabriel Mesa: Argentina is living today a tremendous economic crisis as a result of the devaluation of the currency and its external debt. To what extent has this affected the nation’s rich cultural life, in particular in the literary field?
Angélica Gorodischer: The cultural life of Argentina practically does not exist if you look at it from the point of view of an official program. There are no cultural policies, there is no money to sustain theater or visual arts or anything. But a few times you see a flowering like the one we’re experiencing in Argentina in the areas of music, theater, film, literature. Without media, without sponsors, without backers, things are still getting done. Books are published, there are free concerts, the painters lower their prices and hold fairs so everyone can buy a little art. With no money and supported only by Cultural Center of Rosario and the MALBA Museum of Buenos Aires, I organized last year a Congress of Latin American Women Writers that was an incredible success. And so it is with everything: art and literature are within people’s reach. But in all this there is an advantage: they have stolen everything from us — our money, our future, public education, work, everything except culture. And they can’t steal this from us because it doesn’t interest them. And it doesn’t interest them because they don’t understand what it’s about. But those of us who write or paint or sculpt or make movies, this is something that we do understand.
Gabriel Mesa: Thank you very much, Angélica.
Gabriel Mesa lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and 4,000 books. He grew up reading in both English and Spanish.
Copyright © 2003 by Gabriel Mesa.