Literary Hub

Samanta Schweblin: There’s No Place Like Home, Including Home Itself

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Samanta Schweblin’s fiction is like little else being written right now. Her work has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Prize, recognition from Argentina’s National Fund for the Arts, and the Casa de las Américas Prize. Her novel Fever Dream—a chilling look at the damage done to us by the damage we’ve done to the natural world, and our inability to protect the ones we love from it—was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017; it won both the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella and the Tournament of Books that year.

Mouthful of Birds, Schweblin’s second collaboration with translator Megan McDowell, is a dark constellation of stories that hum with solitude, violence, and disorientation (of characters and reader, alike); their combination of “dread, doubles, and confident loose ends” recently earned the author a comparison to David Lynch. Home is not a site of solace, but a menacing space with a murky logic all its own: in the title story, the estranged parents of a teenage girl struggle to cope with her unsettling new diet, while in “Toward Happy Civilization” the kind offer of a night’s lodging turns sinister as a traveler’s departure is indefinitely postponed. Mouthful of Birds is a narrative world in which the social contract is always negotiable (“Irman,” “Heads Against Concrete,” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides”) and great rifts open up in the earth (“The Digger” and “Underground”); to explore this world means losing your bearings.

I spoke with Schweblin last week about inhabiting the strange and the strangeness of home, about shifting political landscapes, and the projects she has on the horizon.

* * *

Heather Cleary: Okay, so. I thought we might start off by talking about the kinds of displacement that happen in translation—in space, but also in time. Mouthful of Birds contains a few stories that were first published in 2002, in El núcleo del disturbio, and then appeared seven years later in Pájaros en la boca. And noooow [laughs], sixteen years later, you’re thinking about these texts all over again, and I wonder what that experience has been like for you.

Samanta Schweblin: Well, it’s always strange, to be honest. Because they’re texts you decided were finished at a certain point: in the moment you decide to publish, you hand them off. But it’s interesting how certain stories have remained present—how some were published over and over in different languages, which meant they always seemed close by, and I would change little things here or there. I’m thinking especially of stories from El núcleo del disturbio like “The Test” and “Headlights,” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides.” In little details, those kind of evolved with me, because I revisited them each time they were published. But then there are stories I haven’t touched at all, so of course there’s a difference there [pauses]. In this sense, Mouthful of Birds is sort of an uncomfortable book for me, because it feels inconsistent. Not inconsistent in the quality of the stories… inconsistent in the Samanta I see in each of those stories. Stories are what they were when you wrote them, when you had a certain way of writing and thinking, certain influences. Of course, looking at them from the perspective I have today, I’d rewrite all of them [laughs], but that would be a disaster.

But that’s also the price you pay for putting together a collection of stories, which is always subject to the pressures of the market. I write a ten-page story, and that’s that. No one who writes short fiction would say that their story needs another twelve alongside it in order to work: the story is what it is, it survives on its own. The rest is imposed by the market. So, we’re used to this exercise of putting our stories together, of trying to create an atmosphere or establish thematic connections. Of course, there are collections that do demand that, where the stories come together to form a specific world, and then there are those that don’t. I would say that my stories were really independent from one another early on. But in my latest collection, Siete casas vacías, there I do create a unified world where all the stories feed into one another. Neither approach is better or worse, these are just different relationships that the stories establish among themselves.   

I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.

HC: Yes, right. Even so, there are certain threads that run through Mouthful of Birds, especially that of the home, which has been a recurring theme in your work. It makes me think of that essay by Freud on the Unheimlich, on how taking something familiar and twisting it just a bit turns it into something menacing. What is this figure of the home for you, and has it changed over time? That is, how has the idea of home that we see in this collection evolved over the years, if at all?

SS: It’s hard to say, because for me it’s specific to each story. But yes, I could say that in this collection, in Mouthful of Birds, I’m thinking about home more from the perspective of my childhood and adolescence. Home belongs to the family. It’s not a place you chose, it’s more of an imposed space, arbitrary—a space whose rules you don’t entirely understand. In contrast, in my more recent stories and even in Fever Dream and my new novel Kentukis, the home is chosen, because those texts are written from an adult perspective. Even as a space that has been chosen, though, it’s still an unsettling, strange, restrictive place where you’re always running into walls, even when you’re the one who chose it. In this sense, I think it’s becoming a bit more realistic, but also darker. El núcleo del disturbio was a more abstract book, in which monstrous or dark things happen in ambiguous, inhospitable spaces… within stories that didn’t belong to any clear genre, themselves. Some even had surreal or absurdist moments in them.

Then, in Pájaros en la boca, the spaces become much more concrete. There’s a lot of highway, for example. As if you were headed for the city, but never arrive. So, there’s highway, there’s countryside, there are rest stops… And then Siete casas vacías takes place in the city and is much more realistic. As if there were a narrative arc between the three collections having to do with the fantastic, or the limits of the fantastic… Mouthful of Birds contains many fantastic elements, but it’s not fantasy—it’s literature of the strange. I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.

HC: I’ve also seen your work compared to Kafka. What do you make of that? [Both laugh]

SS: Of course, it’s a huge compliment. Kafka is one of my favorite writers, a monster in the very best sense. But even so, I don’t really know where the comparison comes from. Maybe my characters are Kafkaesque in the sense that things happen to them, and they can’t do anything about it. They don’t understand what’s going on around them or how to get out of the situations they’re in, and they almost never manage to. There’s a certain pessimism about our ability to control our own lives, which is Kafkaesque. But it’s sort of a trace in the background of the stories, a perfume.

HC: There may also be a connection in the density of your stories, their almost allegorical quality. The last lines of “The Digger,” for example, which blew my mind. This brings me to my next question, about the difference between writing short stories and novels… I’m reading Kentukis now and loving it, but it’s very different from your short fiction. You give yourself more space to explore the interiority of the characters, and more time to explore spaces. What is the balance for you between these two ways of thinking about writing, about literature… if there is, in fact, a difference in your mind?

SS: Yes, I see what you’re saying. There’s a difference in timing. But for me, it has less to do with genre than with the story I’m telling. Fever Dream is a novella, but it has the time of a short story. Kentukis is different, its time is different. But that depends on the story I’m trying to tell. Fever Dream is the story of a woman who is dying as the story is being told. The book has a real urgency to it, and that urgency imposes a whole series of rules: brevity, force—there’s no time to waste, the only thing that matters is figuring out what happened. Kentukis imposed its own, very different, set of rules. In general, my texts begin with a first draft that is usually very short, a few lines in the case of a story or maybe ten pages for a novel, but in that first impulse the text comes out at once, complete with all its rules. It’s more fun with short stories, because the apparatus comes together faster, in four months rather than two years. I like that each of those little worlds comes with its own specific rules you have to discover and then follow as faithfully as possible. Each one has its essence. Whenever I get lost, I just go back to those original lines. If you listen, it’s all there: the narrator, the time—especially in short stories, it’s all there.

HC: Coming back to the challenge of bringing the distinct narrative worlds of individual short stories together as a collection, how would you describe Mouthful of Birds as a whole?

SS: The stories in this collection have something in common, which is that by the time you get to the end of each one, the world constructed in it ends. Some revelation completely negates that world as you had come to know it. The connection between them isn’t about thinking that those worlds could coexist; it’s about genre, in the sense that they’re all texts that play with the line between the real and the strange, and about their atmosphere, the tension they create. There were other stories—sadder ones, more realistic ones, more playful… no, playful is a terrible word; more… experimental ones—that were left out. I was looking for a particular tone, you could say, if you think about it like music.

HC: From what I can tell, the order of the stories was changed for the English edition. Was that in collaboration with your editors here?

SS: Yes, it was a collaboration. There was a first stage of reorganization, which I did myself, to create more harmony between the worlds of El núcleo del disturbio and Pájaros en la boca. Then there were a few suggestions from the editors, all of which I agree with. It was fun to rethink the table of contents. There are also a few new stories that hadn’t appeared in other collections before: “Olingiris” and “A Great Effort”… Just those two, I think.

HC: It’s another way to breathe new life into a work, as translation usually does. I also noticed that “Headlights” changed places, and now it’s the point of entry to the whole collection. What that a conscious decision, and if so, what was behind it?

SS: That decision was made by my editor, Laura Perciasepe. I trust her completely, and love working with her. And it makes sense: it’s a good story to open with. Not only because you’re thrown into a new, strange place—you’re on the highway and stop in this space where anything could happen, which is a great place for any collection of stories to begin [laughs]—but also because it’s a story that contains all the different genres, all the different atmospheres in the collection. It brings into play a number of things that appear in other stories. Especially with its new title. If it were still “Mujeres desesperadas” (desperate women), it might be different, but the title “Headlights” is so evocative, almost a signpost for how to read the book.

It’s a moment of incredible energy, incredible anger … a moment of learning to think differently. To think about things from a different place… We’re not taking spaces in a masculine way, we’re doing it in a new way, which seems very healthy.

HC: Yes, absolutely. I was also struck by the connection it establishes to current social and political questions, to the communities being forged by women (though in this story relationships among women are hardly idealized), and the spaces that are opening up. What has it been like to return this story in particular, at this particular moment?

SS: It was pretty strange, actually, to come back to this story. I was so young when I wrote it; I hadn’t read all that much and had barely any experience. To think that someone could write such a reflective text on the basis of intuition alone gives me faith in the power of… this may sound a little excessive, but in the power of literature itself. Beyond what you’re trying to say, where you studied, what workshops you attended, or your style… beyond all those things that we’re always thinking about, present in that story was the suffering of women, and many of the questions we’re discussion now. There was the intuition that allowed me to talk about all that without even realizing it. It really makes me think about the power of literature, both for the writer and for the reader.

As for this particular moment, I think what’s happening is really interesting. I’m thrilled to be a woman, especially a woman from Latin America, writing right now. It’s a moment of incredible energy, incredible anger, a moment of thinking… no, a moment of learning to think differently. To think about things from a different place, from a different perspective. We’re not taking spaces in a masculine way, we’re doing it in a new way, which seems very healthy. I keep reading that the best literature in Latin America is being written by women, and so on… I don’t know, it seems a little subjective to me. What I do believe, though, is that what women are writing—like any new voice, which is what we are—has a truth and a power to it. I was really struck by something Carolina Ramqvist, a Swedish writer whose work I love, said recently. She said that she couldn’t write about anything without first looking to see how the writers she admired had done it. She was writing a scene in which a woman breastfeeds her child. She remembered a few scenes from the classics and went to find them. When she did, she discovered that those texts glossed over the moment in a few lines. It was just stated; there was no presence to it, it wasn’t really happening. That’s what I mean: the literature being written by women today addresses subjects that really weren’t treated in any depth before. It’s no accident that motherhood is a central theme in some of the best novels written recently in Latin America. With literature… You could write detective novels, and no one would ask if you go out and kill people on the weekend. But I write Fever Dream, and the first question I get from journalists is whether I have kids. So. Motherhood continues to be a sacred topic, in the worst possible sense, which you can’t talk about unless you’ve experienced it. These are the things we’re starting to be able to play with, to think about from different perspectives, to think about differently.

HC: Switching gears a little, I wanted to ask you about the connection between writing and visual art. In this collection, you have two stories that deal explicitly with the art world—what is that relationship for you?   

SS: On a personal or autobiographical level, visual art is hugely important to me. My biggest creative influence from a very early age was my maternal grandfather, who was an artist. He was the first person who read to me, the first person who encouraged me to keep a diary. When I was seven or eight years old, we kept a diary together. Every weekend, we would go to museums or see plays and write down what we saw, and what we liked or didn’t like about it. We copied poetry into it… And on those weekends, which I adored—I’d wait all week to get on the train in the suburb where I lived to go to my grandfather’s house in downtown Buenos Aires—the trade-off was that I would work as an assistant in his engraving studio. And so from a young age I would watch adults spend their weekend working with a level of concentration and dedication, bent over enormous zinc plates with their hands stained all different colors, crying disconsolately over a single line. It’s as if I understood from a very early age… No, I didn’t understand. What I thought was, “What’s going on with these people? Why are they so worked up?” I felt as if they had some huge secret I couldn’t unravel, but I wanted to know what it was. So, the visual arts are always very present in my writing, though I wouldn’t really be able to articulate how. I mean, yes: the visual is very important in my writing, and so is space… the Golden Ratio, which my grandfather talked about so often, is extremely important in what I write. It’s as if I’d gotten a bad education in the very best sense, like a chef being trained by a musician. I missed out on a lot of literary theory, but in exchange I got a rich sense of materiality. Like a duck raised by geese [both laugh].

HC: Did I also see that Fever Dream is being adapted for the screen, and that Claudia Llosa is going to direct?

SS: Yes! They’re about to start filming; it should be out by the end of the year.

HC: That’s fantastic.

SS: It’s wonderful, and dangerous [laughs].

HC: Claudia Llosa seems like a great choice; she’s so good at creating tension.

SS: I’m thrilled. I’d gotten several offers for the adaptation, but I was very picky. The offers made me nervous, because Fever Dream is such a delicate text. But when Claudia approached me, I agreed immediately. We worked together all year on the script, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. It was a wonderful collaboration that reignited a former passion of mine: I’d studied filmmaking and screenwriting, but it had been a long time since I’d worked on anything like that. I learned so much. There were things in the text that generated a specific emotional effect in the reader through exclusively literary means, which were impossible to translate to the screen. Finding ways to reach those specific places visually was an incredible exercise that I hope to be able to bring back to my writing. 

HC: I can’t wait to see it. And now, the obligatory question: What are you reading these days? [Both laugh.]

SS: Let’s see… what am I reading now? I’m reading What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah. I love her stories. Very short, very interesting. And I just finished a novel from Argentina, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Las aventuras de la China Iron. I loved that, too; it really surprised me. And Harun Farocki. I’m starting to explore his world a bit, and it’s fascinating. It’s not new material, this book is probably twenty years old, but it feels like it could have been written today.

HC: Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation. Can I ask, before you go, what we can look forward to from you? Are you returning to short stories after the novel?

SS: I always write short stories. I always have one or two in process, for me that’s the norm [laughs]. I wrote Kentukis in two years, which was very fast, very intense; I’m still coming back from that world—reading a lot, taking notes. In general, I come up with lots of ideas before settling on one. It’s not like I get an idea and go write it. I need… the ideas are just a few lines, you know, but I need to jot them down and then forget them, and if my mind returns to them over and over as time passes, then I know it’s a string I should pull.

Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

Heather Cleary is a translator, writer, and one of the founding editors of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review. Her translations and literary criticism have appeared in Two Lines, A Public Space, and Words Without Borders, among other publications. Her book-length translations include Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets, and The Dark, and Poems to Read on a Streetcar, a selection of Girondo’s poetry published by New Directions. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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