Bedtime Stories for Little Cosmopolitans

From the virtual border between Buenos Aires and Barcelona, Orsai magazine shone very brightly for 16 dazzling issues. Until this year, when its editor Hernan Casciari suddenly extinguished it to open -of all things-a children’s magazine. There is a real flowering of narrative journalism in Latin America at the moment: dozens of new publications with a flair for literary, beautifully written reporting have sprung up from Mexico City to Santiago; here, one of the form’s most brilliant exponents tells Buensalvaje’s Luis Pacora about his unusual effort to extend the medium to children:

It is 3 am in the peaceful village of Barcelona. A writer with nocturnal inclinations is getting ready for work. It has been three years since he and his best friend decided to launch an audacious new publishing house in the form of a (mainly) literary magazine. A magazine which before the first issue came out was already a cult object, with followers all over the world, and gold-plated contributors; a magazine which also boasted a bar, a university, and even a couple of food events bearing its name. But really it was his constant innovations and iconoclasty that would make it all succeed so well, out on the edges of the dominant publishing industry.

And sixteen issues later, Hernan Casciari and Christian ‘Chiri’ Basilis have wound up Orsai, even as they opened the first page of their new project: Bonsai, a fascinating 88-page bimonthly magazine for children, whose first issue invaded the world in February, with a very similar distribution technique as its predecessor. From the other side of the Atlantic, Casciari (born in Buenos Aires in 1971) is a voice that comes to us by Internet, speaking enthusiastically about his new magazine, his experiences with the old one, of fantastic discussions with his young daughter, of how boring adults (and academics) can be, about the new literature of television, of the crisis of the publishing industry, of his upcoming projects, and of the only consistent thing in his life: constant change.

How do you organize such a complex publishing project when it is built mainly on a friendship?

Well, Orsai as a publishing project basically came about because Chiri moved here, to Spain. For almost eight years our communication had been by Skype or phone, but it wasn’t until we sat down at the same table that the idea of the magazine came up. We always said that the Internet is only good for carrying out ideas, because it’s much more difficult when you try to generate content together; to do that, it’s much better to be hanging out together drinking a bottle of wine, on a calm night: a whole ritual that working by internet cannot supply. With Chiri [at Orsai], we never had a work meeting in all of those three years, because the magazine was basically a continuation of our everyday conversations. We are still the same people we were before all of this got started, and that is not only a relief, but pretty amazing to me.

Did this roundtable kind of spirit influence the magazine in some sense?

Yes. I got the last printed issue the other day. I put it next to the other 15, and for the first time I could look at the magazine from a distance. This last one we put together while we were thinking more about Bonsai; we didn’t pay so much attention to Orsai because we didn’t really feel like this was the end of a cycle. The only commemoration was at home, very personal, when I just looked at those 16 issues together. I started flipping through them and I realized that in a certain way, the magazine was an homage to our discussions around the table, our conversations with friends over the whole last 35 years.

When did you feel that you needed to close down Orsai?

What happened to us was sort of what can happen to a couple: there was a moment when we realized that we were using our roundtables and our online discussions to talk more about Bonsai than our work on the magazine. In fact, the original idea had been to edit both projects simultaneously; but it turned out that we had more fun with the children’s magazine than with Orsai, so we decided it was time to end this chapter. I guess getting bored with something is the same thing as finding something else that you like more…like what can happen with a girlfriend.

The magazine was enormously successful: but were there ever any really bad times?

I’ll give you two responses. One [crisis]was monetary, the other conceptual. For the first, we were always on thin ice from the beginning; it was never an easy road and did not go well for us economically. Orsai was an expensive magazine to produce, we were doing it only because we wanted to. As for the second, when we were coming up on the first year of publishing the magazine, we realized it was really difficult trying to be ‘regional’ [for the Spanish speaking world]; we realized we needed to let ourselves just be Argentines. And that is what we did in the second year…There were always potholes in the road.

But unlike the first two enthusiastic years, by the third one we were just getting bored, because we already had Bonsai on our minds; and of course Bonsai is governed by the same principals as its predecessor: no advertisers, no subsidies, no intermediaries. That will eventually put us in the shit, but this time, since I don’t have any money left to put into it, we are taking some precautions.

How important was your experience as a journalist and writer for prestigious publishers in trying to subvert the whole publishing system?

Orsai came out of my being absolutely fed up with a certain way of working, a way that had become tedious and boring. So we created the magazine to see if it were possible to do it some other way. And for three years we did it, without worrying about advertising, or needing to cut shady deals with this guy or that guy. We did what we wanted, and we stopped doing it when we wanted, too, not for problems with advertising or subscriptions. Writing narrative pieces [‘cronicas’] just got tedious for me. Now our kids are 10 years old and we enjoy talking with them more than we do with fellow editors. That’s where Bonsai came from.

One time you said that the real crisis in publishing has more to do with morale than money. What can be done about that?

This occurred to me when I started publishing my books with Mondadori, Plaza and Janes, Sudamericana, etc; I realized that working like this kept me farther away from readers; what I really liked was answering the comments of readers after uploading a story to the blog. The only way out was to create a new communications medium, which is what we did.

Shutting down Orsai is only the end of one of the products of our publishing house: we’re going to keep working the same way, making editorial decisions without being tied down by contracts, without needing to sell our subscriber list to any corporation. Killing off the intermediary is our duty as creators in this era. In the end, you realize that the alternative style isn’t about money but about quality of life.

I suspect that this is what you are going to try to transmit to little people with Bonsai.

On that topic, something really funny happened. We were putting together issue 12 or 13 of Orsai, and I had the idea of writing a story about the international financial system, but not to explain it to an adult, rather so that a kid could understand it. So I wrote a story called ‘Little Papers,’ about a guy who lives in a peaceful village and wants to build a bar because he realizes that everyone wants to drink and there’s nowhere to go. But he doesn’t have any money, so he gets 100 slips of paper and sells them for 10 bucks apiece, claiming he’ll pay back 12 bucks each when the bar makes a profit. The guy achieves his goal, and so everybody else starts doing the same thing. Thus greed is born and chaos comes to the village. All of this was told in a way that my daughter Nina could understand it. While I was writing it down I was telling it to her.

It was then that I realized I absolutely had to do more stories like this one, that is, asking myself about the world from the point of view of a ten-year-old kid; talk about sex, religion, greed, political ideologies, as if I were a digital native. To write like this you need to converse with the wise; and the wise people today are those who grew up with an iPad.

Do you think one of the big problems with children’s literature is underestimating its own readers?

Certainly most children’s literature that gets published these days is stuff from the 20th century, done by people who feel no need to learn anything from a child, who are suspicious of video games, who think a million books are better than any good television series. Many times during the roundtables at Orsai, I would find myself watching my daughter sitting there drawing something with Horacio Altuna, or talking with a writer who was telling her a great story. In those moments I would think “how great that Nina is going to have childhood memories like this, with such engaged people, in a place where nobody is talking about how much the dollar has risen, or about the Kirchners [Argentine presidents] or any of these other bullshit topics.” I remember too, that in one of the first Bonsai meetings, Chiri’s daughter Julia climbed up on a wall and took some pictures of all of us, before heading off to see the Ringo Starr concert in Buenos Aires. And I said to Chiri, sort of joking and sort of not: “Dude, when this girl is 20, she’s going to be something else. She’ll be able to say that one day when she was ten, she was taking pictures of Josefina Licitra and Poly Bernatene and then later that night she went off to see one of the Beatles playing at Luna Park. Giving all these tools to a kid is more important than all the money in the world, more important than a car, than a scholarship to a private university…you’re giving her some real heart, and that lasts forever.”

Here in Peru we’ve been debating the problem of children’s reading comprehension for years now. To what extent is it the fault of those who are producing the literature?

To a certain extent the philosophy of the big publishing houses is to sell people whatever is easiest to digest, because they don’t think people will be able to understand a really complicated text. It also has to do with multinationals, meaning the way corporations have their eyes on profits ahead of any social good. Of course this problem isn’t limited to our countries; the same thing is happening in places with much better levels of education. Here in Spain, and in Europe in general, people talk a lot about how bad children’s reading comprehension is. But nobody talks about the reverse: kids think older people are incapable of using an iPhone or working with newer technologies. The same guy wearing a tie and complaining about how kids these days are terrible at reading cannot program his DVD player. It’s the same thing viewed from different angles; it’s part of living through a transition.

In the end, it all comes down to making responsible decisions.

Yeah, you do what you can from your little corner. What I really care about is giving my kids a really great childhood, and my work is connected to that, because I want to enjoy life as well. Nothing else is more important to me, and I know it can be done. My little corner has to be the way I like it.

And this biorhythm that you live now; does it influence your more personal projects too?

I’m only really writing for Bonsai now. I do stories, poems; I work with a group of spectacularly talented illustrators. That’s my work these days. I get up in the morning to write, not to open a spreadsheet in Excel and calculate customs fees like I was doing last year.

Are you interested in publishing a poetry book?

No, no. When I was thirteen I wrote some cowboy [gauchesca] poetry as a joke, to make my friends in school laugh. As an adult I dug them out and read them to my daughter, and friends’ kids. They’re verses that are well known in my circle of friends, and we’re publishing them in Bonsai now. Obviously there’s kind of a sly wink there, since I don’t mention that I wrote them back when I was a kid myself.

How do you see this whole debate about ‘literature 2.0’?

Over those three years, we succeeded in making a version of Orsai for Ipads that was more than just a PDF of the print version; it had audio and video, you could check out the illustrations back to their original sketches. What I am most interested in is the structure, meaning the new tools that [technology]makes available to the writer. The idea is to do something more than just scan in and post whatever you could have put on paper; this is something new, and there are people doing great stuff with it, especially in the area of children’s literature. Alice in Wonderland, in the English original, is hallucinatory, almost like a movie. I think that the formats [of children’s literature]are going to start shifting, and the people making the content are going to be working more in teams than before. It seems to me that these days there is excellent literature being made in television series, for example. This is a form of literature too, these are the new books.

Have you seen [the British TV series]Black Mirror?

Yeah, of course; that’s exactly what I am talking about. There are 700 page novels that can function as literature, but there are also impressive stories like the chapters of Black Mirror.

Is the narrative journalism (cronica) style played out?

Look: when they stop calling it that, it’ll just be journalism again, and it will make sense again. It’s a little bit like what happened with blogs: there were millions of them all of a sudden, but nobody reads them anymore. I think it’s time to stop talking about narrative journalism and start talking about themes. It seems to me that over the past several years, narrative journalists have changed a lot, out on the edges of the industry. Magazines like Etiqueta Negra, Soho, Gatopardo, and Malpensante have been working magic. What I don’t want is to see all of this evolve into something more mainstream. I don’t want to see El Pais newspaper writing nice things about this phenomenon; they have to write nasty things, because this trend is their antithesis. If the Russians and Yankees start kissing each other, then the war’s over.

It’s strange that this has never happened in the world of poetry, isn’t it?

Yeah, but equally, nothing has ever really happened at the intersection of poetry and technology. Someday maybe.


Luis Pacora Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard