The bloodstained footprints of Progress, the bigotry and arrogance of petty elites. In the detective novels of Costa Rica’s Daniel Quiros, the black heart of the ‘Switzerland of Central America.’
In this wide-ranging interview by El Faro’s Tomas Andreu, the Costa Rican novelist and academic discusses his two recent detective novels, immigration, race and social class in Central America’s wealthiest nation, and the disillusionment at the heart of Central American literature.
Daniel Quiros is a Costa Rican academic writer born in 1979. He is also a harsh critic of “Central America’s Switzerland”. In his latest two novels, detective stories– Red Summer and Northern Rain — he presents a Costa Rica that is distant from development and progress, a Costa Rica of poverty and xenophobia, hostile to its neighbors in Nicaragua.
The two novels share the same main character: Don Chepe, a former Costa Rican guerrilla who fought in Nicaragua’s [revolution]and today finds himself disillusioned, but still championing lost causes.
This interview was conducted at a distance: writing a question by email, and when the response arrived, sending another question. This is the result of these exchanges, a sort of essay-conversation that seeks to explore our region through his incisive responses; each response that discusses his literary work also speaks to the reality from which it arose.
After reading Red Summer and Northern Rain, one would think that these detective novels were written by an older man, with experience working in the fields and a profound knowledge of Costa Rica. But you wrote them at 30 years old, and you have lived outside the country for much of your life.
Maybe I have an old soul! Part of it, I think, is the themes: the war and post-war. Don Chepe, the character, a former-guerrilla, is more of a response to that era of hope and disenchantment, something that I studied extensively in classes while I was getting my PhD, exactly that transition in Central American literature and society. I would add that although I am from the capital (San Jose), I spent a lot of time in Guanacaste when I was younger. In this sense, I have seen with my own eyes the dramatic changes in the region over the past years. In an interview, Castellanos Moya said there are two types of writers: visual and oral. I consider myself more part of the first group. When I write, I need the surroundings to be present in a big way; visually, of course, but also in an almost visceral way with all the senses. If I can’t feel and see those surroundings where my characters are developing, it makes it very difficult for me to write about them honestly.
How did Don Chepe come about? He’s a disillusioned, solitary, an alcoholic, has trouble sleeping…
A big part of the foundation for Don Chepe are the North American hardboiled detectives: Hammet’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Chandler’s Marlowe or Ross McDonald’s Archer. Cynical, disillusioned men who are more comfortable in dive bars than in a library full of books (as opposed the earlier more intellectual and rational detectives like Dupin, Holmes or Poirot). After these, I have to add the influence of Rodolfo Walsh’s Detective Laurenzi, Diaz Eterovic’s Heredia, Taibo’s Belascoaran Shayne and Padura’s Conde. There’s also a strong dose of Central American history. At graduate school, I read a lot of crime noir novels (I nearly did my thesis on them); I also studied Central America’s transition after the wars. There was a lot of talk about cynicism and disenchantment (there is still a lot of talk about this) and I thought it would be good material for a Costa Rican detective that would allow me to explore the socio-economic changes in my country (and by extension the region) over the past 30 years. However, all this is something that may have come out later. I mean, the most important thing for me is always the authentic character, that it feels real. One day I had the idea to start a story with a woman who turned up dead in a coastal village. Suddenly, I imagined a man sitting in a bar, infernally hot, smoking and drinking beer. I imagined Guanacaste — the Costa Rican province — and the dust of those dry summer days. That’s how it got started…
The area plays an important part in your novels. It’s an atmospheric and geographic weariness for Don Chepe: If it’s hot, he hates it; if it rains, he curses the rain.
Don Chepe is not comfortable in any situation. Partly, I think this is a reflection on authors, who have been described, from Vargas Llosa to Sergio Ramirez, as malcontents. I would agree with this. Through my narrator, there is a necessity to critically explore the history and reality of my country, to reflect on the social price (or the “noir” side) behind the mask of the ‘Switzerland of Central America.’ This “malcontentment” the character has with his surroundings kind of reflects this, a desire to critically question Costa Rica today.
There is also a level there that you mention with Baudelaire: a kind of melancholy and disgust with the world.
I think here there is a mix of two big “sources” or interests in the noir genre. On one hand, the political and material; on the other, a much larger quest or consideration, one I would very clumsily describe as “existential”. This comes from Borges, Piglia and other authors. Death and the Compass, for example, is to me one of the most well-realized of those “enigma” stories (the name Piglia uses for the British and North American whodunits: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, etc… In fact, Piglia describes this story as the ’Ulyses of detective stories’, or something similar). I learned that death or murder — which can be seen simply as a puzzle to solve — can also be an invitation for larger considerations: about life, about death, about existence. I try not to go overboard with this in the novels, but I’ve let it influence me, sinking my teeth into the material aspect and of course the social imbalances that weigh on society today. But also leave space for considerations that are more “metaphysical” (I hate these words!). The dust in Red Summer and the rain in Northern Rain function kind of as leitmotifs that give context to Don Chepe’s search. They are kind of the thread that runs between the character and society, but also history, existence, life itself.
Don Chepe’s other partner is El Gato. He is a kind of a Sancho Panza in the novel.
Ha ha. Sometimes there has to be a Watson, right? First, El Gato was a character that emerged naturally. On one hand, El Gato — just like Ligia, Eulalia and other characters close to Don Chepe — functions as an alternative community, sometimes as a response to government’s abandonment or that of the more official judicial system, or out of a necessity to question the very ideas of justice and the workings of the judicial-police system. First, Don Chepe is a figure outside of official law. This is very important to me. This puts Don Chepe on fictional ground. I mean, a private detective or something like it, it’s fictional ground in Costa Rica and Latin America. Of course, in Costa Rica we pretty much don’t have private detectives. Those there are, more than 90 percent of their cases are questions of adultery. Investigating a murder or a crime is the job of the OIJ (Organism for Judicial Investigation), not even the police or public forces (El Gato is a police officer).
What is “the mission” of Don Chepe and his crew?
Don Chepe, as he himself mentions, investigates everything “extraofficially”, in part because the official channels of justice have failed or are not interested in the cases. In this sense, what he and El Gato do would by seen by the government as illegal. One of the things that has always interested me about the detective figure is this liminal existence between good and bad, between legal and illegal, between crime and “order”. I would add to this that much of Costa Rican literature is written about and from the capital: San Jose. I wanted to shift that viewpoint a little bit, explore other regions of the country where the discourse of the Switzerland of Central America has failed more. In the region where El Gato and Don Chepe go about their business, there is almost no police presence. If something happens in La Florida or Lagarto, Guanacaste (historically very rural and poor places), well, good luck calling the cops. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t make it all the way. The police delegations in the rural areas don’t have the resources to face crime or a strong criminal presence. El Gato’s character is ostensibly one that works for a government institution, but he has to try to get it done however he can with what he has. This might mean going against the law or doing things that are unsanctioned by the official rules. In this way, they explore alternate forms of justice, forms that don’t reflect the “official” or show the limits of the official or pose a challenge to it.
How much of you is there in Don Chepe?
I think there is something of me in all my characters. At the same time, I think one’s characters are exactly the opposite: what one is not. In this sense, they can be an indirect, even fun way to put yourself in someone else’s skin, another way to exist in the world. Maybe I saw too many action movies with my dad when I was a kid, but I’ve always liked the “action heroes”: Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood, the Japanese samurais, etc… Of course, many of these represent a problematic masculinity, sometimes too machista. But that must be parsed, questioned a bit. From the beginning this character was very important in the sense of enjoying the book, of giving yourself over a little to a character that could even have something that is borderline cliche. I’m conscious of this and what little relationship it has with me and my life.
In Red Summer Don Chepe’s existentialism comes close to desperation, but in Northern Rain you made him more stoic despite “this shitty old age”. What made you diminish the characters existential angst?
I hadn’t thought of it waning much. However, there is a little change in him. I think it was more of an attempt to give the character a little more depth, maybe humanize him a little more. Seeing that there is never anyone at your house, and that in your fridge there is just an old Coca-Cola and a half-empty can of tuna. I also think the opposite is also dangerous: being too transparent with your characters. I read a lot of contemporary detective novels where the “psychology” of the main character is very important: This guy is this way because his wife was killed by a narco 15 years ago or because he accidentally killed his partner a year ago. I’m not interested in that kind of psychologial transparency. We all carry a sort of opacity inside ourselves. Human beings’ actions can’t always be attributed to rationality. In fact, writers like Hammett and Chandler in part were rebelling against this. They saw figures like Sherlock Holmes (who could talk about your moral condition by analyzing your hat), as too rational; an almost mechanical rationalism. That’s why their detectives seem to float from once place to another, almost randomly running into life and its problems. Some people have asked: What happened to Don Chepe during the war? What’s his past like? I think characters need to be opaque too. A professor of mine always cited Aristotle I think (if not, we’ll make up the quote for him) who said the best poetry needs to be clear and obfuscated at the same time. This has always been a good goal for me in fiction in general.
There’s another important point: You made Don Chepe ideologically disenchanted. An ex-guerrilla who fought for a cause and turned into a sort of outsider detective fighting for the lost cause of bringing justice to Nicaraguans in Costa Rica.
Don Chepe is a product of the disillusionment of the Central American war era, the betrayed generation, as Margarita Rojas once explained it to me. There is of course this ideological disenchantment in him, in seeing certain ideals fall apart for which people had fought and died (many people), sometimes at the hands of the people who promised to defend them to the death. I was very attracted to that idea; also to the idea that even though this man is disillusioned and cynical, he can’t stop fighting “for the good guys”, whatever that means today. Don Chepe has a very strong ethical code, perhaps inherited from the somewhat romantic heroism of figures like Marlowe (a sometimes problematic heroism, that can even be conservative). There also exists in him an idea about “conducting politics by other methods”. Don Chepe no longer flies the flag of any political party, but at the same time he is not “apolitical”, if we define politics as the intervention in society; a kind of praxis that breaks away from the more traditional ideas about political parties. In the end, maybe he is on a search that could be described as political, of having an impact and participating in the world, in society, without necessarily having to don the colors any political party. I think it’s something that is also in the detectives of Taibo and Diaz Eterovic, for example.
Are you on the left or the right? Or do you think talking about it at this point is a political anachronism?
I studied in a department that was more on the political left. I gravitate more to this order of things. However, I think the conception of a “left” has changed a lot in the last twenty years or so. I also think there are many “lefts” in Latin America. Moreover, political ideologies always have the difficulty of being carried out by human beings, who are always full of contradictions. I do think it is very important to be aware of the position in which one exists, talks, writes and acts. In my case, I would feel very uncomfortable describing myself as a “leftist activist” or something like that, especially being a literature professor at a university in the United States, I mean: a very clearly privileged position. It’s important to be aware that what is called the “right” exists in many different forms. I think the only thing I can say, in a somewhat cliche way, is that one does what he can when he can, from where he is. That’s why it’s important to be critical, inform yourself, participate and question. Not simply let yourself be taken over by apathy and cynicism. Maybe the world can’t be changed in one fell swoop, but one can’t become detached from a reality where there is massive inequality in power structures.
In Northern Rain, the Nicaraguan Antonio Rivera dies. The narrator proclaims: “one less nica”. He also says: “No one suffers for the dead nicas in Costa Rica”. How do you think your countrymen feel about Nicaraguans?
In Costa Rica, there is a lot of racism and xenophobia in regards to our neighbors. It’s a situation that goes from the macro to the micro, from small acts of aggression to more institutional aggression. It’s also a situation that goes against the construction of an equal, peaceful and democratic Costa Rica. Many of the anecdotes about this in Northern Rain are real. The epigraph that starts the novel, in fact, I read in the newspaper La Nacion a few years ago: an undocumented Nicaraguan that had been found stabbed to death, full of wounds and his eyes gouged out. The case of Natividad Canda, fictionalized in the novel, is also a real case: this Nicaraguan man entered her shop (some say to rob her, but this is not what really matters) and was devoured by two rottweilers in the presence of several police officers, the store’s security guard and some locals. I remember visiting Costa Rica during that time and seeing t-shirts with rottweilers that they were selling at the mall or in the street. During that time, a Nicaraguan woman worked in my home (because I’m not exempt from the inequalities of class either): Maria. Maria was walking with her husband through my hometown, Escazu, when someone yelled: “I wish I had a rottweiler to let loose around here”. All this was shocking to me. Not so much because I was naive, but more seeing it up close. I also don’t want to villify my country. In Costa Rica, there are many children from Nicaraguan-Costa Rican families; There are communities with a big mix in culture and identity. In the end, not all ties between the countries come by way of discrimination and violence. However, the racism and the discrimination are also real and they are part of the collective imagination and current situation in my country. Besides, it is a historical situation, the “other” that costa Rica has created to differentiate itself culturally, racially. The Costa Rica academic Carlos Sandoval-Garcia has written a lot about this. He helped me a lot in researching my novel, especially a book called Threatening Others, highly recommended.
I get the impression that Nicaraguans still see themselves in Costa Rica as cheap labor hired by people there. Am I wrong?
It depends on where you look. For example, someone like Sergio Ramirez in Costa Rica sees it in a very positive way. What we are talking about, then, are relationships of power and inequality, many of them tied to class and race. In this sense, in general, I would say yes to your question, especially from the perspective of the middle upper class, whom in the end turn into the bosses, bosses who many times refuse to sign their employees up for Social Security. This is a big problem; it’s also interesting because it inverts this idea that Nicaraguans come here to “rob Social Security”. You can still have those terrible conversations with older women (like grandmothers and great aunts), who make you a great lunch, give you all kinds of attention and love, and then turn around and whisper to you about their maids: “This Nicaraguan turned out okay for me. She hasn’t stolen anything.” In the xenophobic Costa Rican imagination (which is related to xenophobic discourses everywhere in the world), many see the Nicaraguans as a type of “flood” that comes to the country to steal resources from the coffer (Social Security) and steal jobs. In one study, for example, Carlos Sandoval-Garcia talks about the vocabulary of “water” used by the media to describe the Nicaraguans during the 1990s. For example: words like “wave” or “flood”. In fact, the title Northern Rain is in part an inversion or questioning of this racist-xenophobic discourse. The “rain” or “flood” that comes from the north is not the Nicaraguans, but the socio-economic system imposed by the global north that creates the conditions for inequality that work as the motor for this migration.
Your novels also speak out against something, and it is against a kind of savage progress that ends up cultivating social injustice and inequality in Guanacaste, and it can almost be said that you are putting out a warning: Let’s not turn into San Jose. Am I wrong?
Guanacaste for me works as a kind of microcosm in which some of these socio-economic questions about Costa Rica today are exacerbated. Costa Rica constitutes a great example for the region: the highest numbers on GDP per capita, economic growth, literacy and life expectancy. The idea is not to deny that these things exist in my country, but to question how and for whom they exist. What we’ve seen in Costa Rica in last 30 years, more or less, in fact starts to bring the country closer (although on a lesser scale) to the problems shared by the rest of the region: a more pronounced gap between rich and poor, inequality that has grown in general and specifically in terms of access to education and health care, more crime and violence. In 2000, according to the OIJ’s statistics, there were some 251 homicides in the country. In 2009 there more than 500. These numbers are still very low compared to El Salvador, but the growth is still remarkable. This has been helped along by a larger presence of drug trafficking, among other things.
The detective genre in some way has always been interested in the “noir” or “dark” side of modernity; since Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). The genre can’t separate itself from the profound changes that were happening in the world at that time: the growth of cities, of empires, the presence of institutions of social order and crime and inequality on an unprecedented scale. To me, the genre is an exploration of the “dark side” of modernity’s progress; the flip side of the coin of “development” and “progress”. After all, Marx had already said it very well: “The criminal produces crime”. Crime doesn’t exist outside of the system, but it is also that system. That’s why we see novels like Money to Burn by Piglia, which cites Brecht in the epigraph: “What is robbing a bank compared to founding one?” In one of Taibo’s novels there also talk of the real criminal being the system.
Someone from Costa Rica told me something that got my attention: “It’s not that Costa Rica is healthy because it invests in education, health care and development. It’s because here the drug traffickers and the corrupt drink their coffee”. How are they going to break down this space where these people do their lobbying? What do you think?
It could be. That’s why we see in films like Scorsese’s Casino or Michael Mann’s Heat that drug traffickers and criminals always come to Costa Rica to retire. The “differentiation” in Costa Rica is a long discussion that involves a entire series of factors: social, economic, historical, etc… However, what your question might lead to is the presence of money laundering (or ‘legitimization of capital’, as it’s in fashion to say now). Someone told me that after Panama, Costa Rica has the second most money laundering in Central America. This has a lot to do with my previous response, since it all forms part of the “dark side” of progress. Not long ago Liberty Reserve folded, for example, and it was a company in Costa Rica that was accused of laundering $6 million of illicit money. What money is behind the apartment buildings in Escazu, in Guanacaste and the central Pacific? Is it illicit or licit money?
Something that you touch on in Northern Rain…
Part of the problem with the global economic system is that when illicit money is put into circulation in the financial market it is almost impossible to trace back to its source. That’s how the legitimate and illegitimate mix, very quickly. Let’s a say a huge tourist development goes up in Guanacaste. It provides hundreds of jobs, spurs the economy a bit, but what is behind that money? Sometimes the response is something that Costa Rica does not want to see, that it doesn’t want to discuss much. That’s why I was interested in dealing with the theme a bit in Northern Rain. I think it’s a very important question. And it’s not just “white collar crime”, as they say in English. Now the physical violence of drug trafficking is reaching Costa Rica too. This past year, a drug trafficker known as “El Indio” went down in San Jose and there had been a sequence of murders and violence in relation to that.
Both of your novels have this warning that unveils corruption, the laundering of money and the progress that comes unmoored from the “good” of capitalism: “no riches are innocent”. What do you think feeds this: the capital itself or the absence of the state which can’t fulfill the basic necessities of its people?
That “no riches are innocent” I took from Taibo’s epigraph, and he took it from Eduardo Galeano. To answer your question, I think it’s both things. On one side, the capitalist system, instead of creating more equal distribution of wealth, like those who support the “free market” would have us believe, creates more inequality and tends toward monopolies and the concentration of money in the highest spheres of society. A little while ago, an article in The New York times mentioned that one percent of the world’s population will control half the global riches next year. The illusion of “trickle down economics” is a farce. At the same time, in the last 30 years, there has been a dismantling (or a healthy attempt at it) of the welfare state, in Costa Rica and in the rest of the world. Inequality grows and at the same time the state crosses its arms and says: You guys need to work this out on your own.
There is something strange about Don Chepe: He does not have, or at least there is no mention of him, being in a relationship. Is there something intentional about this?
Without a doubt there is something intentional. I’m a huge fan of the “hardboiled” North American writers and, by extension, noir films. However, where I feel like these authors and directors always fall apart is in their representations of relationships with women. For example, the other day I was watching the adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975) by Chandler, with Robert Mitchum. Marlowe (Mitchum) hasn’t even met Charlotte Rampling’s character when the woman throws herself at him (without any explanation) and starts to kiss him in the most absurd and unreal way. In the end, this vision of the woman as a saint or “femme fatale” in the genre bothers me a bit. I think there are times when it destroys the critical possibilities. Besides, how much literature do we have in the world already that is based on heteronormative couples? I’m not saying it’s not important, maybe it is even the most important, but there are other interesting relationships: friendship, siblings, whatever. This does not mean a naive or puritanical representation on my part, but rather a more self-conscious and critical way to approach the detective genre, and also to explore more aspects of the complexity of human relations. That’s why in Red Summer Don Chepe investigates the killing of the “Argentine girl” (who is gay) simply because of friendship. Same in Northern Rain. He investigates the killing of Antonio Rivas, his friend Maria Rivas’ son, more out of solidarity and because it needs to be done. This doesn’t mean he’s a Buddhist Monk, as one of his friends joked. In fact, in Rain he starts to develop an interest in Ramona, the prostitute character. I would like to develop that in the future, but at first it was not a priority.
What is your creative process? In the case of Jose Saramago came looking for him. And you?
It is difficult to talk about the creative process, so opaque sometimes. I think what I need is a very strong image to start with, often with a first sentence attached to it as well. As far as Northern Rain, for example, I’d had the idea to continue after Red Summer, inspired by Padura Fuentes and his detective novels written around the four seasons. I thought it would be nice to write one more novel with Don Chepe, during the rainy season. I had just finished writing Red Summer when I wrote a page or so of Don Chepe watching it rain. Then I quit. I started to read things for my classes and I had to finish my thesis. I started to write another novel that will be published this year (not a detective novel). At some point I got interested in the issue of migration; later I found the article in La Nacion that would provide the epigraph for the novel. I had my first image: That anonymous body abandoned in the rain. I made several trips to the area. On one of those trips a local woman told me about a body that had been found close to the Hernandez school. That’s when I was able to get started on it. At the same time, I started to read about migration, about Nicaraugans in the Costa Rica, about ‘legitimization of capital’ and other things. I wrote and rewrote. From the idea (2009) to finishing writing (the end of 2013). I mean, something like four or five years, very concentrated from 2012 to 2013.
Will Don Chepe be back in your next novel?
I think so. Right now I’m thinking about a novel that could be his. However, I haven’t had time to get completely into the project. I’m still working on another novel: Mazunte. I’ve finished writing it and it has already gone through the editiing process twice, including diagramming, so it will come out soon, this year for sure. After that, we will see if I get back to Don Chepe.
What does a Costa Rican teach in the United States?
Good question. It is very hard to look for work as a professor Costa Rican literature in the academic world here. In fact, it’s even hard as a “Central Americanist”. When I did my doctorate, the professors there advised me to expand my concentrations a bit so I could get work. I ended up focusing on Latin American cinema, literature from the southern cone (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile), among other things. Now I give classes as a “generalist”. At my university, a small “liberal arts school”, I teach a little of everything, from intermediate Spanish to composition to classes about film and detective novels.
I would seem that the academic world there undervalues Central America. Is that true?
There is a little of that, but not so much from the academics themselves, more from the gringo academic institution. I will give you an example. If I publish an academic book with the University of Costa Rica instead of Duke University Press, it can count less for what they call “tenure”, an established academic job (in general people here try to look for “tenure-track” jobs, in which you go through a series stages until you hit “tenure”, at six or seven years). I remember a professor of mine, Jaime Concha, a great intellectual and an expert in Neruda, who said when he came to the United States he fought a lot with the university so they would give him credit for publications in Latin America. This is coming from a man who is one of the top experts in his field!
If that’s the case with a Neruda scholar, a Central American scholar doesn’t have much of a future.
There are also trends in academia, circles of friends that sometimes seem more like mafias, and large institutional inequalities. The study of Central American literature, for example, was almost non-existent 10 or 15 years ago. It also tends to be seen in many circles as a “lesser literature”. That is changing. In fact, it’s a field that has grown greatly in the past years, but it’s still not visible. In general, the region’s literature is still not very well known. I remember a translation class I gave at San Diego State University in which I included some Central American authors. One of the students came to tell me that he had liked the class a lot, and that he even argued with his dad at home, who had told him, completely serious: “I didn’t know they had literature in Central America”. Because of this I think the position of a Central American academic/writer in the United States is also important. Books are being written about issues that no one discusses and studies. As far as Central America goes, beside the attention given to the wars, the lack of knowledge about the region and its literature is even bigger. In relation to Costa Rica, few times have I found anyone who could name a writer, either old or new, from the country.
Why are you interested in the work of Horacio Castellanos Moya, Claudia Hernández or academic works like those of Beatriz Cortez?
I started to get interested in them during my studies, I think in part as an inheritance from my thesis advisor, who has written about all three of them. Castellanos Moya was big influence on me. I have read a large part of his work and have even written about him. In fact, last week I participated in the Congreso de Literatura y Cultura Centroamericana (CILCA) and I wrote about the relationship between El Asco and Thom Bernhard; a relationship that is always mentioned but, in my opinion, has never been developed extensively. The article will come out in a collection of essays edited by two Virginia Tech professors (Vinodh Venkatesh and Maria del Carmen Cana Jimenez) about Castellanos Moya. As far as Beatriz Cortez is concerned, while I was doing my doctorate her theory on the “aesthetics of cynicism” was widely debated among “Central Americanists”. She had also a big influence on my intellectual growth.
Someone told me I should see a shrink because I said Claudia Hernandez may the best Latin American writer. What do you think? Of the latter, not the former.
Noon at the Border is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in the past years. I even wrote about her in one of the chapters of my thesis. I really admire Claudia’s writing. In fact, not long ago I got in touch with her. We have exchanged books and I’m hoping to read her new collection (Natural Causes) very soon. They must be the ones who need to see a psychiatrist.
Do you think there is body of Central American literature constructed from the viewpoint of women, or are we still in the infant stages with that?
That’s a difficult issue. I think the phrase “the viewpoint of women” is on the right track, because when I hear characterizations like “feminist literature” or things like that, I start to think: And what it that? I think what we have is inequality on the social level. In this sense gender (a word I’m taking from English and from academia here) is one of the social constructions through which these relationships of inequality are filtered. In Latin American and Central America we are still very machista, and it’s important to question that in literature, whether from the male or female perspective. Of course, they are not the same; they never will be. It’s very different when one lives it in person. The differences in gender, the social structures that surround that, they are lived out in very different ways according to where one is positioned. Last night I finished reading this great detective novel in English by a woman writer from India (Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai), for example. She talks about female slavery in the country, the persistent negative treatment of daughters, among other things. A brutal novel, really. Could a man have written the novel in the same way? Surely not. You can tell the issues are close to what the writer has lived through or continues living through. In this sense, maybe it is from “the viewpoint of a woman”, above all because the protaganist and main character is a woman. The difficult part of speaking about this is that in some way you always approach certain absolutes and stereotypes. I have read novels by women authors with great male characters and narrators and vice versa. In Central America there are and always have been great women writers. Now, if their literature is from “the viewpoint of a woman”, it’s difficult to say. I think that would depend on whether they want to characterize it like that.
Let’s see, I said Central American literature and you didn’t get upset. Does Central American literature exist?
Another difficult question. Yes and no, would be my answer. It’s a problematic question that goes back to the discussion about the last question. In the end, it depends on where one positions oneself. What Central America are we talking about, for example? Of seven countries, or five? Besides, we are in a moment where the very idea of the nation as social/political border is being questioned. In Costa Rica, Quince Dunca is more influenced by the Afro-Caribbean than by San Jose. There is also indigenous literature; literature in English from Belize. I think the idea of “Central America” is always a construction. It’s part of a constructed collective imagination based on a shared general history (which is not homogenous in the least). Sometimes I think the term is useful; other times I don’t. For example, in US academia I think it’s important to be able to talk about Central American literature as almost a political consideration. There is strength in numbers. This means making the region more visible within the structure of the institution where it has been historically excluded. It is, in the end, looking for a voice for our countries. A presence. It’s partly a question of identity, which is closely related to other social constructions like the concept of “race”, for example. Race, biologically, does not exist: We are all humans. But it’s obvious that we are not all the same in this sense. In Costa Rica, I’m white, but in the United States, I’m Latino; I would fight for the rights of Latinos (although the term seems absurd to me.). The idea of Central American literature is similar. A little while ago Warren Ulloa, Vanessa Nuñez Hándal and Denise Phé-Funchal went the Frankfurt Book Festival as Central American writers, and at the same time as representatives of their countries. Also, around eight Central American publishing houses went for the first time. If only one of them had gone, it would have been identified with just one country, maybe it wouldn’t have had such an impact. But as a group, as Central Americans, it drew attention and directed the gaze toward the region and its literature.
In an interview, the Secretary General of CECC-SICA, María Eugenia Paniagua, told me that Central America doesn’t exist culturally. The reason? Because we don’t know each other. What do you think?
I think these are different issues. The first one is related more to this idea about Central America that is always a construction: sometimes useful and sometimes not. The issue of not knowing each other is a question of a cultural institutionality that faces many problems in the region. I’ll give you the example of the writer and the publishing houses. Can you find my books in bookstores in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras? I don’t know if they are there. It is, in the end, very different writing about from Mexico or Buenos Aires than it is from Managua or San Jose. The other day I was given a press release by Isolda Arita — the director of the Guaymuras publishing house in Honduras — for the Second Editorial Talent Conference in Xalapa, Mexico. She talks about how the Central American publishing industry “has remained isolated and scarcely recognized”. The industry is facing a lot of problems, among them a scarcity or lack of incentives from governments to strengthen the publishing industry; also, the scarcity of bookstores — especially outside the capital cities — and a resistance by many of them to selling books by local authors. Add to these problems a deficient public library system, a growing scarcity of readers, piracy, and a lack of national and regional policy to strengthen literature. For Arita, this implies constant “economic straits”, but also a reality in which “Central American authors are not known in the region and it is very difficult to get our books in the bookstores and libraries of neighboring countries”. This is very closely related the comment you cite. We exist culturally, but it is very difficult for our culture to circulate.
Do you think the great thread connecting Central American literature is disenchantment?
Disenchantment, as an issue, is important within a certain context, especially in discussing the cultural production of some countries in the Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua), most of all during the 1990s. Obviously, this is also is very closely related to the war and post-war periods. However, later this idea of disenchantment took on a life of its own. It was “merchandised” in some way as a kind of “intellectual merchandise” that was used to discuss all things Central American. I even wrote about political and social disenchantment in my doctoral thesis. I think it was very important at one point. The danger is in reducing the complexity of a historical moment or of cultural production to just this. There is great diversity, as much cultural as political and social, that does not fit in or respond exclusively to this characterization. So, we get into problematic territory, at times when maybe we value one kind of literature over the other. In the end, wherever an issue is “canonized”, other issues are always excluded; not necessarily because of their literary quality but because of the attraction as “merchandise” in the intellectual markets, the academic journals, etc…
Why do you think this disenchantment is looking to the left again?
I think it was a natural reaction, especially during the 1990s, when the “left” as a global and regional project fell into crisis. It was when the Berlin wall came down, the Soviet Union, Cuba’s Special Period and the fall of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections. For many of that generation, who fought and saw their loved ones die, it must be a terrible feeling of disappointment. I remember, when I was working on my thesis, reading a poll in Nicaragua during the 1990s when most people in the country thought it was worse than before the war. Meaning the Somoza [dictatorship]era! Besides, this is after all the deaths, the exiles, all the devastation. Also, there was disappointment and disenchantment with the political parties of the “left”, people who in the end exposed themselves as being more interested in power and status than in social progress. How could there not be some disenchantment?
Further Reading: Quiros’s work is unfortunately not yet available in English. Spanish readers can however find Red Summer in the original language here.
Tomas Andreu Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
18 Feb 2016