This month’s episode was recorded in Rich Mix London in front of an audience as part of FLAWA festival where Silvia talks to the authors Alia Trabucco Zerán and Yara Rodrigues Fowler about their novels The Remainder and Stubborn Archivist.
Silvia Rothlisberger: Welcome Alia and welcome Yara!
I’m going to start by introducing the two books and then we will talk about them:
The Remainder is Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel. Written originally in Spanish and translated into English by Sophie Hughes. It won an English PEN award. And it has been nominated for The 2019 Man Booker International Prize.
The Remainder is set in Chile and tells the story of three young adults, Iquela, Felipe and Paloma whose parents were anti-Pinochet militants. The three of them carry their parents past, as something they can neither remember nor forget. It is an obstacle for them to move on with their own lives.
After Paloma’s mother dies in exile in Germany, Paloma decides to repatriate her mother and bury her in Chile. A rain of ashes falls over Santiago de Chile and the airplane carrying the dead body is redirected to Argentina. And here is where the road trip begins… as they rent a hearse and drive to Argentina to repatriate the dead body.
Stubborn Archivist is Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut novel. Long listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize. It is an experimental novel narrated in third person and through conversations. A blend of prose and poetry… the book tells the story of a young woman from south London who was born to a Brazilian mother and a British father. Hers is a story of growing up between two cultures, and how her Brazilian background defines the way other people sees her and treats her.
Silvia Rothlisberger: Both books are based on your own family’s history. Why don’t you tell us about which part of your family history inspired the Remainder and Stubborn Archivist?
Alia Trabucco Zerán: Interesting premise because in many ways La Resta/The Remainder is based in my personal history, in my family’s in and my country’s but in many ways it is not an autobiographical novel. Sorry to disappoint you… I haven’t been across the cordillera finding the dead body of anyone… that’s fiction.
And yet the affective landscape of the novel is something that is deeply rooted in me and in my family and in my country’s history. So in that sense it is a personal book that was with me for long before I felt I was able to write it. My parents were active left-wing militants against the dictatorship. I was born during the dictatorship so all of my early memories are very much intertwined with very confusing violent images of that time. So, that somehow shapes the imagination of the book. And the games they play when they were kids and how they see the past and how they want to see the future.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: I really like the phrase affective landscape. The world of the book [Stubborn Archivist] is very much the world that I grew up in South London and obviously mixed British and Brazilian household like that was very much the world that I grew up in. The languages I grew up in speaking at home. I was really keen to recreate all of those things again but with different events and making things much netter and more sort of pointed. I guess telling a fictional story inside a landscape that was not just familiar to me but also that I hadn’t seen written anywhere else.
SR: There is a parallel in both books between the main characters and the writers’ age. I’m not saying it is autobiographical. But In The Remainder we don’t know how old the characters are but you can tell that they are young adults.
In the case of Stubborn Archivist we know that the main character was born in 1991. So there is a parallel between your own ages and the ages of the characters.
Is there something generational that you wanted to transmit through the book?
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Definitely. In so many ways! But I wanted to get across what it was like be growing up, not just British and Brazilian but also in London and at a time when the Brazilian diaspora was way less visible and there were actually less Brazilians in London. Because the number of Latin Americans has increased so much. So it was partly writing that thing of growing up in London, but also being able to follow Brazilian news on Facebook or like seeing all of you family’s Facebook statuses all the time. And like being able to have that immediacy. And there is a bit where someone dies and they are calling on Whatsapp. There is definitely that generational thing that is really different to when my mum was here.
SR: communications took ages
Yara: yeah totally! Another thing that is really generational of the book is that it uses a lot of poetry, blank space and not that much punctuation. And the way it is punctuated: we are not sure if its someone thought, speech or conversation and I think that for me that is something very influenced by being on the internet all the time.
Alia Trabucco Zerán: I want to comment about Yara’s book that when I read it, I really liked it. I thought it was really interesting how there was something very deeply contemporary about it which is generational but at the same time it creates a nice bridge and a nice dialogue with the experience of being both in your own home and abroad at the same time. In your case being the daughter of a Brazilian and a British, that creates nice bridges with the experience that really is something that you can trace back a lot. I think literature relates to the present in ways that are sometimes less direct.
So, in the case of The Remainder there is a generational element but at the same time the experience of a dictatorship is not exclusive of Chile it’s not even exclusive of Latin America. So you can trace also some connections that are a bit more oblique but of course I would say that the book when it was published in Spanish it was immediately framed as what has been called literatura de los hijos, so this is literature of the children. Which is literature that has been written by the next generation. The generation that lived a part of their childhood on the dictatorship but then the memories are blurry and they weren’t directly involved in the fight against the dictatorship.
And there are also great authors like Alejandra Costamagna, Lina Meruane, Alejandro Zambra only to mention some Chilean ones and there are tons in Argentina as well that have been framed under this kind of umbrella. But at the same time I would say all of these authors also relate to literature and to a tradition that is deeper and longer so it is important to make broader connections as well.
SR: The dictatorships of Brazil and Chile in the 70s and 80s are addressed in both books. Of course it is at the core of the Remainder but also in Stubborn Archivist Isadora, the Brazilian mum of the main character, was an anti dictatorship militant printing clandestine material in a church because quote from the book: “people were disappeared. My friends were tortured. I didn’t see my family for years. I was very young.”
My question to Yara is What was the aim of sharing this experience of political exile in your book?
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: I have two perspective on this, one is the perspective I had when I was writing this in 2014 and 2015 and why I put it in there. And now, after the election of Bolsonaro like how I feel about those parts of the book and when I was writing it. I would not have predicted that Brazil would be in the political situation that it is now. If I had, I might have made those bits louder of harder to miss. So it’s weird looking back and feeling the comfort in which I approached that topic that things wouldn’t go in that direction necessarily again.
But having said that why was it important for me to include them… because at the heart of this book I guess is the story of this Brazilian family that has this big rupture, political rupture which is around the dictatorship and around part of the family being very right-wing and Isadora who moves to the UK… being on the other side. So, when I was writing about this Brazilian family and I guess writing about Brazil I guess it was important for me to show these two elements of Brazilian society and that there’s certainly this right wing, white supremacist very elite element of white upper class Brazil. It was very important for me to show that and that it was rooted in this very violently history and yeah that this trauma that this mum carries around. I guess the incompleteness of the stories is testament to the impossibility of transferring all your experience or knowledge of a situation on to the next generation and potentially also like a desire to leave it behind and that being part of why she migrates and comes to the UK.
SR [Question to Alia]: Chile’s political history is at the core of the Remainder. How important was it to you to write about Chile’s dictatorship in your first novel? As a writer was it something that you had to get of your shoulders to move on…
Alia Trabucco Zerán: I guess I couldn’t have written a different book. It’s something that I wanted to write about the dictatorship but at the same time I did not wanted to write a book that would talk about the dictatorship as a grand narrative of the dictatorship. The Remainder is not that!
It’s basically this younger generation trying to put together small fragments, small pieces. More of a whisper than a loud narrative. Sometimes a crazy whisper, sometimes a beginning, middle, end whisper but it’s something that for me it was part of the background. The way the book refers to the dictatorship even though its in the core of it, it’s kind of indirect.
SR: Yara, you mentioned trauma; and Alia mentions the way the characters were because of what they were dealing. The Remainder and Stubborn Archivist address trauma. Trauma that runs in the veins of the family & trauma from an abusive relationship, from sexual violence to be more precise. Tell us about how your characters deal with trauma…
The Stubborn Archivist and Felipe & Iquela.
Alia Trabucco Zerán: trauma is a very difficult thing to write because I think it moves in this strange tension of being unable to remember and being unable to forget. That’s at least what happens to these characters of The Remainder but the way I wanted to deal with that traumatic past of their parents was through games, through memories of childhood that are strange, that are crossed by an imagination that is also a violent imagination. Their relationship with animals -for example- and also their relationship with language. And which words they choose to talk about that past, and moments when they decide to stop listening. For example in the part that I read, Iquela leaves the room over and over to stop listening. I think are -in a way- strategies to deal with trauma.
SR: and Felipe who is always imagining bodies.
Alia: Yes, and I think in the case of Felipe is a very violent imagination. He is seeing these dead bodies and counting them. And he is constantly laughing also, in a very sad way. He is the one that has a violent story with a parrot in the book. And with animals in general. But for me in the case of Felipe it’s his relationship with rhythm as well and with language. How he can’t stop being unable to stop is a way of dealing with a violent past. Like a compulsion.
SR: Both books have non-conventional structures.
The Remainder has two narrators… and chapters are numbered from 11 and go all the way down to zero, but other chapters rather than numbers are signalled with parenthesis. The numbered chapters are narrated by Felipe and the chapters with parenthesis are narrated by Iquela.
Stubborn Archivist is narrated in third person and through conversations.
How did you conceive these structures and narrators?
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: I guess it’s very related to the question about trauma so like you said trauma is an unwillingness to forget or to remember. I can’t write like a traditional British realist text about this sexual violence, even about the violence that the protagonist hears about second hand. It would be disingenuous not to show the secondhandness of the violence that happens in, for example, the mother’s stories of the dictatorship but also some of the bedtime stories she gets from her grandma.
So that’s part of why it was conversations, I wanted it to be like this is how we receive these stories. This is how our archive of our history is constructed like it’s full of gaps and it’s oral. And I wanted to make a novel that was felt really oral. As oral as possible. And then the other thing particularly when it comes to sexual violence is that I wanted to create a text that was for survivors. And that the point of this book is not to convince you that sexual violence is bad or that the protagonist really did experienced sexual violence or an abusive relationship. Is not really clear. The book only works if your starting point is that you believe her. And I didn’t want to write a text that had like a graphic violent scene in it. Again, just because sometimes you just want to read a book to relax. So, I wanted to create a text that had gaps in it because sometimes we don’t choose what we remember and what we forget. And sometimes things come in pieces and also I wanted t create a text that was oral and about healing and joy and those things aren’t linear. There isn’t a point when is like you are good now, it never happened.
Alia Trabucco Zerán: I have a very similar answer actually. Because of the topics that I was dealing with it was simply impossible to do like a beginning, middle, end novel. I couldn’t tell this story without any cracks, without any craziness so first I started crafting Iquela’s voice which came first and I knew it would have more than one narrator and I started working and working until I felt I had found Felipe’s voice which would be a voice that would be constantly questioning the other. Constantly making little holes. Constantly showing the silences, the cracks, the noise as well. That is necessarily engraved in such a violent history. So, the question of the form for me and the content where completely packed together I didn’t have the novel until I didn’t have these two voices. And then I had the characters. And then I had the book.
SR : the name of the protagonist in Stubborn Archivist is unknown. We know it’s a foreign name that people find hard to pronounce but we never learn her name. We do know her mother’s and father’s name. Her best friend’s name. Everyone’s name but hers. Why did you decide to keep her name a secret?
YARA Rodrigues Fowler: we do know probably one of her last names. We know one of her last names which is Amado. It’s almost like a running joke in the book because people can’t pronounce her name but also her name is like – I don’t know if other people can relate to – but her name is a springboard into like ‘oooh! Where are you from? mmmm!’.
You know, it’s so boring! so I guess that’s just a little gift to her. To keep that private.
SR : In The Remainder on the contrary we learn the names of the main characters and also the names of their parents. It seems like the names and last names are quite important. To the point that when Iquela hears Paloma’s mum’s complete name, it opens an entire new world to her… maybe you can read this paragraph from the book and talk about this…
Alia Trabucco Zerán: it’s hard to give name to characters. It’s hard because the moment they feel fake until you actually have a subjectivity and until you actually have a character in the page. The names are symbolic. More relevant because of the lists of the names of the death [in Chile during the dictatorship]. And the lists of the people who were banned to come back to the country, and the disappeared, and the long list of the people who were tortured. in Chile, people tend to have two names and two surnames so is this very formal long way of having a name. Which gives them this weigh, so the moment Iquela finds out of Aguirre, [Ingrid’s] last name it becomes also part of something else. Part of that history part of that list. The whole book is filled with reflections on language and names are also a deep part of our language and of our identity.
As Yara was saying you get asked ‘where are you from?’ I get this question wherever I go. It doesn’t matter where I am.
SR: In Chile!
Alia Trabucco Zerán: of course, in Chile. Alia! Is not a Chilean name. it’s a foreign name. it’s an Arabic name. So, I get that question in Chile. I get it here. I get it everywhere. So, it’s something that is important for the identity of the character. Also it’s important for language itself, I think.
SR: The use of language is quite beautiful in both books. Stubborn Archivist was written in English but it has a lot of words in Portuguese
and The Remainder having been written is Spanish also has a brilliant treatment of the language. Which is perfectly captured by translator Sophie Hughes.
[Question to Yara]: Maybe you can tell us about your decision to include words in Portuguese throughout the book…
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Yeah! I mean, I don’t think I can write without doing that. When I was a child and I was like I would like to be a writer one day, I would think about ‘but how would I write dialogue!’ because how do people even write. Do I switch language? I just didn’t read books that had fluency in two languages. And something that is really hald in each language would not really be marketable. Maybe now there is opening up a Spanish-English market for that kind of thing. So that was something that always worried me as a child: how would I write the dialogue of families like mine when books don’t exist that are one line in English, one line in Portuguese. So, it was just what I had to do when I was writing that family. That is the way we talk to children, we talk to children like you talk to them, you mix your words. They reply in English always and it was really important to me not to italicise like ‘Ooh! Foreign work coming out!’. Because that is not how we speak, we just don’t use the words. We don’t necessarily go like, you know is not like when you use a pretentious French word or a Latin word.
The other thing also about that is like for example the passage I read Coragem Alfredo, I try and read it more just to talk about Brazil’s political situation.
But often poeple stare at me like ‘Ok, what does that mean?’ when I read it. And that’s part of the fun is that there is a special text here for the people who speak Portuguese and English and that’s us. We don’t share it with the Anglophones.
SR: and Spanish, cause I got it too!
Yara: yeah, cause when I was in university I started reading mostly texts by Sandra Cisneros and she has Spanish in the house of Mango street. I felt included in that even though it was Spanish. So, yeah I wanted to create a text that was a place where some people would be disorientated and you know the language exclusion that we see everyday, migrants everyday would be inverted in the life of this text.
[Question to Alia]: tell us about the translation process, how did the rhythm of the book was so brilliantly captured in English…
Alia Trabucco Zerán: Sophie Hughes is a very smart, very talented translator and the moment she grabbed the book she called me, I sort of new that she had captured what I wanted to do. And she translated the book in many levels and when I say many levels I mean she was able to really capture a rhythm that for me is crucial when writing and also the funny bits, the sad bits. And she – I know this because I’ve read some of her interviews actually- many times didn’t translate literally. There are many word games and many reflections about language: about Chilean-Spanish versus other Spanishes. And Chilean-Spanish and that older version of Chilean-Spanish that comes from the 70s generation. All of this she needed to translate into something that was readable in English which was something remarkable to see.
And then we became good friends and the process was really beautiful because we got together to read excerpts so I would read some bits in Spanish as I read them which is really fast. Because that’s the pace for me of the book, specially Felipe’s bits. And then she would read them as fast in English. It was like ‘you got it!’.
So it was really fun and it is weird because The Remainder is of course my book and yet it’s hers. We talk about La Resta, I chose every single word of that book, I know it almost by heart. But The Remainder feels slightly more far away from me in a very nice way that makes me see the novel in a new light so it’s been really quite an experience. Very unexpected and very much fun as well.
SR: thank you. So, now I have one last question for Alia and for Yara and then we are going to open the panel to the audience.
[Question to Alia]: In the last years, there have been an array of Women writers in Latin America. For example since the Man Booker created the international prize: the nominated writers from the region have been women / until this year when apart from you and the Argentinian Samantha Shweblin, Juan Gabriel Vazquez was also nominated. Why do you think this strong wave of women writers is emerging in the region?
Alia Trabucco Zerán: It also has to do with the fact that this festival exists this year. I think feminism has been playing a very important role in the region and you can see in Argentina for example with the movement called Ni Una Menos. With the movement trying to legalise abortion in Chile as well. A whole movement in 2018 was trying to stop sexist education in universities. So is a very active time.
And this has meant that in the cultural and the literary sphere women have been gaining a stronger voice which has meant not only reading more contemporary writers that are writing amazing literature from every single Latin American country. But also re-reading and recovering women writers that because of a sexist cultural sphere were basically forgotten. So our role is very interesting because we have been organising as well. I’ve been taking part of a Chilean group of women writers and we are trying to also question what has been read in the past. Why there are so many female writers of the 20th century have been forgotten. So, it’s a big chorus of very good Latin American women who are writing experimental, very strong and very powerful books. So, it’s quite thrilling to see that recognised as well and I’m very proud of being a part of that. And also I think that this FLAWA Festival is a part of that as well.
Of that feminist movement that is gaining its strength. Its always been there but it has moments when it’s a bit louder and it’s good to be a part of that moment.
[Question to Yara]: I read an interview with you on The Observer where you said that you’ll love it if your book helped to make Latin Americans in the UK more visible. How do you think your book would help to make more visible the Latin American diaspora in London?
Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The context in which I said that was like this book cannot represent everybody and I hope there are more artists and more writers that become more visible.
And I was at a play at the weekend that is called Fuck you pay me! At the Bonker [Theatre] which is really brilliant. It’s by Joana Nastari who is second generation Brazilian and it’s about a striper unionising, a stripper organising and it’s brilliant and everyone should go see it. And it has bits in Portuguese and I was like crying.
There’s also a collective called Invisible Presence which is Latinx Poets which is quite new. So, that’s just the art side and I’m the trustee of an organisation called Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) who are here tonight and LAWA is like the most amazing organization and it has been around for 30 years but we recently opened a second refuge. So LAWA runs the only two refuges for and by Latin American women in the UK.
I guess visibility is the main demand that I see coming out of a lot of Latin American activist groups in the UK. We don’t even know how many people there are, we don’t know how they are living, there are some studies now and is really important also to recognise like the heterogeneity in our community in terms of class and race and obviously gender.
I mean, for example my book is coming out in the US in July and you would never have a headline in the US like oh! Latin American book because…
SR: It happens all the time there.
Yara: I want more attention to be paid to the Latin American diaspora here what they are asking for. So Seven Sisters market
Silvia: and Elephant [and castle].
Yara: a lot of the things that community need. A lot of it has to do with gentrification. That’s what I was hoping with that.
Thank you Yara and Alia!