I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I need some element of hedonistic surprise—that’s a little perverse—to fool myself, to surprise myself, and yet, at the same time, I need to maintain control.”
Luisa Valenzuela is and always has been unafraid to be a woman who writes biting political satire that is also highly charged erotic literature, all this in her “phallocentric” country of Argentina. Nothing, however, has more value for Luisa Valenzuela than memory. Perhaps because the governments her country has survived so often try to rewrite its history, imposing a collective amnesia on the people. The daughter of writer Luisa Mercedes Levinson, Luisa Valenzuela grew up under Peronism in the ‘50s within Buenos Aires’ most important literary circle, the world of Borges and Sábato, Bioy Casares, and local poets and publishers, who gave her the opportunity to have her first short story printed when she was eighteen. To date, she has published five collections of stories, among them, Up Among the Eagles, Strange Things Happen Here, and The Heretics; and six novels: He Who Searches, Clara, The Lizard’s Tail and the upcoming Black Novel with Argentines have been translated into English. Just before Christmas, Ms. Valenzuela was visiting New York. In Buenos Aires at that time, there was a brief attempt at a military coup. Meanwhile, demonstrations continued against President Carlos Menem’s impending pardons to the generals who, during the Dirty War of the 1970s, were responsible for the tortured deaths of at least 9,000 people. Against this background, we began talking about her first short story, “City of the Unknown,” which opens with a girl’s discovery of a man who possesses “a voice that could raise the dead.”
Linda Yablonsky If you could raise the dead, who would you go after?
Luisa Valenzuela Cortázar and Borges. First Cortázar, because he had such an inventive mind. And perhaps many more, out of my heart … Cortázar had an eye for things you couldn’t see at first glance.
LY You were only 17 when you wrote “City of the Unknown,” and yet it has such a mature sexuality and a very developed imagination.
LV My imagination was very developed then. I don’t know about the maturity.
LY Was that story based on a particular longing, or incident?
LV What happens when you revive the dead? That was the question that triggered the whole story.
LY Terrifying idea, actually. You bring it up again in Up Among the Eagles.
LV That’s much later, Eagles was written ten years ago.
LY In that story, it’s not that the dead are being revived, but that they’re very present.
LV The dead are present in life, constantly.
LY You say that if we stopped writing, history would stop, time would stop. In Up Among the Eagles, there’s a lot of talk about controlling time, aging and not aging.
LV It’s a different concept of time—The Iroquois, and many other native American languages, don’t have tenses. There’s no notion of a past or future, verbs are always handled in the same tense.
LY Do you worry about aging?
LV Oh yes, as everybody else. And I get furious—except that the more you live, the more you realize it’s so much in your mind.
LY It’s so strange, the image you see in the mirror and your self-image being so totally different, and the older you get, the more distance there seems to be.
LV Except, sometimes, you catch yourself in the mirror being who you think you are. Is the mirror lying?
LY We’re running out of a lot of things, one of which is time, time keeps getting compressed. These two stories of yours were written years apart and yet they both share this sense of stopping time to keep things the same, creating history by recording events and people: the sense that without the record, there would be no history.
LV I’m very worried about memory, about the fact that you tend to repeat the past if you ignore it. And Argentina’s always trying to obliterate your memory, so there’s all this story of pardons and amnesties for the generals implicated in the tortures, as if one could make a clean slate of past horrors.
But I insist that you can’t simply obliterate memory. If you say nothing happened, you can’t move. This is something that has been in the back of my mind for ages, and it pops up in different stories. It finally has to do with reviving the dead—which is again, the other impossibility. You cannot kill the memory or revive the dead. You have to accept the time law as we know it.
LY In what direction do you think the Argentinean government is going, and what do people have to say about it?
LV The people have to say everything they can, if they can, because they are very hungry at this point.
LY Literally, hungry?
LV Literally hungry. But anything is better than another military coup, so nobody says too much for fear of getting the military back, which would be worse, decidedly. The economic problems, I don’t think, can be solved one way or the other, but at least there is liberty. It is a very strange government: playing the game of the populists—and having an extremely right-wing capitalistic policy. They are using a very obvious double standard and very obvious lies, so obvious that there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not that you can’t denounce anything, it’s that everything’s being denounced everyday, so everything has lost its value. Nothing happens.
LY What sort of people in Argentina become members of the military?
LV There is an odd historical situation here. It used to be the upper classes. The military of the last century were the cultured people, they went to important military academies, they knew languages, translated Dante—they were very intelligent. And little by little, they got more dogmatic. I suppose people who go into the military now—except for the poor, who have nothing else to do but join—are those who believe they are the owners of the truth and are ready to impose it by force. I once gave a talk at West Point, here.
LY Really? You didn’t!
LV I was talking in front of all these West Point cadets, and suddenly, out of my mouth, without thinking, I said, “I don’t understand what you are all doing here. If I were in Argentina, I would know that you all wanted to be President.” (laughter) Because they all want to take charge, it’s a question of power. That fascinates me. What is this madness called power?
Did you read the Desert of the Tartars by Dino Buzzati, the Italian writer? It takes place in a military post, a frontier bordering the so-called desert of the Tartars. And they are all the time waiting for the enemy to come, so there are strict military rules in this fort, because the enemy will come. Only the enemy hasn’t come for two centuries, and there is no enemy, there is only desert. But they can’t recognize that reality. One day, somebody goes out and when he comes back refuses to announce the codeword. He is shot and killed because they had to create something to justify their existence. All this has to do with the phallocracy.
LY Would you consider yourself any kind of feminist?
LV I’m a born feminist. I’m not a dogmatic feminist.
LY Have you personally been confronted with a lot of violence in Argentina?
LV No, not much nowadays. You see more in the streets of New York. Things in Buenos Aires seem calm. It’s very disturbing, because you know they’re not calm. It’s impossible for them to be calm. There was this military uprising the other day and people thumbed their noses at the fighting. The minute the rebellious military tries something they get horrible abuses from the public.
LY How can they?
LV They verbally insult them. It’s just fantastic. One time a bunch of dissident military tried to take over the city airport and the people who were going on their vacations pushed them out of the way. Life goes on and private citizens don’t allow this to stop them anymore. We are no longer afraid. We’ve seen too much during the dictatorship.
LY But are the citizens armed?
LV No, I hope not. Some are, unfortunately. But this is pure chutzpah.
LY So, you’ve picked up a little New Yorkese, I see.
LV Yes, I lived here for quite a while—eleven years.
LY Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you grew up?
LV It was a very literary house, and Borges and Sábato, Bioy Casares—mainly Borges, and all these big shots in Argentine literature—were there very often, and I thought it was very fascinating, but not for me. I wanted to be a mathematician, an artist or a painter—anything but literature. I had always wanted to be an explorer. You don’t know how much of an explorer a writer is when you’re young. Literature seemed so passive and ironically, they were practically all very apolitical. Ironically, because this was during Peronist times. So all of these writers were out of a job because they’d been censored and kicked out of work. My mother organized paid lectures and readings in our home so that these writers could earn a living. I didn’t think I was political at all, myself, but I thought there had to be some action in all this, and there was no action. So I went into journalism. In journalism, you move.
LY And what were your first forays into journalism?
LV Travel pieces.
LY The title of one of your novels is He Who Searches and there’s definitely a seeking in your writing.
LV There’s a seeking in my life, in general.
LY Are you religious at all?
LV No. Yes. Yes, but not of any religion. I believe in the sacred aspects of life and that level of thinking. I read a lot about religions. But I don’t believe in God.
LY I was just going to ask you.
LV But there is a sense of the sacred in the world, in nature. Westerners don’t know about dualities, simultaneity. This is a very Oriental concept, the sacred and the profane, you cannot separate one from the other, the sacred couldn’t exist without the profane.
LY All of your stories in Strange Things Happen Here start with some human intimacy that grows in the historical context, the canvas of events that surround it and give it another dimension. I noticed you don’t give names to a lot of people in your stories.
LV These stories were written very quickly, triggered either by something I was told or something I overheard. It’s a collective mind, in a sense. I wanted to make them archetypal … a name is a very heavy burden. Sometimes, I don’t want to put this burden on certain characters. Some don’t need a name.
LY “The Censors” really twisted me up inside, that obsession.
LV It was so self-defeating, such a male story in a sense. That book (Strange Things Happen Here) wasn’t censored because God knows. I think, censors don’t have a sense of humor.
LY I’m sure they don’t.
LV They were doing a video two months ago in Argentina, and they asked me to read any story. I started reading “The Best Shod” (in which the beggars of Argentina, helping themselves to the plethora of new shoes worn by the dead bodies lying around them, become the best-shod beggars in the world). And suddenly, I realized I couldn’t read that one. Not because it would be censored, but because it’s so painful. So much of it had really happened. Seen from a distance it’s a metaphor, but at the other end, it’s no longer a metaphor.
LY Your writing has a very strong interior voice, much stronger than whatever is on the narrative’s surface. It’s almost as if you’re whispering under your breath.
LV I’m glad it comes out in translation.
LY I feel when I’m reading your stories, that I’m hearing what really goes on in your mind, even when you’re talking about people outside yourself.
LV Because the narrative itself makes the good connections, the proper associations. The narrative per se knows more than what the writer knows or whatever has been told to you. Whatever has been told to you is full of holes and omissions and things that are hidden. A narrative line will make all these things pop out in the open. You will discover them while you’re writing. That’s what fascinates me about writing.
LY Do you spend most of your time writing?
LV I wish I did.
LY So what do you spend most of your time doing?
LV Daydreaming. Worrying. Feeling guilty for not writing … You have to go through that phase, now I’ve learned.
LY Do you ever use a tape recorder?
LV No, never. I can’t, because I need the physical act of writing. Now I’m using a computer at times, but it’s not the same. I write generally with a fountain pen.
LY Do you live on your writing?
LV No, I don’t. I do with my lectures, and other things.
LY What did you teach here?
LV Funny enough, I had a writers’ workshop in English.
LY Do you teach in Argentina also?
LV No, no. This is an American operation!
LY Have you ever thought about going into politics?
LV Oh no—oh no! The only thing I do with politics is denounce whatever’s going on at that horrible level. I think it’s the worst … I don’t believe in darkness, least of all in politics.
LY You’re very sharp with the political satire.
LV I know I’m sharp, but it’s scary because I sometimes become prophetic.
LY Do you find that life imitates art in this case?
LV No, I find that art puts two and two together—that’s all. And again, it obeys a narrative order. There always is a narrative.
LY To life.
LV To life, in general. And the narrative is then cut into pieces of time and place and convenience, whatever is hidden or forgotten or not said. And the narrative reconstruction builds this whole edifice again and there you have prophecy. You have everything, because that is a real narrative.
LY Are you saying you think things have definite beginnings and middles and ends, so to speak? Or is life continuous?
LV There is a continuum, and there are links to things. But nothing pops up out of the blue, in fact. Things are linked—there is a chain. And that chain can be seen in the narrative, because the narrative needs a chain. Otherwise, it’s sheer luck, serendipity. We don’t live in a plotless novel. The novel of our lives has a very rich plot! And the only thing a writer does is follow that plot as best she can.
LY What’s your home life like now? Are you living alone?
LV I’m living alone. I have a part-time dog, and I’m living in the middle of a park. I’m surrounded by wonderful, very nice old trees. People are around.
LY You never feel lonesome?
LV No, I like it.
LY You don’t miss the intimacy of a family?
LV My daughter’s around, friends are around all the time.
LY But not a man?
LV Oh, yeah, sometimes. But then it becomes … I don’t know. Things are as they are. I always quarreled with my men.
LY You did?
LV Yes, yes. I was often quite violent. You wouldn’t believe it.
LY Well, no—not sitting here. Although I can see your anger on the page.
LV Yes, I don’t like to be invaded. I feel invaded easily. I need my privacy more than anything else. And then I travel all the time.
LY What made you move back to Argentina?
LV New York was becoming too hectic. I was dreaming in English, I was thinking in English—I didn’t want that anymore. My novel, Black Novel with Argentines, took me five years and it was very hard to write. It takes place in New York. It is a very dark piece, a very gutter-like book, with very, very deep unconscious levels, really hard stuff. I thought that in a sense I was writing a farewell to New York.
LY Oh, I can’t wait to read it.
LV It’s very strong. And there is a crime, and again, it’s a search, not a search for criminals but a search for the more motive of the crime. And there are two Argentine writers, so it has to do with writing, it has to do with confusions, and it has to do with the S&M scene in New York—with all the boundaries you cross, in all senses. It was hard to write. I didn’t want to write it half the time, so then I write this other one (National Reality from the Bed) very quickly.
When I’m writing a novel there is a different state. It’s like being in a trance. So when you’re reading the novel, you’re inside this other situation. Life has another dimension. Everything that comes into your life has something to do with another. There’s this conflict, there is a voracity, there is vampirism when you’re in your novel.
LV Yes, because when I write I become a vampire. I suck cold blood from anything for a novel.
LY How do you know when to end it?
LV Oh, it abandons you.
LY It abandons you? Oh!
LV That’s it. And you feel awful sometimes. A novel has to have a life of its own. This is when you know you are writing well.
LY Could you compare the attitude toward work between New York and Buenos Aires, say?
LV Oh, yes. This is one of the reasons I left. Because I started believing in workaholism, and everything was so desperate, and things had to be done perfectly all right, and I started believing this New York thing. I saw myself absolutely caught in this trap. And I ran away. I said: this is not true! I need to respond to the first principle of pataphysics, that says you never have to take serious things seriously. And here I was, taking things seriously. So I left.
Linda Yablonsky is a freelance writer living in New York. She is currently writing a novel called That We Live and a performance piece called We Are Not They.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee