On Sunday, a trio of writers and one translator took to one of the many stages of the Brooklyn Book Festival for a wide-ranging conversation about genre, national literary traditions, and the long shadow cast by literary forebears and political movements. The panel’s title, From Sci-Fi to Meta (and Heavy Metal): New Dimensions in Latin American Fiction, suggested that just about everything was up for grabs, and the panelists did not disappoint.
The three writers were a study in contrasts: Yoss, author of a host of science fiction novels, including Super Extra Grande, sported a camouflage bandana and sporting long hair, and looked like the singer of a heavy metal band (which, in fact, he is). Álvaro Enrigue, author (most recently) of the novel Sudden Death, has a more professorial demeanor, and and Carlos Labbé, whose most recently-translated book is the novel Loquela, split the difference between the two, Moderating was Natasha Wimmer, who translated Sudden Death into English, and is also well-known for translating several books by Roberto Bolaño.
Though none of the three writers is considered a realist, Wimmer’s first question pointed out the ways in which their styles diverged, from Yoss’s outright science fiction to Enrigue’s historical surrealism to the dreamlike qualities of Labbé’s work. What, she asked, prompted each of these writers to avoid realism?
Yoss emphasized the necessity of escapism as a means of self-discovery, and pointed out that writing strict realism can, with advances in technology, quickly date a novel. For him, the speculative route offered a way to examine contemporary issues through a different lens. “Tomorrow can be the consequences of your actions today,” he said.
Labbé spoke about the fact that “realism” as a genre was now becoming more evident as a kind of construction. He cited the way the fantastic can seem “more real than reality,” and the way that contemporary news seems more and more like the stuff of science fiction plots. Enrigue, for his part, took a more expansive view. “Fiction writing is still a way of knowledge [and] of understanding things,” he said, and emphasized fiction’s ability to aid readers in understanding things in a way that other forms of narrative cannot. “The privilege of the writer is to take one step out of reality,” he said.
Yoss pointed out that each of them grew up in countries where a kind of “surrealistic realism” was present: Cuba for him, Mexico for Enrigue, and, for Labbé, Chile. This segued nicely into Wimmer’s next question, about how their countries of origin have affected their writing, as well as how the time Enrigue and Labbé have spent living in New York has further affected it.
Labbé spoke about how New York has shown him a number of different kinds of logic that he can use in his. He discussed how, in the United States, the diversity is similar to the “diversity of voices in Latin America.” For him, he contended, “being in New York is just collecting voices.”
Enrigue emphasized Mexico City’s long relationship to (and dialogue with) New York City, and mentioned that he had moved between the two cities for much of his life. In New York, he said, he has learned more about cultural exchange, and become more conscious of diversity. His travels between the two cities, he said, have led him to think more about the concept of nationality. And he mentioned that his fluency in English is such that he could write an article in said language, but not a novel.
As his response, Yoss gave a capsule history of Cuban science fiction. He discussed its arrival in 1959, with the onset of the revolution, but mentioned that, as a movement, it quickly grew to be at odds with the government. In the 1980s, a second period began, with a more optimistic view and an emphasis on what a future after capitalism had been defeated might look like. Since the early days of the current century, he said, a new movement has emerged, which is more willing to examine bolder questions and explore a wider range of possible futures. This, he argued, is the most interesting era of science fiction in Cuba.
Wimmer cited the storytelling approaches of all three writers, and praised how they balanced plotting with stylish prose. This segued into a discussion of each writer’s feelings on plotting, and how they came up with their distinctive works.
Enrigue was, perhaps, the most candid, began by saying, “It’s my job.” This then prompted him to discuss his family some more, adding, “I come from a family that loves to tell stories! I owe that to my ancestors.” He talked about how his own aesthetics have changed over time: in his younger days, he loved the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; now, he’s less enthralled with them.
Labbé said that he approached new stories as a kind of music. “Literature is all about voices,” he said, and cited its ability to keep him healthy. For him, his process involves trying to figure out why he’s obsessed with something, and then how best to translate that onto the page. He differentiated that from an aesthetic preference that he’s noted in the United States where, he said, “everything has to be a story.”
For Yoss, character comes first. He told that audience that the protagonist comes first, then the world in which they live and the things that can happen to them in that setting. He mentioned that he was eleven when he first discovered science fiction, and he often asks himself, when writing something, whether his younger self would find it interesting.
Enrigue’s reference to his changing opinion of Tarkovsky led Wimmer to pose a followup to the entire panel: what other writers or artists had their opinion of changed over time? Enrigue led the responses, citing a number of English-language authors, including Julian Barnes and Don DeLillo (particularly the latter’s novel Libra). He recounted becoming a writer in 1990s Mexico, which he referred to as a “parody of a socialist regime.“ His generation, unlike those that had come before, read only Latin American literature–and so, when international literary markets opened, the resulting work showed him, in his words, “a new way to approach literature.”
Labbé emphasized the revolutions that each of the panelists’ countries had gone through. For him in Chile, the state played a significant role in students’ cultural educations. He mentioned that there were “obligatory readings” for children in the 1970s through the 1990s. For him, the eye-opening movement came through local poetry workshops that abounded in Chile. Through one, he was exposed to poetry from around the world. “I loved it, but I didn’t like to write it,” he said–and that led him to the path of writing prose. From there, he began studying literature, and then discovered detective fiction.
He mentioned that now, his interests are more in sacred literature from across the globe. “They are charged with something that, when you’re reading a novel, you don’t grasp. A timeless quality,” he said.
Yoss spoke about the sense of discovery that comes from writing, and the way that one can envision possible histories through fiction. When he was young, he read science fiction from both the United States and the Soviet Union, which had substantial aesthetic and political differences, but offered two distinctive modes in which to write. He said he needed to read work by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar before he could write work that left him feeling satisfied. And he spoke of having the desire to write “like Gabriel García Márquez,” but about a science fictional situation.
The discussion began to near the end, and Wimmer opened it up to questions from the audience. One attendee asked if the panelists saw themselves as having inherited the traditions of magic realism. “It is liberating to have the titans come before you,” Enrigue said–arguing that this opened the floodgates to more idiosyncratic work. Labbé said that he was “proud to be one of their continuators.” And Yoss noted that competing with the works of those long gone was difficult, saying that “you cannot fight with a ghost.”
Another attendee asked whether the geopolitical or cultural role of the United States had an influence on their work. Enrigue alluded to how “discussions of what we share in the Americas” are exciting for him as a writer. “Maybe the main difference is language,” he said, observing that he has found that, largely, people’s aspirations are the same.
“Capitalism has a narrative,” Labbé said. He pointed out that Chile in the 1980s, was similar to the US in the 1990s. Now, he finds that the US is similar to Chile in the 1970s. “What I like about this country is that the fight is not done, yet,” he said. Yoss, too, found parallels between the two, He said that on his first visit to the United States, he was very paranoid. But he also sees hints of Cuba’s future in the United States–which looped back to some of his earlier observations on society and science fiction. “If you look at your future, you can change,” he observed.
Capitalism, Communism, nations with centuries of history between them, the role of the fantastical in understanding contemporary life, and the way that literary traditions inform modern fiction. It was a lot of ground to cover in less than an hour, but Wimmer, Enrigue, Labbé, and Yoss pulled it off. The result was both enlightening and comprehensive, a discussion that prompted a lot of thinking about contemporary politics and led to more that a few book purchases at the table downstairs.