It was a great honour last week to chair the virtual launch of Holiday Heart, interviewing author Margarita García Robayo and translator Charlotte Coombe for a wonderful event organised by Carolina Orloff and Jules Danskin of Charco Press. I’m writing up some of the main points into a little piece here, so that those of you who missed the event can get a flavour of what was discussed, and those of you who were there can relive it! For a limited time you can also watch the interview on Charco’s website.
Charco’s director Carolina opened the live session by talking about Margarita’s “universe”, her unique mission and way of understanding the world, her talent for making us laugh with her wry, brutal humour and making us feel uncomfortable at the same time because of the way that she portrays reality. In the interview, Margarita expanded on this idea of a “universe” by explaining that her books are all pieces of a bigger literary project: whereas Latin American literature often deals with things that the region is known for, such as political violence, she made the point that it hasn’t necessarily dealt with the particular social “strip” that she focuses on – the middle class or the “in-betweeners” in terms of class. Holiday Heart is an attempt to portray the damaged and damaging Latin American middle classes by presenting uprooted characters looking for a sense of belonging, and this is the environment in which Margarita grew up: it was not an equal society, but she believes that no-one is an innocent victim of their government. Rather, we must all look to ourselves to identify the ways in which we perpetuate this inequality.
When I asked Margarita more about her main characters (the rather unpleasant Pablo and Lucía) she responded that, controversial as it might sound, she doesn’t see Pablo and Lucía as unlikeable, or rather not as purely unlikeable. They are, she suggests, simply unsatisfied people who are over-exposed – and if we were to put such a magnifying glass over anyone, we’d find flaws we didn’t suspect they had. Lucía doesn’t think of herself as racist, but is so dissatisfied with her own life that she hasn’t even noticed her son’s behaviour (which is a mirror of her own), and it is only when he makes loud racist comments in public that she is forced to confront her own behaviour. When Holiday Heart was released in Latin America, it made people question themselves and think “Do I talk/ think like that?” – and this is where its great power and provocation lies.
While Charlie did not find it difficult to inhabit the minds and thoughts of those characters as she was translating (her feeling being that their flaws come from their insecurities – their rootlessness and how they project that onto other people), there were sections that were difficult for her to deal with as she was translating. In particular, she found the sections about black people hard to translate, as well as the sections where Pablo sexualised his student and those which discussed “brown-ness”. However, Charlie noted how important it was not to dilute these issues, and to maintain that challenge to readers: though her instinct might have been how to make certain sections more culturally sensitive, her job as a translator is to convey Margarita’s intentions. Charlie also made a particularly interesting point about how a translator has to think more about who’s reading than a writer might, constantly keeping in mind the question “who am I writing for?”
When I asked both Margarita and Charlie how it felt to have this book come out not only in a time of global crisis, but also at a moment when anti-racism movements are making international headlines, they both considered this to be a good thing: Charlie feels that seeing characters with these particular flaws forces readers to confront such prejudices instead of pretending that they don’t exist, and Margarita suggested that to read a book in a negative way because it contains characters that we don’t agree with is a very limited and sad vision of literature, and went on to insist that she will never modify or erase things just because they make people feel uncomfortable. She is presenting reality: many people who wouldn’t think they are racist are in fact racist, just as many men and women who say they’re feminist aren’t really feminist – and we often don’t recognise this until it explodes in our faces.
Margarita ended the interview with an insightful observation for translators and readers alike: the absence of empathy prevents full comprehension. If we focus only on the negative aspects of the characters, then we miss some of what she’s trying to do. This to me summed up what makes Margarita such an important contemporary writer: just as in life an absence of empathy will prevent us from understanding others and feeling connected to the world around us, so in literature this absence will prevent us from understanding what a book is doing or saying, and will prevent us from understanding the context it comes from. If we only read books in which we see our ideals reflected, we will only reinforce our own sense of innate “rightness”, and never understand the multiplicity of experience and perspective that makes up our world. I truly believe Margarita García Robayo to be not just a good writer but a great one, and am grateful that with Charlie’s translation and Charco’s mission her work can reach more readers, as it deserves to.
I will be on holiday for the next few weeks, but have prepared several posts to publish automatically while I’m offline! Here’s what you can look forward to until my return:
Review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens, tr. Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Review of Three Plastic Rooms, Petra Hůlová, tr. Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)
Review of The Passion According to Renée Vivien, tr. Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2020)
Interview with Helena Buffery, co-translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien
Happy reading, and have a wonderful summer!