Saturday, May 18, 2013

Interview with Liliana Heker

This blog is an exclusive interview with the wonderful Argentine fiction writer Liliana Heker. Thanks to Andrea G. Labinger for translating the interview.

                                                         Liliana Heker

ZR: I've read that you studied physics when you were younger. How did that influence your writing?
LH: I think that although my study of physics has left some traces in my literature, the real significant influence must be traced back to the fact that in my adolescence, a time when writing began to be my essential activity, I chose to specialize in physics. As it happens, ever since I’ve had use of reason, both predilections, mathematics and literature, have been very strongly apparent in me. Beginning at the age of four I can recall making up stories, feeding voraciously on the stories people told me or read to me, as well as those I listened to in secret, and later, when I learned to read, devouring fiction. And at the same time, by age four I see myself trying to provide a rational explanation for everything that surrounds me and turns out to be inexplicable. At school I was good at writing compositions and nearly infallible in math. In adolescence, it seemed natural for me to express everything that was excess and madness through writing, but (perhaps for that very reason) it never occurred to me to choose literature as a formal course of study.

ZR: What changed, then, to make writing your career?
LH: For me writing was a place of freedom, where I could discover and reveal myself exactly as I was. I didn’t hesitate to choose physics as a major because scientific thought was a passion of mine and because, somehow, I felt that this type of thought could contain me and help me get organized. At sixteen I entered the College of Exact Sciences and, at the same time, began to work for a literary magazine, El grillo de papel (The Paper Cricket) and write my first short stories. At twenty-one, with one book of short stories nearly complete, I left the College of Exact Sciences because I realized that I was still passionate about science, but I had nothing to contribute (to create) in that field. Where I really did have something personal to contribute was in writing, in which I could express even my scientific self. And that’s what I think has happened. In several of my short stories, and also in my novel Zona de clivaje (Cleavage Zone), the character who tries to organize reality logically appears at the forefront and is challenged.

ZR: What other ways did your study of the sciences affect your writing?
LH: As I’ve already intimated, my study of physics made concrete contributions to my writing. Above all, it has refined my ability to structure and organize both fiction and essays. But it has also made very concrete contributions in terms of acquired knowledge. In my works of fiction the reader will detect that Entropy, the Uncertainty Principle, or the planes of cleavage form a natural part of my experience. And in the novel The End of the Story, the College of Exact Sciences appears as an unavoidable locale. In short, I think that one very chaotic, nonsensical area and another, very rational and systematic one, coexist within me, and as far as I can tell, it’s a fairly peaceful coexistence.

ZR: Do you have a theory about why Argentina has given birth to so many short story writers over the last century? I think about Japan, how it has given us so many great short poems—haiku, tanka. It seems as though a country can specialize in a particular literary genre, but why?
LH: As you very correctly point out, Zack, Argentina is a country of notable short story writers. Even a tremendous novelist like Roberto Arlt has written exceptional short stories, and Borges, the canonical Argentine writer, didn’t need to write a novel in order to attain that status. I think, rather, that there are a number of factors, sometimes interconnected, favoring the abundance and excellence of short story writers in Argentina. I’ll mention a few. 1) Unlike what happened in other Latin American countries, in Argentina, in the beginning, there was very little influence from Spanish literature (which is very lush and has little to do with the austerity of the short story), and on the other hand, a great deal of influence from English and French, and later, North American literature, three literatures in which the short story has been very important.  2) In the River Plate region we have had, in my opinion, the first great short story writer in Latin American literature: Horacio Quiroga. Quiroga was born in Uruguay (another country with notable short story writers) and lived nearly all his life in Argentina. He was a bad novelist, and in every sense, a master of the short story, since he didn’t just write remarkable stories; he also wrote masterfully about the secrets of the genre. In his Decálogo del perfecto cuentista (Ten Commandments for the Perfect Short Story Writer), he points out those whom he considers to be the masters of the genre: Poe, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Kipling (a selection that illustrates what I said earlier). 3) In Argentina there is, by and large, a starker, less exuberant countryside than in other regions of Latin America, a phenomenon that, in a complex way, influences the choice of worlds and narrative styles. 4) There is a type of speech and syntax (connected, in turn, with a unique way of seeing reality and a predisposition to irony and doubles entendres) that perhaps draws us Argentines to the unique effect the short story presents. No doubt these are approximations or points of departure to try to understand this phenomenon. The fact is, in Argentina there are great masters of the genre and several generations of noteworthy writers of short stories, which makes it more likely that new writers will write short stories. For various and complex reasons that exceed the limits of this response, a short story tradition has become ingrained in Argentina and that trait, literarily speaking, makes us who we are.

ZR: Could you say something about how your family came to Argentina?
LH: My maternal grandparents arrived as children in 1889 on the Weser, a mythical ship that brought the first [Eastern European] Jewish immigrants to Argentina that same year, those who established the first colonies in Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. My great-aunts and uncles were “Entrerrianos” (from the province of Entre Ríos); the first to be born in Buenos Aires was my mother. My paternal grandparents arrived in 1905 at La Pampa, with my father, who was a newborn baby, and two other small children. All of them came from Russia, from the Ukraine area. I don’t know much more than that.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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