Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Liliana Heker: A Writer We Should All Know

I’d never heard of Liliana Heker until a few months ago when one of her translators, Andrea Labinger, sent a story of hers to Catamaran Literary Reader, a magazine I help edit. I was very taken with Heker’s story, “Travel Fatigue,” featured in the spring 2013 issue of the magazine.

                                                           Liliana Heker

Scanning the shelves of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library recently, hungry for good fiction, I ran across Liliana Heker’s The Stolen Party. The book is a collection of short stories translated from Spanish by Alberto Manguel. Rarely does it happen that I make a selection almost at random in a library and end up dazzled. But dazzled I was.

Several of the stories in that book were among the most memorable I’ve ever read. Heker is a master of magical realism, but she has her own take on it. The first story in the book, “Georgina Requini: or the Chosen One,” telescopes the entire life of a wannabe actress into 30 pages. It’s breathtaking, zooming from one phase of the main character’s life to the next, in and out of her fantasies, so we rarely know where and when the action takes place until we get our bearings a couple of sentences into each episode. That puzzle is one of the most fun aspects of the story. But this disorientation also mirrors the main character’s bewilderment about how her fate plays out. The story is a technical tour de force, warping the space/time continuum, but it’s also deeply moving and knowing, a combination that magical realism doesn’t always deliver.

The title story of The Stolen Party is also amazing. More in the vein of naturalist fiction, it tells the tale of a nine-year-old girl who is the daughter of a maid, but gets invited to the birthday party of the girl whose family employs her mother. I won’t give away the shocking ending.

Julio Cortázar, like Heker, an Argentine master of fiction, said about her writing, “Liliana Heker is a magician. She turns little daily objects and trivial events into pieces of gold. She is wise, she is frightening. She must be read, she must be read.”

Also available in English is Heker’s novel about the period of the dictatorship and the Dirty War in Argentina, The End of the Story, translated by Labinger. The novel caused a stir both on the left and the right, because one of the revolutionary characters is subjected to torture, turns informant, and then becomes the lover of her torturer.

Heker was born in Buenos Aires in 1943 to a family that emigrated from Europe. In response to a question about her roots, Heker responded: “My maternal grandparents arrived as children in 1889 on the Weser, a mythical ship that brought the first Jewish immigrants to Argentina” from Eastern Europe. Her ancestors settled in Entre Ríos province, home of the Jewish gauchos.

Interestingly, Heker began her academic career as a student of physics. That might explain her comfort in playing with the rules of time and space in her fiction. She was also a literary prodigy, publishing her first stories at the age of 17. She’s well known in Argentina for cofounding two important literary journals: El Escarabajo de Oro (The Golden Beetle), and El Ornitorrinco (The Platypus). Her work has been translated into numerous languages, and fortunately for us, English is one of them.

My next blog will be an exclusive interview with Liliana Heker, featuring information not available elsewhere in English.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4, Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
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 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
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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