Pola Oloixarac is a writer from Buenos Aires who has also lived in San Francisco and Barcelona. Oloixarac has traveled the world to participate in literary forums in places such as India, Finland, Colombia, Brazil, the United States, France, and Peru, and she has presented her work and views on literature at universities including Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, University of Toronto, and University of Florida. As a provocative and celebrated novelist who is often invited to the party, Oloixarac richly understands the milieu of literary ceremony.
Oloixarac’s third novel Mona (translated by Adam Morris) takes place in the days leading up to the announcement of the Basske-Wortz Prize, “the most important literary award in Europe and one of the most prestigious in the world.” The novel opens with the title protagonist, a Peruvian writer, flying from San Francisco to Sweden with “enough decent makeup” to disguise the blue-green bruises on her face and neck. Her “Egon Schiele deformities,” as she calls them, are submerged and omnipresent as she meets and consorts with 12 other finalists — from places such as Japan, France, Armenia, Iran, etc. — in Sweden to await the announcement of a €200,000 prize. The gathering presents the writers with the opportunity to deliver speeches, parade their egos, and behave badly.
Oloixarac’s writing is funny, smart, and sinister, and whereas her first two novels Savage Theories and Dark Constellations (both translated by Roy Kesey) demonstrated the maximalist breadth of her work, Mona adeptly zooms in a submerged private trauma that the protagonist carries through the ritual of literary fame.
I wrote to Oloixarac to ask about her work. We talked about the delirium of Spanish, the lives and communities of artists, and what it was like arriving in the United States and being considered a PoC.
Where did the story for Mona begin? What was the first piece, and what was the process that followed?
I began writing Mona when I had just moved to San Francisco. Like most immigrants coming in the US, I had this feeling that my life was beginning anew, this time for “real,” so I thought what the hell I’m writing in English now. I’d written articles on politics in English in The New York Times and elsewhere, but never fiction. I was hooked instantly. Writing in English felt very playful, like putting on this fancy dress that is not exactly you, but you love it anyway, you love it even more, and you start acting (writing) in the spirit of the dress. I wrote the first four chapters in a spell. Then I left the English draft marinating for a while, my American baby was born (my anchor baby!), and when I came back to the book, I realized that something was lacking: I needed the force and the delirium of Spanish. So, I translated what I had into Spanish and found a different voice, more restrained than my previous books, with a different humor — a in a way, it was all about the humor — and that voice became my guide. Even if it was in Spanish, it had the controlled aroma and a certain coyness of the English, which felt very inspiring for building the thriller aspects and the thought process of Mona the character. I liked the idea of faking an autofiction, to write as if part of that genre, which to me it’s very American because I’d read first it in English.
For the novel, you invented a set of international literary stars competing for the “the most important literary award in Europe.” Can you tell us about your process for building out this cast of characters?
Most of the characters are drafted after real people, real writers I’ve met. I used to feel extremely anxious in “professional events,” but once I realized that I was surrounded by potential characters the landscape became very soothing. It was easier to connect with people knowing that they’d became eventually characters, and this realization became a life aid. That way you’re always writing, you’re never not writing. (Though of course, sometimes I’m so shocked by things that take place socially, or things that people say to me, that it takes me years to know what to do with them.) I think I’ve become interested in the notion of the “international cast of writers” since I spent time in Iowa, where I was part of cohort of the International Writers Program in 2010. What it means to be in a cohort, what is expected of you — and who are you pleasing, and appeasing. Iowa was divine, it was my first experience of “life in the US,” but the lives of intellectuals can be gruesome, and violent, even if the humanities carry off the inhuman with elegance.
One writer at the literary conference says that music is a “transparent field in which genius and mediocrity were self-evident truths — and this only ever led to hatred, distrust, and malaise.” He says that not knowing each other’s languages was the key to conviviality at the literary conference. Have you experienced this gain in the gaps between languages as you’ve traveled international literary spaces and, if so, can you say more about it?
Well, I identify as a total language nerd, I’m obsessed with languages. I’m fluent in French, Portuguese, Italian, English, I have a beginner’s Catalan and in September I’m getting back to revive my wretched German, a language that I love but I need to practice more. So, for me, the more is always the merrier. I guess that when you’re mixing languages and people, it always comes to something very fundamental of the person. Because changing languages means changing abilities, it’s a bit like being an immigrant of the mind. When you’re out of your language comfort zone, you’re forced to adapt to a narrower set of tools, and you may feel silly, incapable. It’s very humbling, makes you feel a bit like a child again. A lot of people don’t want to cope with that feeling.
I think that Russian character in Mona means also that music has a way of being experienced that is immediate: you immediately have your nervous system exposed to it when you hear it. Whereas in literature is an art that takes time, so the “self-evident” beauty cannot manifest unanimously, like when you’re hearing someone wonderful play a piece. In my case, I want to be exposed to other people’s ideas and mental games and if they’re foreigner and alien that always adds to the excitement.
In Mona and also in your essay “Why I Don’t Write About the Women in My Family,” you reckon with the ways that violence against women obstructs the ability to coherently organize or tell a story about a life. Why did you feel an imperative to write about you’re the women in your family despite the difficulty in knowing how to, or where to start?
I have been wanting to write about violence in my family since I was a teenager. One of the things that was riveting for me about writing Mona was that I could begin circling around it, around that violence against women. What really interests me, I guess, is not so much the gore part of violence — kind of the “porn” aspect of it — but the way violence is dealt with: how it’s just part of the silence of women, part of life. How those facts of death become facts of life.
You write about how Mona arrived at Stanford, “at a time when being a ‘woman of color’ in the vade mecum of American racism, began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital,” and throughout the novel, Mona’s Peruvian/Latin American identity seems to preemptively brand her in the spaces she moves through. How do you think cultural institutions such as universities or literary conferences could navigate a commitment to diversity with more grace and integrity?
I learned that I was a person of color when I entered the USA, but as soon as I took a plane out or just crossed the border, I was not. So, racialization came to me as an adult learning. I thought, Wow, I’m a PoC! I thought it was so funny, I had to write about it. I cannot tell universities what to do, but I can give you my perspective on how the intellectual conversation could perhaps improve. What passes as diversity sometimes looks like the Triumph of the Same. Translation, for example, used to be about transcending cultures, empathizing to find new grounds to connect different cultures and peoples. So, I was surprised when I read that the people who could translate the book by Amanda Gorman could only be her replicas (a person of her skin color, an activist, etc.).
This, to me, breaks a bit this idea of cultural diversity in translation, turning it into the reign of the Same. Only the Same can translate the Same, in order to be observed in their Sameness as Different Than Me (the hypothetical reader). It’s like a quality control of the purity of a product, that needs to reflect Sameness: only thus the purity of the message is preserved. It’s like exporting an object that in order to protect its inner, bookish magic needs not a professional, who acquired the skills of understanding a language and a culture thanks to hours and hours of sheer passion for it, but rather someone who was “born” to do it. This sounds very much like a premodern mentality, where people were allowed to use their voice according to what caste they belonged to. I think that many times what poses as intersectionality not only doesn’t solve the issue of oppression, but creates a philosophically barren culture that can only talk endlessly about oppression, oddly perpetuating it, without actually reflecting on it.
We’re doing this interview in English, but you write your novels in Spanish. What was it like working with Adam Morris on the translation of Mona?
Adam is a dream translator. It was so fun to work with him, not only because he masters Spanish (and Portuguese) so well, but also because he’s an expert in the occult and in American culture in general. Adam has such a brilliant, erudite mind, and a very chic take on the spirit of trolling. He was great at capturing the humor in Mona and making it flow in English. It’s funny also because he has this Buddhist approach to translation: that he erases himself, so when I find things in English Mona that to me are “very Adam,” he says “what you hear of me in Mona is actually me reflecting you in English. Pure Freud!” His elegance is very self-effacing. For him, I think, the visibility of the translator has to do with how different his translations are once you compare them, how his style complete changes from one author to the next. The mastery becomes evident by defect, like a negative in a photo. We met in San Francisco, where we were neighbors in the Mission, and we became friends. I was taken by his prose in American Messiahs, his nonfiction book, and admired the books he’d translated from the Portuguese, superbly strange authors like Hilda Hilst and Noll; Mona is his first translation from Spanish.
Toward the end of the novel, Mona says, “Without love, without this glue to hold things together, there is no avant-garde, no movements. Only the fantasy of a community, or the feeling that we’re privileged to share some crazy idyll-only that can save us.” Can you speak to how you see the role of optimism in making art and literature?
Creating communities is key for art and artists to survive. That feeling, of sharing the space time with others who are also doing exciting things, is sometimes all you need to believe in what you’re doing (which is also key to survive). Mona observes that all the avant gardes have that in common: a group of people excited with each other. Things can go to hell (we’re humans and that’s one of our specialties) but in the meantime it can be just what you need as an artist.
What are your tools for making novels? Have they evolved or changed over time?
I take notes all the time. And then I let them marinate. I usually have different books, or book ideas, going on at the same time at different paces, and I just grow them and see which one prevails. At some point it’s like, “Yes, baby, it’s your turn. Let’s see what you’ve got.” I guess I kind of stand by the Slavoj Žižek technique. He says: “I’m either taking notes, or editing my notes.” He wants to avoid the word writing and its dense charge, but it’s actually what I like most, wading into phrases like into a wild garden and start trimming, seeding, and frolicking around.
For me, the trigger to writing has always been perceiving things that bother me, that feel unjust, unfair. Status quos of what I’m supposed to think and how I’m supposed to behave, and how those things turn into cues for my conduct or collective conduct, those are my triggers. I identify as rebellious idealistic teenager here. I’m very sensitive to the ways the state labors unto our consciences, the various oppressions of culture, I start obsessing around them. The thing that has changed for me with the years is that I really need to write every day. If I don’t write, I don’t function well. So now I organize my day around writing. Even if sometimes I had to do boring stuff and I can only write for an hour of two, it’s like yoga or pheromones, you crave for it.
You have lived in such different geographies: Buenos Aires, San Francisco, now you’re in Barcelona. What sort of library are you able to carry with you as you travel?
When the pandemic burst, I had just arrived in Barcelona with a suitcase of clothes and toys for my daughter Asia, who was three years old by then. I had maybe two books with me, one was by Eliot Weinberger, whom I find fascinating. The pandemic was starting, and all the shops were closing in Barcelona, but I managed to go to a Re-Read, where they sell used books. I got a couple Salman Rushdie, Stendhal, Yourcenar, Durrell, and Javier Cercas. Fantastic company. Upon those premises I’m building a new library. The bookstores are dreamy in Barcelona, it’s really a treat to get lost here. I had amassed a nice library in SF, and those books went to Buenos Aires, where they remain. But every time someone travels, they bring me my books from Buenos Aires. One of those recovered treasures is the “Borges” by Bioy Casares, one of my favorite books in “high” Argentine Spanish, that will be coming out in the US translated by Valerie Miles with The New York Review of Books. It’s a colossal work, but anyone in the world can do it that person is Valerie.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel, and a book about the Amazon.