Ariana Harwicz’s novel Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018. We spoke to her about the female voice and how to stay true to yourself as a writer.
How conscious are you of the label ‘woman writer’, and what expectations do you feel this places on you and your work? Do you think this has had an impact on the way your work is received?
I am conscious of the context, of the era, of the current political situation, and of how the current political situation – with movements such as ‘NiUnaMenos’ (Not One Less) in Latin America, and all the different movements that emerged in the US – affects the artistic market, in this case, the literature market, and what that, in turn, generates. It goes without saying that it would be naïve of me, it would be clumsy and even hypocritical, to say that I don’t see this, that this plays no role whatsoever. There is clearly a greater interest in women writers (literary agents can vouch for that), there is increased visibility in literary supplements, there are more anthologies by women, and so forth. There is, without doubt, a growing prevalence. However, having said that, I don’t think that this should have any effect whatsoever when it comes to writing. In my case, writing is not influenced by anything. I truly believe that the ethics of writing, the ethics of a writer, the Decalogue of a writer’s ethics, should not be affected by anything. The influence comes a posteriori, in the form of an exegesis that comes after the text, after its reception, its readers, the expectations, the market, the editors and so forth.
The writing exercise has to be rigorous, and it has to be anarchist. That is to say, it cannot answer to any favouritism, any condescension from a given era; otherwise, I would be taking advantage of the spotlight, of what is fashionable there and then. And we all know what happens with fashion, with certain social movements. Today you are up there, and tomorrow you’ve been forgotten about, you are dust. When I write, I don’t place myself in the women writers’ genre, nor do I think about it. I don’t write from a position of struggle or recognition, I don’t write with a certain cause or certain expectations in mind. I think that the writing exercise has to be an exercise of cutting yourself off from the world, an exercise of autism, of amorality; above all, it has to be that: an amoral practice.
I really disapprove of the intellectual exploitation of an era, by male as well as female writers. To write feminist novels or books that deal with fashionable topics – such as the rejection of motherhood, women’s struggles, sexism – , to write thinking of their reception and anticipating that they will be of interest, is an idea of hell, a betrayal. The writer’s motivation needs to be linked to the notion of being outside the world, above it. There is, of course, a certain dialectic and a given tension with history, with the historical moment and the times we live in. Yet the writer should never take advantage of that. Yes, they should interpret the present, the era. And yes, in the best of cases, a writer should re-design it, re-signify it, re-semantise, but always safeguarding the freedom of being able to take distance from the historical moment we are immersed in.
Why is it important to you to give voice to female experience, and in particular experience of motherhood?
The theme of motherhood and of the female voice is not important a priori. As I was saying before, for me there is no construction that exists before the text. My starting point is never the idea that I am going to verse, to examine, to write about a certain transcendent human experience because it is important to me. I’d say that the genesis is the other way round. My characters are born from a spiritual, philosophical and even existential desperation. They are rooted in the existential angst, for instance, intrinsically related to the
experience of being an immigrant, of being isolated, of not being understood, of speaking a different language to the one being spoken by the others (and the multiple meanings implied by that). For my foreign protagonist in Die, My Love, not being able to speak French properly implies also not being listened to, not being read, not belonging; not belonging to the community, to the town, to the neighbourhood. It also means being left outside another community which is her family. She is expelled. She is in the margins, she is, in fact, a pariah. That transcendental experience per se is interesting to me when it comes to writing because it is born from a feeling of profound angst. And then, there is motherhood, as something else, as another form of living that feeling of existential angst. My characters embody the complexities of having to figure out how to go through the experience of motherhood, which can be so painful, so enslaving.
When approaching the topic of motherhood in your work, do you feel that attitudes are changing towards women writers – both in the publishing industry and for readers?
Yes, I believe they are. The space has opened up; there is a now a predisposition to listen to women, to hear them say that they don’t want to be mothers, to watch them reveal the negative, grim aspects of maternity, even to witness them defend the more extreme positions, in moral or ethical terms, of claiming that they wish they had not been mothers (like those movements in Israel and other countries that had women marching regretting their being mothers). Yes, I believe there is a relationship between all these and women that are finding the space to write novels, articles, essays, non-fiction on these topics. And I think that this, in turn, makes readers open their minds. All this is true, and it is legitimate. It’s legitimate because it is part of a malaise, of a cultural malaise and of women’s malaise. Now I think that some publishers, be it indie or big corporate ones, exploit this and use it to their advantage. Based on the fact that these are trendy topics which sell, at least now, they push their authors to write on certain topics, or on certain transgressions that are convenient for the system. The transgression of giving your two fingers up to the camera, the predictable transgression, is part of the system. Because the system gobbles up those fashionable transgressors, those who last a brief moment. I insist on the idea that the writer has to position themselves outside of all these coordinates, away from all these ‘must be’ and ‘must do’ dictated by the times, be impervious to the mandates and tyrannies of publishers and write like a UFO, like all the great poets did. That is the only thing that matters. The voice that stands alone, the style that is unique. The unique style of Allan Poe, of Arlt, of Borges, of Céline. Even if that means risking being imprisoned, being forbidden, being silenced; risking the burning of their books, not selling anything at all, becoming a poète maudit. Even if that means being out of fashion. All this happens, but we can only see a century or two later which literature remains and which has been forgotten.
Ariana Harwicz‘s first novel, Die, My Love received rave reviews and was named best novel of 2012 by the Argentinian daily La Nación. The English translation by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press 2017) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018 and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018. She is considered to be at the forefront of the so-called new Argentinian fiction, together with other female writers such as Selva Almada, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.
With thanks to Carolina Orloff for facilitating and translating this interview.
Photo credit: Ariana Harwicz