Samanta Schweblin is the celebrated author of Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds. We spoke to her about the relationships she explores in her work, the concept of normality, and how to write about technology.
What kinds of relationship are you most interested in exploring in your work?
I’m especially interested in exploring our most natural relationships – the bond between a parent and a child, or the relationship within a couple. But I’m only really interested if I can find something new in these relationships: spaces that I had never thought of before, the line at which the natural starts to become quite strange or abnormal. This helps me to rethink my own relationships, to look at them from a more distanced perspective and take the risk of pushing against my own instincts in a way that I probably wouldn’t dare to do in real life.
You often analyse close human relationships and show how they’re weird and creepy. What makes a family such a good subject to analyse in fiction?
It’s an instinctive space that I find myself in. Family is the place where we are shaped, where we suffer our first tragedies. When we don’t know anything about the world yet, we start to learn about it through the family. This is from the view of the child. From the point of the view of the parent there is an even bigger tragedy: there is not any other love more sincere, with better intentions, than a parent’s love. You only have goodwill. But at the end, when you’re trying to protect and form the other to survive the world, at the same time you also deform them, block them, surround them with fears and family matters. It is another kind of tragedy that no matter how good you are trying to do it, you will always also hurt your children. I think it’s an interesting dilemma.
Your fiction has sometimes been described as almost dystopian, in terms of the relationships you describe.
I think fiction starts with something really unusual. Normality is a big lie, one of the most hurtful lies with which we are confronted. We keep trying to be normal, day after day, but normality is a fiction. It is a space between you and me, but there is nobody who occupies that space. It’s empty. When you build relationships with the people you are closest to, you build connections not in the good moments. You build the best connections over sorrow and forgiveness and acceptance that the other is really different from you. The idea of normality disconnects us.
If you were to create new types of relationships – a utopia instead of a dystopia – what would they look like?
It would be a society in which we’d never come up with the toxic concept of ‘normality’: this mid-point between my being – unique and strange – and your being – equally unique and strange. This fictitious and arbitrary point that we all want to reach, that causes us to limit and shrink and adapt ourselves: our largest social falsehood.
Do you feel that this idea of what is normal is different in different societies that you have encountered?
Yes, absolutely. Some of the stories in Mouthful of Birds are about this. For example, there is a teenager who eats birds and the family seems to be very worried about this behaviour. But we actually eat birds! In some countries, people eat live fish. So why is eating a live bird considered cruel? Again, we’re talking about normality. The idea of normality is a social and economic construction. Sometimes people talk about these short stories as fantastic stories. Maybe there are one or two that are really fantastic, but all of them are about the uncanny. The fantastic genre is built around something that can’t occur in our world. But the uncanny is constructed with something that is strange, that is uncommon, but real. And this makes the stories more terrifying.
Can you tell me about your most recent novel, Kentukis?
As a reader, I realised that literature still has a big problem with technology. We live immersed in technology, we think of technology…
… almost as a natural resource?
Yes, exactly. But then if you try to translate it onto the page it’s high-tech fiction. I found this very disturbing. Why is it normal in our everyday life but when we read about it we feel that it’s the future? I think it’s because literature is the space where we think about ourselves and our culture, and technology is developing really quickly. We’re not capable of dealing with technology and building limits: cultural, ethical, legal, private limits. I was thinking about these themes, and I thought, how can I talk about the problem that we have with technology, the miscommunication we have through technology, without having technology as a problem in the novel. Without turning it into science fiction, into a novel about the future.
Kentukis is a novel about human relationships, about the problems of language, isolation and loneliness. In an ever more globalised and interconnected world, we often see technology as the root cause of all these issues, or maybe as the common denominator that links these problems. But it’s unfair to lay the blame solely at the feet of technology. Some form of technology has always been there: it’s not good or bad in itself. This book is about the dark and strange underside of any form of digital communication, that is, another human being, as fragile, fearful and, potentially dangerous as we are ourselves. It’s about connections between people, not between people and technology. The kentuki is a connection between two people that allows a citizen of one part of the world to connect to a citizen of another part of the world. They get linked forever, but they don’t know who the other is.
I’m interested in how your books are being read differently in different languages and contexts, particularly Fever Dream.
Something that happened a lot is that countries that are well informed about what is going on with agrochemicals immediately got what is going on in the novel. They can read and judge the danger; for them, the dangerous works in a very real, concrete way. Then there are countries where they don’t have any idea. They’re not well informed, even when they have those agrochemicals in their own countries, for example Mexico. In Mexico there were elements of the novel – the continuous miscarriages, children that are physically deformed, animals that drop dead – they read all of these signals as related to ghosts, something mystical. It was a nice reading. Of course it is a book that is built to have all these reflections, so that worked. But it was nice to see how different the same secrets, sign posts, can be read. On the other hand it became clear how a society that isn’t well-informed is capable of seeing ghosts everywhere.
You have lived in Berlin for five years now. How are you finding it?
What I don’t miss about Buenos Aires is the simplest thing: as a Latin American woman, I’m not allowed to go out alone at night and come home alone. It would be so dangerous that it would be stupid to do so. A taxi is also dangerous. Even if you go out with your friends, you have to bring your boyfriend, or a friend drops you home by car. If you take the risk of going home alone, when you’re finally home, you send a message to your friends to say, I’m home. It took me five years of living in Berlin to realise that what that message was really saying was: I’m alive. When I go out in Berlin, I come home at three in the morning, and I feel so free. I told myself that I deserve it. It’s my right. And that’s when I get a little furious with Latin America.
Samanta Schweblin is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into twenty languages. Her debut novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Her collection Mouthful of Birds is out now. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.
Interview by Theodora Danek.
Photo: © Alejandra López