Selva Almada is considered one of the most powerful writers working in Argentina today. We spoke to her about religion, charisma, and power, all topics at the heart of her novel The Wind that Lays Waste.
Reading The Wind that Lays Waste made me think about the role of honesty in religion – and other belief systems – and what role objective truth has when confronted with personal belief. There is a conflict between those who believe that religion is a job that pays the bills, a cynical ploy, or a true calling. Do you think of honesty and truth as something subjective?
I find it very hard to think about religion – any religion, but particularly Christianity – as an exercise in honesty. But in constructing the novel’s universe, I found it interesting for Pearson – a priest with a lot of charisma, and as such suspicious because we’ve got used to seeing religion as a money-making endeavour– to be a contradictory character. Is he an honest man, a liar, a fanatic, a great pretender? Is he a bit of all those things? I like the fact he’s an awkward character who challenges people who, like me, have little faith. And I like that, at the same time, he can generate conflict in those who do believe, making them wonder: what if I’m surrendering to a madman like that myself? We know he’s done some pretty murky things in his past, that he’s abandoned his wife to pursue his preaching, and other things that aren’t mentioned but that continue to haunt him. Can a man change? I think so. That’s something I do believe in. I believe in people’s capacity to transform themselves, to become more humane and more empathetic with the rest of the world. And I believe, or I only believe, in that when there’s no divine or magical intervention. Only when it’s a purely personal transformation, with all the limitations that we have as humans, do I think it’s real. Maybe not permanent, but real.
Your protagonist Pearson is a preacher who has power over his followers like the Pied Piper over his flock. What connection do you see between men like Pearson, and charismatic religion?
In countries like mine, very large and with many social and economic inequalities, churches like this serve a social function that the state leaves unoccupied. They set up in the poorest regions and have a lot of influence in the community, directing people spiritually, looking after drug addicts and alcoholics, calming violent tendencies. Of course, it’s all in exchange for an addiction to God. They serve a paternalistic function in that sense too, meaning that, as you say, there’s a strong relationship between religion and fatherhood. In the novel, the notion of fatherhood is heavily questioned, in the relationship between Leni and Pearson. She hates her father, and – as I think most girls do when they’re teenagers – thinks he’s an idiot, and yet at the same time she respects the preacher, as if they weren’t one and the same person. Meanwhile, probably because they haven’t fully come to terms with it, the relationship between Brauer and Tapioca is very different, a lot freer. Brauer doesn’t try to change his son’s fate, even though letting him choose may mean ending up alone and abandoned. There’s an idea of horizontality in Brauer: my son is not my son; more than anything else he’s a person who can make his own decisions. I didn’t have children because I didn’t want to, it didn’t seem like the right plan for me. It weighed on me, the idea of having to be responsible for someone I’d then have to be generous enough to let go of. If I’d had a child, I think Brauer would have been my model.
What role do (or should) charismatic, powerful men have in society today?
Charismatic and powerful men, at least in our societies, see their role as looking after their own interests rather than serving others. That’s how it is, and more and more so as neoliberalism takes hold of our governments. In Argentina, Evangelical Christianity hasn’t yet reached the spheres of political power (at least not as powerfully as it has in Brazil), but the Catholic Church is embedded in the state and constantly interferes in the state’s decisions, blocking laws that are fundamental to women’s health, such as the right to abortion or sex education in schools.
In this book, you expose the hypocrisy of religion, but also the egocentrism of fathers. I’ve read about one of your other books, Chicas muertas, which chronicles three femicides from the 80s. I’m interested how you feel about the intersection between politics, power, activism and literature. Where do you see yourself in the square?
I think the role of writers and artists in general is always to be on the opposite side of the road from power. Even if we sympathise with some governments more than others, we always need to keep a critical and careful eye on what’s going on around us. More than the rest of my books, Chicas muertas (Dead Girls, forthcoming by Charco Press, 2020) somehow drew me out of the comfort of my home and made me take a public stand alongside it. I owe my activism to it, my continuous involvement in speaking out and reflecting on issues like gender violence, hate crime, abortion rights. I think I was already a feminist before this book, but writing, publishing and promoting it was a way of reaffirming my feminism. I’m not interested in writing literature that’s didactic or propagandist, but I’m sure anyone can read between the lines of any of my books and see what I think about certain things, where I stand in relation to the world we live in.
Selva Almada (Entre Ríos, Argentina, 1973) is considered one of the most powerful voices of contemporary Argentinian and Latin American literature and one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region. Including her debut The Wind that Lays Waste, she has published two novels, a book of short stories, a book of journalistic fiction and a kind of film diary (written in the set of Lucrecia Martel’s most recent film Zama,
based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel). She has been finalist of the Rodolfo Walsh Award and of the Tigre Juan Award (both in Spain). Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish. The Wind that Lays Waste is her first book to appear in English (published in collaboration with Graywolf Press, US).
Interview translated by Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff