Elisa Victoria on child narrators, comics, and post-Franco Spain. Translated by Charlotte Whittle.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

Elisa – thank you for talking to me. In your novel Oldladyvoice, we follow Marina, an anxious but hilariously discerning 9-year-old girl spending the summer with her grandma while silently battling life’s miscellany of demons: her mother is sick with an unspecified illness; she’s having to endure the humiliation of a late baptism; and her debilitating shyness prevents her from making friends, or kissing them. I’d like to start by asking how the character of Marina came to you.

I wanted to portray a responsible girl, who does what she ought to but also has a strong will, who’s fun and a little bit naughty but also touching, who is in a complicated situation but finds balance through things she can rely on – comics, dolls, her relationship with her grandmother. I wanted her to have a particular idea of religion in which the Christian God served as a mediator for her worship of her mother as a higher deity; I wanted to show how communication problems occur from such a young age – how she relates to her grandmother, for example, and how she falls out with some of the children around her because she can’t grasp their social codes. My idea was to create a composite character – like a cake full of knives, or a knife stained with a red liquid that turns out to be strawberry jam – and work with these mixed feelings that exist simultaneously, because, to me, childhood is a period of extremes, with many contradictory, coexistent layers.

Marina has such a unique voice; it is both hilarious and incredibly moving in its profundity. How did you and your translator, Charlotte Whittle, work together to capture this voice in English?

Charlotte was very respectful, asking me about historical context and local expressions – she gave me total confidence, and I was fascinated by what her questions were. She also showed me a draft of the first chapter, to see if I thought the tone was right, and I loved it right from the beginning. I thought it was a fantastic translation, where non-literal equivalencies made for a shared effect.

Oldladyvoice is your first book translated into English. You’ve spoken elsewhere about the satisfaction this brings you, but specifically that ‘it feels . . . as though the words have more value now that they’ve been translated by Charlotte than they did when I wrote them.’ Could I ask you to speak about this, and what you feel happened to your words in the process of translation?

I think that has to do with it being the first time I saw myself translated, and also with prejudices around the English language. I was so used to my own words that they had lost their meaning; seeing them transformed gave them back their value. There’s also the concrete value of English, a language I’ve known since I was a child and that, for different cultural reasons, I’ve deeply respected and even idealised. It’s silly, but seeing myself translated by Charlotte made me feel like a “real writer” for the first time. My main source for finding the book’s style was the writing of John Fante, something I had discussed with Charlotte and that she had taken into account, and it was fascinating to see myself in his language.

The story takes place over a summer in 1993, at what feels like a pivotal moment in Spain’s history: Franco’s brutal dictatorship is still a recent memory for many, but there’s a sense of hope for the future. As Marina remarks, ‘the nineties are all that stands between us and what’s next.’ You were also a child of the 1990s. In what way did coming of age in this decade influence you and your writing? And what impact does it have on Marina?

I was interested in several aspects of the nineties, and I drew confidence from knowing first-hand and in depth what they were like, what it was like to be there. It is true that numbers have the power to influence us, and the millennium had an air of conclusion about it – an ending before the beginning of something else. In Spain in particular, there was a certain mood of triumph in the air after all the suffering the civil war and the long dictatorship brought, with the Seville Expo ’92 and the Barcelona Olympics happening around the same time. It was superficial, but it made a huge impression on children, who are so sensitive to advertising campaigns and who truly hoped for a bright future thanks to that vibe. I chose 1993 because it coincided with the hangover of these big events, which left the atmosphere of a burst bubble behind them, and a terrible drought that summer, which seemed an appropriate accompaniment to the protagonist’s psychology. And because of the re-election of Felipe González, a president beloved by many women at the time, which offered the counterpoint of a social phenomenon with a dose of humour.

Marina is obsessed with El Víbora, a subversive cult comic for adults published in Spain between 1979 and 2004, subtitled ‘Comix for Survivors’ (in reference to those who lived through Spain’s 40-year dictatorship). There are several concurrent stories of survival in the novel: Marina’s attempt to survive childhood; her mother’s battle to survive illness; and the survival of national trauma throughout the twentieth century. In what way are these stories of survival linked?

The characters in Marina’s comics are all transgressive in some way: they’re sex workers, addicts and troublemakers, but, to Marina, they’re ‘a formidable army backing her up’ who ‘fill her with hope’ and show her the ‘path to salvation’. Why is it that Marina is drawn to these characters and their creators? Do you yourself find comfort and courage in the outsiders of literature?

These characters shed light on forbidden topics that tend to awaken a magnetic curiosity in children precisely because they’re issues swathed in mystery and secrecy. They’re marginal characters who face a lot of obstacles, and so Marina identifies with their difficulties, seeing them as heroic figures who can handle major (and often unfair) pressures. She also finds inspiration in the comics because of the quality of the stories and the style in which their authors present them: the idea that such a job exists – of telling complicated, beautiful, raw stories that are entertaining and spine-chilling, full of contrasts – gives her hope. It’s an artistic job to which she can aspire; it means that there are people earning a living from this work underground, earning money from telling those stories. That’s the path to salvation I ended up taking myself, the one walked by outsider creators in all disciplines, because when I could no longer stick to academic study, that path was there for me and for anyone who needed it; comics taught me a way to tell stories that I was at ease with, and taught me that there were alternatives to official career paths. Showing both the distress and enlightenment they brought to that generation was an affectionate tribute.

I think people are often dismissive of child narrators in the same way they’re dismissive of children in real life, assuming they lack perspective on the world, a notion that Marina subverts with endearing effect. Was this a consideration for you when writing the book, and why did you choose to write from this perspective?

The perspectives of children and young people have always interested me because they give voice to an excruciating tenderness that makes you laugh and bleed at the same time. Childhood and youth are periods so rich in nuance that I never tire of stories about these stages of life. There’s also a certain vindication of the complexity of those experiences and psychological phases, an urge to demand respect and dignity for people going through them and not being taken very seriously. I realised I was obsessed with these issues, and that I tended to write stories about younger people, so I decided to delve into that as much as I could in the novel form, where I could fully embrace the voice of a child, get it out of my system and put it into words, in case I forgot what it had been like to be a child. I wanted to take advantage of that information and leave myself a kind of handbook for the future, to prevent myself from turning into one of those adults who seem not to remember anything of youth.

In a similar way, I think some readers may be shocked to read about a 9-year-old girl who is so compelled by sex and violence, often conflating the two in her mind and making herself the protagonist in her fantasies. I found this aspect of the book so interesting, and I feel more and more writers are exploring the complexities of children’s interior lives. Did you have any apprehension when tackling this aspect of the novel? Did the freedom required to write this story come to you easily?

I was convinced that thoughts like these take place in the minds of many children, but I knew those passages would be somewhat troubling. I had published a couple of experimental books where I’d written with ferocious freedom, and so I had practice and confidence in addressing those themes that made it come easily. But, at times, I tried not to go so far in this book, toning things down slightly in some parts so they wouldn’t be as brutal. Even so, I know some readers find them shocking. My Spanish publisher asked me if I was sure about the passages, but I was certain that I had already toned it down quite a bit. I’m not the first to have portrayed this kind of complexity and I won’t be the last, and I’m happy to belong to that tribe.

It feels like what Marina wants most is to be seen and understood – by her peers, but also by the adults in her life. Is there something we can learn from the novel about how we relate to and treat children?

Well, I suppose a nice conclusion would be that it’s possible to communicate deeply with children if they’re treated considerately and spoken to naturally and with interest, taking into account their points of view, their circumstances, and the fact that they’re human beings with enormous ability for perception and reflection. We can take people seriously without being tactless.

Marina is an impossible character to forget. Has she stayed with you since you finished writing the book, and has she changed you in any way?

When I was writing the book, I had a huge catalogue of scenes with her at different points in her development: looking at the cutlery drawer from above and below, sitting and watching TV with her grandmother, tossing and turning in bed unable to sleep – endless reels of images that I visualised. With time, one of these has remained with particular force, and when I think of Marina, I always picture her sitting alone on the kerb, eating an ice-cream, with the slightly strained expression of someone pondering difficult matters but at the same time concentrating on enjoying the ice-cream’s flavour and refreshment. Now that you ask, I think the way she’s changed me has to do with her giving me the chance to let go of all the information I gathered from working in such depth on her character. I spent years taking notes on childhood, my own and that of others, and I stored up that information against the clock, fearing that it might get blurry as time went by. Publishing this book, and the fact that it worked as a kind of essay on childhood, has lightened my load – she has lightened my load.

Finally, speak to me about your friend, the author Andrea Abreu. While different in tone, Abreu’s debut novel Dogs of Summer can be read as an interesting companion piece to Oldladyvoice. Do you see your and Abreu’s novels as belonging to a new literary tradition?

I don’t know if it’s new, since we both have sources in the past that have shown us the way, many of them shared. But I do think there’s a shared spirit when it comes to our interest in exploring the raw and the beautiful, the broken and the tender in all their richness. I do feel that our works communicate in some way, and not just because they tackle similar periods in terms of the protagonists’ ages. Andrea told me, at some point, that Oldladyvoice was an inspiration to her. And for me, reading Dogs of Summer gave me back the purity of creative energy that at the time I felt had slipped through my hands. It filled me with courage and set me on the path to my next book.

Elisa Victoria was born in Seville in 1985. She has published two books of short stories, Porn & Pains in 2013, and La sombra de los pinos in 2018, and has contributed to several anthologies. Her debut novel, Oldladyvoice, was published in Spanish in 2019 to great critical acclaim and was selected as Book of the Week by El País. It hs been translated into English, Italian and Portuguese. Her latest works are the novel El Evangelio, and El quicio, an illustrated book in collaboration with the artist Mireia Pérez, both published in 2021.

Charlotte Whittle’s work has appeared in The Literary ReviewLos Angeles TimesGuernica, BOMB, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. Her translations include novels by Jorge Comensal, Elisa Victoria, and Norah Lange; her most recent translation is Papyrus, the international bestseller by Irene Vallejo. She lives in England and New York.

Interview by Zoe Sadler, English PEN.

Photo credit: Joaquín León.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s