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'You never know where a short story will take you.'

Photo: Marko Uzelac, FEKP.

Četvrtak
20.06.2024.

I spent a few very interesting and inspiring hours during a hot Zagreb morning with Chloe Aridjis, a Mexican-American writer based in London and a guest at this year's Festival of the European Short Story. She is the author of three novels: Book of Clouds, which won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France for the best debut book in a foreign language, Asunder, and Sea Monsters, which won the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Chloe has written for various art magazines and was a guest curator at the Leonora Carrington exhibition at the Tate Museum in Liverpool. She studied comparative literature at Harvard and earned her PhD at Oxford in 19th-century French magic and poetry. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014, and in 2020 she received the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writers Award. Her latest book is Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays and a Portrait Gallery.

As a passionate reader and art historian, I was interested in the author's views on the interweaving of the visual and textual, her thoughts on maintaining a balance between the past and the present, and the literary potential that can productively push the boundaries of reality towards a much more acceptable future.

Let's start with your cosmopolitan point of view on life and literature. How have your upbringing and migrations influenced your writing? 

Well, I'm the product of several migrations. My father's Mexican, but his grandfather was a Greek from Smyrna. He fought against the Turks and left in 1922, went to Brussels, and then from there to a small Mexican village in 1926 where my father was born. My mother is from the Jewish migration from Poland, Saint Petersburg, Lithuania, to the United States at the end of the 19th century because of the pogroms. I spent my childhood in Holland, and then we moved to Mexico when I was eight. So, I’m quite aware of the fact that in my writing, especially in my novels, I'm very interested in more marginalized characters and figures within a society. 

Then living in Berlin for many years it was sort of a self-imposed exile. You just notice things very differently when you're not in your own country. Even though England feels very much like home, I do experience it at one degree removed from my English friends. I don't have quite the same investment in the politics of the country, even though I follow them very closely. But it gives you a certain freedom, but as well as a very important sense of sort of fluidity and always feeling somewhat like a nomad and wanting to hold on to that because I think it's very good for the imagination and it comes with its own measure of solitude. But as a writer, I've sort of embraced that.

The three main cities—Mexico City, Berlin, and London—play significant roles in your fiction and your work in general. I am interested in knowing more about the architecture and cultural backgrounds of these cities in contrast to your marginalized characters. How do your characters perceive different cities? 

That's exactly my main constellation. They're all very layered cities in different ways, and I think each one has its own tensions. With Mexico, of course, there is the colonial past. But then even before that, you have the pre-Hispanic past, and you have ruins in the center of the city, like the Templo Mayor. It's a bit like Rome that way; you have very ancient architecture and structures in the city center, and you're always reminded of that very ancient past. But Mexico City also has extraordinary modernist architecture. Reforma, our largest avenue, is full of really extraordinary, imposing modernist buildings. Well, in my novel, I situated it in Colonia Roma, which is an area of Mexico City where I've never lived, even though my narrator lives there, and it has a lot of colonial buildings that were very affected during the earthquake. So that's also very important—the big earthquake of 1985, how everything shifted a bit within the city. I mean, I guess it seems a bit like here in 2020, how you have these very majestic buildings that are suddenly on crutches. Everything has shifted. So, what happens to the psyche and to the city dweller when your city has experienced that sort of trauma? 

Berlin, of course, is still a very traumatized city. My first novel, Book of Clouds, was very much about the character constantly hitting up against the past as she walks to the city. When I lived there, I was struck by how young people, both foreign and German – East and West – had different relationships to the city's history. I went out a lot at night, attended openings, and spoke to many people, including many East German friends, and noticed how everyone had a unique connection to the city’s past. 

Some people chose to ignore it. Many young people just went to parties held in abandoned places with often sinister histories, somehow transforming them into these loci of life and excitement, shutting out the past. Others were obsessed with the past and could only see Berlin through that filter of the past. Then, of course, you have the Stolpersteine—those plaques outside the houses from where Jews were deported. The names on the plaques are a constant reminder of the buildings and the lives that used to be there. For me, it was a very fine calibration between experiencing the city as it was and this tremendous cultural organism full of life and a very inspiring, but also troubling past. 

And what about your life in London? 

When I moved back to London after living in Berlin, where I wrote my first novel, I was worried that I would lose something. Berlin was so strange and stimulating to the imagination, and I feared that the tensions I felt there wouldn't be the same in London. Although I speak German, it will never be my first language. Living in a foreign language allows you to fantasize in ways you don't in your own language, where everything feels more literal. I worried that moving back to England would make me feel less inspired. Fortunately, that didn't happen. Every city is, of course, very layered and complex.

One activity I do in London which makes me feel very close to the city's past, is I go mudlarking. Do you know what that is? When you go and you look for treasures in the banks of the Thames. When the river goes out, you can go and search for pieces of history, you can find Roman tiles, a lot of stems of pipes, and different fragments of pottery. It's a way of feeling very close to different centuries of English history. Something I think a lot about in all my novels is the relationship of the self to the city, where the self ends and the city begins. How porous that boundary is.

It's fascinating how places around the world have similar yet distinct ways of remembering history, like the memorial tiles for Jewish people taken during the Holocaust; we also have them here in the city center. How do you maintain the past and present in a certain balance? Do we romanticize the past a bit? Is it inevitable to romanticize it? 

Yeah, that nostalgia had all sorts of consequences. I think each country deals with it differently. Obviously with Germany, there's the reckoning with the past. But the history that Germany has done much more than Austria, for example, there's a fine balance between regeneration and living in the present and fastening too much onto the past. But now more than ever, with the rise of fascism everywhere, it's crucial that we not forget the past, the horrors of the 20th century. England, too, of course. I mean, the Brexit vote was very much also a nationalist vote on anti-immigration. The glorification of the past is really dangerous. So, yes, it is a very fine balance. You have Germany where it's very important not to forget the past, and then other countries, where it's maybe less immediate, like England. 

Mexico was under Spanish rule for three centuries, which still influences us today. Now, our main relationship is with the US, which is also quite complicated. Many of our current problems stem from our border with the US, with around 12,000 shops along the border selling weapons that arm the drug cartels. So, you have Spain as the colonial power of the past, but then the US is the current problematic neighbor. As we mentioned in our conversation earlier today; an individual relationship as opposed to a collective one, is very interesting.

I think that's something that, in my books, I try to avoid being too didactic or too literal about things. I try to leave a lot within the character's imaginations or something of ambiguity as to how much they experience. For instance, in my second novel, Asunder, which takes place in the National Gallery, the narrator is a female museum guard at the National Gallery. Her great-grandfather was also a museum guard there, and he was there the day that the suffragette Mary Richardson attacked Velázquez's Rokeby Venus in March 1914. In that novel, too, she's haunted by the specters of the past. She feels very torn between her own duties, her own profession as a museum guard and protecting the paintings, and then the suffragette's battle for the female vote. She embodies that conflict very much with this historical figure who's fighting for women's rights and then her own very immediate calling.

Sounds cool, I have to read that! Speaking of personal memory, your first novel, Book of Clouds, was published in Croatia in 2011. How do you feel about it now, and how has your relationship with your first novel evolved over time? 

I always think first novels are mysterious things. They really can't be repeated because you put so much into that first book. It's a culmination of your life up to that moment, regardless of how autobiographical it may be, and then you also write not knowing whether you're ever going to be published. You're taking this big leap into the void and just putting everything into it, because once you've been published, you approach the next book differently, and the next one too. When you're writing with that uncertainty, having no idea whether anyone's going to read a word you write, there's a degree of freedom in that too, and this longing, you know, to somehow be read and be witnessed by the world.

While living in Berlin, even though I had good friends, those were years of acute solitude. I wrote that book in place of a lot of solitude, which I haven't experienced again, it's a very introverted narrative. Berlin was a city where I'd spent two summers in the eighties and then in the nineties. By the time I moved there in early 2003 and began writing the book, I already had an ongoing relationship with the city. I feel like the city is the protagonist of the book. I was working through my relationship with Berlin, but also bringing in other voices and impressions. I would just go around with my notebook, taking notes. I had so many notes by the end that I was just trying to create the story and give it some shape.

You also like wandering through the city, right? While reading a Book of Clouds, I imagined you as a Parisian flâneur, just walking around and taking notes, soaking in the city and what it means. Can you tell me a bit about your latest short story collection? It's interesting to me that in parenthesis it says stories, essays, and a portrait gallery. It's almost genre-bending, like a hybrid type of book. What drives your curiosity towards exploring that kind of form? 

I think a more pragmatic or banal reply would be that the publishers said, "Oh, you know, you have so much work you've been doing in between the past 15 years of this writing you've done between and around the novels. Why don't we just do a big collection?". But then I realized I work through things that don't make their way into the novels. For instance, the title story Dialogue with the Somnambulist is the story I wrote in Berlin when I was working on the Book of Clouds, and it was just never published.

There are certain stories in the collection that were never published, left as sort of orphans that had no life until now. I also let myself indulge in the more fantastical tendencies I had sometimes lived within the novels I read. But then with the essays also, I work through just things that fascinate me like, you know, the psychological aftermath of soviet cosmonauts or something. It would have been a huge digression if I put it into one of my novels. As an essay, I could truly explore it and spend a lot of time thinking and researching. 

And then with the portrait gallery, I very much liked that idea. I think of the book as a little museum of my interests, especially my relationship with the visual arts. So, with the portrait gallery, because they're all sort of ten portraits, I like that idea of trying to bring someone to life in just a short piece, just like different brush or pen strokes of details that somehow evoke a whole personality or a life. I think of it as a little museum, it has to be called the portrait gallery.

In relation to visual arts, you also have strong surrealist motifs and atmosphere. I really like that you also worked on the exhibition of Leonora Carrington; she has a cameo in the Book of Clouds, if I remember correctly. What do you find interesting about that surrealist moment? 

First of all, living in Mexico, where there's such a strong sense of the marvelous in the everyday that there's almost no distinction between the fantastic and the mundane. But also, Leonora, Remedios Varo, and other surrealists who ended up living in Mexico—you know, Leonora was British, Remedios was from Spain. You've used the word, and it's something I think about a lot, hybridity, and how, especially in Leonora’s paintings, she loved hybrids. I'm just thinking how the emigrants are kind of hybrids because they bring their own culture and language with them, but they also live in a new one. They're like these composites of different lives and experiences. I'd always been very drawn to surrealism and quite angered that in so many accounts and histories of surrealism, the female surrealists weren't even mentioned, they were in the index or the footnote. But it wasn't until the 2000s that Leonora began to receive more attention in writings and exhibitions dedicated to her work.

The friendship with Leonora that began in the early nineties until she passed away was truly a life-changing experience that I never expected. But it wasn't until after she passed away that she became a part of my creative life. While she was alive, we would go to her house for tea and she always said such interesting things that I just had to write them down. Whenever we'd leave her house, my mother would say, write, write everything down just for yourself. So I did. She was like this living oracle. So that's why afterward I had so much material I could work with. I wrote A Leonora Carrington A to Z, then they asked me to curate the exhibition. Then there was the film I did with my friend Josh. And even now, next week I’m recording something with the BBC. So still around five times a year, someone comes and asks me to write or speak about Leonora. It's like this presence in my life, she's taken a whole other role.

Let's pause on this topic for a moment; you mentioned that you were at an interesting writer's residency in Madrid. Could you tell us more about it? 

This past autumn, I was invited to a very special project at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Last year they started a new residency for writers. They invite two writers a year, one mid-career and one late-career, and it's with the Prado Museum and Spanish Granta, sponsored by the Loewe Foundation. It was a wonderful invitation. They give you an apartment one street from the museum, so you go every day and spend hours looking at paintings, and in the end, they ask you to write a short story in response to your time there. I wrote my short story that's coming out this month about a woman who's curating an exhibition at the Prado of Saint Jerome, and the lion, who is his companion. This year, Olga Tokarczuk was just there. It's a wonderful proposal to have a writer responding to a collection of paintings because artists are different; they think in terms of intervention, but with a different kind of response. As a writer, you take it all in, this whole universe, and then you find a way of entering it and creating your own narrative within it. It was a very special experience.

Were you always inspired by paintings? 

Yes, I'm very inspired by paintings. Not so much contemporary ones, more historical ones. Of course, Leonora is a part of that, I also really like German Expressionists. Dialogue with a Somnambulist is a short story inspired by the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist Cesare. Actually, I wrote the last draft of the Book of Clouds in the Kunstbibliothek in Berlin, where I went every day for two or three months and wrote. So, those spaces, libraries, and museums, were very important to me.

So historical sites that hold a special kind of memory? 

Exactly.

You spoke earlier about solitude and urban alienation of characters, themes you often explore. Writing is inherently a solitary experience that requires contemplation, so how do you see that in relation to collective action, for example, how does it relate to your group Writers Rebel? 

It's interesting because I've created my life to protect my solitude. I don't have a family like many other writers. I wake up in the morning and apart from feeding my cat, I don't have to look after anyone. With that, yes, of course, comes a dose of solitude, but it also allows you to sort of inhabit your writing.

We started Writers Rebel in 2019 after I was contacted by other writers who were also very concerned about the climate emergency. It's one of my main concerns in life—the future of the planet, and particularly, the welfare of other species I care enormously about. Often, environmental groups focus solely on human survival. What about all the animals, insects, trees, coral reefs, and all the other species that we're bringing down with us? As you know, we're the first species that caused a mass extinction. It's shameful, and staggering that governments and corporations still aren't addressing it. So, we started a group called Writers Rebel, the literary chapter of Extinction Rebellion. We don't block traffic in city centers, but we organize literary marathons and readings like those in Trafalgar Square or Tufton Street, where many conservative think tanks deny climate change.

Many important speakers have joined us, from Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, to Zadie Smith. Our group consists of about twelve writers, mostly fiction writers, mostly novelists, some poets, and screenwriters. It's challenging because there's still resistance even within the literary community. What awaits us is so huge and terrifying that most people don't want to think about it. For me, it's been very important because in 1985, my father, a poet, along with my mother and many Latin American writers, intellectuals, and artists, founded the Group of 100, which was the most important environmental group in Latin America.

Leonora Carrington was also part of that, as well as García Márquez, Plácido Domingo, Octavio Paz, Francisco Toledo. Their idea was, again, to have writers and artists hold the government accountable for certain things. Three of their main victories were the protection of migratory species: the gray whale, sea turtles, and monarch butterflies that came to Mexico during their migrations. So, I grew up in a household where I saw how intellectuals have a voice and can actually change government policy. But that was before social media. Things have changed so much that you no longer have the same idealism that my parents had. I think that really motivated me to believe that we can make a difference.

It's important to talk about the topics you just mentioned, and we must try to raise awareness about them as much as we can. I also think it's important to discuss what literature can do in today's environment. It's a big question, but how do you see the role of literature?

Yeah, it's a very big question. What's interesting, I don't know if it's the same in all countries, but I know in Germany, even during the pandemic, the bookshops stayed open. That says a lot about our attitude towards literature. It's somehow the one place where we can still seek truth, other perspectives, and a sense of stability—it's like one of the foundations of our civilization. Now, with social media, where everything is constantly questioned, it's very difficult to discern what the truth really is. We need writers, chroniclers who can still uphold meaning in a world where meaning is constantly challenged.

Again, it varies greatly from country to country. If we look back at writers in the second half of the 20th century, you see how they used allegory to capture the absurdity of living under difficult and oppressive regimes and the profound impact it had on the psyche. I feel fortunate to have grown up as the daughter of a poet because I witnessed how even in the toughest moments, my father found solace in studying, writing, and sharing his poems with the world. Literature becomes this distillation of thought.

As a guest of the Festival of the European Short Story, we'll conclude our conversation focusing on the short story. What do you think is the magic of the short story compared to the novel and other longer forms?

I think there's a magical compression in short stories where there's intensity and concentration of thoughts and emotions. I wouldn't say they're diluted in novels, but novels are obviously more extensive, offering a panoramic view compared to short stories. They simply encourage a different kind of focus. Although, there has been so much experimentation with the form that it's hard to make any generalizations, but the shorter form generally calls for a kind of distillation, not as much as with poetry, but again, the short story is a kind of short or very intense journey. From the very beginning, I know what the end will be like.

Short stories are truly magical. Book of Clouds actually emerged from short stories. Two of them inspired me: Robert Walser's The Walk, where the protagonist's wandering somehow reflects his mental state. Then there's one of Gogol's stories from The Diary of a Madman. After reading those stories, my story just grew and grew. You never know where it will take you.

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