SCR is excited to present this interview with Peruvian author Dany Salvatierra and translator Susan Ayres as part of our Latin American Translation Series. In addition to being the author of a story collection and three novels (most recently La mujer sovietica), Dany serves as the curator of our Latin American series, helping us to locate outstanding Peruvian and other Latin American authors whose work has not been widely translated into English (his own story “Pick Up the Phone Right Now” is featured in SCR 53:2). Susan has served as translator in our past three issues, bringing us not only Dany’s work but that of Mexican poet Elsa Cross, and, in our fall 2021 issue, Peruvian author Romina Paredes and her story “Kintsugi.” Dany and Susan linked up in October for this Zoom interview, which covers Dany’s work, his childhood memories of Peru’s political turmoil, the SCR translation series, transgressive literature, and much more.
Captions available on video under “CC”
Susan: Dany! Hi, it’s so good to be talking to you. I so admire your work and your wild imagination.
Dany: Oh, Hi Susan thank you, thank you, for me, it’s a great honor and privilege to hear someone from the U.S. literary [field], a member, a translator, and also someone related to the academic world to say those things about my work. This is the first time that has happened to me so I’m really happy.
Susan: Well, it’s just an honor to be talking about you, and just to follow up on Keith’s introduction, the project with South Carolina Review, of bringing over the Peruvian writers, is so exciting. Can you just talk about what you feel like is some of the importance of that?
Dany: Well, the collaboration started when Keith and I met in Lima when he was presenting his book of short stories that was translated and published for the first time, I think in South America. I personally know the editors because they were friends of mine back when we were, you know, just kids starting in the publishing world and in the independent publishing world–I might say. They went on to found their own publishing house and I was working at another publishing house. But, you know, the literary world is so small in Lima that everyone knows everybody. So when Lee, sorry, when Keith’s publishers in Lima read his book they instantly thought about me because they said, “Oh you guys kind of have this way of telling short stories that is kind of nightmarish and has sometimes weird atmospheres–you don’t know if it’s a dream or not.” I think, for some reason, they thought we would click professionally. I read it, and it blew my mind away. I was like, wow, you know, how have I never read his work before. And, that was so cool. Then he arrived in Lima and I presented his book and we conducted a presentation in English, it was the first time I did so. Luckily, in all of our auditorium, everyone that came to the presentation spoke English and we were able to conduct it in English and then we held the Question & Answer [session] and everything. That’s when Keith told me that he worked at Clemson University and was in charge of the literary magazine. I think he was pretty much impressed with everything was that was going on in Lima back then, it was 2019 if I’m not mistaken. Everything was Pre-Covid.
Dany: So, he was interested in [Peruvian stories], I think he read a couple of short stories from Peruvian writers also and he became entangled. I think we talked about it and I finally said well, you know, maybe we can find a way to put us writers in the magazine, because we have such limited ways of, you know, putting our work out there. Because sometimes it’s difficult, especially when you’re not published or under a major publisher’s wing
Dany: So small publishing, I think, has harder ways to get the writer’s works that are out there. So that’s how our collaboration started, and after that, it’s been so much fun for me to also be able to develop my eye for seeing what’s good or what could be published and actually well-received in the U.S speaking world. Because sometimes certain short stories are very local and they have, you know, unless you are from Peru it’s hard for others–for foreign readers, I guess, to identify or to trace what the writer is actually trying to tell.
Susan: Yes, yes.
Dany: Especially, since you mentioned the translations, in the latest one that is written by Romina Paredes, I thought that would show U.S. readers how hard it was for us–for my generation–of all, you know, the ones who like me were born in the ’80s to have such an unreal childhood. Especially when you were a child and you were growing up in Lima you [didn’t] actually realize what was going on, and, I think, my parents and everybody else’s parents tried to take our minds away from what was happening. So when you grow old and you start looking back and you’re like “Oh wow” I didn’t know it was so hard for everyone.
Susan: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that you’re exactly right [about] because I think so many Americans aren’t aware of that history. Like, in the ’80s when there were the Communists who were terrorizing Peru, right, and the Shining Path, and I think that’s one of the important things for you to tell us. I don’t even know, did kids go to school? Did parents try to normalize things?
Dany: Everything was new back then because we were also coming–or—entering into a really bad economical crisis and coupling with that the country was already unstable because we had a very long history of dictatorships through military dictators, and it wasn’t a good picture. Then finally they called elections and we were able to elect our first, you know, non-military or non-dictator president. I think that’s when things started to get really bad. I was born in 1980, so I think around 1985 was the time when the guerrillas started to be more visible through violence and crime, and nobody knew what to do honestly. I think my parents didn’t have a clue how to raise me, so they always told me to stay away from the street, and that’s hard for a child.
Susan: Oh yeah. That’s where children live, right?
Dany: Exactly. So, I think that also being an only child, I developed some sort of introverted personality when I was growing up. Because, as an only child, everybody tried to protect me and they always told me that the worst thing was to step outside because you never knew if there would be a bomb or if there would be a shooting. I also was brought up in a very dangerous neighborhood, I mean I think our block was kind of okay, but in general, there would be muggings outside.
Dany: I remember my father parking his car outside of the house and on the curb and someone would remove the radio during the night, or remove like a wheel or something, so it was very hard. Then he finally found somewhere else to park the car so he could avoid the muggings, but it was pretty hard for everyone.
Susan: And as a child, I’m sure you just normalized it like that’s life growing up. Where are you living right now?
Dany: I’m living in Boston right now. Because of Covid, I was locked down in my country for almost a year and a half and I wasn’t able to leave, I think borders were closed, and then international flights weren’t open. I have family in both Florida and New York so I’ve always since I was based in Lima, I’m always traveling. Since they lifted the traveling [ban], you know, prohibition, or whatever they call it, I was able to travel here and I was like well I haven’t traveled in a long time so I just better enjoy myself here and put myself to work for an extended time in the U.S. So far it’s been working out really great for me.
Susan: Oh, I’m glad to hear that. How do you find living here different from living in Lima?
Dany: Well, it’s different, yes of course it’s different, but I think I like it better here because I feel like I’m more in touch with the culture. You know, especially in Boston, which is so close to Cambridge, Boston has several little spaces where you can totally feel like you’re in a completely different part of the city. Like when you go to Cambridge you forget that you’re in Boston, you know metropolitan Boston and Cambridge are so different. When you go to Summerville and you go, you know, somewhere else in South Boston it’s like it’s such a small city. I’ve found myself embracing everything and especially going to small bookstores and then getting in touch with the booksellers. For me, it’s been quite a special way to put myself [out there] and to communicate my work through them or say I’m from Peru and we do these things in Peru and you should read these authors. And I don’t know if they will pay attention to me but they’re always very interested in whatever is happening in the country. So, yes, I feel like an ambassador.
Susan: Exactly. Oh, that’s so great that you have that opportunity. I know that my family and I lived in Providence for five years and we used to love going up to Boston, it’s beautiful up there. So let’s shift to your writing practice. I know that in university you studied film and then you shifted to writing, but when you are writing do you see your novels and stories as films?
Dany: Yes, I started writing through film, or I started becoming interested in literature through film and through scripts. I wanted to be a screenwriter/director but sadly that didn’t work for me…yet. Before graduation, I developed a short film in order to be able to graduate and that didn’t really turn out well and I became disenchanted. I also felt that I was very inexperienced both as a person and as a professional because I graduated at 21.
Susan: Oh that’s young, yeah.
Dany: I finished high school at 16 and I enrolled in my first year of college at 16, so that’s really young. I only knew that I really loved films. I loved reading and I loved watching films but I think I was privileged enough to have parents that were really forcing me to pursue my own dreams, so that’s why I chose film. I was a very inexperienced child to choose film as a major because I feel like looking back I would have chosen a different path. Because you don’t need to go to film school to become a film director, you don’t need to study literature to be a writer. I think that’s something you can develop independently of your own career. And some people do that, some people go to business school and then they work for 10 years in business and then they form their own business and then they’re able to bring the money for their own personal projects.
Susan: Exactly, yeah.
Dany: That’s the thing they should tell us in school! But I think they’re all interested in like…
Susan: In getting the degree so they can do a “check.”
Dany: Exactly. And that made an impression for me in the U.S. because through friends I’ve learned that some employers don’t care about your major or don’t care about where you got your master’s degree or anything. They just care about the experience you have and how many contacts you have and how you know well developed you are in your field.
Susan: It’s such a moving target, and I’m just so amazed that you did film school, and then not that much later you published your collection of short stories. In 2010, right, Group Therapy? That was a best seller!
Dany: Yes, it was a bestseller but in terms of numbers, I think it was a small success because it sold out and it still hasn’t been published again. It got published in Chile and that actually gave me the privilege of having a small portion of Chilean readers that are always interested in my new works.
Susan: Oh that’s great!
Dany: Yes, I also got invited to the Chilean book fair three times. I was considering moving to Chile, to Santiago specifically, because I was able to talk to the readers and go to several literary events. I felt like, for me, it was going better for me in Santiago than it was in Lima.
Susan: Sometimes it’s like you’re more respected not in your own country. It makes me think of James Joyce or somebody. So, after the short stories you published three novels, although maybe you kept on writing some stories, but what was it like to go from writing short stories to writing novels?
Dany: Well, short stories are harder to write than novels.
Susan: It’s counterintuitive isn’t it?
Dany: Yeah by definition, because a novel is more like a game since you don’t really care about how short or how long a novel should be, it’s more fluid, I guess. You discover a novel through the writing and you let your character speak. That’s always happened to me, I always start with an idea, and then at some point the characters take over and I just let them speak and let them develop their own path within the story. I think you’re able to do that in a novel more successfully than in a short story.
Susan: Yeah, I think novels are more forgiving and then the short stories have to be so compressed and perfect.
Susan: What’s the longest time that you spent working on a novel or a short story?
Dany: Wow, actually my last novel–or my last published novel La mujer sovietica–that took me almost five years to get it to print because I was leaving my previous publisher, who was an independent one. Through the success I had in Chile and with foreign readers, I was targeted by a major publisher who had grown an interest in my work. They finally, you know, let me know if I wanted to publish with them, and, for me, it was one of the biggest things for my career, for a major publisher to become interested in my work. In Latin America, it’s quite different than in the U.S. because, in the Spanish-speaking world, you sell it by language. Like, if a major publisher publishes it [a novel] in Peru, they have the right to publish it in other Spanish-speaking territories, like in the rest of Latin America including Spain.
Susan: Wow, that’s broad.
Dany: I know! So that’s why ever since I started writing my purpose was to get my work to major audiences. Sadly, a small publisher doesn’t allow you to do that, or maybe in a very limited way.
Susan: Well, congratulations that’s such a great success story.
Dany: Yeah, but then, of course, my inner saboteur–or whatever you want to call it—made me get nervous when they asked me what are you writing right now. I was in the early stages of developing my new novel so I was instantly scared that since I would be having my work read by more people maybe they wouldn’t like the topics that I tend to develop. I was feeling like you maybe this is meant for a small niche of readers instead of a broad mainstream audience, maybe this is too esoteric or alternative, you know. I was in a very uncertain territory back then mentally so that’s why it took me so many years to write it. Every time I finished writing a manuscript, I started thinking well would broader audiences like this? I felt like I was publishing in a very safe space because I had a very limited and small audience.
Susan: But then you just felt that pressure all of a sudden.
Dany: Yes, the pressure of the publishers not liking my new work or maybe them feeling that my work was probably too artistic-ish.
Susan: So just that sense of getting past that and to do the breakthrough into a bigger publisher would terrifying for a writer, I would think. But it seems also like that one on the Cold War and then the previous one Electrico Ardor on the unrest in Peru, did you have to do some historical research as well to ground yourself in that period?
Dany: Of course, I always do my research before writing because I want to make my facts on secure ground. Because I think you’re not able to achieve suspension of disbelief in a reader when you can’t actually make them believe what you’re trying to tell them. It has to have a certain foundation in reality. We worry about that, especially when writing about such delicate subjects as Peru’s most obscure years since especially terrorism and the Maoists and the guerillas that almost ruined the country in the 80s. They are still writing about it and there are novels still being written about it to this very day. And I wanted to make my contribution to this view because I wanted to write about that specific time of my country, but from my own point of view and aesthetic, which is less political and to another level. Every time I put out a book people always say that I write about pop culture, and one of the first commentaries about Electrico Ardor was that it retold the Shining Path story through pop culture.
Susan: Which I think that’s a criticism that’s made against transgressive authors in the United States too, right? And I think you consider yourself in that category?
Dany: Yes, yes.
Susan: And that’s kind of the lens that you’re viewing the history through. Do you want to talk about who has influenced you, the various writers?
Dany: Yes. Back then when I graduated from film school and after my bad experience of not being able to put myself in the film industry yet, I started reading a lot in order not to have an early adult crisis. I discovered the work of Chuck Palahniuk, he wrote Fight Club which is his most famous book, but before Fight Club he wrote a novel that lots of publishers passed back in its day. Then after Fight Club it finally got published because Fight Club got really successful, and that novel was, I guess, the ultimate transgressive novel because it dealt with lots of things. For me always being in touch with pop culture and also the gay aspect of growing up seeing drag queens on TV and being in touch with gay characters, this was the first time that I read something so subversive. And maybe “serious writers” don’t call it real literature but for an inexperienced 25-year-old guy back then, reading Fight Club and Invisible Monsters for the first time totally changed my mind about literature.
Susan: Right, like it was acceptable to write about the taboo topics and these outsider characters who are so outside of social norms. And I see in your work too, I mean we’ll talk about it, I want to focus more on your stories that have been translated since this is in English and has English readers. But also you have the influence of magical realism and that comes out and it just makes your stories so rich and adds this layer of humor. I mean, they’re dark but they’re hysterical.
Dany: Yes, I think the best writing advice I got from Garcia Márquez–or from being obsessed with 100 Years of Solitude–was how to tell a story. Because it’s always about the tone of the narration that makes a good book, it’s how you address your readers and how you retell the facts of the story. I really loved the first paragraph of that novel, I remember reading it back when I was in high school, but I’ve always gone back to it. I always loved how he told the story of family of, I can’t remember how many generations…forever right? But at the same time, it’s kind of like an analogy of humanity itself, of humankind. I was so obsessed with that book ever since before going to film school. I didn’t know that I would become a writer back then but I knew that I loved books that were written like that like Garcia Márquez would write. He would always write like the way you would tell a story to your kids, because it starts like, “Once upon a time, in a little town, with the river…”
Susan: Yeah, that sense of how the beginning, you’re right, is so important. I was just thinking about in Group Therapy there’s “Conversation by the Pond” and “Pick Up the Phone Right Now” and both of those have been translated. In “Conversation by the Pond,” I was just rereading it recently, the translation, and it starts in that way that just pulls you in like that. It starts, “On the afternoon they were supposed to go to the zoo, Rosario realized she had forgotten to get her mother out of the freezer.” I mean, it’s such a great start! It’s just like, “What?” And so, in that story, the daughter ends up setting the house on fire trying to kill her mother and then her mother survives and she has to live with this body that’s like a piece of meat–that’s smoldering–and she’s described as, it’s like so grotesque but then it’s funny, it’s, “she has an emaciated face a nub where her right ear had been non-existent lips, and a charred nose.” How did you come up with the characters of the mother and Rosario?
Dany: I think the mother-daughter relationship has always been present in every single work that I’ve produced because my mother and my grandmother had a really weird relationship when I was growing up. They were never close.
Susan: Did you live with them both?
Dany: I lived with both of them. So, from what I get in their personal family story, was that they were really close because my grandmother had my mother when she was really young, and then she went off to work in some other city, and then they were stranded for several years. I don’t think they really learned how to build their relationship with both of them, and when I was born, me being a baby kind of brought them together to raise me, and they figured their ways of building a relationship through me. I guess that affected me because I think it’s very important for a writer to have a good eye and a good ear especially and I’ve always analyzed every single thing. I always do, until this very day. So me being a small child with good memory also I remember every fight everywhere they said to each other. Especially in Latin America, you know? I know it’s cliché to present Latin American relationships with people throwing stuff at each other. You know, but they would have fights. They would reconcile five minutes later and then they would fight again. Growing up my mother, she was born in the late ‘40s, so it was a totally different world back then. My grandmother was from another generation. When my mother was growing up, she would take out… how do you say it? A ruler?
Susan: For paper towels?
Dany: No, a ruler?
Susan: Oh yeah, yardstick.
Dany: Yeah, to measure how long her skirt would be for school. It couldn’t be a centimeter too short.
Susan: Oh my gosh. Old-fashioned moirés. You can see that in the stories, right? Because of all this like repression of courtship. It’s like, “Oh yeah, no. Don’t get too close to that man.”
Dany: I forgot to say that I was raised Catholic. Roman Catholics, especially not in America, they’re still living in another era.
Susan: Your aunt was a nun, right?
Dany: Yes, she was my aunt. She also raised me because my mother also had a day job. She was…she felt guilty that she couldn’t be with me. They brought her [Dany’s aunt] down to raise me. She was on her way to convent for the first time. She wanted to be a novice, but before doing that she raised me through my first years. She would teach me how to how to pray the rosary and how to read the bible. I think for me I was more fascinated by rights and traditions more than religion itself or how religion affected them. I was like fascinated by the way that it affected them, but not me. I wasn’t really feeling it. I saw the passion they put through every word of the bible and to rule everybody else’s-
Susan: -Thinking and behavior? It’s like Rosario in “Conversation by the Pond”. She’s rebelling against that even though she tries to kill her mom, but then she gets pulled back. She becomes her babysitter. Then at the end, it seems like she, you know, pushes her mom’s wheelchair into the crocodile pond when they go to the zoo. At the ending it’s ambiguous. I can’t tell if she kills her or not.
Dany: I made it ambiguous on purpose. Because in reality it’s Rosario who jumps to the pond to get rid of the mother and to actually give her own revenge by removing herself from her life and leaving her just alone.
Susan: I think that lack of resolution makes the story. You don’t know, like, is it continuing?
Dany: Right. The hardest part of writing short stories. In a novel, you could extend that idea and add more elements to it. But in a short story, you can also leave it, like you mentioned, with an open ending. With the sensation of what’s going to happen later.
Susan: Right, that never-ending kind of feel. I just–I think that story is fabulous. It has the elements of the grotesque and it’s just wonderful. In contrast, I think that the short story “Pick Up the Phone Right Now” has a similar character and a similar feel in that there’s sexual repression with Miss Noria. But it has a more campy feel. I’m sure you intended that to have more sexual energy. It’s funny and campy. How did you develop that idea?
Dany: I think it’s hard for me to tell you about all my influences. In reality, I just sit down and don’t realize what’s going through my mind. Looking back it brings memories from a time when my grandmother would take me as a little child to the mercado or wherever they sold fabric. She actually made her own gowns because she said [Dany imitates grandmother], “Oh people these days, you know they all dress like harlots. With new generations, there’s no fear of God.”
Dany: So, you always go to the fabric store. I remember being a little small child looking at the back side of the store and seeing all these nude mannequins standing up. Me as a small child of course my eyes would go to the male mannequins. I would see a big bump on their groin. I would be like, “Oh but this is not supposed to happen.” I thought that they would look more real. The first time I touched a man, the man was a mannequin actually.
Dany: It’s a plastic man. The way my small hand felt through the mannequin was one of my you know childhood’s most fun memories or most hilarious also. Especially when she finished her shopping and came back to pick me up. She was like, “What are you doing to the mannequin?” I’m like, “I was just trying to see what material it was made of. I thought it was skin but it isn’t.” She said, “Well of course it isn’t.” She would also tell me that it’s a sin to explore certain parts of your personality. When you grow up you would feel more things, but you should know that’s all a sin. You’re gonna die, and you’re gonna go to hell.
Susan: Oh right that Catholic upbringing. That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing that childhood experience.
Dany: I should have written that down as the way it happened, but I think I was just thinking about that when I was you know writing the short story. I also remember that before going to kindergarten my nun aunt had a friend that would also go to the convent. She was a former teacher and used to teach in an elementary school. Since she was leaving everything else. She was leaving her life to give it to God. She spent several months in the summer taking care of small children. I would go to her place and she would pray. She would try to teach us things. She would teach us how to read or stuff like that. She lived alone and I saw her. I was totally fascinated by her small little apartment, and I think she was probably the basis for this character, my aunt’s friend.
Susan: Wow, you know when I was translating it, I was so curious about that because I was like is this like some school marm you had, or was it your aunt? One of the phrases that I just love is where you write the dust of colored chalk had penetrated her undergarments. I mean that’s so intimate, and it’s so graphic. To me, this story is sci-fi/prescient because now there’s artificial intelligence for sex dolls. It’s like it’s almost a story about that. It’s really a hysterical story.
Dany: Back then you didn’t know how technology was going to develop into this stuff, so I unintentionally wrote it as sci-fi. I was obsessed with this memory of childhood that the mannequin I saw and touched would have life itself on its own.
Susan: I mean gosh, that’s your imagination. Using experience…
Dany: When the British show Black Mirror came out, one of their first episodes really tells a story about a sex robot or a robot that’s been developed for people that lose a family member so they would replicate that person’s persona through a robot. That was taking it on another level, but I guess I unintentionally you know wrote about this stuff before it happened.
Susan: The other thing is you write with a lot of humor but also empathy for these characters like Miss Noria and Rosario and also the Soviet woman, these older characters. You’re writing about their sexual desire and longing. I think it makes your readers empathize with the characters.
Dany: That’s always happened to me because I think they all have to have a basis of being real–being real people. In order to write about them, you have to understand them and get into their heads and figure out why are they making these decisions. Why are they conducting themselves through these kinds of lives they have? If they have some paraphilia going on what has happened to develop these kinds of things? I always try to put myself in their shoes. I think that’s why sometimes when these people are villains or antagonists, I unintentionally surround them with such humanity that people actually relate to them.
Susan: It’s almost like writing about our shadow side. In a sense, we all have that dark side.
Dany: Since you mentioned Electrico Ardor I think readers love that novel because the main character is a child abuser that escaped justice. It’s written in first voice, so when readers were going through the novel and reading, they would be like, I can’t understand why I’m laughing along with him. I am enjoying the things he’s enjoying. At the end when he’s going to get caught, I was like rooting for him, ‘No, no, no, no, escape!’ Go for it! Then they start feeling… how do you say it?
Susan: Disassociation? Disconnected?
Dany: They start feeling dizzy because they’re like oh, I’m rooting for a child abuser. What’s happening? This is wrong. I shouldn’t be rooting for this guy because he’s a monster. Because he really is a monster. That’s the thing about literature. You have to develop these characters as people that you know and breathe through.
Susan: Like the tension in Lolita. It’s like so hard to accomplish that. One of the other things that I wanted to talk about is a lot of these stories also have this emphasis on the body as a point of gaining experience and knowledge. A lot of times it’s very grotesque. Like the mother in “Conversation by the Pond”. She’s so disgusting that the daughter has to hide her with a big long wig and people faint when they see her and the same in “The Makeup Wars” which has the sisters who have to be put away so that they don’t scare people. Tell us, “The Makeup Wars” wasn’t part of Group Therapy right?
Dany: No, it wasn’t part of that book– I wrote it independently as an exercise. It was actually very interesting how it was developed, because Peru being a very small publishing world, literature isn’t really considered as a market as it is in the U.S. I mean it is considered, but it’s not that wide and diverse; it’s very small, so I feel like there are very few people reading, and there was one new literary review that was founded around I think it was 2012 or 13. So they were asking writers to write short stories, and I wrote that because that’s how I write. I can’t write about normalcy, or normal character, regular coming-of-age short stories I think. My mind works in different ways. So I wrote that story and it was shorter, it was half of what it was, but I submitted, and then the editor who was also an acquaintance of mine he said, “Well, I this is a little bit too weird, I don’t think we would be… maybe you can find some other options.” Anyway, I was always in touch with an Argentinian writer whose name is Pola Oloixarac who’s now like one of the biggest—one of Latin America’s biggest writers, and I think if I’m not mistaken—well, she’s already part of Oprah’s book club, or her book was revealed by Oprah, and I think she also was running for the national book award or something, or the translation of her novel, because she writes in Spanish. But anyway, she’s such a big name right now and she founded the Buenos Aires Review with another friend I think and she asked me if I had a new story I would like to publish in her imprint. So I didn’t tell her that this particular short story was rejected, but I told her I had something new and I actually extended it and rewrote some things around, and I submitted it to her, and they loved it.
Susan: Oh, well that’s such a great story of how things just fall in place, and you know, you just don’t know what’s going to happen! But wow, that’s fabulous. It was published in translation around 2015, and I don’t want to give away too much, but it begins with the character Blanca, right, and she’s in a store dressing room trying on some clothes for her 14th birthday; and like many of your short stories, you pull the reader in with this mystery of who’s this “she”? that Blanca is being pestered by? And it says “the voice Blanca carried on her back” and so you don’t understand what’s going on. For me, of the three (this probably says more about me than you) but of the three stories in translation, for some reason, this seems the most transgressive. Do you feel that way or…?
Dany: Yes, yes, exactly. Because I have several readers who have told me that it gets really physical or sexual when the main character is taking a shower, and the voice starts telling her what to do or what not to do, or she gets interrupted– I can’t remember, I wrote it. So…
Susan: Yeah, no you’re right, it’s in the dressing room, but she’s also thinking about the shower scene and then in the dressing room it’s also a little, it’s more sexual as well, and I found myself not being able to get the picture out of my head, because I’m thinking of logistics, and I’m like, do the sisters–how many legs are there? And I’m being like, how old? And I think that it really is more transgressive and really grasps your imagination so, so much.
Dany: I think it’s the most transgressive because the characters are younger.
Susan: Yeah. They’re not middle-aged women or young women.
Dany: Yeah. Teenagers are all about discovering their own sexuality. It’s always been like that, and sadly for the Roman Catholics this is a sin, and you can’t do it, but I think it’s better for us when something’s forbidden because it takes another color, or it takes… “Oh, you shouldn’t do this because it’s dirty, and you’re going to go to hell and it’s a sin…” “Oh well, let’s do it! It sounds so cool!” So that’s why having these two teenage characters, the first thing that popped in my mind is: how do you discover your own naked body when you have a sister or someone else attached to your own body how would they feel?
Susan: Yeah, it’s such a great question. And it kind of brings up something I wanted to ask you that’s kind of being asked right now, but like you know the identity culture wars: there’s this argument that people shouldn’t be writing about identities that aren’t their own. So like a disabled character by an abled writer–how do you respond to that kind of criticism as a writer?
Dany: I try to ignore it, actually. Since we talked about the generation gap, I think that’s what’s happening right now, but I think it’s counter-producing for creative people like us because I think at some point the cancel culture it’s going to implode because I don’t picture myself—I don’t think you should put limits to creation or to creative processes. And it’s funny because right now you can’t write about several topics. This brings to my mind the experience of one American writer, I think she wrote a novel called American Dirt, about the experiences of Mexicans trying to jump the border in order to become illegal-
Susan: And that got a lot of pushback!
Dany: Because people were saying that the writer, she’s a white writer, shouldn’t write about Latinos or the Latino community, and turns out that the writer said that she was part Latina or she was half Latina or her grandmother was Latina or something like that, but she wasn’t really Latina. And I thought that was false. I thought that was crazy. I mean why–so they’re telling me I shouldn’t write about this kind of stuff because I’m not personally part of this community or I’m not… a person? That, for me, it’s incomprehensible at some point, I don’t…
Susan: You wonder where will it lead, and it’s repressive, right?
Dany: It is, it is in a way.
Susan: Yeah, well, let me ask you this: I read in an interview of yours that you said something like (it was an early one) you considered yourself a reader first, and a writer second.
Susan: Has that view changed?
Dany: No, I’m still a reader. I’m an avid reader–I read all the time, and even my friends ask me how do you do it, what do you do? Or how is your schedule, how can you read so many books? Well, I wake up and I read, and then before going to sleep, I read. So it can happen. And I read fast also. And I’m also the type of reader that if my attention isn’t caught on the first pages, I just abandon it, and say what’s next? I don’t have much attention and it’s something that you mentioned before: that from the first paragraph, you draw the reader’s attention. That for me is essential, I can’t write anything that doesn’t have that first click to the right.
Susan: Or stay with it, yeah.
Dany: Yeah, in order to respond to your question, that’s how I built my own craftsmanship: through reading compulsively everything, and I can’t remember who said it, I can’t remember if it was Garcia Márquez or someone else who said that you should read everything, even bad novels. I think it was Stephen King– I can’t remember. You should read everything, you shouldn’t have filters when it comes to reading, because you can learn something even from reading bad novels, or bad books, or bad short stories. It will give you baggage,
Susan: It will give you that judgment of what went wrong, to tell you don’t do this or something. Yeah. What are you reading right now?
Dany: Ooo! I’m reading the new Jonathan Franzen novel, it’s called Crossroads. I was drawn to it by the first paragraph, I love how he writes. I think he and Garcia Márquez have that thing in common that they can write about families; they can write about family sagas that last for generations, and they develop each family member individually.
Susan: Yes, so memorably!
Dany: It’s like each of the characters are inside their own novels, and then when you look at the novel from far away, it’s not like the story arc goes somewhere, it’s just the things that happen to these people and how well-developed they are and especially since I think it was Freedom or Purity, I can’t remember which one of his novels, but it’s the same thing: it had to end at some point because it could go on and on and on, and you would still be with them. And I guess at some point it had to end, but in order to answer your previous question: I think I’m still a reader, right, because I found that I wanted to write the books I would love to read because it happened to me very frequently that I would pick up a book and then grow bored and say “oh, what’s next?” So I figured that the themes and characters I was interested in–there weren’t that many of them in Latin America, especially not American literature, so I was like why shouldn’t I write about this stuff? And especially while reading Chuck Palahniuk I think, Invisible Monsters was the first transgressive novel that had me saying, “I want to write a book like this.”
Susan: It gave you permission and a model right? Yeah, he’s such an excellent writer and so are you, really. It’s such an honor to be able to talk to you, and I think we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to be sure that I asked: if there’s anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?
Dany: Well, I think there was some controversy with Peruvian writers being disinvited to the Guadalajara book fair, and I think book fairs and these kinds of events tend to invite always the same people.
Dany: I think you mentioned that it also happens in this English-speaking world.
Dany: I think book fair organizers are the ones that choose who’s going and who’s not.
Susan: It’s almost like it’s a club, right?
Dany: Yeah, it’s like every single book fair you see, you see the same four or five people and it’s always the same and especially in Latin America, and you grow up to think that there aren’t any other writers
Susan: or any young ones, right?
Dany: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, I’m only thirty years old and you know, I would love to see more young writers around, especially in Peru, or wherever. I think there are more writers now, or their works are being put out for translation, and I’m privileged enough to be able to be the bridge between the younger writers, especially when it comes to translation, and I would love to keep doing that. Because I would have wanted that kind of help when I was first starting.
Susan: The mentoring; you’re stepping into this mentoring role, and also it’s like I picture you kind of as a curator of this project.
Dany: Yeah, especially when there’s so many new books, interesting new books, and interesting writers right now that are not writing about the Shining Path, which is very important, because I think we are ready to write about more topics: we’re ready for transgressive fiction, we’re ready for melodrama, we’re ready for things that are not related to the political obscure years of Peru. Of course, it’s important of course it’s valid to always keep in mind about our own wounds from the country; it’s always important to have those things present, but why not write about new topics? Because I feel that it happens more in the U.S. That’s why I’m drawn to read more English literature or U.S. literature that is produced in the U.S. because there’s so many topics and Latin America [literature] is always about politics, or violence, or corruption.
Susan: And I think part of your point is that was like 30 years ago right?
Dany: Yes, and I think we’re ready for new stuff.
Susan: I think it’s wonderful that you’re excited about that, and that you’re supporting that, and you’re supporting those writers. So, I think we should go, but it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you; thank you so much. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Dany: Yes, yes exactly.
Susan: And I’m looking forward to your next publication as well.
Dany: Oh thank you. Yeah well, I mean it’s already there. Right now in the publishing world, we’re going through many post-Covid things.
Susan: They’re slowly coming back.
Dany: Yes. My book has been ready but it’s still waiting for its release date because they’re taking it slow, very slow in my country when it comes to new publications. Because the market’s still recuperating.
Dany: I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but in Peru especially with the new government, I don’t want to criticize or anything, I don’t want to become political in these last few minutes, but I think we’re on the verge of another political crisis—sorry, economic crisis—maybe it has started already, but things aren’t picturing well, and I think that’s going to affect the publishing market especially.
Susan: Oh, I’m sorry.
Dany: It’s probably a very hard time for writers. Because probably my book is going to suffer from this uncertainty, and I feel like I’m not the only one there, but that’s why I’ve decided to write in English, and it’s something that has been going back since my second novel, because I applied for a workshop in Provincetown, actually. I didn’t make it, but I wrote a couple of chapters in English. And I was reading them recently, and I was like, well, it’s not that bad. Maybe I should just start developing.
Susan: Go back or start over—oh, that’s an exciting idea.
Dany: Yeah and I think it hasn’t happened- I think Diaz, maybe, is also a writer also writes in both languages, but I also want to explore that aspect, being able to write a novel in English or even if it’s short stories or even a memoir or a collection of memories, it’s going to be my first time and I’m excited, and I’m profiting my time here to make that new book. God knows what’s going to happen to the one I wrote, and the new one
Susan: I hope it comes through soon for your sake.
Dany: Yes, so that’s what I’m doing right now, writing in English and it’s going quite well, actually. So I’m really excited.
Susan: Oh, that’s wonderful, that’s really great. Well, Dany, I guess we should sign off, but again it’s been fun talking, and thank you for all your help in helping me translate and for sharing your work with the world.
Dany: Oh, thank you for having me! Thank you for the interview, and I’m looking forward to still collaborating new translations and putting Peruvian writers out there for the rest of the U.S. readers.
Susan: Oh, wonderful. Okay, see you! Bye!
Dany: See you, bye!
Art by Jonathan Bolton (he/him) Jonathan Bolton's drawings derive from traditional acts of intense observation and sketching for the purposes […]
Each year, SCR presents the Ronald Moran Prize in Fiction and Poetry for the best fiction and poetry of the […]
Each year, SCR presents the Ronald Moran Prize in Fiction and Poetry for the best fiction and poetry of the […]