Read more about the episode here.

Maria Hinojosa: This is Latino USA, the radio journal of news and cultura. It’s Latino USA. Welcome to Latino USA. 

I’m Maria Hinojosa. 

We bring you stories that are underreported, but that matter to you. Overlooked by the rest of the media. And while the country is struggling to deal with these problems. We listen to the stories of Black and Latino students.

A united Latino front. A cultural renaissance. Organizing at the forefront of the movement. I’m Maria Hinojosa. ¡No se vayan!

Samanta Schweblin: A writer is always a kind of foreigner, wherever he’s moving and wherever he’s writing about. 

Maria Hinojosa: From Futuro Media and PRX, it’s Latino, USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. Today, the strangeness of everyday life in the writings of Argentinian author, Samanta Schweblin.

Writer Samanta Schweblin was born in Argentina in 1978, a couple of years after the start of a violent dictatorship in her country. 

Samanta Schweblin: I was a baby when the military coup was happening. Of course, I couldn’t understand what was going on, but I have a very vivid memory of danger, darkness.

Maria Hinojosa: More than 40 years have passed, but some things have stayed with Samanta. 

Samanta Schweblin: I remember once being in the car with my dad and my mom and just the look of a woman who was at the back of another car. Something very weird was happening with this woman. There were two men driving. She was alone at the back. She was crying. I mean, it’s like, I was… I don’t know, maybe five or six years old and I still remember that face.

Maria Hinojosa: In her writing Samanta considers the sense of eeriness that accompanied her childhood. Her work has been compared to the surrealistic movies of David Lynch or to the absurd tales of Franz Kafka. 

The unexplainable events in her stories don’t quite cross into the area of fantasy or horror. Instead, they reveal the uncanny of the everyday.

Samanta’s books have been translated into 25 different languages, and the English translation of her short story collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” as well as her novel, “Fever Dream,” were both long-listed for the International Booker Prize. In this episode, first, Samanta shares how she started writing, and later she talks about where her fascination came from to focus on those blurry lines, the ones between what we believe is normal and what we find strange.

Here’s Samanta Schweblin in her own words.

Samanta Schweblin: I’m Samanta Schweblin. I’m a short story, mostly a short story writer. I also write novels. I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the last 10 years I have been living in Berlin. I’m particularly interested in what we call literatura del extrañamiento, like the uncanny. I wouldn’t say in literature, I would say in life.

What is the uncanny? What is the strange things that we have in life? When people talk about my work, they usually say, “Oh, these stories are so full of monsters. But, where are the monsters? Because this is not a horror story. It’s just the feeling of this is a horror story. There’s no monsters, but they are there. Where are these monsters? Are they in the reader’s mind? Or where are they? And I think something very deep happened in that childhood that was… those were the monsters.

I grew up in the suburbs, we belong to a middle class family, and I was living with my parents. They have been a great influence for me because they were artists, both of them. And my grandfather in particular, from my mom’s side, he was a painter. But not only that, he was a teacher of a whole generation of artists in all Latin America.

So people from abroad came to study with my grandfather. He has a huge atelier in the middle of the city in Buenos Aires, in San Telmo. He was not so close to the family by then, but he called my mom and said: “Ok, I want to meet Samanta every week.” And my mom said: “Ok, let’s do this.” So I met him for the first time when I was like, I don’t remember, like five or six years old.

And he told me when we were alone, “Ok, we are going to tell to your mom that this is about going to the carousel, eating ice cream and all those things that kids are supposed to do. But this is going to be the training of the artist.” I was six years old! “You’re an artist, we need to train you for this because life is going to be very hard.” [LAUGHS]

For example, he taught me to travel without paying the tickets of the train or the bus because he said that an artist should be capable to live without wasting money. He taught me how to steal books from bookshops. Of course, we also went to the museums; went to the theater. So everything was exciting and amazing and unbelievable.

And I started to write with him because all the things that we were doing, the main goal was to record all the activities in a diary. 

So we have to write down what had happened during the day, but there were some rules. He said that it doesn’t have any sense to say, “I had a good day” or “I’m very happy doing this or that.”

Things should be accurate enough, and well-described enough, to be capable to move some feelings from the one who is writing to the one who is reading. So this amazing exercise was for me the beginning of the writing.

I remember I went to a particular workshop, where they were reading Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor — all this North American tradition. By then, I had read Kafka or, for example, Buzzati, some more European authors. But mostly my authors were the authors of the “boom,” you know, like Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, because these were the books that my family had in the bookshelf.

And I remember when I discovered for the first time these authors, the North American authors, it was so shocking for me — I love them. And I wouldn’t say that it was the stories that really trapped me. In fact, I remember the first time that I read the Raymond Carver I was like, “What? What is this about? Just drunk people smoking, getting divorced.”

Nothing is happening here. It was a little bit like, “What is this?” It took me time to understand how his mind is working and how their machineries are working. But what I love is the way they were doing it. I think I learned to write, reading them very careful.

People who don’t read usually short stories, they have this idea about short stories, like, being a different kind of genre. I don’t understand that. For me, the only difference in my mind between a short story and a novel is that one story lasts 10, 20 pages and the other 200. 

The kind of tools that you use to write are the same. The relationship that you build with the reader are the same. The kind of deepness that you can go through with some moments in life of the characters themselves are the same. I mean, whenever I have an idea, my first instinct is go to the short story length. And then sometimes… doesn’t work. It’s a kind of failure. (Laughs) I can’t manage to be super effective and strong enough to tell the story in 20 pages. Then I need 200 more and I have a novel.

When I started to grow up, we started little by little to do different trips with my grandfather. First in the outside of Buenos Aires, then we traveled to La Plata, then we traveled to other provinces in Buenos Aires. 

When I was 16, we came to New York. 

It was an amazing trip. You can imagine with him. He was always inventing things, inventing stories that were not true about things.

I remember he brought me to the St. Patrick’s Church and he said: “This is the church of the immigrants, and this is the saint of the immigrants. Whenever you want something, you have to come here and ask for whatever you want to St. Patrick.” St. Patrick is not the god of the immigrants at all, but he was like inventing these things.

And then I told him, we were in the Brooklyn Bridge, and we were crossing it and I said to my grandfather: “The moment that I will be capable to support myself and have the money, I will come to New York.” And he said: “No, no, no, no, no, your place is Berlin.” He knew. (Laughs) and of course, I didn’t move to Berlin because of that.

But it’s very curious that I’m there. 

Moving to Berlin from the beginning was a great exercise of estrangement, because I was a foreigner and I will be a foreigner even if I stay there my whole life. It’s so clear the difference between a Latin American citizen and a German citizen. 

But I like that.

A writer is always a kind of foreigner. Wherever he’s moving and wherever he’s writing about. His main exercise is to behave as a foreigner, because in the moment that you are convinced that you are not completely understanding what is going on, then you have a more objective perspective of what is going on. (Laughs)

I’m very amazed and surprised about how the concept of normality works in our everyday life because I just don’t believe in normality. It’s so crazy. So, it doesn’t have any sense. And it’s so important for us. I’m so particular, so unique, and you are so particular and so unique. And the normality rule says that there is a point in between you and me, just in the middle.

That’s normality. 

And we keep the whole life trying to go there. But there’s nothing there. It’s absolutely empty. It’s a complete fiction, the idea of normality. 

For example, there’s a story where there is a teenager who is eating a bird as a food. And of course there is a big mess in the family around this.

But we eat birds every day, sometimes twice a day. So what is the problem? It’s because it’s a bird and it’s not a chicken. Chicken is bigger than a bird. It would be more logical to eat a bird than to eat a chicken, you know? What is the problem here, really? You could say, “Oh, but the bird is alive.” Chinese people eat food that is alive.

I have been there. I mean, food can be moving on the plate and they eat it. So, what is really the problem? It’s a social agreement. Nothing else than that. It’s just a social agreement. But we took this as an absolute truth. And it’s not. And the moment that you disassemble it, then reality, it doesn’t have any sense.

I have heard here and there things like, for example, “Oh, women are writing so much better than men these days.” This is not only something that is happening in Latin America. I’m saying because I thought it was only in Latin America, but then when you start to travel around festivals, in international festivals around the world, this is a topic that is floating around.

Suddenly, women are publishing the same or even more than the men. And this is very interesting because some people call this a “boom.” And this is not a boom. This is what the half of the other half of the humanity have been writing. It’s just that now they are publishing them. 

So, I feel, like, grateful, maybe, or excited about the idea of sharing this moment with these authors.

We are so different. You have someone like Gabriela Cabezón, who is playing in such a brave way with language, or Claudia Piñeiro, who goes through a completely different perspective, or Margarita García Robayo, who has this super subtle and intimate realism about women, or you have Gabriela Wiener who doesn’t have anything to do with the three that I have just named.

So it’s very hard to classify us as a movement. What is true is that women in literature have been a minority up to very short time ago. And, as a minority, you always come to the canon with a lot of new news, you know, it’s like, “We have this to say, and that’s to say, and we have this story about this.” 

We came with our own stories, with our own pains, even I would say with our own tradition.

So it’s not better. It’s just new. We have so many things to say.

Maria Hinojosa: This episode was produced by Victoria Estrada and Marta Martínez. It was edited by Sarah Whites-Koditschek. It was mixed by Julia Caruso. 

The Latino USA team also includes Reynaldo Leaños Jr., Andrea López-Cruzado, Glorimar Márquez, Mike Sargent, Nour Saudi, and Nancy Trujillo. Peniley Ramírez is our co-executive producer.

Our director of engineering  is Stephanie Lebow. Our marketing manager is Luis Luna. Our theme music was composed by Xenia Rubinos.

I’m your host and executive producer, Maria Hinojosa. Join us again on our next episode. In the meantime, remember, look for us on social media. I will see you there. And as always, and forever, no te vayas!

Bye! (Theme music)

Latino USA is made possible in part by New York Women’s Foundation. The New York Women’s Foundation—funding women leaders that build solutions in their communities and celebrating 30 years of radical generosity. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And the Ford Foundation —  working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.


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