Unpacking a novel: a conversation with Margarita García Robayo

Eponine Howarth

ROBAYO MA 40-056

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What was the last parcel you received? I don’t usually receive any packages any more. I guess it is out of fashion. However, during the pandemic, a lot of people started sending packages again. One of them was from my husband’s aunt Gladys, she lives in a small town in Patagonia. She sent us several big parcels with little gifts for each member of my family: my husband and my two children. There were well-chosen objects, special for the one who received them. An embroidered handkerchief, a tiny wooden horse, a pair of cooking tongs… I always thought of aunt Gladys’ packages as something symbolic for me, while I was writing this particular novel.

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In The Delivery, this enormous package is initially left in the hallway until a neighbour comes knocking on the protagonist’s door. What made you decide to place the narrative in an apartment building? I’ve lived in Argentina for almost 20 years now. When I first arrived, the figure of the doorman was a little disturbing for me, because he was the man who controls every single movement of the residents’ daily lives. He has a lot of power over the entire community, and at the same time he makes everyone believe that in reality he works for them. It is a very functional figure in this kind of block dynamics you mention, in which members tend to make alliances against those who are different from them. This is the case of the narrator in this novel; she is a foreigner, and the community goes out of their way to make her feel exotic, even further from her origins than she already is and, of course, discriminated against.

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Wow, so you've been living in Argentina for the past 20 years. What informed your decision to move there? I ended up in Argentina by chance. Before settling here, I used to come often because I was working at the Gabriel García Márquez foundation for journalism (now called Gabo Foundation), which is located in Cartagena, but delivers workshops throughout Latin America. Back then, on one of my work trips to Buenos Aires, a local newspaper asked me to write a blog (at the time when blogs were something 'trendy') about Latin America, and I accepted. It was called Sudaquia (sudacas is a pejorative term to describe Latin American immigrants in Europe). That was the beginning of my journalism career here in Argentina.

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How has living in Argentina as a Colombian contributed specifically to crafting your own authorial voice? I guess the distance I have with my birth town gave me the perspective I needed to develop a voice that leans, mostly, on detachment. Everything I write has to do with Colombia, even if I don’t name it. In fact, I prefer not to name the places where my stories occur, it is a decision I made since my very first book. I like giving references and hints about those locations but never giving them completely away, because obviously they are altered by my own imagination and my subjectivity. I think that our subjectivity is something that gains complexity with distance. I’d like to think that. Distance may also work as a magnifying glass over certain feelings or memories, while at the same time it gives us the definition that being too close denies us.

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Knowing this about you, this extract from The Delivery reads as far more personal... 'I’ve never travelled in Argentina, I guess I was never interested, because it didn’t even occur to me. Living here is an accident, I could just as well be anywhere else. My geographical location determines the mailing address for my sister’s packages and not much more. Everything else – bills, correspondence, work – comes to my email.' (p. 57) That’s the way I used to think when I was younger. I lived in other cities before I came here, and always thought about each geography as an 'accident'. But now I have made an active decision to live in Argentina, because I find this country very stimulating in many different ways. People here like to express themselves a lot, for good and for bad. They are always complaining about something, but complaint can also be an effective engine to generate change. Today I think of Argentina as a very vital place to live in; it is not just alive, but also convulsive and vibrant.

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It made me wonder whether the following passage was also a reflection of your own feelings or ones only held by your character: 'When I think of my life in Buenos Aires, I do it in terms of casting: main characters, supporting cast. I think of a person who knows me and try to identify their complexities, their moral wrinkles. Usually I’m not sure and I assign them intuitively. Then I think about how the person would testify if I were on trial. What crime I’d be accused of, I’m not sure; I wonder if the crime itself really matters, or if anyone would be capable of defending me no matter what I did.' (p. 48) I don’t know if this has something to do with Argentina or more with the condition of being an immigrant, because no matter which country you chose to live in as an immigrant, it will always be a lonely place to inhabit. Being an immigrant is not something you can share with anyone, because the circumstances that lead to immigration are always different, so it is hard to feel accompanied. And also, as an immigrant, you tend to analyse your environment as if you were constantly standing outside of it all, like a fly on the wall, like someone who seems to be part of the circle, but actually isn’t.

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Do you ever worry about family and friends reading your work and how they might react to it, interpret it? Since my work began to be published, the way other people read my texts, their gaze as it were, has always been something that I’ve had to deal with. It is natural to feel exposed when someone close to you writes things that somehow involves what they believe to be shared experiences. People don’t care if it is called fiction or not. In the past I’ve tried (once, maybe twice) to explain to others that what I wrote was just one version among thousands of possible versions of a single event. I no longer worry about doing that. Since the very beginning of me as a writer I told myself I couldn’t be petty about what I want to include in the literature I write, and that I wouldn’t ever alter something I believe was a good addition to a story simply because it might upset someone. So, in sum, when it comes to deciding what to include or leave out in a story, [it] has nothing to do with the way I think someone else could react to it.

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Relationships between women in families, ones that feel dynamic and true, have long been wrongly dismissed as insignificant from the perspective of many men in 'the canon'. What were you intending to explore within the differences in those relationships between the protagonist and her sister, and then the protagonist with her mother? In my stories, I like to explore different kinds of relationships between women without romanticizing it. Relations between relatives, friends, neighbours... I find the complexity in us, women, very appealing. I particularly love the way mothers and daughters relate to each other, it is a one-of-a-kind relationship that contains in [of] itself a very extreme sense of ambivalence. Your daughter is your daughter, but she is also a woman, or will become a one – and you, as a woman, know exactly how hard that is.

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Distance (both geographic and emotional) is so central to the novel. What were you hoping to reveal, by placing the protagonist in a position of distance from her mother? Distance was a pretty huge deal in this book. The point was to call into question the idea that the parental bond doesn’t demand what any other bond would ask for: affection. There is a scene in which the narrator and her mother are looking at a sports field across the river in Tigre, they are talking about nothing in particular and the narrator thinks they are indeed close. Closer than they had ever been. She says something like 'if my sister could see us from the ship she is on right now, she wouldn’t believe it,' and then she says something about distance and perspective. She says: '…nearness is, as always, a matter of perspective. To my sister, from her ship out at sea, we’d look as close together as the stars in the sky. But who doesn’t know that the stars are separated by a black, empty void?'

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But also, the family relationships you build are full of underlying tensions you describe as 'flammable,' and much of the time it feels as if the sisters don’t have much in common apart from sharing a mother. When crafting the family relationships in the novel, were you inspired by family dynamics in other works of literature, your own family or those of your friends, or was it entirely of your own imagination? I always use my own experience as reference, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I write about my actual life; I tend to portray dynamics I have experienced or witnessed closely. That’s how I construct my fiction, engulfing my surroundings and making something out of it. So, the answer is that the mechanism involves reality, but the outcome is a construction of the imagination.

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Is the blurry line between fiction and reality something you are interested in grappling with? Do you enjoy leaving clues about what might be real and what might not be? Yes I do, I enjoy it very much – but at the same time I don’t do it on purpose, meaning automatically. It comes in a very natural way. As I said before, for me writing has become increasingly about thinking – and maybe, more than thinking – about looking. When I look at something insistently, I already know that I am going to write about it. I use almost everything in my life for writing: I take a lot of notes, I have a chat with myself (who doesn’t?), I feed my literature with life – mine and others’ – because I’m interested in life.

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Though the novel seems to have an ambivalent relationship with reality, you ground the story in a way that does make the reader trust you, the writer, as a guide. Simultaneously, you’re adept at making it difficult for the reader to untangle events, predict what might be coming next. How did you construct this brilliant tactic of intentionally creating conflict within the reader about what’s real or not, whether the main character is dreaming or not? It’s something I’ve tried before in some of my short stories. For example, there is a short story called 'Fish Soup' whereby I try to portray the delusional state of mind of a dying man, but as readers we are not sure if in fact the man is already dead. In The Delivery, the mechanism is a bit more subtle because it was not my intention to enter into the territory of the fantastic – my intention was to introduce an element that was perhaps slightly disturbing, not quite rational, that nevertheless gets easily naturalized within the narrative. In other words, I wanted the novel to have a sort of 'Kafkaesque' effect.

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Did that structural decision also influence how the dead pigeon (or other dead animals) were often appearing on the neighbour’s balcony? I did have a cat who would bring dead pigeons to me, drop them at my feet and then stare at me as if waiting for an award or something. I used the animals in the novel as a suggestion of the 'weird' atmosphere in which the narrator is immersed. I wanted to play with some kind of symbolism that could be also a legitimate part of her reality, although always a little bit suspicious, not quite trustworthy.

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On a lighter note, you integrate amusing quotations about the protagonist's writing process: 'When these random, topsy-turvy (another word of my mother’s) questions or sentences emerge, I jot them down in a file on the computer because I suppose someday they’ll come in handy. So I’m storing up a long list of gibberish.' (p. 89). Does your own writing process for all of your works resemble this? Yes, definitely. Those are, mostly, ideas of my own. I have been writing for some years now and I find it impossible not to think about the process I immersed myself in every time I begin a new story. I believe this character sort of represents – in a pretty extreme way – how the head lubricates the images, thoughts, and ideas that then result in a narrative fiction.

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In terms of its structure, did you also then build The Delivery in the form of collecting fragments (images, encounters, personal experiences) and arranging them into a cohesive whole? What has happened to me lately is that I don’t have much productive writing time, meaning: sitting at my desk with my text on my computer for three, four hours… Most of my latest texts have developed in my head, so when I sit down and write, I already have the shape of whatever I’m trying to say, sort of 'printed' in my head. The job is to translate that shape into words. Like pre-cooking something before you put it in the oven. If you ask me when do I write, I would have to reply almost never – at least lately. But, at the same time, I would have to say always – because somehow writing has become for me the same vital function as thinking, and while thinking, trying to give a consistent shape to an idea, a concept, an image that keeps bothering me. I wrote The Delivery in my head and it took me a few years to get it into the shape I wanted, to put into order the many topics I wanted to slide into the novel, to rank them. But when I sat down to write it was a pretty fast process, maybe the fastest I can remember with any other book.

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The title in English, The Delivery, is an explicit reference to this package that arrives. But it’s also a reference to giving birth, 'deliverance' from pain, motherhood, delivering the application for the grant and more. May I ask whether the Spanish title manages to capture all of the meanings? Or, does the original title contain different meanings? The original title is La encomienda, which means, in most Spanish-speaking countries, a parcel just like the ones I was talking about before. But also in some countries, it means a task that someone entrusts you to do. It is a colonialist word; many people relate this word to the time in which the Spanish king sent people over to conquer territory on his behalf. In this sense, I do believe that a child represents that kind of trusting task, something that is given to you for you to take care of, but doesn’t quite belong to you. So, the title is, in many ways, an anticipation of the story. I guess in English it is even more precise.

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It made me wonder about other choices that were made in the translation. Is the cat called 'Catrina' in Spanish? No, the cat’s name in Spanish was Ágata, which relates also to the word for the animal in Spanish: 'gata.' It is a way of saying a-cat (una gata), it’s a way of naming without naming. In that sense the translator’s solution plays with what I was trying to do in Spanish and it works brilliantly.

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Are you a writer that has many conversations with the translator(s) about your intentions in the craft of the plot, tone or meaning, or are you more the hands off, let the text speak for itself, type? I am absolutely 'hands on.' I participate a lot. I have many conversations with my translator and my editor, especially during the final stages of the process. I find translation a very delicate and difficult job, because you could change the whole meaning of something just by adding or excluding a word or a coma. I love that in Charco Press they involve the author (at least in my case) very much, because I love being involved. In this case I also appreciate that Megan McDowell, the translator, asked me to answer her questions via audio notes, because she actually finds it helpful to hear the author’s voice and their own particular inflections when explaining ideas or concepts.

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At the virtual launch of Holiday Heart I heard you say 'I always think about my books as part of something bigger, my literary project' – where does The Delivery fall within the scope of that wider literary project? Yes, I guess I can connect this answer with one of the earlier ones, regarding looking at the world – the constant reflection on how I look and writing as the ex-pected outcome of this process. How I look is a sum of concerns, things that make me wonder about how we live, how we relate to each other – how we deepen our differences day after day. One of the biggest defects of our time is inequity in every imaginable sense. So, when I decide to write about a mother-daughter relationship, it won’t be just about them, of course – I have to feed that main [story]line with others I think are relevant. To build up a solid portrait of the universe – emotional, social, political universe – that I’m trying to unravel.

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cc: Alejandra López

Margarita García Robayo was born in 1980 in Cartagena, Colombia, and now lives in Buenos Aires where she teaches creative writing and works as a journalist and scriptwriter. She is the author of several novels, including Hasta que pase un huracán (Waiting for a Hurricane) and Educación Sexual (Sexual Education, both included in Fish Soup), Holiday Heart, and Lo que no aprendí (The Things I have Not Learnt). She is also the author of a book of autobiographical essays Primera Persona (First Person, forthcoming with Charco Press) and several collections of short stories, including Worse Things, which obtained the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize in 2014 (also included in Fish Soup). Her books have been published widely and praised in Latin America and Spain and have been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Hebrew, French, Danish and Turkish. The Delivery is her third book to appear in English after the very successful Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the best fiction titles of 2018) and Holiday Heart (Winner of the English PEN Award).

Eponine Howarth

Eponine Howarth is co-editor-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca.

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