An Interview with Nuria Amat

Q. Here we are in Sarri , Barcelona, your birthplace and the scenario for your previous two novels. How come you decided to set your most recent novel, Queen Cocaine, in Colombia, between Bogotá and the jungle of El Chocó?

A. I don't search out my novels in a mechanical way from my life, but they follow or spring out of my biography in some way. I was born a writer in Latin America, as a daughter of the boom in Latin American literature. As a Catalan who writes in Spanish, I was bowled over by writers like the Mexican Juan Rulfo or the Uruguayan Onetti and, naturally, Borges and García Márquez. In fact, at the age of twenty-four I married a Colombian writer who was one of my literature professors, and in 1975 we went to live in El Chocó, in a small town in the jungle where his family lived. It was there I wrote my first book-Pan de boda. Then there was no drug war being waged around that community.

Q. So contact with the Spanish of Latin America was like a second birth?

A. Like many late twentieth-century writers I think I'm drawn to what goes beyond any national territory. I'm a Catalan and love my country and I'm a product of a bilingual culture and experience which for very personal reasons-to do with the death of my mother when I was a child-led me to write in Spanish. However, I feel the need to make that language mine, as Latin American writers have made their literary Spanish from their different varieties of Spanish rather than attempting pale imitations of Castilian Spanish. When I arrived in Colombia, I was astonished by the Spanish spoken there, which struck me as the most beautiful Spanish imaginable. The strange quirks in a writer's life: in El Chocó I discovered myself as a writer. I also wrote a diary-which I didn't re-read when writing Queen Cocaine.

Q. So twenty-five years later you relied on memory?

A. No, I surfed on the web and researched newspapers and used my imagination as writer. For the power of literature comes from the contagious power of the voices that develop in a narrative. Rulfo makes the dead speak and fashions the raw language of peasants, which was not his own. Look at the character of Aida. It seems at the beginning of the novel that the central character is the journalist Wilson Cervantes, who has taken the young Catalan woman, Rat, to his community on the Pacific coast. Then the character of Aida, an illiterate black woman and animist, becomes Rat's main confidant, and it is through her conversations and walks with Aida that Rat discovers another mystic side to the forest as well as the bloody realities of the cocaine trade. Aida's not based on anyone "real," though she communicates aspects of Columbian reality! And it's Aida who makes this [a?] novel about Colombia now . . . In that sense, the writer is an intermediary who brings the reader new voices. Nobody read the novel until I finished it, and then a lot of readers were surprised such a "Catalan" writer could . . .

Q. But Aida does link up with other fictions of yours-the sympathy for the marginalised?

A. Yes, in La intimidad, there is a focus on madness, an adolescent girl growing up in the shadow of a clinic that deals with "madwomen," and El país del alma tells the story of star-crossed lovers, a photographer and writer, and that of Catalan society in the sordid life that was post-civil-war Spain under a dictatorship that repressed their language and culture. Aida gives voices to the narrator, the young Catalan woman. It is Aida who tells the story of Lucila, the woman who lived with the cholo Indians, learned their medicines and way of surviving in the forest, and then goes to Bogotá to study at the university, determined to come back and save her community through education. Both women want to bring together what's in the indigenous culture with education against the ravages of civil war.

Q. There's a lot of cinematic action in Queen Cocaine and it inevitably draws on magical realism? [or period here?]

A. When I write, there is an eye of the imagination which is reviewing photos and images in my mind. Ones I've seen or still possess but which I only review mentally. It's always a challenge to come up with something new. I wasn't interested in creating a pastiche from what is called magical realism. At the beginning of this century we are all mestizos, can feel we are from another country, are in contact with people from other countries, want to throw off straitjackets . . . Literature helps in this respect: the reader has to create everything he read, what's behind the text . . .

Q. What's behind the extraordinary scene with the grandmother then? Is it a zany literary homage to García Márquez?

A. In part, but those sequences in the black community of Bahía Negra are among the most autobiographical. My then-husband was born there and I was presented to his grandmother like that. It's not a literary reminiscence! When she appeared carried in the yard like that it was made even more dramatic because she was white, the only white skin there apart from mine. When I started to write, I didn't know the war involving the paramilitary, guerrilleros, and narco-traders was going in the area. All of that I invented and reviewers in Colombia have said how nastily close it is to reality. I wanted the novel to be a literary work that avoided exoticizing.

Q. As translator, I have most had to grapple with the novel's beautiful language that is imbued with irony, an irony that arises from the voice of the young woman narrrator. The way she slips in and out of first person and at times almost merges with Aida. It's as if she's trying to turn everything into a work of literature-even minimal bodily gestures-and is continuously undercut by the reality she perceives, which constantly goes beyond what she anticipates.

A. It is language which makes a novel, not the ideas or specific relationships or events, however striking-or not!-they may be. The narrator has had a European literary education. She makes the odd reference to Barcelona and her father and difficult personal and social politics. She's having an adventure and would like to make a novel out of it, and her own sense of difference and melancholy enable her to go beyond what might have ever imagined at the onset. In that sense she stands, for example, in opposition to Liber, the actress and hairdresser in Bogotá, and her theater actors performing Chekhov's Three Sisters and working a revolutionary guerrillero cell. She is an outsider and can afford to be ironic, though she too is never far from death. But it's up to readers to decide whether the language works with originality or has any beauty.

Barcelona, 7 September 2004