Listening Under the Kitchen Table: An Interview with Kirmen Uribe

By Cristina Slattery

Kirmen Uribe is a Basque writer and poet. In 2008, his novel, Bilbao-New York-Bilbao was published in Basque. (It has subsequently been translated into more than ten languages and was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura (Narrativa) in Spain. Uribe has also published children´s stories and his collection of poetry, Meanwhile Take My Hand, which was translated into English by the U.S.-born writer, Elizabeth Macklin, was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. (Macklin translated the poems directly from the Basque language, or Euskera, into English.)

Uribe´s poems have appeared in international journals. In May 2003, his poem, ¨May¨ was published in the New Yorker and in 2006, the Berlin online magazine Lyrikline published a selection of ten of his poems in German translation. He is currently working on his second novel.

Cristina Slattery: A typical day for a ten-year-old Kirmen would include . . .

Kirmen Uribe: Playing with my best friend, going to the beach with him, imagining that we were native Americans going to the mountains close to my hometown. In winter, we saved birds from the snow.

CS: At sixteen years old . . .

KU: I was most interested in poetry, Dylan Thomas, Fernando Pessoa, García Lorca's "Poet in New York" . . . And also in pop-rock music such as The Velvet Underground. In addition, at that time I started to be engaged with the pacifist movement and in environmental projects.

CS: Can you explain a bit about how your family has helped shape who you are?

KU: My father was a fisherman, and the sea has always been so enigmatic for me. It is always a motive for writing. But he was sailing most of the time, in Ireland or Scotland, and my brothers and I were at home with our mother. My mother was really open-minded; she read a lot, and, as I was the youngest son, I liked to be with the women in the kitchen, with my mother, grandmother, aunts, listening to stories about people from the family, stories of love, war, solitude . . .

CS: What types of stories most interest you? Why?

KU: I love human stories, real or not, but human. I am not interested in stories that are superficial, that are just style exercises. The novel has to have a good story inside, if not, why write it? There are a lot of marvelous books in the world to be read. I think I am, overall, a storyteller, I learned the art of telling from my mother, and then, of course, I read a lot of novels during my college years, from all traditions, Spanish, English, Italian, French, Russian . . . I love them, but in essence I am still that boy who was listening below the kitchen table. And, I still like to listen to oral stories.

CS: How do you start writing your novels? Do you outline or do you start with an image? Can you explain your particular process a bit?

KU: It could start in a number of ways. For instance, my first novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao started with a question. My grandfather had a boat called "Dos Amigos" (two friends). And I was wondering always who was this friend of my grandfather, who was the "other." I started researching this man and I wrote the whole novel reflecting on the otherness. My second novel started with an image. The Spanish Civil War, thousands of children are leaving Bilbao in big ships, without parents. They're crying, they don't know when will they come back, or even if they will...

CS: Who are your favorite writers?

KU: Nowadays I am very interested in J. M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald. I like to go beyond conventional fiction. I read a lot of literary theory. I like it, however, the theory should be like coffee, you have to dilute it. If you drink a coffee grain it could be very bitter. The same is true for the novel with too much theory. "Bilbao-New York-Bilbao¨ has an interconnected structure, which includes all the thoughts of the writer who flies to New York from Bilbao, a character named after me, Kirmen Uribe, but it is obviously another person. But still it is a novel!

CS: Which words or phrases do you most overuse? (in Spanish, Basque, English . . . in any languages)

KU: It is interesting, because I have noted that I am using the word "smile" a lot in my new novel, and it is a little weird, because it is a tragic story . . . Maybe we need to smile in the worst situations . . .

CS: What is your current state of mind?

KU: Happy, calm, curious . . .

CS: What do you like to do in your free time and with whom do you like to spend it?

KU: I like to be with my family, my wife and sons. And also with my friends, my good, old friends . . .

CS: Why write in Basque?

KU: Of course, it is my language. I live my life in Basque. It has a literary tradition of 500 years and although it suffered a lot under the Franco dictatorship, now, I have to say that we are living a sweet moment with good writers, not just one or two, but several, a kind of boom, which I think will increase with the arrival of peace.

CS: Do you have a favorite poet(s)?

KU: In poetry I love Wislawa Szymborska and Anne Carson.

CS: How has winning the Premio Nacional in 2009 for Bilbao-New York-Bilbao changed your professional trajectory?

KU: Sure, because it put the light on me, like Walter Benjamin said. A lot of people could read my novel, it is being translated into different languages. It is a big help. It gave me tranquility and confidence. When a shipbuilding company obtains a contract to build a big ship, the workers know that they will have work for several years. It is the same for me, I know I will have work for four or five years . . .

CS: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

KU: The same Borges's father gave to him: do not publish too young.

CS: How do you know when a novel is "finished"?

KU: When it tells me. Because novels can speak, didn't you know?


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