Elvira Navarro is the author of A Working Woman (Two Lines Press, 2017). Navarro’s translator, Christina MacSweeney, spoke with her about her writing process, the thematic threads in her work, and avant-garde literature.
Christina MacSweeney (CM): When we met, you talked about your love for Madrid, and that city is an important character in La trajabadora (A Working Woman). But your earlier works are set in the south of Spain. I’m interested in knowing how you reconcile these two different landscapes, both personally and in your writing.
Elvira Navarro (EN): Well, in fact, only one story in my first book, La ciudad en invierno (The City in Winter), is set in the south, although the reference isn’t explicit. My other stories take place in Valencia, which is in the east of Spain. I moved there in the eighties, when the old part of the city was a no-go area, and “decent” people wanted nothing to do with the dregs of society and the decrepit buildings of the old quarter, which was in a state of absolute decay. That supposed center was completely marginal; the middle class, the people who had the power to define what was and was not the city, never set foot there, or even thought about it, and given that there were no plans to regenerate the neighborhood, those ancient streets were becoming junkie hellholes. I wasn’t allowed to go there. In Madrid I have no such prohibitions, because that variety of criminal behavior has died out, and because I’m no longer a child. But Madrid also has a relationship with the edges, with the outskirts, the margins, and there is something about that relationship that is stimulating and spiritual. Despite the fact that the city has grown to engulf the mountains to the north and west, Madrid is still provincial, poor, and is closer to Castile-La Mancha to the south and east, the land of Don Quixote. When you view Madrid, its colors are those of the tablelands. When you view the aridity of the streets, it’s the aridity of the tablelands that you see. And the heat in Madrid is also tableland heat. It’s a very La Mancha city, and its essence is in Manchego asceticism. As they have always suffered from poverty, the Spanish high plains—the two Castiles—have become involuntarily spiritual. People are inured to living on very little. It’s an apprenticeship in scarcity, and at the same time in immensity: you look around, and the horizon is everywhere. The earth and the sky. Essence.
CM: Can you imagine ever living outside Spain?
EN: I guess so. I never have, except in a temporary way. I lived in Paris for six months on an Erasmus scholarship.
CM: Can you say something about your approach to writing?
EN: I see writing as an open process; if there was a poetics determining how the book has to be, it would all be written before the writing began, and the creative process would no longer have any meaning for me. When I write, I want to be the first person to be surprised by the drift the text takes. I find the structure as I’m going along, and check that it is the one that will work best. I don’t mean to say that there are absolutely no constraints on what I write, because that would make writing impossible, but working with constraints isn’t the same as sticking faithfully to a norm, which is what a poetics ends up being. Before starting, I have only a few intuitions, and a vague idea about where I want to go. And that idea can be cast aside if I come across another on my journey.
CM: Do you see your published works as having some form of thread connecting them, or is each an individual creative act? What I’m thinking about here is whether the author Elvira Navarro is a character created by criticism, or if she herself controls the way her work is viewed.
EN: There are many threads, but the one that is fundamental to my work is identity. It’s a theme that is present in all my books. In A Working Woman, I approach it through mental pathology. Psychological states are a laboratory for exploring this issue. Like any other identity, Elvira Navarro is a mask that interacts with the other, that feeds the other and allows itself to be fed by it. As far as control goes, it’s something I don’t believe in. We are not in control of what happens. And attempting to exercise control generates too much suffering for other people and for oneself. Best just to relax.
When I write, I want to be the first person to be surprised by the drift the text takes.
CM: In an interview with Carlos Labbé, you said that the “woman” in A Working Woman is to some extent unimportant. Do you think you could have told that story with male protagonists? How do you think it might have been different if you had?
EN: It probably wouldn’t be possible. There is something natural about writing, the text carries you along toward particular places. For me, the task of the author is to be attentive to the text, to listen to what it is asking you to do. Sometimes the text’s requirements are more modest than your ambitions, and of course you can’t impose a gaze on it, other than that generated by language itself. A successful outcome is the consequence of knowing how to put the needs of the text before your own desire for control. And that is also my pointer, my compass: I have failed when I feel I’m imposing myself, obeying determining factors that have nothing to do with the text. And it’s a failure in very personal terms. An ethical failure. If I had tried to write A Working Woman from a masculine perspective, I’d have found myself facing that failure, because it’s not what the text was asking of me.
CM: You often write about controversial issues, or your work has at times generated controversy. Is that something you seek or is it coincidental that what interests you tends also to be controversial?
EN: I never seek controversy; it takes me to a place I feel uncomfortable in. I’m shy, and don’t like arguments. Because what controversy normally generates isn’t healthy debate, but bad feelings and judgments based on prejudice, often of a moral nature. Be that as it may, it could be as you say: what interests me is at times polemical.
CM: Enrique Vila-Matas has described you as an avant-garde writer. What do you think defines avant-garde literature in the twenty-first century?
EN: Originality and novelty are very often considered to be values in themselves. And the weight given to these factors when evaluating a work has its roots in the early twentieth-century avant-garde. However, while the avant-gardes arose as a rejection of the values of capitalism, placing their trust in a different sort of society, originality and novelty have now been supplanted by individualism. It frequently happens that what is analyzed and celebrated isn’t the shared or political possibilities a work opens up, but the personal stamp left by the author. Stress is laid on the commercial or literary success of a work: instead of casting light on or illuminating a situation, the aim is to shine, dazzle, which in the end means obfuscation, or confounding vision with an excess of light. However, Vila-Matas’s comment needs to be considered in context—the moment when a group of writers emerged onto the scene in Spain who, in many cases, reclaimed a rather outmoded notion of the avant-garde, relating it to the concept of novelty, of newness. Vila-Matas said that I was an avant-garde writer to indicate that it is not in fact grounded in novelty, and that classical forms can also be considered avant-garde, since the whole idea of a vanguard has become a conventional label. Vila-Matas himself has also been labeled as avant-garde by those who aren’t aware that he uses the term in a different sense. For example, in an interview in La Vanguardia, published on February 14 of 2017, he made the following declaration:
In literature, repetition is seen in a negative light. “This is repetitive” [he is referring to a phrase that commonly appears in book reviews to indicate lack of originality]. Kierkegaard saw repetition in a positive light: it is the same impulse as memory, but in the opposite direction, like a future memory. In literature, there is no such thing as progress or change, only repetition, because originality has never existed. Art, since the very beginning of time, has been a matter of the transmission and circulation of the ideas of others.
CM: What directions do you see your writing taking in the future?
EN: I don’t think about it.
CM: As a translator, I’m interested in how authors feel when they have to return to a finished work during the process of translation into another language.
EN: For me it’s not stressful, because the book is no longer my own. And I don’t speak any other language well, just a bit of bad English and French. I’m not proud of that, but it does have the advantage of freeing me from the book, which can then have a life of its own in another context, and so can be viewed from a healthy distance.
Like any other identity, Elvira Navarro is a mask that interacts with the other, that feeds the other and allows itself to be fed by it.
CM: You recently published a list of ten influential Spanish-language novels that included many works by Latin American writers. What is your relationship to Latin American literature? Do you think there has been a reversal of the center and the periphery?
EN: My early reading was Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Felisberto Hernández, Manuel Puig, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Ricardo Piglia, Ernesto Sábato, Roberto Bolaño. And I follow what is happening in Latin America now with a great deal of interest. And yes, I think it’s clear that there has been a reversal. At a global level, the most important authors in the Spanish language are Latin American, which has meant that, in terms of translation, there has been more interest in what comes from there.
CM: If you had to choose one book to take with you to a desert island, which would it be?
EN: Well, perhaps I’d take the Bible. It brings together literature and wisdom, and offers an understanding of the culture in which I have my roots; that is to say, the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Elvira Navarro won the Community of Madrid’s Young Writers Award in 2004. Her first book, La ciudad en invierno (The City in Winter), published in 2007, was well received by the critics, and her second, La ciudad feliz (The Happy City, Hispabooks, 2013) was given the twenty-fifth Jaén Fiction Award and the fourth Tormenta Award for best new author, as well as being selected as one of the books of the year by Culturas, the arts and culture supplement of the Spanish newspaper Público. Granta magazine also named her one of their top twenty-two Spanish writers under the age of thirty-five. She contributes to cultural magazines such as El Mundo newspaper’s El Cultural, Ínsula, Letras Libres, Quimera, Turia, and Calle 20, and to the newspapers Público and El País. She writes literary reviews for Qué Leer and contributions for the blog “La tormenta en un vaso.” She also teaches creative writing.