Susannah Greenblatt spoke with Tamara Tenenbaum, winner of the inaugural Premio Ficciones, a prize given by Argentina’s Ministry of Culture for a short-story collection by a writer born after Borges’s death.
On June 2, 1986, the New Yorker published a poem by Jorge Luis Borges titled “The Web.” It began:
Which of my cities
am I doomed to die in?
where revelation reached me
from Virgil and Tacitus
(certainly not from Calvin)?
Twelve days later, Borges died. In Geneva. It’s really almost too Borgesian for Borges. In a “Talk of the Town” published shortly after the writer’s death, Borges translator Alastair Reid considered the eerie chain of events and Borges’s legacy. Reid wrote, “his gentle ghost is very much with us.” Borges, of course, had his own ruminations on legacy. He once said: “When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” In one way or another, Borges lives on in nearly every book published since his death, in Argentina and beyond. His influence is not only impressive, it’s intimidating, seemingly impossible to escape—it’s an Everest of books, a Patagonian Fitz Roy built of volumes and volumes.
This past June marked the thirtieth anniversary of Borges’s death, and we’re still trying to recover brilliant Argentine writers from the shadows cast by his towering legacy. This month’s issue of Words without Borders features writing by twentieth-century Argentine writers who haven’t received the attention they deserve in English-language translation. It was not Borges’s intent to overshadow. He was a great admirer of many of his contemporaries’ work. He adored Norah Lange, a dear friend in the vanguard Florida group, whose novel People in the Room is excerpted in WWB. Borges wrote a gushing prologue to Lange’s book of poetry, La calle de la tarde (The Street in the Evening), explicitly aimed at illuminating her young writerly potential:
With hope erect, with generosity of distance, with delicate clay of twilight, Norah has fashioned this book. I want my words of endorsement to be like the cedar bonfires that, in a biblical festival, lit up the attentive hills and presaged for mankind the new moon.
And yet 100 years later, People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and forthcoming from And Other Stories later this year, will be Lange’s first full-length work in English translation. Despite all Borges’s attempts to trumpet Lange, his legacy was fated to eclipse her.
Leading up to the thirtieth anniversary of Borges’s death, Argentina’s Ministry of Culture announced the advent of a new narrative fiction award with a key criterion: in order to submit, you must have only known a world without Borges. The award was not simply designed for writers under thirty; it explicitly called for writers born after June 14, 1986—the day Borges died. What’s more, the contest specifically sought short stories, the very form he so famously turned inside out and backward to beautiful and dizzying effect. The Ministry’s stated objective with the contest was “to stimulate and disseminate the new Argentine literature.” The grand prize: ARS$80,000 (about US$4,000 USD).
Over the next several months, they were flooded with submissions—176 full-length short-story collections by young Argentine writers from nineteen different provinces. The jury was comprised of prominent contemporary literary voices of the preceding generation: Pola Oloixarac, Pedro Mairal, Félix Bruzzone, and Selva Almada. After carefully deliberating over the ten finalists, the judges awarded the first ever Premio Ficciones to Tamara Tenenbaum for her collection, Nadie vive tan cerca de nadie (No One Lives That Close to Anyone).
At twenty-eight years old, Tenenbaum had already gained a following as an accomplished journalist and published poet, but Nadie vive tan cerca de nadie is her first short-story collection. Her stories are deliberate but not precious; smart but not abstruse; expansive in subject but so very local; hyperrealistic yet imaginative. They needle deep into your brain and stay there. They are new Argentine literature.
We spoke with Tamara Tenenbaum about finding a new Argentine literary voice in the twenty-first century, discovering her own city, Orthodox Jewry in Buenos Aires, and what the Premio Ficciones means to her.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What do you think is the idea or intention behind the Premio Ficciones? What is the significance of creating a specifically post-Borgesian Argentine literary award?
Tamara Tenenbaum (TT): First, of course, setting such a low age limit gave us young writers a real shot, since usually we compete against much more experienced writers, sometimes even well-known ones. And winning an award is, I think, much more important for young writers like me. It makes it easier to find a publisher and it gives you money so that you can afford the time you need to work on your writing—things that (I hope) are easier when you’re older and have a reputation.
Second, I think a lot of Argentine writers, perhaps especially in previous generations, felt like they were always writing in Borges’s shadow. I don’t think every country has a literary tradition like ours, where there is one name almost everyone agrees is “our country’s best writer.” I think that for many generations of Argentine writers this was a heavy weight to carry. For me, and people my age, Borges was never a contemporary. He was never part of my city or my cultural life: a lot of people I know who are twenty or thirty years older than me remember an interview or seeing him on the street. My grandfather got his autograph. But for me, he is more like a historical figure, like Cervantes or Shakespeare or Jane Austen. So I don’t really feel that weight. It’s a different relationship, I guess, and maybe the award captures that shift.
WWB: Do you see a new Argentine literary voice emerging in your generation?
TT: I guess there is still a lot of uncertainty about what my generation will do with literature. But I think that for my generation (or maybe only for me) the real challenge might be to push beyond the generation that came before us: writers I love and admire like Pedro Mairal, Félix Bruzzone, Fabián Casas, and Marina Mariasch. They wrote in the world of blogging, they advanced this super casual style that was actually, of course, very precise and well thought-out. I’ll borrow an expression I read in a book by Javier Cercas: “They made literature look like not-literature, like something in the margins.” I want to do that, but how does one do that now that they have made not-literature so famous and prestigious? Maybe now we have to do the opposite and go baroque.
WWB: How did you hear about the Premio Ficciones? What made you want to submit?
TT: I saw a link on the Facebook wall of someone a little bit older, someone in their early thirties, making a joke about being too old to apply. I had almost no short stories when I heard about the award—I had only three or four and I think that only one of those actually ended up in the draft I submitted. But I had a whole year, and the fact that they asked for a very long book (200,000 characters with spaces) by a very young writer made me think that, if I managed to finish on time, my chances were good. And if I didn’t, well, it was an excuse to write a book. So I just started, and miraculously I finished. Actually, I almost didn’t finish—I needed something like 10,000 more characters and I did not have more stories in me—but I had an unfinished autobiographical novel that I never planned to actually finish and I thought that one of those chapters could be reworked as a short story. And that’s the last story in the book.
I like to think this shows in my writing somehow, that this city and its language and its dirt and its violence and its rhythm are a part of my body and my mind.
WWB: Tell us a little bit about the collection of stories you submitted. Do you hear an Argentine voice or a distinctly new-Argentine voice in your stories?
TT: I usually think of my writing more as porteño (which literally means “from the port” but actually means “from Buenos Aires”) than Argentine. I adore this city. You know how some people say, “I’m the biggest Beatles fan”? Well, I like to brag that no one is a bigger fan of Buenos Aires than I am. My accent is so porteño that people who come from other places in Argentina sometimes ask me to slow down in order to understand me. And I like to think this shows in my writing somehow, that this city and its language and its dirt and its violence and its rhythm are a part of my body and my mind.
This comes from my personal history. My father died in a terrorist attack when I was five. Back then, my family and I were Orthodox Jews. After my father’s death, my family shifted very gradually to a lighter approach to Judaism, so luckily I ended up at a non-religious high school.
I still find it extremely interesting that my little Jewish commercial neighborhood, which I thought was “the world” for so many years, was literally unknown to people who lived a twenty-minute walk away. And the opposite was true as well, even though I was allowed to watch TV and go on the Internet. When I was little I never went downtown. I didn’t know much besides my own Orthodox people and the heavy Russian or Syrian accents they had, even if they had never been to Russia or Syria. So I had to conquer Buenos Aires, I had to claim it as my own. That is why I strongly identify as a porteña writer.
WWB: Your stories travel between vastly different Argentine communities, from Orthodox Jews to domestic workers to horse breeders to poker-playing geriatrics to pubescent choir boys. How have you gotten to know these communities? How do you think they come together as a collection of stories, of places, of not-so-close Argentine neighbors?
TT: I’m not big on imagination. Lately I’ve been trying to expand my horizons (I’m fascinated with the surrealist writer Leonora Carrington), but usually I just write about things that I know either from firsthand experience or through somebody else. The horse breeders piece was maybe the only one in the book that I had to research: I saw two horses copulating on a TV show, in front of two or three people who were waiting for that to happen so that some sort of economic transaction could take place, and I thought the image was too great to be real.
I’m not very interested in made-up worlds. I think reality is fascinating; I think the diverse experiences of inhabiting this world are fascinating. So for now, this is what I do. I’m fascinated with people. I’m much more interested in people than in places or nature or words or literature. No book is more interesting to me than listening to a stranger’s phone conversation. I don’t care much for traveling, for instance, which is probably a very bad quality in a writer. I care about knowing other cultures but not in the way one can in only a couple of weeks. And I’m not exactly an extrovert, so it takes me some time to get used to a place, to be comfortable enough that I can talk to people and understand them.
My intuition is that a domestic worker living in my neighborhood inhabits a world much more different from mine than, let’s say, a musician in London. So my book is about that—different people making sense of their little worlds—and that’s what the title (No One Lives That Close to Anyone) is about. It’s actually a barely modified quote from a story by Lorrie Moore. The original sentence in English is: “No one lived that close to anyone.”
WWB: Growing up as a reader and a writer in Argentina, what was your relationship to Borges? How has it changed over time?
TT: My parents weren’t great readers of literature, my father somewhat, but I think it was normal in a middle-class Argentine home to have Borges’s complete works. We had them. I remember trying to read Ficciones when I was eleven or twelve and not understanding much.
In high school they tried to make me read it and, again, I didn’t like it. I’m pretty sure for many people in my generation, Borges is now, sadly, that sort of “school read” that nobody reads for fun. But luckily, another teacher made us read “Emma Zunz,” which I found fascinating, and then I finished the whole book (El Aleph). I appreciated even the stories that centered around gauchos or things that I probably didn’t really care about at the time. I clearly craved some female-centered stories, because I also remember reading “Ulrica” around that time. Those two stories where the main reason I decided to give Borges another chance as a teenager. Now I’m grateful that his work is so vast—there is always something of his I’ve never read. Although let me be clear about one thing: there are great Borges readers in my country, and I’m not among them. I’m an average Borges reader at best.
I would introduce an award that targeted young underprivileged people, but it wouldn’t just be an award, because that wouldn’t be enough. It would require workshops, a whole initiative.
WWB: Who are some of your favorite Argentine writers, or writers who most influenced you, who were lost or forgotten in Borges’s shadow?
TT: I wouldn’t blame Borges for the lesser fame of writers like Norah Lange and Sara Gallardo—it was probably the patriarchy—but I’m glad they are being rediscovered. I hadn’t really read them until two or three years ago. I found books like 45 días y 30 marineros by Lange and Pantalones azules by Gallardo both refreshing and well crafted, invigorating and subtle. Macedonio Fernández was probably my favorite Argentine writer as a teenager and I sometimes feel that he was a sort of more obscure version of the most obscure Borges. But certainly Borges, who admired him greatly, would not have liked the idea that Macedonio was overshadowed by him.
WWB: Can you recommend some other young writers who are developing a new Argentine voice in their work?
TT: I’ll just name my top three: Inés Acevedo, Francisco Bitar, and Diego Materyn, who I think only published one book but it’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.
WWB: What are you working on now?
TT: I have another book of stories almost finished; they’re autobiographical stories, very in line with the last one in this book, but they are written in what I think is a more poetic voice, with a sort of freedom that would be unintelligible in one independent story but (I hope) kind of works when you build it into a whole book. I guess it could finally become that novel I wasn’t going to finish, but it helped me to think about it as another short-story collection.
I’m also working on a nonfiction book, a mix of journalism and personal essays on love and life from my generation’s perspective, using my outsider/insider status as an advantage (as a former Orthodox Jew I had to learn a lot about how “normal” people live and relate to each other). And I’m also trying to write a play, a monologue starring that neurotic nanny featured in the story “Lo que se me pregunta”—but for that one I only have six pages and lots of wishes.
WWB: If you could introduce a new literary award to stimulate underrepresented or overshadowed writers/writings (in Argentina or the world at large), what would it be?
TT: I think class—I’m talking about economic class—is probably the most important issue when it comes to representation right now. Luckily, there are a lot of female writers who are gaining recognition—and from all over the country, not just Buenos Aires or the bigger cities—but I know very few writers, male or female, who don’t come from the middle or upper classes. Writing takes time, and usually starting to write means having the possibility of buying books and being encouraged at a young age to do it. I think I would introduce an award that targeted young underprivileged people, but it wouldn’t just be an award, because that wouldn’t be enough. It would require workshops, a whole initiative. I think that’s what I would do. Not for humanitarian reasons, but for literary ones: I really want to read the books those men and women would write.
Tamara Tenenbaum was born in Buenos Aires in 1989. She has a BA in philosophy and works as a journalist for La Nación, La Agenda, Infobae, and other media. She teaches at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Universidad Nacional de las Artes. In 2017, she published Reconocimiento de terreno (Pánico el pánico), an autobiographical poetry collection. In that same year, she cocreated (with friends and colleagues Marina Yuszczuk and Emilia Erbetta) Rosa Iceberg, a publishing house devoted to books by women. Her first book of short stories, Nadie vive tan cerca de nadie, was awarded the Concurso Ficciones and will be published by a major Argentine publisher (negotiations are still in process). Find her on Twitter @tamtenenbaum.