Q: The narrator of The Polish Boxer shares your name and the entire novel has been described as semi-autobiographical. What does fiction allow that a memoir would not?
A: To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction. In other words, in my own work, I don’t see the difference between these two genres. I start writing from within, from myself, from my own experiences, but somewhere before the words hit the page they get shellacked with a coat of fiction. I can’t describe this process. And I don’t pretend to understand it. There’s something magical, and surreal, and intimate, and absolutely ludicrous about writing fiction.
Q: In “Twaining” you make a beautifully indirect case for the importance of humor, and throughout the book you explore improvisation in poetry, jazz, lovemaking, and spontaneous conversation. How important are humor and improvisation in your writing?
A: Both are very important. Humor, for me, although an escape valve, is also a means of being even more serious. And improvisation is the only way I know how to write. There’s a first moment, when I begin to write something, in which I’m only improvising. Or to be more precise, in which I’m riffing on a theme. I have an initial theme in my head, or an initial image, but I don’t really know where I’m headed with it. I just know that I have to go on. That I have to keep going. That I have to keep moving, to keep writing, to keep riffing, or the music will stop.
Q: You also studied Industrial Engineering at North Carolina State University before returning to Guatemala to teach literature. Does your engineering background have any influence on what—or how—you write?
A: That’s the second moment. Once the narrative is set down, the improvisation gives way to the engineer, who comes in and cleans it up, so to say. Tightens up the language. Strengthens the foundations of the story and its characters. Eliminates any weaknesses. So, as a writer, I’m still very much an engineer. It’s just that I’m an engineer of narrative, of stories, of language.
Q: Your work has been compared to Roberto Bolaño. Do you count him among your inspirations? Which other Latin American writers have been influential?
A: Bolaño came around at the exact moment when I was discovering literature, and more specifically, Latin American literature. I only read García Márquez and Vargas Llosa and Borges and the other canonical Latin American writers much later, and more for their historical value as great writers. But the first impact, as a reader, as a young Latin American, and as a would-be writer, was Bolaño. He was closer to us, nearer to my generation. He was writing more from our world, about our Latin America, with all its grittiness, and violence, and truthfulness. Another strong influence, although for different reasons, was Julio Cortázar. He was precisely what I wasn’t. More liberated, more irrational, more of a jazz virtuoso with language. That is, he showed me how to be less of an engineer. Less myself. He taught me not be afraid of that darker, bleaker, more sinister, more musical, irrational side.
Q: In the opening of the book, the narrator tries to show his mostly apathetic students how to find “the story within the story.” Was there a particular writer who first made you realize that stories run deeper than the words on the page?
A: There were quite a few. Mostly short-story writers. And mostly English language writers. I remember James Joyce’s Dubliners. Hemingway’s series of Nick Adams stories. John Cheever’s stories about the suburbs. Raymond Carver’s beautifully insulated stories. But before all of them, and after all of them, there was Chekhov.
Q: When asked why there aren’t more female short story writers on his syllabus, the narrator responds: “I gave her the same reply I give every year. There are also no black writers, Ligia, or Asian writers, or midget writers, and, as far as I’m aware, there’s only one gay writer. I told her that my courses were politically incorrect, thank God. In other words, Ligia, they’re honest. Just like art.” Is this just another way to rouse the students from their apathy or is there another reason for this provocative statement?
A: I’m sure there are a few reasons behind it. One, of course, is the dusting off of some of the typical freshman apathy toward reading and literature. Perhaps there’s also something in the statement about the subjectivity of a syllabus list, of drawing up our own little anthology of writers. But also, there’s a strong pedantic tone in the narrator’s response toward political correctness, toward trying to appease everyone at once—something that is impossible in life, and in art, and in writing. To write is to take a stance.
Q: Is taking a stance the responsibility of the artist?
A: I believe that the only true responsibility an artist has is to their art. Everything else—social, political, philosophical—is part of it. Of course. But only in an implicit way. If ever these become an artist’s direct and explicit responsibilities, he ceases to be an artist.
Q: Will readers hear more from any of the characters in The Polish Boxer?
A: I just finished a short novel titled Monastery, which is an offshoot of The Polish Boxer. It’s a continuation of the story of one of its characters. It takes place in Israel, and delves even deeper into my identity as a Jew who doesn’t want to be one. Or something like that.
Q: In a Jewish Week profile of novelist David Unger, he “explain[s] that most readers probably do not expect Jewish protagonists in their Latin American fiction.” Does this have anything to do with your own ambivalence?
A: I think my ambivalence precedes any readers. But David Unger has a point. I think most Americans still expect the same folklore from Latin American fiction, whether that folklore is magic realism, or political dictatorships, or the oppression of the indigenous peoples, or extreme poverty, or drug and border violence. Not Jewish protagonists. Jews belong in Eastern Europe literature, not in Latin American. Personally, though, I’m not interested in any pre-established folklore. I’m only interested in peeking where I’m not supposed to, in sticking my finger in the deepest wound, in throwing myself off the highest cliff.
Q: In “The Pirouette,” the narrator travels to Belgrade in search of a friend and falls in with a group of Serbian Gypsies. Do you find the Jewish experience of harassment and exile to be similar to what the Gypsies of Eastern Europe have dealt with, and are dealing with?
A: Yes, very similar. In fact, there’s a strong connection between these two in the book, especially in the friendship the narrator develops with the Serbian pianist. A friendship, in my opinion, based on common roots, on a common struggle with their identity, with their family history, with their people.
Q: In a wonderful Believer piece you explain the decision to write in Spanish, saying, “Maybe I write in Spanish because it was my first language, my baptism into words and their music. Or maybe it’s because I’m striving, in some ridiculously Freudian fashion, to find my way back to the innocence and tenderness and forcefulness of my youth.” Do you foresee ever telling a story that—somehow by its nature—would require you to write it in English (or a language other than Spanish)?
A: My literary language is Spanish. For now. That could change at any time, however. Either by chance, or by external conditions, or by subject matter. I could easily see myself writing in English, for example, about my growing up in South Florida. Although, now that I think about it, I’ve already written a very short story about our arrival in Miami, on the day of my tenth birthday, on the day of transition, so to speak, from one country to the other, from one language to the other. And I wrote that story in Spanish.
Q: You still spend a lot of time in Guatemala, just returned from living in Europe, and have lived in Florida, North Carolina, and Nebraska. What are some of your favorite—or most vivid—memories from these places? Do any of them feel like “home?”
A: I have very vivid memories from all of these places, but none of them, ever, felt like home. I guess my memories of the places I’ve lived in are similar to the memories a tourist brings back home after a trip. Almost like snapshots. Some better than others. Some clearer. Some out of focus. Some more nostalgic. But all just part of a big photo album that keeps getting bigger. I’ve yet to feel at home anywhere. Maybe that’s why I keep moving to new places. Maybe that’s why I write.
Q: How involved were you in the translation process?
A: For me, to watch my work being translated into English, was very difficult. At times painful. But at times also wonderful. I had to learn to let go, to trust my translators. And then, together, we had to learn how to dance.