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Luisa Valenzuela

Luisa Valenzuela. Photo by Jerry Bauer © 1983.
Luisa Valenzuela is and always has been unafraid to be a woman who writes biting political
satire that is also highly charged erotic literature, all this in her “phallocentric” country of
Argentina. Nothing, however, has more value for Luisa Valenzuela than memory. Perhaps
because the governments her country has survived so often try to rewrite its history, imposing a
collective amnesia on the people. The daughter of writer Luisa Mercedes Levinson, Luisa
Valenzuela grew up under Peronism in the ‘50s within Buenos Aires’ most important literary
circle, the world of Borges and Sábato, Bioy Casares, and local poets and publishers, who gave
her the opportunity to have her first short story printed when she was eighteen. To date, she has
published five collections of stories, among them, Up Among the Eagles , Strange Things
Happen Here , and The Heretics ; and six novels: He Who Searches , Clara , The Lizard’s Tail
and the upcoming Black Novel with Argentines have been translated into English. Just before
Christmas, Ms. Valenzuela was visiting New York. In Buenos Aires at that time, there was a brief
attempt at a military coup. Meanwhile, demonstrations continued against President Carlos
Menem’s impending pardons to the generals who, during the Dirty War of the 1970s, were
responsible for the tortured deaths of at least 9,000 people. Against this background, we began
talking about her first short story, “City of the Unknown,” which opens with a girl’s discovery of
a man who possesses “a voice that could raise the dead.”
Linda Yablonsky If you could raise the dead, who would you go after?
Luisa Valenzuela Cortázar and Borges. First Cortázar, because he had such an inventive mind.
And perhaps many more, out of my heart…Cortázar had an eye for things you couldn’t see at
first glance.
LY You were only 17 when you wrote “City of the Unknown,” and yet it has such a mature
sexuality and a very developed imagination.
LV My imagination was very developed then. I don’t know about the maturity.
LY Was that story based on a particular longing, or incident?
LV What happens when you revive the dead? That was the question that triggered the whole
LY Terrifying idea, actually. You bring it up again in Up Among the Eagles.
LV That’s much later, Eagles was written ten years ago.
LY In that story, it’s not that the dead are being revived, but that they’re very present.
LV The dead are present in life, constantly.

the more distance there seems to be. The economic problems. verbs are always handled in the same tense. I don’t think. If you say nothing happened. LV Except. because they are very hungry at this point. one of which is time. LY Literally. and the older you get. you can’t move. sometimes. and it pops up in different stories. but at least there is liberty. decidedly. hungry? LV Literally hungry. LV I’m very worried about memory. Is the mirror lying? LY We’re running out of a lot of things. It finally has to do with reviving the dead—which is again. there’s a lot of talk about controlling time. LY It’s so strange. about the fact that you tend to repeat the past if you ignore it. LY Do you worry about aging? LV Oh yes. This is something that has been in the back of my mind for ages. as everybody else. There’s no notion of a past or future. These two stories of yours were written years apart and yet they both share this sense of stopping time to keep things the same. You have to accept the time law as we know it. so nobody says too much for fear of getting the military back. can be solved one way or the other. LV It’s a different concept of time—The Iroquois. so there’s all this story of pardons and amnesties for the generals implicated in the tortures. don’t have tenses. and many other native American languages. the image you see in the mirror and your self-image being so totally different. creating history by recording events and people: the sense that without the record. and what do people have to say about it? LV The people have to say everything they can. And Argentina’s always trying to obliterate your memory. But I insist that you can’t simply obliterate memory. time keeps getting compressed. LY In what direction do you think the Argentinean government is going. But anything is better than another military coup. time would stop. It is a very strange government: playing the game of the populists—and having an extremely right-wing capitalistic . And I get furious—except that the more you live. the other impossibility. the more you realize it’s so much in your mind.LY You say that if we stopped writing. which would be worse. history would stop. as if one could make a clean slate of past horrors. if they can. you catch yourself in the mirror being who you think you are. there would be no history. You cannot kill the memory or revive the dead. In Up Among the Eagles. aging and not aging.

One day. It’s just fantastic. they knew languages. Only the enemy hasn’t come for two centuries. it’s a question of power. I once gave a talk at West Point. not much nowadays. I would know that you all wanted to be President. because the enemy will come. translated Dante—they were very intelligent. and suddenly. so there are strict military rules in this fort. But they can’t recognize that reality. so obvious that there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s impossible for them to be calm. the Italian writer? It takes place in a military post. That fascinates me. it’s that everything’s being denounced everyday. . there is only desert. There was this military uprising the other day and people thumbed their noses at the fighting. The military of the last century were the cultured people. It’s very disturbing. We are no longer afraid. All this has to do with the phallocracy. LY How can they? LV They verbally insult them. out of my mouth. I said. They are using a very obvious double standard and very obvious lies. If I were in Argentina. It’s not that you can’t denounce anything. He is shot and killed because they had to create something to justify their existence. Nothing happens.” (laughter) Because they all want to take charge. a frontier bordering the so-called desert of the Tartars. What is this madness called power? Did you read the Desert of the Tartars by Dino Buzzati. “I don’t understand what you are all doing here.policy. I’m not a dogmatic feminist. And little by little. We’ve seen too much during the dictatorship. It used to be the upper classes. without thinking. LY Really? You didn’t! LV I was talking in front of all these West Point cadets. here. and there is no enemy. The minute the rebellious military tries something they get horrible abuses from the public. because you know they’re not calm. I suppose people who go into the military now—except for the poor. who have nothing else to do but join—are those who believe they are the owners of the truth and are ready to impose it by force. And they are all the time waiting for the enemy to come. You see more in the streets of New York. LY What sort of people in Argentina become members of the military? LV There is an odd historical situation here. One time a bunch of dissident military tried to take over the city airport and the people who were going on their vacations pushed them out of the way. LY Have you personally been confronted with a lot of violence in Argentina? LV No. Things in Buenos Aires seem calm. they got more dogmatic. so everything has lost its value. somebody goes out and when he comes back refuses to announce the codeword. LY Would you consider yourself any kind of feminist? LV I’m a born feminist. Life goes on and private citizens don’t allow this to stop them anymore. they went to important military academies.

Yes. I believe in the sacred aspects of life and that level of thinking. I noticed you don’t give names to a lot of people in your stories. myself. the sacred and the profane. the canvas of events that surround it and give it another dimension. the sacred couldn’t exist without the profane. I lived here for quite a while—eleven years. LY I was just going to ask you. LV Yes. in general. and Borges and Sábato. LV But there is a sense of the sacred in the world. But this is pure chutzpah. My mother organized paid lectures and readings in our home so that these writers could earn a living. So all of these writers were out of a job because they’d been censored and kicked out of work. . I wanted to be a mathematician. This is a very Oriental concept. So I went into journalism. Literature seemed so passive and ironically.LY But are the citizens armed? LV No. Westerners don’t know about dualities. they were practically all very apolitical. LY And what were your first forays into journalism? LV Travel pieces. but I thought there had to be some action in all this. but not of any religion. LY The title of one of your novels is He Who Searches and there’s definitely a seeking in your writing. and there was no action. Ironically. and I thought it was very fascinating. LY All of your stories in Strange Things Happen Here start with some human intimacy that grows in the historical context. I read a lot about religions. Some are. I didn’t think I was political at all. LY So. LY Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you grew up? LV It was a very literary house. I hope not. Yes. You don’t know how much of an explorer a writer is when you’re young. you cannot separate one from the other. unfortunately. but not for me. you’ve picked up a little New Yorkese. I had always wanted to be an explorer. an artist or a painter—anything but literature. because this was during Peronist times. But I don’t believe in God. I see. in nature. LY Are you religious at all? LV No. LV There’s a seeking in my life. you move. simultaneity. In journalism. and all these big shots in Argentine literature—were there very often. Bioy Casares—mainly Borges.

I don’t want to put this burden on certain characters. . A narrative line will make all these things pop out in the open. that I’m hearing what really goes on in your mind. And suddenly. I realized I couldn’t read that one. LV Because the narrative itself makes the good connections. never. LV It was so self-defeating. You have to go through that phase. in a sense. The narrative per se knows more than what the writer knows or whatever has been told to you. LY “The Censors” really twisted me up inside. I started reading “The Best Shod” (in which the beggars of Argentina. now I’ve learned. triggered either by something I was told or something I overheard. . because I need the physical act of writing. Seen from a distance it’s a metaphor. Feeling guilty for not writing . LY So what do you spend most of your time doing? LV Daydreaming. It’s a collective mind. You will discover them while you’re writing. such a male story in a sense. LY I feel when I’m reading your stories. So much of it had really happened. even when you’re talking about people outside yourself. a name is a very heavy burden. Not because it would be censored. I think. That book (Strange Things Happen Here) wasn’t censored because God knows. it’s no longer a metaphor. LY I’m sure they don’t. . LY Do you spend most of your time writing? LV I wish I did. Worrying.LV These stories were written very quickly. Sometimes. I wanted to make them archetypal . but it’s not the same. Whatever has been told to you is full of holes and omissions and things that are hidden. LY Do you ever use a tape recorder? LV No. LV I’m glad it comes out in translation. LY Your writing has a very strong interior voice. the proper associations. become the best-shod beggars in the world). censors don’t have a sense of humor. but at the other end. Now I’m using a computer at times. I write generally with a fountain pen. Some don’t need a name. . . and they asked me to read any story. LV They were doing a video two months ago in Argentina. It’s almost as if you’re whispering under your breath. I can’t. but because it’s so painful. helping themselves to the plethora of new shoes worn by the dead bodies lying around them. that obsession. much stronger than whatever is on the narrative’s surface. That’s what fascinates me about writing.

And the narrative reconstruction builds this whole edifice again and there you have prophecy. no. LY You’re very sharp with the political satire. I do with my lectures. I had a writers’ workshop in English. . least of all in politics. LV To life. I don’t. LY Are you saying you think things have definite beginnings and middles and ends. This is an American operation! LY Have you ever thought about going into politics? LV Oh no—oh no! The only thing I do with politics is denounce whatever’s going on at that horrible level.LY Do you live on your writing? LV No. LY To life. because the narrative needs a chain. People are around. serendipity. I don’t believe in darkness. in general. and other things. in fact. Otherwise. because that is a real narrative. whatever is hidden or forgotten or not said. I have a part-time dog. And the narrative is then cut into pieces of time and place and convenience. LY What’s your home life like now? Are you living alone? LV I’m living alone. and I’m living in the middle of a park. but it’s scary because I sometimes become prophetic. I’m surrounded by wonderful. Things are linked—there is a chain. so to speak? Or is life continuous? LV There is a continuum. I find that art puts two and two together—that’s all. . very nice old trees. it’s sheer luck. And that chain can be seen in the narrative. But nothing pops up out of the blue. LV I know I’m sharp. LY What did you teach here? LV Funny enough. We don’t live in a plotless novel. it obeys a narrative order. The novel of our lives has a very rich plot! And the only thing a writer does is follow that plot as best she can. I think it’s the worst . LY Do you teach in Argentina also? LV No. and there are links to things. You have everything. . And again. LY Do you find that life imitates art in this case? LV No. There always is a narrative.

a very gutter-like book. I need my privacy more than anything else. LY What made you move back to Argentina? LV New York was becoming too hectic. LY But not a man? LV Oh. But then it becomes . in all senses. Life has another dimension. Everything that comes into your life has something to do with another. I thought that in a sense I was writing a farewell to New York. There’s this conflict.LY You never feel lonesome? LV No. LV It’s very strong. took me five years and it was very hard to write. So when you’re reading the novel. really hard stuff. I don’t like to be invaded. there is a voracity. It was hard to write. LY Vampirism? LV Yes. And then I travel all the time. LY Well. LY You did? LV Yes. LY You don’t miss the intimacy of a family? LV My daughter’s around. I always quarreled with my men. LY Oh. you’re inside this other situation. It’s like being in a trance. I was dreaming in English. I don’t know. Although I can see your anger on the page. there is vampirism when you’re in your novel. with very. . yes. I like it. so it has to do with writing. . I feel invaded easily. My novel. and it has to do with the S&M scene in New York—with all the boundaries you cross. I was often quite violent. Black Novel with Argentines. LV Yes. You wouldn’t believe it. because when I write I become a vampire. And there is a crime. It is a very dark piece. friends are around all the time. I can’t wait to read it. It takes place in New York. it’s a search. Things are as they are. I was thinking in English—I didn’t want that anymore. very deep unconscious levels. and again. I didn’t want to write it half the time. I suck cold blood from anything for a novel. not a search for criminals but a search for the more motive of the crime. . yeah. sometimes. no—not sitting here. When I’m writing a novel there is a different state. it has to do with confusions. And there are two Argentine writers. so then I write this other one (National Reality from the Bed) very quickly.

I saw myself absolutely caught in this trap. I said: this is not true! I need to respond to the first principle of pataphysics. . LY It abandons you? Oh! LV That’s it. And I ran away. it abandons you. And here I was. and everything was so desperate. A novel has to have a life of its own. LY Could you compare the attitude toward work between New York and Buenos Aires. taking things seriously. and things had to be done perfectly all right. This is one of the reasons I left. This is when you know you are writing well. —Linda Tablonsky is a freelance writer living in New York. yes. She is currently writing a novel called That We Live and a performance piece called We Are Not They.LY How do you know when to end it? LV Oh. that says you never have to take serious things seriously. So I left. and I started believing this New York thing. say? LV Oh. Because I started believing in workaholism. And you feel awful sometimes.