Born in Caracas in 1945, the novelist Ana Teresa Torres is as much a storyteller as she is an intellectual, a typically Latin American duality familiar to any reader of Borges or Bolaño. She is a psychologist with a degree from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and has written several books on topics related to psychoanalysis, including El amor como síntoma (Love as symptom) (1993) and Territorios eróticos (Erotic territories) (1998), among others. One of the most established contemporary writers in Latin America, she received the Novel Prize from the Biennial Mariano Picón-Salas as well as the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Literature for her novel Doña Inés contra el olvido, which was subsequently translated as Doña Inés vs. Oblivion: A Novel by Gregory Rabassa and published in the US in 2000. She also received the Anna Seghers Prize, awarded in Berlin, for her body of work. Before moving to the first interview question, I cite a passage from her essay “Paisajes de novela” (“Novel Landscapes”): “I cannot speak about my relationship to novels without describing my encounter with them, and now, once and for all, I have gotten to the issue: in order to think about something I need to incorporate it into narration, tell it like an event, contain it within time; but, in what time does one read or write a novel? Beyond the fixed hours signaled by the clock, in what dimension do we find ourselves, when we are there, inside of its episodes? I do not have, of course, an answer. I am repeating the same question that I asked myself as a young girl: what I’m reading, when does it happen? What it says here, where does it happen? During childhood we propose mysteries that we will never manage to understand. As adults, on the other hand, we prefer to ask ourselves questions that have answers.”
Carmen Boullosa In my generation, in that closed circle in which I was trained, we writers arrived at the profession directly through our passion for literature. We didn’t receive training in any other profession. Ordinarily, we went along schooling ourselves in other arts. Your case has always intrigued me, since I began to read you, because despite the distance between us—let’s refer to it as the Panama Canal, if you agree—I find you very close to me, though you have a nonliterary background. You’re a psychologist as well as a writer. You’ve written:
I have the impression that I listen to characters speak. I couldn’t say if it is a habit, a method acquired through my work as a psychoanalyst, or if, on the contrary, became a psychoanalyst because I had developed the habit of listening. At any rate, I confess that the girl I have been talking about here has always had the bad habit of eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers in various places, a café, the bus, the line outside of a theater, a waiting room. I am interested in how people speak, what expressions they use, what they tell, what stories can be inferred from a fragment of their conversation, what hypotheses about their lives I can make.
This explains to the reader why you chose to study psychology, and it explains to me how you came to the novel. But tell us, how are your two professions related to one another?
Ana Teresa Torres I haven’t worked as a psychologist for 15 years, but I believe that there are several similarities between writing and psychoanalysis, my area of specialization. Primarily, the fact that psychoanalysis’ methodology is based exclusively on language, on the possibility of listening to the account of the other as a text that needs to be understood and somehow translated, in order to return to it with new meanings. Both analysis and writing also involve taking a certain attitude toward what we call “reality,” that is, a way of seeing and listening to the world that bestows it with a meaning allowing us to access it. All of that is a product of language, of human relations as narrations. My starting point is the idea that identity is nothing more than a narrative that we make of our own selves that originates in the narratives that others produce about us. So, when I write, I position myself before a minor fragment of reality that captures my interest—a story, an anecdote, a situation—and, from there, I seek to create a meaning that will unfold in the text. That’s how I have arrived at most of my novels. I’ll give you an example from the first one, El exilio del tiempo (The exile of time), which was published in 1990:
The day on which we were abandoning the house for good, I went up to my mother’s room before leaving; the windows were open and the voile curtain, swelled by the breeze, escaped in between the bars on the window like the extended hand of someone who was hurling it into time.
That’s the last sentence in the novel, but, actually, it is the initial image from which the entire text originated, and the one that I associated with leaving my childhood home.
CB I understand your line of reasoning: for a novelist language is much more important than silences. However, I should clarify that the power of your prose lies not only in its beauty, but also in the unsaid, in its capacity to leave open those spaces beyond language or a possible verbal explanation of the world. Continuing my question: since words are what hooked you (or what you hooked on to), why choose literature, and specifically, fiction, and novels instead of psychoanalysis? Why not settle on the real imaginary of flesh and bones people: on what you call “the narratives that others produce about us”? What does the genre offer you?
ATT For me, literature comes from being a young reader who found a sort of parallel reality in stories, something that, though lacking in my real life, I believed existed elsewhere. I was convinced that the first children’s stories I read were not fiction, which is an adult concept, but rather “something” that was happening in “some” place that I would access “some” day. This was my entry point into literature. I am thinking of the popular Brothers Grimm story “The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats.” I have written on the memory of that reading in my book of essays Poética de la novela (Poetics of the novel):
It should have been the long, boring afternoon of an only child. I am alone, in the absolute company of the picture book that someone has given me. It has a cardboard cover with large color illustrations. The narrative submerges me in a state of panic: there is not too much of a difference between the little goats that the wolf devours and me. I would like to scream at them to not open the door, to tell them that the wolf is lying and impersonating another. I am the impotent witness of a crime, of violence, of deceit. I firmly believe that what is happening is true. As true as the light that filters through the green plastic of the blinds. I try to cover the head of the wolf flashing his saliva-dripping fangs. I place my hand on the book’s pages, and the wolf disappears; I lift it, and he’s there again, definitely staring at me. I continue reading and, finally, the terror stops. I have been rewarded. The story ends well. The wolf is discovered, the little goats are saved, the mother returns. My mother enters the room and asks me if I have taken a nap.
This relates to my perspective on realist writing; I’m not interested in what really happens as much as in what I am convinced could actually happen. Pure fiction tires me somehow and, furthermore, I’m not sure if it even exists. Even the most fantastic story contains indicators of where it comes from. Anyway, I began to write because I wanted to make works of fiction like the ones I so enjoyed reading. I began, like many novelists, writing short stories, but after writing my first novel I practically abandoned that genre.
Today, the novel for me represents for me the possibility of creating and believing in other lives, in alternatives to the limitation of being each one of us. Writing novels is a way of being another, of living in an “other” place. I summarize this in the essay “To Be Several People at Once” in Por qué escriben los escritores (Why writers write):
The possibility of drawing up diverse scenarios and positioning within them those characters representing us in all of our variety. Not because they are parts of ourselves but because they represent the paths we did not follow, those possibilities we abandoned for so many reasons, perhaps simply because they were too much for us at a given time or seemed totally foreign. Through writing, those boundaries disappear and we can conceive of the situations that we momentarily desire . . . Fiction gives us that license, that gift of coexisting in space and time.
CB You’ve written that “memory is not an archive of verifications [. . .] How much verifiable reality is there in the reconstruction of memory? How much non-existent fiction is there in the invention? [. . .] Probably, when I create, I am remembering, inventing, and when I think I am inventing, I am recovering a forgotten experience.” This statement of yours makes clear your relationship to forgetting and memory, to history and its rewriting. What is the place of the novel in relation to this discussion? This brings up Doña Inés vs. Oblivion: A Novel, in which you cover 300 years in the life of a Venezuelan family. Can it be read as the novel of Venezuela, of a part of Venezuelan history?
ATT For a time I thought that the novel could rewrite history (in its sense as official, national story) and offer another perspective. This is probably true, yet today I see history as one of many other places where I find material for writing. And even history can refer to past history, as was the case in Doña Inés, for which I had to read many history books, and ongoing history, as was the case for Nocturama, for which I read newspapers, and above all, read about what the lives of Venezuelans are like as of late given the years of acute political confrontation in our country. I brought to Nocturama images of violence: the death of a teenager in a plaza, shot by an insane person, and the funeral march that a huge group of us followed, in absolute silence, while somebody in a building played the national anthem on a trumpet; the shootings in abandoned and invaded buildings; the toxic gas attacks against political demonstrators; the homeless people who live on the banks of the Guaire river, below the highways; and even the central story of the protagonist who wakes up without knowing who he is, as has happened in many cases when people are drugged in order to be robbed or killed. Nocturama is not a historical novel, but it places itself within present history. Better yet, it is fictionally composed through the unification of scattered facts.
History is a version imagined by professional historians, and the historical novel, or the novel based on historical events, is a version imagined by professional writers. Despite the fact that many critics have cataloged me as a novelist of memory, I see memory as an exceedingly fragile instance that is in constant revision. Nothing about what we remember is how it truly was, and even the same memory is bound to change with the passing of time. In other words, writing history and writing novels are strategies for creating imaginaries about the past, and those imaginaries are necessary, for without them, the past would remain empty, and so would part of our identity.
CB Does it make you at all uncomfortable that Doña Inés has been classified as a historical novel? To what degree is this novel, whose subplot is the history of Venezuela, a historical novel in the strictest sense of the term? To what extent is it not, and consists, from your authorial point of view, of the story of a particular family?
ATT It’s definitely a historical novel, or at least that’s how it has been classified, and it’s pointless to debate that—it fulfills the requirements of the genre. Now, whether it tells the story of a family or the story of a nation seems the relevant question. Of course, I conceived of it as a family story, so history was, as you so accurately say, a subplot. The big characters of Venezuelan history appear, but always in the background, and the fictional protagonists of the novel’s plot appear in the foreground. This is deliberate. I was tired then, and now more than ever, of the deification of our history, and the precarious treatment that the ordinary people who have, ultimately, constructed the country, consistently receive. In the novel I tried to paint a sort of fresco in which the characters appear in their different classes and castes, with their lawsuits, their confrontations, their hatreds and their loyalties. To that end, the strategy of focusing on the family saga was very useful because it allowed me to link facts, maintain themes, and also account for its unraveling with the passage of time. Because the novel covers an extended period of three centuries, it was necessary to connect to some of the fundamental facts of Venezuelan history. This is related in the novel through the possessions of the protagonist’s family; through the description of the destruction of their haciendas in the War of Independence, their subsequent partial reconstruction in the mid-19th century, and their expropriation by the government at the end of the 19th century; in the plummeting of the cocoa trade; and in the sale agreement reached between the inheritors of the land and the region’s mayor at the end of the 20th century, when the land’s value no longer depends on agriculture but rather on tourism. Another important theme is the incorporation of the dominated classes of the colony into the democratic life of the mid-20th century, which is narrated through a saga parallel to that of the landed class. It’s the saga of the slave family that progressively enters the world of citizenship, acquiring rights and even attaining political posts. The theme of women is also covered, as Doña Inés tells of the changes that are put into place from the time of her colonial life to the customs that she observes among 20th-century women. The entire story is narrated by her, in the voice of a ghost who travels through the centuries and sees from her own perspective, naturally, the transformations that take place.
The idea of searching out the stories of citizens and not heroes is what interested me then and still does. Of course, I’m not complying with the market here. The market reader in Venezuela wants the history of the heroes or the antiheroes, wants the novel to be “all that you always wanted to know about X that your history teacher didn’t tell you,” but that sort of recreation is not for me. Right now I’m writing a novel that could be classified as historical: it takes place in the 17th century and its main character is a woman who, if she ever existed, had her life erased by the annals of her own family. It’s a minimalist history, almost anecdotal. My narrative aims precisely to recreate her drama—that of a raped young woman, and, from the few available facts, imagine a development and outcome for her life.
CB You wrote in an essay:
With respect to them, the characters, two hypotheses. The first one, the most common, is the hypothesis of the double. The Other/reader will try to see in the character traces of the author. The disguises with which she has dressed her identity—where does she hide and which voice is hers? The second hypothesis is that of the witness—what voices does the author explain, what discourses has she picked up in her life, in her readings? What ghosts is she carrying and what expression does she want to give them so that they can, finally, speak? I recognize myself in both proposals.
What do you refer to when you say ghosts?
ATT I think I am referring to those characters, situations, and memories that have stayed behind in the inkwell, those to which we haven’t been able to give written form, and which remain as obsessions. More than anything else, what I was talking about in the essay you quote are particular obsessions, those unresolved matters that we writers have the audacity to believe can be resolved if only we write about them. They are highly important, as they produce the unique way in which each of us writes. In a way, they are connected to the term in the psychoanalytic sense because they are personal imaginaries pursuing us all of our lives. I quote a paragraph from my novel, Los últimos espectadores del acorazado Potemkin (The last spectators of The Battleship Potemkin) that perhaps illustrates one of my obsessions.
My brother died quite a while ago, and, of course, I’ve reconciled myself with the weight of his disappearance. But ever since his writings appeared in a shoebox, after I’d forgotten them, I’ve been tormented by a certain idea about the unfinished. Not that I want to assign it a gravity that it doesn’t have. The word “torment” suggests a suffering greater than what I am experiencing. Maybe it’s nothing more than the uncomfortable sensation that we are left with after a life ends, before life’s lack of transcendence and the impossibility of summing it up.
CB You have published an erotic novel. What was your literary interest in the topic? How do you feel about the published book?
ATT What happened with La favorita del Señor (The mister’s favorite) was not premeditated. It was one of the stories from my previous novel, Malena de cinco mundos (Malena of five worlds)—which centers on five women from different periods and places—but the voice of the protagonist had such force that it demanded its own space. It had an erotic tone and commanded a different treatment; I followed it, and it ended up being a separate novel. The erotic genre is not very common in Venezuela, even less so when written by women novelists (unlike poetry), so there was a lot of buzz around the book and it became a bestseller. A bookseller once told me that, if I wanted to sell, I should return to the subject, which I haven’t wanted to do.
CB Oscar Rodríguez Ortiz writes that “in the work of Torres there is this continuity with Venzuelan traditions,” and, after mentioning Rómulo Gallegos, he finds you “relatable to this swampy secret world that boils up in his fiction: terrors about racial mixes and the danger of incest.” This critic compares you with other Latin American writers, and with Faulkner, for whom “the national and historical consciousness are central subjects.” How would you describe your literary affiliations? You have said that Venezuelan literature is unknown outside of its geographical territory, even when it boasts magnificent authors. What classic Venezuelan authors do you accept as part of your writer’s family tree?
ATT I was surely influenced by Latin American authors for a long time, Fuentes, naturally, but also José Donoso, Fernando Del Paso, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Julio Cortázar. All of that great generation. Over time, I have gotten into other readings, other writings. I find it difficult to list what I read because of the very disorganized way I go about it, but off the top of my head some of the authors that have most interested me are the British writers Iris Murdoch, Kazuo Ishiguro, P. D. James, and Sarah Waters; the North Americans Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, and Paul Auster; and the Europeans W. G. Sebald, Imre Kertész, and Sándor Márai.
When Rodríguez Ortiz mentions Rómulo Gallegos he refers specifically to Doña Inés, which does describe scandals about racial mixes and other consequences. An important element in the novel is the matrimonial saga: how unions are produced, beginning with the colonial period when interracial marriages were prohibited, though in practice mixed unions abounded. This, naturally, was denied and covered up back then. Doña Inés says that her husband had a son by a slave, and that one of her daughters had an affair with a slave, and because of this she hid her away until she was certain that she was not pregnant. As time passes and transformations take effect, the prohibition disappears but is maintained as a prejudice. For instance: a descendent of Doña Inés, ruined and without suitors, marries a mulatto who has become a man of means during the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez (1905–1935), and, later on, maintains a romantic relationship for many years with a Jewish man, also challenging the prejudices of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, not only because of the adultery, but also because of the ethnicity of her lover. All of these plots about the construction of Venezuelan society are fundamental in Gallegos, and, there’s no doubt that his work is present in almost all of the Venezuelan novelists, whether they like it or not. I, however, don’t think that I have been much of a faithful daughter, and I should confess that I have not read him with enough continuity. Also, the Gallegan novel is fundamentally rural, while that of post-Gallegos writers is urban.
What connects us all to his work is the preoccupation with the national, the country as obsession, as ghost, as problem. If I consider my family tree, the author I relate to the most is Teresa de la Parra. There is a lot of history, a lot of “nation” in her work, but it is always presented through marginal, insignificant characters. When she wrote Ifigenia in 1924, the Venezuelan literary panorama was dominated by Gallegos and José Rafael Pocaterra, who dealt with the big national themes. On the contrary, Teresa embarks on writing about the life of a young woman who does not leave her familiar surroundings, although through her story we understand the effects of the dictatorship on society, society’s prejudices and economic shifts. Nowadays, I find that the topic of the national that so marks us Venezuelans is better expressed through minimalist subjects, in a concise language that is almost not literary. I, for my part, like to see the threads running through things, keeping track of how they are being transformed, but I can never return to previous projects. In part because I’ve deliberately sought this, but also because it wouldn’t work. You leave a part of yourself in each book, and you have to let it go.
Translated by Melissa González
—As a leading Mexican poet, novelist, and playwright, Carmen Boullosa is best known for her eclectic and enigmatic work. Author of over 12 novels in five different languages—including the bestseller They’re Cows, We’re Pigs—Boullosa has garnered numerous awards, taught at Georgetown, Columbia, and New York Universities and is currently Distinguished Lecturer at CCNY.