A very nice negotiation: An interview with Uriel Quesada

I interviewed Uriel Quesada at an uptown coffee shop. Our conversation began the moment I joined Quesada at his table — he’s a dynamic speaker, very animated, excited to talk as much about himself as everything outside of himself. The interview began after a brief chat about his novel, El gato de si mismo, which is currently being translated into English as Miss Fortune Lets the Cat Out.

[Editor’s note: Both Quesada and Engram Wilkinson will be reading for The Waves Reading Series at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28, at Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.)  In addition to Quesada and Wilkinson, Cassie Pruyn, Amelia Hess, and Anya Leonhard will also be reading.]

Rm220: How involved are you in the process of your own work being translated?

UQ: I’m very involved. My translator, Amanda Powell, has translated mostly poetry written by nuns. I’m the first writer she is translating who is not a nun and who is not dead, so the relationship is different. Translation is a very nice negotiation. Miss Fortune Lets the Cat Out is full of secret jokes and innuendo, so the negotiation is also a cultural negotiation about how to make references readable by a new audience, particularly an American audience.

Rm220: How do you feel about the new, or renewed, interest in Latin American literature in America?

UQ: What I see different now are things like university presses like the University Arizona or UT Austin publishing Latin American fiction or poetry in very important numbers. You also have several independent presses translating and publishing world literature, but with an important number of Latin American writers, which is the first step toward an introduction for this audience.

I still feel when you publish with a university press that the media is unaware of those books. We don’t see much information about them at the time of publication. The American market is unique in many ways. It is the largest, but it also provides the fewest translations to its readers. The market in Spain, however, 40% of its total market is translations. The U.S. is still around 3%.

Rm220: In Queer Brown Voices, you write: “…the activist goes through an experience of (re)discovery of what it means for him or her to be a Latina/o.” Do you find this process of rediscovery can act as a logic for writing as much as activism?

UQ: I think that kind of negotiation is especially important when you’re talking about minorities. Acknowledging you are a minority, that’s a negotiation. Some people sometimes prefer not to do this and play by what they think the rules are, but this always leads to crisis because of what this country is. For me, as an immigrant, that identity has been negotiated from day one. I didn’t have a Costa Rican community here. I don’t have a Costa Rican community. What I have is a community formed by three or four people and their families, which is different from people who are just arriving from abroad.

About activism, you start making connections and acknowledging differences–in terms of Queer Brown Voices, you think about what it means to be brown. In reality, the moment I open my mouth, people know that I’m different. People ask me questions about differences. You develop strategies to deal with that. You start connecting those experiences with what will be activism. Activism takes on several different forms. Of course, what we think of activism is, in most cases, people on the street protesting, but I think that writing is also a form of activism.

Rm220: Could you say more about that?

UQ: Queer Brown Voices is basically bringing to the reader, making available, a story that not many know, or an experience that not many know, and the collection creates an opportunity for the activist to have a platform to be visible again, or to remain visible in some cases.

Rm220: I’m thinking a lot about what you said about translation earlier and creating new audiences. It sounds like you’re suggesting that writing-as-activism is its own form of translation, in that you’re translating marginal experiences to and for an audience.

UQ: I agree. After so many years, a writer in Queer Brown Voices, Wilfred Labiosa, writes in Spanish as a political statement. That can be a difficult negotiation. With the collection, the authors’ language needed to allow us to do this kind of translation. Writing in Spanish can be an activist’s statement.

Rm220: Before I came over, I was re-reading your story, “Behind the Door,” which is very associative. It plays on a particular type of realism, one rooted in psychology. Could you talk about the obligation for fiction to address the psychological, if you think fiction is obligated like that?

UQ: That story is from a period of experimentation from my 20s. In the story, there are several layers. There’s this idea of playing with something that is never what you think it is. This also becomes a trick of memory that raises the question of dying. What do you do when you’re dying? What do you remember? Nobody knows. It’s all a myth, and I’m playing with myths. For me, form is very important. Short stories are great because they allow you to try very new things without killing the reader. You cannot do what you do in some stories in the novel form. The novel follows a different logic.

Rm220: Writing is itself a kind of translation of experience. But it seems you’re suggesting that fiction owes itself to fractures in storytelling, or these kinds of ‘unreal moments,’ more than a straightforward, linear type of storytelling.

UQ: That approach, the ‘realistic’ approach is common. Many great writers use it, but for me, it is better to find something that is not like that. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I prefer short stories. I want to find something new and provocative not only in the plot itself but also in the way the plot is delivered.

Rm220: What question about writing are you not often asked that you want to be asked?

UQ: What does it mean to write in a language other than English in the United States? Let me tell you why it’s important, because it’s also part of a process or change. When you’re living in a different country for many years, you start losing your connections with what used to be your country. Writers, in many countries, have to be busy. They have to be available. They have to go to places, give interviews. When your network shrinks, you become like a ghost.

There are some people who invest in having a presence abroad. I was never able to pay the price of maintaining two sets of identities. You have to travel constantly, and the more you live in one place, the less you know about all others. There is also an expectation that I’ll start writing in English. Queer Brown Voices is very American. I talk to people in other countries about the book, and they don’t get it. They don’t understand the challenges of writing in English. So the question becomes, what does the language transition mean for you?

What about another question? Are you a gay writer?

Rm220: Do you want to talk about that?

UQ: Being a gay writer is the beginning of a conversation. “Gay writer” is not a fixed category.  As a gay person, I have a different approach to literature and to writing not only because of my experience, but also because of how I see the world.

Mainstream media wants differences to disappear. “You are like everyone else,” they say. I don’t think that people are exactly the same. My generation was the AIDS generation. Now people don’t care. It’s a chronic disease instead of a deadly one. This makes things different. Good gay writing has an ethical approach to writing and to being human that is different, that doesn’t flatten, that doesn’t say we are exactly the same. This is also true when you are an immigrant or Latino. It’s not the same.

Talking to someone who is second- or third- generation, they expect differently. Their sense of joy is different. Things happen when you’re part of a minority. You see things differently. You see the American experience differently, and the way minorities see that differently is different between them as well.