‘CRUDE WORDS’: Creating an anthology of contemporary Venezuelan writing
Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela, edited by Montague Kobbé, Katie Brown and Tim Girven (Ragpicker Press, 2016)
By Katie Brown, with an introduction by Rebecca DeWald
“Venezuelan literature?” you say? For many readers, Venezuela has not even been on a literary map of Latin America, let alone World Literature. For a simple reason: barely any of the country’s fiction and literary non-fiction has been translated into English up until now. No surprise then that the first ever anthology in English spans about 500 pages (though the font is reader-friendly, many stories quite short).
Although Katie Brown mentions in her editor’s introduction below that readers will be faced with stories about the difficult and often violent nature of life in Venezuela, the first few sections (‘The Art of Love: Sex, Porn & Conflict’, ‘Travels & Exile’ and even ‘Death & Transfiguration’) struck me as being full of life, lust, humour and the will to make the best of one’s situation. The anthology opens with sex: In ‘Corny or Porny’ (translated by Joanna Josefina Thomas), Gustavo Valle muses on the sentimentality of Venezuelans, resulting in a failed national pornography industry: “Venezuela clings with its last breath to non-explicit eroticism, a phenomenon attributable to the fact that we are a village of true romantics.” “Life is sweeter when it’s imprecise,” the opening line of ‘Corny or Porny’, is also the succinct summary of ‘Passion’ by Gisela Kozak (translated by Montague Kobbé) an erotic encounter of two ex-lovers, which makes the perfect companion piece to exemplify Valle’s assumption about the way in which Venezuelans love.
Sex, life, death, economics and literature are often interlinked: In ‘Literary Solutions to the Death of My Mother-in-Law’, Slavko Zupcic’s narrator (in Katie Brown’s translation) is faced with the death of his mother-in-law and the economic difficulties that arise from it. In order to get by, he acts the priest at funerals to pay for the undertaker’s bill. This gig – and an acute priest shortage – leads to the unordained priest being hired for weddings. The story is interspersed with him trying to sell the dead woman’s silverware, golden watch and fur coat in typical Gumtree-esque online exchanges. At the end, we’re wondering whether this is the account of ingenuity in hard times, or a literary mind experiment.
After having read about half the anthology, I had the feeling that I had been given a wide-ranging overview over contemporary Venezuelan literature, represented in a plethora of literary topics, techniques and devices. Although some of the stories have violent undertones, this is not at all what makes them stand out as worth reading. What I mean is: this is not a “worthy” tome for readers seeking literature to fulfil their need to empathise with people in poorer countries or who have been hard done by through political regimes – though it can be that. The editors managed first and foremost to bypass the cliché of portraying the country as paralysed after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chávez. Instead, they bring the multitude of Venezuelan life and culture to the foreground. The anthology furthermore stands out by bringing together a number of better and lesser known writers, but also better and lesser known literary translators, adding their own interpretations and voices to the story of Venezuela.
In my academic work, I often talk about Venezuela’s absence from the world literary field, a key symptom of which is the lack of translations of Venezuelan texts. While there have been attempts to remedy this absence online – notably the Voices from the Venezuelan City project by Palabras Errantes – according to databases compiled by The Three Percent, in the past eight years, only five Venezuelan books have made it into print in English translation. Two of these are works by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, who achieved a degree of international recognition after winning the Premio Herralde in 2006. A further two are labours of love by the Venezuelan-American translator Guillermo Parra, translations of The Select Works of José Antonio Ramos Sucre and The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who wanted to do something about this.
In 2011, Tim Girven and Jethro Soutar set up their own publishing house, Ragpicker Press, to release The Football Crónicas, featuring crónicas from across Latin America, in time for the 2012 world cup. When looking for a subject for Ragpicker’s next book, Tim thought about how little he knew of Venezuelan literature and decided it was time to change that. To give him an insight into what is currently being written in Venezuela he first brought in Montague Kobbe, a Venezuelan writer based in the UK, and then reached out to me. As well as a fantastic opportunity to share my strange Venezuela obsession, the whole process – from contacting writers and reading submissions to deciding the order of the texts and the translation itself – taught me an enormous amount about Venezuelans today.
The project began with contacting writers back in November 2014. We started by approaching all the authors we knew of and asked them to give us contact details of others. There is quite a close-knit literary community in Venezuela, with people like Héctor Torres working hard to support emerging talents through workshops and prizes. Through them we discovered exciting new writers including Miguel Hidalgo Prince, Héctor Concari, and Roberto Martínez Bachrich.
A fundamental aspect of the project for us was that the authors send us crónicas, stories or extracts from novels that they would like to see included rather than us choosing our favourites. This gave us a fascinating insight into what the authors themselves think is the most important aspect of their work. In the end we received over 100 pieces from more than 60 writers, covering a huge range from journalism and memoir to sci-fi and erotica. At times I was disappointed to receive terrible stories from authors whose novels I’d loved, but on the whole we wanted to publish far more than we had planned to, as evidenced by our now 500 page volume.
One of Tim’s original motivations in creating this collection had been to raise awareness of the difficult situation that Venezuela finds itself in, and so in our book you’ll encounter food shortages, police brutality and the all-pervasive fear of violent crime. The fact that at one point in the selection process I found myself exclaiming, “We can’t have four stories in one book about going to identify a corpse!” testifies to how the trip to the morgue at Bello Monte has become a horror experienced by far too many people in Venezuela today. But Venezuela is so much more than this, and we wanted the book to be, above all, a celebration of Venezuelan creativity and literary talent.
A primary concern in the selection process was how to avoid political bias. We did not want this to be perceived as – or indeed to be – merely an anti-Chávez text, yet most writers do not support the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution”. Our solution was to include pieces which contextualise the historical moment in Venezuela, describing issues in Venezuela long before Chávez and how he came to be so popular. Boris Muñoz’s ‘A Country Poles Apart’, for example, takes readers from the 1970s, when Venezuela was a democratic oasis among dictatorships through the rise of consumerism to the 1983 oil crash and the inflation, unemployment, and social resentment it brought with it. Elsewhere, Israel Centeno’s ‘The Expedition of the Dolls’ describes the chaos among the far left in the early 1970s, while Eduardo Liendo’s ‘Patriotic Stuff’ portrays two young soldiers on either side of the 2002 coup as essentially the same.
The book is divided into five sections: The Art of Love: Sex, Porn & Conflict; Death & Transfiguration; Travels & Exile; Caracas: City of Fraud & Fear and The State of the Nation (And How It Got to This). It’s unsurprising that travel and exile were such prominent themes, given that an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans now live abroad. The pieces presented here explore the difficulties of migrants starting a new live in Miami and those within Venezuela asking themselves whether to stay or to go. But they also remember Venezuela as a place of immigration, with stories about immigrants from Portugal (Freddy Gonçalves Da Silva’s ‘Chasing Rabbits’) and Germany (Francisco Suniaga’s The Other Island).
What struck me most when putting together this collection, however, was the importance of human relationships. This is obvious in ‘The Art of Love’, with stories ranging from a first crush in Eduardo Quintero’s ‘The Princess of Escurrufiní’ to a husband struggling with his menopausal wife in Miguel Gomes’s ‘Christina Cries at Three’. But it is also present throughout the book: the death, the fear and the politics is always understood through bonds of family or friendship.
In this way, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, who wrote our foreword, sums up the book better than I ever could:
The country breathes in these pages; but so do many other (possible) countries, many other realities and many other ways of speaking them. A country that lives besieged and a country that tries to find itself in exile; a country of endless problems and a country that recognizes itself in its pleasures; a country –above and beyond any economic or social indicator, beyond any utopia too– that continues writing itself from the perspectives of fear, of death, but also from that of sex, or from that of love. It is, definitively, a country written from the perspective of its wounds, a country that has more questions than statements.