Escaping the Realism Trap, or Why I Write in Spanish

stop making sense

At readings or in interviews, I am inevitably asked: “If your first language is English, why do you write in Spanish?” The underlying implication, it often seems, is that one should write in one’s mother tongue, and that it is almost unnatural that one doesn’t (Steiner writes of this historical suspicion of polyglots and translators in After Babel). Another implication is that, as the literary market for English is so much larger than the corresponding one for Spanish, I am effecitively shooting myself in the foot by choosing to write in the latter: a sort of literary malinchismo writ large. There are, in fact, a lot of reasons why I choose to write in Spanish. The first and foremost of those is that I live in Mexico and am a naturalized Mexican citizen. The second is that writing in a language that is not originally my own allows me a distance from myself, a capacity for reinvention, which is fundamental for breaking through the solipsist lurking just beneath the surface of any writer. The third is that the act of writing in another language forces me to write more slowly, more contemplatively, rather than skimming along the surface of my native tongue. Fourth, Spanish is a beautiful language with an eminent literary history all its own that I am proud to be a very small part of.

And here’s another reason. In a recent article for The Observer entitled, “Experimental Fiction: Is It Making a Comeback?”, William Skidelsky, himself paraphrasing Zadie Smith, writes that in healthy times, the realist and the avant-garde literary traditions would “comfortably coincide” (I find that in itself far too neat, but let’s continue for the sake of argument). But these clearly aren’t healthy times, as evidenced by the fact that, in the anglophone world, the realists rule the roost: “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Skidelsky continues, “The well-made realist novel, inherited from the 19th century, is what we are stuck with now, and even if we aren’t excessively fond of it, it seems to be pretty much all we have.”

This sort of realism (the kind that, as Cortázar writes, that smugly continues to believe that everything can be described and explained within the parameters of Enlightenment philosophy), stifles me. In fact, I have recently taken to composing a series of Aphorisms Against Realism on my Facebook and Twitter pages in order to explain both to myself and others exactly why that is. When I pick up an issue of Harper’s or The New Yorker to read the short story, I do so by force rather than volition: unless the issue happens to be dabbling in a bit of Latin-American “exoticism” by a Bolaño or the like, I hold my breath and go back in the windowless, airtight rooms just to see if something, anything has changed since I left. In today’s anglophone world, the fate of genuine literary creativity, more often than not, are the ghettos of what is known, pejoratively, as genre fiction.

Fortunately, this trend does not necessarily hold for the rest of the world. As Skidelsky points out, “[t]he assumption that genuine experimentation is no longer possible is in many ways a parochial quirk of the anglophone world. Things are very different, for example, in Latin America, where anti-realist techniques have long been part of the mainstream…” I recently finished Adolfo Bioy Casares’ masterpiece La invención de Morel and was blown away by the visionary and philosophical fantasy wedded to the most precise, the most literary, the most scientifically realistic of language. Yes, the novel was written back in 1940. Yes, America has had its Barths, its Pynchons and its Vonneguts since then. But it’s funny: just as our technology traps us ever more in its virtual world – precisely as Morel’s invention does to Bioy’s fated protagonist – mainstream anglophone literature has chosen to enclose itself atavistically in a throwback trap: the positivism of a bygone world. I put down Bioy Casares’ novel and, wrapped in the glow of the awestruck reader, said to myself: I’m home.

P.S. To be fair, Skidelsky’s piece mentions a series of current anglophone authors writing experimental fiction (the fact that it’s called “experimental” showing in and of itself how much realism rules), among them Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which I went right out and bought. I’ll share my comments in a future post.

Aforismos anti-realistas / Aphorisms Against Realism


1.) El realismo es el derviado del fracaso de la imaginación. / Realism is the by-product of the failure of the imagination.

2.) El realismo es una asfixia voluntaria. / Realism is a voluntary asphyxiation.

3.) El realismo es la tentativa de tapar el siglo veinte con un dedo. / Realism is an attempt to pretend that the twentieth century never happened.

4.) El realismo es una choza de lámina en medio de un vendaval. / Realism is a tin shack in the midst of a gale.

5.) El realismo es reacomodar los muebles y creerse en otra sala. / Realism is rearranging the furniture and believing oneself to be in another room.

6.) El arte imaginativo crea, produce, conoce. El realismo, en cambio, recrea, reproduce, reconoce. / Imaginative art creates, produces, cognizes. Realism, in contrast, recreates, reproduces, recognizes.

7.) El realismo es una reclusión voluntaria en el carcel de los sentidos. / Realism is a voluntary reclusion in the prison of the senses.