This fall, I got the chance to converse via email with Mariana Enriquez, an Argentine writer whose newly translated story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, was one of my favorite books of 2017. Comprising 12 tales that straddle the line between urban realism and hardcore, sometimes truly shocking horror, they bring the reader into the darkest reaches of Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside, a netherworld of street kids, witches, satanic shrines, and the still-haunted sites of past atrocity. A writer whose affinity for the horror genre is matched by the intensity of her social consciousness, Enriquez was kind enough to answer my questions about Argentine literary history, the occult nature of totalitarian regimes, the evil pleasures of Clive Barker, and much more.
–David Leo Rice
David Leo Rice: One aspect of your stories that I really admire is how they inhabit specific urban or suburban settings, and yet build from there toward realms of horror that touch on the supernatural. I love art that sits uneasily on the border between real and imagined, or waking and dreaming, and yours does this very successfully. Is this a line that you are consciously seeking while you work? If so, why do you think such potent horror is to be found in these border-places?
Mariana Enriquez: Yes, it is something I look for. My stories are quite rooted in realistic urban and suburban settings and the horror just emanates from these places. Some places in cities and especially in the suburbia of Latin American cities—that is, in the slums and poor neighborhoods around the cities, I guess it’s very different from the concept of suburbia in North American cities—have a special feel to them related to their history.
For example, in my stories I often use a river south of Buenos Aires, el Riachuelo, a polluted, ugly place that marks the border of city and suburbia and is also a symbol of corruption and greed because irresponsible industries contaminated it. Many of them are industries related to meat, and meat is a very Argentinian “thing.” So the river is a metaphor but also a geographical border. And when I take that into literature, that border appears in the frontier between realism and the fantastic, that not-so-comfortable place where you recognize the setting and the words but reality dissolves into something sinister.
I always find that the most interesting (and scary) horror lies in these kinds of narratives, the ones that work along this line. I like imaginary or more “classic” tales, but I don’t find them fierce or powerful anymore. I just enjoy them aesthetically.
DLR: As a related question, do you think cities and countries grow more haunted, and more potentially supernatural, when repressive and violent regimes are in power? Is there something occult about political violence? Argentina certainly has a history of violent governance, and as the US moves ever further in the same direction, this is an area I find myself pondering. How can writers find fresh ways of expressing the everyday horrors that are so quickly normalized by the population as a whole?
ME: Well I don’t think America is heading there, thankfully, even with an irresponsible president. The thing is that America contributed to or created certain horrors in countries where it launched its fucked up foreign policy. Like, say, Operation Condor in Latin America, where it gave help with intelligence and resources to dictatorships. But aside from politics and history (something that I really care about, which is normal being a middle class Argentinian from a politically aware family), I think political violence leaves scars, like a national PTSD. The military here launched the stuff of nightmares: they disappeared people, common graves, bones unidentified. The concentration camps were sometimes military spots or police stations, but others could be schools shut down for the purpose of holding prisoners. People were thrown from planes. Children were kidnapped from their parents and given to other families.
There’s something about the scale of the cruelty in political violence from the estate that always seems like the blackest magic to me. Like they have to satisfy some ravenous and ancient god that demands not only bodies but needs to be fed their suffering as well.
Of course this happened a long time ago, but there’s still a shadow. And the shadow has many forms. One of them, and sometimes I think it’s the most atrocious, is the people that, nowadays, think the dictatorship and its brutality were necessary to defeat the “internal enemy.” Nowadays we have a democratic president (I don’t like him but hey, politicians are horrible worldwide), but the shadow of the past lingers. And we keep on not being able to fix police brutality, inequality, abject poverty, so there’s this sense of frustration.
Readers get horrified when they read one of my stories, with a child that lives in the streets, for example, but the truth is that they see children like that everyday. Many of them, sleeping in doorways, hungry, filthy. But when they read it, they ask how can I go so far. The truth is, I don’t go far at all. That child in the story seems like an exception, but he’s not. So yes it’s normalized on a surface level, but not really.
When fiction does the trick of moving people, it’s like they can look at it again. I normalize it too of course: you can’t empathize all the time; you’d go crazy. So I guess I write to de-normalize it for me too.
“There’s something about the scale of the cruelty in political violence from the estate that always seems like the blackest magic to me.”
DLR: When you talk about the PTSD that can haunt a society after the political horrors you described above, is there a related aspect to this haunting by which the sites of atrocity become fertile ground for fiction, such as the inn that used to be a police academy in “The Inn”? Is it perhaps part of a horror writer’s job to seek out these places and let their tortured spirits speak? Could this be a way of taking some power back from the “ravenous and ancient god” you mention?
ME: I read a lot of psychogeography when I was younger. I believe in the spirit of places. Places where something horrible happened feel like places where something will happen again because they are haunted. They are marked. Places are characters to me. In general, I don’t think you can take the power back, not completely, but you can break the silence. I don’t know if that’s empowering.
DLR: It’s a fascinating phenomenon that highly specific descriptions of places that the reader has never been to (I’ve never been to Argentina, for example) can still have a profound and personal effect on a reader, much more so than less specific place-descriptions can. How is this possible? What does it mean?
ME: Objects and places last longer than people and to me it’s very interesting to think that they have memory and are characters and can act on their own agenda. I think about specific place descriptions—they make the story you’re telling more vivid, not just more believable. You can feel the narrator was really there. He is taking you to these places he knows well. We are connected, we crave the unique, the specific.
DLR: I’m interested in the relationship between brevity and the uncanny. I’ve noticed that many great Argentine writers, both contemporary—yourself, Schweblin, Aira—and classic—Ocampo, Bioy Casares, and of course Borges—tend to write short stories or very short novels dealing with ineffable, uncanny, or inexplicable subject matter. Do you think that there is a special power that short prose has to deal with this range of phenomena, which a long novel might lose? If so, what is it?
ME: Well, traditions work that way. There’s an Argentinian tradition of the uncanny and the short story, and these are the people we read at school, so it’s the first stuff you read and it sticks. The influence is unavoidable. But taking it from another angle, I think there are elements of tension and surprise that work better in short fiction. The work with language is different: more dreamlike, a bit closer to poetry. That’s quite hard to maintain in a long novel.
DLR: Also, do you see yourself in the tradition of the Argentine writers mentioned above? If so, what common thread, either artistically or culturally, do you take from them? I know you’ve written a book on Ocampo, whose work I love as well. What have you taken from her in terms of your own development, and also how would you say that your work is most different from hers?
ME: Yes, I don’t think you can escape that. It’s very difficult to even mention the influence of Borges because he was such a monster, but what I always loved about him was his lack of prejudice. He loved Bradbury. He dedicated a short story to Lovecraft. He invented magical beings. China Miéville, whom I really like, based one of his novels on a little fantasy piece by Borges. My love of mythology comes from him, although he was into European mythos mostly, and I really like “translating” that into our own local pantheon. I love Silvina Ocampo, her crazy women, her humor. And Cortazar. I think he was the first one to use recognizable urban settings in our literature.
The thing is that all of them were very upper class people. Ocampo was a millionaire; her family still owns land everywhere. Same with Bioy. Cortazar was the child of a diplomat and was born in Brussels. He could never shake his French accent. There’s another tradition that’s not so well known internationally of writers that come from a different background, like Manuel Puig or Roberto Arlt. Writers of the city and of small towns, poor, interested in pop culture, in the way people talk, in street stuff, in movies, in the occult but from a less elitist perspective. I’m closer to them in terms of class, and in some ways also in terms of literature. I love the style and themes of Ocampo and Borges, but I think nowadays you can feed from both traditions. I’m very different from Ocampo in that I don’t think she was interested in real events. Not enough to put them in her fiction. So she distorted her biography a lot in her stories. I do that too, but much less.
“It’s very difficult to even mention the influence of Borges because he was such a monster, but what I always loved about him was his lack of prejudice.”
DLR: I see what you mean about your work bridging the more rarefied, bourgeois world of Ocampo and Cortazar, with the rougher, more desolate street and pop culture world of Puig and Arlt. And the idea of translating Borges’ Europeanized mythos into a local pantheon rings very true and is, for me, much more interesting.
Do you think that the transition or interconnection of these worlds is important in your stories themselves, as well as in your style and approach? I’m thinking of a story like “The Dirty Kid,” where a woman living in a mansion has a life-changing encounter with an extremely impoverished street kid. How does this class line inform your overall body of work? Is crossing lines of this type an important way of opening up the terrain you work in?
ME: Yes, it’s important in the stories themselves. My style is perhaps less “precious,” and the approach is absolutely from the perspective of the underprivileged. Class, to me, informs what I do because I’m very aware of inequality and social distress and I like to introduce that in my fiction, perhaps using the lens of genre because I’m not that interested in nonfiction at the moment.
DLR: In many of your stories (including “The Dirty Kid”) characters who are lonely or uprooted reach out to others, and through this decision end up in extremely horrific situations. This strikes me as deeper and more complex than the “innocent people trying to escape evil” model of conventional horror. What is your feeling about the ways in which your characters seek out horror? Is horror thus sometimes a positive force, or at least an attractive one? And is this related to the choice to read and write horror?
ME: I think, and this is very non-rational—it happens after I read the stories that I realize it—they crave danger. They crave evil because they feel guilty and want to be punished. So they seek it to see something they don’t know, to get what they think they deserve, and in a way to see things as they really are and escape their cocoons. It is an attractive force, yes, though of course attraction is not always positive. I think it’s related to the choice of reading and writing horror in the sense that, to me, it doesn’t feel like I’m reading very grim things. Real things are grim.
DLR: On a related note, many of your stories, such as “Where Are You, Sweetheart,” deal very explicitly with sexual desire, which in turn dovetails with a lot of the horror that occurs. What is the connection here? One aspect I especially admire about your work is how non-judgmental it is. The stories are never about punishing people for pursuing sexual urges that the status quo might consider illicit, and yet, still, things usually don’t end well for them.
ME: I rarely write anything consciously. I like to write about liberated bodies and desires, especially for women. In the story “No Flesh Over Our Bones,” I’m writing about fascination with death and ultimately about anorexia and a woman’s desire to look like a skeleton because I feel that is a legitimate desire, a desire to be respected and not judged. Mind you, if I had some kind of extreme mental disturbance like that I’d hope my loved ones would help me, but in literature I really care about the themes of bodies and desire and don’t think they should be restrained by medical discourses, or religious or social taboos or whatever. In terms of the expansion and change of the flesh, Clive Barker is my guide.
And yeah, they end badly, but it’s more a matter of genre. They all end badly. In this regard, I follow the genre lines and so I don’t want to save someone that has a particular sexual fetish because of gender politics. That’s for real life.
DLR: Clive Barker is another huge touchstone for me, and I think he’s underrated, strange as that is to say about someone so famous. I can see the through-line from his work to yours, especially the idea of taking pleasure from pain, and craving evil as a way of easing feelings of guilt. Can your characters ever overcome their guilt, or only soothe it by finding punishment? And are they actually guilty of anything, or do they only feel this way?
ME: Barker is indeed underrated and famous. Very few people actually read him I think, that’s the reason. I take from him the idea that evil can be satisfying and instructive in a way. Pleasure and sin.
I don’t think my characters overcome their guilt, that’s the whole point in some stories, because their “guilt” is not individual. In the same way, although they can be punished, they won’t find it soothing because it’s not them, individually, that deserve the punishment. In some cases, the characters are involved in social situations that they just can’t fix. Their good intentions are punished, because they’re dealing with something way beyond them. You can’t save yourself alone. That’s what Western culture proposes and we have internalized it and think it’s normal. But when faced with real horrors, we realize we’re totally powerless.
“I don’t think my characters overcome their guilt, that’s the whole point in some stories, because their ‘guilt’ is not individual.”
DLR: When you say that your stories “end badly but it’s more a matter of genre,” this makes a lot of sense to me. In what ways do you follow the conventions of the horror genre? Do you think that following these rules—for example, knowing ahead of time that the story will end badly, almost like fate—frees you up in other ways while you’re working? Is there a kind of madness or extremity that’s only possible to reach in a narrative if it obeys certain conventions?
ME: I like frame. I’m not into a kind of postmodern narrative where stuff is very random and clever and well written, but in the end it seems unsatisfying. I need to be engaged, as a writer and as a reader, with the characters. So in many ways I need frame in fiction and I like the frame of horror because it’s a very wide frame. You can throw politics in there, which I do. There’s always politics in horror. Stephen King is a political writer—you can like him or not, but he is.
I personally like to reformulate the usual suspects: the haunted house, the creepy child, the ritual crime, even throwing in some Lovecraft, and witches, but with a new or let’s say contemporary reading of them. And yes, to me extremity works better with a frame—otherwise it’s just a collection of scenes.
DLR: You mentioned China Miéville earlier. I love him too. What do you take from him? How did you first get into his work, and how do you see it relating to yours? Any other contemporary speculative or Weird writers you’re into?
ME: My favorite China novel is The City and The City. It’s a brave novel. It’s an impossible idea and he carries it with bravura. I like that he’s politically aware, almost militant, and yet absolutely preoccupied with language and plot and even having fun. He is very smart, I think, a geek and a leftist but not a romantic one. I also like M. John Harrison. There’s something about him that just scares me very, very much, something secret. I’m a big fan of Robert Aickman, he’s one of my all time faves. And many more: Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, Laird Barron. Richard Gavin, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, just many. Ballard and Jackson of course. And Iain Sinclair just amazes me, though his writing can be difficult.
DLR: The City & The City is my favorite Mieville as well. Like you, he’s great at writing politically informed work that nevertheless isn’t an allegory or a metaphor—it’s a real story that takes itself seriously on the level of the narrative, not just as a means of making a political point.
Say a little bit about your process of navigating these two areas—the allegorical and the narrative. Why is it so important to not be a romantic in this sense? This is also related to what you said earlier about being more interested in fiction than nonfiction, even as a means of reflecting on real situations, such as class inequality. Why is fiction a more effective vessel?
ME: Well, when I think a story up I try to avoid any political “correctness” stemming from my own personal set of beliefs. I let myself write about politics and, in the narrative, let the contradictions appear, the prejudice, the things I’m not very sure about. That’s my way of not being romantic: I don’t preach.
If you want to think that a story like “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a feminist call to arms, well, it is. If you think it’s a Ballardian near-future dystopia, it’s that too. If you think it’s pondering how far a movement can go before it becomes self-destructive, you’re right. And if you think it’s a modern witch tale, yeah it is. When I wrote it, I was thinking about violence against women and all the angles appeared and I just let them be.
I don’t want to write anything with thought police on my shoulder. I want narrative to be a way of reflecting and thinking, and thinking is complex. In this way, nonfiction is more about certainties, especially journalism. Journalism is history made in the heat of the moment and it’s faster. Fiction is slower; fiction has time. Maybe that’s why it’s more effective, because it’s maddening in a way. It has many more interpretations because it’s not served to you with opinions.
DLR: My last question is about the future. Writers like M. John Harrison and J.G. Ballard are great at presenting terrifyingly plausible futures, whereas a lot of what we’ve talked about so far has to do with channeling the ghosts of the past (though perhaps the line between the two isn’t so clear, since, as you say, the places where awful things have happened may be the same places where they’ll happen again).
When you look toward the future, either of the world or of your own writing—and of course the two are connected in any writer’s process—what do you see? In an Alan Moore sense of time, where in history are we now?
ME: This is a paradox, but I think we are in a pretty good place in history. We’ve only gotten better. Less war, less disease, more people educated. If you were to show this world to a peasant in the Middle Ages, he would be thrilled to live here and now.
But producing so much wealth while being unable to distribute it because of corporate interests and greed is a major problem, as well as racism and intolerance. The fact that in most of the world today we have the information to know about injustice and are powerless or, in most cases, careless about it, is a form of horror. People know—at other times in history they didn’t know as much, there weren’t so many literate people with access to information—and they just don’t care. So now we know all the bad that is going on, for the first time, and this big cloud of information leaves us overwhelmed and very conscious of how little we can do. So it’s also a time of defeat and hopelessness. That’s why it feels so bad when it actually isn’t as bad as it used to be. That’s the paradox. In regards to my country, I’m pretty sure it’s going to shit again; it’s a bit of a loop here.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.