James Tennant, PEN International's Literary Manager in Conversation with Gloria Guardia February 2013
By blood you are of Panamanian-Nicaraguan heritage. In your youth you lived and studied in Spain and north America; you were born in Venezuela and now live between Colombia, Panama and the United States. Do you think a cosmopolitan existence such as this has been important for your writing?
Yes, definitely my multi-national heritage, plus my upbringing and education in different countries have influenced me not only as a writer, but above all, as a person. I think the first one to open-up doors for our families, at least on my mother’s side, was my great-grandfather Gerónimo. A Nicaraguan medical doctor, he studied and lived for almost ten years in Paris during the last quarter of the 19th Century. As a student at the Faculté de Médicine de la Université de Paris, he was able to have first-hand experience of that remarkable period when the works of Mallarmé, Verlaine, Claude Monet, Renoir, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec, Debussy and Ravel were first heard, read and admired not only in Europe, but throughout America. And it was thanks to this extraordinary experience that, once back in Nicaragua, Dr. Ramírez not only influenced his family, but was able to recognize the talent of one of the most remarkable Spanish language writers: Rubén Darío. He invited the young lad to live with his family, supervising his readings, putting him under the tutelage of a French teacher and asking him to translate Hugo and Verlaine’s poems into Spanish.
I remember listening to these stories when we spent summers at great-grandfather Gerónimo’s beach house in La Boquita (Nicaragua). When Dario’s name came up in my uncles’ and aunts’ conversations it was evident, even for me as a child, that he had to have been some sort of a hero or a saint. And my admiration for Dario grew even more when I began reading his poetry and discovered that he was the equivalent of Mallarmé and Verlaine in Spanish and Latin American literature. Maybe it was then that, deep in my mind, I decided I wanted to study literature and maybe, just maybe, that I wished to become a writer one day.
Of course, I must confess that my parents did push me more than a bit. Father used to name-drop his great-grand uncle Victor de la Guardia during family gatherings. Don Víctor had been the founding father of Panamanian literature at the beginning of the 19th Century. The truth is that mother and father were both proud of their heritage and were determined to give my sister and me a well-rounded education, taking us to the opera, to ballets, to museums and concerts. And if we were able to do so, it was because father’s occupation made him travel a lot, and often the family went along with him. He was a consultant engineer, first with the Rockefeller Foundation in Venezuela –that is why I was born in that country – and later on with a US environmental engineering firm specializing in water and wastewater engineering and utility management. One day he was transferred to the firm’s headquarters in Chicago and we all moved to the States; my sister and I attended a prep-school in Evanston, Illinois, went on to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and I continued at Columbia University in Manhattan and the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. Also, once married and because of Ricardo’s [Gloria Guardia’s husband] occupation, he and I have travelled a lot, spending long periods in Europe (mostly in France and Italy), South America and in the US.
With such an upbringing it was predictable that my writing had to be of an international nature. Past experiences always come up. This, plus the fact my graduate studies at Columbia were in comparative literature and that I do most of my readings in several languages have also influenced my style.
In short, I would say that the best legacy of this so-called cosmopolitan up-bringing and education is that I feel at home almost everywhere and enjoy interacting with people from different cultures. This is one of my not-so-secret passions.
Do you believe that, as a writer, you belong to a country or region? Or is it more important for you that you write in Spanish?
I consider myself an Iberian-American writer; that is, a Latin American and Spanish novelist and essayist, but with a definite international viewpoint. Since I majored in comparative literature at Columbia, I believe that ‘Literature’, in general, does not belong to a circumscribed region. It belongs to its creators, and all artists have their personal watermarks that define their styles. This, of course, includes the languages –be it music, writing, sculpturing, painting, videos, etc.- in which they conceive their works of art.
Please could you tell us what inspired you to start writing? It seems – from the nature of your studies and family history – you were interested in writing from a young age. Other than through anecdotes, did your parents, friends, or relatives encourage you?
Literature was one of my parents’ keen interests. So much so that I found it to be quite natural at only seven- or eight-years-old when I was asked by my parents to memorize and recite one of Ruben Darío’s long poems at my maternal grandmother’s birthday celebration. Neither did I consider it a burden when Mrs Wanselow, my English teacher at Roycemore School, asked me to learn some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies by heart so that I could improve my vocabulary when I was just learning the language. I suspect that these exercises developed my first serious taste for Spanish and English literature. Also my mother, while we lived in the States, urged my sister and me to read the best-known Spanish and Latin American writers and even encouraged me to write short stories. I guess she had discovered by then –I was fourteen or fifteen at the time- how much I enjoyed reading and writing. At school we had to constantly write essays not only in English, but also in French, since our teacher - a charming French lady - insisted on our writing short essays and memorizing poems by Hugo, Verlaine, Valéry, among others and, if we did well, she treated us to French movies and once even invited us to go with her to hear the great Edith Piaf, who at the time was touring the States.
But my first experience at ‘true’ writing came when I was twenty. Mother was visiting me in Madrid – at the moment we were both planning a long trip to Italy – and she read in a newspaper that a literary society – the Sociedad de Escritores Españoles e Iberioamericanos – had organized a contest for young Spanish-speaking novelists under 25. I remember that she rushed into to my room and said, ‘Gloria, you must enter’. There were only fifteen days left to the deadline and my first reaction was to burst out laughing. My thoughts were fixed on the trip to Italy and I had no intention of following mother’s instructions. But mother never took no for an answer. She invited me for a long walk, treated me to a delicious dinner and by bed-time she had convinced me that I had it in me; that I had to write that first novel.
I wrote the novel, mother delivered it on time, while I collapsed in my bedroom, exhausted. The morning after, we boarded the train to Italy and three months later - we were still in Florence - I received a telegram at the hotel. The award was mine and I had to be back in Madrid by the end of September. Before I knew it – or wished to know it - the Spanish press had turned me into a new, but ‘uncontaminated’ (so it read) Françoise Sagan. You must understand that when the novel was launched in Madrid, Franco had been ruling Spain for many years with an iron fist and publications, in general, were censured by the disgraceful Spanish police.
So this was how your first publication came about? You didn’t have to face the struggle so many writers have of finding that first publisher…
Yes. The award included the publication of the novel Tiniebla blanca (1961) by a Spanish publishing house: Editorial Clásica y Moderna. Very probably, had I not received the award, I would have had to march through the same ‘Via Dolorosa’, as many young writers have unmercifully done so since the 18th century. But, I must confess that after that first novel I did suffer from a sort of paralysis as far as writing fiction was concerned, and for years I dedicated myself exclusively to writing and publishing essays. It was not until I had married Ricardo and had had my first child that he insisted that I should write fiction again. It was almost fifteen years after Tiniebla blanca that I wrote another novel. Again, it was also Ricardo who convinced me to participate in another literary contest. This time, the writing process was much longer: nine months. But, once again I was lucky and my novel, El ultimo juego – a political and historical novel that later became the first part of a trilogy- was awarded the Premio Centroamericano de Novela.
Do you have any idea why that paralysis came about? Was it insecurity about your abilities after that first success, or were other issues to blame such as domestic or academic ones?
Yes, the paralysis came about when my college and university professors insisted that I had a good analytic mind and therefore should dedicate myself to critical essays. Later on, and thanks to my husband, I discovered that their recommendation was pure nonsense. Precisely the fact of having, as they said, a good academic mind was an asset when writing novels.
Which writers impressed you when you started out, and which would you cite as abiding influences?
I usually read simultaneously in English and Spanish, but do enjoy reading French and Italian writers as well. At the time I wrote my first novel, I was deeply impressed by the Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre and Dámaso Alonso who, following the path of Darío, had continued to revolutionize not only our language, but also our poetry. There were some young Spanish novelists like Carmen Laforet, Camilo José Cela and Ana María Matute, whose works I studied with keen interest. And of course, I used to read a lot of Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, Paul Claudel, Paul Valéry, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Pirandello; I was and continue to be particularly passionate with the writings of Virginia Woolf, St. Exupéry and Camus.
Later on, in the 1970s when a group of young and brilliant Latin American novelists emerged, completely transforming our literature, I became an ardent reader of all of them but admired Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes the most. They were and still are my abiding influences.
If you do write every day, do you have a daily routine? Are you superstitious as a writer? Often writers do not like discussing works in progress, for example.
Yes, when I am at home, I have a daily routine, writing during eight hours and re-reading and editing during a couple of hours early in the morning. I am not superstitious, but do not like to discuss works in progress. I find that to be a bit ostentatious. Writing, after all, is something very private, very intimate and, as such, should only be shared with others once the poem, novel or play has been finished. Then, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the critics and readers in general.
Do you hold certain of your works in greater affection than others? Authors sometimes esteem works they found the most challenging to write above books that came more easily. But at the same time succeeding to write a challenging book doesn’t mean it will be your best book.
I totally agree with you as to what it means to write a challenging book that doesn’t end up being your best. Nevertheless, I think that all writers are especially fond of certain works. I have one book, Cartas apócrifas, that has not been a ‘bestseller’ so to speak, but I feel special affection for it. I wrote it mainly for my own delight, thinking of writers or readers who specialized in a certain type of literature. So, as you can imagine, I am delighted when a reader writes or tells me personally how much they have enjoyed it. I know that I have established an inner connection with that person.
Please could you tell us how you first became involved with PEN, and what this has entailed since?
I had heard of PEN while attending Vassar, Columbia and the Universidad Complutense, in Madrid. I particularly remember one occasion when one of my professors, Gerardo Diego, an exceptional Spanish poet who had been a close friend of García Lorca, told me how, in August 1936 English PEN was the first to alert the world - through its President, H.G Wells - about Federico’s disappearance or possible death. Later on his brother Francisco García Lorca, who taught at Columbia at the time when I was there, ratified Gerardo Diego’s words. This incident remained very fresh in my mind. Therefore when in 1990, after having lived and suffered through twenty-one years of military dictatorship in Panama, I received a letter from Elizabeth Patterson of International PEN [now PEN International] asking me if I were willing to establish a PEN Centre in Panama, I accepted immediately. Our Centre became an active part of PEN at the World Congress held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
But, it was while attending another PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela in 1993 that International President Ronald Harwood invited me to breakfast one morning and we discussed the importance of Spanish becoming one of PEN’s three official languages. Consequently, when in 1996-97 International PEN decided to reorganize itself and revise its Rules and Regulation, and I was elected to its first International Board and proposed to my colleagues that an article be included in the new regulation introducing Spanish as one PEN’s three official languages. In 1998, these documents were accepted at the World Congress in Helsinki and I immediately asked my lawyers Vallarino, Vallarino & García Maritano, in Panamá, to create a non-profit (charitable) foundation to administer the necessary funds to help PEN in this new endeavor.
Since then – very conscious of the importance of our Iberian American writers being an integral part of PEN’s benefits and activities – I began to work almost full-time in advising our Iberian American writers on how beneficial it was for them to establish PEN Centres in their respective countries. It was imperative for writers, publishers and journalists in the region to know that PEN protected their freedom of expression and their human rights in general, and protested energetically throughout the world in case they were persecuted, tortured or jailed.
It has not been an easy task. But slowly, our region is being an integral part of the PEN community.
What does an organization like PEN provide that no other can?
Because it is an organization established in 1921 that congregates the best known writers, journalists and publishers throughout the world, PEN offers its members a valuable protection of their human, linguistic and literary rights and the possibility of establishing long-lasting cultural and personal relationships. These elements define PEN as a unique, respectful and open association: particularly today when the world tends to define itself as global, without necessarily understanding and accepting cultural differences