The Writer Who Makes Snakes Dance: An Interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya
Horacio Castellanos Moya can be described as mischievous, witty, impatient, and brilliant. But it’s the omnipresence of violence that characterizes his fiction. In an essay for Sampsonia Way, “Notes on the Culture of Violence and Fiction in Latin America” he wrote about the challenges of writing about Latin America. In the wake of pervasive drugrelated violence, including kidnappings and decapitations, the horrors of real life trump the imagination, he argued.
“A novel that in a European country could be regarded as cruel and dark, in Mexico, Colombia or El Salvador would seem to be light compared with what we read every day in the newspaper or what we learn in the streets,” he wrote.
In the fall of 2009, Castellanos Moya received a fellowship from the Japan Foundation to travel to Japan and study the works of Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and his contemporary Kobo Abe. Both writers explore life on the fringe and violence in modern society. “I want to study how they deal with violence and healing,” said Castellanos Moya.
While Castellanos Moya was in Japan, Lee Paula Springer translated his book, Dances with Snakes (Biblioasis) for its English-language debut. The book is “a macabre and violent farce,” according to
the publisher, about an unemployed sociologist who assumes the identity of a homeless man living in an old, yellow Chevrolet. The car is also home to four poisonous snakes. Together they wreak
carnage on the city of San Salvador.
Castellanos Moya wrote Dances with Snakes 15 years ago, while living in exile in Mexico City. It was first published in El Salvador in 1996. Before leaving for Japan, he paused to talk to Sampsonia Way about what it is like to be a writer in exile.
Since the success of Senselessness (New Directions, 2008), more Americans are now reading your work. How does it feel to have a growing American audience?
When I wrote Dances with Snakes, I wasn’t thinking about today’s audience—or
any audience. I just wrote it and put it in a drawer. People don’t understand the affect of growing up in El Salvador, where writers were killed and bookstores were bombed. When I first saw a bookstore in Mexico, I said, “Wow.”
What have been the lingering effects of that oppression upon your work?
You have to understand what it’s like to grow up in an oppressive society. In El Salvador, to be a writer was to be a Communist. Writing wasn’t worth it if your goal was to be read. You wrote for yourself.
I wrote all of my books except one in Mexico where I was free. But I still had the idea that literature had to be subversive. Not just subversive in a political sense, but in the sense that you don’t agree with the values of the society. That idea doesn’t go away just because you suddenly live in a free society.
How have you changed as a writer since writing Dances with Snakes 14 years ago?
It had been ten years since I’d wrote Dances with Snakes, but all of the phrases were still in my head. The book was so deep in my memory. Perhaps I am the same writer I was a decade ago.
How do you see your work evolving now that it has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Hebrew, Serbian, and English?
I wrote Dances with Snakes without thinking about where I wanted it to go. Publishing was out of reach for me – there was no book market in El Salvador. Now, I do think about whether others will eventually read what I write. I know that one day I will face people who have read my work. The big paradox is that having a readership can be a burden.
Sometimes I discover myself thinking, “People will love this.” But the moment I start thinking about what the reader will think, I stop writing. I have continued to write to fulfill my own needs. If my writing changes, it’s because I have changed, not because my audience changes.
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