Q&A with Guatemalan Writer Eduardo Halfon
Last month, eight international writers were exploring the Mid-Atlantic and the American South as part of Writers in Motion, an initiative of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer-in-residence Khet Mar was one of these participants.
Khet Mar is introducing some of her traveling partners in a series of short interviews. Today we present her Q&A with Eduardo Halfon.
Eduardo Halfon, born in Guatemala City in 1971, has an engineering degree from North Carolina State University. His novels include Esto no es una pipa, Saturno; De cabo roto; El ángel literario; El boxeador polaco; and La pirueta, which won the José María de Pereda Prize for Short Novel in Santander, Spain. His short fiction has been published in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Serbian, and Dutch. He has taught literature at Guatemala; in 2007 the Bogotá Hay Festival listed him as one of “39 best young Latin American writers.”
In this interview, Eduardo Halfon talks about Guatemalan violence, his writing, and his forthcoming book, Mañana nunca lo hablamos (Tomorrow We Never Discussed It).
The New Yorker just published a long article about the killing of Rodrigo Rosenberg. The writer quotes a U.N. official who said: “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.” How does violence affect a writer’s work in Guatemala?
Violence affects everything and everyone in Guatemala. You can’t escape it. Whether it’s murders or kidnappings or muggings or just the general feeling of calamity, of something dark always approaching. A writer has to be affected. A writer must allow himself to be affected —not by the cliché of Latin American violence, but by its reality, its roots, its whispers, its murky undercurrents. Isn’t that what a writer does, or what a writer can do? Stick his head where everyone else is unwilling or unable to? Scream or say or sing about those things that everyone else pretends don’t exist? Isn’t writing more than just pretty words?
After reading the article in The New Yorker it seems that writing about contemporary Guatemalan characters (from fiction or journalism) could be very risky. What limits—either internal or external—are placed on your own freedom of expression?
This is probably very different for a fiction writer and a journalist. Guatemala is mostly an illiterate country, and I don’t mean those who have the misfortune of not being able to read a book —but those who simply choose not to, which is the vast majority. Newspaper journalists, however, have to be more careful, especially those living in the country and trying to do their job thoroughly, honestly. Literature isn’t taken very serious, or as serious as journalism, and perhaps this gives us storytellers much more freedom of expression, and thus much more responsibility.
Would you describe yourself as a self-exiled writer?
Yes, but not in a political way. I’ve lived in exile all my life. Always moving. Always with a deep feeling of being exiled from something or from somewhere. But I couldn’t say from what or where.
Your book Mañana nunca lo hablamos (Tomorrow We Never Discussed It) will be published in Spain at the end of this month. It is a series of short stories or episodes on your childhood. It shows a kid (perhaps you) growing up during the ’70s in Guatemala. Could you compare the Guatemala of the ’70s with the Guatemala of the present?
I don’t know if it has changed so much. I don’t think it has. It seems the country is still struggling with the same difficulties, the same social and economical and political injustices, from which sprout the same problems. Kidnappings and murders are still rampant. Politicians are as corrupt and incompetent. Impunity is the norm. Presidents are running off into exile with the people’s money (two in the last two decades: one still hiding in Panama, another one in Mexico before finally being captured by the U.S. government, who accused him of turning “the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM”). The majority of Guatemalans still don’t have access to schools and hospitals. A small part of the population —mostly white ladinos— still own and control the country; while a large part of the population —mostly indigenous— is still poor and hungry and grossly oppressed. Perhaps, for me, the only thing that has changed since the ’70s is that very child in my book, who was brought up in a typical Guatemalan fashion of ignoring these problems, of not discussing the extreme racism of the country, of just remaining quiet and therefore maintaining the status quo. Perhaps my writing is a way of screaming what I was taught to keep silent. I guess ignorance, always, begins at home.
You write stories, but the Writers-in-Motion trip was more like studying facts and data than stories. If you write a story about this trip, which part would you put in your story?
I never know what stories will push themselves onto my pages. Maybe the ones I least expect. Maybe the ones that need telling. I remember that at one point during the trip, a teacher at Gettysburg College asked me how much of one of my stories was actually true. My answer, of course, was that all of it. That’s because a story, if it works, is fundamentally true. A story is a lie —but it’s also a fundamental truth. Although it goes beyond data and facts, it doesn’t exclude them. A story-teller’s yarn is spun from these same data and facts, and then woven into everything he writes. I write stories. That’s all. All else can be surmised from that over-simplified statement, including the tacit agreement of complicity between story-teller and story-reader. Plato wrote that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not.
Read Halfon’s short story “To Die a Little”
Lea “Morirse Un Poco” de Eduardo Halfon