Bamboo City: A New Book by Venezuelan Writer Israel Centeno
“It’s a book about a lonely man with many questions. It’s about melancholy and the feelings of sexuality.”
City of Asylum (COAP) writer-in-residence Israel Centeno’s latest publication, Bamboo City, is a hybrid text that moves smoothly between poetry and fiction.
More a collection of moments than a storyline, the book follows Ernesto as he attempts to understand the world around him, questioning the meaning of life, sex, and love. Divided into short chapters, the book guides the reader back and forth between his dreams and his reality.
Bamboo City was published by Wild Age Press, which was founded in January 2012 on Pittsburgh’s North Side by Kelly Lynn Thomas as part of a course on literary publishing for her MFA in creative writing at Chatham University. Seeking a foreign writer to publish in English, Thomas queried Henry Reese, co-founder of COAP and publisher of Sampsonia Way. Reese immediately recommended Centeno, who hadn’t been published in English before. Bamboo City was then translated by Ezra Fitz and released on April 12.
According to Thomas, Centeno is able to make any scene feel foreign to the reader, who becomes steeped in the author’s “steamy-jungle” Spanish. Fitz has a similar sentiment: He felt like a “stranger in a strange land” and experienced some semblance of an exile’s deep feelings of nostalgia and transience while translating the book.
Centeno recently sat down with Sampsonia Way to talk about Bamboo City, the translation process, and future publications.
When I was reading the book, there were moments of dream as well as moments of lucid reality. Often times, they mix together. Why did you use this interplay in Bamboo City?
My intention with Bamboo City was to capture just what you described—the feeling of a dream where everything seems familiar while you also have no idea where you are. Readers don’t have to feel comfortable when they are reading Bamboo City. They may feel seduced, excited, even motivated, to read the book, but they can also have some trepidation as they continue to read. The readers will have some sense that they are in a swampy atmosphere in some kind of dreaming state.
Is the book based on a real place or is it completely imagined?
Bamboo City is not based on one place in particular, but instead features elements from tropical locations. I feel as if humid and wet locales, like the tropics, can hold both physical and metaphoric meanings. In the tropics, like Vietnam, Venezuela, or even Louisiana, I imagine that it’s possible to experience something out of Dante’s inferno. I imagine, for example, that if you float down the river, you may suddenly find yourself at the mouth of hell. However, I am more interested in exploring the mood that you would find in these places rather than the actual setting. Understanding and depicting the mood of the delta and of exile is what really interests me.
Throughout the book, there are explicit moments of violence. Are you commenting on Venezuela or the violence there? Is this book political in any sense?
It’s said that everything is political, but Bamboo City is not really a political book. I see the book as more existential than anything else. While it’s true that you can find a political message, this book is not meant to be propaganda like “Chávez put me out” or “the book is about South American dictatorships.” It’s about a lonely man with many questions. It’s about melancholy and the feelings of sexuality. It’s about a big question in the middle of this situation, about what it means to exist in this place.
While this book is filled with prose, I also notice many characteristics of poetry, such as your deep attention to sound and rhythm. Do you think that this writing could also be considered poetry?
I think that it’s both poetry and prose. I tried to create something that could convey this feeling of being between dream and reality. At first, I thought that I could make a conventional novel or a short story, but I decided to go beyond that. I wanted to create a poetic atmosphere and then create a story within this atmosphere.
But Bamboo City can’t be defined as a “short story” or a “poem.” It is more like a cocktail. When you have a good martini, you can taste a little flavor of the olive, a little flavor of the gin, a little flavor of the water that was dropped from the ice. In a good cocktail, you can taste everything.
This is your first book that has been translated into English. What was it like to be translated?
I had confidence that everything would be okay with Ezra. Before reading the translation, I was afraid because of the book’s form. But after Ezra and I made comparisons of some sentences and metaphors, we didn’t have any problems with the translation. I hope that the other translations will be just as easy. Writing the book was hard for me, and I’m sure the translation was just as hard. It’s not easy to convey the spirit of the text plus the literal meaning. I think Ezra accomplished both of those goals very well.
What does it mean for you to be published in the United States? Do you have any more plans for future publications in English? Are you currently working on any projects?
Being published is extremely important for any writer. While much of my work has already been published, I still have a lot more that hasn’t. And now that I am here in the United States, I have the ability to work in a different way than was possible in Venezuela. I hope that there will be many more opportunities to be published in English.
Recently, I gave City of Asylum a new work that could be published in English. The book is one part of a dystopian trilogy that explores the deconstruction of modernity. Additionally, my Spanish publisher asked me to write a period novella in which Sherlock Holmes travels between Venezuela and Pittsburgh during the Homestead Strikes. Even though it will be published in Spanish, I hope that it draws the attention of publishers, translators, and readers in the United States. I foresee this book as the first of many novellas about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes between the United States and Venezuela.
While Bamboo City was printed in a limited edition, there are still copies for sale at Wild Age Press’s online store.