Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

First the Spark, Then the Fire: An Interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya


Horacio Castellanos Moya began writing poems and stories as a student growing up in El Salvador. During the Salvadorian Civil Way (1979 – 1992), Moya left the country twice, first to Toronto, and later, after he returned, to Mexico City. It was there he began his career in writing as a journalist and publishing tales and novels. He has published 10 novels, only four of which have been translated into English, and several collections of tales. Since receiving death threats with the publication of his 1997 novel, El Asco (Revulsion), Moya has been living outside of El Salvador in exile. After living in several other cities around the globe, he accepted a residency with City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Writers-In-Exile program in 2007. During his stay in Pittsburgh, Moya also co-founded the magazine Sampsonia Way and was a visiting professor for the University of Pittsburgh. In the summer of 2011 Moya left the city for a faculty position with the University of Iowa. Hot Metal Bridge wanted to catch up him with some questions through email. The questions and responses were given and received in English.
Hot Metal Bridge: You came to Pittsburgh in 2007 for a writer-in-exile residency with City of Asylum and it was here you finished Tyrant Memory, your most recent novel to be translated into English. This past summer you left the Pittsburgh for a teaching position with the University of Iowa. I was hoping you had some reflections on your experience in Pittsburgh and the City Asylum program, particularly in terms of your career as a writer.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: More than reflections, what I have towards the City of Asylum program in Pittsburgh is gratitude. The program supported me in a very difficult moment in my life and allowed me to keep writing and finish that novel. Thanks to the program I had a new starting point in the USA and could remain here. That was a lot. Of course my life as a writer was affected. Every time I’ve moved my life has been affected. I learnt that very soon: I was 21 when I moved for a year to Toronto. My horizon expanded. And it happened again and again when I lived in Mexico City, Madrid, Guatemala, Frankfurt, Tokyo or Pittsburgh: my horizon expanded. That doesn’t mean necessarily that my writing got better. It is just about life.
HMB: Tyrant Memory is a novel set mostly in 1944 El Salvador and follows a failed coup and an ensuing successful general strike which drove “the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez” from power. What was it like to write this novel in Germany and Pittsburgh in the twenty-first century? How do you view your relationship to place and to history when setting out to write?
HCM: The main difference between writing that book and writing the other ones is that I focused on the experiences of my father’s generation, not my own generation. So I had to research. And the fact of being far away in time and space allowed me to see the historical events from other perspectives. I think I would not have been able to write that kind of novel if I had stayed in Central America. Current events are so hot there that it is quite difficult to have the calmness you need for remaining a long while researching in past history.
HMB: Certain parts of Tyrant Memory are narrated with very strong character voices. And several of your other novels which have been translated into English, including She-Devil in the Mirror and Senselessness, are written almost as monologues. Are you able to tailor a voice to any story you choose to tell, or does finding a compelling voice determine the types of stories you write?
HCM: If the voice comes I’m able to tailor it, but if the voice doesn’t come there is no skill that can replace it. First is the spark; then comes the fire. That is my way of working. And it is not a matter of my own decision. It happens. I guess I am not a professional writer, in the sense of someone that writes all the time. I just do it if the voice comes.
HMB: You came to the United States as an exile after seeking refuge in several other countries as a result of death threats you received after the release of your novel El Asco (Disgust) in 1997. But you have since been able to return to El Salvador and now you have accepted a faculty position at an American university. Do you still feel like an exile?
HCM: If you mean a political exile, not at all. I applied to the programs in Frankfurt and Pittsburgh that support writers with political problems in their own countries when El Salvador was ran by a rightist troglodyte from 2004 to 2009. The troglodyte and his group are still there, but not running the country.
HMB: Many decolonial thinkers have an attachment or affinity towards a metaphorical idea of exile. Edward Said was devoted to the idea of the intellectual as exile. For him, the state of exile “is restlessness, movement, constantly being settled, and unsettling others,” and the exile “tends to be happy with the idea of unhappiness.”  How productive is it to think of writing and critical inquiry in terms of being in exile? How has your own experience as an exile shaped your writing?
HCM: I don’t understand what you mean by “decolonial” thinkers. I’m not used to that jargon. The real issue is that we, the human race, are in exile in this insignificant planet lost in the farthest corner of a small galaxy where no one cares about us; no one gives a shit to be in touch with us. That is the sense of exile that counts for me. We are a species, a lost and dizzy species sucking whatever we can of a planet that moves the same way forever and ever. I think what some writers do is to scream against the fact of being exiled, without understanding why we are here, what for. Of course all my writing is shaped by this experience of exile. How? Who knows…
HMB: What kind of role, if any, do you have with the translations of your books into English?
HCM: I’m happy because I have excellent translators. I read their manuscripts in order to check if there has been any misunderstanding of the text. That is all. But to get the rhythm, the tone, the style, is their own job. Katie Silver made a superb work with Senselessness, a quite difficult book to translate because of the turbulent mentality of the character and the special music of the text, based on long and subordinate sentences.
HMB: As your stay in the United States becomes more permanent does it feel your life is becoming one in translation? You are now teaching at an American university and I’ve seen you give readings of your works in translation. In what ways does this affect your writing?
HCM: I think all this public life could be poisonous for a writer. It is good to give readings because I get an income; it is good to talk about my work because I get some publicity; but I guess the more I explain my literary work to a public the more idiotic I become. It is a kind of law. A writer should be writing not talking about what he writes. It doesn’t matter in which language he does that. There is a mystery in the fact of creating a work of art with written words. If you talk too much about it, your writing will be affected, and not in a good way.