Natasha Hakimi ZAPATA
“Fear is the best weapon to awaken the reader,” says Samanta Schweblin, the acclaimed Argentine author of “Fever Dream.” “Fear is what makes you drop a book and run to your computer to Google what is happening, and think, ‘Can this happen to me? Is this really happening?’”
“Fever Dream” certainly terrified readers across the globe after it was translated from Spanish into more than a dozen languages over the past few years. It was first published in English in 2017 and received ample critical acclaim, in part due to her considerable talent as a writer, but also due to the timeliness of the subject at hand: the horrors companies such as agrochemical giant Monsanto have inflicted on the planet and us all.
In her novella, however, Schweblin never names Monsanto, but rather tells the spine-chilling tale of Amanda, a city-dweller, mysteriously dying during a vacation to the countryside. Where does this horror story take place? you may ask. The answer is anywhere, given the multinational company’s harrowing reach. On her deathbed, Amanda is visited by a child who attempts to lead her and, perhaps more importantly, Schweblin’s readers, toward the realization that is likely on the tip of many readers’ tongues as the seemingly fictional ailments and occurrences start to form a familiar pattern. Wake up, the ghostly David seems to tell us as we all lie on our laurels during the planet’s death throes. “That’s the story we need to understand […] Don’t get distracted,” the child repeats over and over.
It is precisely as the global public begins to wake up, in large part thanks to young activists such as the courageous Greta Thunberg, to the barbarous damage done to the planet in the name of boundless greed that stories such as Schweblin’s can become an important tool in the fight against climate inaction. But this fever dream that feels inescapable currently is not just about climate change. According to writer Patricia Stuelke, “the recent resurgence of horror in feminist literary fiction in Argentina [and] the United States,” of which she considers Schweblin’s “Fever Dream” a prime example, is also undeniably a product of capitalism. Schweblin’s work,
… continues the long tradition Mark Stevens traces in which […] “a critique of [capitalist] horror,” he suggests, “produces horrific forms.” In this sense, the energy and aesthetics of the Argentine and international feminist remaking of the strike against capitalism’s “gore realities” are infusing, and perhaps being infused by, the feminist horror boom. These works repurpose horror conventions in order to confront the entangled forces of environmental destruction, financialization and extraction, and the exploitation of women’s labor.…
Graciously, Schweblin’s tales also make for great literature. Once looped into the eerily familiar stories the Argentine author crafts masterfully, it can be hard to put her books down, despite the creeping terror that inevitably takes hold. Both “Fever Dream” and her most recently translated collection of stories “Mouthful of Birds” have been nominated for the Man Booker International literary prize. “Fever Dream” is also currently being adapted by Netflix and is due to hit screens worldwide in 2019.
In a discussion about everything from agrochemicals to women’s rights, I caught up with Schweblin at her current home in Berlin, Germany, during a recent phone interview. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation translated from Spanish.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata: Before talking about your recently translated collection of short stories, “Mouthful of Birds,” I’d like to talk a little about your novella “Fever Dream,” a book I have seen described as an eco-horror.
The delirium depicted in your book is especially frightening to me because it sounds so familiar in this era of climate change. Can you tell me a little about why you decided to write about this topic?
Samanta Schweblin: Honestly, when I start writing a new story, I never start by choosing a topic, rather what I’m after is a kind of feeling, emotion, emotion in the reader.
The issue is not something that is self-imposed, but something that arises in the middle of the search for how to convey this feeling to the reader.
Of course, it’s charged with personal experiences, and information that I’m mulling over at that moment. When I started writing “Fever Dream,” which was in 2013—the end of 2012, the beginning of 2013—there was a very big controversy in Argentina. People were beginning to talk about something that had been going on for some time, but had not reached the media, which is the horror of the crops of an industry that is based on crops that abuse the agrotoxins.
The horror that this generated in communities, which were literally dying intoxicated, was huge. This is more or less where the topic came from—in a way I approached it as a concerned citizen.
In Argentina, “Fever Dream” was read as a very political novel. The reception caught me off guard because I think, it’s a novel that does not provide enough information to be called political, but of course it was the first novel, the first work of fiction, that addressed the subject of glyphosate and Monsanto.
I had not realized that what I was writing could have such a significant impact on society, but ultimately, I was writing about a topic that at that time nobody spoke of and that would be new to many people.
[As I was writing “Fever Dream”], I thought, “Can I afford to write about a topic like this and not denounce or name governors who had agreed to incredible laws that left citizens defenseless, or not mention nefarious statistics about the consequences of these fumigations or name brands, even?”
I was dealing with this struggle between journalism and fiction.
In the end what I realized is that the readers—myself included—always tend to forget the names, the statistics, the numbers; but we never forget terror when we really feel it. Fear is the best weapon to awaken the reader.
Fear is what makes you drop a book and run to your computer to Google what is happening, and think, “Can this happen to me? Is this really happening?”
That seemed to me to be a stronger weapon than any information I could offer in the book, information that ultimately the book could not hold well because the book is simply the story of a woman who is dying in a field.
Later I realized that it was a good decision and that many people responded by informing themselves once they [had read “Fever Dream”].
Another interesting political thing is that when this book began to circulate and to be translated—it has a lot of translations, I think it has 20 translations already, to different languages—I noticed something very interesting. In societies that are very clear about the danger of agrochemicals, the novel was read as political immediately. Without hesitation, they arrived at that reading.
Then there were the societies that did not have this information. There are a lot of issues that are discussed in the book about the consequences of fumigations in fields: thousands of spontaneous abortions, children with malformations, people with cancer, respiratory problems, animals that suddenly transform and die. [In these societies, people] read all this as fantasy, as if they were reading about ghosts and strange children and phantasmagoric animals that suddenly died. [Witnessing this reading of my book], I became aware of how fanciful societies become when they have no information.
NHZ: How fascinating. When I read “Fever Dream”, I immediately began to recognize precisely what I read in the news and it is not one single story, but many stories around the world, as you are saying. It is something that has not only happened in Argentina.
I think it was also a good decision precisely because it translates into this horror story and a story too, because we as readers connect a lot with the main characters—the dying woman and the ghostly child. It leaves us with a very strong impact.
SS: Sure. Do you know that a movie is being filmed right now?
NHZ: No, I did not know.
SS: Yes, they are filming at this moment in Chile and in Argentina. It will be called “Distancia de Rescate” [in Spanish]. It is being filmed by Claudia Llosa, who is an excellent Peruvian film director. I received a lot of offers, but when [Llosa’s offer] appeared I did not hesitate to say yes because I’d been following her work for a long time.
We wrote the script together and Netflix is financing it, so in a very short time, it’ll be available to watch.
NHZ: That’s great! […] Well, I’d like to talk a little bit now about “Mouthful of Birds.” Many of the stories in the book deal with the subject that affect us daily, but are told through a surrealist narrative. What does surrealism permit you to convey that realism doesn’t? Do you consider it surreal? I do not know if I’m imposing my point of view.
SS: I think that some stories can be surreal at times, but I do not consider them surreal, although I do not deny your perspective at all. I love that you have that reading. Rather, it seems to me that they are stories that take place in the realm of the strange, of the abnormal.
Surrealism leaves room for more questions about the real world. It seems to me that [any type of surrealist work] questions the real and the normal from start to finish … On the other hand, it seems to me that these stories take place in the real and, at some point, break with it. Not all, but most. I like that moment of breaking the real, that moment where the normal disintegrates.
These stories were published for the first time 10 years ago. There are even some of these stories, such as “The Test,” “Headlights,” “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides” and there is one more, now I do not remember which, [ … ] which were taken from my first very first book [which was published when I was] 22.
I think the book is the equivalent of what a painter would create when trying out a palette of colors for the first time.
I moved from genre to genre, but in general it is a moment in which I was thinking a lot, as I was entering the adult world, about the rules, about the codes, about what is established socially as acceptable or unacceptable.
I realize now looking back how uncomfortable I felt, how arbitrary I found that concept of normality. The idea that between you and me there is an intermediate point and that point is what we call normal. But in reality, neither you nor I are standing at the point, so the normal is an invention. […] if something does not fall within the norm, it does not mean that it does not exist or that it cannot happen. I think [“Mouthful of Birds” is composed of] stories that are always approaching that breaking point [I discussed earlier].
In fact, except for one or two stories that absolutely take place in the realm of the fantastic or the surreal, as you said, I believe that in all the rest, the element of the fantastic happens in the reader’s head. It would be strictly impossible to underline where the fantastic appears, that’s to say, what is an impossible occurrence in this world cannot be identified in the text. It is rather something that the reader utters in a low voice to themself, but in reality the text never makes it explicit.
NHZ: Going back to “Mouthful of Birds,” the first story in the collection “Headlights,” where we met a crowd of newly married and abandoned brides in a field, waiting, screaming and lamenting. In the end we see that their boyfriends were not very far away and they return to the scene of abandonment, not for their wives but for a single man that was left behind. Is this a comment on modern marriage and on the limited relationships that can take place between men and women under patriarchy?
SS: [laughs] I would never give away those clues. It seems to me that my intention is to question the entire scene. There is something very theatrical for me about marriage. Not marriage as in the civil act of getting married, but rather especially a Catholic idea of marriage, which is still very popular in Argentina, even among non-Catholics who wouldn’t dream of getting married without the white dress, church and a priest’s blessing.
There is a theatricality surrounding the clothes and formalities which to me represents a lot of ideas of marriage that are outdated. Our mothers and grandmothers have suffered them and now they sound a bit funny to us, and some don’t even seem outrageous anymore because of how far we’ve come.
That’s why [the story is] written in prose that seems to be very realistic, but deep down it’s so theatrical that it even has a choir of voices. I even think it’s theatrical also in terms of lighting. It’s a story that happens in the dark and every so often cars pass by or something happens that sheds light on the faces, and they are revealed and recognized.
NHZ: Speaking of women, I wanted to ask you a bit about how you see the situation of women in Argentina. I’m thinking of course about movements like “Ni Una Menos” that have developed as a protest against femicide and other forms of violence against women.
SS: Obviously, in order for movements like these to form, we need to have reached a very high level of incipient violence, which is terrible, but the reality is that these movements have made great changes in Argentine society, changes that they are even spreading to the rest of Latin America.
Really in these last two years, there has been a leap in the Argentine paradigm about women, and we owe it to these movements and also to all the women who fought in favor of the legalization of abortion.
Although abortion was not legalized [in Argentina], the fight was very strong; it was a cross-generational, political struggle. All the problems that Argentina was dealing with at that moment always seemed to divide us into A and B. But the problem of abortion seemed to touch everyone at the same time and that was very important because then, it seems incredible, but the abortion debate ultimately served as a bridge towards other discussions.
Though abortion wasn’t legalized, the topic made so much noise and it became so clear that the vast majority of Argentine citizens wanted to legalize abortion, that in some way it left the political system in crisis.
Imagine how strong the impact was. I think it was very good and, of course, this also brought a new energy to literature written by women in Argentina. Suddenly a lot of fiction writers … began to find places to publish, to be heard. So it is very gratifying to see that many doors have been opened for women in recent years in Argentina.
This does not mean that the extreme level of violence against women has decreased. And abortion remains illegal in Argentina. I am deeply ashamed that a democracy like Argentina’s does not have legalized abortion.
NHZ: It’s not just in Latin America where women are fighting for similar issues, but also in the United States and Europe with the #MeToo movement. I’m not sure it’s also reached Germany, where you live, but for example, it’s reached France. I think what we’re experiencing is a global change in women’s rights, or at least, in how we fight for them.
SS: Yes. I was thinking how on a global level, doors have been opened for literature written by women.
It’s funny because more than once I’ve been asked if I think this is a passing fad, and I’m stunned by that question because to me it’s not a fad. To me it’s about what half of humanity writes. It seems silly to think that this is just a passing trend.
It seems to me that what’s happening is that when a minority voice suddenly comes under the spotlight, it brings with it a very different world view: a very new voice, new themes, a freshness and a power that any voice that has been displaced until now contains. And that’s part of why writing by women around the world is so strong right now.