Writing Is An Exorcism With Margarita García Robayo
Award-winning author Margarita García Robayo explains hybrid genres, the origin of her characters, and why she feels conflicted about location––in literature and in life.
By Cora Lee
Photo by Alejandra López
Hot Girl Lit is a monthly column that catalogs hot reads by hot writers.
I knew I had fallen head over heels for Margarita García Robayo when I broke from my usual no e-book policy to read Fish Soup on the computer while at work (don’t tell on me). But still, I found that the virtual version was not enough. I needed it in my hands! I wanted to take it with me to a cafe where my friend works so I could ingest this book the best way possible––sitting at the counter, sipping an iced tea, eating baklava, chatting in between chapters and customers––which is exactly what I did.
Born in Cartagena, Colombia and currently living in Argentina, Margarita García Robayo has written three novels–Fish Soup, which was a Times Book of the Year, Holiday Heart, which won the English PEN Award, and most recently, The Delivery, which came out last month from Charco Press. Even in translation you can feel the voice pulsing through the pages–lean, barbed prose that hooks the reader right away. Although her characters are often cynical, the writing does not feel so. Her sentences are laced with humor and charm. There is a paragraph in the novella “Sex Education” that I found so funny I read it aloud to everyone––my boyfriend, my boss, my friend working at the coffee shop.
Since this is the first Hot Girl Lit installment featuring an author in translation, I decided to also reach out to Charlotte Coombe, the translator of Fish Soup and Holiday Heart. She told me that when Charco Press offered her the chance to translate García Robayo’s work, she fell in love with it immediately––“There is something so universal about her writing.” It’s true. The longing for elsewhere, the childhood insults, the interpersonal tensions––these could be stories relayed to me by any number of my friends. Coombe writes in her translator’s note at the end of Fish Soup, “You may not like her characters, and that is precisely because they are real.” Her characters, in my opinion, are the best part––flaws and all. There is something raw and human about them. Like Coombe says, García Robayo “expresses thoughts we all have, no matter how disgusting or how wrong.”
In every photo of Margarita García Robayo I’ve seen, she is shown in simple, classy attire, making striking eye contact with the camera, as if she is staring straight through the lens. Her beauty is intimidating, as is her skillful writing. But in our correspondence, I find her warm and gracious.
Cora: How did you get your start as a writer? Do you find that your journalism and fiction writing impact each other?
Margarita: My first approach to writing was as a journalist. I used to work at the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation (now known as the Gabo Foundation) and I was pretty familiar with narrative journalism, or “new journalism”, as they call this genre which is nonfiction but uses all the resources of fiction to create, sometimes, wonderful pieces of literature (Capotes’ In Cold Blood or García Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping, among others). I am really far from journalism right now, but, in some way, I still think about my work as a kind of hybrid genre.
Cora: Your books have been translated into English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew, and Chinese. How does it feel to have your work in translation?
Margarita: I feel really excited and also very curious to know how a reader so far away reads my novel. They are far not only geographically, but the idiosyncrasies sometimes are completely different. I believe there are certain things that are impossible to translate, so they must be reinterpreted.
Cora: The characters you create are very vivid and often have a self-awareness of their own vices and shortcomings. As a result, your work feels very character-driven. Which comes to you first while writing, the idea for a character or the idea for a plotline?
Margarita: The first thing that comes up is sort of an uncomfortable feeling that needs to be “exorcized”. That usually arrives in the form of an image or a scene I happen to witness accidentally. Then it starts to bother me and it does so for a while. So, when I think of a character it is because I need a mechanism to channel that annoyance through or out. The plot is the last thing to appear, and they are usually very simple and short. The Delivery occurs in a week and almost nothing happens, although everything happens in the narrator’s inner world.
Cora: Each book serves as an exorcism…I love that. Your writing has a certain timelessness––Do you find more inspiration from classic or contemporary literature? Who are some of your literary influences?
Margarita: I’m not sure. Both, I guess. But my influences don’t come strictly from literature. I love to read books, I read a lot of books, but I guess I have learned more from real life experiences than from any novel. As for technique, I enjoy reading poems very much because poems (some poems) infect me with a certain music, a certain rhythm that somehow permeates my writing.
Cora: You were raised in Colombia but now live in Argentina. Fish Soup was predominantly set in the former country and The Delivery in the latter, while Holiday Heart is set in the US. How does location impact your writing?
Margarita: I’m very conflicted about location. In literature and in life! I don’t usually name the places where my stories occur (Holiday Heart must be one of a few exceptions), it is a decision I made since my very first book. I like giving references and hints about those locations but never giving them completely away, because obviously they are altered by my own imagination and my subjectivity. I think that our subjectivity is something that gains complexity with distance. I’d like to think that. Distance may also work as a magnifying glass for certain feelings or memories, while at the same time it gives us the definition that being too close denies us. So, when I write about my home town, I’m completely aware of the modifications I made, and why.
Cora: You’ve said that you enjoy editing more than writing the initial draft—rare for an author! Who is the first person that you let read your work?
Margarita: Lately I have a few friends with whom I share my work and they share their work with me. It is kind of a trade. And then there is my editor, Carolina Orloff, whose judgment I trust a lot.
Cora: Your writing has been described as “concise and startling” (LA Review of Books) and “refreshingly frank” (Kirkus). And I couldn’t help but notice that in nearly every photo online you can be seen wearing all-black, chic, minimalist outfits. Do you feel that your writing style mirrors your personal style? Or are the two unrelated…
Margarita: Haha! Loved this question! I really think everything I am is related to what I write, but not in a literal sense…I mean, to write is to look. All people focus on a specific part of the world for a reason. What we choose to see of the world reveals a lot of what we think of the world. I am convinced that writing is a kind of vital function that comes after looking very closely and carefully at almost anything. Anyway, maybe I didn’t answer the question, but I guess that, indeed, my “personal style” must be related to my writing too.