Featured Author: Camilo Malagón
Why do you write? What purpose does writing serve for you currently?
Writing in my life serves different kinds of purposes, and I am more and more becoming aware of the different kinds of writing that I do, from the most quotidian, like emails and letters (yes, I still sometimes write out letters and thank you notes) to the most literary or sophisticated, like poems, short stories and academic writing. All writing serves the purpose of getting to know myself, and working through problems that include intellectual as well as personal and intimate questions about my life, the people around me, and the world that surrounds me.
Certainly, the largest project I am currently undertaking, as a PhD student, is, of course, my dissertation—and it is as daunting a task at times, as it is incredibly fulfilling. But it has given me the opportunity to become very aware about my own writing, and to try to improve as much as possible to produce a work that is equal parts sophistication, accessibility and meaningfulness. It serves a very pragmatic purpose—to get a PhD; but also it is an opportunity to say something meaningful about Latin American cultural production, and how it relates to important global/local political and social questions in the contemporary world.
When I write fiction or poems, it gives me a break from the academy, and it allows me to take my preoccupations through different directions for which the framework of academic writing may not allow.
How do you usually start a poem, story, etc?
I have two different methods when I write poetry vs. fiction. When I write poems, I actually edit very little. I first jot down lines that usually come from an emotion that may be connected to an object, to a scene, or a feeling itself that is so evocative I cannot but write about it. A picture of oranges covered by snow, or the way the light hits my desk through the window in one afternoon, the feeling produced by an intimate story told by a friend, or a memory. In my poems, as paradoxical as it might sound, I want to capture ephemerality itself and treasure it for a few moments. I think that’s why most of my poems are rather short. They are photographs rather than stories. I don’t want to tell a tale, but rather present a moment. After I have written a first draft of a poem, I let it sit for a while, and come back to it a few days later to see if it still evokes something for me. I might edit a few words here and there, but I keep it very close to the original, or I toss it if I think it doesn’t work. I am not interested in recreating the dictum “the best words, the best order”, but rather to think of the poem as a gesture. Gesture as opposed to meaning, and meaning as something that hopes to be everlasting.
The way I think about short stories is the other side of this equation. I write and re-write endlessly. It takes me forever to get a piece going, and to edit it. I wrote some short stories when I was younger, recently that side of my work has been somewhat scarce, but mostly because it is a very time-consuming task for me, and my academic endeavors keep me pretty busy. My short stories start out from and idea, a concept, which I try to materialize in a specific context. The latest story short story I wrote was about the question, what does it mean to leave home? An idea that fascinates me, and that I wanted to materialize in the specific context of my life in LI and in New Orleans and the movement between those two cities. But it took me about six months to think about it and write out the first draft, and then, it took me another six months to a year to edit it to a point I felt comfortable with. I am currently working on a similar story of movement between these two spaces but that focuses on the question of an irresolvable love. What happens in that moment when you know a relationship does not work anymore? How do you make meaning out of that loss? So, in my fiction, I want to work out questions that I am interested in, things that can be very intimate and focus on my own preoccupations about my life, but that can also be more universal. My stories, in one way or another, start from a very intimate and personal place, but then turn into something else.
In a way, my poems and my fiction are complementary endeavors. Short stories are the meaning side of the equation and poems are the gesture side of it. These are the two forces fighting it out in the symbolic realm, gesture and meaning, and the fight is to accurately represent life, and in a way, it is the problem that I will be endlessly resolving through my writing. Is life ultimately meaning? Or is it ultimately gesture? All the other questions, the humanistic, the political, the social, the philosophical, the aesthetic emerge from here.
Of course, as an academic-in-training, the intellectual endeavor of studying Latin American cultural production is profoundly related to my preoccupations in my own poetry and fiction, and it is another side of the story. It is, perhaps, more closely related to my fiction in the sense that studying Latin America is also about the production of meaning, politically and spatially located within specific boundaries as it is, but an enterprise that I can’t deny has an affective side that relates to intimate personal questions.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
This is something that produces a lot of anxiety for me, actually. But, if I were to give an answer, I would say that a piece is finished when I am not willing to spend more time on it at a given time, and I make the decision to send it somewhere, to file it in some hidden folder in my computer, or to move on to something else I need or want to do. Jorge Luis Borges is said to continuously have re-edited his entire oeuvre until he died, and so, editing never ends. It is just that sometimes you need to make pragmatic decisions about time, and your own sanity. One can obsess endlessly about the same line for an entire life. Work is never finished, but time does end, and the new season of GOT is starting.
What writers/artists are influencing you right now?
I am lucky that I feel comfortable reading in English, Spanish and Portuguese as well, so I try to read in those three languages as much as I can. I mostly read contemporary stuff, and sometimes it’s hard to find foreign books translated into English in the U.S.
The U.S. literary world has been accused of being isolationist when it comes to translations, which are hard to find here. Translations of literary works account for a very minimal part of the market share. And, for example, the Nobel from last year, the French Patrick Mondiano, had either barely or never been translated into English at that time (translations started popping up right after). But, some people remain hopeful, and I think, projects like the indie label AOS (& Other Stories), which focuses only on translations, are giving a voice to contemporary writing from other countries. I mean, yes, for example in the context of translations of Latin American writers, many of my non-academic friends have read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but that novel is already almost 50 years old, and there are so many other things out there to read. Recently, Roberto Bolaño was translated into English (2666 and The Savage Detectives were received quite well by U.S. critics) and was a huge commercial success, and hopefully, new writers will continue to be translated and given a chance in the U.S. market. Before I leave has been kind enough to publish some of my poems with translations, and hopefully, other young writers can do the same.
With that said, I’ve been spending the last few months (And “few” we’ll define very vaguely) working on the first chapter of my dissertation, so I must mention two writers that I have been thinking about quite a bit in relation to that. They are the Colombian writer Antonio Ungar, whose work has been partially translated to English, and Rubens Figueiredo, a Brazilian novelist and translator, whose work has not been translated as far as I know.
Aside from that, four contemporary American fiction writers whose work I admire are Miranda July, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer. The Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and the argentine Iosi Havilio I have also read recently very intensely (both of which have been translated into English). In poetry, Ted Kooser’s Delights & Shadows is one that I constantly read and re-read, and the Mexican poet Coral Bracho fascinates me entirely. Forrest Gander’s translation of some of her poems Firefly Under the Tongue is truly a wonderful read. Another writer I have read and reread throughout the years is the Portuguese José Saramago. Curiously, I’ve read him in Spanish and English but never in the original.
Also, I am fascinated by the work of Nic Pizzolatto in True Detective and Beau Willimon in House of Cards. I think if you are interested in literature, you can no longer ignore some of the TV being produced currently. The writing is truly fantastic.
What do you want people to know about your work?
I am only getting started, and hopefully, there will be much more to come.
What question do you wish I asked you?
You should be happy you didn’t ask me more questions; I could go on for hours about anything and everything (My friends are forever complaining)…