Photograph of Enza García

“We’ve transcended the figure of the cursed, suffering writer”

Interview with Enza García Arreaza, poet and writer, currently living in Iowa, USA

By Anisa Marsh and Nicol Navas

What was your first encounter with the world of literature? Who was the writer that first captivated you or acted as your point of reference?

Over the years, I have given various answers to this question. Not because I’m lying, but because I believe that memory is like this: a creature with many versions. I would say that my first brush with literature could be related to my discovery of astronomy and science in general. At first, I remember wanting to be an astronomer. A boy in school had brought a book of Greek mythology and, while I was reading about that, I found an old book on astronomy that I don’t even know where it came from nor why it was in my house. We never were a house of readers precisely, nor did we have a library: I didn’t inherit books from my parents or anything of the sort. So, I remember those two circumstances were a wake-up call for me and that, from then on, I wanted to read everything that was in reach. Later, I had a phase in which I wanted to be a veterinarian, like most kids do, and I bought magazines about pets. Then I continued to buy magazines about science too until, finally, I remember that one of the first stories I read was El ángel caído [The Fallen Angel] by Amado Nervo. And at that time, I was still in primary school. At some point in preparatory school, I remember reading, because I looked for it on the internet, Cortázar and Borges’ first stories and I thought, “I think I would like to do this too, I believe I would like to make things up”. But it was also something that I had always been doing since I was little because I remember being profoundly scared and anxious of my mum all the time, she was a very difficult person. I tried to talk about that, but I believe that they didn’t really pay me any attention. My dad didn’t know how to respond to my restlessness and my concern about my mum’s mental illness. So, I remember that noting little things down in a notebook was the best way to survive the day. And when I say ‘note things down’ it was, well yes, writing a word or a phrase or drawing something. So more or less around that time is where I would mark the beginning of my literary existence.

What was the reason you chose not to simply “write in silence” but rather bring to light the “little things” you noted down? Where did this necessity to unleash those words and publish them come from?

I write about the things that matter to me and that I am obsessed with (I don’t think there are many), and amongst those I would say that the principal one is my mum. My mum, as you will see, is my favourite resource, she is the core of my work. Something that changed my life when I was a little girl was the feeling that she did not love me. That is to say, that first sensation of heartbreak, of being rejected, came from her. That completely transformed the way in which I was part of the world, and of course filled me with anger and fear. At some point I awkwardly thought that I had to survive, that I had to get over it and, in a certain way, I think that arrogance was my method of survival. Having a broken heart from the start has led me to find a way to put together the pieces and say, “nobody will get me down”. And I thought, “Okay, there are many bad things in my life: my mum doesn’t love me, I’m ugly, they’ve called me ugly, fat, Indian…” I felt so miserable, and I was desperate to find a reason not to feel that way. I thought, “Okay, and what happens if I try to write?” because it was something they couldn’t forbid me from doing as well, like they had with a load of things.

When I’d said I wanted to be an astronomer they had laughed at me because “Oh how silly, how are you going to be an astronomer here? What will you study? There’s no Astronomy class at university here”. Nobody told me that I could study Physics at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas and then apply to do a masters or doctorate in any other place. Then when I said I wanted to be a vet, “Oh but how silly, you would have to move from this city and obviously you’re not going to move”. Finally, I said I wanted to study Philosophy, which is what I did study at university, and that was also an issue. I believe that they only let me because of my attempted suicide and because I had to go to therapy. So, I think my life has been this constant conflict between the prohibitions of my family, of my cultural and social surroundings and that voraciousness and arrogance that pushed me all the time to say, “No, look, you are not going to destroy me, you are not going to eliminate me, you are not going to erase me because – it’s annoying, I don’t feel like it! You cannot destroy me any more than what has already happened to us.” Because I also think about it collectively.

I was 11 years old when all that political process began, so it is also difficult to separate my life, my upbringing, from what happened in the country.

Has your writing changed since your migration? Do you believe that your surroundings (first in Puerto la Cruz, then Caracas, and now Iowa) have influenced your way of writing? If yes, how? And if not, how do you believe you maintain your poetic voice as immutable?

I think that I live trying to respond to that question. I would say that, yes, I feel that it has changed but, on the other hand, I think that it’s too soon or that I’m still too close to this process of change to be able to give a correct response about what I’m experiencing. It’s as if I’m not me while I experience all of this, which at times I find terrifying, at times exhausting or other times I find it stimulating and fun. So, I am excited, and I think I am going to finish the novel that I started when I was in Providence and that I have not touched since I left and moved to Iowa. On the one hand, I believe that I feel guilty because I think my migration has been framed in certain privilege. I believe it has been easy, bearing in mind the situation for other Venezuelans. But at the same time, I feel in a way that it has ruined my life.

Last night we watched the latest film by Sofia Coppola, On the Rocks, and I was on the brink of tears and I said to my husband James, “But, how sad! I’m losing my dad’s best years to go out and invent things together.” There is a permanent rage – that is to say, I don’t remember a moment in my life when I did not feel enraged. Enraged at knowing what has happened in Venezuela and that, in a way, I’m not really here because I have been ‘free’. Of course, I arrived here because I had the wonderful opportunity to work at Brown University, and then I had reason to stay because I wanted to start a life with this man [James]. But at the same time the other reality remains: I am here for those other reasons. So, there is a deep bitterness, and this bitterness, without a doubt, infects my work. I can say with a lot of caution that, yes, my way of thinking and writing has been affected. I still cannot recognise how far these changes have reached, but I guess in the end what I’m writing, or what I’m not writing, is a result of this ruined life. So, I imagine that now I’m in the ‘archaeological’ process of my work, seeing through those ruins.

In reference to the words “exiled” and “displaced”, both of which work to distinguish certain groups of people who, owing to different circumstances, live outside of their birth country, how would you define yourself? Do you feel that you are (permanently or temporarily) exiled or displaced?

That distinction between permanently or temporarily is important, and I respect the word that each person chooses for themselves. I’m not going to enter into the debate because the last thing I want, more so after having lived under a dictatorship, is to tell someone how to feel or how to define themselves, but in my case, I would not use the word “exiled”, I prefer to use “displaced”.

Bearing in mind all that has already been mentioned about how both your family and the political situation you had to live through have influenced your biography, do you believe that Enza the poet always existed, or was she constructed according to her circumstances?

I remember being, who knows, about 6 or 7 years old and watching movies with my family and paying attention to the words. I remember reading the subtitles and ending up thinking about the things they said. I remember having started to distinguish between the ‘common language’ with which we spoke and then this ‘other thing’. And I asked myself what this ‘other thing’ was, but I didn’t have a way to channel that curiosity because nobody in my house was a reader. School still had a very aggressive atmosphere. I remember with bitterness that even in school you were branded weird if you deviated even just a little bit from what you should be studying. I remember having felt exposed not only by the other kids but even by the teachers, “Well, because you like to read those weird books”. I feel like [Enza the poet] was there from the start, way before I saw where both my personal tragedy and the subsequent political and dictatorial tragedy of Venezuela were heading. Long before I even decided I wanted to do ‘that thing’. I remember that foundational curiosity.

What do you believe the ‘identity’ is that you have created in the wake of your poems? That is, the identity solely understood from the glimpses that your work offers.

I think the concept of ‘identity’ is flawed. It’s a whole other matter, because I don’t believe that one’s identity is something immutable: that it’s something you construct and that’s it, all done, and then you offer it up to the world. I, for example, think about my identity even more so now I am no longer a writer. Lately, I have been thinking about what I’m going to do. I feel terribly scared and anxious about continuing here as an immigrant while the migration process does not advance. I see the news about Venezuelans being deported and, even though I don’t believe that I face this possibility yet, it still scares me and makes me feel miserable. The future looks uncertain. Up against all this, I feel like there is very little space left to be a writer.

When you have to resolve those types of issues, which is something I already did in Venezuela, when you don’t have electricity, you don’t have drinking water, you don’t know what you are going to eat and you can’t think because of the hunger, or you’ve not been able to wash and you feel disgusting and unclean, and you’re thinking about killing yourself… well, I don’t believe there is a place there to be able to practice poetry. Above all because I think we’ve transcended the figure of the ‘cursed writer’ who suffers and must only access knowledge of themselves and the world through suffering. I’m fed up with this.

For me to write I need to be at peace, I want to have internet, to have eaten three times in the day, to not be wondering if my mum and dad are dying of hunger, to be calm. To the point even that I want to be bored, and in that boredom, I want to find ways to surprise myself.

Nevertheless, I feel again like I’m at a crossroads and I ask myself, “okay, will I continue being a writer? I don’t know.” And so I have discovered that I would not be scared if I were never to be a writer again. Ten years ago, it was inconceivable to me. Not least because I have noted, too, that all the time I was at Brown University, where I had all of those desired components, and all the tranquillity to be able to write, even then I didn’t finish any work of fiction. Yes, I wrote lots of poetry. And so I find myself facing questions like, “Am I still a writer, or am I a poet? Have I always been a poet? Had I written fiction simply because it was the tool I needed while I was in Venezuela?” I believe that poems help me to view my identity, to explore the different versions of myself and to take note of that multiplicity of voices.

Now I feel like that is consonant with living a bilingual life. That also has had a significant effect these past three years because it was a drastic change. It was one thing to read or have to communicate in English to participate in the Creative Writing programme the first time I came here to the US, but it’s another thing entirely to end up living life in another language, to have a sentimental relation so important that it forced me to, because at that time James didn’t speak any Spanish. It was all a big change. In fact, now that I’m talking to you I have realised that I speak to my dad daily and when I talk to him nothing changes, I am me, wholly me, with my accent from my city and the way in which I speak to him. But when I talk to someone else, it’s an affliction. I pronounce the letter ‘s’ differently, and I forget words because I am thinking of them in English and I feel like I’m in a performance. I notice that when I write I use shorter phrases and I can waste time because, for example, I think of an adjective in English and then I have to look up the translation. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve forgotten words. Before, I used to joke about people who, when they started living in the US or England, would forget some words in Spanish and I would say to them, “Ha but that’s just arrogant”, but no, it’s true! It does happen. And it’s really funny and it opens up a space to think, to muse about language, which is something really important to me, and also has many racial or spiritual implications and so on.

What you say about languages is fascinating. Regarding the translation of your works, do you believe that it is a task that only you can do? Is translating your work a desire, or does it feel like an obligation?

I fervently believe in translation. I don’t remember the phrase exactly, but Brodsky has such a marvellous idea about the importance of translation. It’s such an important emotional and social conductor… There are so many implications because you cannot be exact, and, suddenly, to translate a poem or a tale is to translate a culture, to look for equivalents or ways of connecting one thing to another. I would love for my work to be translated by other people, “Here, take it, do what you want with it, it’s yours”. But I also have translated my work. It’s a project that I have carried out by myself in private and I have shared with James and it’s fascinating, above all, because when I am translating something of mine, I don’t know if I am translating it or re-writing it in English. Many times it has been the case that I am translating and then I end up writing something else and, even though it shames me to say it, why not: I believe that I have been writing poetry in English. But, returning to the point, I am totally on the side of the translators. To me, they are artists, as it is a discipline that requires technique, preparation, and a little bit of what we call ‘inspiration’. I am reminded too of Brodsky complaining in an interview about his translators and poking his nose into their business, and I find it adorable just because it’s him, but it also seems a bit foolish to me. It’s best to leave translators to do their work.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your first publishing? How was the process of presenting your work to the rest of the world?

For me, it was wonderful. If I’m not wrong, it was in 2004. Sometimes I remember what happened and I still can’t believe that it happened to me, not least because of the many conflicts I was having at home. It was crazy because I failed my last year at prep school even though I had always had good grades and always behaved myself. Suddenly, oof! I had failed, and my mum and dad were like, “But what is this?!” and it was tremendous gossip, everyone at school was talking badly about me and calling up my dad saying, “But what happened? Is she pregnant? Is she taking drugs?” and that was the end of the world. It was a horrible time, and I was very depressed, and my mum and dad didn’t know how to help me. Then there was the attempt to kill myself by taking my mum’s two boxes of alprazolam. Luckily, I went running to my sister and I told her I’d taken the pills just before fainting. That was awful. Three days after that I was in the hospital, and I didn’t remember anything. And I thought, “How annoying, I have to go to therapy because, the truth is, I don’t believe I want to kill myself”, that is to say, yes, I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t want to either because, well what a horror. And also, I was a virgin! What a horror to kill myself before having tried that yet!

So, I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to calm down” and I learnt on the internet that there was a competition in Spain in Casa de América for teenagers between 14 and 18 years old and I was 16. I remember that I wrote the story in two weeks. It was a tale about a girl of about my age who was in Caracas, well, I wrote about Caracas without ever having been there. And this girl fell in love with an older guy who gifted her books, because I wanted to fall in love with an older guy who gave me books. I sent the story, and I was really sad because it was the results were going to be given in October and I had sent it in May, but they weren’t and I said, “Ugh, I lost, how annoying”. But, no. They ended up calling me and I had won! I remember that when I was sending my story in my dad had said to me, “Well, hopefully you’ll win, it would be amazing if you did.” Not least because the prize was a trip to Spain. He would say, “Oh! Imagine if you win and you have to go?” but I believe that deep down we were a bit sceptical that it was something that could really happen to me, but it did! And I believe that it changed my life completely because I had recognition from different people in another location. It meant that something I had written was going to be published in a book. It allowed me to have a certain notoriety in Venezuela. I remember two days before winning I had sent the same story to a digital magazine, and they had said no. “Well, perhaps you have to wait a while. The story is good, but perhaps it lacks technique”. Three days later, I won the competition and I told that person, the editor, and then he wanted to review it. I had one of my first interviews with the local newspaper in my city Puerto la Cruz, and I was like, “Wow, all of this is happening to me!” And what I liked most was that there was a tonne of people saying to my mum and dad, “Well, maybe the girl isn’t so stupid, and she is capable.”

From then on, I began to publish things and the rest of my life had begun. There is a part of me that believes that it was the beginning of my existence as a person and as a writer. I remember that I didn’t sleep for about a week out of pure happiness, but it was also a mix of anger and sadness because it seemed like, “Oh, I had to go through all of that… those people had to come into my life just so that my mum and dad believed in me.” Because all of that mess of wanting to kill myself and having failed fifth grade happened because I had told them I wanted to study Philosophy, and that meant I would have to move to Caracas to study at the Central University, and they did not want that. And I thought, “But how stupid! How are they going to tell me that I can’t study at the most important university in the country”. But, of course, now I understand it better. They were definitely not prepared for a daughter who wanted to be an artist. I remember them saying to me, “How are you going to study Philosophy? You will starve”. What’s more, when I had to go to university the dictatorial face of Hugo Chavez’s government was already showing. Because at the start of his government, well, things weren’t so bad. But when I needed to move to Caracas to study, the crisis was already affecting my family, affecting my home. My dad was already struggling to support me in another city and maintain the house.

The award ceremony happened in 2006 in the end. That was the year I travelled to Madrid. It was the first time I left Venezuela and it was the first time my dad left too. So, we were both terrified and confused by it all. They already had the editing ready and that was the first time I saw my name in a book. What’s more, it was a Siruela hardcover, very expensive and very beautiful books, and I couldn’t believe that my story was in there. It contained a prologue by Gustavo Martín Garzo and it was the first time that I read something a person said about what I had written. It’s a very fond and emotional memory of mine. Nevertheless, it was a very intense moment because it was terrifying having to go to Madrid. From the moment we stepped into Barajas Airport we had our first encounter with being the Other. We were there a week, and it was very hard for us both, and perhaps more for my dad because he was already a man in his fifties who had never left Venezuela. Let’s just say that he had lived that kind of underhand racism from our culture his whole life, but to face what we did when we were in Spain was very hard. We stayed in the Student Residence, a super beautiful place where people invited by institutions stay and we were the only non-whites. And I believe that it was the first time we lived through a situation like that. Everyone watching us, though they probably weren’t even looking at us, but it felt that way. But yes, I remember that it changed my perspective for a lot of things, and I recall returning to Caracas very angry and awake to new realities. After this, obviously, I ended up feeling that again in 2016 when I left the country to go to the Guadalajara International Book Fair. Again, the feeling of being the ‘undesired Other’. And I had to go in the context of Venezuela increasingly having more resonance and in which Venezuelan migration was causing many, many problems in the continent.

It makes us think a bit about the title of the poetry book, Cosmonauta. We understand it to mean someone who travels from the earth to the universe, one who leaves their home behind to face the infinite unknown. To what extent can we relate it your migration and these experiences abroad? Do you consider yourself a cosmonaut?

Yes, without a doubt. Some of those poems already existed, I wrote them in that period between returning to Venezuela from my first trip to the US and my final departure. It hints at some recurrent themes, and there is a bit in there about my relationship with James which, to me, is like Otherness materialised. Not only because he is who he is, and is another person with another language and country, but because it’s also Otherness in me. Because the matter is this, I believe that Cosmonauta, the book, responded more to how I had always felt out of place. I don’t know if the book precisely announced that I would no longer be in Venezuela, or the crisis, or the destruction of the country… I don’t believe that the book is about this, but I do believe it did touch on the old conversation I was having with myself, with other elements of my life, and with other people about not being in the ‘right place’.

I would say that one is, before anything else, the cosmonaut of that fragmented identity. Oneself, in many ways, can be that piece of ‘unknown spaces’, and daring to enter that other place is a huge task, and exhausting.

Another query from the poetry book is the relevance of the nuclear family. There is the authoritative, sometimes oppressive, mother figure and the father who, even though he is dominant, is a more benevolent figure. From your point of view of these two figures, in contrast with the maternal and paternal present in our society, what is Venezuela to you? Is Venezuela a mother or father?

That is a golden question. You should ask all the Venezuelan writers that and create an anthology.

I would say that Venezuela is a troubled marriage. It is, at times, that absent father, which is the defining figure of our society. I am an atypical case, because if anything I have an excess of father and many times my dad has taken on the role of the mother. My mum does not fit in to that Venezuelan mother figure that is both mother and father at the same time. My mum was incredibly mistreated, abused by her family, by her own mother. And to me, that was the start of the whole tragedy that has been my life. Her and all that came before her, that frightening cycle of violence. My grandmother, Ana, mistreated my mum a lot and she always preferred the men. I think of my mum being abused and having to go out and sell empanadas because if not she would smash their heads to pieces. One of the most impressive things that has happened to me as a result of the book, of Cosmonauta, is that many women wrote to me to say that their mum was like that too. Venezuela is that marriage between an absent father and women who tend to go crazy.

I think of the country as a metaphor of dread. It’s frightening to be a woman sometimes. It is quite an arduous, thankless, and terrifying task – and of course everywhere, not just in Venezuela. But I want to say that, seeing as you asked me the question in that way, it turns out it is almost impossible to think of Venezuela without thinking about those types of relationships. Without thinking of what it was to be a woman for me and make peace with being a woman in that context. Dealing with that absent masculinity, that, even though it was not exactly my story, continues to have a certain resonance. So, yes, I understand the country as an echo of all those failures and that defining violence.

What do you think it is like to be a writer (male or female) living in Venezuela nowadays? In what way do you think the migration of writers from different parts of the world has contributed to the internationalisation of literature and, specifically, Venezuelan poetry?

I have a deep admiration for the young poets that are there. It causes me a lot of pain. Until I was about 25 or 26, I still had the opportunity to see the country that was there, a country that existed. I remember my existence as a Venezuelan writer and how terrible it was those last months I spent there. It was terrifying not having anything to eat, not having basic services, not knowing what to do. And things have worsened tremendously. I think of those young people, and in general all those who are still there, writing, from a deep pain. That’s why it was an honour to be able to publish Cosmonauta with La Poeteca, to publish Cosmonauta in Venezuela. To see this project continue despite everything, with everything up against it.

There are people that like to say that Venezuela no longer exists, that Caracas no longer exists, and sometimes I feel like they almost say it with resentment. As if it makes them angry that things continue happening that contradict a little the narrative that Venezuela has ‘disappeared’, and that it is mired in an absolute crisis. This annoys me.

Certainly, the perhaps more ‘personal’ Venezuela no longer exists. To me, in a certain way, it doesn’t exist because as long as my family are in danger, my sister talks about committing suicide, my nephew has tremendous emotional problems… as long as things are bad, of course there is an element of ‘non-existence’. There is a persistent annoyance and anger because the narratives do not coincide. On the one hand, there is a group of exiles who are interested in the narrative centred around the ‘country that does not exist’, perhaps to justify their own decision. That is where I feel incredibly annoyed and uncomfortable because I believe that that is not the point, because Venezuela does of course exist! And there are millions of people there doing everything possible to stay alive. I remember someone said to me, “Why are you going to publish the book with La Poeteca? It appears to me to be a loss, a waste.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Cheers. It will be a waste, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

There are also many furious people in the country, who continue living there, who cannot bear the presence nor the way in which other Venezuelans have found a way to exist outside of Venezuela. There is sometimes a certain type of confrontation and I simply say that I prefer not to dedicate energy to that. It’s best to avoid failing into these dynamics and useless conflicts. Now, of course, if it encourages you to meditate on these affairs then I always welcome critical literature. I am enthused by these figures, by Venezuelan writers who are being published in other countries. That is the case with Karina Sainz, Rodrigo Blanco, Manuel Gerardo Sánchez… I believe that it is good news. Venezuelan literature being published is always good news. There is a certain notoriety that falls on the country because of our situation and I believe that it’s producing a type of literature that seeks to explain it. It seems okay to me for each writer to look to respond to those questions. In my case, I think there is political content in my work, but I don’t consider it the main essence of my literary work. It’s not what I am seeking, I don’t look to respond to anything. But, returning to the question, I am hugely excited when a Venezuelan is published or when they win a prize. I am glad that we exist.

In the book Cosmonauta we can see many illustrations and collages, and we noticed that there was a repetition of images. Firstly, there were various houses: a residential building, a house, another building, another house… and then further on there were windows. So, we wondered, is the cosmonaut looking for a new home or do they wish to escape?

You said, “new home” and I think I was about to cry. The cosmonaut is a literary device and I could hide behind that, but it seems silly to me because sometimes I think that as writers we disguise what we’re doing when in reality it is simple. I don’t know – you are going to write a book or a poem because you are sad, or because you are fed up, or you need a thing of beauty, and what is beauty? It’s nothing complicated at all, nothing more than that warmth, something warm that you feel in your head and heart. And everything is okay for a second. The images also come from the fact that I like taking photos and the ones in the book are ones I took in Providence. I did the majority of the drawings when the pandemic was beginning and I believe that also shows in the book, even though I don’t say so. Later on, I thought about the relevance of that. What’s happening in Venezuela, for example: imagine that, if I already felt like my parents were in danger every day, with the inexistent healthcare system in Venezuela I thought, “Either I am going to die, or James, or my whole family in Venezuela is going to die without soap, even.” How terrifying. Because the only thing I could do was go out and take photos. The windows and houses in Providence from the outside were something that comforted me. But if you ask me, I believe that, yes, I would like to not have to flee anymore.

I would like to not have to think about how I am going to die, because I still find myself waking up at 2 in the morning, like I used to when I was in Puerto la Cruz because one time they tried to assault us at home and there was a small confrontation with the delinquents who were on the wall. Nothing happened to us and, let’s say, at that time, we had lived with the horror of violence and insecurity in Venezuela, but in that moment it materialised. And since then we stopped sleeping. The last four years I spent in Venezuela were marked by that: the constant fear of being assassinated, not least because it’s what’s common when there are assaults on people’s homes. And it was happening in my neighbourhood. So, I still wake up at night here. When I don’t take sleeping pills, I continue to repeat that pattern of anguish and I keep thinking about what could happen to my mum and dad who are alone in the house. What’s more, people of that age are the preferred victims of criminals. Sometimes I wonder, “What would it be like to live without having to think all the time about how you are going to die or that people are going to kill what you most love?” It would be amazing.