“People are shocked by the amount of dead bodies carried in my memory”
Interview with Oriette D’Angelo, poet and cultural promoter, currently living in Iowa, USA
By Maisy Bull and María Gámez Roldán
What are you up to at the moment?
Right now I’m doing my PhD in Hispanic Studies. I first arrived to study English, I then did a masters in Chicago, after that I did my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa and now I’m doing my PhD in Iowa too. My life at the moment is completely dedicated to academia, that’s what I’m doing now. That’s my life right now: reading, reading and more reading, and lots of writing on top of that. I needed to find a way of leaving Venezuela, and thankfully that was through studying and going to America. I should mention, too, that I’m privileged, as I’ve been able to get a scholarship here, which has allowed me to leave the country.
How well does your academic self interlink with your more creative side? Do they influence one another?
It’s interesting, because the topics that I study and research within the academic world are very closely linked to what I write about. Right now, for example, I’m researching bodies and violence, in a general sense, which is what the first poem within my collection is about. So for me, in that respect, it hasn’t been too challenging. However, it’s no lie that it has been difficult at times, since I didn’t study literature. In Venezuela, I studied Law and I then went on to study Communications. My first encounter within the academic world was within my Masters in Creative Writing, that is, three years ago. I’ve had to teach myself how to write academic papers, how to study literature and how to intervene in literature classes, that has been the biggest challenge. I’ve had to dedicate a lot of time to studying literary theory. I’ve been battling more in terms of time and dedication. I haven’t been able to devote myself to writing as much as I have done in previous years, however I like to look at crafting academic work as a piece of writing, as something which will later form part of a book. For me everything comes down to writing and fortunately I’ve found that all to be within the same world.
Would you say that academia and the arts work well in conjunction for you?
What happens is that a lot of the time I’m faced with lecturers who don’t consider creative writing as an academic subject. So what tends to happen, coming from the world of creative writing, people tend to think that we don’t have what it takes, talking informally, to dedicate ourselves to academic matters. I’m saying this in plural as it doesn’t just happen to me, but also to many of my colleagues. We need to prove to them that we actually can, that yes we do have the vocabulary and that we do have the knowledge. But obviously, to be able to prove ourselves we need to do a lot of studying on our own account. Another thing is that in academic writing it’s always assumed that the tone must maintain a certain degree of formality: you obviously need to have a slightly distant, documentary and rhetorical tone… But to my surprise and after reading I’ve come across an array of female writers who combine creativity and the personal with the academic. One of my references is bell hooks: she’s an author that I love, and one of my reasons for loving her is because in writing a feminist essay, she talks about her youth. In that way, she theorises feminism but also connects it to the personal with an intimate tone. Bit by bit I’ve been connecting and finding references for the things that I would like to do in my academic life.
Earlier on you mentioned that you went to the United States as a means to escape from Venezuela. Would you be happy to talk to us about this?
It’s no secret that the situation in Venezuelan has become even worse within the last decade. I was nine years old when – at least I can say it – former president Hugo Chávez took power. Since I was little I grew up watching the chavista regime take over institutions and it was difficult seeing how his campaign and way of doing politics was becoming evermore restrictive and aggressive. I studied Law for this reason exactly, it sounds very romantic, but I wanted to save Venezuela, I wanted to be a diplomat, I wanted to be president of Venezuela. In theory it was a beautiful idea, but when it came to me working as a lawyer it wasn’t so pretty.
As a young adult I began to come up against the politics of the country, with the scarcity of food, and hygiene products… The truth is that life for Venezuelans between the years of 2012 and 2016 consisted of queuing. I lived in fear: the violence in Venezuela is very serious… My ex-husband applied for a PhD here in the United States, I was working within social media, nothing related to literature. He was accepted for a PhD in Chicago and that was the way out. It went something like: we’re going to get married, we’ll go to live in the United States and you’ll go to study English. My family, obviously, were hoping that I’d make that decision. The United States wasn’t part of my plan, I wanted to go to Spain or to Argentina or to Chile, but that’s how it ended up and I’ve been so thankful being in America and for the opportunities that this country has given me. That was my reason and the same reason that everyone else has.
Within your collection Cardiopatías, we see a lot of pain and violence, as well as images of the wounded body… Given what you have told us, it would seem that your work has autobiographical elements: would you agree? Where was Cardiopatías born?
Poetry for me, in a very personal sense, is autobiographical. Poetry always contains elements of the truth, it always tells the truth within the limits of what we understand as memory. Cardiopatías is a project of denunciation. I began writing the book just with individual poems in 2012 and I don’t quite remember how the title emerged exactly, but I know that I reached a point where I had so many separate texts that I told myself – and I remember saying this to my ex-husband -: “I feel as though I can’t write a poetry collection but all these poems share the theme of the body and the country, the body and and violence.” He then replied: “You could try to bring in the theme of illness and the theme of the situation of the body in both its internal fragility and its fragility within a county; how the body is established as an element within a city that preys on it”. I began to read lots of diaries, I began reading, for example, Miyó Vestrini, a Venezuelan poet, and I began obsessing over writers who wrote about their own body and their country. I then realised that there had been a whole stream of writers who had begun doing this before me, and, so I realised that I wanted to talk about Venezuela in 2012. Having taken this direction, I began exploring a documentary style, exploring massacres which had happened in Venezuela and the friends who had died. From there, I realised that I had this topic and within a year I finished the book. I like to think that Cardiopatías comes from disorder.
Within Cardiopatías, Caracas is personified as a grieving woman and it makes reference to machista violence. As a Venezuelan woman, specifically a woman from Caracas, how has both Cardiopatías and your academic work been received?
Within Cardiopatías, Caracas is personified as a woman and this isn’t something which is just related to the situation in Venezuela: the situation for woman is still precarious throughout the world. I was shocked that even in 2021 we are still having to explain that violence against women exists, that machismo exists… I am following the news in Spain, and the subject of Samuel, the young boy from A Coruña who was killed, it’s an issue of machista violence. I’ve just finished reading an article which tries to justify and defend the aggressors with behavioural similarities to Fortnite, for example. Fourteenth of July 2021, I read someone actually trying to justify machista violence with a video game. It makes me furious having to constantly explain to the world how difficult it is to be a woman. I’ve always thought of Caracas as a city which has been struck by totalitarianism and machismo is a totalitarian phenomenon: it’s a way of thinking which they haven’t changed because it isn’t within their interest. From the beginning, in my identity as a Venezuelan woman, and especially a woman from Caracas, I associate the violence that I, as a woman, have endured on the streets and suffered from old partners or within family environments, with the violence which I lived through when I had to fight for a piece of meat, when I had to stand in a queue, when I had to see people dying.
Here in Venezuela people ask me how many dead bodies I’ve seen in the United States. People are shocked by the amount of dead bodies that are carried in my memory: that type of violence changes your body and the structure of your brain. Machista violence is also included in this, which is why I decided to personify the city, because it is through her that I am able to talk about myself, and I’m always going to talk through my body as a female, I’m always going to speak out.
I’m going to summarise the academic world with a single sentence; one day a very well renowned Venezuelan writer told me: “You write well, but it’s very feminist”.
Through what you’ve said it seems that Cardiopatías is a book which formed naturally, without much premeditation. What is the intention behind Cardiopatías, if there is one?
The goal is political: I wrote poems which denounced the politics of my country. In Venezuela, one of the most traditional ways of getting into the literary world is through winning prizes: the prize for unpublished authors run by Monte Ávila, a state-owned publishing house which, traditionally, has published new voices. In that moment, the state was represented by Hugo Chávez Frías’ government, so Monte Ávila’s policy was simply publishing and highlighting the poets who were linked to his political ideology. I like to think of myself as a kind of undercover agent as I submitted to this prize. [I did it] firstly, because it’s a highly prestigious prize for a young writer’s career, and secondly, because I wanted to infiltrate this the political world.
I wanted to be able to read poetry opposing the government at a government led event, which is terrifying, but as I’m quite a conflictive character, I wanted to read poetry which was against Chávez within a room full of people who adore Chávez.
Surprisingly, I won. I completely respect the jury who chose the wining book, but I still felt as though it was a form of negotiation, something which went a bit like “This girl sent in poems which make a stand against the government, so let’s show her a government which is inclusive, that here we have dissent voices and that there is space for her to share her books which us.” I don’t know why this book of mine won the award, but there I was reading poems against the government within a government festival, so the truth is that I did have a political aim.
All of the political aim which you’ve spoken about is reminiscent of the work of Federico García Lorca, to whom you pay tribute within the poem “I lived one hundred years under the knife”. Would you like to talk about your influences and references? We can also see that you cite the singer Manolo García. What affect does your love of music have within your writing?
I think what brings García Lorca and I together is persecution: he too denounced his persecution, spoke up while living through dictatorships, spoke about the bodies which were next to disappear. And this was my own constant fear within Venezuela: being murdered for being a woman, that they’d murder me on the streets… If I have to expand on what ties our work together, it’s the fear of disappearing that underlies my work, which I use as my form of testimony. I’m not phased by whether people think my poetry is good or bad as it’s all I have to give.
Regarding music, I want to talk about Manolo García, who in fact received my book recently. This is really important for me since I grew up with his music. My very first introduction to literature was through music. I grew up in a city called Lecheria and, when I was little, there were two bookshops: one which nobody knew about and another in a shopping centre. They shut down the one in the shopping centre when I turned nineteen to open a clothing shop, which I think explains quite well about what the city was like in that moment. I didn’t have access to any libraries or bookstores, everything that I read was just out of curiosity on the internet or because the teachers from my school were incredible. All of my training within the arts was self-taught and music, the art of songs, Manolo García, whose music is eminently poetic, was present.
The theme of globalisation and internationalisation recurs within Cardiopatías. Do you think that the machismo you discuss within your work has become worse due to social media, or do you think that social media has been beneficial for spreading awareness?
It’s interesting because, in terms of machista behaviour and attitudes, I don’t know whether the internet has worsened or improved the situation. What has happened, though, is an increase in the visibility of male violence. So, the violence which was once kept behind closed doors is now spread across the internet. It’s also interesting how it has provided a platform for the perpetrators of male violence (I’m using this wording because I refuse to call them men) to express their opinion of the female body, of women, and towards the family. This has also worked as a way of identifying them: for example this boy, also from Spain, came out in an interview saying that he didn’t use a condom and told his partners that he was sterile. The fact that he felt comfortable with saying that during an interview which was to be published in the digital world speaks volumes about what social media tolerates. However, at the same time, a huge number of people responded calling for the boy to be investigated further for sexual abuse, so in that sense, if it weren’t for the internet, nothing would have happened. So, whereas before a woman had to stay silent in the house they have now found a universal voice through the internet.
Staying within the topic of the internet, can you tell us more about your digital projects, in particular www.digopalabratxt.com and your project which spreads awareness of other female Venezuelan poets #PoetasVenezolanas?
When I left my job as a lawyer I wanted to have a literary magazine of my own, so I launched my own literary magazine as a way of exploring interviews with other writers. The first reason for wanting to do this was because I wanted to have a platform where I, a person without any academic background and with no connections in the literary world, was able to interview the writers I admired. If I had waited patiently knocking on doors to then be rejected, I was never going to do any of the things I wanted to do. So, it was then the internet which gave me the means to launch a project of my own.
The second project, which has more of an academic tone, is one in which I explored and broadcasted the voices of female Venezuelan poets. My interest was sparked through reading anthologies and it made me realise just how many Venezuelan poets went unnoticed, weren’t reissued and who we knew nothing about since the publication of their first book. The possibility of having access to those books that I had to wear gloves to look at and which would tear at any moment made me start to scan them. I now have a whole digital archive full of the books of Venezuelan poets to not lose sight of them. I’ve tried to share a few of these poems within this platform and my dream is to create something like an open library where I can, at any moment, share them without any copyright issues so that even more people can access these works which are just left undiscovered.
Are you happy with the route your work has taken? Are you where you had previously wished to be?
Yes, I must say that I am happy. One of the reasons for being so happy is that I’ve been able to take a pause: I’ve never been the type of person who feels gratified by publications. The truth is that Cardiopatías began in 2012, was published in 2016 and since then I’ve been working on books. I have six of them, four of which are already written, which are still unpublished. I’ve always struggled with knocking at editors’ doors and asking them to publish me. I’m not sure why, but I’ve felt happy within this silence and break. It’s given me time, allowing plenty of room for reading and ultimately that’s what makes me happy. If someone had told my younger self that I’d become a writer, that I’d have one of my books published and that I’d be able to make a living through literature I wouldn’t have believed them.
As you’ve mentioned your younger self, what do you wish you had been told when you began your career? What would you like to impart to other inspiring young female writers reading this?
Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I’ve had an advantage because no one ever told me that I couldn’t do anything. Nobody had ever told me not to write, except for when I was already writing, which is interesting: with a book already published they told me “You’re very feminist!”, but as an adolescent they never told me not to try things. My family and teachers were always encouraging. Growing up knowing that you are able to do something seems fundamental to me. So, what I’d say to the youth that want to do things is that, and this sounds very cliché, but if they are told they cannot do something, let that anger be the fuel to do it; and if they are told that they can do something, to really make the most of how someone believes in them. If you want to play the violin and you’re encouraged to do so, do it even though you’re rubbish because one day you’ll realise that you love it, that you took part in a concert, that you were bad but they applauded you
regardless. At least you can say that you did it.