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16.09.2018 Pressenza New York

This post is also available in: Spanish

Conversation with the Chilean Writer Jorge Marchant Lazcano

By Jhon Sánchez and translated by Yani Pérez

I met Jorge Merchant in an elevator. It was the summer of the 2009 and as soon as he said “Hello,” I recognized his Chilean accent. I introduced myself with the name of Cecilio Bolocco, an allusion to the Chilean actress and Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco. We laughed a little, and I told him that I was a writer. I didn’t see him again until the summer of 2010 when I ran into him by coincidence in a coffee shop. We spoke for a little while and again, he vanished. This coincidence repeated itself three years in a row until we finally decided to go together to see a Frank Sinatra exhibit at the library of Lincoln Center. In January of 2015, we would meet again when I was on vacation in Chile and this is when he autographed my books. Jorge, we were destined to meet.

JS: So far, I have read only two of your novels, Sangre Como La Mia and Cuartos Oscuros. The two novels take place in New York and make reference to the cinema. Could you comment on how your narrative has evolved since you started writing fiction?

I started writing fiction at the end of the 70s, when I was very young. My first novel Beatriz Ovalle was released in Buenos Aires (Editions Orion, 1977). During the first years of Pinochet’s dictatorship getting published in my country, Chile, was extremely difficult because we didn’t have publishing houses. When the novel was released in Chile, it turned out to be a great publishing and commercial success. After publishing a couple of books more, I disappeared from the literary circle and dedicated myself to writing TV series. That was a good way to learn a trade and make a living during the last dark years of the dictatorship and the uncertain early years of the protected and the somehow betrayed democracy of the 90s.

I wrote for the theater as well and in the 2000’s – a century after, hehehe – I went back writing novels with a historical saga during the 20s in Chile: Me parece que no somos felices (Alfaguara, 2002). This was a re-entry into the Chilean literary circle. In 2006, I made a great leap towards what I wanted to express my more intimate essence: I had been diagnosed with the HIV virus since 1995 and I was still alive, so it was necessary to rescue the difficult journey from which many from my generation never came back. It took me a couple of years to write Sangre Como La Mía (Alfaguara, 2006). I needed the maturity required to go inside an indispensable painful story yet charged with silence. Taking into consideration that Latin America and particularly, Chile – a very conservative country – talking about homosexuality was a theme semi hidden. I wanted to tell the story from the beginning, since before the AIDS epidemic. I wrote about the 50s, the decade I was born in to narrate a family history involving three generations of gay man, unusually united by blood: the father, the son and a maternal uncle.

That has been my basic evolution as a writer. The theme of homosexuality has grown from the edges, other voices, other perspectives; it has never disappeared from my writing. It’s the gravitational center of human behavior that has turned out to be more complex, more open and as time passes more questioned, given that the West has open its perception towards this “difference” that until—not so many years ago, was considered an illness and a crime.

JS: Sangre Como La Mía and Cuartos Oscuros share similar themes: the cinema, AIDS, the gay life in New York, the aging process. Speaking of cinema, would it be fair to say that while Sangre Como La Mía describes the cinematography industry with a nostalgic feeling, the antique theater auditoriums, the great premieres, Cuartos Oscuros, on the other hand, alludes to what the cinema has turned out to be today? The title not only refers to the gay dark rooms for sexual encounters, but also to the darkrooms where photographers work with their negatives and projection booths from where filmmakers show their work. It’s like the love that could never be. What do you think?

Exactly. First, I would like to explain why New York has been the stage for these novels. In 2003, my love partner, with whom I had lived with for about twenty years in Chile, had to move to New York. He was practically dying because of AIDS. He couldn’t get adequate medications in Chile and got asylum in the United States. He saved his life and opened a new door for me. Although I wasn’t able to seek asylum due to my innumerable commitments in Chile, I started to travel every year and I stayed for several months. Emotionally and solitarily, I immersed myself in this city and became acquainted with AIDS organizations in New York. In addition, I had been always been a great reader of North American literature and since my childhood, I was a devout viewer of Hollywood movies. I was familiar with New York since the eighties and this made me an active part of the tragedy that was taking place in this city. I discovered its obscurities when everything was collapsing. This was the natural stage for these stories and for the development of these characters. It was also necessary to have Chile as the departing point for my Chilean characters. My protagonists transformed into anonymous travelers discovering their own lives through these cultural leaps. They are pariahs everywhere. Cinema is the window to illusion. In the case of the fifties and sixties, a glamorous window that speaks from a relatively sparkling New York but with the looming discrimination of West Side Story, and later, the extreme violence of Midnight Cowboy and of Cab Driver. In Cuartos Oscuros (2015) the magic of the past has completely disappeared leaving only the ruins from the antique cinematographic palaces where the timeworn character of my novel arrives from a pilgrimage. There nobody cares what happens on the screens anymore.

Since many decades ago, the big stars have disappeared and the only thing that is left is their ghosts in the hallways having hard sex. Perhaps love could have occurred in some cases, but for most of those beings, it went past them.

JS: In your narrative there is a dialogue between cinema and literature. Furthermore, the stories are spun around movie theaters. Why is this important? Do you believe that new technologies such as Facebook, Tweeter, virtual experiences, video games etc. are able to create a similar dialogue?

There exists a dialogue between cinema and literature: Douglas Sirk (the author of those intense melodramas as Imitation of Life or Written on the Wind) speaks to Paul Auster or Philip Roth, without any of the two parties realizing it. Patricia Highsmith’s novels jumps from Hitchcock’s hands. James Dean is Cal in Eli Kazan’s movie, but it still summarizes the brutal tension of John Steinbeck. Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift transformed the idols from a far away generation of young boys in the scenes of A Place in the Sun , but we have to return our attention to Dreisser’s gigantic pages. Maybe there is a risk if we realize that we’re referring to the Anglo-Saxon culture, and that we didn’t realize before until we fully entered in what we usually call “gay culture”—that in our countries, I believe, it was created very late. Our realities were locked out and we turned out to be a bad copy of that alien reality. This is what happens to the character of Jaime in Sangre Como la Mía, when he sees The Misfits and believes that Clark Gable’s house in the Nevada desert looks like a poor house like those from certain towns in Chile.

I have aimed to reflect all of that in my novels, without theory because I hate theory. I have tried to make my characters have flesh and for that I have created addicts to literature and cinema. The addicts to the literature are usually more discreet. The addicts to cinema are talkative and possibly more frivolous. Each will speak from their own experiences. And who is better to speak about homosexuals than homosexual spectators; those who have filled the rooms with their unspeakable dreams for decades and decades, unable to talk about the pressures that they suffered during their childhood so they would remain silent. Regarding to the experiences in Facebook or other networks, I don’t care very much and I do not believe that they have something serious to add in relation to cinema and literature yet, except in one to one relations. Groups in the networks are confined and speak only among themselves.

JS: Let’s talk about the theme of AIDS, which is present in both books. It is not the death penalty story as told during the 80’s and 90’s, but the history of exile to the United States seeking medicine. In relation to AIDS, is there a difference between the narratives from the past and the narratives from the present?

I have dealt with of the theme of AIDS from my Latin American perspective. A lot of time has passed since David Leavitt faced this theme of the gay culture perspective—accepting that this theme completely involved homosexuals—challenging Reagan’s affront with a novel as The Lost Language of the Cranes (1986). During the years when Leavitt wrote his first works, the dead abounded in the big cities in North America. Here, in our countries, we barely were able to recognize the tragedy because the media hid it and it barely had any discussions with the medical arena. We approached the theme many years after. In France as well there were anticipatory works such as To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life from Hervé Guibert (1991), and in 1999, the Mexican writer, Mario Bellatin dared to write a wonderful and metaphorical story, Beauty Parlor where a hairdresser converts his hair salon to a shelter for the dying. We have arrived late to all of that because of the gap with the center of the world. In my case, we had to record discriminatory experiences to narrate our stories, and without doubt, the lack of medicine forced us to exile, not only as an adventure, but also as a narrative migration.

JS: Which are the stories about AIDS in Chile that we should be familiar with? Are there Latin American authors whom we should be acquainted with?

Probably, if I wouldn’t mention Pedro Lemebel many would think that this is incomplete. He is a Chilean writer often read in this regard, although he is considered to be a chronicle writer yet his exultant and colorful language has won him great prestige. But it’s better to go to the basics: Carlos Monsivais from Mexico. We cannot forget Fernando Vallejo from Colombia, and certainly, we have to go to the roots of homosexuality, before the AIDS, with the voices of the memorable Argentinian writer Manuel Puig, or the Cuban Reinaldo Arenas, or even further, Virgilio Piñera, also from Cuba.

But no one has spoken of AIDS with the realistic vigor than the Anglo-Saxons who have covered the story completely with authors like Alan Hollinghurst, David Leavitt or Harold Brodkey. There lies the history that never can be forgotten.

JS: One day on the beach you said, “Jhon, you have to read Philip Roth. ” Philip Roth, who died Recently, has been a great influence in you literary career. Would you like to share with our readers how he has influenced your narrative and what other authors are important to you?

Philip Roth is among the best writers in the United States from the last 30 years, according to an article published by the New York Times Book Review Book Review in in May 2006. At the top of my head and in my opinion, American Pastoral (1997), Roth deals with the great fears of the contemporary American man. It is necessary to face our own individual demons in a society that encloses itself and encloses in its own selfishness. This kind of societies grow and grow in all of the western world, reinforced by the merciless neo-liberalism, making us into the same desolate monsters. There are scarce possibilities to reverse this so Roth’s works are almost premonitory of the wild world that awaits us in the short term.

The big writers are visionaries; Scott Fitzgerald did it during the 20s and 30s, or Steinbeck, or William Styron, or Mary Mc Carthy, or James Purdy, to name a few of the North American writers who I keep reading with passion.

JS: Cuartos Oscuros fascinates me. The novel creates suspense with an unknown character with whom the narrator let’s himself embark on all kinds of adventures. It’s funny, mysterious, very tragic and almost magical ¿ Where can we find other examples from that kind of narrative? Is it precisely that unknown and blind character who creates the suspense or do we need something else?

It’s true that Cuartos Oscuros comes closer to that certain kind of North American narration. For example, Paul Auster’s style where, he uses a magical way to unveil the story like peeling layers off an onion. But I also believe it’s an expression of the Latin American narrative. Salón de Belleza –old fashioned name—something from Reinaldo Arenas and for certain, a lot from the Argentinian Manuel Puig, to whom I celebrate in this novel through a series of experiences imagined in New York, mixing them with main characters. Latin America was for many years the paradise of magical realism—to which I do not subscribe. On the contrary, my character is one of these mysterious characters, these blind people, who walk first in our cities as in the work of the Argentine Mario Sábato.

JS: And of course, Cuartos Oscuros , speaks about a reality of gay life: the tribute to the youth. Those who turn a certain age are left behind to have sex in the dark rooms and the video sex stores. What is the challenge for gay people who arrive at a certain age? How is it possible to face the aging process within the cultural tendency towards idolatry with youth?

Cuartos Oscuros is precisely the contrary. In these times of hedonism, of superficial triumphs from youth that only looks at itself, of the triumph of a recent homosexuality that never had won any sort of battle, I wanted to render tribute to old age. I did it without a morbid curiosity but parting from my own reality. I am 68 years old and at the time I wrote the novel, I was facing an arid period in my personal life. In some moments, I felt outside of reality, between travels, from Santiago to New York, without belonging to any part. So on more than one occasion, I thought of “burning down the ships.” ” A friend’s suicide gave me courage to go all the way to the deepest part of the well and try to pull through without any need to die. Love, is alive again, and this made me look at everything with new eyes. But what was left was the record of this blind man and the writer who follows him: they act as creatures that could be saved through sex.

JS: I cannot pass up the chance to ask you about the title, Cuartos Oscuros, is this a metaphor to the photographic dark room, and to the projection booths? From that point of view the movie has a vintage feel, a call to recover a lost past in cinema and our lives?

That title makes reference to those rooms described in that place in Queens [the movie theater from the book is set in Queens]. It has a lot of vintage appeal because those places are disconnected from reality. Elderly men only go there without an interest to watch the actual movie. For that, they have the DVD’s in their houses to repeat the old ritual of watching it twice or three times. Even so, some people, including a woman, said to me, “We all have our own dark rooms, our own secrets that can be part of our conscience, where it is difficult to leave.

JS: Sangre como la mía is a well-written book that can be re-read numerous times. It has one of the best opening sentences I have ever seen in literature. This is because it creates interest and injects a dose of the character’s emotions in the present and future, “In one of those moments I was already dead but I hadn’t even realized it. Just like William Holden in that unforgettable movie that I was about to watch.” Well, this is an AIDS story so the question is, after the diagnosis, how is it possible not to die in life or to continue living?

That “opening sentence” follows the initial image that I had conceived for this novel. I thought to give the title “Dead Man Speaking” that relates to the initial moment of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. It was then when the idea to write a novel about AIDS popped into my head. For many years, the death penalty and this disease went hand in hand. This is why William Holding floating in a pool in Hollywood telling his own story would turn into a wonderful element to start this novel and to continue it along with iconic images of North American cinema. In a way, this character starts to live again after his death by the power of the narrative and creative invention.

JS: You guys in Chile are celebrating the Oscar of A Woman Fantastic, a movie with a Latin-American and LGBT themes. What does all of this mean for Chile? For Latin America?

The movie by Sebastian Lelio came out at an opportune moment in Chile. The right-wing Sebastian Piñera was ascending to power for a second time. The theme around a transsexual character opened an intense debate for a homophobic and conservative right. El Palacio de la Moneda, has to reluctantly celebrate the triumph and Daniela Vega, its protagonist, an icon of sexual difference. In any case, for her, it has not been that easy because the country is very much divided regarding underlying values. There is a great part of the Chileans that even now continue denying Daniela her gender identity and continue saying the Daniela is Daniel. Without a doubt, A Fantastic Woman is a great artistic and cultural achievement for Chile, cementing the international career for its director: His next project is the North American version of his previous movie, Gloria, where the protagonist interpreted by Paulina García who won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear, will now be played by Julianne Moore in the English version. Furthermore, after A Fantastic Woman, Lelio directed a great British movie Disobedience where Rachel Weitz plays a Jewish lesbian in the heart of a closed orthodox Jewish community in London.

JS: We hope to have more novels set in New York with that Chilean flavor.

Jorge Marchant Lazcano is a Chilean writer, born in Santiago, Chile, in 1950. A Journalist, he is graduated from Universidad de Chile. He is one of the most interesting Chilean writers of the moment, although he is not massively read. His narrative has gone through different stages: his first novel, Beatriz Ovalle (1977) was influenced by Manuel Puig’s first pieces (especially his novel Boquitas Pintadas); Mr. Marchant went through a period of pseudo historical novels. Novels such as Me parece que no somos felices (2002) Y La joven de blanco (2004). Now he transitions to a more mature and surprising stage with his novels, Sangre como la mía (2006), El amante sin rostro (2008), La promesa del fracaso (2012) and Cuartos oscuros (2015). Currently, he is working on incorporating a mixture of the lessons he has learned from the past on a novel that is influenced by writers such as E.M. Forster, August d’Halmar and Edward Carpenter, set in England in1907.


Jhon Sánchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sánchez arrived to the United States seeking political asylum. Currently, a New York attorney, he’s a JD/MFA graduate. His most recent short stories published in 2018 are Pleasurable Death available on The Meadow, and The I-V Therapy Coffee Shop of the 21st Century available on Bewildering Stories. On September 21, the British magazine Fiction On The Web will release his short story “‘My Love, Ana,’—Tommy”. https://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/

Yani Pérez is an Ecuadorian born, Brooklyn raised poet and playwright.  Her work can be found in literary journals and websites such as Brooklyn Paramount, By the Overpass, Having A Whiskey Coke With You, Napalm and Novocain, Jellyfish Whispers, Barbie in a Blender Anthology and Storm Cycle 2012: The Best of Kind of a Hurricane Press. She reads her poetry in literary events throughout the city. She assists with literary workshops and publicity at IATI Theater. She also does marketing for artists, theaters and businesses. When not writing, plays, poetry or marketing materials, she teaches English at the university level. Her current research entails the merging of American and Hispanic concepts in second and third generations to accommodate the duality of Latinos in America. She received her M.F.A in Creative Writing from Long Island University/Brooklyn

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We must act and dare the appropiateness and not whatever comes to our mind not floating in the likelihood but grasp the reality as brave as we can be freedom lies in action not in the absence of mind obedience knows the essence of good and satisfies it, freedom dares to act and returns God the ultimate judgment of what is right and what is wrong, Obedience performs blindly but Freedom is wide awake Freedom wants to know why, Obedience has its hands tied, Freedom is inventive obedient man respects God’s commands and by virtu of his Freedom, he creats new commands. Both Obedience and Freedom come true in responsability (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

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