a window on their lives and work
Tell me if I’m right – in my time in Costa Rica, I haven’t seen many people reading. They watch a lot of television. I don’t even see people reading newspapers. I wonder how you can be a writer in a country where people don’t read.
It’s very hard. It’s very, very, very hard – because books don’t matter in Costa Rica. They don’t matter. It’s a small circle. You have an edition, every edition has 2,000, 3,000 copies, and you’re very lucky if they are consumed or read or bought in a year or two, and this is the country that reads the most in Central America, because of political problems and poverty. At least there’s a middle class here that reads – it’s very small, and you don’t see them reading in the streets. In Europe or in the States you always see people reading when they go on vacation. Not here.
I’ve been trying to unravel why this is and what would have to happen for Costa Ricans to become readers. I’ve talked to various folks about it. They say for one thing the schools don’t pay much attention to Costa Rican literature, although your book, La Loca de Gandoca, is read in the schools.
Was read – it’s off now.
It’s off the list now?
It has been there for 17 years. It’s only fair that they change and put someone else, but there’s no ecological novel to replace it. But I think that there is another reason, and that is because the last government and this government both were intent on going on with this mining project [Las Crucitas, an open pit gold mine proposed by a Canadian company] which is so devastating, in the north. Gold prices have gone up, [Former President Óscar] Arias just wants to have the mine and they don’t want ecological problems to be discussed in schools, on the streets. They have declared war on the ecologists. The president, Laura Chinchilla, said publicly we have to declare war to the ecologists. She doesn’t name them “ecologists.” She says “the radicals” – we are radicals. … La Loca de Gandoca is 99.9% reality.
Did you ever work for the government like the main character did?
Yes, without pay – I did disguise myself. I still have the disguise at home, I have pictures of me in disguise. Because it was forbidden for me to go into my office, it was a small office and I had many papers with important information into it – I had to go inside to recover my papers – it’s true! You have to have a sense of humor.
In your newest book, Limon Reggae, you write about the war in El Salvador –
I went to Salvador and I researched it, and I had friends that had fought in the guerrilla both in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, but also there are many, many Costa Ricans that helped and were fighting in the Salvadorean war, but Costa Rica is such a conservative country, and people are so afraid of telling what they are. You have noticed that Costa Ricans cannot say things directly? They have always to present the situation in the most peaceful, delicate way. It’s maddening. It’s absolutely maddening. Since political persecution here after the Civil War [in 1948] was very strong, and the Communist Party was outlawed, here being a communist is the worst thing that you can say. It still is like that – people are so concerned. They don’t know what a communist is, but the word “communist” raises their hair on end.
So the people that went and risked their lives – some died in El Salvador in the wars – they never told their story. Never. So I wanted to tell the story of a Tica [Costa Rican] that was there and fought and almost gave her life for that war, because it was supposed to be the liberation of the whole of Central America. Nobody responded. Costa Ricans and Salvadorans were very inconvenienced by that book because of the things that are said there about the guerrillas en Salvador, because there I recollect the story about a man and a woman who were the main leaders in the Salvadoran guerilla, and because of a Cuban intervention, one was killed and the other committed suicide. And that was a story that was never told.
This was a true story.
A true story. And it was told to me by a friend and by the widow of this man, and she said, “Please write it, because it’s going to be lost forever.” So people are very inconvenienced, because in El Salvador they were fighting for unity, they won the elections, and I can understand that perfectly – they don’t want to make splits in the party and this book can cause a split. So there was silence on the Salvadoran side [when the book was published], and on the Costa Rican side, “You can’t say that – that you were there, with the Salvadoran guerilla, against the United States – fighting with communists” – and people that went to Salvador never mention it, and I wanted to bring that out, because with the Nicaraguan Revolution, it was more presentable for them, it was more acceptable, “Okay, I fought with the Sandanistas – we were there in the revolution,” but with the Salvadoran guerilla it was less acceptable because there was no horrible dictator like Somoza. There was a continuing oppression for decades in El Salvador, and this massacre in 1928 of the campesinos and the Indians, and in El Salvador, the Indians had to disguise themselves because they were killed by the government, and the Indians disappeared or took refuge in very isolated small towns, and they didn’t want to learn Spanish and they didn’t want to know anything about Spaniards. Those stories – I saw that they had to be brought back, because people are afraid of talking about it. People are afraid in El Salvador because of oppression and lately of breaking the unity of the left, and here, people just don’t talk because people are so conservative.
What do you think a fiction writer brings to history that people don’t get from historians?
Historians are very punctilious about sources and historical facts. What we writers have to do is fictionalize – we conjecture. We dare to think what is lacking. I think that history is also a literary reconstruction, but it’s very loyal to sources. But when the sources are failing or there are other indications about the situation that are possibilities but are not there in the sources expressly, what writers do is they imagine, they make a conjecture, they say – this possibly happens and they make history alive.
You’ve written extensively about Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, but you really only lived there a little bit –
But the most important part of life which is childhood. I lived [in Limón] up to 6, because then I had to come to San Jose where the bilingual schools were that my parents wanted me to attend. Afterwards we had long vacations and then we could go back three months a year. We kept going back. So it was not really breaking an umbilical cord. At least until I was 15 or 16, my life was there.
Much of your writing explores the complex ethnic and class divisions in that area.
What matters most for me is the relationship between Afro descendants and non-Afro descendants, because I think there is something unsolved there, because non-African descendants despised the culture [of African descendants] that was so rich, that had all the Victorian culture of the lodges and the masonry, and they were also so literate. For them, literature was so important. They were literate, much more literate than the non-Afro descendant part, and I tried to bring that out in Limon Blues.
But what some people don’t like of Limon Blues – and some critics there have been very harsh – is that what I depict is the relationship between African descendants and Costa Ricans, and they think that Afro descendants don’t necessarily have to be obsessed by a non-Afro descendant woman, or a mulatto woman doesn’t have to be obsessed by a Jew. But what I wanted to touch was these interfaces because cultural groups do interact, they do fall in love, they do marry, and problems come. And not being Afro descendant of that community, because of course all Costa Ricans have a lot of different bloods, and I know – look at my hair, I have some African blood in me – but not being of the Afro descendant community directly, I could not write about the Afro descendant community only, because I was not one of them. I could only see them from the point of view of someone who is outside. But they have been really harsh –
The criticism has been harsh? Because –
Because I depict love relationships between African descendants and other Costa Ricans.
Is that still taboo?
No, not because it’s taboo but because they think that I am giving a picture of Afro descendants as only being obsessed by non-Afro descendants and despising their own women or their own men, so they see that as racist.
Are you working on a new novel?
When I started teaching I had a block and I did not know how to go about it. So it was very refreshing to have something else to do, to let things move by themselves. But also I’m very grateful to the University of Costa Rica – immensely grateful, because in Costa Rica when you’re doing research, for example on antiquity, and this novel is 2000 years ago in Rome so I had to do a lot of research, and you don’t have the facilities here outside of the university. There was this massive research on the period in Rome I am writing on, which is the period aroundChrist’s birth, and if I hadn’t been in the university, it would have been impossible to access that. So I am really grateful, because since I had a block, I said, well, if I have a block, I’ll do all the research, so I’m not interrupted afterwards when I start writing. So this was very – how can I describe it? It was –
It was serendipitous. To go to the library – and the librarians in the University of Costa Rica are wonderful – and say, “There is a book that was published in 1922 in France by this man, he’s researching Pythagoreanassociations in Rome at the time of Augustus” – and I have it, yes! They would just phone, very enthusiastic, “We’ve placed a copy of that book! We’ve just found one at the University of Kansas, it’s coming!” It was so wonderful.
What has drawn you to Rome? In other books you’ve drawn on the history of Costa Rica.
I think I needed to do a clean break with the history and the country, and go into something that was very foreign to me. It’s a way to prove yourself as a writer – to go into something absolutely foreign and see if you’re able to build up the characters and the atmosphere.But also I’m Italian and my great grandfather came from that part, from the Lazio, from Rome. Also I’ve always felt very much at ease in Italy. Though I’m not fluent in the language, I can read it, and I always felt that one part of myself belonged there, which is nothing very special since many Latin Americans feel that way about Italy – much more than about Spain, because the Spanish character is so dour. But the Italians are always joking, very friendly, very open.
Your next book will be published in Italian in Italy, surely.
(Laughs) If it’s a good book – but you never know if your novel is going to turn out as a good book, or as a book that many people like. That is a matter of… chance.
Your books should be very accessible to people outside Costa Rica. The narrative drive is really strong, and the sensual language and the politics and the love – I think that they would be successful if the right publisher got hold of them and publicized them in the right way.
There is not a single Costa Rican writer that is distributed beyond Costa Rica. I’m not saying Latin America. Not even in Central America. And this used to be very different. In the 80s, in the 70s, the publishers – they were like one single enterprise. So when they published in Costa Rica they also sold the books abroad. But now most of them are multinational enterprises, and they have to be accountable to the main house for sales, and they can do things to sell more if they publish in the country where they are situated. If they have to take these books, for example, to Guatemala, they have enormous costs of exportation – exporting the books to Guatemala, and then nothing assures them that Guatemala is going to buy them. And the manager in Guatemala says, “Well, I have these books from Costa Rica – nobody knows this writer, and I have to give the accounts to the main house, and there were so many books that were not sold – how can I explain this?” They function like independent enterprises, even if they are one so-called publisher, and so they don’t take books abroad, and that was not so in the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s.
So it’s the same companies but they’ve shifted their aim?
No, it’s not the same companies – now it’s multinationals, it’s the big companies that could take the book outside. The small ones don’t have the money to take the books out of the country. [Limón Reggae] was sold in El Salvador for about a year and then they didn’t take it there anymore.
The publisher of Limón Reggae, Editorial Legado, is purely Costa Rican. And it’s a small company.
Very small. But it’s good, honest, which is not the case for many others. And since even the big publishers will not take your book out of Costa Rica, it’s the same if you publish with a small one or a big one – you will not get famous anyway. But at least Costa Ricans, the ones who read, will read you.
I’ve been thinking about what a country loses when it doesn’t read literature, when it doesn’t read fiction, when people don’t read books.
Let me tell you, I experienced the disaster of that attitude [at the University of Costa Rica] because these boys and girls that come to Estudio Generales they are 17 and 18, since they don’t read, they’ve never read, and at school they hate reading because the teacher makes it not very nice for them to read – it’s compulsory, and they have to read this, and they don’t enjoy it. There are kids that don’t know how to write, but they don’t know how to think because the mechanism for thinking is formed by reading – the logical syntax of language is what gives you the logic for thinking, and they wouldn’t read, so they could not think properly.
So what I did these two years was putting these kids to read. I would give them my books, for free, and they liked it – Limon Reggae, they loved it, because it’s a young girl, and they identified, and they started reading. In two months, you could see how their spelling would become better. They were more articulate when they spoke. It made a difference because they’re still young, and it’s a disaster that people don’t read. People don’t know how to think, they don’t know how to articulate, they cannot defend themselves. They cannot express themselves. And I think the Costa Rican people are becoming a stupid people. Carol, it’s happening. It’s a terrible problem.
You’ve stopped teaching at the university.
When they called me at the university and wanted me to teach there, I decided to give it a try. I gave it a try, and I loved it, but I think I loved it too much. It was eating up my writing. It was in the Escuela de Estudios Generales at the university, which is the first courses they have to take in humanities, and it ‘s fascinating – they’re 18, they’re 17, they’re fresh. But they took all my time, all my energy. It was too much.
And you’re in a different state of mind when you teach.
Some people can do it more easily – this having a double life, this teaching and then [you] save energy and get into the writing mood, but the writing mood is very absorbing, and students, especially when they are very young, are even more absorbing.
And they have email –
And cellphones. You have to give them a cellphone [number], because they have to do research, and you have to guide them, and they have to tell you – “Hey, teacher, I have something great!” They get to you every night.
So when did you stop teaching?
In two years, this is the first semester that I am not going to teach. I stopped in December.
You’ve written essays – have you thought of writing a memoir?
No, but I’m thinking of going back to Limón in the middle of this novel, when I have the first draft, I want to go back to Limón and in the form of an essay try to recapture the figure of this man that I like so much – a journalist who is a character in Limón Blues – Charles Nation, a great, great character. His essays are wonderful. So with a friend that is a teacher in an American university, she’s going to come to Costa Rica in July, and we’re going to plan a book. I will do his memoir – I will fictionalize – it’s called a semblaza in Spanish. I will impersonate him and she will do political analysis of his essays, and I will write his memoirs, but not mine. Maybe when I’m older.
Rossi’s essay “Sex, Sexuality, Eroticism,” translated by Carol Polsgrove and Paloma Fernández Sánchez, has been published on the web by Literal Magazine and her essay “Cracks in the Concrete of Capitalism,” also translated by Polsgrove and Fernández Sánchez, has been published by Counterpunch. Rossi’s novel La romana indómita: El destino de Roma está en sus manos was published by Planeta México in March 2016. La Loca de Gandoca and Limón Reggae are available in Spanish from Librería Legado, an online bookstore created by Editorial Legado; Limón Blues is available in Spanish on Amazon.
Use the contact form below to write to Anacristina Rossi or Carol Polsgrove.