Something Has Gone Very Wrong: An Interview With Ecuadoran Author Gabriela Alemán

Photo Source Rodrigo Fernández | CC BY 2.0

“Crime is ubiquitous now. Globalization has facilitated that and the technology is there. You can be in the U.S. and empty out bank accounts in Bangladesh, Italy and China, or visa versa. Some of the stuff that’s happening all over the world is also happening right next door.”

– Gabriela Alemán, November 6, 2018

The Paris Review recently called Gabriela Alemán “a literary citizen of the Andes.” One might also call her a “citizen of the Americas,” and of the world as well. After all, her work has appeared in Chinese, Hebrew, French and Croatian; her fictional characters belong to the U.S., Germany, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Argentina.

Moreover, Alemán isn’t just a “literary citizen,” though that’s a fine thing to be, but also an overtly political citizen as so many writers from South America are today and have been, from Pablo Neruda and Carlos Fuentes to Gabriel García Márquez.

A journalist and a reporter as well as a novelist and a playwright, she was born in 1969 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the granddaughter of Ecuadorian poet, Hugo Alemán, and the daughter of the Ecuadorian diplomat Mario Alemán.

Her novel, Poso Wells, which was published by City Lights of San Francisco in English in 2018, originally appeared in Spanish in 2007. Novelist Dick Cluster did the translation.

A reviewer on Amazon wrote, “Poso Wells is a perfect compliment for the current political state of the United States and the hopelessness caused by constant access to terrible news via social media.” Indeed, it’s a freewheeling work of fiction that defies genres and mixes satire and surrealism, the literary and the political.

Body Time, her first novel, which is set in New Orleans, was originally published in Spanish in 2003. Smoke, which takes place in Paraguay, was published in 2017. It won the Joaquin Gallegos prize in Ecuador. The author of In the Pink County, a book for children, she has a Ph.D. from Tulane University in New Orleans where she taught Spanish.

For 45 days—from the end of August to the start of October— Alemán toured the U.S. to promote Poso Wells, reconnect with friends and revisit places from her own past.

The following interview was conducted by email over the course of several weeks when Alemán and I were both aware of the global drift toward the right—most notably in Brazil, where right-winger, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected president.

Where did you travel in the U.S.?

I started on the West Coast and finished on the East Coast. I crossed bits and pieces of Route 66, navigated the end of summer and the beginning of fall and I visited San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Boone North Carolina, Washington D.C., Boston and New York.

Can you give us an idea of what kind of notes you made and photos you took?

I came back with more than a thousand photos. I also started an Instagram account to keep a record of the trip. I took pictures of the Sandia Mountains. (The light in New Mexico is incredible.) I did research on Georgia O´Keeffe and on the history of New Mexico, including the fascinating Apaches; so different from how they’re depicted in Westerns.

I searched for Ignatius J. Reilly´s statue in New Orleans to write a piece on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. In San Francisco, I interviewed Mauro Javier Cárdenas, the author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.

I also read Caleb Johnson’s Treeborne and his piece for The Paris Review about Gabriel García Márquez’s road-trip through the American South, where he and his family were turned away at a motel. They were mistaken for Mexicans and were as unwelcome as blacks. I want to write about Faulkner and South America, Dick Cluster’s translations from Spanish to English, and his novels, too, including his mystery, Return to Sender.

What really stands out about your time here?

Friendship. I have friends in all the cities where I stopped. I hadn’t been back in a long time, so the launch for Poso Wells coincided with a map of my affections.

Everyone went out of the way to make me feel at home. When I landed in New Orleans the hot muggy air reconnected me with my idea of home, that place where your body and spirit are at peace and you smile just because.

Looking back, in what ways do you think you were shaped by your previous experiences in the U.S.? 

I was a child in N.Y. in the 1970s when you could feel a special energy in the city. My dad worked in the UN. When we visited him, we saw African leaders wearing lion skins, Arafat defending the Palestinian state and the young Gaddafi talking about Arab unity.

What else do you remember about that decade?

I think the 1970s were, in many ways, the last time the modern nation states of the West stood a chance. It was just before the rise of the corporate state, with the same structure as multinational corporations and the mafia, and with an esprit de corps. Now, wrongs aren’t corrected; they’re simply covered up.

For a time in the 1970s, New York was vibrant, wasn’t it?

The subway was 25 cents. All sorts of people, including “Bag Ladies,” traveled across the boroughs. Times Square was a zoo where people wore purple velvet. New Yorkers were not walking logos of Nike, Mango, Urban Outfitter or Adidas. Stadiums had real names without banks in their titles, and older Italian ladies lived next door to young Indian couples and newly arrived artists from all over the world.

New York has changed radically, hasn’t it?

N.Y. was the territory of possibility, the land where misfits had a place, and were people lived alongside each other without being judged because of their place of origin. It was a place of acceptance and a shared humanity where you could hear all the languages of the world. I learned to embrace difference and to recognize it as something positive.

What about the time you lived in Louisiana?

Pre-Katrina New Orleans was one of the most “violent” cities in the U.S., but it was also where people shared common ground, mostly in the streets, on parades, at Mardi Gras and just plain hanging out with different people ‘cause it’s so damn hot. A sense of community existed in New Orleans, and as the late great Kurt Vonnegut taught us, only community will save us.

What are your biggest impressions of the U.S. in 2018?

Two things stand out: gentrification destroying communities and the precariousness of employment and not being able to survive with only one job. Forget about savings. That mix has a lot to do, I believe, with today’s toxic political climate.

How is the U.S. different now than it was on your last visit?

Previously, people spoke in cafés. Revolutions were plotted and people flirted there. This time, it felt like I was invading some private space where people went to work or chatted on different machines. Of course, every now and then, people did talk.

What about the homeless?

When I walked next to homeless people in D.C., right in front of the White House—and in New Orleans, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, New York and Boston—people around them didn´t seem to see them. It was as if they had blocked them out. They were so “Other” that they seemed to no longer exist. The homeless I got a chance to talk to hadn`t opted out of the system. Rather, they had been expelled from it. It seemed symptomatic of something gone very wrong.

Can you give an example of a homeless person you met? 

On Royal Street in New Orleans, I spoke with a veteran who had a dog. I asked if that was complicated. He told me that apart from the dog’s company it was a good way of not being arrested. I probably had a perplexed look on my face because he went on to explain that the police couldn’t jail the dog or separate him from its owner. Cruelty to animals, you know.

Can you say more about the transformation of New Orleans?

When I saw a yoga studio, I knew the neighborhood was shot. The Ninth Ward used to be the funkiest in New Orleans. Not anymore.

The market where crawfish was sold is now a gaudy diner the likes of which can be found in any global high-end neighborhood. It shined, yes, but life seemed to have been sucked out of it. Across the street, a house had been turned into a spiritual center. Still, if you walk out of the touristy spots, life goes on.

Did you see something, anything, good or positive?

Public libraries have to be among the best things in the U.S., and librarians are among my favorite people in the world. Ray Bradbury wrote some of his books in his neighborhood library. I walked into public libraries in San Francisco, Oakland, Albuquerque, Flushing and Fairfax County, Virginia. They were packed.

It’s not the first time, but we now have, it seems to me, a criminal in the White House, an arch criminal at that. How do you view Donald Trump?

When the U.S. elections for president were underway, the whole world was watching. You weren’t only electing your president. You were electing the way the world was going to turn for the next four years (and much more than those four years), especially with U.S. foreign policy. We couldn´t believe he was elected. It still doesn’t make sense that Trump lost by three million votes, but because of your electoral system he won anyway.

If you were to write a murder mystery set in the U.S. what crime or crimes might your private investigator get caught up in?

Crime is ubiquitous now. Globalization has facilitated that and the technology is here, too. You can be in the U.S. and empty bank accounts in Bangladesh, Italy and China or visa versa. Some of the stuff that’s happening all over the world is also happening right next door: money laundering, organ and sex trafficking, privatization of water, election rigging through “Big Data” and algorithms, as well as fracking. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s not a crime.

Why do you think the murder mystery is so popular the world over?

The appeal of crime fiction grows because of the way institutions are perceived. There’s a latent distrust of them. In Latin America, one tends to avoid the police, instead of asking them for help. In many large U.S. cities that’s also the case, especially if you’re black and Latino.

In the fantastic world of comic books, Spiderman, Ironman and Wonder Woman are appealing because they’re above corrupt law and also help the people. An ethical outsider—someone who upholds ideals and, along the way, shows the underbelly of class, race and gender politics—there will never be enough of that.

What is the appeal for you to write murder mystery?

What’s there not to like? There’s adventure, social commentary, humor, confrontation with corruption and greed. Naomi Klein said that one of the great triumphs of neo-liberalism was getting people to think that there are no alternatives to it.

Detective fiction/ science fiction/ eco-thrillers suggest different outcomes and make them visible. In my novel, Poso Wells, a community of misfits—a battered woman, an old man, a journalist and a poet, with the help of a German shepherd—unmask political corruption. The novel ends with some hope, after crossing tunnels of darkness.

I believe that in Ecuador there are no private investigators, at least not in the way they exist in the U.S. Why do you think that is? 

One possible explanation would be the level of impunity in most of Latin America. If you have power, money and connections, you will not pay for your crimes. And, thinking about private investigators going after illicit affairs, we’ve got nosy neighbors here. It’s hard to hide secrets.

What thoughts do you have about why California produced two exemplary murder mystery writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler?

If you read Mike Davis’s books—City of Quartz, Planet of Slums, Ecology of Fear, Evil Paradises and In Praise of Barbarians—you get a good inkling of why that is. In one of his books, he says that to get an alternative to the official history of L.A. you have to read the noir novelists: James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Nathanael West, Chester Himes, and Hammett in San Francisco. In Chinatown, the great noir film, the plot revolves around political corruption and water.

When your friends in Ecuador see you again after this visit to the U.S. what will you say to them? 

N.Y. is not Ohio and Baton Rouge is not San Francisco. The citizens of all those different places are not the government, much less representative of what the CIA has plotted all over the world for decades. It takes crossing the U.S. to realize how big it is. San Francisco was cold in August. Albuquerque and New Orleans were in the high 80s in September. Fall hadn’t started in October in N.Y., but four hours away in Boston, it was in full bloom.

What’s the future of the U.S.?

The ideal of the public good does not seem to be on the political agenda. Things that were once synonymous with the U.S. are gone: infrastructure, water, light, medicine and education. There were water cuts in New Mexico while I was there. The lights go out with regularity. Roads and dams need repair and citizens need medical attention and education. Things are starting to collapse.

Thank you, Gabriela.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.