HANNAH HO ’ 19
The Allan K. Smith Reading Series hosted lauded Chilean poet and novelist Alejandro Zambra on Tuesday, March 1 at Smith House. Five of Zambra’s eight books have been translated from Spanish to English; his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, and more. He read excerpts from his most recent book, Ways of Going Home, to a packed room – first in Spanish, then read in English by a translator.
Ways of Going Home features vignettes of everyday life and elevates them to something stunning, magical, and new. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and memoir, many of the stories contained within the text are semi-autobiographical, lending them a sense of honest authenticity. “Fiction is not lying,” Zambra stated emphatically. “When I wrote these stories, this material was present. I wanted to convey the sensation of childhood.” He poignantly describes his experience as a young student in Santiago, lugging a backpack weighed down with books like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary while crossing a city that sometimes greeted him with tear gas bombs. Yet he still manages to elegantly weave humor into his stories – such as finding ways to cheat on quizzes, or thinking anything French sounded vaguely pornographic – vividly capturing the perspective of a small schoolboy. A focus on materiality and the significance of objects also appears as a recurring theme. His forthcoming novel Personal Cemeteries is about a man who creates his whole identity in collecting books, relating to them as physical beings. In a way, books are the most important objects, according to Zambra. The process of writing one is like raising a baby – and publishing it is like letting go of a grown child. “You care deeply about the child, hope they do well, and come home to visit on Sundays,” he jokes, “but it’s not yours anymore.”
Zambra began his writing career as a poet, evidenced by the lyrical nature of his prose, gradually moving on to explore fiction and short stories. He attended the Instituto Nacional, a prestigious all-male high school which counts among its alumni nearly twenty presidents of Chile. Going on to study at the University of Chile and the Pontifical Catholic University, he now holds multiple degrees in literature and Hispanic studies. Currently, Zambra teaches at the School of Literature at Diego Portales University in Santiago. Teaching for the past 12 years has shaped the way he writes, and enhanced his understanding of literature in a deep and beautiful way. He strives to create new discussions and build a dialogue with students rather than merely repeating old, tired tropes. “Every day of teaching is different and difficult, but I love the challenge,” he remarked.
Born in 1975, two years after the coup staged by dictator-general Augusto Pinochet, much of Zambra’s work is characterized by perturbed wonderment and a sense of disconnect from his heritage. “I was part of the generation after the dictatorship,” he said. “I often felt that I could not talk about the horrible things that happened – the adults always told me, ‘You were not there. It is not your right.’ And in a way, it was comforting to not have to think about it.” He started writing at an early age, inspired by a family which counted story-telling as second nature. Recalling his grandmother, who loved to write songs, he found incentive from her ability to express feelings in music as easily as brushing her teeth – and for Zambra, writing became similarly habitual. Content-wise, there has been a lot of change in his work over the years. Only as a teenager was he able to confront his country’s political history, and even then, only by means of collective reflection among his peers. Individually, he has developed through continual thinking and questioning, using writing as an attempt to approach unanswerable questions.
Regarding his literary inspirations, Zambra was raised on Chilean poetry and later enjoyed teaching in that tradition nearest and dearest to his heart. Other influences include Argentinian literature, and, as far as English writers specifically, Emily Dickinson. His most significant formative experience took place around the age of 18; he began meeting with a small group of friends, reading and listening to their manuscripts. Without fear of judgment, he grew confident enough to contribute his own work, sharing ideas and exchanging constructive criticism freely.
Zambra’s intimate, close, compelling style is unique and instantly recognizable. Listeners on Tuesday were mesmerized by his soft, unassuming voice. “To read is to cover one’s face, and to write is to show it,” he stated matter-of-fact after the reading. The fluidity of the bilingual event was striking; it seemed that he was simultaneously concealing and revealing, captivating the audience with quiet certitude. Trinity College was lucky to host such a talented author – we won’t be forgetting Alejandro Zambra anytime soon.