In his collection of dispatches from “the new Latin America” entitled How to Travel Without Seeing (trs. Jeffrey Lawrence), celebrated Spanish-Argentine author Andrés Neuman makes this curious statement: “It occurs to me that Ecuadorian literature is a literature of dragons. That it has waited for years, decades, centuries, holding its breath. A breath fiery with waiting. Capable of setting fire to anything. Tired of remaining contained within itself. A literature turned volcano.”
If Ecuadorian literature is a volcano, then it is one that has seemingly lain dormant for some time. In fact, according to critic Jorge Carrión, the last time the outside world became aware of even the faintest of literary rumblings from this small South American country – home to forty-seven active and extinct volcanoes – was in the 1970s, when Jorge Enrique Adoum won Mexico’s Xavier Villaurrutia Award for his novel Between Marx and a Naked Woman, (Entre Marx y una mujer desnuda). Barcelona’s Seix Barral published a collection of his poetry a few years later in what Carrión describes as “perhaps the closest Ecuador managed to entering into the orbit of the post-Boom.” Since then, the volcano has been all but silent.
The first of the current crop of authors to make waves beyond Ecuador’s borders is Gabriela Alemán, named in 2007 as one of the original Bogotá39 – a highly-regarded list of the best Latin American fiction writers under forty – and whose second novel, Poso Wells, was published by City Lights in 2018, translated by Dick Cluster. Alemán’s most recent novel, Smoke, (Humo), was published in 2017. It imagines the early years of infamous Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and has been well-received across Latin America.
Next to emerge was Mónica Ojeda, selected as part of the second edition of the Bogotá39, in 2017, whose novel Jawbone, (Mandíbula), an astonishing, multi-layered exploration of the terrifying dynamics of female relationships, is currently being translated into English by Sarah Brooker for Coffee House Press, and due to be published by Gallimard in France.
Hot on Ojeda’s heels comes María Fernanda Ampuero, an activist and former-journalist whose first foray into fiction was published in English as Cockfight (trs. Frances Riddle) by the Feminist Press in June of this year, with the collection of short stories described by Publisher Weekly as a “grotesque, unflinching” portrait of twenty-first century Latin America: the author has insisted that the horrors she depicts are universal.
Though these three women were first to establish their reputations outside of Ecuador, they are, so to speak, only the tip of the iceberg. The rights to Natalia García Freire’s exquisite debut, Our Dead Skin, (Nuestra piel muerta), have just been bought by Oneworld in the UK, with the same publisher also picking up two novels by Mauro Javier Cardenas, an author who, though writing in English, was born and raised in Guayaquil, one Ecuador’s largest cities; he joins Ojeda on the Bogotá39 list.
In addition to those already discovered by Anglophone publishers, there is a further group of writers who, though receiving rave reviews in Ecuador and other parts of Latin America, have still not been spotted. Foremost among these is Solange Rodríguez Pappe, whose dark, twisted short stories are being talked about in the same breath as the writings of Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin, two of the leading figures of contemporary Latin American literature.
Then there is Sabrina Duque, whose exploration of the relationship between Nicaraguans and their volcanos, VolcaNic, is also an account of the simmering discontent which erupted into protests against the country’s government in 2018.
Two recent publications earning high praise within Ecuador’s literary circles are Siberia by Daniela Alcívar Bellolio, recounting the painful aftermath of a miscarriage, and Bloody, (Sanguínea) by playwright Gabriela Ponce, a lyrical, visceral and tumultuous narrative which unrepentantly places female desire and the female body centre stage.
With the current bumper crop of talented writers emerging from Ecuador – many of whom English readers will soon be able to discover for themselves – the inevitable question we ask is why now? What is it about this moment in Ecuadorian history that has given rise to such a gifted group of authors?
I put it to María Fernanda Ampuero during an interview conducted for Words Without Borders at last year’s Guadalajara Book Fair. While Ampuero was wary of placing too much emphasis on the fact that so many of these emerging authors were women, in order to avoid feeding into a narrative that treats women writers as some kind of felicitous anomaly, she acknowledged that social movements sweeping Latin America, such as #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos, have played an important role in bringing women’s writing to the fore. She also placed equal stress on the role of social media itself, highlighting the visibility afforded by these digital platforms, which, she argues, means “it no longer matters what that man who writes the roundups and reviews says”, as literary works can now travel far more effectively by word of mouth.
Another potential piece of this puzzle is provided in Guayaquil, incubator for women writers who have triumphed abroad, a fascinating article by journalists Santiago Triana Sánchez and Sara España that looks into the surprising number of Ecuador’s successful women writers – including María Fernanda Ampuero, Mónica Ojeda, Sabrina Duque and Solange Rodríguez Pappe – who studied literature at Guayaquil’s Universidad Católica de Santiago. Though these authors attended the university in different years, all came into contact with a group of mentors – professors and activists – who would become known as “the women in the attic”. These mentors, coordinated by Professor Cecilia Ansaldo, introduced their students to works by an earlier generation of Ecuadorian women writers, including Sonia Manzano, Alicia Yáñez, Lupe Rumazo and Gilda Holst. During our interview, Ampuero went to great lengths to emphasise that her generation did not see itself as being any better than its precursors, but rather as the latest exponents in a continuing line of exceptional Ecuadorian writing.
All of which adds credence to Neuman’s suggestion that, as the rest of the world assumed Ecuadorian literature lay dormant, it was really just gathering momentum, waiting for the opportune moment to explode.
Carrión, Jorge, Las escritoras ecuatorianas hacen historias, in The New York Times, 28 April, 2019
Neuman, Andrés, How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, trs. Jeffrey Lawrence, Restless Books, New York 2016.
Toranzos, Mariella, Cuatro escritoras ecuatorianas a las que hay que leer, in Expreso, 5 June 2020 Have a read
Triana Sánchez, Santiago; España, Sara, Guayaquil, la incubadora de escritoras ecuatorianas que triunfaron fuera de su país, in El País, 17 January 2020 Have a read
Victor Meadowcroft is a translator from Portuguese and Spanish and a graduate of the MA in Literary Translation programme at the University of East Anglia. With Margaret Jull Costa, he has produced co-translations of stories by Agustina Bessa-Luís, a pillar of twentieth century Portuguese literature, which appeared in the anthology Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers (Dedalus Books). He has also translated works by authors such as María Fernanda Ampuero, Itamar Vieira Junior and Murilo Rubião, and is currently working on co-translations of two novels by Evelio Rosero, with Anne McLean. Here is his special feature for BookBlast about Ecuadorian fiction.
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