Interview by Sierra Skye Gemma
Guadalupe Muro (Bariloche, Argentina) is the author of a book of poetry in Spanish, ¿Con quién dormías? (Ed. Huesos de Jibia, 2007, Buenos Aires) and a novel in English, Air Carnation (BookThug, Toronto, 2014). She also produced an album in collaboration with Argentinian musicians Ana López and Julián Muro. This album, “Songs For Runaway Girls”, is the original soundtrack for Air Carnation, and can be heard at http://songsforrunawaygirls.com/album/. Guadalupe was a recipient of the Raul Urtasun–Frances Harley Scholarship for Young Emerging Artists from Argentina and was awarded four residencies at The Banff Centre. Guadalupe just moved to Buenos Aires, where she is rewriting Air Carnation in Spanish. She is a cook and a florist and travels as much as she can.
I first met Guadalupe at The Banff Centre in September 2015. At a private reading, she shared sections of Air Carnation, which was still spinning off the BookThug presses in Toronto. Her readings, which I interpreted as non-fiction and fiction, had a musical quality. One section, in particular, sounded like the lyrics to the soundtrack of a cinematic movie. I read Air Carnation in two days and contacted Guadalupe soon after.
How would you describe your book, in terms of both structure and content?
For me, Air Carnation has always been, in form and content, an experiment on truth. My hypothesis was that the way we perceive fiction and non-fiction—and the values of truth we attach to them—is not ultimately determined by its relationship with what we can vaguely call “reality,” but by the aesthetical and formal decisions we make while we tell/write them. Now, five years later, I can see it was not a very original hypothesis, but it was very genuine for me when I started writing Air Carnation. I felt that truth was somehow restrained to a simplistic relationship of correspondence and I wanted to expand its domains.
I think that literature (art, I should say) creates a truth of its own, a possible truth, and the interesting part of it for me is the political power of it, the political power of imagination, and the impact this can have on people’s intimate worlds, on people’s lives, ultimately on reality. There is a huge dimension of ourselves that is made of language, a huge dimension of ourselves that is to some extent fictional (a fiction we create for ourselves, a fiction of ourselves). But we don’t treat it as fiction, we treat it as reality and get stuck with it. My point is, if we can recognize the fictional dimension of ourselves, then we can start treating it as fiction, then we can start editing. Then we can change. Find a possibility of freedom. Air Carnation is an experiment on truth, where I was my own guinea pig.
The day I finished Air Carnation, I was supposed to meet with my friend, but it was pouring rain. I texted her, “I want to finish Air Carnation today and it’s a perfect day for reading. This book is without description in the most amazing way.” I hunkered down to read and, all the time, I kept asking myself how I would describe the book to someone else. There seemed like a million ways to do it. So that got me thinking, “How would the author describe it?”
I think this reviewer (Laryssa Wirstiuk, Atticus Review) got my point: “Air Carnation is a thoughtful meditation on persona. The first section of the book is titled ‘Guadalupe’, and the reader can assume that the ‘I’ used throughout this section is the author herself. However, the third section of the book is called ‘Rita’, named after a character whose story runs parallel to the author’s. Using this technique, Muro is able to challenge the reader’s judgments and assumptions; one cannot know what is or isn’t true about Muro, but the truth is the love she/Rita feels and her/Rita’s single-minded dedication to craft.”
For me, Air Carnation seems like a highly recursive story that keeps layering in truths in new ways. I don’t know how much you share with Rita, and I don’t care. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. Actually, I care a lot, but I still don’t want to know. Like a wrapped present: you want to know what’s inside, but also you don’t. I had thought my second question for you would be, “How do you view yourself in comparison with Rita?” But then I read something else you wrote about the book and I loved your description:
“The second part of the novel is a mirror of the first one. In the first part the writer tells what she sees. It is written through her eyes. In the second part the writer tells what she sees as if in a mirror. Her own reflection, distorted, is presented through the eyes of the woman in the mirror, the reflected woman looking at the real woman. Both views meet at a point in the middle and at that point it doesn’t matter who is the reflection of whom. The reader is asking the same question I’m asking myself: ‘where is the fiction then?’ Maybe fiction is already present in the first part.”
And this is something I think about a lot, as a non-fiction writer. How much fiction has crept into our “true stories” without us even realizing it? What is non-fiction’s “relationship with what we can vaguely call reality”? I noticed that in your bio at the back of the book, it says, “Air Carnation is her first novel.” I hadn’t ever considered it a novel. I very roughly thought of it as a mixed-genre book of non-fiction, poetry/songwriting, and fiction. If then it is, at its heart, an “experiment on truth,” do you think distinctions of genre become irrelevant when pursuing the Truth? Do you still describe the book as a novel? If so, why?
I do think that distinctions of genre become irrelevant when pursuing the Truth, and I think that every writer who is committed to his or her writing is pursuing a Truth of their own, whatever this is in form or content or both. Distinctions of genre are irrelevant to the intimacy of writing—and could even be harmful. I will push further and say that distinctions of genre are irrelevant in any field of investigation: literature or arts or music or science. That’s why I don’t even consider myself a writer but an artist who works with resources of any kind on behalf of a story, because the story will let you know what it needs to be told.
I’ve spent way too much energy and time asking myself, “Am I writing a novel? It doesn’t look like a real novel. Oh my God, what am I writing then?” and not finding an answer. Distinctions of genre only become relevant when you have to apply to a residency or a grant and in my case this is always a painful struggle explaining why my book is close to a personal diary, but is not a personal diary at all, and even when it is fiction, it is also a memoir, but it shouldn’t be read as memoir, but more like a prose poetry book. But, as we say in Spanish: nobleza obliga (meaning that I’m forced by nobility to speak the whole truth).
Distinctions of genre are restrictions of resources, and restricting resources is only interesting for me when it implies a challenge for creativity. In the case of Air Carnation, the restriction was writing in English when Spanish is my mother tongue. Besides being an artist I’m also a cook, not the kind that follows recipes, but the kind that is delighted in opening the fridge and thinking, “Okay, I have one onion, half a tomato, a green apple, two potatoes and an egg. What is the most amazing meal I can cook with this?”
Distinctions of genre are also relevant when you have to give the book a place on the bookstore shelves: should we put the book on the memoirs shelf, or the fiction shelf, or the poetry shelf? Or should we open up a new shelf of mixed genre books? Many books would end up on “the without description in the most amazing way” shelf!
Right next to your book!
Believe me when I tell you that distinctions of genre are my personal hell, but I say, be brave, make a shelf of your own. So to your question: if I still describe the book as a novel? If so, why? My answer is no and yes. No, I don´t describe it as a novel, I could never really feel it as novel. I have this old sense of novels as something written in third person about other people. And I would say yes, of course it is a novel! One day (after having received a publication offer from BookThug), I was very worried about the genre of the book. I spoke with Stan Dragland, my dear friend and tutor and he told me, “Well, I think we should call it a novel. Because novels are the format capable of all forms. Novels are free to contain everything and anything within.”
Air Carnation is available now from BookThug.
Sierra Skye Gemma is a queer writer and journalist. Her non-fiction has been published by The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun, The New Quarterly, Plenitude, Sad Mag, the Best Canadian Essays anthology, and elsewhere. Sierra won the 2013 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer and has been awarded two writing residencies at The Banff Centre. She can be found online at sierraskyegemma.com and @sierragemma.