Interview: Author Agustina Bazterrica on opening new doors to reality
Author of Tender is the Flesh Agustina Bazterrica tells us what draws her to dark themes and shares her favourite stories from her new short story collection
Agustina Bazterrica is drawn to topics that many of us would naturally shy away from—her second novel, winner of the prestigious Clarin Novela Prize Tender is the Flesh, imagines a future in which humans are factory farmed for consumption. Her haunting new collection of short stories, Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, deals with murder and child abuse, among other things.
What is the pull of these topics? “I can give you my psychologist’s number and you can ask her,” she laughs. “I think it’s a way to try to understand violence. Humans are so genius in so many ways, so brilliant. But we can also be so horrifying and cruel. I try to understand these two faces through writing. I don’t care for writing where the only objective is to frighten the reader. What I like is to reflect and work with real life paradigms.”
Her new short story collection
Bazterrica is an award-winning Argentinian writer with several novels under her belt. She is speaking to me over Zoom from Buenos Aires, where she is working on her next book. Alongside writing, she curates events and reading workshops. She likes her readers to be active—many of her stories have ambiguous endings that leave you with lingering questions.
“With my short story ‘Roberto’ there are a lot of readers who just need to know if the bunny is real or not. They get really mad because I will never finish a short story saying, Okay, so the rabbit was real. Instead there are lots of possibilities here: maybe it’s a real rabbit, maybe this little girl is experiencing changes in her body that she doesn’t know how to name. As a reader, you have to take a position yourself.”
"Bazterrica is drawn to topics that many of us would naturally shy away from"
“Roberto” (an unsettling tale about a girl with a strange new pet bunny) is one of her favourite stories in the new collection, she says. She wrote it when she was just 19 years old, but for her, it has stood the test of time. “Whenever I read it the audience passes through a lot of emotions. First they start laughing, then they become serious and they don’t like it at all, because after all it’s a story about abuse. Then, at the end, they feel relief. It’s a really short story and people have all these emotions just from a few words.”
Another favourite is “Dishwasher”, a story about a woman seeing a doctor about a strange condition, but she notes that for English readers it may come across a little differently. Like all Spanish-speaking countries, Argentina has its own natural cadence. Argentinian Spanish differs in pronunciation, conjugation and vocabulary from Spain Spanish.
“When you read it in Spanish, an Argentine would notice that the language is quite artificial, as if it was written in English first and then translated to Spanish,” Bazterrica says. “I did that on purpose because the protagonist lives in this artificial world with all these rules and commands for women—you must have kids, you must have a husband. The language reflects this artificiality in Spanish.”
Working in translation
Translation is no easy feat. Often, Bazterrica doesn’t get much chance to interact with the translators working on her texts beyond an email or two. The translation of Tender is the Flesh and, more recently, Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird into English was different. She found a kindred spirit in translator Sarah Mosse: “She’s like me, she’s obsessive with words,” Bazterrica says. She checks Google Translate briefly and then adds, “A perfectionist!”
The two exchanged hundreds of WhatsApp messages going over every little detail, particularly when working on “Dishwasher”. What began as a working relationship evolved into a friendship. “It’s such a pleasure to work with her. I actually asked Sarah to be one of the first people to read my new novel because I really trust her vision. Sometimes I hardly even talk with a translator, but with Sarah I think we’re friends now!”
Already well-known in the Argentinian literary scene, Bazterrica jumped to international acclaim with viral sensation Tender is the Flesh. Did the response to the book vary by country? “The response is more or less the same. But there are some countries where the book was a real success, like the Czech Republic and Turkey.” In the US, the book was selling so fast that printers removed the cover flaps in order to print it faster.
Agustina Bazterrica achieved international success with her novel Tender is the Flesh. Photo by Denise Giovanelli
The book was a resounding success in her home country, too. It has become a staple in many schools: Bazterrica is often invited to discuss it with students throughout Argentina. She mentions meeting a family at a book fair who passed the book around between them. The father thanked her, saying he hadn’t picked up a book in a long time and now he wanted to read more. “For me, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Not everyone feels so positively about it. She tells me that one woman accused her of being a cannibal. “She was really angry! I guess sometimes you don’t make the distinction between fiction and reality. But that’s still a success in a way—I love books that you finish and you think, I got inside that world and now I cannot get out.”
"If the purpose of Bazterrica's work is to get in people’s heads, she’s succeeding"
If the purpose of her work is to get in people’s heads, she’s succeeding. Tender is the Flesh certainly leaves an imprint on its readers, with many citing it as the reason they gave up eating meat. But, although she’s a vegetarian herself, her objective is not to tell readers what to do.
“What I want is for people to think. I have a friend who was one of the first readers [of Tender is the Flesh], and he sent me a beautiful message after reading the book to say, ‘Look, I read the book and afterwards I ate a barbecue. But your book made me reflect on how I treat women.’
“I think literature can open new doors to reality. If that door leads you to change your diet or reflect on how you treat others, that’s great.”
The importance of her readers
It is clear that Bazterrica is a writer who immensely values her readers. She tells me that recently she was a guest on a podcast, where she did a reading of her story “Roberto”. She had to take a bus all night across Argentina to get there. “Look, my hair was a mess, I was so tired,” she says, holding up her phone to show me a video of the reading. “But I just had to do it!”
She won’t turn down any opportunity to speak to a group of readers who want to talk to her, whether it’s five or ten or 40 people. “The experience of being able to talk with a writer when the writer is alive is something that readers will never forget,” she says. “You have the possibility to talk with readers and generate these reflections and discussions and this shared experience.”
"The experience of being able to talk with a writer is something that readers will never forget"
Social media is an important tool for this. “A lot of teachers invite me to talk in their schools through social media. I always say yes! Of course, I also have students who write to me saying, ‘Help, I have a test tomorrow and I didn’t read your book! How should I answer these questions?’” She laughs.
Before we end the call, I ask her if there’s an Argentinian writer she thinks everyone in the world needs to know about. “Oh, I have more than one!” she says. Narrowing it down is too hard, so we agree on two instead. Her first pick is Ezequiel Perez, who wrote Hay que llegar a las casas, which she read in a day.
She also recommends Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s book, The Adventures of China Iron. It is a reimagining of José Hernández’s epic poem that gives a voice to Martín Fierro’s unnamed wife. "In the original text Martín Fierro has a wife, but she’s a 14-year-old girl and she doesn’t even have a name. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara took this character, the wife, and gave her a life, a name, a story. It’s a really beautiful book!”
Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses (Pushkin Press) is available now
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