Writing in Buenos Aires
Romina Paula. Photo by Silvina Frydlewsky
by Romina Paula. Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft
In my childhood I spent a number of my winter vacations with my family in Villa General Belgrano, a German community between the Sierra Grande and the Sierra Chica. My ancestry is German. My parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents would rent cabins in a facility run by a couple of German expats named Juan and Nora. On those vacations we kids got to run around unsupervised on this property that included a pool and a grill and some stuff to play on and a foothill we could climb when we wanted to get away from things. On that foothill I remember having said—although to whom? To my parents? To another one of my cousins?—that when I grew up I wanted to have a house in the mountains, write books, and marry my cousin Guille.
Today my cousin Guille has four children, and the third entry on my list was the first—and only—one to totally dissolve. The house in the mountains—specifically, in the Sierras de Córdoba—lives on as a beloved dream. And as far as writing goes: I always wrote. At first just journals, which when I was 17 began to be more systematic, in hardcover Rivadavia brand notebooks that I initially got with lined pages, later switching to blank. I guess they’re not exactly journals because I don’t write in them every day, but the entries always have dates on them and are written in first person, with a kind of confessional tone, so I feel like they should count.
I never thought of that register as literary so much as—therapeutic? Necessary, might be the better word. I write down things I don’t want hanging over me anymore, things that are bugging me that I need to get out. Sometimes—more often than not, in fact—I start by writing something that I think is what I want to talk about, but the motion of my hand leads me to something else, the real thing that I needed to discuss. I guess the overall mood of these notebooks would be one of sadness, depression, anxiety—it’s very rare for me to pick up a pen to talk about some thing that has made me happy.
When I was 18 I enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, declaring Literature as my major. Just as I had been a decade before in the mountains, I was convinced I knew exactly what I wanted for my future—in this case, an academic career. I’d always thought I wanted to know a lot of things, and I figured a university might be a good place to do that. As I attended my first classes, anxious almost to bursting, I roused myself to write a novel titled Those Deaths. This novel’s tone, its ambience, were—if we are being generous—those of Cortázar, and its vocabulary came straight out of my classes. Its protagonists were named Ovid and Mia, and their names were not the only thing they had in common with Oliveiro and La Maga. They were lost souls, urban wanderers. Mia loved Ovid, and Ovid loved her back, in his way, but by virtue of being damaged, he was unable to commit. So he nursed a love for Ana, a girl he’d met after her death. That is, he’d accidentally attended her funeral and fallen in love (?) with her because of how it made him feel to have her not be there. He got to know the guy he’d identified as the boyfriend of the deceased, Juan, and he tried to reconstruct her through him and others. I never finished it. I also dropped out of college.
But I did continue with theater, which I’d started at the same time but maintained as just a hobby until now. But now theater won out by default. Although I did sign up for a writing workshop because I didn’t want to not have any structure for my writing (I’d mistakenly sought that same structure in college). In workshop I wrote stories in response to prompts. I was an avid, almost frenzied, writer. The workshop ended, but not for me: I insisted the writer who’d taught it keep teaching me, even going over to his place for private sessions. At that point I stopped writing more literary stories, with their various technical features, and started writing just dialogues. Which at some stage I started interspersing with excerpts from my diaries. One day the writer told me that one of his former workshoppers was starting a publishing house, and that they were interested in debut novels. That he’d told her about me. And that I should give them a call, that they were interested. I’ve never liked talking on the phone—not to mention actually making a call myself—and have always felt nervous and uncomfortable in those situations. Fortunately the writer kept on nagging until I finally did get in touch with Valeria, who requested I bring her a hard copy. I printed out what I’d written—those monologues, those dialogues—and had them spiral-bound. I had no expectations. I took the bus to Valeria’s house. I liked her neighborhood, I liked her, and I more than liked the books her publishing house, called Entropía, had done so far—at the time, just two: Week, by Sebastian Martinez Daniell, and Domestic Hydrography, by Gonzalo Castro—in fact I liked them so much they kind of terrified me. It was as though I’d stumbled into some parallel universe: why would these people, who were making such beautiful books, want to publish me?
But several days later, they called to confirm that they did.
That was how what I wrote became a novel: totally randomly. Suddenly I had a book that people who’d never even met me were reading. A book people talked and wrote about, because without really realizing it, I’d written something that said something about some thing. A kind of declaration? It was read as harbinging a new generation of literature: colloquial literature, self-literature. I found all assessments dizzying and tried to avoid them because they made me feel so exposed. At around the same time several anthologies of younger writers were published, and I contributed to some of them, which gave me the opportunity to meet other people who wrote, and published, but I never felt like I belonged in that intellectual world. It all made me feel extremely insecure.
Also at around the same time, I’d premiered my first play, which I wrote and directed, in Buenos Aires’ independent circuit. The play went back and forth between scripts of scenes I’d improvised with the actors and poems by Héctor Viel Temperley, a twentieth-century Argentine poet.
But my rent was paid by my work as an actress: that year I had the lead role in a movie that had a decent enough budget; it did require me to shave my head and live on the beach for a month. I played a girl who was an outcast and a troublemaker living in a trailer on the coast, wearing a wig, and having a fling with a surgeon twenty years her senior.
Over the past ten years my main activity has been the theater, both as a director and as a playwright. I’ve staged three plays with a company called El Silencio—three plays I wrote for them. Last year Entropía published those three plays as a book. I’ve traveled with El Silencio to perform them all at different festivals in different countries, like Brazil, Chile, Spain, and France.
At around the same time that I was putting on my second play, I also published my second novel, August, which is more narrative than my first novel had been. August is about a girl in her early twenties who goes back to her hometown in Patagonia, where she runs into her high school boyfriend, and it is written from her perspective. To my surprise, though, this time the critics spoke of a “second-person narrative”: the main character talks to her dead friend intermittently, which I guess was what made it second-person.
I was more self-aware at this point in my writing, since I knew it might get published, so I also got more organized in terms of my process. I would get together with a writer friend of mine, and we would write in timed periods of 50 minutes, each of us working on our own thing, sitting at the same table but almost without talking.
I’ve been working on my third novel, Still Here, for a couple of years now. I’ve sort of got a first draft, but it needs to be revised a lot. Writing it has been more haphazard again. Sometimes I get together to write with my friend, and sometimes I go it alone; I’ve worked on it in various different houses, on the computer, in notebooks, in pencil, in pen, at random. Three months ago I had a child, and I have yet to figure out how to reorganize my writing. I sneak a little work in here and there, but I’m still not quite clear on how to fully get back into it.
Although actress is what I think of myself as least, being that has also been the most lucrative of my activities for years. My only stable source of income, on the other hand, has been from the writing workshops I teach with another writer friend. We work on dramaturgy and narrative in our classes, and sometimes on screenplays, too. The workshoppers bring their material and read it out loud, and then their classmates discuss it, and only then do Cynthia and I pitch in. Commenting on other people’s material is just about as important as actually writing. I think going through and giving people comments helps you really pick out the different techniques and become aware of how to use them, which in your own writing is often difficult to perceive. This approach also allows the workshop to be less hierarchical, so that ideally Cynthia and I are there more to facilitate, rather than issuing our writing mandates.
It’s extremely uncommon here in Argentina that a writer can make a living as such, all the more so in my generation. Or I guess I should say that it would be rare for a writer to live off the books he or she publishes, because writers do sometimes earn a living off teaching or journalism.
The amount of money I earn from the sales of my books is the most precious to me, and/but also the most modest.
After years and years of work, the theater has also ended up providing some income, especially in terms of royalties. Independent theater has been where I really feel like I belong for the past few years. Independent theater is something that brings lots and lots of people together in Buenos Aires—both people who participate in it and people who attend it. The most varied aesthetics imaginable are grouped into this category of “independent,” but they’re united by a shared mode of production: they’re almost always cooperatives working on little or no budget; when and if there is any money, everyone gets a share.
The house that publishes me, Entropía, is also independent, a group of editor friends who put together their list based on their own interests and tastes. Over the past ten to fifteen years, a number of independent presses like Entropía have been born, like Adriana Hidalgo, Eterna Cadencia, Mansalva, etc. This has made a huge impact on the publishing scene in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires, both for authors and for readers. In addition to putting out the occasional classic, these publishers also take risks on debut novels. This has substantially changed the consumption and production of literature: many people of my generation now only read their contemporaries, as published by these houses; I think this gives them a sense of closeness, of access to what is being written now, almost as a way of thinking about reality—the fiction/fictionalization of the now. You can also tell more about the formal work of a book written by a peer, who is not only writing now, but is also writing in the same language. We’ve almost all read the classics translated into the Spanish of Spain—meaning that American writers, or British writers, sound to us like they are from Madrid. So I feel like supplementing the classic Argentine voices (Borges, Cortázar, di Benedetto) with new ones also refreshes the Argentine literary language.
I also think having to multitask is good for writers (for artists in general?), because if you do it right, doing more than one thing takes the pressure off an activity that might otherwise bear the burden of too many expectations, and at the same time it permits the spread of technique from discipline to discipline. I’m very interested in that dialogue, that contagion.
In terms of me personally, I feel the best when I’m autonomous in terms of my time and my decisions—I’ve never done very well with authority. It does require a lot of discipline, determining your own schedule and your own deadlines, like I open a play when I think it’s ready to begin to be shown; I let a novel go when I think I have nothing left to give it. The sense that something’s finished—that something’s actually complete—is a thing I almost never have.
About the Authors:
Romina Paula is an Argentinian author, playright and actor.
Jennifer Croft is Founding Editor at The Buenos Aires Review, a fully bilingual magazine of new writing from across the Americas. She holds an MFA from The University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University, where she wrote her dissertation on duels in twentieth-century literature.