Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Carmen Rodríguez

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Carmen Rodríguez

Known for her poetry and short stories, Vancouver-based author Carmen Rodríguez is most recently the author of Retribution (Three O’Clock Press). Her new novel follows a Chilean family’s life before the 1973 military coup, through their flight to Canada as refugees and back again.

Carmen talks to Open Book about struggling with the protagonists’ experiences, her literary influences and the lessons she learned from her parents.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Retribution.

Carmen Rodríguez:

Retribution is the story of three generations of women connected not only by their familial ties, but also by the extraordinary socio-political events that shape their lives. It spans 70 years in the life of the Martinez family and it takes place in both Chile and Canada.

It begins when Tania, a 37-year-old Vancouver artist, receives a letter from a Chilean judge suggesting that her biological father may not be the man she has always considered as such. As she struggles to understand this disturbing proposition and endeavours to uncover the truth, she sets out to re-examine the family stories she heard from her mother and grandmother as she was growing up.

Thus, Retribution unfolds: narrated by Sol, Tania’s mother, and Soledad, her grandmother (with book-end interventions by Tania herself), the novel tells the story of the life of the Martínez’s, from the ordinary yet unique ups and downs of their daily existence before the 1973 military coup in Chile, to the horror that ensued; on, to the women’s flight to Canada as political refugees, and back to Chile again, as Sol joins the underground resistance movement to the dictatorship and later on looks for the remains of her disappeared husband.

The three women’s journeys take us from Chile’s volcano-studded south, its mystic Atacama Desert and the jacaranda-lined streets of Santiago to the expansive beauty of the Canadian West Coast and the bustling Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

Moreover, we are invited into Soledad, Sol and Tania’s hearts and minds, as they grapple with their own demons and the extraordinary events that shaped their lives.

OB:

What was the most difficult part of writing Retribution? And what aspect of the process did you most enjoy?

CR:

In terms of the book’s content, writing about the protagonists’ experiences following the military coup was difficult. I struggled with the need to keep these episodes realistic, but as free of crudity and morbidity as possible. From a technical point of view, I had difficulty finding the most fitting structure for the book.

I loved the “story telling” aspect of the writing — positioning myself in the narrators’ minds and hearts and telling their stories from that perspective — from/in their own voices.

OB:

Your writing experience covers several genres — how do you decide which form best fits a new idea?

CR:

For me, poems are flashes, images, fleeting feelings and thoughts.

Short stories are compact episodes that take shape in my mind before I transcribe/translate them into written words. Most often, I know the beginning, middle and end of a short story before I write it. The work, then, is to decide on the best way to tell it: first person, third person, in a quick tempo, with lots of dialogue, no dialogue, as if seen through a camera, in the present tense, in the past tense…

Retribution is my first novel. When I began to think about this story, I realized that it needed to be told in the form of a novel because of its scope: 70 years in the life of a family, several geographical settings, many characters, a complex conflict, subplots, historical events, et cetera.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

CR:

The work of José Bento Renato Monteiro Lobato and Jules Verne fascinated me when I was a kid. These two writers taught me that a book can contain a whole world — people, places and stories which, as a reader, you can come to know and love as if they were part of your own life.

At a young age, the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Alfonsina Storni, Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarbourou confirmed what I had always known but had not been able to articulate myself: the world was dominated by men, and women’s preoccupations could and did go beyond the domestic domain. Their writing also offered me concrete examples of how to portray complex feelings, thoughts and observations effectively and beautifully.

From Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano I learned that the language of poetry is an excellent vehicle to depict and denounce the realities of an unjust world.

Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Cristina Peri Rossi and Luisa Valenzuela showed me that a short story can take multiple forms. From their work I discerned that the key to a good story is not really the story itself, but rather the way in which you tell it.

My late father and mother passed on their love of reading to me. My mother taught me how to read when I was three years old and I believe that if I had not been a good reader from an early age, I would not have become a writer.

My mother loved to recite poetry. That’s how, through her recitations at family gatherings, I became interested in the work of Sor Juana, Storni, Mistral and Ibarbourou.

My father, on the other hand, was an engaging and skilful story-teller. From him, I learned about the power of narratives, the ever-changing nature of memories, the importance of telling a story “well,” of describing places and people fully, of letting them speak in their own voice, of being aware of how the different parts of the story must be stringed together...

OB:

Tell us about a book you’ve read recently that you absolutely loved.

CR:

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri: a stellar collection of short stories whose main protagonists are Bengali immigrants in the United States.

OB:

What are you working on now?

CR:

The Spanish version of Retribution.


Carmen Rodríguez was born in Chile and came to Canada following the military coup of 1973. Making her home in Vancouver, Carmen works as a writer, educator and journalist. Her publications to date include a collection of poetry, Guerra Prolongada / Protracted War, and a collection of short stories, De cuerpo entero / and a body to remember with, which was nominated for the city of Vancouver Book Award (1998) and received honourable mention in the City of Santiago Literary Awards for the Spanish version (1998). Her work is the subject of numerous critical studies and is used widely in college and university courses related to Latin American and Canadian literatures.

For more information about Retribution please visit the Three O’Clock Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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