Really Cool Artist #3: 7Vientos

When I first heard that there was a small press in Chicago hell-bent on bringing little-known, formerly-untranslated, and super-cool works of Latin American literature to the forefront of United States literary consciousness, I pretty much—to put a poetic spin on it—freaked out. If you know me at all, you know I am completely obsessed with Latin American literature to the point where it’s almost creepy, like, people probably wonder why I care so much, and my answer is usually a resounding (=rabid) BECAUSE IT’S SO UNBELIEVABLY GOOD. So when a small press of passionate dreamers comes along, promising to make me a better-read person while increasing my indie literary street cred? Yes, please! I read their beautifully-bound first book, And the Hippies Came (Llegaron los hippies) by Manuel Abreu Adorno, during a blissful two hours in the park this spring, and I can’t wait for their next one, which promises to be full of that nostalgic emotional ache that only the best literature uses to wreak havoc on your soul.

A huge thanks to Kolin Jordan of 7Vientos, who kindly answered all of my fangirlish questions. Read this interview, read their books: I promise you’ll be inspired.

Tell me the story of how this small press came to be. Was this always a dream you had? Was there a single moment when you decided to make this dream a reality?

7Vientos started as a group of people pushed together by mutual friends and circumstances beyond their control. We were all looking for something new, something that could make a difference, and something that would free us from the bonds of working for someone else our entire lives. That latter hasn’t yet become a reality, but we’re doing pretty well with the other two goals. We really didn’t know what 7Vientos was going to become, but we knew it was going to be something, even before it had a name. There was too much talent at that small table in the back of the bar to just let it dissipate or become diluted in the beers we were drinking. Too often I’ve been a part of a group that, for all its talk, ultimately does nothing. There was a lot of talk around our little table, of course, but in the end it was decided that we were going to start 7Vientos as a publishing house. It was the best way to make use of the talents of everyone involved while also giving us something to rally behind, something to feel proud of, something we could truly do and do well.

I don’t know that there was a single moment when we all, as a group, decided to go through with this. But I can say that, at least for me, as soon as we began talking about and planning which books we were going to publish—or at least aim to publish—that’s when I knew this had to happen. I knew I was going to do everything in my power to ensure that 7Vientos got off the ground.

 Your first book—And the Hippies Came (Llegaron los hippies)is gorgeously bound. What’s the importance of having such a strong visual aesthetic to you?

Thank you. A book is so much more than just words on a page. It’s an installation piece or performance art. A truly good book speaks to you not just through the printed word; it speaks to you through your fingertips and through your nostrils. An e-reader, convenient and amazing as it is, will never have the same tactile or olfactory affect that paper folios and a good hard cover does. 7V is intent upon reaching people who understand that fact—and, ideally, have a hand in fostering that love of the book as object, as art, in others.

The book is no accident—in any sense of the word. Every aspect, from the words on the page to the finish on the cover were chosen meticulously. Danny Parra, who is one of 7Vientos’ founders, and I drove to Ann Arbor to meet with the company that printed the book and selected each detail.

Sometimes I worry about reading translations. It’s not that I don’t trust the translator, it’s that I feel sort of lame. Like, am I really getting enough out of this book? Am I stuck outside the window, gazing at this world that’s clearly beautiful and stirring, but never able to fully experience it? And then I think: I don’t care how bad the translation is, it’s better to experience the literature in some way than to never have experienced it at all. What do you think? Are translations perpetually doomed to fall short, or do they have a magic of their own?

That’s a great question. Speaking as the translator of 7Vientos’ second book, Saturnalia (Saturnario), I, of course, believe in the art and faithfulness of translation. As Edith Grossman says in Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010), “Translation is crucial to our sense of ourselves as serious readers, and as literate, educated men and women we would find the absence of translations to read and study inconceivable.” There is no way that any one person could read all the books published in all the languages of the world. Translations are as much a part of our literary cannon as are the words that fill the pages and the letters that create the words. For those of us who read in English, even Chaucer would be unintelligible without a background in Old English if it weren’t translated into an updated language that our modern ears understand.

To your point: bad translations certainly exist. More often than not they are literal or word-for-word translations of a given text. On more than one occasion a translation like this has caused me to get so frustrated with a book that I stopped reading it before even reaching the middle. But is it better to experience a book, even through a poor translation, than not read it at all? I honestly don’t know. If it truly is a bad translation at its core, then the book you’re reading isn’t really the book that was written in the first place.

When I first started working with Rey Andújar on Saturnario to, in turn, create Saturnalia, we were discussing some of the elements of his stories, his style, his choice of certain words, etc. He told me that, as far as he was concerned, the Spanish version was one book and the English was another book entirely. A writer, whose name I don’t remember, said in an interview on NPR that in order for a translator to do his job he had to “do violence” to the original piece. Only by tearing apart the original work, seeing how it’s put together, seeing its guts, and the seething, living being that inhabits those pages, only then can one climb into the author’s skull and create a true translation. I can only hope that Saturnalia survived the operation and can live on its own.

Do you have some sense of how aware/well-read the United States is when it comes to Latin American literature? I mean, we’ve all read 100 Years of Solitude, but has your work with 7Vientos revealed anything to you about the knowledge/popularity of Latin American literature in our cultural psyche today?

7Vientos aims to bring Latin American literature to the forefront of the North American collective conscious. Admittedly, it’s a lofty goal. But it does seem that Latin American literature is somewhat marginalized. Latin American literature seems to be something that’s relegated to university courses for people seeking out their identities through novels and short stories. 7Vientos aims to prove that Latin American literature isn’t just for Latinos. It’s a way for all of us to find ourselves. Latin American literature is literature, first and foremost. But like any literature that is qualified, it becomes more about the qualification and less about the literature. 7Vientos’ aim, then, is to remove the “Latin American” qualification entirely from the works it publishes, while not losing sight of Latin America in the process. It’s a delicate balance, perhaps, but one we’re committed to striking.

In And the Hippies Came, something about the use of a second-person narrator (in certain stories) and the incessant pop culture references reminded me of Junot Diaz’ short stories. The almost obsessive brevity reminded me of Borges. I could go on with the comparisons, but here’s my question. Everyone talks about “Latin American literature” and it feels pretty easy/right to draw comparisons between writers from the South. Is it naïve to assume that? They all seem to write from a sort of Latin consciousness, but is that just how it seems to us in the United States? Should we be thinking in terms of “Puerto Rican literature,” etc. instead?

Every country and every culture is going to have its idiosyncrasies. And literature in general will feed off of itself, especially in the age of computers and the Internet. In this globalized world of ours there seems to be this need to compartmentalize and divide everything into smaller chunks. As stated previously, the biggest problem with this incessant bundling of smaller and smaller units divides us more than it unites us. It’s fine for lit classes in high school and college, but people wind up thinking in these boxes beyond just a handy way to draw up a course syllabus. Thinking in terms of “Puerto Rican literature” or even “Latin American literature” almost immediately alienates anyone who doesn’t identify with Puerto Rico or Latin America. One should approach literature in the same way that one does music when it comes to classification. There’s Rock and within that you have hundreds if not thousands of classifications. But even within “Classic Rock” there’s rock from England and rock from the U.S. and it’s all just “Rock.” At its core, fiction is just “Fiction” and short stories are “Short Stories.” Fiction from Puerto Rico and fiction from rural Texas are going to have their differences. But at their core, they’re fiction.

Manuel Abreu’s writing style was ahead of its time in many respects and he writes passionately about the people of his country. But does that make him a Puerto Rican writer more than a writer of the 70s? Is he more a Puerto Rican writer than a fiction writer? We should be moving away from pigeonholes, not trying to figure out into which one the work in question fits best. People think they know what Latin American literature is just by virtue of its classification just as people think they know what feminist literature or Russian literature are just be virtue of these disparate works being lumped together under the same mantle. But with just a little digging it will be obvious that Manuel Abreu, and the authors of 7Vientos’ subsequent books, will have a lot to teach to people who think they know what Latin American literature is.

If you like Manuel Abreu Adorno, you’ll love…:

It’s probably more accurate to say, “If you like sports, music, movies, love, sex, desire, drugs, comedy, drama, anguish, laughter, and life, you’ll love Manuel Abreu Adorno. If you like travel, history, nuance, experiment, honesty, truth, misadventure, the upper crust, the lower crust, intrigue and the banal, you’ll love Manuel Abreu. If you like really good writing, you’ll love Manuel Abreu Adorno. And if you like Manuel Abreu Adorno, you’ll love Rey Andújar.”

Do you think Adorno is reacting against the magical realism tradition of the Boom with all his consumer culture lingo? Or is he continuing it in some subtle way, with his surrealist narratives (like “The Truth About Farrah Fawcett Majors”)? Or maybe he’s not concerned with it at all?

I like the idea that he’s not concerned with it at all. I don’t think it’s necessarily true, but I like the idea. I suppose the idealized version of the writer would be someone who could reject magical realism so completely without even realizing he was doing it. But I highly doubt that’s the case. It’s true that he plays a lot with literary style and form. He ignores the conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and even narration in some cases. But at the heart of his writing is always the quotidian—the daily struggles of the people of his time. In “Mysterious Trips,” Abreu discusses the revolution in Spain. And in his poignant retelling, there is no deus ex machina; no fairy godmother to make things right. The narrator is forced to live with his experiences. He’s faced with the realization that he cannot forget what happened in that Spanish plaza. Were this a story rooted in magical realism, perhaps an apparition would have descended upon him to show him that all was well. Not so in Abreu’s stories. He was well aware of what he was doing when writing them. He actively rejected the magical realism that was so prevalent in his day and, for better or worse, seems to have dug its hooks into the minds of the writers of Latin America so deeply that even today, you find people who still write in that same vein.

The famous short-story writer, Julio Cortázar, wrote about Abreu after his death. He called him the “secret precursor” to the McOndo literary movement. The McOndo movement takes its name from Macondo, the fictional town where Gabriel García Márquez sets his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. McOndism mocks Macondo. It mocks magical realism, and it draws attention to the plight and the pleasure of real life, true suffering, true love, and honest being. Manuel Abreu was adept at capturing those little moments when man is at his weakest, and when he’s at his apex. Had he not died on that bench in Paris in 1984, he may have become a true literary master.

 Tell me about your next project, Saturnalia (Saturnario).

Like And the Hippies Came (Llegaron los hippies), Saturnalia (Saturnario) is a book of short stories written by a Caribbean author, who, while well-known in the Caribbean, is relatively unknown in the rest of this hemisphere. Although he has won a number of literary prizes and has even recently had a street named after him in the capital of his place of birth, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Rey Andújar’s work has never before been translated to English.

As with Manuel Abreu, 7Vientos hopes to bring Rey Andújar’s work to a larger audience. Saturnalia deals primarily with sadness and the incessant ache of nostalgia for places that never really existed except in the way that we remember them. Rey Andújar explores what it means to be a cultural nomad. His characters are stuck in worlds they don’t understand, in places they can’t escape. Saturnalia is the study of that ennui. And at the same time, through the sadness, we are able to find the little glimmers of happiness, the little fragments of self, that make us who we are and make it worth forging ahead in a new land, in a new time, in a new body.

Are you worried about the demise of publishing? Do you hate the Kindle, or do you think it’s a waste of time to get apocalyptic about the future of fiction?

To be glib, no. But I’ll explain. I’m no more concerned about the demise of publishing than I am the demise of music with the arrival of the mp3. If you go back far enough you’ll find people writing essays bemoaning the proliferation of the printing press for killing the illuminated manuscript. Yet nearly 600 years later we still teach proper handwriting techniques and calligraphy is still a highly prized and admired skill. Just as the wax cylinder and later the record, tape, and CD didn’t kill music, neither will the Kindle, Nook, or book on tape kill writing. The act of publishing may have to adapt as all industries are inevitably forced to do. But it won’t change the fact that books need to be published.

Returning to my musical analogy—just as the ready-access to any and every song you could ever hope to hear has helped music proliferate more than ever, so too does the culture of zeros and ones necessarily foster a counter-culture of analogue means of appreciating the art form. By art form, I mean the experience of appreciating an album on every level of the art. The feel of the cardboard; the smell of the vinyl; the font of the lyrics, the song list, the band’s name; holding the album in your hands, sitting in front of the record player, and immersing yourself in the experience. It’s something you can’t do at the gym, riding your bike, or driving in your car. An album is more than that. It’s a deliberate act. It’s beautiful.

Books are the same way. Just as some people would rather own the LP than the mp3, so too would people rather own the hardcover book than the digital file. Sure, most people who have the LP will also have the mp3. And why wouldn’t they? They’re infinitely more portable, they’re quick, easy, and if you don’t listen too closely, they have comparable sound quality. But ultimately they’re not the same. If 7Vientos decides to release its catalogue digitally, I’m confident that there will be a demand for these books in that format. But for now, we’re happy to appeal to our fellow fans of the analogue format.

I don’t think there’s going to be a demise of publishing. Just as anyone can use Garage Band to create and sell their own album, so too can anyone use one of the hundreds of self-publishing websites to publish their own books. But ultimately it’s about the quality, the experience, the reach, and the art. Publishing will have to change, but there will always be a niche for quality—and that’s one we’re looking to fill.

In honor of Carlos Fuentes’ recent passing, what’s one Fuentes novel that we should all read?

Carlos Fuentes’ death was certainly tragic. It’s tragic when any cultural icon, any voice of a generation is silenced, no matter what the circumstances. I’m sure this answer will vary if you asked each member of 7Vientos. My personal favorite would be La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz). There’s a single line in that book—it’s short, unassuming, and can easily be passed over—that made me laugh out loud and completely rearranged the way I look at insults and respect between characters and, necessarily, how I treat those themes in my own writing. Before you open the book, you know that Artemio Cruz is dead, yet Fuentes had a way of taking you through the story in such a way that somehow the man’s fate still winds up being a surprise.

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4 thoughts on “Really Cool Artist #3: 7Vientos

  1. What an amazing interview!! So many gorgeous insights, intelligent points, and fabulous reading suggestions! Will definitely be ordering “Llegaron los Hippies” ASAP and “Saturnalia” as soon as it comes out!!

You are truly great.

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