Аssen is one of the most precious things I’ve inherited from the Spanish High School. A truly dear person to me, whom I’ve been proud to call ‘friend’ for 20 years already. We’re linked by one of those undemanding friendships in which communication can come to a standstill for a year or two after which we meet and share our most coveted secrets just as if we’d never parted for a moment. Currently he has established himself in a U.S. university where he teaches Spanish language to students specialising in ‘Latin American Literature and Culture’; he travels, publishes, researches the connections between cinema, literature and sexuality in the countries of the southern hemisphere and he does all this with incredible ease but also with great passion, which he transmits to his students and friends. Here I share a conversation about his journey from the Spanish High School to the bookshops of Buenos Aires and in general about some of the things we love and which connect us.
Assen, let’s start with the Spanish school. Why did you personally start to study this language? How did you get into the Spanish school –were you led by your desire to learn the language or did it just turn out that way when you were applying?
Actually, I started to study Spanish kind of accidentally. The Bulgarian education system has a number of interesting peculiarities. Most of the secondary schools (at least at that time) were language-orientated and to be admitted to one of them you had to choose which language to study. I already knew a bit of English and I didn’t want to study in an English-oriented High School and the remaining options were German, French and Spanish. At that time I didn’t know any Spanish at all and almost nothing about Spain, but German and French didn’t appeal to me at all. Given this was the case, what’s left was Spanish and I enrolled in the Spanish High School, ‘High School 164 Miguel de Cervantes for the Study of the Spanish Language , Sofia’ and 5 wonderful years were to follow. Since the school was one of those that followed what was known as the ‘system for the intensive study of foreign languages’ by the end I had learnt Spanish almost without realising it.
I remember that at high school you were eagerly involved in the school theatre and even gave performances in Spain and elsewhere in Europe? Tell us more about that experience.
I’ve always liked the theatre. It’s a magnificent art and I sometimes regret that the new generation in some places in the world (the USA) don’t really appreciate it. There happened to be a theatrical troupe at high school. One day, together with a female friend, we decided to go to their rehearsal, since there was an announcement that they were looking for fresh recruits. We did an audition on the spot and I must have done rather well because they invited me to join the group. The group was nice and we had a pretty good time together. Both of the teachers who led it, Ms Dimitrova and Ms Asparuhova, were incredible characters and they gave us a lot of freedom both on-stage and off, during our trips. As for them, we were in Valladolid for almost ten days if I remember well. This was my first time abroad and I was struck by the way Julia Dimitrova behaved towards us during the journey. She treated us like grown-ups, with a great deal of respect and always with a splendid sense of humour which was also slightly sarcastic at the same time. The truth is that I learned a lot from her about how to deal with my students. I’ve travelled outside the States with students several times and I’d like to believe that I behave towards them in the same way that Julia Dimitrova behaved towards us during our short stay in Valladolid.
Later, when I went to university in Los Angeles, I continued with the acting. There was a Spanish language theatre troupe there too and I took part in several plays. I travelled with them to different places in the US and we even performed in Hungary once. It was a Chicano play and there was significant interest amongst academic circles in Europe at the time concerning CHICANO culture and so we put on a performance at a conference in the town of Pecs. Overall, my experience with the university theatre was pretty positive. For the completion of my Master’s degree in Phoenix, my degree thesis was on the subject of ‘Argentinian theatre at the end of the last dictatorship’. This was a rather different experience because I wasn’t on stage but instead examined the theatre from a more analytical perspective. At the same time I was aware of the fact that it’s hard to analyse theatre without being able to see the play itself, basing yourself only on one part of what theatre is, namely the written text. The truth is that since then I haven’t written any drama criticism but every time I go to Buenos Aires, I try my best to see as many plays as I can. For me, the Argentinian capital has the best theatrical atmosphere in the world. You can see different performances every night for a reasonable price. It’s a city where the theatre plays a very important role.
What about you? Would you return to the stage?
I’m not sure I’d want to act again. I did it in my first year as a university teacher. I took part in a university show where I was working then. The difference was that for the first time I was acting in English, and Old English at that, since we were staging Henry IV (part 1) by Shakespeare. There were whole phrases whose meaning I didn’t understand and which had to be explained to me. I played Glendower, a Welsh aristocrat. We had a lot of fun with the other actors but it’s a huge commitment which demands a lot of your time and that was a bit hard as I had to teach classes, work on my publications and participate in a host of administrative committees, since that’s the pace of work in American universities. I might do it again one day because the truth is that we had a terrific time.
What is the role of the Spanish language in your life at the moment?
A crucial one! At the moment I’m a lecturer in the Spanish language at one of the universities in the USA. Here the position is called Assistant Professor of Spanish. Spanish is my work. My special field is ‘Latin-American Literature and Culture’ with a focus on the countries in the southern hemisphere, cinema and sexuality. I travel to Spanish-speaking countries at every opportunity, I adore the culture, people and landscapes. The truth is that this is my passion. I hope to pass on some of this passion to my students, since the Spanish language opens doors on an impressive culture and some incredible people.
You frequently travel to Latin America with your students. To which places? Tell me more!
I’ve been to Mexico, Peru and Argentina with my students. I wouldn’t say I travel frequently with them since there have only been three of these trips. It’s great to go with students who don’t know this part of the world, because they inevitably fall in love with the countries they go to. They open their eyes and see how others live. As a whole, American students don’t travel abroad as much as others, so they live slightly isolated from the rest of the world. On these trips they get a real surprise and it’s magical to experience this surprise along with them. It’s also a difficult task in view of their lack of experience in travelling. They don’t know that there are things which they oughtn’t to eat and they often don’t pay attention to signs warning them of danger. Travelling with them can also be quite stressful and that’s why I avoid doing it too often.
Describe in one or two words each city, the feeling the city gives you when you’re face-to-face with it:
All of them? But there are so many of them! Let’s see about some of them:
Mexico: a chaos of antiquities
Buenos Aires: joy because I’m there; sorrow because I know I have to leave
Santiago de Chile: the height- of the mountains, of the buildings
Rio de Janeiro: I’m in love with the people of this city, with the passion of the people there.
Puerto Vallarta: a tropical paradise and the desire to go back again.
Salvador de Bahia: abundance, the need to eat your fill with the food of Bahia.
Barcelona: friendship, freedom, anarchy even.
I know for sure that Buenos Aires is your favourite destination in South America. What attracts you so much about this city?
Who knows? It must be the fact that it’s so very far away, ha-ha. The cultural life there is awe-inspiring. The theatre, opera, cinema. There is always some exceptional cultural event on. The cultural output is of an astonishingly high standard. The bookshops (!), I think this is the city with the most bookshops per head of population in the western hemisphere. There are bookshops which you can get lost in and spend the whole day there. The food: I write literary criticism and I’m not a poet, but I think I’d need a poet to help me describe my feelings towards Argentine food and wine. The architecture, the cafes-an exceptionally beautiful city in my view. And, of course, the people. They are definitely not the most polite and kind people in the world but they are highly entertaining, really interesting and somehow more genuine in the sense that they are very direct and are not afraid to provoke you at any particular moment.
Your second book in Spanish has just come out. I’ve always wanted to find out more about what you write: your academic publications, articles, your two books: what are the subjects which interest you most profoundly?
Belonging to the American world of academia means that you have to publish even if you have no desire to do so, ha-ha. For me it’s a pleasure to analyse cultural output so it doesn’t cost me much effort to produce publications, but sometimes the very fact that you have to do it makes it a little burdensome. On the whole in my publications I tackle the subject of the genders, sexuality, the forbidden, the perverse, the scandalous. That which the label queer signifies in English, a term which has started to be used quite often in Latin-American academic circles too. Queer is what exists in the marginal stratum of society, that which is a provocation to good taste, which is fighting to survive and be noticed. One of my favourite films, which touches on the topic of queer in superb fashion, is the Argentinian film XXY. It tells of an intersex teenager who lives in a remote place on the coast of Uruguay with her/his family. She looks like a girl but possesses the reproductive organs of both sexes and is on hormone therapy and taking pills to prevent her attaining biological manhood. Then her mother summons a surgeon from Buenos Aires, who arrives with his family to see whether Alex, the intersex person, can be operated on and turned into a perfect young girl. The first thing which Alex does is to seduce and conquer the surgeon’s son. She doesn’t want to keep taking the tablets, she doesn’t want her penis to be cut off, but she doesn’t want to be a man either. She likes being Alex, a person without a category. At the same time Alex rebels against her parents who don’t want the rest of the village to know that she is intersexual. Alex represents in the purest form what the term queer is: to be the way you are, not to feel the need of definitions of your sexuality or your sexual orientation. What Alex wants is to be what she is and not to hide who she is.
My book ‘La novelistica de Luis Benitez’ deals with the topic of sexuality but also touches on subjects which are new for me: the construction of official history and myth in an Argentinian context. Argentina has several very strong national and cultural myths such as Eva Peron and Carlos Gardel for example. There is a deep-rooted tradition of venerating and idolising them and in the novels of Benitez an attempt is made to eradicate the roots of these myths from a literary perspective. In my critical work I explore the various ways in which Benitez approaches these myths and the way in which these novels lay bare and at the same time criticise society’s need to invent these myths and to revive them at critical moments.
In the context of Latin American literature are you of the opinion that short literary forms are the answer to the needs of the market and a fashion in terms of what readers are looking for?
Oh dear God! The needs of the market…The majority of readers today, especially the young, are used to shorter texts. There are the blogs on the Net and also that technological marvel known as Twitter. One of my students told me she reads the news on Twitter, which of course doesn’t permit very in-depth analysis of what’s happening in the world today. At the same time, though, the Harry Potter saga has nothing to do with what we might call ‘short’ and the same is happening with Game of Thrones. These two texts are very popular in the Latin-American context, although they aren’t a product of local culture. I believe the market, which resembles a resilient animal, knows how to find and exploit different types of literary formats, and that ultimately there is a place for everything and everyone. In the Latin-American context there are writers like Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende whose works are not short but who regularly produce market successes.
Which authors from Latin-American literature are your favourites and which books would you gladly re-read?
Well, you see I don’t particularly like to re-read books or to watch films again. Since it’s part of my job to analyse literary texts or films, when I do this I have to watch the film or read the book many times so if I read for pleasure, I don’t enjoy re-reading. Apart from that, there are so many books I haven’t read yet.., but yes, I have favourite writers. For example, some of the classics: Borges, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Lispector, Puig. From amongst the more contemporary Argentinian writers I adore Lucia Puenzo, Leopoldo Brizuela, Ricardo Piglia. Likewise the Brazilian Fernando Abreu, the Colombian Fernando Vallejo, the Peruvian Jaime Bayly.
What is ‘trendy’ to read at the moment in Buenos Aires?
I’ll give you an answer to that question at the end of the month when I’ll be in Buenos Aires itself.
(We’ve hit upon the idea of a live link from there and a live I-phone broadcast for the blog-Author’s note).
The connection between literature and cinema in Latin America for you is:..
…very complicated. As you know I defended my doctoral dissertation on the topic of ‘Latin-American Cinematic Adaptation’ and later I published my first book on the same subject using my doctoral thesis as a basis. Obviously, for a more in-depth answer it would be better to read my book. Broadly speaking, one of my main arguments is that we ought not to judge the film on the basis of the book its script is adapted from or the book by the film which is based on it, but sadly this happens all too often. The phrase, ‘Oh, the book is much better’ has become a cliché which terribly oversimplifies the differences which exist between these two art-forms. It’s important to concede that the cinematic adaptation gives rise to a dialogue between two very different art-forms and the goal is not to imitate something which already exists (the literary text) but to construct something on the basis of the intertextual dialogue. Ultimately, every cultural product is an intertextual dialogue between works which are created at a particular historical moment and those works which were created before the historical moment in question. To say that ‘the book is much better’ is like comparing the Odyssey of Homer to Ulysses by James Joyce and saying that Homer’s work is much better.
That says so much that it serves wonderfully as a conclusion, but let’s have one last question nevertheless, one I can’t help putting to you about the world of cinema. A list of films which you’d recommend to me includes:
Just a few:
El beso de la mujer araña
Doña Herlinda y su hijo
Y tu mamá también
Sin dejar huella
Central do Brasil
El niño pez
El secreto de sus ojos
El laberinto del fauno
Un año sin amor
La teta asustada
and a short film from Brazil, which you can see on YouTube, Sargento Garcia.
Translated by: Neil Scarth *eng