In her latest novel, “Los abismos”, the Colombian writer Pilar Quintana (Cali, 1973) tells the story of a girl who discovers the conflictive reality of her parents’ marriage, a reflection on childhood and motherhood with which she won this year the prestigious Alfaguara Prize.
The author gave an interview to AFP on Sunday, hours before presenting the novel at the Miami Book Fair.
QUESTION: Where did the idea of ”The abysses” come from?
ANSWER: I wanted to challenge that notion that we have that childhood is the happiest period of life, because it seems to me that it is not entirely true, but that it is a period with complexities, like all the others. I wanted to reflect on that moment in life and, above all, explore my own fears as a child.
Q: The novel shows that moment when children discover that their parents are not as perfect as they thought. Was it a topic that interested you before the novel?
A: I was always interested in exploring childhood. I also knew that I had inside a novel about the role of the mother, but when I began to write “The abysses”, I did not know that this would be that novel. I was discovering it little by little and I had to reinvent it as I went.
When we reflect on motherhood, we come to that moment when childhood is broken, if we are telling it from the point of view of a child. Our parents are our heroes, but there is a moment in childhood where the veil begins to tear and we discover that they were heroes with feet of clay, that they were not as perfect or as wonderful as we thought.
Q: What was the process of telling the story like from a girl’s point of view?
A: It was very difficult because we were all children, but we all forget how we felt in childhood. It helped a lot to have a child in the house. My son is six years old, when I started writing the novel he was two and a half years old. And as he grew up and understood certain things in life, I also remembered myself.
Q: Did you discover anything about motherhood while writing?
A: When my son was three years old, he thought that the words “mother” and “woman” were synonymous, and I, a feminist woman, scandalized me. But by writing the novel, I discovered that I was like my child. I judged my mother from the daughter’s point of view, where a mother is just a person who gives herself to her children.
Then I stopped for a moment and began to see my mother, for the first time, as a complex woman who had very few privileges. A woman who grew up in a time where gender roles functioned as a straitjacket much more than now. A time when ambitious women at work were viewed with bad eyes, because their main role was still their children, their husband.
Q: Was it important to break the image of the perfect mother?
A: Absolutely, because I think that mother only exists in fantasy. Neither I nor my mother friends are like that. Neither did my mom and my grandmother. They were imperfect women, who all the time were struggling to balance the many roles within them. And I think that you have to break with that idea that mothers are perfect and that a woman is happy and fulfilled just for being a mother.
Q: Can that idea create pressure for women?
A: I felt that the story about motherhood that they had sold me was false. We take away the negative. Motherhood is light, but it is also full of challenges, anger, and darkness. In motherhood you discover your own monsters like never before.
Q: Could you have written this novel without being a mother?
A: No. I had always been told that motherhood and the practice of writing for a woman were incompatible. Not only is this not true, but motherhood made me the writer I am today.
As a writer I am passionate about the topic of animality. I believe that we are animals. Before being a mother, she explored that animality from desire. After being a mother, I explore animality from motherhood. When I had my child and I felt a love for him that surpassed everything I had ever known, then it seemed to me that that was where he had been the most animal.
Q: What do you think of the fact that Latin American writers have more and more visibility? To what do you attribute that success?
A: I don’t know why that success is due, but it is something that I cannot but celebrate because I think it is fantastic. I read the books of these writers and they excite me, they change my life and they speak to me.