When two iconoclastic young editors took over Cambridge University’s then nearly century-old student magazine in 1979, their purpose was to open avenues in the Old World for New World writing. The British weren’t reading the new American writing. This idea – the construction of a transatlantic literary bridge – is part of what spurred us to create a Spanish-language edition of the magazine in 2003. When Granta’s new publisher and now editor, Sigrid Rausing, took over the magazine in 2005, she encouraged Spanish Granta, fostering the magazine’s increasingly internationalized spirit. In Spain, the fact that Granta en español was being run by a pair of outsiders was bad enough – one of whom, myself, wasn’t even a native speaker. But our point was that fiction from the Americas – ‘challenging, diversified and adventurous’, to quote Bill Buford and Pete de Bolla in their first edition of Granta – was not as well known as it should have been in Spain. Editors here were slow to pick up South American gems. But the opposite was also true – there was a dearth of Spanish writing in the Americas.
‘If a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe,’ Aurelio Major, co-founder of Spanish Granta, wrote in the introduction to the first Spanish-language selection in 2010, ‘Latin America has always been the literary Far West.’ That Far West is composed of nineteen countries and territories where Spanish is the main language, and it has given the world six Nobel prizes in literature: Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa. But writing from that eccentric country on the outskirts of Europe, from which come five Nobels in literature and the first modern novel in any language, Don Quixote, wasn’t being given the attention it deserved either. The curiosity of foreign editors had been satiated, there was already a go-to group of sellable writers, so no need to strike out into the stormy waters of new writing. Out of those slackened sails came Roberto Bolaño, but he wasn’t the only one. The Spanish Granta project was launched to remedy this: to open the transatlantic conversation, New World and Old, and to encourage translation into and out of the two languages.
Now, a little under twenty years later, we are publishing our second selection of the best young Spanish-language novelists. At its inception in 1983, let’s be honest, the whole notion of a list of twenty writers under forty was no more than a gimmick, a marketing ploy originally whipped up to throw a lifebuoy to the (yes, beleaguered) British literary novel, and tempt more readers into buying them. Heroic. Granta’s publication of that inaugural ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ issue came at a time when writers were still private creatures who largely shunned the spotlight, preferring to let the work speak for itself. The campaign’s greatest value was, as then-editor Bill Buford wrote later, that ‘it became, despite itself, a serious statement about British literary culture’.
Sift a little time onto something, and you raise a tradition. We launched the call for candidates for the issue you are holding now in March 2020, just as the reality of the pandemic was moving like a shadow across the globe. Thanks to the generosity of Ángel L. Fernández Recuero of Jot Down, who helped us quickly transition to a digital process, and to Cristóbal Pera, with an early swan dive into the project as our first Spanish-language partner in Vintage Español, we could go ahead. We chose a jury of six. The judges, novelists Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rodrigo Fresán and Chloe Aridjis; poet and co-founder of Spanish Granta, Aurelio Major; Gaby Wood, the Literary Director of the Booker Foundation, and me, Valerie Miles, were all in some sense or other outsiders. We wanted to avoid the local friendships, rivalries, jealousies, or resentments that might cloud our judgment. We had our differences, luckily, but relished the challenge, the art of persuasion, which made our discussions particularly memorable, substantial and great fun.
The call was for candidates born on or after 1 January 1985 (thirty-five or younger), with at least one novel or story collection published or under contract. Initially, we decided to reduce the list to twenty (in 2010 we had featured twenty-two writers), understanding our task not as verification – these are the writers of this generation – but of selection: these are the ‘best’ writers of this generation, a much more delicate and difficult exercise. Any preconceptions we may have had regarding the slim pickings of a digital generation with addled brains and non-existent attention spans turned out to be dead wrong: twenty was not enough. We found our ideal number at twenty-five, each member of the jury sacrificing favorite writers to the pyre of consensus. Every selection is a compromise. Being on a jury is like playing the Ouija board. A sort of force field builds while discussing readings and idiosyncrasies of taste: ‘I love’, ‘I hate’, ‘over my dead body’; it’s like a collective swinging forward, backward, side to side, then the dime drops, and the planchette comes to rest at the ‘yes’ spot, the X on the map. And that’s what happened to this jury when we decided on this group. A different jury, or the same jury on a different day, would no doubt have led to a different list.
We received over 200 entries, and began an internal process of reading during those scary days of the early lockdowns. Leticia Vila-Sanjuán’s knowledge and discriminating reading helped us whittle down to a longlist of sixty-eight. Sadly, we had to drop a few writers who would have likely made the list, but for a ‘wafer-thin’ span of time: Daniel Saldaña París (Mexico) and Lina Tono (Colombia) were born a few months too soon to be eligible. Juan Gómez Bárcena (Spain) was born a few weeks too soon. Inevitably, as happened in 2010, when writers like Valeria Luiselli (Mexico) took their first steps in fiction moments after we had closed the list, we’ve now read ex post the work of writers like Lorena Salazar Masso (Colombia), and wish we could have considered them. We know we will have missed others. The shortlist featured twenty-nine women and thirty-nine men, and the final selection, eleven women and fourteen men. There are thirteen countries and territories represented: six writers from Spain, four from Mexico, three from Argentina, three from Cuba, two from Chile, one writer each from Colombia, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Nicaragua, Peru and Uruguay, and one who is from both Costa Rica and Puerto Rico.
The significant differences in our final list from the first selection in 2010 is the change from one Mexican writer to four, and the irruption of a fine group of writers from Cuba: Eudris Planche Savón, who lives on the island; Carlos Manuel Álvarez, who lives between New York, Mexico City and Havana; and Dainerys Machado Vento, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Miami, the first Cuban ever to be given a student visa to attend a US institution. And, for the first time, we are featuring an Equatorial Guinean writer, Estanislao Medina Huesca, adding a new African voice to the mix.
What stands out about this selection of young Spanish-language novelists is the fact that the writers’ work grows out of a single language that is expressed in twenty-three different nationalities and the discrete infinity of ever more local permutations – regions, towns, villages; a single language with endless bifurcations of tradition, history, amalgams of races and religions and geographies, spanning four continents: Europe, North and South America, and Africa. Most Spanish-speaking countries share space with other languages, co-official or not, which feed into and influence this magma of constantly evolving registers and variations in syntax and lexes: Catalan, Euskera and Galician in Spain; French, Portuguese and Fang in Equatorial Guinea (among six other autochthonous languages); Aymara and Quechua in Peru and Ecuador; Bolivia is the country with the most co-official languages in the world, thirty-seven. Guarani in Argentina and Paraguay, Nahuatl in Mexico, Mapuche in Chile – the list goes on. So many of the original vocabularies of the Americas have also seeped into English: cacao, tomato, potato, toboggan, coyote, hurricane, cannibal, hammock and yes, even caucus. It is a rich linguistic palimpsest, and it’s vibrantly on display in this issue.
The word for green beans is a good case in point: in Spain they are judías verdes, in Mexico, ejotes, in Argentina chauchas, in Chile porotos verdes, in Peru vainitas, in Colombia habichuelas. Nabokov liked to equate Russian vowels with oranges and English vowels with lemons, and I wonder if Spanish vowels wouldn’t be more like the clusters of red arils in a pomegranate. Spanish is the world’s second-speediest language, after Japanese, by syllables spoken per second, which should come as no surprise to Almodóvar fans. The longest word in the language is ‘hipopotomonstrosesquipedaliofobia’, meaning, appropriately, the fear of long words. How not to adore a language capable of something like that? One that has beautiful words like nefelibata, from the ancient Greek nephélē, meaning ‘cloud’, and bátēs, ‘walker’, coined by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and echoed by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: ‘Arise, arise, though watch out, Nefelibata, your foot can get caught in the clouds, too.’
In fact, perhaps one clear difference between this 2021 selection and the 2010 list, is how many of these young writers seem to be turning a very sharp ear toward written language’s sonant quality. We talk about writers as voices, often as mere cliché, or use it as a synonym compositionally to avoid repeating the word ‘writer’ too often in a text. But here there seems to be a particular preoccupation with using sound to capture subtle tones of location. On the 2010 list, if you reset the stories geographically and removed specific markers, it would have been difficult to distinguish the nationality of the writer. But not here. And not because of dialogue, but because of light gradations in voice clear in even the third-person narrators. These writers forgo the idea of a more ‘neutral’ Spanish – urbanized, peripatetic – to capture the exuberance of myriad cadences and melodies, timbres and tonalities, but not in a baroque or affected way. It’s impossible to read the pieces by Eudris Planche Savón and Dainerys Machado Vento and not find yourself suddenly taking on a Cuban accent in your mind’s ear, even as Eudris’s characters ventriloquize British or French accents. Or José Ardila and that melodic coastal Colombian, or Andrea Abreu’s Canary Island pizzicato, or Mónica Ojeda’s choice of words, where you can hear the clacking, convulsing Inti Raymi dancing at the Incan Festival of the Sun. Then there’s Estanislao Medina Huesca and the strangeness of a nimble and expeditious, even old-fashioned Spanish, from a country linguistically isolated on the west coast of Central Africa. Or Miluska Benavides’s impeccably ordered syllables from the southern coast of Peru, and whose story is quite extraordinarily organized around a mysterious sound. You can hear the Mexican bisbiseo in Aniela Rodríguez’s incorporeal narrator in the second person. Or the sounds of Chilean slang in Paulina Flores, whose narrator is always cleverly entering and exiting the story so that the reader is never at a loss for meaning.
These linguistic peculiarities can be heard even in translation, which is due, in no small part, to the exceptional prowess and enthusiasm of the translators we assembled, and carefully paired, for the English version of this issue. The painstaking creative work of the writers relies on the painstaking creative work, the talent and skill, of these translators. In celebration and acknowledgment of their brilliant work and their co-starring role at the center of this project, the translators’ names and bylines have all been made visible in a section of the Spanish edition too.
The back-cover text of the first American selection of 1996 opens: ‘Who are the best young novelists in the United States of America? A bad question. Writing can’t be measured like millionaires, athletes and buildings – the richest, the fastest, the tallest.’ And in the introduction, Tobias Wolff, one of the judges, writes: ‘The idea of choosing twenty writers to represent a generation . . . [is] a process [that] mainly exposes the biases of the judges . . . Which isn’t to say that our list is not a fine one . . . on it you will find many writers of eccentric and even visionary gifts.’ Twenty-five years later, those words are still true. Virginia Woolf says that any reader, by judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, helps writers improve the quality of their work, because by reading and judging we raise the bar on what is expected; ‘Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy, are they not the most insidious enemies of our society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books . . .’ The standards we raise and the judgments we pass have an effect on the atmosphere where writing is taking place, on the influence of scope. And the only way to judge is to compare. Is the reason so many writers on this list have particular voices and an ear for language because we, as a jury, preferred this kind of writing? Or is it a trend? It’s hard to say.
One of the trickier problems, as Granta editor Ian Jack found in putting together the third Best of Young British list in 2003, is weighing the one-book author against those more established. Do you take the gamble on naming someone early in a career? It’s safer to choose writers whose age is closer to the cut-off date, or who started earlier and are on a second or third novel, perhaps even translated. It’s safer to choose writers whose books have been published in the larger, more established imprints. But a writer’s second or third book may not hold up to the brilliance of the first. And there is a vibrant, ever-vigilant indie publishing scene that has developed throughout Spain and Latin America, whose editors are clever and on the stick with young literary talent. This list reflects and celebrates their work, specifically. There are five writers born in the 90s on the list – Irene Reyes-Noguerol, the youngest, was born in 1997. The oldest writers, born in 1985, have had twelve more years to read, write and publish (and just to put that in perspective, it’s half of Irene’s life). As a jury, we decided to challenge ourselves, step out of the box a little, take risks and follow our hunches, even if later we may be proved wrong.
We were all curious to see if the changes in attitude brought about by #MeToo and the women’s movements, all the glass-shattering of this past decade, was truly unleashing some heretofore untapped female talent, and if so, in what way: quantity, quality or both? What we found is that women are now participating much more than before in the realm of Spanish-language literature, and their contribution is both quantitative and qualitative. In 2010 we received 228 nominations, 163 by men, 65 by women. This time around we received 194 eligible nominations, 112 by men and 82 by women. Though there are fewer women than men on this 2021 list, eleven to fourteen, of the five writers born in the 90s, four are women. And this is the telling detail overall; the majority of the nominees we received who were born in the 90s, even the 2000s, were female. Clearly, there is a coming generation of female writers. In fact, we received more nominations for women than men in Spain and Argentina, and an equal number in Chile.
What we’ve read, and what you will read in these pages, is fine evidence that women are the ones now pushing form to new places. The female writers in this issue are ambitious, they are experimenting, their writing is untamed and unleashed, there’s an anger, a passion, their storytelling has drive and power. There are many more examples of this in writers we admired but who sadly didn’t make it onto the list, such as Karen Villeda, Elisa Levy and Olivia Gallo; or Raquel Abend van Dalen, Alba Ballesta, Jessica Natalia Farfán Ospina, Aixa de la Cruz and Natalia García Freire. You can feel it particularly in the opening and closing pieces here, Mónica Ojeda’s fierce Andean cosmography and Cristina Morales’ Pindaric ode – a tour de force – on female contact sports. Boys in the bordello stories, or violence for the sake of violence, now seem passé, outmoded and grating. Curiously, one of the most-cited writers in the applications – aside from the ever-looming monster who is Bolaño, ‘grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air’ – was Sylvia Plath. Can it be that Plath’s Esther Greenwood may be taking the pole position of teenage angst away from Holden Caulfield? Plath, she of ‘Lady Lazarus’: ‘Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ Beware!
We wanted work of the imagination. Fiction. Consciousness captured on the page. Storytelling. No essay, no memoir, no reportage. No selfies with a bit of Photoshop to pass it off as fiction. Story that is peeled from the merely testimonial, from the very tiresome use and abuse of the first person. Originality. Attitude. Yeah, attitude. Writers writing like their lives depended on it. Writers writing about things I had no idea I was interested in. Writers channeling the worlds of the inarticulate, who have not spoken for themselves or whom we cannot hear. Things that are familiar made strange or re-enchanted. Writers like the ones who came before. The ones who didn’t know about Instagram. Writers who are not readers, but rereaders. Who you think may, at some point in the future, put sentences together that will cause your spine to tingle and the hair on the nape of your neck to stand on end. Who can do it now. Writers who dare, whose ambition may have gotten the best of them, but tried anyway. That’s a tough order for a young writer, but that was our bar, and we were willing to read with an eye to the future.
There were several extremely talented writers who didn’t make the list either because they worked in genres not eligible for this selection, or whose work we felt hadn’t yet met with an equally strong métier in narrative. For example, the brilliant poet Elena Medel, or Jazmina Barrera, whose non-fiction book, On Lighthouses, we enjoyed immensely. Santiago Wills has written largely reportage to date. Juliana Delgado Lopera’s clever and engaging fiction is written in English, making her ineligible. We enjoyed Antonio J. Rodríguez, Bruno Lloret, Pablo Herrán de Viu, Vanessa Londoño, Giancarlo Poma Linares, Luis Othoniel Rosa. Gabriel Mamani Magne brought us news from an unexplored place, the Bolivian migrants living in São Paulo. And a shout-out to Fabricio Callapa Ramírez, whose stories come from someplace strange and compelling.
What will you find in these pages? Juror Chloe Aridjis writes: ‘Ruminative narratives and more boisterous ones; some raw and instinctive, others crafted and scholarly; narratives that interweave highbrow and popular culture, others that possess a poetic stillness or otherworldly aura; works in which the author creates an elaborate alternative reality, and those in which the author is the construct him or herself. The Spanish language is being put to use in new and thrilling ways.’ And Rodrigo Fresán: ‘The adjective “interesting” is an ambiguous one. The expression, “May you live an interesting life” – apocryphally attributed to China by Westerners for many years – has been seen as either a curse or a blessing, but always as something worthy of attention. Beyond the obvious blessings, the quality of the writing, it seems to me that the additional forward-looking appeal of this selection is an eloquent sampling of how one can write in the proper direction/intention for a generation, yes, cursed by the excesses of life online and the easy and base temptations of the so-called literatura del yo – which young people think is a new trend, but is in fact very, very far from that – the compulsion for testimonial, fictions of the self that inevitably crash because they’re going too fast, or going too slow. I like to believe that here you’ll find a resistance to an era’s passing fad, and find instead the commitment to what is timeless and destined to continue engaging what has always nourished and given rise to good fiction: telling the story of a unique world, finding the form and style necessary to explore it, and make it known. In short: welcome to the work of decidedly interesting writers.’
We found significantly more humor, satire and irony in this generation, and they are on display here in the writing of Michel Nieva, Cristina Morales, Eudris Planche Savón, Dainerys Machado Vento, Estanislao Medina Huesca, Mateo García Elizondo, Paulina Flores and our dirty realist, Andrea Abreu. They all use humor in varying degrees of tongue-in-cheek. It’s a trend that sits well alongside the linguistic panache of this generation, perhaps something the jury was particularly drawn to in these times of pandemic. We agreed that the Cuban writing came in like a breath of fresh air. Machado Vento’s cantankerous protagonist is a subtle and masterful exercise in character, and Planche Savón uses Hemingwayesque dialogues and interior monologues to appropriate and satirize, from a Havanan perspective, British and French culture in works like Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Michel Nieva’s story uses elements of manga and Philip K. Dick to satirize (politically) a future Argentina where mosquitoes are more than what they seem. And Mateo García Elizondo suspends our disbelief to bring a criminal and his pet plant into mystical communion with the cosmos. Bolaño wrote that ‘sarcasm is a virtue, it’s a posture that resists seriousness and boredom: seasonings that allow you to open unexpected windows to the strangest of places. Humor is what allows us to see the back of reality, its hidden face.’ We welcome it. We need it!
A few stories here allow us to glimpse a more Indigenous mythopoesis, one of the truly valuable contributions of Latin American literature. In the Nicaraguan writer José Adiak Montoya’s story, the narrator gives an Indigenous version of the birth of Christ and the slaughter of the innocents. A Judeo-Christian myth is absorbed by the continent’s powerful original undercurrents, refashioned and retold. This is a register we also hear in Mónica Ojeda, and in Aniela Rodríguez’s Rulfian tale of a man who kills his child out of neglect. Or Miluska Benavides and her generational story set around the mining town of San Juan de Marcona. Tangentially, we could include the breathtaking piece by José Ardila on the innocent cruelty of children and the powerful figure of an Afro-Colombian grandmother as a Madonna della Misericordia.
Other writers have a theatrical, more than cinematographic, touch to them, and you can imagine their work being adapted for the stage; like the fairy-tale nightmare told in incantatory, poetic prose by Irene Reyes-Noguerol, or Camila Fabbri’s story of family dysfunction, or Gonzalo Baz’s piece whose sparse prose and simplicity hide a very complex mechanism, circular, ticking, that seems to expand as you read it, as if each section were a drop of water on a dry sponge. Aura García-Junco is one of the writers clearly pushing form in her allusive, fragmentary story of correspondences, and Alejandro Morellón, who in just a few pages brings us into a glassy, visionary world of Nabokovian symmetries. There are pieces with more traditional storytelling structures, which stand on the strength of their engagement with reality, subtly political, honest and clear-eyed, like those of Carlos Manuel Álvarez, David Aliaga and Diego Zúñiga, who spin a mean yarn. Aliaga brings in work on the Jewish experience, linking Spain with European tradition. There are also deep meditations on literature and art in the work of Carlos Fonseca and Martín Felipe Castagnet, and on being, more philosophical, existential, in Munir Hachemi’s story, which jibes with Estanislao Medina Huesca’s tale of corruption and abuses of power not from on high, but all around us. You will find recurring motifs in these stories, which happened by chance: the figure of the grandmother as savior (another sign of coronavirus? Or have we finally realized how silly it was to think that because digital culture was en arrivant, older people were somehow rendered useless?), and the figure of the lost or dispossessed child. There is also what I call a ‘statues suite’. See if you can find the three movements, and ask yourself: why statues? Why now? And with Andrea Chapela’s story of apocalypse and polyamory, ‘Borromean Rings’, we tie a final knot. Fluidity. Or ‘flow’ as Paulina Flores’s Buda Flaite would call it, her delightful young character who uses they/them pronouns. Spanish-language writers are reconsidering gender and love, deeply, compellingly, resoundingly full-voiced. This is what is in our collective unconscious, transformed, and being writ anew.
Art lives upon discussion, Henry James said, upon experiment, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and comparison of standpoints. This is what allows us to transcend mere cultural milieu and touch on the universal. Those of us who dedicate our lives to the arts, and particularly to literature, know this is the reason we do such a thing: for the geometry of transformation, the correspondences, the connections, the existential bridges to the realm of the other, myriad, endless adventures of human experience. So, here’s to the ten years to come. And as to the state of letters in the Spanish language, to quote our beloved Don Quixote: ‘Thou hast seen nothing yet.’
Extract taken from ‘Lady Lazarus’, Copyright the Estate of Sylvia Plath, first appeared in Ariel. Reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. Three lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’ from The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath. Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Editorial material copyright © 1981 by Ted Hughes. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers