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Interview with longlisted author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and translators Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh

Interview with longlisted author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and translators Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh

"I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina." Read our interview with longlisted author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and translators Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh on the inspiration behind and process of creating The Adventures of China Iron


Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I’m bowled over, it’s a wonderful surprise. When I heard the news I felt like doors were opening for me and my work was making its way to new readers in other cultures. Just being nominated is prize enough for me. I celebrated in a low-key but heartfelt way, in a sunny ceremony by the allotment, with my girlfriend and my dogs. I switched my phone off for bit and we just laughed and larked about in among the plants.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Adventures of China Iron?

The Adventures of China Iron is a novel about the changing fortunes of China, a young girl, after her husband is kidnapped – or conscripted, as they preferred to call it in those days – by the Argentinian Army. She doesn’t miss him: she discovers that there’s no reason why her life has to continue in the way it was forced upon her without her even realising. She simply didn’t know it could be otherwise. In those early heady days of a joyful yet unsettling freedom, she finds a puppy and as she starts to play with it, she gets back something of the childhood that she never actually had. Then she meets Liz, a woman from Scotland left high and dry in China’s village because her husband, also Scottish, was picked up by the Army too, in his case by mistake. Liz decides to go in search of him, which means standing up to the army and crossing the frontier into indigenous territory. China is captivated by Liz and sets off with her, not forgetting the puppy. Liz opens China’s eyes to the whole world via the goods she carries in her wagon. Tea illustrates India; whisky, her native land; cotton sheets, the lives of slaves in the United States; silk petticoats, Chinese culture including dragons. Liz teaches China the shape of the planet, even the notion of a planet, and the English language. China goes down with raging Anglophilia! When they go deeper into the territory which the Argentinian Army is trying to wrest from the indigenous people, the two of them will experience types of love that will set their whole bodies trembling. Love between them, but also love of the land, the sky, the fields, the puppy, the huge canopies of the ombú trees, their herd of cattle, and all creatures, great and small. They will also see the dark heart of the nation: the extractivist and genocidal designs of the landowners. Their many and varied adventures will lead them to get involved in the construction of a much more beautiful world, a world light-years away from Liz’s Britain and China’s Argentina.

What inspired you to retell Martín Fierro from a postcolonial, feminist point of view, and did you face any difficulties re-writing José Hernández’s epic poem?

I was in Berkeley, California, loving the sun, the clear skies, the trees, having the ocean and the sierras close by. And pinot noir to boot. I didn’t have to do much except explore and read and write. The writer in residence programme at the University only required me to teach one creative writing workshop. Around that time, I was really interested in narrative verse so I decided to do something on that in the workshop. I’m Argentinian so, for me, epic and narrative verse really means gauchesque poetry - before and also during my stay in California I was reading a lot of it. One morning I just thought “I’m going to write the life story of China”. And I started writing with an overwhelming feeling of happiness. When it comes to postcolonialism and feminism, I don’t even have to think about it, they’re a part of the way I read the world. I see power relationships, I can’t help it, this is from long before I heard the terms postcolonialism or feminism. To be honest, I didn’t have any particular difficulties in writing the novel, quite the opposite really. To re-tell Martín Fierro is to revise one of the most important traditions in Argentinian literature, one that didn’t end in the nineteenth century. It’s still very much with us, and, in one way or another, it runs through the work of all canonical writers from Argentina. There was a moment when I thought: “I’m going to be strung up for this in the Plaza de Mayo! How dare a woman poke her nose in, and, to a degree, laugh at, and, to some extent, appropriate this whole tradition, even though it’s done affectionately?” But I didn’t think about it for too long. It was a really enjoyable writing process so I didn’t worry about the consequences. I was right not to because no one has strung me up in the Plaza de Mayo, or any other plaza for that matter.…

The Adventures of China Iron has been described as a ‘riotous romp’ to read, was it enjoyable to write?

Yes. Ever since I had the idea of giving China a voice, I had one thing clear in my mind: I wanted her tale to be an experience of the beauty of nature, freedom in body and mind; a story of all the potential and possibilities in store when you encounter other people, of the beauty of light. I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light. So much so that I had to compile a big long list of synonyms of light and luminosity. In the flat pampas, where it’s just pasture and low-lying trees, the sky is actually what counts as landscape. I wanted China’s life to be like that, to have her feet on the ground but the rest of her body up in the sky, up in the adventures of the sun and wind, bobbing along with the grass and the thistles. While I was writing I felt I was describing the mind-blowing experience of being a newborn since in China’s eyes everything is new and has the shape and shininess of a new discovery. She is trying out her freedom, travelling for the first time, leaving the tiny settlement in which she had spent her whole life. She is discovering the world, the different paths through it, love. I wrote this book at a time when my personal situation was quite bleak: I took refuge in those moments of writing and they were warm, joyful, vibrant and uplifting.


Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh

What has it been like to be longlisted?

We’re over the moon! It’s thrilling to be part of the team bringing Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s amazing story The Adventures of China Iron to a wider audience. It’s a particularly rewarding tale to tell in English as it draws British and Argentinian history into dialogue. On another note, in the Spanish-speaking world, Gabriela is an important voice, both on and off the page, in human rights and environmental justice, and it’s a privilege for us to help amplify her words.

What did you most like about translating The Adventures of China Iron?

We enjoyed imagining the characters and their voices, trying to capture the sheer exuberant joy that runs through much of China’s narrative, the pace of it – it rarely stands still, and is so colourful and full of outlandish escapades – and we revelled in the opportunity to make Gabi’s subversive take on gaucho poetry sing in English. The whole experience was totally immersive; we felt as though we were living China’s life for several months, absorbed in the landscape of nineteenth-century Argentina.

How did you find jointly translating this novel?

Fun and intense. We pooled our knowledge of Argentinian literature and history during the initial stages of reading the original in microscopic detail. We also drew on a little help from our friends – a WhatsApp about a word in Guaraní here, a polite enquiry on how to distil whisky there, genuine requests for reassurance that we weren’t going to win a bad sex award. Literary translation can seem a very genteel affair but then we’d be confronted with a flash of sickening violence or a revenge story line we didn’t want to get wrong. Our joint translation days involved a lot of reading aloud to each other, and having a continual back and forth, testing how things sounded and honing them. We had a lot of belly laughs over translating the drunken orgy and bawdy sex scenes, discovering just how schoolboy or prudish British English can be in contrast to Argentinian Spanish. We also learnt a lot about our own use of English; what seemed to each of us like ‘standard’ language often turned out to be an idiosyncrasy from our own family / region / cultural interests. Overall, it was really special sharing the close relationship to the characters with another equally obsessive reader, or rather readers, since we inevitably debated many questions of style and vocabulary with our editor Fionn Petch.

Did you draw many parallels or face challenges translating, not just the words but the cultural situations, between the Spanish and the English?

Our biggest challenge was dealing with the references to the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro, from which Gabriela’s novel springs. In Argentinian culture it’s a classic but we had to gauge how the novel would be read by people who most likely wouldn’t have even heard of it. Such a reader might well wonder ‘why doesn’t China have her own name?’, or ‘what’s the relationship between the Colonel and the gaucho song-writer?’ and so on. At times we had to resist the urge to over-plug this cultural gap.

There were lots of parallels, not only because the novel explicitly brings together and compares aspects of nineteenth-century British culture with Argentina, but also because pompous men like the Colonel are recognizable the world over. As Brexit loomed, we were at work on send-ups of nineteenth-century British imperial overconfidence; phrases like ‘as if England had been cut off from the rest of the world with an axe, as if the land had been forcibly condemned to […] insularity’ had a real contemporary resonance to them.

Part Three of the novel presented us with additional challenges as it moved increasingly into indigenous territory, and the Guaraní language, as well as some Quechua and Mapudungun – all minority and non-official languages in Argentina. To monolingual Spanish-speaking readers of the original, many of these words would stand out, and in our version we wanted to keep that sense of ever-widening cultural and conceptual horizons, and preserve Gabriela’s wish to value and reaffirm language heritage.