JJ Amaworo Wilson Brings Magical Realism to Caracas’ Tower of David
by Heather Scott Partington
Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s multi-lingual novel, draws inspiration from Venezuela’s Tower of David, a deserted high-rise populated by the homeless and displaced (you probably remember from season 3 of Showtime’s Homeland). Nacho, Damnificados’ protagonist, unites the disenfranchised people of the tower. Amaworo Wilson writes in the tradition of magical realism; his work uses supernatural elements to explore concepts like poverty, power, and the ties of language.
JJ and I met at The Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books, where I moderated the panel, “Fiction: Finding a New Normal.” He’s the kind of person who slips easily from one language to another, quoting authors as he speaks. He and I caught up recently to discuss his work.
Heather Scott Partington: You’ve lived and taught all over the world. How have your travels and study of languages affected your fiction?
JJ Amaworo Wilson: Living abroad taught me to look. I mean really to observe the world around me, to see with fresh eyes. You go from Britain to, say, Egypt, and everything is different: the architecture, the signposts, the clothes, the street noise, the sunlight (yes, really!).
…learning a new language is a personal transformation.
As for languages, learning a new language is a personal transformation. You can’t be shy and introverted if you want to address groups of people in Arabic or Italian. You have to adopt an Italian character — you’re a joker or a prince. You can’t just be who you were in English; it doesn’t work. So you begin to see the world through multiple lenses and then you write through these lenses and your vision of the world becomes kaleidoscopic and vital.
Partington: Can you talk about the trip you took to the real life “Tower of David” in Caracas, Venezuela that inspired Damnificados?
Amaworo Wilson: I was on a book tour in Caracas. I was jet-lagged and sleepless, so I went for a walk and came across the Tower of David. It was an extraordinary sight — an unfinished, inhabited monolith with armed guards at the entrance. I circled it like a wolf eyeing its prey, but never went in. The image of the exterior was enough to fuel my curiosity.
Partington: Damnificados is magical realism — mythological, biblical, weird realism. What were the rules for the world that you created? Why did you venture, specifically, into storytelling that was greater than reality?
Amaworo Wilson: I wanted coherence in the world of Damnificados. Magical things happen, but it isn’t Harry Potter. You can’t wave a wand and make poverty disappear. That’s where the ‘realism’ in ‘magical realism’ comes in: whatever trickery you use, the world of the novel must be true.
You can’t wave a wand and make poverty disappear.
As for my motives for writing magical realism, it’s to do with what I like to read. I grew up on Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Kafka. I like weird stuff. I like books that stretch the boundaries of our physical world, without being hard sci-fi. But of course it has to fit the story. If you’re writing a domestic comedy of manners about middle-class couples, you can’t have two-headed monsters and multilingual ghosts invade the pages. But if you’re writing a dystopian fairy tale set at an unspecified time in a hybrid East-West-Nowhere, maybe the magic belongs.
Partington: Not many novels deal with poverty in a tangible, realistic way. Your novel is magical realism, and yet it’s one of the most honest examples of what will happen to people who are forced to live on the outside of a society. As you started to write Damnificados, did you discover anything about the disenfranchised people who moved into the tower (both the one of the novel, and in the real world “Tower of David”)?
Amaworo Wilson: Yes, through my research I discovered how creative and resourceful the poor can be, and used this in Damnificados. In the real tower, the elevator was broken, so they built ramps around the exterior of the building and motorcyclists gave people rides. They turned the helicopter pad into an outdoor gym using recycled building materials as weights. They made the atrium into a basketball court. They improvised to get water and electricity. Somehow, against all the odds, they built a community. It reminds me of something Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Well, it was the poor and the disenfranchised who got it done.
Partington: During our recent panel at The LA Times Festival of Books, you paraphrased Wael Ghonim: “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.” How did this idea play into the story of Damnificados?
Amaworo Wilson: This idea is central to Damnificados. It’s in the novel’s epigraph, from Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Through perseverance and determination and luck, the oppressed overcome the oppressor.
Partington: In that same conversation, you said that conflict drives every moment of plot in your novel. What, in your opinion, makes for a great book? Is it this driving sense of conflict? And have you read anything lately that you just could not put down?
Amaworo Wilson: No conflict, no story. But that’s only part of what makes great books great. There are other things: big characters, unforgettable scenes, dialogue that zings off the page, tension, and the language — particularly, for me, the language. It has to sing. The last book I read that had all of that and more was The King and Queen of Comezon by Denise Chavez.
Partington: Your novel is in English, but it’s multi-lingual. It relies on the different sounds that come from disparate languages, creating conflict within the tower and a reason for your protagonist, Nacho (who speaks multiple languages) to unite them. What concerns did you have about including non-English text in the book? Was there a balance to be struck?
Amaworo Wilson: The tower in Damnificados is also the Tower of Babel. It’s a mongrel, multicultural world always on the brink of chaos. So, as you suggested, languages are an essential part of the story. But I didn’t have concerns about including foreign languages, and neither did my editor at PM Press. We trust the reader. Smart readers guess from context, live with ambiguity, take pleasure in sounding out foreign words. They’re the people I’m writing for.
Partington: You said that you wrote Damnificados quickly. What’s your normal process for writing a book? Was there anything unique about this particular project that demanded your attention?
Amaworo Wilson: I’ve mainly published non-fiction, and usually with a co-author. There’s little comparison between that process and the process of writing Damnificados, except for Hemingway’s rule: “Apply seat of pants to seat of chair” (which Hemingway, incidentally, didn’t always follow — he often wrote standing up). The similarities between my fiction and non-fiction are things common to most genres: use stories to grip the reader, write with clarity and simplicity even if the message is complex, etc. The main difference was that I wrote the novel by myself, at night, so I was finding my way in the dark — literally and metaphorically — with no contract, no publisher, no co-author, no rules except those I made up as I went along.
Partington: What books have made a difference to you? Were there particular literary influences or traditions you drew from when you created Damnificados, or books that left an imprint on you as a writer?
Amaworo Wilson: I’ve always liked what Neruda said about the time he discovered books: “Comi todo, como un avestruz” — “I gobbled up everything like an ostrich.” I’ve learned from everything I’ve read, good and bad, high-brow, low-brow, no brow. And I mean everything: from Dr Seuss to The Bible, from Sophocles to Dan Brown. But it was the Latino Boom that did it for me. The second half of the Twentieth Century brought us Marquez, Neruda, Borges, Fuentes, Galeano, Amado. They freed literature, tore off its tight collar and sent it running through the streets. It’s never recovered, and neither have I.
Partington: What are you working on, now? What’s next for you?
Amaworo Wilson: I’ll always write about the oppressed and the marginalized. I cannot separate my concerns as a human being with my output as a writer. I’ve started a piece of fiction that has refugees at its heart. I’m at an early stage so I don’t know yet if it has the legs to be a novel. We’ll see.