Samanta Schweblin’s ‘Mouthful of Birds’ is a Dark Magical Nightmare
The author on how strangeness in literature can let us see it all anew
There is a ferocity to the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s stories that made me, I have to admit, slightly afraid to speak to her. When her bewitching short novel Fever Dream was released in English in 2014, Jia Tolentino wrote aptly in the New Yorker, “A low, sick thrill took hold of me as I read it. I was checking the locks in my apartment by page thirty.”
The English-language release of Schweblin’s short story collection Mouthful of Birds, beautifully translated by Megan McDowell, takes on the quality of a nightmare. Dark fields off a highway ripple with masses of screaming women. A pregnancy shrinks backwards to the size of a pill. Children disappear in a hole in the ground. There is — I’ll warn you — the murder of a dog that will set your teeth on edge.
About four stories in, I was struck with that rare, buoyant feeling that the strange world on the page was actually my world, that the narrator was actually me. The narrator in question is a newly divorced father whose daughter has developed a compulsion for eating live birds. This is not a situation I’ve come close to, thus far in my life, so I cannot quite explain my feeling. But it was like holding a magnet to the tray of metal dust at a children’s museum. The little metal dust pieces were pulled out from some distant part of me; suddenly they had something to hold onto.
Samanta Schweblin is very interested in that magnet feeling — in the mysterious mechanics that click into motion inside our heads, spurred by a word on a page. There are murky darknesses inside all of us that can be dredged up by fiction.
When we spoke over Skype, from my office in Brooklyn to her apartment in Berlin, Schweblin told me, laughing, that readers are often surprised to meet her in person. They expect someone dark and reticent: “They’re like, ‘Wow! I never thought you would smile so much!’”
I was surprised myself, and grateful for her warmth and generosity as we spoke about the violence of art, about cultural misunderstandings and societal strictures, and how strangeness in literature can let us see it all anew.
Alison Lewis: You’ve been living in Berlin for several years now. Do you miss Argentina?
Samanta Schweblin: I do, but it’s a nice nostalgia. I live in Berlin because I like it. It’s a city where my world became very small, which could sound sad, but for me it’s divine and perfect. In Berlin I live in the little bubble of Spanish speakers and Latin Americans, so it’s just that: my spaces are smaller, and I feel that it gives me more time for writing. And not only for writing — for discovering new things. Sometimes it scares me to think of myself six years ago in Argentina; I was overwhelmed with the effort to meet societal expectations, so I didn’t have the space to choose what I really wanted to do. When are you going to go out and look for something new if you are constantly dealing with what you already know? So Berlin gives me that space, that emptiness.
AL: Is there something to the feeling of being uncomfortable that lets you discover the new?
SS: Feeling uncomfortable or feeling alone — not even alone — it’s feeling that you have the time to go out and discover what is going to happen in your day. It’s beautiful! Not everyone has that possibility in their city. It’s significant that I live in Berlin as a foreigner. And I want to still be living as a foreigner in twenty years; it’s what gives me the distance with which to see things as if for the first time, or to see them without understanding completely. I don’t speak German, so I am an exile even in my own language here. And all of that I find very generative for writing.
AL: In the story “Heads Against Concrete” in this collection, there’s the phrase “the cultural gap” which comes up very painfully at the end of a friendship between an Argentine artist and his Korean dentist; they reach a point of misunderstanding that they cannot overcome. Do you have that experience of the cultural gap often in Germany? And do you think it is ever something we can overcome — or not?
SS: I don’t know if it’s something we can overcome. I wrote that story when I was in Buenos Aires because I knew that dentist. We became friends, and we had an agreement like the characters in the story, where he would clean my teeth and in exchange I would do a task he asked me to. In Argentina, there are a great number of Korean immigrants, but they live completely isolated; it’s very rare for an Argentine to have a Korean friend. So I was proud to have this Korean friend, and that we were able to really communicate. Then the cultural gap appeared. He said something offensive and generalizing — that all Argentines are lazy — and I realized he really believed it. And that injured the relationship permanently. There wasn’t a way to set it right. I don’t know, I think it hurts a lot and we don’t find a way to dismantle these things.
AL: I don’t know, but maybe through reading, through art…?
SS: Yes, well, I hope so, but I don’t know. It has to do with taking for granted the social norms and ideas that we grow up with; we think they are the absolute truth when they aren’t. What’s certain is that when something scares us or makes us distance ourselves or feel prejudice towards others, it’s because of a lack of information. It happens because we don’t understand. So in that moment, instead of taking a step back, we should take a step forward and try to see what is actually happening. But instinctively we want to protect ourselves instead, to surround ourselves with our people who think like we do. So that creates this space between the two cultures in which you cannot reach out to those on the other side because you’re so far away.
AL: That story, “Heads Against Concrete,” ends with the line “these are not good times for very sensitive people.” I feel like many of your characters could be described as “sensitive people”; even as some of them, like the narrator of that story, are capable of great prejudice and cruelty, they carry a certain weakness within them. Would you describe them that way? And what attracts you to those kinds of characters?
SS: They’re characters who haven’t been able to arm themselves completely, as if they’re crippled in some way. But if they were strong or perfect, I’d be working with archetypes. It seems to me that the things the characters lack, or their obsessions, or the little places where they hurt are what make them interesting. And we are all a bit crippled like that, aren’t we?
AL: Yes, it’s true! And we hide it.
SS: Absolutely. We are constantly trying to perform a kind of normality, to present ourselves as perfectly as possible in order to be a part, to integrate, to be admired. But there is a trap in that because, in the end, it seems to me that the most genuine connections we make with others come from places of weakness, of pain, of fear.
AL: That makes me think of the moment of connection between the two employees in the story “Olingiris,” which I loved. There is something so endearing about these two women who come from the country with their own histories, their own hopes, but they get swept up in the bewildering machinery of the city. How do you conceive of these women?
SS: Well it’s a common story, of coming to Buenos Aires looking for a better life, and they do succeed in finding work, but they never come to understand how the city works or what the work they’re doing actually is. The idea in this story was that a woman can go to an esthetician to get rid of her leg hair, but she could also go to an esthetician and pay to pluck someone else’s leg hairs. So these women’s job is to have their leg hairs plucked; it’s flipped, so we’re distanced enough to see that situation in which neither the consumer nor the worker understands what the work is for, or even what they are even doing. The only possible connection in any case is in that moment of complete misunderstanding, of not knowing what to do, and the two women meet each other frozen in that same place.
AL: In that story, one of the women treasures a book of fish drawings, particularly a drawing of a fish called an Olingiris. She’s given a newer copy of the same book, which she feels is different from the original, but in reality, they are exactly the same. Is that what you’re saying about these women too — that within the context of the city, of their workplace, they are identical?
SS: I mean that they themselves are identical. It’s the disillusionment of not finding a single difference, thinking “something has to make me different” — and no, you are the same. It’s like realizing you are one in a series. It’s horrible. Where these characters find themselves, in such a dark situation, there is at least some gratification in thinking that you are unique in your bad luck, in your suffering; it’s worse for you than for anyone else. But no, it goes that badly for everyone!
AL: Oof, it’s so dark! But there’s also that moment when the two women are crying together.
SS: There’s contact. There’s someone who sees you for the first time. Which in the end is what we are all always looking for.
AL: Are there authors who particularly inspired you when were first writing these stories?
SS: I think as a writer first you have your great teachers, and then later on you have more like little illuminations. Mouthful of Birds is my first book of stories, so it’s very influenced by my first great literary loves: Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and many Latin American writers like Antonio di Benedetto, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Sara Gallardo, Julio Cortázar. Today my references are completely different. It’s been several years now that I’ve been reading and rereading four American writers who I love: Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Strout, and Amy Hempel. They astound me. Elizabeth Strout and Amy Hempel work in the space of realism, but everything is infused with doubt, with enigma. And Kelly Link and Aimee Bender have something of Latin American magical realism, where I feel most at home; they are at the very edge of the fantastic. Sometimes they even cross over the edge.
AL: Oh it’s true. They’re all authors who, after you read them, you return to the world and it looks just a bit different, doesn’t it?
SS: Yes, that’s what the literature of the strange achieves. Our brains are constantly cataloguing what we see: your brother comes in and you say “my brother just came into the house.” Everything is labeled and classified. But a monster comes in and you can’t say “this is my brother;” you say “what is this?” Its eyes aren’t where they should be, it’s not the right height or color — so you are forced to really look at it for the first time. When you can achieve that effect with real objects, it creates a distance from our everyday lives that’s extraordinary. The extraordinary exists in our gaze — not in the object we’re looking at, and not in the text.
AL: So when you’re, say, walking down the street, do you see the extraordinary? Is writing for you a way of showing what you see, which is maybe a little different from what the rest of us see?
SS: I don’t know that I see things differently. It’s not that you go walking and see extraordinary things where they don’t actually exist. What you do is you search for them, and above all it’s an internal search. Sometimes it’s sitting down to think through a situation by writing about it, and in doing so finding something singular. That’s what literature does in the end, or at least the most realistic literature: it takes something from the order of the real, and it rethinks it in a way that can produce a certain magic, or a certain darkness, or a discovery.
AL: Do you generally discover where a story is going as you’re writing it? Or do you know from the start where it will end?
SS: In general I do have a pretty clear idea of where I’m going, but it’s not a clear idea of the plot; it’s an emotional space where I want to arrive. I can see very concretely and specifically the particular feeling of the ending. It took me a while to realize this; for a long time I thought it was the plot that was pulling me forward. The plot seems like the weightiest, most untouchable thing in a book, but actually it’s just anecdotal. I have a very specific emotion that I want to hand to the reader with the same specificity, the same weight, the same colors, exactly. I want to put it inside you. And the plot is only the bridge that gets you there; it could be any bridge of any form. When I realized that, it gave me a great deal of freedom in my writing. I could change the path, or undo everything and rewrite it — you can do whatever you want, as long as you cross that bridge.
AL: What is it that pulls you so often towards writing short stories, as opposed to novels?
SS: In the short story there is a sensation of velocity that is very special, and a depth that is reached in so little space. It does something physical to your body and your reality, like when you finish a sprint and you’re trying to catch your breath. You think, “What happened?” What happened? You just read two pages and something in your world changed.
AL: I felt that in so many of these stories, I have to say — it’s like a physical impact! There is a lot of violence in these stories, and often a correlation between art and violence. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” the wife’s murdered body, which is stuffed inside a suitcase, gets displayed as a work of art. And in “Heads Against Concrete,” the main character has this impulse towards violence which he ultimately transforms into art. Do you think there is something violent in art itself, or in the artistic impulse?
SS: Yes, I think so. It’s inevitable to be contaminated with darkness, with fears and doubts. Those things touch you; they get inside your body like poison. And art is a way to distill the poison. At least for me, writing is what gets it out of my body. There’s something healing too that has to do with darkness in the abstract versus darkness as something concrete. I’m not sure what, but something gets healed when you make a material, physical work of art out of that formless darkness that was lodged somewhere, who even knows where, in your body.
AL: A lot of the violence in these stories also occurs between the sexes, especially in the first story, “Headlights,” where there is this field full of women who have been deserted on the way to their weddings. It felt to me almost like a creation myth — like the first betrayal. Do you think of it in that way?
SS: There is something a bit theatrical in that story, like out of a Greek myth. I was trying to think not only of the personal tensions of each of the characters but also the tensions that all of society and business puts onto them. So I took them outside the context of the city, and put them all in one place. At one point everyone is getting married at the same time in this story. Everyone is frozen in the same place, each with their own personal disasters, but all in the same moment.
AL: This is a tricky question to ask, but do you think there is something insurmountable in the space between men and women that the battle of sorts in this story embodies? Do you see a “cultural gap” in gender relations too?
SS: Well, there’s a lot of tension, isn’t there? Especially in recent years. But I don’t think it’s specifically between men and women. I think we don’t understand the other in general. It’s not that, in this story, the characters make decisions that are solely tied to the sex into which they each fit — because of course there is no black and white when it comes to sex and gender. But there is a communal way of thinking that is black and white, and this story plays with that through common, shared spaces that bring out our social instincts — when you act for the group and not for yourself. The story is built on a series of conventions and social agreements, which in fact are not the most natural ways for us to relate to one another. These objects that mean so much to us — in the story “Toward Happy Civilization,” it’s money, or here it’s the wedding dress — when these cultural objects are taken out of context, we see clearly the stupidity of their importance. They’re nothing; they’re empty.
AL: So many of the stories in this collection end with emptiness, with fear or desperation, but there is a beautiful and to me quite mysterious story, “A Great Effort” — about a father and son who start visiting a masseuse — which is a story of real healing. I wondered if you think literature can sometimes work like the massages in that story: that through symbolism, and a series of physical sensations, and whatever other mechanisms which evade our understanding completely, we are cured of some suffering?
SS: How lovely. Yes, yes, of course I believe it. I believe it because I feel it; it happens to me as a reader and as a writer as well. In the end, I think literature is a mechanism that allows you as a human being, as a citizen of this world, to pull out your worst fears, face them, and test yourself — almost as if you were playing a videogame — and return to your life with information that is vital. You can feel pain as you’re reading, but when you return to your life, you aren’t hurt. You can feel death, and when you return to your life, you’re not dead. I don’t know that there is anything else in our world that lets you work, in such an intimate and precise way, on your understanding of life itself. There is something so specifically personal about reading: no other art or technology can give you that unique reaction where a particular word invokes a particular image that is yours and no one else’s. If I say “teapot,” the teapot that appears for you is unique because you know that teapot. It’s your grandmother’s, or the one you wanted to buy but couldn’t, or the one you carried with you from your birthplace — you know how much it weighs, how it smells, where it’s stained. And all that from the word “teapot!” The fact that literature does that is precious, and irreplaceable.