Gabriela Wiener Challenges the White Man in Her Head

The author of "Undiscovered" on how familial history has as much to do with love and desire as racism and colonization

Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

The death of her father flings Peruvian journalist writer Gabriela Wiener back to her hometown of Lima and to a confrontation with his infidelity, and then back further to the paternal ancestor who bestowed her brown body with her Austrian surname. With this, Wiener begins Undiscovered, translated by Julia Sanches, a rollicking decolonial fact-fiction remix of her family’s histories, the life of her great-great-great grandfather, the explorer Charles Wiener, and how all this time plays out in her own body, and her current life, and polyamorous household in Madrid.

The past’s labored breath is everywhere; and certainly, Wiener, who doesn’t hide the murkier parts of her own story (“Our three-person bed isn’t used for sex anymore.”), is especially forthright in her depictions of racism against South Americans in Spain. When she meets her Spanish partner’s family, for example, the grandmother tries to recruit her to be a maid. An aunt chides the grandmother by saying that Wiener writes for the newspaper El Pais, but is ignored. The grandmother then enquires how many houses she cleans. Wiener is beset by thoughts of Victoria, her own racist grandmother, who hid her Andean roots to avoid discrimination. “Why do I also think domestic labor is worth less than that of a journalist who writes for El Pais? Is it because it reminds me of my racialization, of the race that has been and will always be a measure of who I am? Because it hurts to be shoved back inside the pigeonhole in their heads. Because I am Victoria and I am not.”

The novel, as it is called officially—and Wiener, certainly pokes fun at auto fiction and fictionalizing efforts of the earlier Wiener (“Isn’t that what writers do anyway? Pillage the real story and deface it until it shines its own unique light on the world?”)—is her third work to be translated into English. In Sexographies (translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Weiner offers first-person reported essays on prisons, swingers clubs, and ayahuascha, while Nine Moons (translated by Jessica Powell) is Wiener’s non-fiction musing on pregnancy and reproduction.

I spoke to Wiener via email and translation by Alfredo Fee, Editorial Assistant at HarperVia, about names and faces, the unceasing past and how nothing is post-colonial, and what her ancestor Charles might think of her novel. And also, jealousy, no one’s favorite emotion, the descriptions of which, stayed discomfittingly with me days after I read Undiscovered in a single sitting.

J.R. Ramakrishan: What is your first memory of being aware of your different surname?

Gabriela Wiener: I think it was when I realized that no one said it correctly and I was forced to explain a last name that I didn’t even know how to pronounce. I was almost last in roll call and no one else in class had a last name beginning with W. The racist bullying of my childhood included calling me Gabriela “Winter” (a brand of chocolates), “chupetito de brea,” “negra tomasa” and “macumba.” If my last name had [read indigenous] like Chumbivilca, I don’t know what would have become of me.

In countries that suffered colonization, both racism and classism from white creole elites towards people of Andean descent is virulent and normalized. Brown or “huaco” faces are penalized but so are brown surnames. And if you already have both you’re screwed. I used to be terrified of going on class trips to archeology museums because we would always pass by a huaco display and the kids would make fun of me, comparing my face to the huaco portraits. But at the same time my last name whitened me, protected me, it was my link to whiteness. I was secretly proud of it because it proved that although I was perceived as racialized, there flowed a percentage of European blood in my veins. All that, of course, is pure internalized racism, but I had to grow up hearing that one had to “improve the race” by marrying white. Luckily, I disobeyed and married a cholo.

JRR: What did you think when you first heard the story of your ancestor Charles?

In countries that suffered colonization, both racism and classism from white creole elites towards people of Andean descent is virulent and normalized.

GW: Since I was a kid, I’d heard Charles spoken of as the famous ancestor from whom we were all descended. With pride and fascination. By then I, being the brownest of the Wieners, had already asked myself countless questions about my European surname and my huaco face. There wasn’t a single photo of Charles with his son, my grandfather’s grandfather. There isn’t even a picture of my great-great-grandmother. The official story is a history of power and it is told by men, and inherited by families.

Because many of us are descendants of both victim and executioner, through our veins courses the blood of both the huaco and the huaquero, the colonized and the colonizer. And on top of that, as migrants from a former colony, we’ve chosen to stay in the Europe of closed borders, torn between two worlds that have occupied us for 500 years. We embody that European project of civilization and subalternization of the Other called miscegenation. How could we not have the white man in our heads? It was a violent process and what we see is the impact of these yet still colonial realities in our lives. These are the genealogies we want to dig into to make our own story.

JRR: Your take on autofiction being “the worst insult” is hilarious. Did you ever consider writing a more straight memoir?

GW: Hahhaa, thank you, yes, the book is full of jokes, it’s what I like to do most, crack literary jokes! I’ve done nothing in life but publish autobiographical, autofictional or intimate books like Sexographies and Nine Moons (both already translated into English) or Lost Call. I even have one titled What They Say of Me, a book of interviews with people from my life focused on one subject—myself—in which people are constructing more or less interesting, more or less true, more or less false versions of me, and so I’m collectively cooked up as a sort of Frankenstein. I love knowing what people think of me and, in that book, I dared ask them directly and play with it.

JRR: So much to ask about the museum and explorer themes! But to start, tell us about how you came to this title in English? There is so much that is “undiscovered” in your novel: Juan, Charles, your father’s past, etc. Was there a consideration of using the Spanish title, Huaco Retrato? And prior to the translation process, I am wondering what were the other titles you had considered for the book before settling on Huaco Retrato in Spanish?

GW: I proposed to all my editors that the original title be kept—as a decolonizing agent it’s my job to defend the identity and original dignity of my book. Some listened, while others either half listened or not at all, following commercial criteria. Others, like HarperCollins, convinced me with the best reasoning. From what they tell me, the one who came up with Undiscovered was Juan Mila, my editor. And I liked it for the same reasons you do, because I saw an ambiguity in everything yet to be discovered but also in what cannot and will not be discovered, what is impossible to discover. At least in the translation in my head, although in English, it may not be so ambiguous.

JRR: I was struck by how you compare history, for example your referencing the US-Mexico border situation and immigrants in Spain right now. For me this called to mind the contemporary representations of colonization (say for example, the Amazon Spanish production of Hernan about the conquest of Mexico) and how the past is somehow frozen and/or over. But you drag history into the present. It seems in literary/artistic representation at least, the past is a relic but for the colonized, it’s absolutely present and never-ending, with for example the scene of Rocio’s grandmother assuming that you are a maid. Would you talk about this?

GW: The plight of the South American migrant and its accompanying stereotypes is maybe the experience I can most personally substantiate through my years of living in Spain. What has always impressed me is the extent to which Spanish colonization dominates our therapy sessions, forming a substantial part of self-analysis and discussion about our present and identity, while for Spanish society we’re not even a subject of conversation. We’re out of focus, in the periphery of their self-projection. And I think it’s because in order to focus and see us with clarity and respect, they would have to inspect their darkest side, the conquering ego underlying the myth of the discoverer, and begin to read their own identity as one of historical violence and subjugation of the Other. Hence, the importance of resistance through our bodies and communities.

I had to grow up hearing that one had to ‘improve the race’ by marrying white. Luckily, I disobeyed and married a cholo.

Racism and colonization are pre and post-colonial. It’s the same coloniality of power (the Peruvian sociologist) Aníbal Quijano speaks of. There is nothing truly post-colonial because the matter has not been addressed or repaired, coloniality is active because the wound continues to ache and remains central to how we see ourselves in daily life: a social model of subordination, a social organization based on castes invented by modernity, and the racism and classism they exude, have left imprints on our mental health, on our subjectivity, on the way we relate as a society, in the administration of nation states and how these are in turn articulated with neoliberal economic policies.

The advantage of having thought much more than the colonizers about the colony is that we collectively inhabit processes of decolonization. Meanwhile among the conquerors nostalgia continues to be nurtured, overriding memory and allowing the ultra-right to set the agenda for public and media discourse. As the colonial is institutionalized in the US, France or Spain, they operate by its logic. They close borders and, through law, violate those coming from countries already plundered by them. If we go by the institutions and the speeches of political authorities, I’d say that the discourse remains deeply imperialist and neocolonialist.

JRR: And I am curious as to what you think your children might perceive of this very dilemma of the past in their own future as they grow up in Europe? And how they might read your book?

GW: My 16-year-old daughter Coco recently wrote this article, in which she articulates her dual predicament of being born in Spain but as the daughter of South American migrants and the strangeness of feeling out of place both here and there. And that this is ultimately what defines her, that discomfort. And I think for things to change, we need people who find themselves at both poles of comfort. For me, it is important to raise them and educate them in resistance and in their differences. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. So, what I hope for most is to be raising children aware of injustice but also with revolutionary spirit. I think my book would sound very familiar to them, it’s all they usually hear coming out of my mouth.

JRR: It’s a question you ask in the book about what Charles might think of your life but I also wonder what he would think of your book? Seeing as to how he took, as you write, liberties with the truth of his findings and writings?

GW: Yes, he took some liberties while I took others—with his own biography and myth. And that’s where we overlap: “the liberties” we take with facts and things, that’s to say, what we poured of fiction and charades into the world. That’s what I speculate in the book. When Gabriela realizes that she finally feels that some of Charles’s legacy belongs to her—the philia—constitutes her, she stops denying it.

Now that you raise the point, I could go on to speculate that he would be very proud that his great-great-granddaughter employs his own weapons to challenge him: writing and re-invention, plunder and public exposure, that I use them for my own ends. Finally, perhaps he’d see me as he saw all Indians: aberrant, profiteering, sad, drunken and treacherous, incomprehensible to his Western mind.

JRR: Your emotional honesty was brutal and beautiful, nowhere more than when you discuss your jealousy in the context of your polyamorous family set-up. How have you managed to come to terms with it enough to write about jealousy?

Because many of us are descendants of both victim and executioner, through our veins courses the blood of both the colonized and the colonizer.

GW: Familial history has as much to do with love and desire as racism and colonization, they’re closely intertwined. And the same thread that runs through the first story—the uncertain and fleeting affair between María and Charles, is present in the last, the contemporary and polyamorous relationship. In between is the story of the unfaithful father and his secret relationship. And within each of these stories are involved children, legitimate and illegitimate, more or less white, more or less brown, more or less helpless.

Jealousy or any vulnerability is intrinsic to relationships of power or domination. And all relationships are so, even loving ones. It often happens that there are unequal relationships where there are those who retain privileges of race and those who do not, or privileges of gender, of class, etc. Those who can afford a double life and those who cannot. This inequality affects the way we look at ourselves, how we relate to one another, and of course it can be transferred from generation to generation. In other words, the book postulates that the greater vulnerability and racial, gender, or class-based violence endured, the greater the insecurity and the fear of losing what little affection, security and appreciation we have obtained. You can call it jealousy, fragility, precariousness… but it’s not something to be resolved individually but instead with others. Knowing this is important in order to not abandon those who cannot “manage” their relationships because they shoulder a heavy burden of sad stories and open wounds.

JRR: What are you working on right now (or any forthcoming projects)?

GW: I’m working on a new novel, called Atusparía, the name of a leader of the indigenous resistance in Peru during the late 19th century. Atusparía is also the name of the Indigenist-Soviet school in an Andean country where the novel’s protagonist studies during perestroika, near the end of the USSR and Cold War–hard years during which a terrorist group operates within the country.

The school is a center of indoctrination and at the same time a complex place of intercultural learning for children who dance huaynos and want to be astronauts. With it, the left hopes to realize the dream of indigenous philosopher JC Mariátegui: adapting socialism to our indigenous context so as to liberate the Indian. And even Shining Path is somewhere in there. My basic intention is to demonstrate how hierarchies of power also reach emancipatory causes, basically to reflect on what within a revolution has always struck me as reactionary: power struggles, authoritarianism, the Cold War, the divisionism in feminism, on the left, the factions, etc., something very questionable within progressivism. Russian and Quechua form symbolic elements of the book’s language.

JRR: And finally, would you recommend some of your favorite (emerging writers, not yet translated to English) Peruvian writers?

GW: Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Rosa Chávez, Brunilda, José Carlos Agüero.

About the Translator

Alfredo Fee is an Editorial Assistant with the HarperOne Group. Raised in Ohio, he majored in Classical Studies at the University of Chicago before entering publishing.

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