Interview with Author Carolina De Robertis

If you missed my review of the latest stunning novel from Carolina De Robertis, Perla, you must read it now and buy the book or vice versa.  The novel is set in Argentina and blends reality with the surreal as a young woman finds her place in the world and learns that politically motivated actions can have very personal consequences.  If you haven’t heard of the Disappeared, you must pick up this book and learn more.

Today, I’ve got an interview with Carolina De Robertis about her book and The Disappeared.  Without further ado, please give her a warm welcome.

Writing about the disappeared of Argentina must be quite a balancing act even after many decades. What inspired you to take on the subject and why choose to tell the story in a way that is at times surreal and very focused through the eyes of Perla?

My interest in the subject first arose from the extensive research I did for my first novel, The Invisible Mountain, which traverses ninety years of Uruguayan history, among them the revolutionary 60s and the dictatorship of the 70s and 80s. Inevitably, in studying those times, I also encountered the realities that unfolded on the other side of the river, in Argentina. It was more than could possibly fit in one novel, and inspired me to “cross the river” for my second novel, to Argentina, where I also have roots and relatives.

The surreal premise of Perla originally came as a vivid image I couldn’t get out of my head, of the disappeared who were thrown into in the river from airplanes, rising back up to visit the living. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. However, looking back, I think I was drawn to this choice because it allowed me to do something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the literature and filmography of the disappeared, which is to give the disappeared a voice of their own, to explore their side of the story in an immediate way. And telling the story through Perla, a military man’s daughter, allowed me to do something else that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, and that seemed urgent to me: to attempt to portray the full humanity of perpetrators of these crimes, without excusing them. Who would more honestly grapple with that difficult humanity than a perpetrator’s beloved daughter?

How much has the political landscape changed between when the disappeared were taken and today? Did that play a role in how you tackled the subject in fiction and were there any lingering concerns about how you portrayed the past in your fiction?

When the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo first started organizing, in the late 70s, to defend the rights of their disappeared adult children, they were putting their lives at risk (and some of them in fact lost their lives as a result). Today, the Mothers have been honored in the Presidential Palace and are widely celebrated as heroines. Argentinean public opinion has come to decry the human rights abuses of the regime. Nevertheless, the wounds of those times are still viscerally alive in Argentinean society, in many ways. So I knew that I’d be touching on a national wound. I could only hope that the potential of art to create beauty and healing out of horror would outstrip the pain of having brought it to the surface.

The character of Perla is very complex in that she has a certain identity that is challenged from an early age given who her father was in the 70s and 80s. Did you have an outline of her character before you began writing her? Were there things about her character that surprised you? How so?

There were many things I knew about Perla when I began to write her into being, including the various layers of secrets that lie in her and in her family. However, I learned a great deal more about her as I wrote. In some ways, she is more vulnerable than I initially thought her to be. In other ways, she’s a great deal stronger than I first painted her. She has a wild streak. She also has a sense of humor that I didn’t see coming, which really emerges in her love affair with Gabriel, and which gives her another level of resilience.

Are there particular books you’d recommend to readers who want to learn more about the disappeared? Which ones and what makes them a must read?

There are many important books, but one of the most eloquent and devastating is Prisoner Without a Name and Cell Without a Number by Jacobo Timerman. Timerman was a respected journalist who was “disappeared” under the dictatorship, and only survived because international pressure forced his release. On his release he wrote this slim, amazing memoir that propels you right into the experience. I’d also recommend the Oscar-winning film The Official Story, which unfolds the world of a mother who begins to suspect her adopted daughter may be a child of the disappeared.

In the acknowledgements, you mention receiving Nunca Más. Upon reading the book, how has your world view changed and do you see your fiction writing as way to reveal to the world the deeper questions that events like the disappearance of Argentinians raise?

A book like Nunca Más, which gathers the testimonies of survivors of atrocity, is bound to shake you and your sense of the world. It forces you to look in the eye some of the tremendous cruelties we human beings are collectively capable of. How can such things happen? And why do they keep happening in so many places across the world? Most importantly, how does a society begin to truly move beyond such a tragedy and affirm the beauty and powerful forms of love that are also part of human experience? I do think that fiction plays a particular role in exploring such questions. Fiction can delve into the long-term, intimate effects of violence, and the complex and often astounding ways that people rebuild their lives. Fiction can open doors to healing, to awakening, and to fresh explorations of the truth. This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but I really do believe this, perhaps because, as a reader, novels have done all these things for me.

Finally, who are some of your favorite authors and poets? Or what are you reading now that you enjoy?

There are so many! Just a few of the authors I constantly turn and return to: Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Clarice Lispector, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Dostoevsky. As for recent reading, I just finished The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. It’s a portrait of Einar Wegener, the first person to successfully undergo male-to-female sex change surgery—and a stunning novel, told in the most vibrant, nuanced, and utterly unforgettable voice.

Thanks, Carolina, for answering my questions.

Some Winners…and More


Winner Kathy at Bermudaonion

Winner Beth Hoffman

Congrats to both winners!

In other news, I’ve been interviewed by poet and fiction writer Emma Eden Ramos on her blog. Check it out!

Perla by Carolina De Robertis

Perla by Carolina De Robertis (giveaway following the review) is captivating and intoxicating in its setting, mystery, and the psychological unraveling of the main protagonist, Perla.  She’s growing into a young woman, but her cloistered existence threatens to explode until she begins to release herself in books and in her relationship with Gabriel.

The past haunts everything around her, though she does not know it at first.  She is proud of her family and her father’s naval career and her mother’s quirky penchant for picking up new hobbies and discarding them.  But her pride is suddenly shaken when she learns of the Disappeared, Argentinians who were silently taken from their workplaces and homes in the 1970s and 1980s by the government for allegedly being subversives.  In school she writes a short story that wins a prize and is published in the newspaper, but her story has other unintended consequences.  It opens up hidden fissures in her family, and forces her to rebel and question the father she’s loved with blind devotion.

“He was uninvited moisture.  He had leaked into this house.  I had every reason to find his presence an affront, to be enraged at his invasion, or at least to eject him in calm tones.  Certainly he made me feel combustible, unsafe in my own skin.  But though I didn’t know why, though the feeling shocked me, I did not want him to leave.”  (page 28)

The fluidity with which De Robertis tells the tale is much like the Dali painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” hung in Perla’s childhood home, weaving in and out of reality and shaping a psyche that is struggling with secrets that are too devastating to hold inside.  Perla is a novel about identity and how it is created or comes into being and whether it is alive within us before we are even born.  In accordance with this look at identity, the novel examines the harsh treatment society places on new generations for the transgressions of the past.  Struggling with the truth of her father’s job and how it may have contributed to the disappearance of many Argentinians is enough for Perla to deal with as a young adult, but she also must confront the sneer and the unspoken disgust in the eyes of her classmates and friends when her father’s occupation is revealed.

Retreating into herself and her books, Perla finds a way to cope and becomes strong in a way that even she is unaware of, and when she meets Gabriel, her strength is tested once again.  Can she love her father and still love this man who writes articles condemning the actions of former military and government leaders who now have immunity?  Can she reconcile the two worlds of her life into one and live with herself?  And how can she explain her love for her father amidst the knowledge of what his actions before she was born did to the country and to other families?

De Robertis takes readers on a psychological journey through Perla’s mind as she processes the revelations of her family life and the nation she was born into.  Legacy plays an important role and it is clear that Perla must uncover what that legacy should be as she grows into a woman and leads her own life.  The prose is so enchanting and intoxicating, hours of reading fly by as streets in Buenos Aires become crowded with footfall percussion beats and musical laughter countered with the closed off rooms of Perla’s childhood home and the dark, swirling violet waves of her aunt’s painting.  Water also is a significant image throughout the book as it gives life and sustains it in the womb and in the soil, but it also connects everyone and everything in the story, running underground and supplying the sustenance to the tale.

“Flowers lurked at every turn.  You could not rest your gaze without encountering a geranium, two geraniums, hundreds of geraniums, and you could not walk without the feeling that geraniums were following you close at heel, bright mobs of them, crowding the air at your back.  You could not help feeling vastly outnumbered.” (page 90)

In a few sections when Perla’s mother has taken up gardening as a hobby and begins overpopulating the house with geraniums, it is clear that these flowers are like the bodies of the disappeared blossoming despite the cover up and lurking around every corner, haunting those that took part.  These bodies even when the blossoms fade from lack of care, continue to haunt the house and its inhabitants, prodding Perla’s family to look about them, to question, to uncover the truth beneath the well-manicured soil.

Perla by Carolina De Robertis melds the supernatural with reality in a way that it becomes a testament to all of the disappeared and the children of the disappeared who were restored and not.  It is an examination of an ugly part of Argentinian history in which women, children, and men were taken from their families and homes without warning, tortured, and released from planes above the Atlantic Ocean — erased from existence.  De Robertis does not dwell on the horrors of those times, but on the consequences of those actions and the reverberations felt for generations following the political upheaval that caused them.  She does so with aplomb and breath-taking imagery that transports readers to a South American nation ripe with beauty and dark secrets to explore what it means to have an identity and to be an individual in spite of what your family may have done in the past.  One last note, get the tissues ready!  Another for the 2012 best of list.

Author Carolina De Robertis

About the Author:

Carolina De Robertis is the author of Perla and The Invisible Mountain, which was an international bestseller translated into fifteen languages, the recipient of Italy’s Rhegium Julii Prize, and a Best Book of 2009 according to the San Francisco Chronicle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and BookList. Her writings and literary translations have appeared in Zoetrope: Allstory, Granta, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is the translator of Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, which was just made into a film, and Roberto Ampuero’s internationally bestselling The Neruda Case, which will be published for the first time in English in July 2012. De Robertis has been awarded a 2012 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

De Robertis grew up in a Uruguayan family that immigrated to England, Switzerland, and California. Prior to completing her first book, she worked in women’s rights organizations for ten years, on issues ranging from rape to immigration. She lives in Oakland, California, where she is currently elbow-deep in writing her third novel, which explores migration, sexual frontiers, and the tango’s Old Guard in early twentieth century South America.  Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and through her Website.

tlc tour host

This is my 37th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




To enter for 1 copy of Perla by Carolina De Robertis (US/Canada), leave a comment about what you’d like to learn about the disappeared of Argentina.

Deadline is May 17, 2012, at 11:59PM EST

Mailbox Monday #174

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is Cindy’s Love of Books.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock for a TLC Book Tour in May.

2.  A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez unrequested from Algonquin; it’s my second copy so, I’ll be finding this one a new home.

3. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones unrequested from Algonquin.

4. A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd from William Morrow.

5. An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd from William Morrow.

6. An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd from William Morrow.

7. A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd from William Morrow.

Check out the Bess Crawford Read-a-Long at Book Club Girl!

8. Then Again by Diane Keaton from Random House.

9. Walter’s Muse by Jean Davies Okimoto, which I won from Under My Apple Tree.

10. Perla by Carolina de Roberts for a TLC Book Tour in May.

11. Insatiable by Meg Cabot in the used book section at Novel Places.

What did you receive?

***Today’s National Poetry Month Tour stop is over at Seer of Ghosts and Weaver of Stories.