Despite being one of our era’s greatest crises, the political and socio-economic collapse of Venezuela has been somewhat absent from western bookshelves. But it is being brought into focus at this year’s ILB by Venezuelan journalist and first-time novelist Karina Sainz Borgo, born in Caracas in 1982. For the World Literature section, Sainz Borgo will present her 2019 debut It Would Be Night in Caracas (available in English from October), which depicts one woman’s fight for survival in a country that has disintegrated into violence and anarchy. Sainz Borgo has reported on her native Venezuela since adolescence, from the predicament of intellectuals and artists to the youth Hip Hop scene in Caracas, and emigrated to Spain in 2006. Although set in Venezuela, Sainz Borgo insists that her story is a universal one, which speaks to timeless truths about the loss of homeland and identity. A rising talent in both South American and global literature, her English-language talk promises to be a powerful one.
You’ve worked as a journalist for over 20 years now and this novel is your first. What prompted your move to fiction?
I’ve worked as a journalist for a long time, it’s true, but I feel myself more related to fiction than journalism sometimes. I’ve been reading and writing fiction for several years – this is my first published novel, but not the first one I’ve written. When you write, you’re able to understand what happens inside you and around you. It felt natural for me to move to fiction.
So does fiction feel like a more natural medium for capturing the Venezuelan crisis?
This novel is not about the current Venezuelan crisis. Of course, it is located in Venezuela, but there is not one single name of a Venezuelan politician. There’s no time, I didn’t write any dates. I tried to write with metaphors. I always try to let the reader know that I’m talking about something universal. This idea that the protagonist Adelaida Falcón’s mother dies and she has to bury her – it’s a political metaphor about the death of one’s homeland. It’s a very political novel but not precisely a Venezuelan novel. It’s about how totalitarianism erases individuals. I needed to understand my own feelings about identity and homeland. I did not write it to explain Maduro or Chavismo.
It’s interesting that the English translation, It Would be Night in Caracas, places the focus on Venezuela, both in its title and its marketing…
The publishers decided that if they used the Spanish title – La hija de la española, which translates as “the Spanish daughter” – it would be a very European story. They wanted to point out that it was a story located in Latin America, that it has this Caribbean sensibility. I understand their decision, but I don’t feel they identified with the idea that it’s a universal story. What’s happening in Venezuela, it’s a very similar process if you compare it to Europe during the wars. My grandfather and father are Spanish; my grandfather was part of the republic in the Spanish Civil War and had to run away from Spain. If he didn’t leave, he would have died. It’s this idea of huge power pushing people out of their birthplace. I wanted to point out this paradox of two generations; one comes to the country and takes part in its construction, and then their grandchildren have to run away. That’s why Adelaida has to take someone else’s identity; she has no one in Europe to escape to. It’s a very common tragedy.
While it may be a common tragedy, Adelaida is not unlike you – she is an editor and journalist who emigrates to Spain. Would you say that there are autobiographical elements in the novel? How much of the story is based on real events and how much is fabricated?
Yes. I haven’t thrown anyone’s dead body through a window, of course, but I have seen things which relate to this novel. I saw a country dying, I saw a violent country, so I tried to use that material to write the political and emotional landscape of the novel. I cannot deny the fact that I’m a journalist. I think as a journalist; I think in details. The stories in the novel are a mixture of the experiences of many people. I talked to and worked with people in jail, and I tried to point out issues facing justice NGOs and human rights organisations.
Was writing the novel a cathartic process?
Yes, of course. When I arrived in Spain 13 years ago, I was not able to talk about Venezuela. I was so angry I was not able to even mention it. During the time I wrote the novel, I was finally able to put order into my own feelings about the country. I had tried with a previous novel, but with this one, I felt I was strong enough to use the words I wanted to use and to identify the feelings I was experiencing.
Having spent so much time away from Venezuela, how do you navigate your own national identity?
It’s a very complex issue. As I got older, I realised that I had a divided identity. I am the daughter of political refugees. I feel very Spanish but also very Venezuelan, a great mix. It’s more common than we think. Venezuela received a lot of people from Spain, Italy, Portugal, even Germany. And it constructed itself through this mix of cultures and languages. I care about three main issues in the novel; death, guilt and memory. Adelaida really wants to survive but when she finally achieves that goal, she feels guilty. I was writing my own pain and discovered it was someone else’s pain earlier in time. We are repeating the same mistakes.
Mortality is a prevalent theme; there’s a real sense of hopelessness in the death of the country in question. Do you have hope for Venezuela?
If I have hope, it’s because I decided to have it. The Venezuelan process is so complicated. We have lost so many things as a society. We’ve gone back 200 years, it’s a 19th century situation now. We have no independence, we don’t have justice, there is no congress, no system of distributing power, no laws. To recover from that we’re going to need a lot of time. Maybe my generation won’t see it and the next one won’t. There’s a lot of hard work we need to do to recover. Of course, I want to think about the future, but the future is very far away.
Will the book be published and distributed in Venezuela?
Yes. We made an arrangement with the publishing house to distribute a non-profit edition. People don’t have enough money for food and aren’t able to buy books. So we’re distributing 100 editions for free. We wanted the novel to get there.
What are you most excited about in terms of coming to Berlin for the ILB?
Berlin is a city in which I’ve found many different issues that I’m interested in – one of those is memory. The German experience has been really stimulating for me. I’m also very happy to participate in this international festival. It’s going to be a real mix of different sensibilities and points of view.
Karina Sainz Borgo: Nacht in Caracas | Sep 20, 21:00, CHB 2. OG.