Finding Paulina Flores’s debut collection Humiliation in my mailbox was like coming across a little bit of magic in the middle of a very typical day. The stories remain with you long after shutting the cover of her book. Her characters are fascinating—captivating you as you turn the pages, reminding you of what power there is in indulging in excellent writing.
Humiliation is translated from Flores’s native tongue, Spanish, by Megan McDowell. Alejandro Zambra, author of Multiple Choice, writes about the book: “[It] captures the volatility of misunderstandings, the moment when failures matter less than the need to share them.” Each story interlocks within itself, but also lends a cohesive feeling to the overall book—no one story, it feels, could stand alone.
Flores’s book felt like a kindred spirit in a way, a call to all of those small, awkward, vulnerable moments that make up human life. Often I wished for a guidebook while growing-up; Humiliation provides me with one.
The Rumpus: Anne Carson writes in Nox, “Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark… that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate…” What is the physical experience like for you knowing your words might get minced in translation from Spanish (your native tongue) into multiple other languages? Were you worried about things getting lost in translation?
Paulina Flores: Thank you very much for showing me this quote. If I understand correctly, Anne Carson (who I love) is saying that all translation is a superstition. I agree, and to me, everything about language is a superstition. When I write, I always feel like I’m groping around in the dark. Working with words is a quest, not blind, but in the darkness. And in the quest there is a change or “switch,” and that it so beautiful to me.
When I decided to become a writer, my only desire was doing something that I love; I don’t want anything more than the pleasure to be able to do it. Therefore “will ultimately be translated” doesn’t mean a lot for me. I am a woman writer, South American, and young. Being translated only brings me happiness and gratitude—a “thankfulness” but not one of submissiveness.
It is always difficult to lose control, but with imaginative literature, with the words persisting in the minds of the readers and the space between each symbol, you never have it.
Rumpus: In Humiliation, each story illuminates an absolute embarrassment, faux pas, or something more profound. How did you decide on the uniting theme of humiliation? Did it have anything to do with the current state of the world? Are these stories inspired by your true life and/or real events?
Flores: As Humiliation was my first book, in a way, I learned to write with it. I think that my most conscious concern was the argumentative structure; in the case of the themes, it was all very instinctive.
In Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, Kevin, in the end, says something like, “Shame, that’s what will save humanity.” I think that shame or embarrassment is a very intimate feeling that we don’t want to tell anyone, like our secrets. That kind of intimacy can be bleak, but it also makes you stronger. And I think that is what happens to many of the characters in the book.
The stories are not based on my life, but they indeed take from some real events. My sister says that what I do when I write is to twist a true story: take an anecdote and transform it into something else. For example, the Talcahuano story was born from a story told by a friend of a friend. Others were born from small scenes that I saw, as in “Lucky Me.” Now that I think about it, it’s a beautiful coincidence, the family fight that I once witnessed in the hall of the apartment block where I lived was brief and as permanent as a photograph, which is precisely what the protagonist is dedicated to. I guess that says it all: I didn’t know what it would mean when I was writing it, but the feeling was there.
Rumpus: Who is your favorite character in your book, and why?
Flores: When I think of a favorite character, Pancho Carrasco and Tía Nana immediately come to mind. In the case of Pancho Carrasco, I like him because he, like the “Last Vacation” character, Nicolas, has that intensity and cunning that I have always admired in people. They are fun and enjoy life despite difficulties. I love Aunt Nana because she existed, and she was like that, a woman who gave everything for others. She died a couple of years ago, and despite the anonymity of a life like hers, I like to believe that readers will remember her with the same love as me.
Rumpus: There is a lot of longing in this collection of stories. I felt it most in the last story of the collection, “Lucky Me.” Without giving too many details away, do you think longing is born of humiliation or the other way around? What came first?
Flores: I think in the case of the protagonist of “Lucky Me,” her longing is what is supposed to be normal for a woman her age. Longing and humiliation—it is possible that both things are half-confused in your heart and your thoughts.
Rumpus: I am fascinated by the way by which people enter and leave one another’s lives. Do you find a particular power in having the ability to carve the lives of your characters?
Flores: Thank you very much; I don’t know if it will be a power, but I think there is always an opportunity when two people meet, when someone takes conscience of another. I think that connection gives comfort even in defeat or failure.
Rumpus: In the title story of your book, the narrator, a young girl named Simona, says, “And that was enough, that was everything.” I felt like, to me, that line summed up so well what we know to be true, but so often either ignore or struggle to accept—that is, the glimmering inevitable, the domino-like effect that making choices results in, the “knowing” that comes with growing up and seeing our parents as fallible. What do you think is powerful about writing from a child’s perspective versus an adult’s?
Flores: The truth is that I did not propose to write about girls or teenagers. Even when I saw the final set of stories, I didn’t become aware there were so many protagonists of those ages.
Perhaps it was for a practical need, as they are stages that I got past a while ago, I felt more confident in narrating them. Or maybe it has to do with something generational. The people I know of my age can be very engrossed. My mom at twenty-five already had two daughters, a husband and a family project; in my case, now I don’t have children and I have more time to think about myself in the past, present, and future.
Also, I grew up in the 1990s, and in the process of the transition to democracy there was an erasing of the past. I felt that Chile had problems with assuming its past, and its origin was very latent in human relationships. In symbolic terms, that unemployed father also represents that disappointment: the neoliberal Chile that collapses with the Asian crisis.
Rumpus: I have always been a voracious reader. One of my favorite lines in your book comes in the story titled “Last Vacation.” The narrator says, “Reading was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle… There was something hidden, a lost piece, and you couldn’t always find it, and maybe it didn’t even exist.” How do you find information in a world increasingly online, increasingly accessible? Do you still turn to books like your character? Is there something humiliating about admitting you do not know or understand something nowadays?
Flores: Yes, I still turn to books. Sometimes they are like those old potion books, witchcraft. What I mean is that books give security; they have that strange mixture, something physical, as concrete and heavy as the words themselves and at the same time without form, only sounds and mental ideas. If it is written in a book it gives more security. Maybe I am getting old, or maybe I always was. But although the information [available online] overwhelms me, I don’t believe in it; what I believe in is the experience, the story. It is always a bit humiliating to admit that one does not understand. Nicolas, the character in “Last Vacation,” is very concrete; he needs to be certain, but he still uses books. For me, that means he accepts the mystery of words.
Photograph of Paulina Flores by Rocío Aguirre. Book cover provided courtesy of Catapult.