I have followed the work on David Unger for nearly two decades. His new book is out in early November. Called Sleeping with the Light I will review it at a later date. Carlos Velez Aguilera beautifully illustrates the book. As a prelude to publication, I interviewed David about his work and a bit about the new book.
1.Tell me how you began to write. What drew you to writing?
There is no simple answer to this. When we left Guatemala, I was four, and my parents insisted we speak English, a totally new language to me when we arrived in an Anglo culture that was completely foreign. I learned early to develop counter-narratives to the realities all around me. When I read A.E. Houseman and Dylan Thomas in high school, on my own, I realized I could use language as a vehicle for expressing what I was feeling and visualizing. That is when I gave up wanting to become an engineer. I dedicated 30 years to writing poetry and translating before I published my first novel in 2002.
2 Would it be fair to say that Garcia Marquez influenced your work? What do you make of “ Magical Realism”? Do you believe Latin American authors are still influenced by it?
I loved reading No One Writes to the Colonel and One Hundred Years of Solitude, two of the most important novels in the contemporary Latin American literary canon. I met Gabo briefly on various occasions and even published a long essay about our strange encounters. When I was in high school, I read almost every novel John Steinbeck ever wrote and soon thereafter, read many Graham Greene and Ian Fleming novels, oddly enough. I loved the Magical Realist moments in Gabo’s work, but I was not so enamoured by the efforts of notable followers like Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie and even Toni Morrison. There followed many writers who thought that the stranger the imagery, the more imaginative the writing. I guess I prefer novels with strong characters that have the historical grounding to those novels of literary fancy, flight or invention.
3.Marquez would mostly consult with historians when writing do you see this as a good or bad thing? Do you use historians or their work when planning a new project?
Most of my novels are set in a recognizable social, political and historical context: Life in the Damn Tropics depicts a middle-class Jewish family in Guatemala of the 80s during the darkest period of the armed conflict; The Price of Escape takes place in Puerto Barrios (an awful port city) in the late 30s and confronts the monstrosity of the United Fruit Company and World War II; The Mastermind is my riff on Guatemala City in 2009 when lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg accused President Colum, in a pre-recorded tape, of killing him when, in fact, he orchestrated his own death. I read a lot of history to establish the right context for the stories I tell, but in the end, I am more interested in how my characters mostly muddle their way through challenging times. I am mostly interested in transformation, shitty characters being redeemed.
4 There appears to be a good crop of new writers from Latin America, including some new Guatemalan writers like Eduardo Halfon. I liked his book Mourning which is an attempt by a new generation of young writers to deal with or understand Guatemala’s bloody history. What do you make of them?
You have picked a talented writer in Halfon. His short stories and short novels are intertwined with his own biography and thus his childhood in Guatemala and his Jewish ancestry are constant themes. There are other writers such as Denise Phe-Funchal and Javier Mosquera Saravia, both of whom I have translated, who explore Guatemalan realities in a highly personal, but no less authoritative point of view. And then there are masters like Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Augusto Monterroso who have achieved international acclaim. Most writers, excepting Mosquera and Phe-Finchal, have written their best work outside of Guatemala, which is not a very hospitable country. The daily murders and corruption are huge obstacles for writers seeking tranquillity and distance to write effectively.
5 Tell me a little about your new book. Where did you get the idea from? Tell me a little about the writing process, i.e. how do you work as an author.
Sleeping With the Light On is based on a short story entitled “La Casita,” that appeared in my 2009 book Ni chicha, ni limonada (F y G Editores). I took this sweet autobiographical tale and enlarged it into a chapter book. The major themes of the book deal with family conflicts, war and loss, but since it is for children 6-9, these themes are introduced and dealt with gently. As to your second question: I am not a career writer, so I only write when I have something to say—I published my first novel at age 52. When an idea or a character gets a hold of me that’s when I begin to write. It hasn’t happened in five years because I have nothing to say. This awful covid pandemic, I would say, has almost rendered me mute.
6 Could you tell me any future writing projects? If this is a bit hush-hush ignore this question.
Nothing hush-hush about my new project. I am doing a retranslation of Guatemala Nobelist Miguel Angel Asturias novel El señor presidente. It was written almost one hundred years ago, over a ten-year period when MAA was living in Europe, and is a powerful portrait of a corrupt dictator and how he tramples lives to maintain his power. It gave rise to other dictator novel’s including Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch; Roa Bastos’s I, The Supreme and Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. It first appeared in 1965 translated by Francis Partridge, full of Anglicism’s and lacking the texture of Guatemala and Guatemalan life and history. Penguin Classics will be publishing my translation, with a preface by Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2022. This translation (I have translated 16 books), I hope, will be the apex of my literary life—I am grateful to be bringing this exceptional novel to new audiences and hopefully, it will spurn a reassessment of the work of Guatemala’s only Nobel Prize in Literature.
David Unger was born in Guatemala City in 1950 and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Price of Escape (Akashic Books, 2011), Para mi, eres divina (Random House Mondadori, Mexico, 2011), Ni chicha, ni limonada (F & G Editores, Guatemala, 2009; Recorded Books, 2010) and Life in the Damn Tropics (Wisconsin University Press, Plaza y Janes (Mexico, 2004), Locus Press (Taiwan, 2007). He has translated sixteen books into English, including works by Nicanor Parra, Silvia Molina, Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs, Mario Benedetti and Rigoberta Menchu. He is considered one of Guatemala's major living writers even though he writes exclusively in English.