Apocalyptic Scenarios and Inner Worlds
World Literature Today|Winter 2021
A Conversation with Gloria Susana Esquivel
Camilo Jaramillo

Poet and fiction writer Gloria Susana Esquivel has been quickly positioned in the spotlight of recent Latin American literature. The University of Texas Press recently published Animals at the End of the World, the English translation of her first novel. The novel follows Ines, a seven-year-old girl, in the weeks that precede the apocalyptic end of the world. Together with María, the housemaid’s daughter, she ventures through the labyrinthine space of her grandparents’ house and, in the process, witnesses the aggressive, sorrowful, and desolate world of the adults who surround her. Outside, the political violence of Colombia in the 1990s threatens to intrude into her world, and slowly but surely, Ines’s innocent world starts to crumble. What emerges from the destruction is a scathed and wounded animal that is both elusive and fierce. The novel is a tour de force that stands out as the voice of a generation, offering shrewd insights into a country, an era, and a cohort marked forever.

Esquivel is also the host of Colombia’s most renowned feminist podcast, Womansplaining, and a leading voice in cultural and feminist debates. À propos of the recent translation of her novel into English (translated by Robin Myers), we sat down to chat about her book, her podcast, and being a woman writer in Colombia.

Camilo Jaramillo: You chose an interesting narrator for Animals at the End of the World: the voice of a child through the memory of the protagonist, an adult. Can you speak of the difficulties of working with this voice?

Gloria Susana Esquivel: The book is narrated from the voice of a woman remembering her childhood. When I was doing research for the novel, I read many books written from the voices of children, and I thought it was very hard to achieve that kind of voice in a credible way. The girl is about to be seven years old and learning how to read and write, and it is very hard to translate that process into writing. The way children form sentences is very different from the ways an adult would. That would have exceeded my talent, and it was not what I was after. That’s why I decided that it was going to be narrated by the voice of a woman who remembered her childhood. What happens, though, is that this voice gets so immersed in these memories that she is able to bring a very genuine child’s perspective of the world, and that adult voice seems to merge with the voice of a child.

Jaramillo: When you were writing the memories and experiences of a child, did you rely on your own experiences as a kid, or was it, rather, a blank canvas for you to explore with freedom and creativity?

Esquivel: Memory and imagination can’t really be separated; they are linked. I did need to go into my memories, but not to bring out facts and events, or how things happened, but more to re-create the ambiences, smells, and the general feel of my childhood house. For example, I wanted to unearth how I perceived its light or its dimensions. I wanted to go back to that place and try to perceive the world like a child. Once I was there, in a set of sensations, then the story unfolded. And the story is all fictional and invented.

Jaramillo: The novel goes back to childhood as an attempt to go back to the origins of something. What is the character Ines trying to find in her past?

Esquivel: When I was creating Ines’s voice, I tried to imagine a woman who was going to psychoanalytic therapy. Although this does not appear in the story, this structure became a key feature for me. What Ines is doing, by telling those memories to herself again, is trying to understand why the adults that surrounded her acted like they did and, in the process, trying to understand how these adults affected her. More than trying to find something, she’s trying to make sense of her past. But memories are elusive, and, ultimately, her attempts are revealed as a fickle exercise: memories have a contingent meaning and are volatile.

Jaramillo: As the reader delves into the story, multiple meanings about animals and animality start to emerge. This can be seen, for example, in the title of the book, the games children play, the metaphors the adults are described with, etc. Can you talk about the drive to include animality in the text?

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