I was bowled over to discover that Julianne Pachico, writer of The Lucky Ones, is teaching at our very own Sheffield Hallam University, and even more thrilled when she agreed to have an interview with me at Peak Reads. Julianne’s career has taken her from Colombia to the US, from Norwich to Sheffield and I was sure this multi cultural experience has had a powerful effect on her work.
- Welcome to Sheffield, Julianne, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview. What brings you here?
I’ve been teaching at Sheffield Hallam since February of last year, so for about a year and a half, and I moved here last week. When I got the job I was finishing my PhD so it wasn’t ideal for me to move, but as from last week I’m a Sheffield native.
- You’ve lived in England, in Colombia and the States- is there any one country you identify with more closely?
One interesting reference point recently was watching the World Cup when Colombia played against England. I was watching it with my English boyfriend who ended up cheering for England, but I was cheering for Colombia from the very beginning. So I found that very interesting, that even though I have a UK passport, my mother is English, genetically I’m half English, the team I was supporting was Colombia. I guess because I grew up in Colombia, that was my childhood home where all my formative experiences and memories took place I’m going to have a connection with that country. My parents live in the States and I speak with a US accent because I went to a school with a United States curriculum, but I only lived in the States for 4 years and when people ask me ‘what’s going on in America? Why are people so obsessed with guns?’ I’m like ‘you’re asking the wrong person, I have no idea’. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to move in and out of different cultures and countries. What’s interesting about living here in England, is that even though I’m genetically British, and our family history goes back to the 1600s, because of my background and my accent I’ll always be seen as a foreigner here- always. I think that’s not really a bad thing and what I love about England is an openness and receptiveness to people living here. That may be changing but I hope it continues.
- I’d like to ask you about The Lucky Ones which I’ve read and think is an absolutely fabulous book. I saw it from the beginning as a collection of short linked stories but I was reading some critics who refer to it as a novel. I’m wondering which you see it as and why you chose this particular form?
In the States it was marketed as a novel which I think is very interesting given that a lot of famous short story writers are from the US, so it’s ironic that in the US they wanted to call it a novel-it was the publisher’s decision that the public preferred reading novels to reading short stories. My intention from the beginning was the linked collection, the fragmented novel, which is a form I enjoy reading-books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, books that aren’t really collections and aren’t really novels, so I just wanted to write the kind of book I enjoy reading. It also felt appropriate to me when writing about Colombia. I didn’t want to write a book in which everything was explained, everything was resolved, which might be frustrating for some people but just felt like an honest and authentic way of writing about Colombia for me, which is a very confusing place to live in, a place where it’s difficult to get any definitive answers and it’s also a country that is sort of fragmented and sort of broken so that’s also why the form felt appropriate to me. I think also writing short stories in terms of being a first book, the beginning of my career, just seemed easier, less intimidating than writing a novel. I’ve written a novel since, so now I’ve tried both.
- In the book there’s a lot about the violence and the experience of living in the jungle, the hardships of that experience for the people who’ve been kidnapped but also for the guerrillas who’ve been there for many years. What research did you do in order to write in such detail about that experience?
I read a lot of memoirs and non-fiction, a lot of journalism. I looked at a lot of photographs online. I did read fiction by Colombian writers but I think what was most helpful to me was the non-fiction. Writing stories like Lemon Pie or M& M which are set in the jungle, it was really helpful to read books by people who’d been held hostage, who’d been kidnapped or who’d been part of the armed insurgency. Also I had to leave in order to see Colombia from a different perspective. When I was living there as a child I wasn’t really interested in the situation as when you’re a teenager you’re more interested in your own self absorbed life. This is something I’ve heard other writers say- so Kazuo Ishiguro for example, his first two books are about Japan despite him having spent very little time there-he left as a child. That seems to be an interesting pattern- people need to leave in order to write about somewhere.
- Along with the very realistic descriptions of life in the jungle for the guerrillas there’s also surreal elements in the book, for example The Tourists which is from the rabbits’ point of view. There’s also a lot of fantasy fiction being read and films being talked about and I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about why you chose to include the surreal, the fantasy elements?
One of the first things people think about when they think about Colombian fiction will be magical realism, because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think the way most people think about magical realism is about magical things happening but described in a very realistic way so like in One Hundred Years of Solitude a priest drinks a cup of hot chocolate and he levitates so like surreal things happening in everyday life. I think that’s a very present thread in Colombian literature, that being said it’s not that I sat down with the intention of writing in a very surreal way because that’s what Colombian literature is. I think again it was more a result of that being the kind of fiction I enjoy. I do read a lot of science fiction and I do read a lot of fantasy. The rabbit story for example was my attempt to write a horror story. Also I’m a big fan of Kafka and he has this story about this unidentified animal living in a burrow so I think the fantastical elements that come out in the book are the results of my tastes and reading patterns. And in Garcia Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude he has these very magical things happen, people levitating, the insomnia plague, but then there are events like all these workers are massacred but that’ s forgotten about, it’s just completely hidden, I think that by juxtaposing these two things he’s saying that hiding the reality of this violence, that all these dead people being ignored, that’s the most unbelievable thing that happened that’s almost more unbelievable than levitating women.
- I was wondering whether in your writing you had any sort of agenda about telling the world about Colombia, about the violence going on there? Was that a mission that you had, was it a conscious thing?
I think what was conscious was to try to represent different facets of Colombia. For example I know that one huge part of Colombia, when people think of Colombia, is drugs, so I wanted to have a story that was about someone taking drugs, someone living abroad and taking cocaine, as that’s how a lot of people encounter Colombia, through this product it exports. I did think I want to have a story about the guerrilla insurgents and what it’s like to live in the jungle and the camp and a story about what it’s like living in a very rural village that’s been affected by a lot of paramilitary violence, where a lot of people have left like in Armadillo Man the next to last story. In terms of having a project about making a statement or trying to teach people about Colombia or Colombia’s violence that’s something I still struggle with as a writer and it’s a conversation I had recently with another Colombian writer where I was asking him whether fiction is sort of pointless in terms of doing anything useful. His point was that that was a misguided way to think of fiction, to think of fiction as having this role to instruct. It can, but that maybe shouldn’t be the primary goal of the writer, the primary goal of the writer, he said, should just be about the words on the page and creating an emotional experience for the reader and if you’re someone interested in politics then that’s going to come out in the writing but it shouldn’t be this artificial thing that you put on the text as otherwise it’ll just become preachy. That was very interesting for me to hear, especially writing about Colombia in the UK. I think in the US it’s a bit different because geographically the US is closer to Colombia, there’s more Colombian immigrants living there, more Spanish speaking immigrants in general, economically the US has invested a lot more money in Colombia so I think it’s a bit different there. I think here, based on my own personal experience for what it’s worth, I haven’t really met that many people who know anything about Colombia, so in a way it makes me happy if people can read this book and learn something about Colombia that maybe they didn’t know before. But even though I was sort of intentional about what I was trying to represent, I really didn’t want to make it this project where I was trying to dictate a certain point of view.
7.I’m very aware that in Latin American literature there are these big names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers people know about, but there are other writers, for example women writers, that people know much less about and I’m wondering if you think that’s the case with Colombian writing? I think a lot of that has to do with translation, who gets translated. Those two authors you cited are from a specific time period, the Boom movement, which was very much about authors with big personalities, authors who were very involved in politics, Garcia Marquez was so connected with Cuba for better or worse, and Vargas Llosa ran for president and I don’t think it’s quite the same now. I agree I think it’s important to hear different voices and I think that’s where translators become so valuable in finding books that haven’t got the audience they deserve and bringing them to a wider audience. I’ve always been very interested in translated fiction and a lot of that has to do with just getting books. Getting books in Spanish here in England is very difficult, sometimes I get them on the Kindle but then I don’t really like reading on the Kindle so sometimes it’s just easier to get something in translation. So more support for translators would be important in getting those other voices heard and I think publishers like And Other Stories or Tilted Axis Press are instrumental in this.
- Do you see yourself going back to live in Colombia one day?
I don’t know. Who can say what the future will bring? I guess for now my focus is on my writing career, finding ways to support that. I have a teaching position at Sheffield Hallam which suits me well, it’s part time and gives me time to write. I get a lot out of working with my students too.
- My last question is what are you working on now? Can we expect another book, or another collection of short stories?
I recently submitted my novel to my agent. It’s set in Medellin, in Colombia. Just like with the Lucky Ones I didn’t set out to write about Colombia, it just sort of happened and I think it was the result of the Peace Negotiations and travel to Colombia becoming a much more popular option. If The Lucky Ones was more about Colombia’ s past, this book is more about Colombia’s present and future- where it’s going to go from here.
Well that sounds like it will be a fascinating novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Thank you very much, Julianne, for this conversation.