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In 'Things We Lost,' Argentina's Haunted History Gets A Supernatural Twist

Feb 19, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 5:04 pm

Argentina can be beguiling, but its grand European architecture and lively coffee culture obscure a dark past: In the 1970s and early '80s, thousands of people were tortured and killed under the country's military dictatorship. In many cases, the children of the disappeared were kidnapped, and some of those children were raised by their parents' murderers.

That troubled past serves as a backdrop for Things We Lost in the Fire, an unsettling new collection by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez. The book's stories mix elements of Argentine history with the supernatural: In one, a little girl disappears into a haunted house and is never seen again; in another, a young boy is murdered in what could be a satanic ritual.

Enriquez tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro that she's always been drawn to the macabre. "I guess I've always been a dark child," she says. "I was a bit lonely when I was little and fiction is very important in my life. ... And the fiction I loved is a very dark world. ... There's comfort in the darkness for me."


Interview Highlights

On what inspired her to write about Argentina's dictatorship

I did not try specifically to write about the dictatorship and its consequences in the present, but I couldn't hide away from it when [it] kept appearing in the stories.

I'm 43; I'm a bit older than the children of the disappeared, but not all of them because some have my age, some are older etc. But what always haunted me once I knew the stories of these children is that there's a question of identity. I mean, I went to school with children that I don't know if they were who they were, if their parents were who they were, if they were raised by their parents or by the killers of their parents, or were given by the killers to other families. So there is a ghostly quality to everyday life. So it's almost like something is floating in the air — something that is not resolved. And there is a fear, a real fear, that was in the air that kind of got through my skin.

On writing mostly female characters who aren't always good

In the end that's real equality, I think. I don't want to write about women that are, let's say, good and ... angelic women, goddesses. I think women should ... also be allowed to be villains, also be allowed to be brutal and all these things that traditionally are the territory of men.

On her decision to mix Argentine history with the supernatural

To me it was something very personal as a writer more than anything else. Like, I really wanted to write ghost stories, horror stories. And I was thinking, How do I do it with my voice, with something that I want to say, with something that interests me? And this is the way I found, mixing it with the history, mixing it with the social issues, mixing with the fears we have as a society. I didn't really want to go the realistic way. I think there [are] many writers that do it; I think they do it brilliantly, and I didn't have anything to bring to the table in that sense. What I could bring to the table was something a bit more modern.

On being part of a larger literary tradition

The tradition of literature in, not only in Argentina, but I think in what we can call the Rio de la Plata — Uruguay, too — has this element of fantastic stories, and a literature that is not as close to realism as the literature of other places. I'm thinking about [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Julio] Cortázar, but also Felisberto Hernández and, before, Roberto Arlt.

But many of them had a very strong connection also to realistic themes: to the social, to the political, to what was going on in the country. So to me it's a mixture that comes very [naturally] when I think about the tradition of my literature. I mean, I'm interested in ghost stories, I'm interested in witches, I'm interested in the occult. But I'm also interested in inequality, in social issues, in violence in our societies. So to me, when I started writing stories, I thought, How can I mix this? And the mix was there. It was in the tradition. It was very close to me and it came very [naturally] to me.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Argentina can be beguiling. But its grand, European architecture and lively coffee culture obscure a dark and sometimes macabre history. Under the country's dictatorship, thousands of people were tortured and killed. Children were kidnapped, sometimes to be raised by their parents' murderers. That troubled past sets the backdrop for Mariana Enriquez's new book of unsettling and gruesome short stories called "Things We Lost In The Fire." She joins us now from Buenos Aires. Hello. Welcome.

MARIANA ENRIQUEZ: Hello. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In these stories, there's a feeling of the supernatural that becomes more and more present as the story goes on. What draws you to this idea of domestic horror?

ENRIQUEZ: To me, it's a mixture that comes very natural when I think about the tradition of my literature, of the literature that is written in my language. And when I mean my language, I mean language of Argentina - not only Spanish. And, also, me as a person and as a writer - I'm very interested in that kind of weird fiction. I'm interested in ghost stories. I'm interested in witches. I'm interested in the occult.

But I'm also interested in inequality, in social issues, in violence in our societies, in what's happening or what happened politically in our country, especially in my country. So to me, when I started writing stories, I thought, how can I mix this? And the mix was there. It was in the tradition. It was very close to me, and it came very natural to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about what overshadows all of this, which is, of course, Argentina and its history. You hear echoes of it in the stories. You know, in one of the stories, a little girl disappears into a haunted house, and she's never seen again. In another, a young boy is murdered in what could be a satanic ritual. Argentina has a difficult history. We know that children were taken from their parents during the Dirty War under Argentina's dictatorship. And then they were often raised by people that weren't actually their parents, but they were supporters of the then-government. Is this an echo of that very difficult history?

ENRIQUEZ: I did not try specifically to write about the dictatorship and its consequences in the present. But I couldn't hide away from it when they kept appearing in the stories. I'm 43. I'm a bit older than the children that have disappeared but not all of them because some have my age. Some are older, et cetera.

But what always haunted me once I knew the stories of the children is that there's a question of identity. I don't know if they were who they were, if they were raised by their parents or by the killers of the parents or were given by the killers to other families. So there is a ghostly quality to everyday life.

So it's almost like something is floating in the air, something that is not resolved. And there's a fear - a real fear - that was in the air that kind of got through my skin. And that mixed with the literature I love, kind of produced the stories that I'm writing now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about women because most of the characters, with one notable exception - most of the characters are women in your stories. And there's this instability that's haunting the women in - each in different ways. Can you talk about that and why that is?

ENRIQUEZ: I wrote the stories in quite a long period of time. And being a woman - gender issues, feminism, everything was in there in the last few years. And it kind of made me think about me as a woman. It was not something I did consciously. I don't think very interesting fiction comes when you are very conscious of something. And I started to think about all these impositions on women's body and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the women in your stories are perpetrators of violence, as well as victims of violence. They're on both sides of that.

ENRIQUEZ: Yeah. Yes, of course. I think, in the end, that's real equality, I think (laughter). I don't want to write about women that are good and that don't leave, you know, footprints in the snow - angelic women, goddesses. I think women should be - in fiction, also be allowed to be villains, also be allowed to be brutal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I'm hearing here is that you, like some of the characters that you write about, are reading things in the newspaper or seeing things around you, these dark moments and stories, and weaving them into your fiction. Why are you so drawn to the darkness?

ENRIQUEZ: I guess I've always been a dark child. I was a bit lonely when I was little. And fiction is very important in my life. I think half of my life I live in fiction. And the fiction I love is a very dark world. And the fact that I know that this exists there somewhere - it's a weird thing to say, but it comforts me, I think. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

ENRIQUEZ: There's comfort in the darkness for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mariana Enriquez's short-story collection is called "Things We Lost In The Fire." Thanks so much for being with us today.

ENRIQUEZ: No, thank you very much. It was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.