"I'm not interested in an assertive I, but rather in one that delves deep into its own uncertainty." — Alejandro Zambra in an interview with BOMB Magazine
Alejandro Zambra was born in Santiago, Chile, where he claims everyone has either experienced an earthquake or grown up hearing about one. Zambra's grandmother lost her parents in the country's deadliest earthquake in 1939, which killed 28,000 people. She'd recount how her brother saved her from the rubble and how the sensation of dirt in her mouth lasted for years. "She'd tell these stories and there'd be lots of laughter, even though inevitably...all the characters in them died," he told his friend Daniel Alarcón in an interview for BOMB Magazine. Zambra didn't experience his first large earthquake until 1985, which was mild by comparison but still significant to him. "Something that had been fiction all of a sudden became real."
Zambra's grandmother wrote songs and stories and so did Zambra, whose interest in literature came from lyrics, jokes, and tongue twisters rather than from reading books. He attended the National Institute, Chile's oldest and most prestigious secondary school that claims as alumni many Chilean presidents. He went on to receive degrees in literature, including a PhD from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
His first published work was a collection of poems he wrote in the mid-1990s and though he has published another book of poems, several novels, a book of essays, and a book of short stories, his circle of writer friends are mostly poets. Poetry in Chile, he jokes, "occupies a place in the collective imagination because we won two Nobel prizes" (for Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda) (Vice).
Perhaps more influential than poetry on the imagination of Chile, and in particular Zambra, was the reality of living under a brutal dictatorship. Zambra was born two years after the coup that ended Salvador Allende's presidency and brought to power Augusto Pinochet, a man known for committing thousands of murders, forced disappearances, imprisonments, and brutal acts of torture throughout his 17-year rule. Zambra's parents' generation bore the brunt of that regime; they often shielded their children from the harsh truths, protecting their innocence. "I think that many happy memories later become bitter through the mediation of other memories," he told English PEN. "The child who used to go to the National Stadium and eat ice cream and watch football matches later learns of the horrible things that happened there and only then do his happy memories darken." The grave error of the early 1990s (his teenage years), continued Zambra, was the country believing that Pinochet had lost his power. "We had no idea what a democracy looked like; we had been born in a dictatorship and for that reason we accepted the limited freedom—that pastiche of freedom—as if it were some wonderful prize. Democracy only really began to return when Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998."
Zambra lives in Chile and teaches literature at Diego Portales University in Santiago. Several of his books have been translated into English, including the award-winning novel Bonsai (Melville House, 2008), which was made into a film of the same name; the novel The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter, 2010); the short story collection My Documents (McSweeney's, 2015); and Multiple Choice (Penguin, 2016). Ways of Going Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) was awarded the Altazor Award, selected by the National Book Council as the best Chilean novel published in 2012. All of Zambra's works of fiction have autobiographical elements, though he is not particularly interested in confirming them. "I need to think that nobody will read what I'm writing in order to be able to write. Each time I think someone will read it, I become paralyzed," he told Alarcón, adding that he frequently records himself reading his entire books aloud, to hear how they sound. "Lucky your books are short, man," joked Alarcón. "Maybe that's why," answered Zambra.
Megan McDowell is a Spanish language literary translator living in Chile. Her many translated books include Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter, 2010), Ways of Going Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), My Documents (McSweeney's, 2015), and Multiple Choice (Penguin, 2016). Her translations have also been featured in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, McSweeney's, Vice, Words Without Borders, and Mandorla, among other publications. Her translation of Zambra's Ways of Going Home won the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation. Read English PEN's interview with Megan about translating Ways of Going Home.