It’s hard to parcel out where the idea for a novel comes from, says Daniel Alarcón, the Peruvian-American author of the recently published and critically acclaimed At Night We Walk in Circles. In this case, there were several points of inspiration: a script his friend had given him eight years prior, the time Alarcón spent reporting on Lima’s prisons for Harper’s, and the idea of Nelson, a young actor who longs to immerse himself in the world of theatre.
All come together with a vivid sense of foreboding. In At Night We Walk in Circles, an unknown narrator unravels Nelson’s story as the actor tours the country with members of a guerilla theatre troupe hoping to revive their legendary play, “The Idiot President.” Set in an unnamed Latin American country, the novel has been called “a provocative study of the way war culture ensnares both participant and observer,” by the New York Times.
Alarcón recently spoke to NBC Latino about his work, the fluidity of identity, and the process of writing in two languages that play different roles in his life.
You were born in Lima, Peru, but grew up around Birmingham, Alabama. There tends to be a lot of interest surrounding immigrant writers and the question of identity. How do you feel about that?
It’s definitely not something that I thought about growing up. It just doesn’t seem to me that it’s very easy to live your life if you walk around asking yourself who you are. “Am I writing an American novel? Am I writing a Latin American novel? Am I writing a Peruvian novel?” To me, that isn’t a very useful question, because you have so many other questions: is this character working, is this scene working?
[But] answering the question again and again has solidified a few things. Principally, the idea that, yes, I’m completely comfortable saying that I’m American, or United Statesian, and I’m completely comfortable saying that I’m Peruvian. I’m even more [comfortable] thinking of myself as Latin American. Living in this country and being able to meet Latin Americans from all over the region has given me a broader sense of a shared regional identity that I might not otherwise have in Peru.
In At Night We Walk in Circles, Nelson’s brother is a US citizen, while Nelson isn’t, and it creates an interesting dynamic between the family. Where did that come from?
That was a thought experiment that I did based on my own family. My sisters were both born in Baltimore, and I was [later] born in Lima.
What if we had stayed in Peru? Well, my sisters would’ve both had American citizenship and they both would’ve done the absolutely logical thing, which is, use that citizenship to get away from the deteriorating situation in Lima.
And the thought experiment is: what would’ve happened to me? I would’ve probably been waiting around assuming that I was going to leave, too, and how would that have changed the family dynamic if that hadn’t been possible?
It was so poignant because it emphasizes the role fate plays in achieving our dreams, in this case, the American dream. Was that fate, or luck, emphasized to you growing up?
I grew up with an immigrant’s sense of appreciation of the United States. There’s something that gets lost in the immigration debate here in the United States: well, they don’t talk about how patriotic immigrants are. How much appreciation many immigrant families have for the opportunities that the United States has afforded them. So it wasn’t that we were sitting around thinking, “Oh, we’re so lucky to be here.” But there was a real patriotic strain in our family, and at least among the Peruvians that I grew up with, that was not unique.
You write in both English and in Spanish (for the magazine Etiqueta Negra). How is each process different?
It’s very hard for me to imagine writing a novel in Spanish. I tried my hand at writing this novella [Los Provincianos] in Spanish, and I liked the results quite a bit, but I sort of realized that I needed more time to work on that craft. It felt to me as if someone had pulled half the words out of a dictionary. And that is both exciting—because it makes you work hard with the words you have—and challenging, for that very same reason. It’s a fascinating process to work in a language that is both yours and not yours.
Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-American writer whose work has appeared in Latina, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer magazines. Her first novel, Chasing the Sun, will be published in May, 2014. Visit her online at www.nataliasylvester.com or on Twitter: @NataliaSylv.