In 1993, following the shocking assassination of Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, the international literary community proposed a series of cities be established to protect writers facing persecution and death in their home countries. Now, fifteen years later, twenty cities in Europe and four in the United States sponsor writers through the International Cities of Refuge Network and Cities of Refuge North America. For two-year periods, the writers are given housing, health insurance, a stipend, and the freedom to write.
Among those provided sanctuary is Salvadoran writer and journalist Horacio Castellanos Moya, exiled after receiving death threats in response to the political criticism in his novel El Asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador. First hosted by the city of Frankfurt from 2004-2006, Moya has relocated to the United States as Pittsburgh’s second writer-in-residence. With the recent publication of the English translation of his novel Insensatez (Senselessness), Jennifer Dionisio spoke with Moya about the impact of his transient life on his work and the elusive nature of home.
Can you tell us about the El Salvador of your childhood?
I arrived in San Salvador when I was five years old. I was born in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and when I arrived there my family lived in a typical middle-class neighborhood. I grew up in the street playing soccer, and moving around, having fun with my friends on the corner of the block. It was a healthy way of growing up. I was very free. Right now these kids grow up with a lot of fear because of all the criminality that is around. And a couple of decades before, they grew up with fear because of all the political violence. When I grew up, violence was not in the street.
The first time I left was in 1979. The Salvadorian Civil War had not started yet. The war really started at the end of the 1980s. It was not something that happened from one month to the next one. There was a long process of radicalization and street fighting. Some people think the civil war started when Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in March 1980, but other people think the civil war started in January 1981 when the guerillas launched their first major offensive. I left at a moment in which there was not that level of armed struggle in the city, but there was a lot of repression against the mass movement by the military regime. Social arrests were getting much more violent.
Where did you go when you left?
I went to Toronto. I had the feeling that everything was getting very risky. Some of my friends were becoming very involved in all this political confrontation. I was not that engaged in that, and I just preferred to leave. I didn’t have many options, but one of the options was to learn English in Toronto. I was there for a year. I went back to San Salvador because I was homesick, and when I arrived it was terrible. After being out almost a year it was almost like coming to a different country. It’s like if you would go back to Baghdad right now. My homesickness was completely destroyed, and I wanted to leave again—it was too polarized and too violent. At this time I still had my grandparents in Honduras, so I went there for a couple of months, and then I went to Costa Rica to see if I could get a job, and then I went to Mexico City and I stayed there for ten years.
“I discovered that it’s one thing is to build a new kind of political regime, but another to create a political culture that belongs to society.”
When you were in Mexico, did that feel like home to you, or were you waiting to go back to El Salvador?
As someone who comes from Central America, I felt a little bit like a stranger. The feeling I had in Mexico City is the feeling of a provincial guy when he goes to the big city. We had the same culture, we had the same language, we had the same religion. We had the same history until a hundred years ago. I guess it’s the same sense of someone moving from Montana to New York City. You don’t belong to that place, but at the same time you have many things in common in order to not feel that strange.
Your experiences seemed to resurface in your first novel, La Diáspora.
The story of my first novel is the story of a group of young people who were involved with and disenchanted by Salvadorian rebel politics—they discovered that the ways of doing things inside the leftist organization were not so different from the ones of the right.
I moved back to El Salvador six months before the civil war ended, in May 1991. I was very naïve and I thought that it was important to take part in the new period that the country was going to enter, be part of this effort to create a new kind of society. I went there with some friends and we founded a monthly magazine, like The Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s, with a lot of political and cultural articles and reviews. Then we founded a weekly newspaper. After ten years in Mexico, I didn’t have any homesickness in the sense that I had the first time, but there was a kind of empathy.
I discovered that it’s one thing is to build a new kind of political regime, but another to create a political culture that belongs to society. To change the attitudes of a generation is not something you can do in five or ten years. In that sense, for me it was a kind of failure, because right now is the same situation. You have the same political polarization. The big difference is that they are not killing ashore, so they are resolving problems through elections. But there is no space for anything that does not belong to either of the two sides. There is nothing in the middle. All this effort was almost for nothing—talking from the point of view of culture, not from the point of view of politics.
Did you expect the negative reaction to El Asco?
It was a surprise that the book had that impact. I mean, we can talk on a political level, with its allusions. But on another level, an ordinary citizen can be very, very offended by this book because this character says horrible things about popular culture in the country. If you say in North America that to eat burgers is like eating shit, ordinary citizens can be offended. You don’t need politics to do that.
In my book, the character’s laughing and saying terrible things about what people eat, what people drink, how people behave, what ideas people have about their country, about society, about the war. This character is saying that being under the pressure of violence is a kind of national sickness.
How has your moving around affected your novels?
The instability affects your work. You cannot plan to do a long novel. You try to work in short pieces, but at the same time you try to be the most intense that you can be in those pieces. Most of my books take place in El Salvador and Central America and Mexico, so in that sense there is a kind of stable theme to them—even though I was jumping from country to country, I was not jumping from topic to topic or country to country in my fiction. My fiction was fixed in its own atmosphere. Just because I spent two years in Germany doesn’t mean I can write anything about Germany. I’ve been here a year and a half, and I don’t have any intention of writing fiction about Pittsburgh. I mean, it could happen, but I have my themes still working in my mind.
Did you contact the Cities of Refuge program, or did they seek you out?
I contacted the central office in Paris three years before I was approved. At that time I was living in Guatemala City, working as a journalist there. I went to Frankfurt at the end of July in 2004. Then when the program was ending for me in Frankfurt, I asked about the possibility of staying there. It was very hard, because there is a lot of debate in Europe and inside Germany about immigration. And I didn’t speak German. I survived because I speak English, and most people speak English in Frankfurt, but it’s not enough to stay there. That’s when I decided to apply to the network in the United States and was told that Pittsburgh had a place for me.
Where feels like home to you at this point?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about. After the things that I’ve left and the countries that I’ve experienced, I’ve lost the original sense of home. I could go back to El Salvador, but that’s not home anymore for me. I would be afraid of it, and worse, I would have the memory of a city and a society that doesn’t exist anymore.
by Jennifer Dionisio