Liliana Heer



Liliana Heer

Conversation with Liliana Heer
From Women and Power in Argentine Literature:
Stories, Interviews
and Critical Essays
by Gwendolyn Díaz
University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007

Gwendolyn Díaz: Liliana, what was your childhood like in the small town of Esperanza in the province of Santa Fe?

Liliana Heer: Esperanza was the first agricultural colony founded by Swiss-German and Swiss-French people in the nineteenth century. These European emigrants considered themselves a civilizing influence in the New Worlds, a view I considered misguided. I experienced my surroundings in this quaint town of caricature-like role models of civilization with the amazement of a child who observes the circus. My parents were both of Swiss origin; my mother was a concert pianist and my father was a professor of Legal Medicine and with expertise in public health. He was an avid reader who believed in the importance of culture. In my home we discussed literature and books at the dinner table, and one or another family member was always pulling out the dictionary to learn the exact meaning of words.
GD: Do you recall any anecdotes about your youth that foreshadow your future as a writer and psychoanalyst?

LH: When I was a young girl my friends used to ask me to write their love letters. I enjoyed my role as a Cyrano who put words of love in other’s mouths. It made no difference to me whether I was to write the letter for a male or a female. Words came easily to me. I learned early in my life that events and language could be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps it was this voyeuristic activity that led me to my interest in psychology, leading me eventually to earn a degree in psychology from the Universidad del Litoral in Rosario, Santa Fe in 1962.

GD: Why did you study psychology?

LH: I wanted to discover the causes that lead people to become insane and the journey they must undertake to recover their sanity. I was also intrigued by the many ways in which events could be interpreted. For some people a particular event might drive them mad, whereas for others it might have no effect. I did my internship in the Psychiatric Hospital of Rosario and in the Instituto del Buen Pastor (Good Pastor Institute), a reformatory school for young women. Later, in 1964, I received a scholarship to do research on the methodology of scientific investigation and conducted a study on the discourse of discrimination, in which I analyzed a series of chronicles and testimonies. 

GD: When did you move to Buenos Aires?

LH: I came to Buenos Aires in 1965 to pursue graduate work. I did a three year program at Graduate School for Psychotherapy, a branch of the Argentine Association for Psychoanalysis. The focus of this program was to narrow the gap between the practice of medicine and the practice psychology.

GD: So during the sixties and the seventies you established your practice in psychology.

LH: Yes, and at that time I also fell in love, had three children.

GD: When did your career as a writer take shape?

LH: I began writing in the mid-seventies, during the most repressive period of the military dictatorship that ravaged Argentina. I was driven to write because I could not speak. I was seeing many patients who came to me with horrifying stories, many of them victims or relatives of victims and I could not speak that horror. Writing was a way in which I could express what I was not able to tell. I could not express it in a direct way, but I was not interest in being direct; rather, what I wanted to speak the ineffable, to put into words what was unspeakable.

GD: Liliana, many of your readers have commented that your work is difficult to read. Your prose is complex and your style requires a lot of attention. What are you searching for regarding style and why do you think readers find your prose difficult?
LH: What is important to me is the language itself and where the word takes us. That is to say, everything I have written has begun with a phrase and from that phrase, each subsequent phrase spills forth. I do not work first with an idea that I put into words, but rather the word comes first and points to the idea. My concept of writing is akin to that of the nouveau roman in France in the sixties and seventies, a style that is about the work itself rather than the author’s voice. It privileges the text, not the author nor the story. I also feel close to Becket, whose writing I admire. I am interested in exploring the power of language, whether written or oral. Oral language is particularly significant because it reveals underlying meanings that do not always surface in written language.

GD: Your concept of writing seems appropriate for a psychoanalyst who bases analysis on the patient’s personal narrative, the slips, the word choices, the lapses, in sum, the unveiling of the unconscious.

LH: In my writing I try to confront the subject with its lack, with that part of the subject that escapes it. This implies that characters are language; the personality is a complex tissue where gestures, habits and words coexist. I am very interested in the subject, which is the object of psychoanalysis. I try to write the void, which is hidden to the subject, as if my writing were a negative of the image, which a photograph presents. It´s that hidden negative, the underlying text, that I am interested in capturing.

GD: Jacques Lacan theorized that the subject is divided because it is not aware of its self as whole, due to the unconscious. Yet he believed that we could learn more about the unconscious if we listened carefully to the subject’s language. It seems to me that your attention to the immediateness of language reflects Lacan’s view.

LH: I believe that language is the most important source of knowledge of the subject, which, as Lacan says, is divided. What I want to do in my writing is precisely to write that division, that lack, that gap where the unconscious seeps through. If the unconscious is the meaningful void, then I seek to write the void. To that end, I use and abuse and transgress against language. It is language and what it says, as well as what it veils, that I want to explore.  

GD: Your writing can sometimes be challenging to follow because it’s not always clear who is saying what. Could you comment on this?

LH: As a narrator, I am the third person who relinquishes the point of view to other characters. Eventually the point of view return to the narrator, but what happens is that there are multiple perspectives, multiple speaking subjects. What is the more in my writing is not an ego nor a perspective nor a character, but rather desire itself. There is desire, but not ego. I do not agree that sometimes my writing is hard to follow; what I believe is that my work requires an active reader.

GD: Are there any particular topics that interest you? What would you say are the themes that haunt you or inspire you most?

LH: One of my greatest passions has been to narrate horror, cruelty, oppressions, dominance and abuse. These topics are the core of my thematic interests. The first narrative I wrote was from my book Dejarse llevar (Carried Away, 1980). It was a story about a couple who wanted a child with specific characteristics and rather than chance a natural selection by conceiving their own naturally, they kidnap a child they find in the park. Here there is an allusion to the desaparecidos, and the trafficking of children for adoption perpetrated by the dictatorship. What happens to this child, who is isolated by this couple and deprived of human warmth and contact, is nothing less than horrible and inhumane

GD: How do these topics surface your first novel, Bloyd (1984)?

LH: In Bloyd what I wanted to do is to capture the essence of amorous discourse throughout the ages. There are references to Nietzsche, Campanella, Plato, Sade, Machiavelli, Vico, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Breton, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Lezama Lima, and others. The narrative takes place in a prostitution house where Bloyd teaches erotic etiquette to the prostitutes much like Machiavelli sought to indoctrinate the prince. The novel is a narrative of the erotic. It is the narrative that counts here, a language that materializes eroticism. Love and lust are separated from the fatalism of conception. There is an implied critique of the abuse of the body that points to the abuses that were taking place during the dictatorship, when torture and the violation of women’s bodies were common. But it is not a direct reference, rather a variation on the theme. I wanted to create a universe of eroticism sculpted by language and grounded in language, where the erotic takes place between the lines, when the reader encounters the word.

GD: Your next novel, La tercera mitad (The Third Half, 1988), also deals with violence and abuse and points to the torture and transgressions of the dictatorship. A somewhat gothic novel, it takes place in a morgue where bodies are sown and patched up.

LH: Yes, one of the main characters is a woman who sews up cadavers in a morgue. She establishes a relationship with Blas, a translator. The topics of language, violence and death come together here. Like in Bloyd, the body is an object of transgression and violation. I wrote this novel during the time of the trials against the military in Argentina, when the torturers and dictators were placed on the stand to present their testimony in court. Images of dismemberment and death kept coming to mind and took form in this novel. Here the characters appear and disappear, they come in and out of the narrative weaving the discourse of the novel, because again, it is the discourse, the language that is at the heart of this work. The translator Blas is able to see the difference between the signifier and the signified, between the word that is uttered and the meaning of the word. Like a gold digger that digs into a cave, the novel digs into the meaning of language to find the place where the subject takes shape.

GD: In postmodern fiction, the form of the work takes on equal or higher value than the theme of the work, creating a double task for the reader: to interpret the meaning and to find meaning in the form itself. That is the case in your work. To read Heer is indeed to be and active reader, as Cortázar would have phrased it.

LH: I am not interested in writing events, nor history, nor even story. What I find exciting is to find the hidden truth that surfaces through language and brings to light that which is ineffable, that which the subject is unaware of or is driven by.
I want the reader to write along with me. I hope that after reading one of my books, he or she will never read the same way again. I expect to challenge traditional ways of reading where events are ordered, chronological, and explained. That is not the way the unconscious works, and that is not the way.
I write.
GD: Your next two novels seem to expand the visual element that is present in your first works. More precisely, there is a film-like quality to both Frescos de amor (Frescoes of Love, 1995) and Ángeles de vidrio (Glass Angels, 1998). Would you comment on that?

LH: Frescos de amor is about madness, incest and death. A young girl narrates the story of her brother, whose birth causes the death of his mother and therefore he is not recognized as part of the family. Ángeles de vidrio begins with a scene in a bar where a barmaid is working. A man comes in and shatters the large mirror behind her with a bottle. They begin a relationship founded on the need and difficulty of communication. Both of these novels were written after I began to study cinema. I felt the need to bring into my writing a new dimension, a dimension where image multiplied into other images. I wanted to expand my fictional universe by using techniques like flashbacks, flash-forwards, montage, and others. In Ángeles de vidrio, the scene of the shattering of the mirror recurs over and over again throughout the book, each time bringing new meaning. What the study of cinema did for me was to enhance not only image in my work, but also structure and form. In these two novels I make a more direct connection between language and image, as if I were writing looking through the eye of a camera.

GD: I would venture to say that all of your writing is about power, the abuse of power and its effects. You write about domination, torture, abuse and subjugation. Would you comment on this?

LH: My writing portrays power and its consequences, particularly the abuse and exploitation of others. However, what I intend to show more than anything else is the power of language. Language goes beyond what it is narrating. It belies the very structure of thought. To me, the most powerful moment is when language cuts across the word to find meaning, meaning that goes beyond and taps into the very core of the self bringing forth, which was hidden. Power is in the precise word, in the word that illuminates the dark.

GD: In “Verano rojo” (“Red Summer”, 1997) another kind of power is portrayed. This story about the relationship between a fourteen-year old girl and her mother shows how the balance of power between the two is reversed in just one afternoon, when the young girl abandons her mother at the doctor’s office and goes off alone to explore the town.

LH: Yes, here there is a power shift from the mother to the daughter. But it is subtle, as subtle as the innuendos of the lascivious furrier she encounters when she leaves her mother at the doctor’s office. This is a story of coming of age. I wanted to develop the notions of dependence, separation and loyalty between a mother and a daughter and focus on the moment that they see each other in a new light. The young girl’s perspective of herself and her relationship to her mother takes on new meaning after just a few hours of experiencing life on her own.
GD: I would venture to say that this story has autobiographical substance to it. Is this correct?

LH: Well, I will admit that it does, but only in part. I wrote this story while I was taking a writing workshop where we were charged with narrating a personal experience. This memory was spurred by the recollection of a leopard skin coat that my mother gave me for my fourteenth birthday. In that respect there are biographical parallels, but most of the story is fiction.

GD: Your latest novel, Repetir la cacería (To repeat the Hunt, 2003) picks up where this story began. Why did you choose to retake the same characters and similar events and retell them in a new light?

LH: There was much more that I wanted to say about that relationship between this mother and her daughter. In the novella I develop the theme of the young girl coming of age. She is a child and at the same time a young woman who is subject of the male gaze, who is vulnerable and violated. But this work takes a new route; it bifurcates, like a Borgean story, into another narrative where the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger reflects on his mother and her death. Common threads make these two narratives converge, posing a question about family, relationships, and loyalty as well as abuse.

GD: Certainly your work, which often portrays women who are abused or sexually exploited, would suggest that you have concerns parallel to those of feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LH: Yes, I am a feminist, and for many reasons. Let me just summarize my views on this topic by alluding to Muriel Rukeyser´s poem “Myth.” That poem recounts how the old and blind Oedipus came across the Sphinx after many years, and he asked the Sphinx why it was that he neither had recognized his mother. The Sphinx responded that he had made a mistake when he gave the answer to the riddle, for the creature alluded to in the riddle was “man” one includes woman as well. “Everyone knows that”, cried Oedipus, to this the Sphinx responded “That’s what you think”.

GD: Liliana, your work poses many questions and leaves them unanswered. Perhaps that is why your fiction is so compelling, it points to the human desire for knowledge and the impossibility of complete knowledge. Like a detective, the analyst-writer searches for answers with a candle in the dark.

Conversation with Liliana Heer from Women and Power in Argentine Literature: Stories, Interviews, and Critical Essays by Gwendolyn Diaz, ©University of Texas Press, Google Books