Soledumbre

Juan Gómez Bárcena writes about his residency

Juan Gómez Bárcena, at George Mason University, October, 2023

 

My residency at the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center spanned three weeks, from October 13 to November 4, 2023. At least that’s what the date of my plane ticket indicates, but it really started many months before, when I received the invitation from the Cheuse Center. It was then that I began to study English systematically, excited by the possibility of making my books known abroad. It was then, so to speak, that I began to live mentally in the United States, listening to podcasts and re-reading books in their original language that had fascinated me, but that until then I had only known through their translations.  Books like ‘Franny and Zooey’ (J.D. Salinger) and ‘The things they carried’ (Tim O'Brien). I would like to think that my body traveled to Washington on October 13, but that my mind set out on that journey almost a year in advance. My own book anticipated my journey: 'Not Even the Dead,' the English translation of my novel 'Ni siquiera los muertos,' hit bookstores in July, and I felt it was an outpost of my own person: like those beachheads that some armies establish in distant lands. 

A literary residency can provide us with many things. It allows us, for example, to establish professional relationships with foreign publishers, translators, and readers, something I did especially during my first week, traveling and making Not Even the Dead known in different destinations:  Boston, Rochester, Dallas, Chicago, and Washington itself –always accompanied by my editor, Chad W. Post, and my translator, Katie Whittemore. 

But beyond a book tour, a residency gives a writer something very valuable: time. We writers are often consumed by many responsibilities from which we cannot escape –presentations, readings, literary workshops, meetings with readers. Settling in a foreign country, however, confines us to something like a bubble, where time itself seems to stop. 

Suddenly, you have at your disposal a house in a city where no one knows you, and where you can, if that is your desire, lock yourself up to write from morning to night. Many of the days I spent in Washington were just that -lockdown days. But if there is something fascinating about my profession, it is that a day of confinement can become, if one wants, a day of absolute freedom. 

Spurred on by this freedom, I was able to advance much of the work that in Madrid was resisting progress. I wrote three chapters of my essay “Soledumbre,” in which I propose to draw an atlas of the experience of solitude, traveling through different geographies that symbolize different ways of experiencing isolation: the desert, the polar ice caps, the ocean, the cosmos. 

In Washington, I completed the chapter dedicated to the islands –that is, to forced isolation– and I also wrote the chapters devoted to the city –contemporary solitude– and the garden –the solitude of the artist. 

After my return to Spain, I have been able to reread the work I did in these three weeks. In addition to a deep satisfaction, I felt that something of the experience lived on in Washington – my chosen solitude – seeped into many of its pages. 

The word “experience” is key here. And this is the third function of a literary residency, perhaps the most important. Beyond giving us tools to make ourselves known outside our borders, or providing us with the time and opportunity to write, a residency is in itself an experience that leaves its mark on us, and indirectly, on our writing. As every writer knows very well, the novelist’s journey constitutes the basic structural pattern of a novel, because there is no other experience that touches us and transforms us more profoundly. 

I still lack perspective on how the Alan Cheuse Center has changed my life: I know that, in time, I will find out. My stay in Budapest, thirteen years ago, was the pretext for me to start writing my novel Kanada. An artist residency in Mexico laid the foundation for Not Even the Dead. Nine months spent at the Academy of Spain in Rome allowed me to deepen my study of the work of the Latin poet Ovid, a character that fascinates me. 

I am sure that, sooner or later, Washington will seep into my books, and that, through them, it will also leave an indelible mark on me.

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Translated by Rei Berroa and Leeya Mehta. 

You can read more about Juan's completed 2023 book tour here.