Essays

Refusing to Look Away: On Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion

By posted at 6:00 am on August 22, 2017 1

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In Latin America, the name Leila Guerriero is spoken among journalists, editors, and basically anyone who enjoys the written word with the respect and reverence accorded to a savant. Or at least that is how I feel.  She is still not very known in the English-speaking world, but her book A Simple Story: The Last Malambo, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, was published this year by New Directions.

Leila Guerriero is an Argentine journalist. Shortly after graduating from tourism in 1992, she got her break into journalism by sending an unsolicited short story to Página/30, the magazine of the newspaper Página/12. Jorge Lanata, director of the magazine at the time, called her four days after she had sent the story and offered her a job as an editor. From that point on she paved her own way into journalism and editing. Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and countless and respected magazines from all-across Latin America like Gatopardo and El Malpensante.

Guerriero’s craft is deeply entwined with how she sees and approaches the world. Her books are usually not very long, favoring meaningful sparseness over ornamentation. Full, winding sentences circle around her subjects like a cat inspecting a new visitor. The words she uses are oftentimes technical and specific, but selected with such respect for the story that they don’t lack warmth. Her writing is so very precise that when one runs her paragraphs through Google Translate (don´t ever do this for any writer) the result is not entirely offending to the soul.

Before Guerriero decided—inspired only by a short note in a newspaper—to write a book on the Argentine folk dance malambo and its most important contest, this part of Argentine culture had been covered in typically folksy or dispassionate terms. As Guerriero spent more and more time in the village of Laborde, blending in with the local audience and participants of this long-standing tradition, she managed to do much more than construct merely a colorful profile of a dancer and a dance contest. The real question coursing through her descriptions of boots and rehearsals and hats and anxious phone calls is: in a way of life that can spare so little, how do people pour so much of themselves into a single and finite contest? The question is not only directed towards Rodolfo González Alcántara, the dancer she shadows, but to the region as a whole.

When describing one of the dancers after his turn on the floor, Guerriero notes, “That was the first main malambo I saw in the competition at Laborde, and it was like being attacked. I ran backstage and saw the man—Ariel Pérez, the hopeful of the province of Buenos Aires—rush into his dressing room with the urgency of someone repressing love or hate or the desire to kill.” A Simple Story becomes then an ekphrastic of a dance tournament and of the people who make up this community.

coverIn an essay about writing from the book Frutos Extraños, Guerriero tries to answer the question of how to write a good profile: “The answer is: I don’t know, but, in any case, what works for me is to be curious, overflow with patience, and cultivate discretion: ask as if you don’t know, wait as if you have time, and be there as if you weren’t.”󠀪 Her point of view is the style itself.

covercoverGuerriero’s closest American analog is Joan Didion. Although I had heard of her, I read Joan Didion for the first time two years ago, having recently moved to the U.S. Reading through Slouching Towards Bethlehem felt both new and familiar. The people in it I had never met, but the way she wrote, the curiosity driving each of the stories, and the accuracy of her observations made me feel exactly as reading Guerriero’s books felt. Like meeting someone who reminds you of your best friend. Nathaniel Rich writes in the foreword to Didion’s most recent offering, South and West, that Didion’s insistence on showing us the South’s “dense obsessiveness” and “the vindictiveness that comes with it” was proof of a certain clairvoyance on her part “that the past was also the future.” Her future, our present.

South and West is in a very distilled way a travelogue. In other hands, a scene of Mississippi state pride would read as caricature; Didion achieves a certain detached anthropological respect for her subjects that is echoed in Guerriero’s work.

Didion and Guerriero are able to produce such detailed and truthful accounts of their subjects because they are totally willing to be uncomfortable; they never shy from awkward moments that reveal the subtle, strange ways in which people behave—and that usually carry more meaning than words themselves. From the first time Didion takes note of a Confederate-flag beach towel we realize this is no dashed-off observation. As she moves further into her travels, the towels keep reappearing in her notebook—never quite acquiring a full body, but never out of her sight. We read writers like Guerriero and Didion so we don’t forget that looking at people is the most uncomfortable and powerful thing a writer can do.

In one of the most intimate passages of A Simple Story, Guerriero tells the readers:

And as I stare at the back of this man whom I know nothing about, who reads the words of his God before he goes out to gamble it all, an uncomfortable certainty flares up inside me: this is the most frighteningly intimate situation that I’ve ever shared with another human being. Something in him screams, ‘Don’t look at me!’ But I’m there to look. And I look.

Ultimately this is what I search for in nonfiction, and I always find it in these women’s work: an unflinching eye and a deceptively simple way with words that creates a remarkable intimacy with the reader. Now, when recommending Guerriero’s book to my English-speaking friends I use Didion as comparative and hook, and the same thing in reverse when urging my Spanish-speaking friends to seek out Didion’s books. So they too can see what I’ve seen.

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One Response to “Refusing to Look Away: On Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion”

  1. Savage Reader
    at 10:42 am on August 22, 2017

    Thank you so much for introducing me to Leila Guerriero. I’ve been making an effort to read more Latin American writing, but the lack of focus on LatAm writers in the US makes it more difficult than it should be. I enjoy Didion’s style; whatever the topic, she’s a pleasure to read. I have high hopes now for Guerriero!

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