Place: Basque Country

Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, May 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

STH: The Dinner Guest reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s Shame, which, in spite of being a memoir, is very similar in tone. Ernaux described Shame as an “ethnological study of myself” in which she examined the influence of a particular incident in her childhood on her relationship with shame. But while Ernaux avoided “inventing reality,” you have actively pursued it while employing voice that feels similarly precise and analytical. Did you experiment with the narrative voice, or did you start the project already sure of the tone?

GY: I like what Ernaux says about the ethnological study of herself. I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life. At the beginning of the writing process, I wasn’t sure about the tone, but I found it through trial and error. I felt that the text worked better when the emotions were contained and not too explicit. In earlier versions, it wasn’t like this at all.

STH: How did you approach researching The Dinner Guest? Did your research most often confirm or contradict your imaginings?

GY: I imagined as I researched. There were many things that I didn’t know, so I couldn’t have imagined them before beginning my research. When I invented things, I always tried to stay true to what I knew of the characters and situations. During the writing of the first part of the book—the part about my grandfather—I was always trying to come closer to my father. Although this is not explicit in the text, it was very shocking for me to see my father’s grieving face in the newspapers; it also impressed me to realize that my father lost his father when he was about the same age as me when I lost my mother. When I saw all the photographs and the news, I couldn’t deny that the murder of my grandfather was true. I always think of The Dinner Guest as a ritual of grief and an exercise of truth in which I use fiction to help me assimilate the deaths of my mother and grandfather.

STH: I find it wonderfully destabilizing the way the narrative frequently cross-examines itself. For example, chapter three begins with a passage which discounts a particular story about your family that is presented as fact in the previous chapter. What inspired you to do this?

GY: In memory, and in most investigations, there are contradictions. I found them constantly in the newspapers.

 STH: Can you speak about your choice to include real documents, including photographs, newspaper articles, and Google search results in the narrative?

GY: I included documents that I felt were important for the story. In the case of the picture of my father with the handcuffs, for example, I tried to describe it, but I thought that it was more powerful to attach the original document. It gives more veracity to the text, I think.

STH: You refer to Robert Walser several times in the book; quoting from The Walk, including the infamous image of Walser on his snowy death-bed and imaginings of Walser’s final walks. How are Walser’s writing and experience in conversation with The Dinner Guest?

GY: Walser’s picture was very inspiring for me. The three deaths narrated in the book seem terrible: my mother died too young at a hospital, my grandfather was kidnapped, and Walser spent his final years in a mental hospital, but I feel that the three of them had—or I like to think that they had—the possibility to die as they lived. My mother was able to die lightly, my grandfather found refuge in his faith, and Walser died walking; that is what he most enjoyed doing. It impressed me to know there is a freedom that is impossible to snatch even when you are in captivity.

STH: Was the experience of “imagining” Walser easier than writing free reconstructions of events involving your family and friends?

GY: It was easier. I think it was the part of the book I enjoyed writing the most.

STH: Are you interested in further examining any of the themes and ideas explored in The Dinner Guest in your future writing projects?

GY: Yes, writing The Dinner Guest has started some very interesting conversations with my father, and I’m thinking a lot lately about how terrorism affected my childhood in the Basque Country. I’m currently writing another book that combines fiction and non-fiction. I’m once again a detective of my own life!

STH: In The Dinner Guest, your narrator mentions writing every Sunday until either being exhausted or running out of ideas. Is this also true for you? What is your usual writing routine?

GY: Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wish I could have an entire day to write. Now I have a 17-month-old baby, and I need to coordinate my working schedule with the kindergarten. The Dinner Guest was written during weekends and very early in the morning, mostly in bed, before showering and going to the office. When I was living in New York, I would often wake at 5:30am in order to get in two hours of writing before work.

STH: Were you involved in the translation of the novel? And how was the process for you?

GY: For me, it’s always painful to reread The Dinner Guest. It is hard to go through my mother’s illness and my grandfather’s death again, and every time that I read the novel, I have the desire to rewrite the whole story. However, it was a pleasure to work with my translator, Natasha Wimmer; she is very sensitive and talented. 

STH: Have English-language readers responded to the book in the same way as Spanish readers have or were there differences?

GY: When I went to London for the book launch, I was impressed to see that most of the people in the audience were women. This wasn’t the case in Spain.

Gabriela Ybarra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1983. She currently lives in Madrid, where she writes and works in social media analysis. The Dinner Guest is her first novel and was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016, and in the UK, where it was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She occasionally writes for El País.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.

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In Review: Twist by Harkaitz Cano

Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.

Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.

Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.

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