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Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he translates to and from Catalan and English for a number of publishing houses and has collaborated with various governmental agencies in the promotion of Catalan language.
Though I am honoured to have been considered worthy of writing an article for New Spanish Books, that I have been asked to write about Spanish literature is strange for two reasons:
1: I had lunch the other day with a friend of mine, a wonderful writer whose insights into what literature is and is not are a constant inspiration. It was around the end of the second course (botifarra amb seques, if anyone’s interested) that the idea of ‘national’ literature came up… There was intrigue, there were discrepancies, but most of all there was confusion. In fact, the only solid thing we were able to carve out of our conversation was that not only is it difficult, but it is nigh on impossible to satisfactorily define what Spanish (or any other ‘national’) literature is, per se. Is it literature from Spain? If so, would someone writing in English (let’s say, for argument’s case, the person was born in Spain to British parents) writing about their experiences of living in Madrid be considered Spanish literature? And if not, why not? It is literature being written about Spanish experiences by a Spanish national living in Spain, is it not? And if that isn’t Spanish literature, then what is? Of course, I’m using an English language example, but this argument might well be extended to the thousands of Spanish nationals who are Arabic speakers. Should literature written in Arabic by a Spanish national be considered Arabic literature or should we include it in our list of Spanish literary pieces? Clearly, there is a problem (and, in case you’re wondering, I certainly don’t intend to try and solve it here).
So, there is clearly a problem when it comes to defining Spanish literature as a literature based on the experience, background and nationality of the writer. As such, perhaps it would be better to define Spanish literature through the Spanish language. Yet here we run into another problem as, in that case, we would have to include writers using the Spanish language from South America and around the world, for example (ah, the ‘glories’ of an imperial past – England, take note). Would that be classed as Spanish literature? And if not, why not? (This is, of course, a rhetorical question that requires no answer as the conclusion is fairly obvious, at least to me: no).
I mention the Spanish used in South America, but we need not go that far to find ourselves faced with critical issues with the idea of a national Spanish literature as there are, of course, the other languages that are spoken, written and read throughout the Spanish State: Catalan, Basque and Galician, to name perhaps the main players. How do these languages fit in with the idea of Spanish literature? Is a book written in Catalan to be classed as Spanish literature? And if so, how could a book written in a language that isn’t Spanish by a person whose culture is fundamentally different to that promoted by the homogenous ideal of a ‘Spanish’ identity be considered ‘Spanish’ literature? Well, frankly, it can’t. This, of course, leads me onto reason number ‘2’ that I find it most strange to have been asked to write a piece on Spanish literature: I publish mostly Catalan language literature in English translation. Sure, FdE will start publishing more and more Spanish language literature in the future (something that is incredibly exciting), but up until now our catalogue features only titles that were originally written in the Catalan language: before anyone starts, far from it being a decision based on ‘nationalism’, it is a decision based on ‘what we know’ and a love for the language. So why do I find it strange to have been approached to write this article? Well, to be completely honest, the notion of a national Spanish literature doesn’t sit very well with me, mostly because as a concept, I don’t believe it to really exist as it seems to me to have rather been created out of a desire to create a homogenous ‘Spanish’ identity throughout the Spanish State. And it’s not the first time: the Spanish language has been imposed, again and again throughout the history of the Iberian Peninsula, as a means of stamping out differences between the various regions and eroding their cultures (as has been and can be seen in Catalan not just under Franco but even today in the popularist rantings of certain centre, right-wing and openly fascist political parties). It is an imperialist tool used to erode diversity within the Spanish State and promote a homogenous ideal of a ‘Spanish’ identity that simply doesn’t exist. You take away someone’s language and you take away their identity. Ever has it been such. And Catalan, along with the other languages spoken and used around the Spanish State, is faced with the threat of obscurity on a daily basis because of this.
Am I saying that people writing in the Spanish language are attacking other languages around the Spanish State? No, of course not. Let me be clear: Of Course Not. Writing is a most personal, beautiful thing, and one should write in whichever language one feels most comfortable in. It is also wonderful to see what, frankly, amounts to an explosion of creativity, artistry and fantastic literature throughout the Spanish State – written by myriad writers of multiple backgrounds, using various languages – ably supported by some of the most daring and bold independent publishing houses in the world. Indeed, I have made (and continue to make) editorial decisions in starry-eyed mimicry of some of these marvellous presses.
But I think we have to be careful when we ‘nationalise’ literature. Once we start to label our literature, we run the risk of closing doors, pigeon-holing people and promoting certain ideologies and cultures over others – all of which leads to a poorer, darker, less vibrant world. So, how to move forward and remedy this? Clearly, I have no idea. That said, what I do know is that the Spanish State is currently home to some of the world’s most exciting new and veteran voices, voices that inspire in languages, both official and unofficial, throughout the peninsular. Writing fiction and non-fiction, there is a new generation of writers sharing their experiences of this new century and the economic and social difficulties we all face. It is a treasure trove of quality writing and I, as a publisher, feel like a kid in a sweetshop, just not a ‘Spanish’ sweetshop.
Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he ...