Interview with Sònia Hernández at Write or die tribe
Sònia Hernández: On Art in the Age of the Internet, the Pursuit of Truth and Her Debut Translated Novel, Prosopagnosia.
Prosopagnosia, Sònia Hernández’s first novel recently translated into English by Samuel Rutter, is an intellectual and unflinching novel that is not afraid to ask the big questions. What is art? What is beauty? What is truth? Does any of it matter? While the novel is short (novella length), Hernández’s economy of language is masterful as she delves into questions that define a culture. Prosopagnosia is an uncanny portrait of what it means to be a human in the world today grappling with beauty, and confronting the way the internet has changed our relationship to art.
I was able to speak with Hernández about her work as an art critic, the relationship between art and writing, and what it has been like having her first novel translated into English.
Prosopagnosia does an uncanny job of depicting the ways in which people obsess over and try to control how others perceive them, particularly in regards to attaining outside validation from others. Why were you interested in examining this topic?
The issue of miscommunication is a central theme in everything I have written, and I suspect that in everything I will write. For me, it is an enigma how the relationship with others is established, and in this relationship, the first thing is how they perceive us, which often has nothing to do with the idea that we have of ourselves. Therefore, what I wrote is not intended so much to analyze how we achieve the validation of others as to reflect on the way in which we locate ourselves in the world. Our attitude and behavior are the consequence of the story we tell about ourselves. On the other hand, I was also interested in proposing a reflection on what we consider beautiful and what we find ugly. Berta claims the beauty of things considered unaesthetic, while her mother needs to reconcile herself with her appearance to know who she is. And the painter that the mother and daughter meet is looking for the beauty of forms, but above all, the ethics and behavior.
So much of this novel is about the unreliability of identity and truth, yet the characters seem desperate to inch closer to understanding these two ambiguous concepts. What do you think compels people, particularly artists and writers, to search for the essential truth of people and things?
I believe that we pursue the truth in order to better understand ourselves and, therefore, inhabit the space that we occupy with more tranquility. Identity is another of the topics that most interest me: both when I read and when I write. We can know who or what we are while we understand what moves us every day: what interests us, what satisfies us, what hurts us...and in these matters we can try to deceive ourselves, or others can try to lie to us, but the effects of lies will always have consequences. We can try to fill our lives with hundreds of things, but uncertainty at one point or another will bring us down. It may be impossible to arrive at any absolute truth, in which case, our imaginations, experiences, and feelings can provide other avenues forward. Imagination may not be useful to arrive at the truth. Science does not solve all doubts either, so it is important for each person to gather information, experiences or imagery to explore everything that shapes us.
The novel follows the relationship between an artist and writer in conversation about the value of art in contemporary society and at many points, the artist questions whether people even still value art. What do you think the role of art is in society right now?
I’m a contributor to the cultural supplement of a newspaper basically doing interviews with visual artists. Experience makes me think that there are two very separate spaces, at least in my country: the art market, which can only be reached by a few artists, a few gallery owners and a few collectors and a small, interested public. Then, on the other hand, there is the more general public, who like art or, rather, design. We demand that our society must be beautiful and attractive, but museums are seeing fewer visitors these days. All the institutions are thinking about how to reach the public. Art, in one way or another, is at the root of design that is everywhere, though overlapped by other layers and interests. We all want to see beautiful things that move us, but, now, increasingly, we want that experience to be immediate, an instant pleasure that allows us to quickly move on to another, such as Instagram photos. It is no coincidence that more and more artists are fascinated by Instagram, it allows them to reach a wider audience or consumers. But this rarely leads to a greater knowledge of art, its history, its diversity and its possibilities. For me, art is a way of knowing and experimenting with new sensations, and that is a slow process, in which the symbolic universe grows little by little and serves to explain many things about our reality, about our perception, about the world we build. It is not just a bombardment of "pretty images" that hit us briefly, in an endless and bulimic series.
Throughout the novel, the internet is often referenced as having changed the ways in which people engage with information and art. What do you think has been the most profound change the internet has had on art and how people access information?
The most obvious thing is that the Internet has eliminated the boundaries of space and time for the propagation of knowledge. We have access to an infinity of images. And that has changed the way that museums, galleries, the public, and artists work. Some artist websites are true works of art, but because they need to seduce. It is pure seduction. The same thing I said before about social networks. Artists have to become a brand that a lot of people would like to show off, at least for a while. During the confinement, many museums and galleries have transferred their activity online, moving visits, conferences and other attractive events into virtual spaces. I doubt that they have achieved the objectives they were looking for. I think that the experience of accessing Art online is very good, especially in moments of confinement, but that cannot replace the real experience of observing the created object or of being in a museum or gallery, where the works manage to create an atmosphere and a different universe. Art is a method of expression for the artist, but also for the observer, and often online art already offers all the messages that are too interpreted in a very specific sense.
How do you think your job as a critic influences your own writing?
I have always separated my different jobs as a journalist, and as a cultural manager or a critic of my own writing. My writing is an intimate space for reflection and construction. I write to understand the world. And my works tend to have more of an intermediary function, to convey to others what artists or writers do. But inevitably, the views that I arrive at in my own work also serve as a way to know the world. I observe and then reflect on my own writing. In Prosopagnosia and in my next novel, El lugar de la espera, the artists I'd worked on break into the narrative because I suppose I needed to reflect on what that meant to me. It also happens to me with the writers that I read and that interest me. Frequently, what I read expands my symbolic universe and then with my writing, I order that territory. But I insist that my writing of novels is separated because I reserve it for a very intimate space, where I don't mind being carried away by speculation, by the challenge posed by language or by the force of imagination and the symbols that appear in my thoughts.
What has the translation process of Prosopagnosia been like for you?
I have been privileged to be translated by Samuel Rutter. He was an enthusiastic reader of the book and was very supportive of it, and I think that enthusiasm is reflected in the result. Until now, I was translated in some stories, poems or fragments, but Prosopagnosia was the first translation of a novel. I was happy to hear the news that it would be translated, and I am really happy to know that the published book already exists and is available to readers from countries other than mine or to Mexico, where it also had a very affectionate reception. I am very grateful to Samuel Rutter and to Scribe for believing in this story.
What is your writing process like?
I am not a disciplined writer. As I have already said, writing is a way of understanding the world, and that is a pretty hard exercise. The starting point is always an image, something that happens and that touches me, and to understand that event I need to write. Then the speculation begins, which is taking me to those territories that I want to know. I have a hard time starting new projects. I am not a writer who plans a book, its structure, the evolution of the characters, the pages and the hours they will write each day. When the story I want to investigate appears, it acquires such force that I am obsessed and then all my efforts are directed towards that investigation, at any time, in any place. Then I enjoy what I am getting to know. And something curious that I have realized lately: I need to start writing by hand, in one of the notebooks that I have accumulated, or that people have given me. I love notebooks. And in the genre in which I feel most comfortable is short novels, I like the intensity of the short stories, I don't like dwelling on great realistic descriptions. I believe that more than observing reality, I observe the possibilities that reality has in our mind. I have also recently observed that sometimes what drives me to write is the need to establish a dialogue with a book that I have read and have been fascinated by.
In September I did a literary residency in the wonderful Portuguese city of Braga. There, I was reading La novela luminosa of Mario Levrero, which is a kind of diary in which he talks about his difficulties in writing. As I read, I felt like I was speaking with a roommate who finally pushed me to write.
Finally, what other writers, particularly those that have been translated into English from Spanish, do you recommend to readers?
I really enjoy Enrique Vila-Matas’ books. Lately, I’ve discovered Alejandro Zambra, who is Chilean, or Maria Gainza, Argentinian. They’re fascinating
Write or die tribe, by Shelby Hinte (February 22, 2021)