Latin American writers are familiar with this dilemma: localism or cosmopolitanism? Should we write for our little corner of the world, discussing our very own shortcomings and tribulations, or go universal–go weltliteratur, as Goethe would have it–and touch upon subjects that can be immediately comprehensible by any member of any tribe of the globe? I happen to think the dilemma, as often happens in literature, is false.
Every truly great novelist (or, at least, every great novelist that has been of any importance to me) works on two levels: they write about what happened here, but they address the world at the same time. In other words: they write about what is surprising or unpredictable or difficult to understand, and this usually comes from the place that once seemed so understandable, predictable, unsurprising; but they soon discover that going to the bottom of things, exploring the depths of their characters or situations, usually means talking about things that are common to us all. Few novelists have been more obsessed with “cultural and national distinctions” than Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner or García Márquez; and yet their fictions seem to be pertinent to everyone, because they get their hands dirty with subjects that are part of our shared humanity. So when I write, for instance, about the years of narcoterrorism in my city, I try to figure out what happened to us, sure; but if the novel is any good, it will talk to you about things you care about even if you were not living in Bogotá in the 1980s: fear of unpredictable violence, the impossibility to protect your loved ones, and the mystery of the lives of others.
—Juan Gabriel Vasquez is a critically acclaimed Colombian writer, translator, and award-winning author. Educated in Barcelona and in Paris at the Sorbonne, he now lives in Bogotá. His books include The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana, and most recently The Sound of Things Falling.
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.