Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Interview with Alma Guillermoprieto

Interview with Mexican author Alma Guillermoprieto.

There were other reasons as well that Samba was infinitely interesting to me. For a year I'd been making my way through the hall of mirrors that is inter-American history. On one side, I'd found many books by well-informed Latin Americans, describing a United States that knew nothing of Latin America, and still knows nothing about those books. On the other side were books by U.S. travelers to Latin America, which were often quickly translated into Spanish or Portuguese and avidly read in the places they described. Travel writers, like foreign correspondents, almost invariably write for an audience back home that is tacitly assumed to share their perspective, but U.S. travel writing about Latin America often had its greatest impact on the residents of the places it described, so eager were Latin Americans to see themselves through the eyes of the Metropolis.

Samba broke those categories wide open. It's a description of a Latin American reality-Rio de Janeiro, its carnival, its samba schools-by a writer whose perspective is that of a Latin American (she's Mexican) but who clearly intends the book for an audience in the United States and who has achieved an impressive command of English. Fascinated, I wrote her to ask for an interview and find out if she was related to my nineteenth-century traveler.

She wrote back right away, and yes, she is a descendant of Guillermo Prieto. She gently put me off my idea of an interview, but we found when we met that we had lots to say to each other, and our conversation continues. I was intrigued to learn that although, like me, she spent part of her childhood in the desolate sprawl of suburban Southern California, Spanish is her native language.

In Guillermoprieto's career as a journalist covering Latin America for Newsweek and the Washington Post, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, she's faced a lot of dangerous situations, but going back to write in her first language after having built a long career in English was, I think, one of the most courageous things she's ever done. When I read the original Spanish of Dancing with Cuba, her most recent book, a memoir about teaching dance at the Escuela de Danza Moderna in Havana in 1970-which just came out from Pantheon in my translation-I began to understand more clearly why she did it.

You can find the interview here

Buy Samba at

Buy Dancing with Cuba at

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