Argentinian-born writer Maria Elena Lorenzin talks with Puentes Review about writing microfiction, language and the Red de Escritoras de Microficción (Network of Women Microfiction Writers). Her second book, Parricidio, exposes feminicides in Latin America and other part of the world.
When did you start writing?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Since I was a child, I liked to invent stories with my brothers and cousins. We used to stage them and charge admission; we had an audience.
I believe that every person has the need to transcend loneliness through writing. I was fortunate to have been raised by my grandparents and extended family, who were my first teachers. My aunt Dorita, who was a teacher, had many books. I remember a collection called El tesoro de la juventud, which I loved to read.
I loved language classes in primary and secondary school, especially when it was time to write, despite the topics the teachers assigned to us. This love for writing motivated me to pursue a career in Literature, a huge mistake, since I wrote very little during that time.
When I had time to write, I wrote mainly poetry. I remember that in my third year of university a professor from the United States who taught English and American literature approached me and said: ‘Surely you write. Show me what you write.’ And I did. A few months later, he handed me a magazine from Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) where I saw my writing published for the first time. He was the only teacher who gave me an accolade. Unfortunately, his contract was very short, and he returned to his country. I still keep a copy of that magazine with a lot of nostalgia.
After graduating, a great parenthesis came, a tremendous blank page, with many geographical moves to follow who would later be the father of my three children, who were born in three different countries. I wrote little, trapped by domestic life. However, I do not consider it to have been an entirely infertile period. I accumulated experiences in Peru, Brazil and, in my own country, Argentina.
I call this period my training pilgrimage. Gastronomy was one of the things I gained: I absorbed the most diverse dishes, internationalising my palate and cuisine. I discovered there are many ways to write, and cooking can be as creative as writing a poem or a story. So much so that what my children demand of me the most is a cookbook with my recipes. That book is pending along with another one they ask me to write: Las memorias de María Elena. Pressure comes from all sides.
How did you come across the genre of microfiction?
It was a long way. There was no single route. I came from poetry. In Australia, I participated in several literary contests but apparently, I was not good enough because I didn’t even get shortlisted. So, I decided to change and tried short stories.
I was ‘unlucky enough’ to win first prize in a competition in Canberra. It could be considered a good start, but it wasn’t, except for my ego. It created the false idea that writing is something simple, but it is not. It requires a lot of work and dedication—I discovered that over the years. Other awards and mentions followed, but I changed course again when I discovered microfiction. Meeting Pía Barros and other Chilean writers from Editorial Asterión (a publishing imprint started by Barros and the academic Jan Carlos Lértora in 1991) helped me on this new path.
Pía very generously opened her home, kitchen, and literary workshop to me. One year she had me on full bed and board for a month. She is an excellent workshop facilitator and an equally good cook.
Later, I attended a few international microfiction conferences where I met theorists and writers. In Salamanca in 2002, I met Dolores M. Koch, a pioneer in microfiction studies and the first to theorise about it. I had exchanged emails with her and sent her some unpublished texts. To my surprise, she read one of them in her presentation at the congress and encouraged me to believe in myself and publish them. However, it took six years for my first book, Microsueños, to be published.
Why did you decide to continue writing in Spanish?
It’s a practical matter. My mother tongue is essential to express myself. I’m also no Conrad or Nabokov to write in English [both authors had English as a second language]. Spanish is my refuge, a safe place. Despite 30 years in Australia, English has not managed to contaminate it or win the battle. On the contrary, I am amazed at the lucidity with which words flow in Cervantes’s language passed through the Argentine filter in an Australian setting.
On the other hand, my work as a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Flinders University [in South Australia], where I’ve developed writing courses for advanced students, has benefited me. Spanish has been and continues to be very present in my life.
You’ve published two books, have been included in several anthologies and are involved in different writing projects. What’s your writing routine?
I don’t consider myself a prolific author. I have a long way to go. I have spent great periods of absolute drought, writing one or two stories a year.
Currently, I have achieved the perfect alignment to write, the famous room of one’s own Virginia Woolf spoke of—the children have left the nest and left me in a big house with many rooms of my own. And there’s time, a lot of time.
My routine varies. One of the main sources of inspiration comes directly from my dreams. I keep a diary where I record them. That is the material, the rough diamond I then polish to give it the shape the narrative demands.
With Parricidio (Asterión, 2018) something very special happened. I had read somewhere that most people achieve a new habit in 66 days. I decided to put the advice into practice by writing a short story every day, and as an incentive I rewarded myself with a small chocolate. As I progressed, I was no longer interested in the reward. Sometimes I wrote more than one story. In two or three months, I managed to write close to 150 stories, too many for a book. The publisher, Editorial Asterión, selected the 50 included in Parricidio. I use the rest to participate in competitions or calls for submissions while I wait to publish my third book.
Lately, I base my writing on images or photographs. I collaborate with the Spanish magazine Alquimia Literaria. To inspire writers, they share a painting with us every month. As soon as I receive it, I usually freeze, not knowing what I am going to write about, but after observing the painting, the story emerges. It is a beautiful challenge, and I am happy when I see the results published on social networks at the end of the month.
I have also participated in various issues of the academic journal Microtextualidades. Revista internacional de microrrelato y minificción of the University of San Pablo, Madrid, with photos accompanied by the corresponding texts. All these challenges have opened doors and opportunities that I would never have dreamed of. Social media networks, while serving to disseminate literary content, also help to connect with literary fields, institutions, and spaces otherwise difficult to reach.
The theme of the Parriciodio is very strong, how did you prepare to talk about violence against women?
I did not choose the stories: they chose me, starting with the first one, which gives the book its title. At that time, I was going through a very painful stage in my life, which threw me in a deep depression from which I could not get out. As if by magic, the first story came to my aid. ‘Parricidio’ is the story of my paternal grandmother who was murdered by her son-in-law, who also killed his wife and son. It was a double femicide, although at that time this word had not yet been coined. It was as if my grandmother had dictated her story to me and told me, ‘Hija, tell it so it doesn’t happen again.’ Soon, other stories of femicides and calamities were added.
To achieve this, I applied the method of daily practice (with reward), to create a habit that would allow me to ‘please my grandmother’ and, at the same time, denounce the many femicides committed throughout the world.
I invented very little. I simply appropriated the voices of the victims. You could identify the genesis of each story just by reading police reports.
‘Piedad’ is the story of a 12-year-old girl in Murcia, Spain, who, fed up with caring for her four brothers, poisoned them. ‘Feminicidio’ recounts one of the many cases of femicide in Argentine prisons during an intimate visit. I took ‘Humanitarian’, about trade and trafficking in organs, from a Mexican newspaper. It was the same for ‘El limpiasangre’, whose character is fascinated by blood and founded a company to clean houses where violent crimes have been committed. ‘Sopa amazonica‘ was a dream. In it, I knew what the mysterious ingredient in the soup was and, despite knowing, I kept on eating. In some short stories I introduce humour and irony to make the subject more digestible.
The cover painting, Going Up, by London-based Argentine artist Florencia Ferraco tries to make room for hope.
Let’s not lower our guard and continue fighting on all fronts, including the literary, so that [the movement] ¡Ni una menos! (not one less) becomes a reality.
How do you think the perception of Latin Americans in Australia has changed since you migrated?
I think a lot has changed. Australia is more accepting of cultural and ethnic diversity, and I could even say even more so than in my country of origin, Argentina.
I had two migrations. In the 1970s for a few months and the definitive one in the 1980s. The difference between these two migrations is astronomical. Adelaide has changed a lot, it is no longer the last frontier, like when I first came.
Spanish and Latin American film festivals have helped create a different atmosphere and a greater interest in our culture. There is also a proliferation of Latin American restaurants that bring new flavours to the Australian palate. Not to mention the fascination for salsa and tango, and for learning Spanish.
I feel I have found my place in the world after so many pilgrimages.
What authors do you read?
I am a compulsive reader, always following Borges’ advice: if a book is heavy and I don’t enjoy it, it is relegated and automatically falls out of my hands. This has not happened to me with Irene Vallejo’s book infinito en un junco (Siruela, 2022), an excellent narrative essay that takes us on a journey through the exciting world of the books, from their invention to the present day. El infinito es un junco is a perfect metaphor to define it.
The English translation, due out in October, has simplified the title to Papyrus , which doesn’t convey the same meaning. Reading this book has motivated me to return to the classics with the same dazzle and enthusiasm Vallejo shows in her essay.
War’s Unwomanly Face (Penguin, 2018) by Belarusian writer Svetlana Aleksievich captivated me to such an extent that it inspired me to write poetry again after more than 30 years. I never imagined so much horror would awaken my poetic vein. Another equally harsh book I am reading by the same author is Last Witnesses (Penguin Random House 2020), a vision of war seen through children’s eyes.
Closer to us, the other war, the one that continues to kill women on a daily basis, is wonderfully reconstructed in two essential nonfiction novels: El invincible Verano de Liliana, by Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza and Dead Girls by the Argentine writer Selma Almada. In the first, the author reconstructs after 30 years the femicide of her sister by her ex-boyfriend. A bold and highly researched book. In the second, Almada seeks to make visible three murders of women in Argentina in the 1980s that have gone unpunished.
I read a lot of microfiction in physical books and in digital format thanks to the generosity of publishers that offer them for free download. This has helped me get to know other authors. It is a genre that enthrals me because of the conciseness and the development of stories in so few words. I have read almost everything by Ana María Shua, the queen of microfiction, including her thematic book La Guerra.
Lately, I have tried to get out of my comfort zone and read authors in translation or in English who give me other visions of the world. Among them, Joyce Carol Oates, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Mengiste Maaza, Yūko Tsushima, and Tatiana Tîbuleac.
What advice do you give to emerging authors?
I believe that writing is an individual experience that each writer discovers on their own. I advise having a routine. Try to disbelieve in inspiration, that romantic myth has done so much damage. I know people who don’t write until inspiration strikes, and that’s dangerous.
A writer is not made alone, they carry baggage dating back from many centuries. Reading is essential. Raymond Quenau says that every literary work is the Iliad or the Odyssey. All the themes are there, they just need to be rejuvenated or treated with another gaze or approach.
The Bible says God did not dare to create Eve out of nothing. He stole a rib from Adam. Writing is the same, but from a different perspective: steal words that give you a creative foothold. That is, review how some stories or novels begin and borrow those beginnings, find a lever that drives your story. I have done that many times.
Another piece of advice is to ignore your internal censor, who, with their monotonous booming voice, constantly reminds you how bad you are.
Take advantage of the innumerable contests and submission calls. We are not always going to win or get published, but at least we write (something). The more we write, the easier it gets.
Some calls for submissions are themed, others are not. What if you don’t like the topic? It does not matter, try and you will be surprised. I recently read on Facebook a call for proposals from EOS Villa, a publishing house that publishes free-to-download anthologies, and in which I have participated on several occasions. This time the theme was cats. I greatly respect these noble creatures, but the theme didn’t motivate me at all. However, something curious happened: I began to write and did not stop writing until I finished the story. I was able to do it because, although I was not attracted to the subject, I wrote from the point of view of my children, who loved their kitten.
Could you tell us about REM, la Red de Escritoras de Microficción, of which you are a founding member?
REM arises as a need to disseminate and support microfiction writers. I discussed it in a group of online writers and from there came the idea of starting a collective to help us recover spaces where to support other microfiction writers.
The objective of REM is not only to spread the genre of microfiction but also to support all its members and make all their activities visible. REM was born in the midst of the pandemic in June 2020. In 2021, we celebrated our first anniversary with the publication of Mínimas Máximas, an anthology of 54 REM members from 11 countries. The book is free to download.
What other activities has REM carried out?
Symbolic marches for International Women’s Day for which we organised microfiction reading carousels with authors from different locations and different Spanish accents. We also published short stories on social media for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women; and we constantly participate in symposiums and panels on minification.
This year, for International Book Day, we launched two anthologies in which members of our collective have participated: No somos invisibles, compiled and edited by Claudia Cortalezzi (Editorial Luvina, 2021) and Microfantabulosas. Antología ilustrada de microrrelatos fantásticos, compiled and edited by María Gutiérrez (Centro de la Cultura Popular Canaria, Tenerife, 2021).
Who can join REM?
Women writers who have published microfiction. We consider writers with published books and those who have only appeared in anthologies.
Currently, our mission is to support and spread the achievements of each one of us and we have another anthology on our agenda.
Translation by Gabriella Munoz. Read the interview in Spanish here.