Chilean author Alejandro Zambra spoke with Ann van Buren about his newest book, Multiple Choice (Penguin, July 2016), just before its release. It is Zambra’s eighth book, and the fifth one to be translated into English. Zambra writes in Spanish and regularly works with a translator, Megan McDowell. The interview was conducted in English, via Skype and e-mail, while Zambra was in New York City during the final weeks of his residency at New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
During his residency, the author continued writing and conducted workshops that asked his audience to reconsider traditional forms of fiction and poetry. In an attempts to defy being cast into any literary genre, Multiple Choice tells its story through a series of questions that are structured like the reading comprehension questions on a standardized test.
Zambra began the novel in 1993, the year he took the national entry exam required for study in a Chilean university. Like the SAT test that students take in the United States, earnest students spend months of study, trying to figure out strategies that will help them score higher on the test. Unlike the SAT, the Chilean exam was offered on only one day each year. Zambra’s book raises questions about the standardization of knowledge that is meant to meet institutional requirements. It also shows us that a story can be told in many different ways. Even the forms that we fill out in our ordinary every day lives have a narrative. Multiple Choice shares this perspective in an innovative way that is surprisingly accessible, easy to read, and on many levels, profound.
The Rumpus: Your book addresses the complexities of education. For example, the answer to one of the multiple choice questions in the book is, “You were not educated, you were trained.” I thought you were trying to point out the anti-intellectual nature of the format of these tests, which includes the idea that there is only one answer to a question. That notion rules out the possibility that, when viewed from different perspectives, there can be different answers to a question.
Alejandro Zambra: Yes, that came across when I was writing the book. I mean, the rhetoric of the single right answer—the possibility of its existence, its illusion, the promise it represents, the fraud. This book started as a fifty-page manuscript focused on 1993, the year I took the test. I was halfway through a conventional novel but I didn’t like it—I felt I was just telling a story, not discovering anything by writing. It all changed one night when I got my hands on the actual test and I started to read it. It was so strange to be in touch with that eighteen-year-old me. I started to play with the test, the way you imitate other people’s voices, and by doing so I was both having fun and wondering how much I had internalized the structure of the test. So I decided to go through it, to play that game, to make it mine.
Rumpus: Did you know what you were getting into as you began writing this book?
Zambra: I didn’t have a previous set of topics I wanted to talk about; I just began doing these exercises and discovering the book. The ways in which a standardized language test induces storytelling, for example, is the opposite of creative writing; you have to learn a logical way to start a story, whereas in creative writing you may begin at the end or begin at the middle of the story. You are told that you have to eliminate un-useful sentences, but as a writer you know how important details are. I thought of this as I was writing this book, but it wasn’t a previous choice to talk about that. I also thought about what it meant to be writing in the first person. The stories on standardized tests don’t have one author, therefore they can never authentically be in the first person. Imagine that! Everywhere, there are these tests that have been written by multiple people.
Rumpus: I have another question about form. On the cover of the book there is a standardized test form that asks if this book is “A. Fiction B. Nonfiction C. Poetry D. All of the above. E. None of the above.”
Can you tell me how you define poetry and whether Multiple Choice is poetry?
Zambra: Oh that would be so pretentious. I guess the book could be read also as poetry, but I just didn’t want to define this book, I didn’t want to put it under any label. There is this tradition here in the States of identifying the genre on the cover, “a novel,” “short stories,” and the idea of making it clear in that way terrified me, mostly because it’s not even clear to me. So I wanted to play with this practice, and luckily the editor liked the idea. I think that, as a librarian, you would receive this book and say, “What the f***?” And I like that idea.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about this challenge to the literary genre?
Zambra: Well, it is an experiment, but I got to it when I realized it was a necessary one. You can read it in sophisticated ways, but I like the idea that this book deals with unsophisticated approaches. I mean, some people don’t even read books—most people. They don’t read novels, short stories, or poems; they read forms and fill the blank spaces. So it is exciting for me to imagine that readers who are not used to literary structures might understand this book under a different light. When you read a novel, you know what to expect because you’ve been reading novels for a long time. But if you don’t and you happen to be—who knows why—reading this book, maybe you just try to answer these questions. And maybe you know the structure of the standardized test better than you know literary structures.
Rumpus: Do you think that growing up in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship made you think about all this?
Zambra: Well, I don’t have another experience of growing up. This is somehow overwhelming. When I wrote this book I was thinking so hard about silence, about the forms of silence and the difference between being silent and being silenced. Silence as an option, silence as an obligation. When I was a kid, I thought all the adults were boring. I was blind to the fact that most of them were silenced. They were living in a shitty world and they were frightened. As a child, all you see is that adults are not playing. Adults are not talking too much. Adults don’t want to relate to each other. This became very important to me. I started developing a new family in the literary community.
Rumpus: Can you tell us more about your literary family? Who are they? Are you still in touch today?
Zambra: Oh yes, many of my dearest friends are poets and on the road. I’ve been adding a bunch of people I love. I was a nerdy kid and I was writing and showing other fellows who are still my friends what I was writing. We were sharing that and kept sharing it. The experiences they had were so different than mine. I also think about Chilean literature as a family, because I grew up reading the literature of my country. I feel like I have fathers and stepfathers and a lot of brothers and sisters and distant cousins and all that.
There were also teachers who made us feel that we could be part of the discussion. Although it wasn’t my intention when I wrote it, Bonsai is about two students who feel like they have to pretend they read Proust. They love literature, they really like reading, but they have to pretend that they’ve read everything because this is a way of validating yourself. This is a way of participating in the “big” discussion. It’s a parody but it’s related to the way we were. It’s also about that feeling that everything has been said and everything has been done, but you still feel like you are looking for something. You don’t know what you’re looking for, but you feel like you are looking for something. Maybe you feel a little stupid because of that. You’re looking for something, I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’m looking. Writing is a lot about that. When you write a poem. When you write a novel.
Rumpus: So you feel like you’re still looking.
Zambra: Yeah, yeah. That’s why I keep writing. I’ve been writing most of my life; it’s just something I do. There is a big difference between writing and publishing. I don’t have any doubts that I need writing. I need it personally because this is the way I think. Publishing my book is like giving it away. At first you start talking about it, but you are basically letting go. I won’t say it’s like giving birth because I haven’t given birth. It’s more like when your children leave home. Everything is done. You raised them, you want them to be happy and you want people to love them; but it’s not your thing anymore. You are probably writing another novel of another type. For me, writing is a way of finding out about things I didn’t know before I began writing. I just write. That’s why I was telling you about my previous manuscript about 1993. I was writing it because I was supposed to publish something, but I couldn’t write it that way.
Rumpus: So writing can be a way of keeping track of what we are thinking, a way of expanding upon what we are thinking.
Zambra: Yeah, and dealing with it. We rely too much on the people we share our lives with. We hold them responsible for things they are not even aware of. We start blaming them. If you write, and you are really alone (writing is a lonely thing), you learn to be alone without suffering. When you read, you also learn to do this. When you write, you deal with things.
Rumpus: Well, you definitely break with form, and your writing allows many emotions to come through. One that I noticed is the feeling of alienation. A character will look into the face of another character, a parent for instance, whom they know well and love. Despite a lifelong relationship, the characters would realize that there was something in the other that was unfamiliar and unrecognizable. There’s an anonymity to these characters, and they seem to be going through something very existential as they question existence and interrelationships. Do you think that the alienation is the result of the dictatorship, or do you think that the alienation, silence, and the condition of being silenced, creeps up on us little by little—perhaps even through the requirements of standardization in education and the other institutions in our lives?
Zambra: I would say “All of the above,” but I wouldn’t close these reflections, that would be impossible. I am still trying to find out things. And I inevitably tell myself the story in different ways every time I think about it. The way I tell it now is absolutely connected to the present. You can say that literature is about topics like love, death, and all that, but I think there is only one topic that applies to all literature and that is belonging. Every story, every poem, every written piece is about belonging. There is a me, there is a we, there is an us, and we want to belong to it or we don’t want to belong. You can read every story with this as its main focus. Is this a story about a family? Is this a story about belonging to a political party? Your question is something I ask myself every day. Literature is about getting in touch. It sounds so hippie, but it really is about sharing stuff. We are a community that doesn’t seem to be important for the rest of society, but we are people who want to get in touch— really in touch. We want to be thinking together.
***Author photograph © Beowolf Sheehan.