Mariana Enríquez: “I don’t want to be complicit in any kind of silence” | horror books

MAriana Enríquez, 48, lives in Buenos Aires. She is the author of nine books, including two collections of short stories, The dangers of smoking in bed and Things We Lost in the Fireboth translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell. In 2019, Enríquez won Spain’s Premio Herralde, previously awarded to Javier Marías and Roberto Bolaño, for Our part of the night, his first novel to be translated into English, also by McDowell. It follows a father and son whose ability to commune with the dead draws them into a bloodthirsty cult during the days of the Argentine junta. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote last year that the “beautiful and gruesome world” of Enríquez’s writing “is the most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction in some time”.

What attracts you to the horror genre?
It is very difficult to write about Argentina using only realism. In the 50s and 60s, there was a strong tradition of fantastic fiction here: Borges, Silvina Ocampo, Julio Cortázar. Then the whole region became politicized with the dictatorship [1976-1983], the consequences of the Cuban revolution and the intervention of America. This led to the Sartrean dilemma of literature having to be political and about the times, but of course Sartre never said that literature had to be realistic, only that it had to be involved in what was happening. I think what happened to people like me growing up in the 80s and 90s is that slasher movies and Stephen King and twin peaks everything mingled with our reality already full of the language of horror: the disappeared, the children of the dead, the children of the lost generation…

Do these real atrocities justify your more graphic scenes?
I don’t think there’s any need for moral justification, but these things happened here. Women had children in captivity and children were stolen. They were torturing people near you. They dumped bodies in the ocean. I understand it [notion of] respect but I don’t want to be complicit in any kind of silence; being shy in the face of horrifying things is also dangerous. Maybe I turn the volume up to 11 because of the genre I like to work in, but the genre shines a light on the real horror that gets lost in [a phrase like] “Political Violent”.

Is this violence part of the overseas appeal of Latin American fiction?
There are many fictions from the region that dwell on violence and suffering. You may fear that readers [abroad] do not understand the context and that they consume it only for madness. But as a writer, if these things affect your life, then this is your material, so what are you going to do? My only solution is to talk about it and explain. I try to be close to the reader, close to the media: if I have to give you a history lesson, that’s no problem. One problem is that we are used to reading in translation and other countries are not. We know more about your story than you know about ours. There are two ways to handle this. Get mad at inequality. Or try to explain what is happening.

How has your work been received in Argentina?
I was terrified when I posted the first short story I wrote with this genre vibe [Back When We Talked to the Dead]. These girls play the Ouija board and try to connect with the missing so they can become famous by knowing where the bodies are. Then the story supernaturally slaps them to say, don’t be stupid. I was afraid that the human rights organizations working here would think I was making fun of them.

But what really happened was that my work became part of a new genre. In my generation, there are many children of the disappeared. Many of them would start writing about it in ironic, bizarre, or even amusing ways—stories about what they would do with the grant the state gave them for killing their parents, for example. It opened the door to a new sensitivity about what happened. I was doing something different, but I was not alone.

How did you approach writing the all-male sex scenes in Our part of the night?
I have male testers to tell me how out of place I am! My first novel was a love story between two men. I wrote it when I was 17 – it was published when I was 21 – and at the time I really didn’t know anything; the main source was My own private Idaho. I watched a lot of porn with my gay friends, who were like, “This acrobatic stuff is actually pretty hard…it takes a little practice.” Two gay friends tell me stuff [about their sex lives] and I ask them what I’m wrong. I say: “One: is it possible? And two: is it hot?

Who have you read lately?
Mónica Ojeda, from Ecuador – she is totally twisted. Less brutal but equally astonishing is another Argentinian writer, Maria Gainza. She does autofiction, something I don’t do, but she mixes it with art and other things. Lots of writers do it, but I don’t think anyone does it like Maria does. She belongs – or belonged – to the very upper class here, the elite of the elite, whose first language was French. They lost all their money, so there’s a kind of ruined decadence in his work.

Name a book that made you want to write.
My uncle gave me Stephen King’s Animals Seminar a Christmas. I guess he was thinking, “It’s a bestseller, the girl likes to read, there’s a cat on the cover…” I read it when everyone was sleeping, probably passed out after the holidays, and I was so scared that I had to throw it away. But I took it back and continued to read. I remember thinking, wow, I really wish people could feel something that real under their skin. It’s clearly a novel about his fear of losing his family. I was 12 or 13 years old but you also understand it at that age; you never think it’s just the supernatural. Everything I learned about mixing reality and horror, I learned from Stephen King.

  • Our part of the night by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell, is published October 13 by Granta (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply