Seeing through a Different Lens: A Conversation with Catalina Infante Beovic
Translator Michelle Mirabella interviews author Catalina Infante Beovic, an author-translator pair whose collaboration began in June 2020 with Infante Beovic’s English-language debut in Mirabella’s translation of the story “Ferns,” published right here in World Literature Today. The two have continued their collaboration, with numerous publications out or forthcoming, and were finally united in person for the first time in Santiago de Chile on this year’s International Women’s Day. What follows is an edited version of the oral interview in Mirabella’s translation. Readers should know that the interview includes descriptions of specific cases of violence against women.
Michelle Mirabella: It’s so meaningful that we’re meeting in person for the first time on 8M [International Women’s Day]. What does 8M mean to you?
Catalina Infante Beovic: To be honest, it wasn’t a day that I used to observe, and I didn’t attend any marches until 2015, when fourth-wave feminism exploded in Latin America. The explosion stemmed from various brutal cases of gender violence. One specific case was that of Nabila Rifo, a woman whose partner gouged out her eyes out of jealousy. Around the same date Chiara Páez’s body was found—she was fourteen years old and pregnant—murdered by her boyfriend. These events gave rise to the #niunamenos (not one [woman] less) movement, which began with a very powerful, massive march.
Before that march, International Women’s Day was more of a commercial holiday for me; gifts were given to women, a rose, to celebrate them. But everything changed in 2015. I went with my sister and all my friends to this massive gathering, and something changed inside me; I’d never been to a march with only women before, and I felt something very powerful in that collective. I remember seeing the protest signs, what was written on them, and feeling like I was waking up as I read certain things, identifying violence, becoming aware of machismo, inequalities.
Today 8M [International Women’s Day] is very important to me. Over the years other movements have become a part of it, such as #metoo, and feminist discourse has also been diversifying. Along the way I became a mother, and the day grew even more meaningful to me. I began to feel a connection with other inequalities that we women experience. Before, I was more focused on other struggles, having to do with abortion, sexual freedom, but now I also focus on how women are experiencing motherhood in this system. Then came the Chilean Estallido Social [social upheaval], one of the most important political processes in our history as a country, a process in which feminism also played and continues to play an important role. We began to fight for our place as active participants in social change, for the movement’s demands to be considered.
Every year new issues have been added. The pandemic also brought to light inequalities in terms of parenting, domestic work, and job insecurity. The participation of women in the workforce regressed some thirty years; they had nowhere to leave their children and had to leave their jobs. The results from a survey conducted in Chile showed that the majority of men spent zero hours on domestic labor and caretaking, and also revealed extremely high numbers of fathers who weren’t paying child support. Every year more and more issues are joining the conversation, making this day essential to commemorate as a space for women and their struggle.
Every year more and more issues are joining the conversation, making 8M essential to commemorate as a space for women and their struggle.
Mirabella: What role does the woman writer play in feminism?
Infante: I think she contributes from a place of reflection and critical thinking with respect to what is published, with respect to how women reflect on what the movement awakens in each of them. This is not new. If we look back in history, many of the women who thought about feminism and spoke about issues that women faced were writers. Those women introduced and laid on the table the feminine psyche and the inequality women experience as literary motifs. That’s where they made their contribution from, from fiction. And that’s just beautiful because fiction always reflects social issues.
I think about how in Chile, María Luisa Bombal introduced a feminine universe that wasn’t found in narratives, that had nothing to do with what was being written. Or how Marta Brunet engaged with Criollismo, a literary movement at the time, and was accepted by the men who were writing like that—in fact they praised her for writing like a man—but she established a different discourse that had to do with women. And there were many other women from the cultural, intellectual, literary world, so in that way, I think we can continue reflecting through that lens.
What I see and read is that there are many women writers who are very active in feminism; they are not just writing to make literature, to create stories, but also to address current issues, certain social demands or social grievances. I’m finding that what my fellow women writers are writing, both in prose and poetry, reflects many issues of gender violence, and these are not just Chileans but Latin American women writers, and they are doing so in a very creative way. I think of how Mariana Enríquez introduces gender violence in Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego (Things We Lost in the Fire), how it takes those terrible cases of women whose partners burn them out of jealousy and makes it literature.
And what’s most important is that it’s no longer considered subliterature, which is how women’s literature was viewed previously. Through their craft, women writers are making other women visible, reviving women’s artistic work, and paving the way for other women. And I believe that that collectivity is also what it is to engage in feminism, from a place of mutual support.
Mirabella: When thinking about your work, what role does feminism play in your writing?
Infante: Todas somos una misma sombra (We women are all one shadow) in particular is a book that I now think of as very feminist, especially the last story about the women in a joint struggle faced with the Apocalypse. I didn’t write it thinking about feminism because I wrote it before my feminist awakening and the explosive wave I was telling you about. It was more of a subconscious thing, very subconscious. I really like science fiction, dystopian novels, I like the imaginary of the origin myths, and I wrote it more inspired by those things. But right when it was published—because I wrote it many years prior—it made sense to me in the context of the movement. And ultimately there’s this realization that these movements and issues tend to tumble around inside each of us on an individual level, being shaped by our subconscious, before they explode. It’s a collective but also personal awakening, and my literature provides an account of my personal process and makes sense in the context of current movements.
I just finished a novel, which will be out next year, where I explore the topic of motherhood and its intersections with feminism as well. My work as a journalist has offered me great inspiration, work in which I interview mostly women and write many articles about motherhood through more of a political lens. Now, when it comes to writing, I can say that I’m more aware of the movement.
Mirabella: How has your perspective evolved on the interrelationship between sustainability and feminism?
Infante: It’s a good question. I don’t want to slip into essentialism, that women are connected with nature per se, and that we’re destined to save the environment, or something like that. But it is a topic that I’m quite interested in, and it distresses me, like it does everyone. It’s something that’s been awakening inside me little by little, an awareness of the way in which we live, and trying to do so more sustainably.
I think feminism has helped me a lot to wake up and become aware of the damage we’re inflicting as a society, the way we live, and the way people interact with the environment and nature. And inevitably this has to do with a neoliberal, capitalist system, and with the patriarchy. Feminism has taken up these issues because it’s a part of what awakens the consciousness to the fact that something isn’t working right and is a critique of a system that views nature as something to exploit, not respect. There’s no acknowledgment that yes, things can be done differently. So, of course; what feminists want is to change this system and how it wields power. So yes, these are two intersecting issues.
With respect to my writing, I also think there’s been a slow awakening. I think of the story “Hermanos” (Siblings) that mentions the drought, and the most recent essay I wrote, which had to do with drought in that same region, where the avocado crops dry out the land, and water for residential use has been gradually cut off, giving priority to the crops—it has devasted the region. But this issue appeared in the story [“Hermanos”] long before [the essay]. And I think these things are also subconscious, and it’s no coincidence that the story is a part of a book full of topics having to do with women. It’s also an awareness of something that isn’t right; while seeing that there are women who are experiencing discomfort, violence, and being silenced, it can also be seen that there’s a world experiencing discomfort and violence at the same time. So yes, I think there are a lot of points in common, and as time goes on, I think—I hope—that this intersection [between feminism and sustainability] will become increasingly apparent.
Feminism has helped me a lot to wake up and become aware of the damage we’re inflicting as a society, the way we live, and the way people interact with the environment and nature.
Mirabella: What role do you play as a woman writer in advancing these essential conversations?
Infante: I don’t think it’s something very planned out but rather more fluid and spontaneous. I write about topics that cross into my personal life, my experiences in and observations of the world. And when I publish, I realize that it’s not just something of interest to me or something personal, but rather the reader empathizes, has a reaction. This connection with someone else, this exchange, dialogue, encounter with others who are feeling, thinking the same thing . . . these issues are surrounding all of us. So I think that what my writing can offer is its honesty and connection with something simple, our daily experiences.
Mirabella: I wrote an essay about the intimacy of the act of translation and the solidarity I feel with you and other authors I’ve translated who also find themselves at a moment of emergence. So, I’d like to ask for your perspective: what reflection can you offer us on what it’s like to be translated?
Infante: I think it’s an honor, and I love the experience of seeing how my words are translated into another way of thinking, speaking, and writing, into a different geographical reality, a different syntax, different sounds, and another way of approaching communication. It’s as if the text transformed into another work, it’s a rewriting as well. There are different parts of the story that shine, and there’s something of loss, but there’s also something gained. It’s like looking at a photo with different colors, other things are unlocked, the texts glow from a different place, the words sound different. I really like that because sound is very important to me. I read a lot out loud; I really like poetry, and when I write, I tirelessly read my words aloud. And that the text transforms using other sounds without losing its beauty, sonority, and rhythm is something I greatly admire about your translations—it’s as if we were writing together.
Mirabella: What are your recommendations for essential reading on feminism from the Chilean context?
As there’s been progress on gender issues and as we’ve been awakening, we’ve been able to see Mistral through a different lens.
Infante: María Luisa Bombal. I find it very noteworthy that when I speak with other women writers, they always mention Bombal as a very important woman writer in their literary lives and in their craft, as if she had awakened something within them. Once while taking part in an article that was about 8M in which women writers spoke about and recommended other women writers, at least three of us named Bombal—something is going on there.
I also like Mistral. Over the years we’ve gone about discovering her and her many facets. She’s a giant, a mother of literature who covers such a wide range of human dimensions, she has so many faces. We grew up with her face on the [5,000 peso] bill and also the face of the woman who created rondas for children, we’d read her in school, but she was much bigger than that. And as there’s been progress on gender issues and as we’ve been awakening, we’ve been able to see her through a different lens. It was always men who studied and wrote on Mistral.
Now I feel that we’re viewing her through women’s perspectives, through an LGBTQ lens as well, through the lens of her relationship with Doris Dana, her politics on how she thought about Chile, also this lens of mysticism and spirituality. It seems to me that these two women have a strong connection with feminism, women who, on top of that, had to make space for themselves in a world of men.
Translation from the Spanish
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