Kirmen Uribe on Basque Language

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Basque writer Kirmen Uribe about his literary achievements in The New Yorker and elsewhere, as well as his novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao.

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Kirmen Uribe Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at

This episode of Origins features the Basque writer from Spain, Kirmen Uribe.

Merrill: Kirmen URIBE (novelist, poet, essayist; Spain). His first novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao earned him Spain’s 2008 National Fiction Prize, and has been translated into fifteen languages; his poems have appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Elkarrekin esnatzeko ordua [The Hour of Waking Together] was published in 2017. He participates courtesy of the Etxepare Basque Institute.

Kirmen, Welcome.

Uribe: Hello.

Merrill: In an interview with 3am Magazine, you said, “My responsibility is to write good books and then try to translate them into other languages. It is the best way I see to help my country.” Do you believe that all your work is helping the Basque country, or that it’s owed to the Basque country?

Uribe: I don’t know if they’re helping the Basque country, maybe it’s saying too much, you know, that I’m helping the Basque country. But all my novels and my poems are in Basque. I think this is such a decision so, because Basque language is, we live in a diglossic situation in the Basque country, where the Basque language is the small one, the Spanish is the big one, so for me it is important to develop the language, develop the literature. The Basque was endangered forty years ago during the Franco dictatorship and I think before also. And still we are building Basque literature. I think it’s necessary for the writers to write in Basque. I would like to say that for me it is normal writing in Basque but it’s not still normal, we are in a secondary situation.

Merrill: So your allegiance is to the Basque language, not necessarily to the Basque country.

Uribe: Of course! The Basque language is my country. And I’m really in love with the language. I don’t believe too much in other things like politics or land things or, I don’t know, speaking about genealogy or biological things about Basques. I don’t like them. I like the language and I think it’s my real country, Basque language.

Merrill: Do you ever dream in Spanish?

Uribe: Of course! Of course! In these days in Iowa, I’ve dreamed in English! So of course, I love the languages; I think all the languages in the world are all beautiful. It’s not that some languages are better than the other ones; I don’t believe in those things. It’s like telling that people are different, no, that there are better people than others. I think all the languages are the same and all the languages are equal and all are beautiful: Basque, Spanish, English, uh, I don’t know, Swahili, every language.

Merrill: Your work has been lauded in the translation from Basque into other languages, particularly into English. Do you think that Basque can stand on its own now, and if so, what comes next?

Uribe: No, it’s still difficult. I think there are a lot of translators working on that these last years. Elizabeth Macklin is my translator into English and she’s like an angel for me. Her translations of my poems into English are fantastic. She found magazines like The New Yorker, Little Star Journal, Open City, Poetry. She found these magazines to publish them, my poems, so she’s not just a translator, she’s my friend; she’s my agent in a sense, also. And the same happens with my Japanese translator Kaneko Nami. So she really loves my work and she wanted to translate the works directly from Basque to Japanese and she found also the publishing house. Hakusui Sha and she did a really good job.

Merrill: We forget that a translator has the responsibility not only to bring the original text into his or her target language but to also find a home for it, to become the sponsor for it, if you will.

Uribe: Yeah, the translators, I think they do a really good job. They are not just translating word-by-word your work, they are rebuilding and rewriting the works in their language. So it’s like I think they are the same level as writers; I think they are writers, too. And then they take care of your work, they can do this like work of intermediation between publishing houses and the writers so they are great. I think they are really good workers but not well paid.

Merrill: That’s true.

You’ve collaborated on a project called, “Too Old, Too Small, Maybe” which brings together readings and music. And I wonder why you decided to add music to the readings and do you think that music adds to the discussion about the relevancy of the Basque language?

Uribe: Yes. I always liked this kind of multimedia projects and I started with multimedia project as a writer because I was really critical with the book of poems. I used to think when I was 20 that the book of poems was something old fashioned. I know it was crazy! But I thought that maybe poetry could happen other ways to communicate, to go into the readers, so I started to work with musicians, rock musicians, folk musicians, also with visual artists. So I used to do this kind of multimedia projects and I love them. I miss the readings. I love the stage, I love reading poems on the stage and this communication that is in the readings with the reader. It’s amazing when you read a poem and the poem goes into the heart of the reader; it’s like magic, it’s like playing a song. So I love these readings.

Merrill: So how does working with musicians or artists, has that changed your work in any way, do you think you write differently?

Uribe: Yes, I think so because when you work with musicians your poems are much clearer. Your poems are not so complex or dark, they are like clearer. So you can learn to write more like in a, not simplistic, but in a direct way. And that’s good.

Merrill: And you think about the phrases, too.  

Uribe: Of course, and they have to work with music; it’s really different. A poem that was written for a book to be read home alone or a poem was written to be read in public—it’s really different.

Merrill: And how about working with visual artists, how does that change anything?

Uribe: I love it! I have a lot of friends of mine are filmmakers and we have a lot of things together. And yeah, we live in, I think our age is the age of images so it’s important to work with them, with the filmmakers. They are not so good readers, sorry filmmakers, but they are good people. They think always in images, we think in another way and the writer always thinks in words, in sentences, in characters, but they think in images and you can learn a lot with them.

Merrill: It sounds like a very fertile artistic environment that you are working in.

Uribe: Yeah, and I think there is a good generation of authors in their 40s, 30s, in the Basque country in Spain and I work with them and I think it’s a generation that is growing and they are doing really good things, overall quality things. I think their works, our works, marks the quality. When you are writing in a small language as Basque it is really important not to speak about clichés. What are the Basques? Green hills and ships, no. We have to rethink and work against the clichés. And write really, really good books, quality books because for me, the form is the most important thing. Story is good but the way you tell the story is more important.

Merrill: You said in an interview before you came here that you were working on a novel that is something like the Basque version of Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, a book fueled by stories in your childhood and the Basque country history. I wonder how your writing here in Iowa, away from home, has affected your writing of that book.

Uribe: Maybe when I wrote this I was, it was in the morning, without having coffee, it was the first thing I thought that day. But maybe it’s too much telling that I’m going to write 100 Years of Solitude in Basque. I would like to write a good novel about my childhood but in the way we’re writing now in the twenty first century is really different that García Márquez’s writing. I think we live in the Internet years, it’s really different to write now.

But my days in Iowa are really fantastic, I’m loving it a lot. Overall, speaking with the other writers, this is the point so it’s really important to speak to the other writers, to speak about your work, help them with their novels and they are helping me with my book too. Iowa, it’s that. It’s a point, it’s like a place where a lot of writers come and you can learn and then your books will be better, I’m sure, I’m sure. It’s like, I don’t know, we can use the metaphor of Berlin where Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and David Bowie were together and their best recordings were, are from this time. So it’s because they were speaking about art and music and Iowa I think, I’m sure, will give me this. I will be a better writer after Iowa.

Merrill: You write sometimes in unconventional forms and you just said that your version of 100 Years of Solitude has to be for the twenty-first century. Does that have formal implications as well?

Uribe: Of course.

Merrill: And have those changed over your time here? How would you describe what you’re trying to do formally speaking in your novel?

Uribe: Yeah, for me the form is really important. When I wrote Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, I was thinking in doing something really literary, nothing to do with films or the serious, nothing to do with the best seller. I wanted to write a novel where the voice, where the tone is the most important thing, the music of the phrases, the music of the pages. So for me the voice is really important and also the structure of the novel and I was inspired in Internet for that novel. Also I used to be inspired in mathematics and algorithms and these things to build my novel, so I’m always like finding or searching for new forms in my novel. Maybe it’s that way because I studied literature theory and comparative literature so I’m a little bit like a critic and also a writer. I think each novel has to have a speech inside it. A novel without a speech is not a really good novel. A novel is not just telling a story, you have to have like a, I don’t know, reflection about what is literature, how to write in the twenty first century about not to repeat the models they do very well, they did really well.

Merrill: So algorithms instead of conventional plot.

Uribe: Yes, of course.

Merrill: If you decide on a venture, let’s say inspired by algorithms, in the course of writing does your sense of the form change or turn around, how does that work?

Uribe: Always change. Your plans always change. You can like do a really good plan about how is it going, the novel, but always when you start writing the novel everything changes and this is magic, this is magic. I have a feeling that at the end, the novel is written alone, the novel is like told, told to me. But, but before starting to write, you need this this base of theory, of characters, of more or less how is it going—the story, more or less the structure, and then you can change everything.  

Merrill: And how does that change when you are writing for children? For younger audiences, which you also do?

Uribe: Ah yes, that was, I did when I was younger. When I had children, after having children I did not write children books.

Merrill: So you wrote for children before you had children.

Uribe: Before I was a father. And now I have three children and no more children books. But I think the most important thing in writing for children is not thinking, well, you have to think that children are really intelligent, they are really intelligent. You cannot write as they were silly people, no they are really, really intelligent so you have to be intelligent if not, they are bored. 

Merrill: Have your children ever read any of your novels or have you read your work to them? How have they reacted?

Uribe: Yes, yes, they know that I am a writer, that I have a different job, and yes, they have my books. And they used to go to the readings too; that is nice.

Merrill: As you said that, I was remembering that when my oldest daughter was four, she was overheard saying to a friend of hers that, “Oh, my daddy’s a writer. He doesn’t do anything.”

Uribe: Yes, it’s true! It’s the best job!

Merrill: So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could you tell us about what else you are working on now? And what are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for our listeners, writers we should know about?

Uribe: Wow, I used to read a lot. Writers have to, must read. I think this is a really simple thing, but we forget it a lot of times, no? So my inspiration come from the books. When you are reading a book you start to think in your novel, so it’s the best way to get inspired.

Merrill: So what are you reading now?

Uribe: Yes, so now I am reading a lot of things, I’m reading poetry. In my room in Iowa I have Mark Strand’s poetry, Denis Johnson’s poetry, Thomas Bernhard’s last novel The Loser. I’m reading Virginia Wolf and Sylvia Plath.  A lot of books, also essays, I love essays, Carolin Emcke’s Against Hate; it’s an excellent book. So I used to read a lot, yes.

Merrill: Are there other Basque native writers that our listeners should know?

Uribe: Yes, there are some. Bernando Atxaga is well known, also Joseba Sarrionandia, and Ramon Saizarbitoria.

They are all older than me. They did a really good job like rebuilding this literature that was destroyed and they did this job and then there are young writers also, they are also writing well, especially women, that always is good news.

Merrill: Can you give us some names?

Uribe: I have to think, Eider Rodriquez, and a lot more.

Merrill: Kirmen, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Uribe: Thank you, thank you Christopher, it has been a pleasure.


The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at

Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available February 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.


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Kirmen Uribe
January 15, 2018

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