Host Christopher Merrill talks with Argentinian writer Mariano Tenconi Blanco about his play, Everything would make sense if death did not exist, about the way he works with slang and voice to shape character, his admiration for Jorge Luis Borges, and the ways that he creates a procedure, or a hypothesis, around which his plays are organized.
Mariano Tenconi Blanco 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. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Argentinian writer Mariano Tenconi Blanco.
Merrill: Mariano Tenconi Blanco from Argentina has written nine plays, and directed several plays and operas; his work has been performed in many countries, and among his awards is the first prize for New Playwrights given by the Buenos Aires Ministry of Culture for Everything would make sense if death did not exist. We are recording this from the University of Iowa on Monday, October 10th, 2016 when we had the chance to sit down with Mariano who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Welcome, Mariano.
Tenconi Blanco: Hi, welcome.
Merrill: So your award winning play, Everything would make sense if death did not exist, will premiere in 2017 and I wonder if you could tell us where it would be staged first, and what audiences can look forward to?
Tenconi Blanco: Well, we are working with the guys of the FIBA, the International Festival of Buenos Aires. It’s our National Drama Festival, and we are planning to perform the play in the festival because the prize that the play received is the prize that was released for the festival. So I received the prize in a previous festival in 2015, so it would be great if we can perform the play two years later in the new edition to the festival. I also…because I won the prize, I will be the jury of the -
Merrill: The next plays –
Tenconi Blanco: Yeah, yeah, of the new prize. So I hope that we can perform the play in next October. It will be hard on us because it is a very young play, but well, (laughs) I wrote it so now I should direct it also. And related to the, to what I think the audience can find in the play, I think that this play for is ‘Todo tendria’ because obviously, I call the play as the short name “Everything good”, for example. (Laughs) I think that was my first play in which I started to try a kind of experimental thing, which is in a way, the play is very, I don’t know very, but almost realistic because it’s a story of a teacher of middle class in a town in the late 80s with a terminal disease. So it’s the plot of a realistic play, in a way. But in the other way, in the other hand, the way which I use the space and the time is really weird, because it’s usually easier when you try to tell a story in theater, and the length of that story is the same as real life. For example, I will tell a story with two guys speaking during one hour, and the length of the play is one hour. That’s easier for the audience. And we try to tell a story in which the main character is having this disease and in a way we can say, she starts to die. So it’s really strange for the theater to tell that. But I think this operation over the time, this experimental operation, is the opposite way in which maybe we always think that experimental plays. I think this experiment will be more moving for the audience, because if you spend four hours with the character, it’s not your mother who is dying, but maybe almost – if it’s that, then it’s very good. Maybe in the end of the play, you will feel, “No, come on. Don’t die. I want to continue being with you.” So I think these strange procedures are developing at very emotional parts. The thing that I tried with this play was to be very experimental in one hand and on the other hand to be very emotional. And I expect that the audience feel that. Maybe for the critics and the academics, they will read all the experimental things that I put in the play, and my mother will cry with the play. So I want both to be happy with the play.
Merrill: (Laughs) That would make for a happy marriage.
Tenconi Blanco: Yeah, yes.
Merrill: So in a recent discussion here at the IWP, you said, “Because theater can build a reality that has nothing to do with the reality of the world, it builds reality that is complex, artificial, metaphoric, excessive, fake, and stupid. But in the end, it stands as a counter reality, a reality that is against everything we don’t like about the world, against everything we want to do over again though we may not know how.” So I wonder, how your character, Maria, goes about creating her own counter reality and does she succeed at that?
Tenconi Blanco: Well, that’s a great question. I hope to be at the same level as this. In a way, I want to say something that is I’m far from the classic idea of character. So for the reason, sometimes I do a very stupid thing that is not to talk about the characters as character, but in fact, obviously, Maria is a character. But I do that because – against is not the best word, but we can use it – I’m against the idea of the character related with psychology or human behavior because I don’t use those things to write. But the thing that I try to do, or the thing in which I am interested in was, I think that in a way reality can sometimes be a construction, with a lot of forces crossing. But in a way, advertising and consumption, create a reality in which every human relationship is mediated, or is, yes. All relationships are to sell, in a way. Friendship is two guys sharing a beer, or love is a guy buying clothes in the mall. I think the reality is constructing a life and the life in general is not nice, because when you see the world, you have poverty, you have a lot of people dying, a lot of people starving, so I am not happy with the world and I think that maybe we should try to do something. I think that maybe fiction, I am old now, I am not twenty years old anymore, and so I am not sure that fiction can modify that world. But at least I think, or I trust, on the bigger political power of fiction. I think that fiction can show you different ways of loving a person, to have friends, or different ways of thinking about your work, because in the end I think the thing that you learn in fiction is just to read. When you read a lot, then you start to read better. It’s the thing that all the readers learn. So when you know how to read, then you start to read the reality in a better and more complex way, and if you read the reality in a more complex way, you will start to read your relationships in a more complex way. So for that reason, I think that fiction can modify our relationships with reality, maybe not reality itself. And I think that the things that Maria’s character – I’m feeling weird saying Maria – I think that this character lived in the play are related to that. She didn’t do the things that maybe she should do, for example, to have a good sex journey with somebody, and when she received the news that she will be dying in several months, the way that she found to change her own reality is fiction, because she didn’t decide to get a new boyfriend. She decided to shoot a porno movie. And in that way, she started to learn more about love and sex, but more about herself. And I think that’s a very nice way of learning.
Merrill: When you speak about reading, I wonder if you could talk a little about Jose Hernandez’s epic poem Martín Fierro, which I think had some influence to the development of Maria as a character and if you can talk a bit about him, and other writers from Argentina who have shaped your own thinking about your work?
Tenconi Blanco: Great. It’s a great question because I am very influenced by Argentinian writers. I love Argentinian literature. And the influence of Martín Fierro, Martín Fierro is our national poem, is our Odyssey in a way, is a text written as you said by José Hernández in 1879, and this poem create a genre, our national invention also, that is called gauchesque. It’s a genre in which the gauchos are half-boys, these gauchos are a strange character because they are not the owners of the land, they are the managers. The owners are rich guys from Buenos Aires obviously. Also they are not Indians, because they – Indians are outside the system, we can say…
Merrill: They are comparable to American cowboys.
Tenconi Blanco: Yes, yes, yes! It’s really similar to the American cowboys. So this gaucho is a character who is not revolutionary, a bit lazy, a friend of drinking; this character also plays the guitar. And in gauchesque the thing that those writers did – José Hernández’s was the best, but not the first – was they create a voice to those gauchos, but it’s a very fake voice because those guys, as José Hernández, spent a season on the land just to be more man. The owners of the land, the fathers said to these boys, “Well, now you should spend maybe some months in the land because you will be a man.” And in that moment, they met the gauchos. But the thing that José Hernández do was when he return to Buenos Aires, he was living in Plaza de Mayo, which was our Times Square, in a way? And while living in a hotel in Plaza de Mayo, he wrote Martín Fierro. Martín Fierro is an octo-syllable rhymed versed poem in which he tells the story about a gaucho called Martín Fierro. It’s very fake because obviously gauchos didn’t speak with this flourished language, didn’t speak obviously with rhymes, so it’s very fake. But on the other hand, it’s great genre because the thing that they created was a voice as in poetry. The use of language is important because of the sound, because of the written, not just because of the meaning. And I took a lot of this gauchesque even when, obviously, my play is not a gauchesque play, and I don’t have gauchos in the play. But I have some theories, for example this theory about character and I, part of this theory is that I don’t think in characters, but I think in voices. For me, it’s good not to think in character because when you think in characters, you are thinking of this person who is depressed, blah blah blah blah blah, but when you think in voices, for me, it’s better work because you are working with your good that is the language. You are working with language. So when I should construct this thing called character, the thing that I do is to start to put phrases, words, and paragraphs that I think this character could say. I work just with language and the voice of this character because I also think that when you are trying to construct the character, maybe you are putting your own judgement of a person, whether this person is, I don’t’ know, conservative, she should do this thing. If this person is not well-educated, he should do that thing. But when you are constructing a voice, you are just writing poetry that then will be a part of dialogue. So for me, it’s very great and much more inspiring. And the other writer that influenced me a lot, but not just me because I am Argentinian; being here I realize that he impressed writers of all over the world, is my beloved Jorge Luis Borges. He’s my favorite writer. I love him. In a way I feel ashamed to say that he influenced me, because he’s incredible and I’m just a modest writer. But I love him. And the thing that – for being brief, because obviously we can’t spend two, three hours talking about Borges, but for being brief, the thing that I took of Borges’ stories related to a playwright was this – I even try not to think in conflict in [Konstantin] Stanislavski classic theory, you always should put a conflict, where the character have this conflict because he is in love with his best friend’s woman for say, or any idiotic thing. And the lessons, or the thing that I take from Borges is to think procedure. For me procedure is a dramatic hypothesis around which the play is organized. For example in Krapp’s Last Tape by [Samuel] Beckett, another great writer that I love, the hypothesis is, I will put just one character but with two voices. How can I put a character speaking with himself three years before the day of the play, and that’s a great procedure. The idea is everything. Then, for me, it was – for writer as [Samuel] Beckett, it was easy to write a play because the idea is incredible. You put a very old man speaking with himself being a young 30-year-old man with a lot of dreams. It’s incredible. Then maybe he can talk about, really small things. Obviously, it’s Beckett, his text is also incredible. But the procedure is awesome. You have all the play with that procedure. So I learnt that about Borges.
Merrill: And you talked about voices and characters existing more as a voice than as what in conventional terms when you think of a character, and those voices include slang from Uruguay, from Peru. How does the slang inform the creation of these characters and the larger journey of the play?
Tenconi Blanco: Well, as you know obviously, we have a great thing – Spanish is spoken all along the continent, except Brazil and well, some small countries, and you guys and Canada. But for that reason, from Mexico to Buenos Aires, 90% of the countries are Spanish speakers. And you have a lot of differences between those Spanish, but you also can understand perfectly other ways of Spanish. And in the beginning when I start to be a writer, obviously you are trying to find your strength, the thing in which you are good. It’s a way in which you can start to create your own poetic. I don’t know why I thought – maybe I wasn’t right – I thought I was good at working with the slangs and constructing voices with the slangs. So for that reason, my first two plays was located outside Argentina, outside Buenos Aires, and outside Argentina also, because I felt that using the language in this strange way, I could be writing far away from me and it was very inspiring and very useful for my imagination. I am a very organized person so when I’m writing, I’m always trying to be far away from me. I am always trying to be obligated to connect to things that are impossible to connect, and using in a way, a foreign language, that is also my language, was very good trick to do that. And that was also very useful for me as a teacher. I am also a playwright teacher, and the thing that I saw when I start to be a teacher was two main problems. The first problem was that all the characters in a play of a beginning writer, all the characters speaks in the same way. And the second problem was that, it was maybe worst than the first, all the characters speak the same as the author. (Laughs) So for that reason, the hard work relating to the voice is really useful. And maybe in the beginning it’s really useful to use voice that is very far from your usual, ordinary language. It’s also good for learning things, because if you are working near from yourself, I obviously respect all this self-literature, but I don’t like that, because for example, if I am sad because a girl left me, and I need to write about that because I don’t know how to continue living because of this break up, and if I start to write based on my experience, it will just put my knowledge or my thought about the experience. But if I, for example, think well, now I am an 75 year-old girl or lady living in a town in Venezuela, and my husband passed away, and I am feeling alone. I am sure the play will be much better, and that’s the most important thing. If you are crying but you are a good writer, then you will stop crying. And on the other hand, I think that we will also learn more things about love, just because I should try to do this movement. So I really trust that work on voices is a good thing.
Merrill: And you move from writing plays to writing short fiction, like Borges, you work in many different genres. Is there a way in which the two forms shape your understanding of your work?
Tenconi Blanco: Well, maybe the strange thing that I start to do – in the beginning, I work really near from the slang, and then when I start to think that it was strange that I have as a writer, I tried to move to a different side, and the thing I start to do was to write theater, to write drama, but thinking that I am writing a different thing. Maybe it’s because I love books, but when I am reading theater, I hate to read these stage directions; they are really boring for me. So I start to write, thinking if this would be published any time, this should be interesting, not boring. And the first thing that I did was take out all the stage directions. And the second thing that I do after Everything would make sense was, well I will start to write as a novel, for example, and then I will be the director of this monster, so it will be a play in the end. And the thing that I am trying to do is to write in this mixed genre, because in a way, obviously I am a playwright, so I really take care about the images that the text is creating, about the sound of the words, and I am always thinking that this scene should be interesting for performers, because I love actors and I want them to love me, to continue loving me, so I am always writing for them. But at the same time, I love writers and I want to be a part of the table in which they are drinking beer. So for that reason I try to write as a good writer, not with all those stage directions, where I would put the furniture. No, I don’t want to put that on my text. So for that reason, from this play I started to work as if I was just a writer, a weird novelist. And then the director should do a play with that monster, and I’m also the director so then I suffer a lot.
Merrill: I was going to say that you were the director – (Laughs)
Tenconi Blanco: Yes, for sure. I hate my playwright. But I really think that the mixed genre is very useful. It’s very useful for literature. It’s very connected with the 21st century because we are always connected with three or five things. We are reading a novel, but you are reading another thing on, on, I don’t know Kindle, and you are reading a post on Facebook, and you are reading Twitter. So we are always playing in this maybe five different stages. And also it’s very related with theater, because in theater you have a lot of arts inside theater. You have literature, you have performance. I also work with music; and you have dance, because I also work with choreographers. And with stage design and costume design, you have art, and you have lights. So I am always working with mixed arts, and I really trust that this combination, this mixing is great.
Merrill: So before we wrap up this conversation, I wonder if you can tell me what you are working on now.
Tenconi Blanco: Well, it’s a nice story because I came here with an idea. I am a fan of American literature. So I came with an idea that’s on my notebook. Some days ago I was reading my notebook and I found it. On my notebook was realistic play number, I don’t know, 40. And then the idea was a director is working on the Death of a Salesman, working as a director with the Arthur Miller’s classic; and at the same time, his father who was a salesman has cancer. And, well, it wasn’t a realistic play, but it’s realistic in my way. You have read Everything would make sense, so you know. But when I came here, in a way I start to feel really surprised, or really encouraged about this literature that you in America have a lot, that is, well, sci-fi fiction or mystery fiction. It is strange because in Argentina, we have all in literature. We have novels, then maybe I don’t know, in a very small and dark room, you have sci-fi and mystery. (Laughs) And in this dark room I found my key, I think. On the other hand, I realized that some publishers here in America, because you have great writers of fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, you have great, great artists. But the bad thing related to that is that mostly when you want to read a foreign writer, you are looking for a writer who is telling his or her national problems. For example, if you were a writer from Syria, you should speak about the horrible Syria problems. You can’t be a Syrian writer speaking about UFOs for example. So with those things, my love and my fascination with sci-fi writers and my idea of not to be an Argentinian writer speaking about Argentinian problems, I transform my play in a very, very weird play. For example, in the story there’s a director working on the Death of a Salesman, and his father is ill, but the father will die three times during the play; and in a moment of the play, he will eat a watermelon and the watermelon will start to talk with him. And he want, as the director of the Death of a Salesman, he wants to be loved by his father, but the thing that he will do to get this love will be to save the world of the Third World War, because if you father doesn’t love you after that, well, it’s impossible. So well, now will be another very extreme monster. My producer will hate me when I get back to Buenos Aires, but I’m working on this.
Merrill: (Laughs) Well, we look forward to reading and seeing that play. Thank you so much, Mariano.
Tenconi Blanco: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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 iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; 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 July 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Finnish writer Henriikka Tavi.