The Sauna Series — Susana Medina

Susana Medina was born in the mid sixties in the UK, to German/Spanish parents. She grew up in Valencia, before relocating to London in the mid eighties. She is the author of the bilingual collection Cuentos rojos / Red Tales and the novel Philosophical Toys, among others. This interview was conducted in late October in a sauna in central London, where we happened by chance. 


Fernando Sdrigotti: Thanks for accepting to do this, Susana. I am aware that a sauna isn’t the best place for an interview, but then what place is?

Susana Medina: Yes, it’s a bit eccentric on your part, but the swimming pool in this place is fantastic. To what extent having a sauna is like doing an interview and being naked, sweating and detoxifying, I really don’t know. Let’s see what transpires! Interviews by email are good. There’s this little space at the back of the restaurant at the ICA where I meet friends sometimes, and have done interviews there too. God, it’s hot!  

FS: So, let me start this conversation by asking three questions… Why write? Why write in English? Who to write for? 

SM: It’s been scientifically proven that writing is good for the immune system! 

FS: Really?

SM: Yes. There are always many reasons to write. Initially, I thought that I wrote out of an aesthetic impulse. And that is there, of course. But I also write to share experiences and ideas, and out of a cognitive need. 

FS: What do you mean by a cognitive need? 

SM: I find I always learn about others, about myself, about how my brain and memory works. Each project would answer that question slightly differently. I write to play and spread playful energy. I write to make readers laugh, and go through all these different emotions and sensations, to move them. To share knowledge. And to contribute to politics. I might write to process trauma, to add something to the realm of human experience. Writing is always a way of challenging myself. I write to see whether I can do some magic. With time, I realised how writing transforms the writer. It’s a priceless way of gathering distance from experience and becoming someone else. It’s an alchemical process. Writing is alchemy and exorcism. I write in English because I live in London, and have now lived longer here, than in Valencia, the city where I grew up. And I write for whoever wants to read my pieces. More likely than not, it’s going to be someone who enjoys innovative writing. And you, why do you write?

With time, I realised how writing transforms the writer. It’s a priceless way of gathering distance from experience and becoming someone else. It’s an alchemical process.

FS: I have no idea. It’s just something to do. I don’t like many other things. It is said I have written more books than I have read by the way… But we aren’t’ here to talk about me — let’s talk Susana, which by the way sounds very close to Susauna… Well… As you know — I know that you know because you told someone we know that I was obsessed by it (I think you might have said I was obsessed by you…) — I am obsessed with your book Philosophical Toys. If I remember rightly, I called it “the most important novel to come out from Spain since Don Quijote… And it’s been written in English…” Now, I concede I’m driven to hyperbole, but Philosophical Toys blew my mind. Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it fiction? Is it short stories united by an overarching narrative? Is it all the above? What is Philosophical Toys and how it came to be? And more importantly, why am I obsessed by it? 

SM: Ha, ha, you make me laugh so. I wish I could write a novel as amazing as Don Quijote. I love Don Quijote, its inventiveness, laughter and sadness. It’s the only novel that has made me cry. Obsessed? I was very pleased you chose Philosophical Toys as Top Reads 2015 for 3: AM Magazine. As to how it came to be, I wanted to write a novel about our relationship with objects. I was doing an MA in Hispanic Studies, and started researching Buñuel. I was fascinated with how he froze images of objects, and how these became haunting or uncanny, which is something that can often be seen in surrealism’s rapport with objects. Then I realised there were all these female shoes in his films. There was pretty much nothing written about the subject. I was allowed to do a creative MA thesis, so the seeds of Philosophical Toys were born. All the research in Philosophical Toys is my own research. I see this book as a novel, though I don’t have strong ideas as to what a novel should or should not be. I like the idea of a ‘book,’ bound paper that can contain whatever genre. Books are such an amazing technology. 

FS: At moments it sounds like a memoir…

SM: It’s certainly not a memoir. When writing, the blending of the real and the invented is inevitable. Of course, it contains some autobiographical material, namely the experience of arriving to London as a Spaniard and living between two cultures. It’s pretty much fiction, and it came to be as a continuation of in-between-genres projects. With Philosophical Toys, I wanted this tension between narrative and creative nonfiction. I had an ideal reader in mind, one who enjoyed ideas, playfulness and experimentation. I’m afraid it was written for you. I’m proud of my readers (the ones I’ve met in person or online) and feel particularly privileged to have you as a reader, delighted, in fact — gracias for doing so much to spread the word about my work. Nina, the main character has adopted a different culture and language, so anyone who has done so, can identify with the emotional and intellectual adventure such choice implies. It’s a fascinating process, and I would hope anyone with a modicum of curiosity would find it so. Of course, there are plenty of references to Hispanic culture, English as a foreign language and writing in a second language, so it is also especially relevant to you. 

FS: There is in Philosophical Toys a very well-achieved balance between intellectual enquiry and sentimental interpellation. How did you manage to get this done?

SM: The challenge was to make intellectual enquiry close to the bone, as well as an emotional pursuit, and thus it springs from questions about the main character’s parents. So, she is emotionally invested in her search for answers. I thought there was some humour in making Nina pry into her parents’s sexuality, and become a philosopher because of her intense desire to know. Did you find that?

FS: I found that to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Because this exploration of her parents’s sexuality could be very creepy. And instead it’s done in a very sensitive manner — there is something reparative about it, this exploration instead of the traumatic encounter we always hear about… But I don’t want to think too much about parents getting laid… So changing tack, the book narrates the story of a Spanish young woman in London. I have known you for quite a while now and I find it difficult to distinguish the bits that are real from the ones that are fictional. For example, your main character is supposedly very tall and I don’t think you are taller than me (and I’m rather short). Or she has lost a mother and you still have yours and you have her here in London with you… How did you go about constructing this character that is made up of bits of yourself but it’s not you? And please let’s leave that horrible label — autofiction — outside of this sauna or I’ll feel dirty…

SM: When we write, metaphors that are deeply meaningful to us might take hold of the narrative. In the end, it’s all pretty much interrelated. Having a character who is very different from your own allows you distance and freedom, and it is the way a character is born, then maybe bits of self attach themselves to it. I made Nina Spanish, as an alibi for my adopting English as a writing language. The second I did this, bits of my experience as a young Spaniard in London grew into the novel. Humour, curiosity and a way of looking at the world, these are things I share with Nina. But she had to be single for most of the novel, something I haven’t been since age sixteen. She had to live in a council block, which allowed for social commentary. As to her parents, they grew directly from the treasure trove of shoes she finds, as did all the story lines. For her to get hold of her mother’s shoes, I invented a father who becomes ill with Alzheimer’s. Nina’s dad was a manifestation of a fear I didn’t know I had: My dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia when I finished the second draft. So, character also grows out of personal stuff you might not be aware of, or only, partially.

I made Nina Spanish, as an alibi for my adopting English as a writing language. The second I did this, bits of my experience as a young Spaniard in London grew into the novel.

FS: When I write in English (most of the time now) I find writing characters that exist in Spanish or that carry cultural stories too close to home very difficult. My feeling is that English speakers won’t give a shit about their stories, their plights. Do English speakers give a shit? Does it matter? How do you construct characters and stories that remain authentic and yet legible?

SM: Do you mean English readers? I suppose some will, some won’t. Reading is an encounter. It’s very much to do with timing, where you’re in your life, to what extent you’re open and want to be transformed by a voice. The challenge for the writer is to touch a nerve, to connect with the reader, and that will be through primary human emotions that go beyond cultural boundaries. 

FS: How does Philosophical Toys differ from Red Tales? If I remember rightly Red Tales is more a case of Cuentos rojos, as it was written in Spanish before it was translated into English …

SM: Philosophical Toys is a discursive novel with a thread that develops in multiple ways. Red Tales are stories that are interwoven with prose poetry. At their core, there is always an image. It’s almost like I envisaged them as art installations. Constructing a female voice, articulating a female gaze was important for me at the time. Exploring sex and dark emotions was also something I needed to do at the time. With Philosophical Toys I was mainly interested in the kingdom of objects. Everything in the novel dances around objects. In that way, it’s also a very visual work. Also, I found a new interest in plot, and how to build the kind of architecture that would make my ideas flow in a playful way, and hook a certain kind of reader.

With Philosophical Toys I was mainly interested in the kingdom of objects. Everything in the novel dances around objects.

FS: London is a great part of both these books. Is the London you write in Spanish the same London you write and think of in English? I find it very hard to write in Spanish about London myself. The connection between site and language is too strong for me. Did I mention I love London? It’s fashionable now to hate London but I love London so much that I got a London tattoo on my chest: look. Is London an important part of your work or am I here projecting my own Londonphilia? 

SM:  I was meaning to ask you about your tattoo! What is it you love about London? 

FS: I don’t know… Perhaps the feeling that if you invest enough energy in this city you get something in return. I come from a place where it is said that if they dropped a bomb the bomb wouldn’t explode because no one would give a shit. Perhaps it’s the same in London and I’m just idealising it because the quality of life and the friendliness of the locals… But since I first moved to this city I got hooked on it so much so that I don’t foresee living or dying anywhere else. When did you move to London? 

SM: I first came to London when I was seventeen, moved here when nineteen and fell in love with Its vibrancy, its multiculturalism, English eccentrics, the fact there are so many things going on all the time, and you can always discover new boroughs and special places. Yes, I’m afflicted with Londonphilia too. Although Red Tales was written in Spanish, it’s almost as if I was translating London. The mood, syntax and beat are very London. With Philosophical Toys, yes, it’s the same London, but I’d say its magic is not quite there in the same way. I approach it through suburbia, a council estate, the British Library. I was more interested in writing the chapters about Almería, which was a case of armchair tourism. I’d love to go! 

FS: Are you working on something new these days?

SM: I’ve been working on Spinning Days of Night for aeons now, with lots of interruptions, family health troubleshooting and the publication and promotion of three books. It’s about becoming a bionic woman, having a cochlear implant… sound, silence, trauma, technology and wonderful people.

FS: Why do you come to this sauna? I never expected to find you here of all places. 

SM: I love the pool and only use the sauna occasionally. Also, the café serves this really yum-yum carrot cake … Can I ask you something? 

FS: Sure!

SM: We both write in English when a large part of our literary background is Hispanic. My literary background is strongly European, as I’ve always read a lot in translation. Instead of certain English classics, I read classics from other European countries, as well as authors that only came to be known in the UK much later. While English readers from my generation fell in love with Thomas Pynchon, Hispanic ones found in Cortázar the foundation stone of experimental literature. There are so many great Latin American writers. Borges is, of course, a worldwide favourite. But there are so many Argentinean writers that are huge in Latin America and Spain and have had little impact in England: Córtazar, Sábato, Piglia, Valenzuela, Ocampo, Manuel Puig, Macedonio Fernández, Bioy Casares. How do you negotiate this legacy and the fact that our literary background becomes a secret of sorts which we cannot quite share with most English readers? The fact that Commonwealth voices have a platform, while authors writing in English from other cultural backgrounds have no such thing at all? 

FS: I think my “canon” is beginning to be noticed this side of the pond thanks to a renewed interest in works in translation. Some years ago I certainly used to feel isolated. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I first started to write in English and then launched a magazine with the intention of connecting with people equally dislocated from their languages. Although I’m not the most optimistic chap on earth I think things are getting better. Shall we hit the pool now? I’m beginning to feel dizzy!

SM: Sure! I’m dying to have a proper look at your other tattoos.

Susana Medina is a bilingual writer. She was born in the UK, grew up in Valencia, Spain, and lives in London. She is the author of Cuentos rojos / Red Tales and Philosophical Toys, among others. @SusanaMedina_

Fernando Sdrigotti is Sauna Editor at Minor Literature[s]. @f_sd

About the Sauna Series: Wherever there is a sauna there is a writer plotting a masterpiece. In this series we travel the world’s saunas and steam rooms talking to people of letters. The phrase ‘mutual backscratching’ is a cliché in the literary scene, but it has rarely been used so literally.