Orphan Worlds: An Interview with Giuseppe Caputo — Silvia Rothlisberger

An Orphan World is Giuseppe Caputo’s first novel and it tells the love story of two men: a father and his queer son who live in hopeless poverty in the heart of the dark zone, a neighbourhood sandwiched between the city and the sea which has no streetlights. Written originally in Spanish and translated into English by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock, the book jolts between the son’s two realities: his relationship with his impoverish and depressed father, and his relationship with his own body, his sexuality, and the queer scene of the city. Giuseppe’s device is to jump from one reality to the other: we cut between the son trying to feed his depressed father to then being in the next room in chat roulette seeing another man’s erection in front of the screen. Or from telling off his father for not getting out of bed to being in a sauna drew towards another naked man who ends up being his own reflection in a mirror. 

Giuseppe Caputo was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1982. He studied creative writing at New York University and he specialised in queer and gender studies. Caputo wrote four books that he didn’t want to publish before writing An Orphan World — three of them are poetry collections. When I ask him about moving from poetry to writing a novel he says: “I don’t find myself dividing genres like poetry and prose. I think prose writers should be poets, and with this I mean that we should always think about the exact words and take care of the musicality of the prose.” Caputo now teaches creative writing at the Instituto Caro Cuervo in Bogotá. 

In An Orphan World everything happens at night, why did you choose the night as the setting for your novel?

The night represents inner encounters, mystic encounters. But also, it represents moments of exteriority: the party, a space of dance, sex and outburst. So I wanted to locate the story between these two polarities. 

The son is a queer young man who bounces between his relationship with his father, and his relationship with his own sexuality and the queer scene of the city in night clubs, saunas and online chats. Tell me about this character…

The book is called An Orphan World as there are a lot of orphanhoods: an economic orphanhood, a political orphanhood, a social orphanhood. Then, the son becomes the father of his father at a very young age and he doesn’t have anyone to take care of him.

His exploration of his sexuality and all the sex scenes are there because the only thing he has is his desire. All the material things he doesn’t have, he’s trying to come and replace all that with desire, desire is his weapon, his power.

The father has all these hilarious and sometimes even surreal ideas to earn money. The talking house is one of these ideas, which is in fact the name of one chapter in the book.  The father is really funny at the beginning but then he becomes a really sad character. Tell us about this character… 

The father is very naïve, he doesn’t have the capacity to insert himself into the capitalistic dynamics, all the ideas he has towards money are always based on that he wants to take care, for example, of the neighbours. 

Like the shop. 

Exactly! Like the shop. He wants to take care of the neighbours so that it’s not a competition but it’s something that works for everyone. And obviously the son feels that his father’s mentality is impoverishing them even more.

“The shop… was called Nibbles and we only opened at night, since my dad didn’t want to steal – that’s the word he used – hard-won customers from neighbouring shops. ‘Friends, not competitors’.”

And that specific chapter “The Talking House” is about violence. I had this idea by Simone Weil that violence is a force that converts people into objects, objects with souls. The arc of the chapter is that what the objects of the house say, are things that the people that were recently killed could have said during the massacre. That chapter at the beginning has a lot of humour but then violence happens and violence cuts and breaks everything. And that humour becomes something else.

It’s a brutal scene but it’s also a short scene. I didn’t want the reader to turn away because it’s the moment when they should leave their eyes open.

This massacre that you mention is an extremely visually violent homophobic attack that takes a massive toll in the neighbourhood. Everyone leaves, except the father and son who have nowhere else to go. Was this episode inspired in a real event?

It’s inspired unfortunately in a lot of tragic events in Colombia, where people are not just killed but they are also stigmatized and exposed in public areas. Like a sort of spectacularity around violence and that spectacularization of violence is a way of making it invisible because the more spectacular it is and the more visual it is the more you want to turn away. I wanted the main characters to have to stare to that violent act very closely because we’re accustomed to look at violence from a very safe position like in a very distant way, that’s a way of protecting yourself from what you’re seeing. And I’m remembering this quote by Freud about violence, it goes something like “people turn their eyes away or close their eyes the moments when they should leave them open”. This brutal act in the book, I think it’s like five paragraphs long. It’s a brutal scene but it’s also a short scene. I didn’t want the reader to turn away because it’s the moment when they should leave their eyes open.

The people who did this horrible homophobic attack leave a message with blood in one of the walls: “Keep on dancing butterflies”

Tell me about this message…

Butterfly in Spanish-speaking countries is an insult towards queer people. And it mostly is an insult for queer people that look queer, or that are effeminate.  By the end of the novel that message “Keep on dancing butterflies” is resignified and it becomes a slogan to continue dancing actually. So Luna at the end of the novel says those words but in a festive way, in a celebratory way, it becomes another thing. And that’s an example of what the queer community has been doing which is to resignify the insults and convert them into something positive.

There is another scene in the book that has a strong impact in the young man as well, when he is walking near the crime scene one police officer asks, “How come they didn’t kill this one?”. Is there an issue that you wanted to highlight with this quote from the police officer?

Yeah, it’s basically how the police or the authority in a way has also participated in the crime. You don’t know the exact person who committed the crime but then the police come and they are laughing at the crime, they are not taking it seriously and they just say that. So it’s how the power is actually responsible for the crime. And how the homophobia also comes from all the people that are in power. 

“With their laughter, my hatred grows.

‘How come they didn’t kill this one?’

When I feel this level of hatred, I’m eradicated and magnified at once. I feel the violence done to me erasing my whole past and any future.”

Giuseppe Caputo was in the 2017 Hay Festival’s Bogotá 39 list of best Latin American writers under 40. What is this list about and what does it mean for a writer to be part of it?

The list is just 39 authors under 39 years that people should be reading. I position myself in that list as a reader mostly. And the wonderful thing about a list is that it always generates more lists. So when the list was out I said ‘Oh, but Margarita García Robayo from Colombia is wonderful, Fernanda Melchor from Mexico is wonderful, Paola Porroni from Argentina is wonderful, Verónica Gerber from Mexico is wonderful, Alia Trabucco from Chile is wonderful’. So, you start thinking of all these names that were not included in the list. The best thing about the list is that it always generates more lists, the list really is infinite.

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. Silvia curates the literary events of The Festival of Latin American Women is Arts (FLAWA Festival). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on Latin American literature and culture. @silviarothlis  

An Orphan World is published by Charco Press and available from their site.

Images: with courtesy of Felipe Vázquez.