“I had a feeling that the ‘hearer’ of my story was always very close, within the reach of my oral voice, as if I were telling the story around a fire”: An Interview with Karina Lickorish Quinn — Silvia Rothlisberger

Karina Lickorish Quinn is a British-Peruvian author based in London. Her debut novel The Dust Never Settles tells the story of Anaïs Echevarria, who left Peru, the country where she grew up, many years ago. The protagonist has built a new life for herself in London. Now engaged and pregnant she must return to Lima to sell her ancestral home, the notorious Yellow House. Throughout the novel we jolt between contemporary Lima, the rise and fall of the Inca Empire, and the civil war that devastated the nation.

I talked to Karina Lickorish Quinn about her book, bilingüismo, and how, in an attempt to pull against the Eurocentric novel, she was inspired by indigenous Andean and Amazonian stories while writing The Dust Never Settles.

How much of your own family’s history became part of The Dust Never Settles, if any?

The family in the novel is not my family. But I began writing the novel after the death of my grandparents when I was processing that grief. Their house, the house I had so many happy memories in, was going to be sold to be demolished and for flats to be built in its place. So the grappling with family memory and loss that Anaïs faces was influenced by my own grief and loss at the time.

Another influence from my own family in the novel is the interlinking of stories from migrants from around the world – from Europe, from Africa, from Asia. The history of my family is one of migration. If it weren’t for the brave or harrowing movements of people from one place to another, I wouldn’t exist. So telling histories of migration was important to me.

The novel deals with the history of Peru and, more broadly, that of Latin America. Can you describe the research process that went into writing it?

It took me years! I was working on this novel from 2013 to 2018. I spent a lot of hours in the British Library reading Peruvian history, anthropology, sociology, cosmology, and I spent time at the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú looking at ancient manuscripts. I read contracts for the sale and purchase of slaves, charter parties for boats carrying indentured Asian workers, petitions written for courts by slaves suing for their own freedom. I spent a lot of time reading the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the internal armed conflict trying to think about the ways the conflict revived ancient traumas.

I was careful to try to read beyond history books written by white western historians: it’s important to gather a diversity of perspectives and the history books tend to silence a lot of voices.

I also exposed myself to a lot of Peruvian art, music and literature from a diversity of periods because art can fill in a lot of the blanks of where written records stop. And photographs and old maps were essential: photographs gave me access to places and periods I haven’t been to (or had forgotten) and maps allowed me to walk the streets of towns and cities centuries ago!

Reading The Dust Never Settles, I could sense the influence of literatura indigenista, the literature of Latin American indigenous peoples, their history and their struggles, by authors such as Ciro Alegria (The Hungry Dogs) and Jorge Icaza (Huasipungo). Can you tell us about these influences?

The literary traditions of indigenous peoples in the Americas are so beautiful but so under-celebrated globally. I wanted this novel to be a mingling of the Anglophone literary tradition I studied in England but also the Latin American literary tradition which I so love. I didn’t just want to draw on the literary traditions that are well known through global publishing, though, like that of the Boom magical realists, however much I admire them. I wanted to draw, too, on the literary conventions of oral story-tellers, who I believe are the real custodians of indigenous literature.

The novel can be so Eurocentric in its form, and I wanted to pull against that. So I spent time educating myself on indigenous Andean and Amazonian stories and the way they are told, the language and rhetorical devices they use like telling stories through additive rather than linear episodes and by paying attention to the aural quality of the language. As I was writing, I had a feeling that the ‘hearer’ of my story was always very close, within the reach of my oral voice, as would be the case if I were telling the story around a fire.

Can you expand on the spiral-shaped structure of The Dust Never Settles?

Many readers will be familiar with the idea of cyclical time or spiralised time in magical realist literature and this was part of the influence on my arrangement of time in the novel. But a greater influence was the concept of space-time or Pacha in Andean cosmology.

Even though my family is based in Lima, I grew up with some awareness of Pacha and I think its concepts influence the way time is conceptualised and experienced throughout Peru. In Pacha, space and time are one (which modern physics now also agrees on) and it revolves, so that history is a series of literal revolutions or turnings. Within Pacha, all times that have elapsed in a particular space are always present in that space, which casts an interesting light on the idea that history is past. If the past is not actually past, what does that mean about the injustices that have happened? That is a key question I hoped to pose in the novel.

Trauma, memory, spectrality, the intersection of the domestic and the political are recurrent themes in your book. Can you expand on these different themes that bind together the novel? 

When I read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Sprits, I so admired how she told the history of a nation through the prism of one family’s genealogy. The story of every family, every person, is so intimately woven together with their geopolitical context: the domestic and the political cannot be separated. The domestic is political. War, commerce, epidemics, slavery, poverty – these all express themselves most powerfully in the personal (in the domestic) lives of individuals.

Growing up, I loved learning history, but I always found the macro-level delineations of legal decisions, strategic military events, and large scale statistics so depersonalised. History came to life when I understood what this looked like in terms of individual lives. So I felt the most cogent way to tell the story of the Peruvian nation in an epic way was to do it through the stories of individual lives woven together in a complex, messy family. And as I tried to get into these individual lives, I realised what I was doing was trying to revive ghosts. I needed the dead to speak to me and tell me what they wanted to say.

So as I did my historical research, I was always trying to listen hard to the silences. Who was speaking to me from the margins? Whose traumas and memories had been pushed off the page that needed to be brought back into the light? My methodology was one of trying to converse with spectres.

Most of The Dust Never Settles takes place in Peru, and though the book is in English there’s also Spanish and Qechua language. You are British-Peruvian and your experience of speaking at home is likely that of starting a sentence in Spanish and ending it in English. If that is the case, did you want to emulate that way of communicating in your novel?

Definitely. I love speaking Spanglish because I find it such a playful and transgressive way to express my hybrid identity. I even write in Spanglish, and I’d love to write a novel in Spanglish one day. In The Dust Never Settles, my goal was just to catch a little flavour of bilingualism. But I was also conscious that if the novel was to be published and read, I couldn’t entirely alienate the monolingual Anglophone reader, so I felt I was treading a tightrope and couldn’t entirely let loose with linguistic playfulness. The inclusion of Quechua was, for me, essential because how could I write about the injustices and oppressions in Peruvian history and entirely fail to include at least a bit of an indigenous language from Peru? I wish I could have included more, both in terms of amount and in terms of the number of languages represented, but I sadly don’t speak any indigenous languages myself!

In the acknowledgements of your book you wrote that The Dust Never Settles was a doctoral research project before becoming a novel. How much of your PhD played a part in its conception?

The novel is actually the bulk of my PhD thesis. It was accompanied by a critical dissertation that I wrote on spectrality in Peruvian novels about the internal armed conflict and I would love to turn that dissertation into a full length academic book when I have the time! But this novel is actually my doctoral thesis.

Karina Lickorish Quinn is a Peruvian-British writer and a lecturer at the University of Leeds. Her short prose has been published widely including in Wasafiri, The Offing, Palabritas, and the Journal of Latina Critical Feminism. She was featured in Un Nuevo Sol, the first major anthology of British-Latinx writers. Her debut novel The Dust Never Settles is her debut novel (Oneworld Publications, October 2021) and in Spanish as El Polvo Nunca se Asienta (Editorial Arde, 2022). Karina is represented by Seren Adams at United Agents. Twitter: @KLickorishQuinn

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. Twitter: @silviarothlis