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The City and the Writer: In Montevideo, Uruguay with Melisa Machado

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Could you describe the atmosphere of Montevideo as you feel/see it?

Montevideo is a beautiful city, accessible on foot or by bicycle, with cars and buses but without big highways or a metro. It is a relatively small capital compared to Buenos Aires or other big Latin American capitals. Constructed facing the Rio de la Plata—the “river as big as the sea”—it has a bit of a melancholic air and at the same time is peaceful and bustling. Here, culture occupies a central place. There are many artists across various disciplines: literature, visual art, music, dance, theater, and more. Almost all of us know one another.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The inhabitants of Montevideo might not perceive the peaceful vibe of their own city. The possibility of walking through its most beautiful areas on foot.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are many, in narrative and poetry, living and dead. Of the legendary writers: Julio Herrera y Reissig and Juan Carlos Onetti. Then Marosa di Giorgio, Amanda Berenguer, Cristina Peri Rossi, and Ida Vitale. And the contemporaries: Roberto Echavarren, Mario Delgado Aparaín, Horacio Cavallo, and Mariella Nigro.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I tend to return to the vast beaches, to the Rambla, to the light of the East and the West, to the slow, maritime air of the port.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Some of the nightclubs in the Old City, the historical center, which used to be enclosed by a stone wall. Some small beaches, almost hidden. Some streams. The hills of Sierra de las Animas. Some neighborhoods, like Colón. Some streets that practically end in the water. 


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I like some of the streets in the Pocitos and Punta Carretas neighborhoods, where big buildings still haven’t been constructed and houses with staircases and shuttered windows are still standing, most of them created by the company Bello y Reborati.


Where does passion live here?

I think passion lives in each artist who believes in what he or she does—beyond the question of whether his or her art is transcendent—and who lives beyond borders. One tends to say that in Uruguay there is a poet or a musician on every corner and the truth is that it seems that way.


What is the title of one of your works about Montevideo and what inspired it exactly?

“Era el mar o el Río de la plata?” (“Was It the Sea or the Río de la Plata?”) is the title of a long poem, written about this river as wide as a sea, located at the foot of the city: her brackish water, neither salty nor sweet; her width, her waves—peaceful or choppy, according to the weather and the marine undertow; and how she continues into the Atlantic Ocean, toward the East, where one can see cows in fields that end in the sand.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Montevideo does an outside exist?”

Within and outside of every city there exists an “outside” that we use to orient ourselves and with which we dialogue, sometimes even against our will. Because what sense would it make to create one’s own discourse if not to reveal it to an Other who responds to it?


Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.


Melisa Machado was born in Durazno, Uruguay in 1966, and she lives in Montevideo. She is a journalist, writer, art critic, and therapist. Her books of poetry include Ritual de las Primicias (Ed. Imaginarias, Montevideo, 1994), El lodo de la Estirpe (Ed. Artefato, Montevideo, 2005), Adarga (2000), Jamba de Flores Negras (2006), Marjal o Animal (2008), Rituales (Estuario, Montevideo, 2011), and El Canto Rojo (Ed. Sediento, México, 2013, and Ed. Ellerstroms, Suecia, 2015). She has received various prizes for her poetry, including the Cuny/Mec (2010) and Fefca/Mec (2012) fellowships.


Eileen O’Connor’s writing has appeared in The Recorder: Journal of Irish American HistorySolstice: A Magazine of Diverse VoicesThe Women’s Review of Books, and Hippocampus, among other publications. She has translated essays, stories, and poetry from the Spanish, including Pez/Fish, by Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus (Nirala Publications, 2014); the young adult novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín (Simon and Schuster, 2014), winner of the 2015 Pura Belpré Award and finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award; and most recently a volume of poetry by Marjorie Agosín, Harbors of Light (White Pine Press, 2016), which World Literature Today chose as one of their 75 Notable Translations of 2016. A graduate of Harvard College and New York University, Eileen currently teaches writing and Spanish at Wellesley College. 

Published Aug 20, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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