This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Mariana Oliver and Julia Sanches, the author and the translator of the essay collection Migratory Birds, which is out today from Transit Books. In Migratory Birds, Oliver writes about historical episodes—and the experiences of various figures—as if they are personal memories. In the opening of “Normandy,” for instance, she transports readers to 1944 as “amphibious vessels slid out of the water like sea monsters and shook themselves dry” during the liberation of France. Meanwhile, in the title essay, she steps into the point of view of naturalist and ultralight aviation pioneer Bill Lishman, who helped guide endangered migratory birds: “It was like his body had multiplied. As he flew among the birds, Bill became one too.” Weaving vignettes from her own life alongside those from history, Oliver offers revelatory and poetic insights about migration, memory, and home. Mariana Oliver was born in Mexico City in 1986. She received a master’s degree in comparative literature from the National Autonomous University of México and is currently a PhD candidate in modern literature at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Julia Sanches is a translator of Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. She has translated works by Susana Moreira Marques, Claudia Hernández, Daniel Galera, and Eva Baltasar, among others.
1. How long did it take you to complete work on Migratory Birds?
Mariana Oliver: I wrote Aves migratorias in the span of two years, from 2013 to 2015, thanks to a grant I received from the Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas.
Julia Sanches: I translated the titular essay several years ago, and “Özdamar’s Tongue” a couple of years after that, during the pandemic. But the whole book took me less than a month to translate. By then I’d become familiar with Mariana’s voice and style, which can only have helped the fast turnaround.
2. What was the most challenging thing about the project?
Mariana Oliver: When I started writing the essays in Aves my writing experience was exclusively academic, so I felt insecure about my work.
Since I didn’t have a concrete project to work toward, much less any idea of how to plan a book, I began to write about issues that were on my mind at the time: home, migration, belonging, how memory is shaped, adopted languages. I had come back from a short stint in Germany a couple of months before.
From a distance, I started seeing a unifying thread; the questions posed in the book were all connected and addressed the same line of inquiry.
Julia Sanches: I struggle with brevity in my own writing, and Mariana’s style is so spare and directed that I found myself constantly striving to whittle sentences down to the bare minimum without compromising the voice, tone, and sense. I also spent a lot of time refining the opening paragraph of each essay, where Mariana sets the scene. For example in “Normandy,” where she describes the landings in a way that is almost aquatic, and “The Other Lost Boys and Girls,” in which she paints the ocean in a frightening, powerful light.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write? Where, when, and how often do you translate?
Mariana Oliver: I’m about to begin the last year of my PhD program, so I dedicate almost every day to writing my thesis. At the same time I’m compiling research for a new book. I make a point to add notes to my working draft at least once a week.
At home I have a small office space to myself, facing a window, but if I didn’t have to be at home, I’m sure I’d be writing in other places: at the university library or a café. While writing Aves, I rode the Mexico City metro almost every day, so I also ended up working on a lot of the essays there.
That said, I’ve realized that when I’m working on a piece of writing, I think about it around the clock, so I end up solving a lot of the questions raised in the process of writing while I’m doing something else: walking, washing the dishes, or cooking.
Julia Sanches: In the Before Times, I did most of my translating at a coworking space in downtown Providence in a bid to achieve work-life balance. Now I translate all over my house: I tend to start in my office, where I have an ergonomic, two-screen set-up, and migrate to the sofa after lunch. Sometimes I work on my feet at the kitchen island. Now that it’s summer and my new apartment has a porch, I often end up translating there, where I take the occasional break to feed a menagerie of our neighborhood’s characterful stray cats. Like Mariana, though, when I’m working on a project I don’t ever really stop thinking about that project. I carry around a small notebook where I write down words that I hear in movies and television or from people around me, as well as those I read in books, so that I make sure not to forget them.
4. What are you reading right now?
Mariana Oliver: I’m reading a book with a beautiful title: Esta herida llena de peces by Lorena Salazar, published by Angosta Editores. I’m also reading a book of essays by George Steiner called Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution.
Julia Sanches: My attention span has suffered enormously during the pandemic, so I’ve been reading several different books very slowly: Live; Live; Live by Jonathan Buckley, a soothing and beautifully written book about the relationship between a young man and his neighbor, a clairvoyant called Lucas; Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes, which I’m reading as research for a book I am currently translating that features a good deal of colorful cursing from its potty-mouthed ten-year old protagonist, her best friend, and her best friend’s grandmother, Chela. I’m also reading Divya Victor’s Curb, because I’ve vowed to read more poetry, and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Mariana Oliver: There are two Mexican essayists who deserve to be read more widely. One is Marina Azahua, whose writing is sensitive and brilliant. She’s published two books: Treinta ensayos mínimos ante el vacío and Retrato involuntario. El acto fotográfico como forma de violencia. The other essayist is Marisol García Walls, who has an eye for detail and contrast. Later this year her book Atlas de rasgos familiares will be published by the Colombian press Tragaluz.
Julia Sanches: My boring answer is that there are too many to name, if you consider the miniscule number of writers from other countries, especially those writing in non-European languages, that ever find their way into English.
6. What is one thing you might change about the literary community or publishing industry?
Mariana Oliver: In Mexico, without a question, I would change the gender disparity. Men continue to be published more than women. They have more public appearances and are invited to take part in more panels and juries.
Julia Sanches: Hire more immigrants.
7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Mariana Oliver: When I started writing these essays, a friend of mine told me to use fewer parenthetical clauses because it interrupted the flow of the text. Now, whenever I write, I pay careful attention to this and read aloud to make sure the flow isn’t being interrupted in any way. Ever since then I’ve listened to my writing.
For the English edition, Julia and our editor, Adam Levy, suggested a series of subtle but important changes to a couple of the essays; for example, eliminating statements that from a distance felt out of context. Throughout this process, I had to take a step back from the book and ask myself what aspects of the text no longer spoke to my current thinking and how the context in which I’d written had changed. The experience is similar to when you look at an old photograph of yourself: You recognize certain traits and, at the same time, others seem foreign to you.
Julia Sanches: I remember that Adam complimented a comma placement in the penultimate essay, and it made me smile.
8. What is the biggest impediment to your creative life?
Mariana Oliver: I need to finish my PhD and research, which doesn’t leave much mental space to do other things. Even though at the moment it feels like an impediment, I know that won’t be the case in the long run, because all of the ideas and questions being raised now will eventually find their way into my writing.
Julia Sanches: Making enough money to survive as a literary translator in the United States is…no small challenge. Trying to find ways to fix everything that is broken in the publishing industry also takes up more of my time and energy than I would like it to. All of which gets in the way of my creative life.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Mariana Oliver: My friends, my sister. Not only because I often hear their voices when I’m writing, but because they’ve always been the first to read and workshop my work.
Julia Sanches: My fellow translators, who are always fielding questions from me, and all the wonderful editors I’ve had the opportunity to work with.
10. What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve ever heard?
Mariana Oliver: Once the poet Dolores Castro told me that words were like doves: You have to feed them every day or they won’t keep coming. Leila Guerriero said something similar in an essay called “Writing”: “You have to knead the bread. You have to knead the bread with energy, indifference, rage, ambition, while you’re thinking of something else. You have to knead the bread when it’s cold and when it’s the middle of summer, when the sun is out, when it’s humid, when the rain is freezing. You have to knead the bread when you can’t be bothered to knead the bread.”
Julia Sanches: I learned from my colleague Charlotte Whittle to always pay attention to how sentences end. You never want them to fizzle, unless the fizzle is the point.Editor’s Note: Mariana Oliver’s answers appear in translation from the Spanish by Julia Sanches.