DAMIANA’S REPRIEVE BY MARTHA BÁTIZ: OPERA’S REAL DRAMA OCCURS BEHIND THE SCENES
Mexican-Canadian writer Martha Bátiz is the author, amongst other works, of a particularly alluring novella, Damiana’s Reprieve (Exile Editions, 2018). With the backdrop of Italian Opera The Marriage of Figaro, the life of opera singer Damiana, and that of her family develop amidst sibling rivalry and a family mystery that relentlessly pulls the reader in. After devouring Damiana’s story during the recent Edmonton heatwave, I caught up with Martha, who generously shared her fascinating life story with the audience of The Miramichi Reader. Below are her insights about her life and work as a Latin American writer living –and working, in Canada.
Thanks for agreeing to my questions about your novel Damiana’s Reprieve today, Martha! When and how did the idea for your novella occur to you?
This is a story that I built in my head for years before I started putting it down in writing. I was still single and living in Mexico City, and taking singing lessons. I was a professional actress then, working on stage and on telenovelas, but I was still young enough to entertain the crazy idea of becoming a singer. Needless to say, the enormous personal sacrifice that needs to be done in order to have a successful singing career put me off, but I loved learning those singing and breathing techniques, trying my voice at certain arias (some of them from The Marriage of Figaro, which is the opera that plays an important role in my novella). I had the privilege of being backstage at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, our national opera house, during a performance of La Bohème, starring my dear friend Roland Villazón, back when his stellar career was only starting. I saw how he prepared for singing and witnessed the entire process behind the curtain (getting dressed, putting on make-up and wigs). This, of course, was golden material for the first half of the novella, and without Rolando’s kindness for sneaking me in as he did, the book would never have been as truthful as it is. I also had support from other opera experts and critics, just to make sure that every detail was true to life. I was very privileged that way. I made tons of notes and had a couple of attempts at a beginning, but then I got married, moved from Mexico to the United States, got pregnant with twins, and my writing had to be put on hold. But I never stopped thinking about it, the characters were with me all along, and by the time I arrived in Canada, they were ready to come out into the world.
The complete first draft of this novella was written at the Muskoka Novel Marathon a couple of weeks after we landed as immigrants in Canada. Our furniture had not even arrived yet, I had no idea what Muskoka was or how to get there, but I knew they were offering the chance to write a book on a weekend, and I was yearning for that opportunity. I needed time alone to focus and write. The story was complete in my head. I wrote it in Spanish, which was a rarity at the novel marathon (I believe a Mexican on the premises was a rarity, too, but everyone was very nice to me and welcoming). And after that, I worked on edits and kept on working on it while I did my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto. It was a very long process as my husband travelled a lot for work and I was often left alone to care for our daughters, who were three years old then, and I was a graduate student who had to commute to campus and who had a teaching load, on top of that. But I’m happy I never let that stop me from pursuing my dream of finishing this book.
Why Damiana’s Reprieve?
The novella is titled “Boca de Lobo” in Spanish, and it had a first edition in English in 2009 titled “The Wolf’s Mouth,” which is closer to the original. There were issues with the distribution of that book at the time, however, so my beloved editors, Barry and Michael Callaghan, of Exile Editions, decided to give the novella a second chance at life in 2018, a year after the launch of my short-story collection Plaza Requiem: Stories at the Edge of Ordinary Lives (also published by Exile, and one of the recommended books by the CBC for short-story month that year). They proposed to title this second edition Damiana’s Reprieve, which I thought was perfect.
How do masculinities figure in the novel?
This novella was first published in Spanish in 2007. Domestic abuse was not something that was openly talked about. Not the way we do today. The masculinities in the novella are quite toxic, I think, but very typical of life in Latin America and of the opera world as well.
How does class?
The characters are artists (singers, musicians, actors), but the protagonist’s father used to be an ambassador, so this gave her a privileged upbringing which I used to build her story and personality. My main goal, however, was for anyone to be able to read this book and enjoy it, regardless of their love of opera or their knowledge about it. It has always been my desire to write in a way that is accessible to any reader, not just an elite, or a select few. So I tried to show that while many people think opera is only for snobs, or for rich people, the truth is that it’s an art that anyone can enjoy, and the people who make it happen are regular people who, like us, have challenges and struggles. If anything, I tried to rip off labels and show the characters with their naked emotions, hoping that the reader would be able to connect with them at a human level.
Were you familiar with the world of classical music and opera (High Art) music before writing your novel? Tell us a bit about your background and the research you had to conduct to write your novel.
Both my parents attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. That’s actually where they met. They had both been piano child prodigies (my mother in Venezuela, where she grew up, although she was born in Poland, and my father in Mexico, where he was born and raised), and had received scholarships to pursue their studies there. My father eventually became an orchestra conductor, and my mother was a concert pianist. They both enjoyed very successful careers, full of tours, recordings, etc. I grew up in that world, so it felt natural for me to write about it. In terms of research, I read memoirs by famous singers (like Renée Fleming’s, for example), and watched countless videos of operas, especially different takes on Marriage of Figaro, which is such fun to watch. People think that opera is this serious, dramatic thing, but some operas are incredibly funny, and Mozart’s Figaro is one of them. Not only is the music absolutely gorgeous and lively, but the plot is hilarious (and very brave, if you think about them staging this at a time when royalty ruled, and the royals are not painted in a very flattering manner). I wanted to see what happened if my character was facing a terrible moment in her life while she was singing a very funny opera, an opera with a happy ending (spoiler alert!). They say the show must go on, and I grew up seeing that in the flesh. When my grandmothers died, my parents had performances, and none were cancelled. That was a huge lesson for me. The audience was expecting to watch a performance, they had purchased tickets, and my parents never considered, not even for a second, to let them down and cancel. I wanted to see if my character had it in her to do the same. People think that musicians, singers and actors have this glamorous, luxurious life, and there is some of that, of course, but it comes at a great sacrifice. It’s not something that is often seen, and that is precisely what I wanted to offer my reader: a glance into what happens backstage before and during a performance.
Where did you want to take the readers with your novel?
To the world of singing, to the magic of theatre, to the reality of being a performer and having an audience to consider before letting your emotions run loose. It’s a world not many people know, or have seen up close.
How do you engage with Can Lit as a reader and as a writer?
I completed the Certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto at the same time I was pursuing my Ph.D. there, so I had the wonderful opportunity to meet many wonderful Canadian writers who were my instructors. I am a huge fan of literature written in Canada. Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, of course, are at the top of anyone’s head when talking about Can Lit, but there are many others whose work I admire: Lawrence Hill, Kim Echlin, Rosemary Sullivan, Dionne Brand, Miriam Toews, Tanya Talaga, Esi Edugyan, Marina Endicott, Michael Winter, Damian Tarnopolsky, Jael Richardson, Priscilla Uppal, Marina Nemat (who, besides being a former political prisoner in Iran, and an admirable human rights activist, is my son’s godmother), and my Muskoka-novel marathon friend, Christina Kilbourne, whose YA novels are our favourites at home.
I am constantly looking for new books by Canadian authors, trying to engage with their writing and to meet them if I can. I was very fortunate to curate an anthology of short stories written by Canadian writers, which was translated into Spanish (by myself and some of the students in a literary translation class I used to teach), and published by Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 2015. My dear editor at Exile Editions, Barry Callaghan, was instrumental in making this dream a reality. He put me in touch with several of the authors that were included in the book, who thanks to him agreed to let me/us translate and publish these stories. I owe so much to Barry Callaghan, and of course, I admire his writing as well. As a writer, I have been very blessed to find in Exile a publishing house and a home, full of friends who are like family.
What about your engagement with Latin American literature?
I completed a Master’s and Ph.D. in Latin American literature, so I am very familiar with its history and development. I read voraciously both in Spanish and in English, and am thrilled to see a wave of Latin American female writers taking over not only the most prestigious literary awards but also grabbing the attention of readers who had previously only been attracted to books written by men. Latin America has wonderful writers, of course, but no one can deny that the most canonical are male: Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz (all of them winners of the Nobel Prize), Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, that “Boom” generation that earned its place in our continent’s literary history. I applaud the huge efforts currently being undertaken to “rescue” the work of female writers who were contemporaries to these famous men, but who were not in the limelight. I think it’s important to remember authors like Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, María Luisa Bombal, among many others who passed away without receiving the recognition they deserved. I am a huge fan of writers such as Mariana Enríquez and María Fernanda Ampuero, for example, whose work is available in English and offers a glimpse into the enormous talent that is brewing in our countries. I am the founder and instructor of the Creative Writing in Spanish courses at the University of Toronto, so I’m trying to foster, in a humble way, a community of writers of Latin American origin who are now living in Canada and writing in Spanish. I am also in touch with other Latinx-Canadian writers who, like myself, are trying to keep their careers going in spite of the language barriers. It’s a challenge, but we’re growing stronger as a community and as creators, and I trust good things will come to us in due time.
How is the audience different in the United States from Canada in regard to Latin American literature?
I think the United States has an advantage over Canada for a very clear reason: Spanish is their unofficial second language. There are many more readers in the United States than here, which is also obvious, due to the size of its population. I also think that here in Canada there are writers who come from everywhere, and whose communities are larger than ours, so their work has more readers (at least potentially). Sometimes, labels are good, as happened with the Latin American Boom. Nowadays, however, the problem with labelling our literature is that it can lead to the creation of literary ghettos. I don’t know how to solve, prevent or address that. I’m just a writer, and a reader, not an editor or a publisher. But this is an issue that needs to remain on the table.
Having said that, we must keep working to gain a larger readership for books translated from Spanish, or written by Latin American authors. I think Canada is ready to discover that Latin America is more than just nice beaches, good food, salsa dancing and fiesta time. But what people read will not only depend on what we, as authors, write, but also on the market, on the publishers who decide to open their doors to us, and most importantly, on the reader who picks our books in the stores or online and actually reads them. There’s only so much that we can do. Can Lit is not an easy business, of course. And there are a lot of barriers and stereotypes that, as immigrants, we need to fight against. It’s no secret that we must work twice as hard as someone who was born here, and even harder still if we’re women. But we must believe it can be done.
Thank you, Martha, and lastly, where can readers find a copy of your book?
Damiana’s Reprieve (and Plaza Requiem) can be bought at the usual online stores (Amazon, Indigo), but also directly from Exile Editions (where Damiana’s Reprieve is currently on sale at an excellent price!)