When her grandfather (and former Bilbao Mayor) was kidnapped and murdered by Basque separatists ETA, Gabriela Ybarra's family never discussed it. In 2015, she broke that silence with her debut novel The Dinner Guest, a gutsy and imaginative exploration of mortality and silence. The book was translated into English in 2017 and this year, it earned her a longlist nomination for the Man Booker International Prize.
Ybarra employs a fluid fictional construction to make sense of the events, memories and gaps in knowledge surrounding her grandfather's kidnapping in 1977 and mother's death in 2011. Her investigative style evokes a feeling of waking the dead and speaking their truths. In confronting trauma and the silence that can enshrine it, Ybarra offers us a glimpse at the unutterable becoming visible, the absent coming to the fore – and regenerating family bonds in the process.
Wilma: How did you react to the news The Dinner Guest had been longlisted for the Booker Prize?
Gabriela Ybarra: Initially I thought my editor was asking about someone else! It felt so big. When I wrote the book, I wasn’t even thinking it would be published. Of course, I hoped it might be. When all of this happened, my baby was only five months old. I was at home nursing my son, changing diapers and having such a domestic life!
What inspired you to write the book when you did?
When my mother died, I wanted to make sense of it. I went to therapy and remember telling the therapist that my dad had received death threats and had to have a security detail for ten years. She asked me how that felt; and I told her it had been always been a normal part of my life and so it didn’t affect me. At that time, there were many things I didn’t know about my family and so, there were many things I couldn’t explain. The threat had become so familiar, a part of my everyday life. Anything can become routine, even terrorism.
The normalisation of terror is a theme that comes across strongly.
Yes, it’s interesting how we can avoid thinking about it. You can’t let fear stop you so you keep going. We do it today with ISIS. In my case it was weird because I would go out, the sun shining, people buying flowers – on the surface everything was great. And it’s even more unsettling when terrorism is as selective as ETA was. Anyone thought to interfere with the independence of the Basque country could be targeted. As a journalist, my father was a threat. And terrorism selects symbols. He was the son of a public figure who had been murdered, so it was like a dramatic saga. My father had many brothers but he was the one who had a public profile.
Did you feel your father’s fear at the time?
My dad has always been obsessed with locking doors. He would say maybe we should add iron rods, maybe your sisters could fall out of the window. He saw catastrophe everywhere. I just thought he was eccentric, but his behavior makes complete sense. He was in the house when the kidnappers came. He was the one who went to see my grandfather’s body.
It’s interesting that when you were writing the book, you didn’t receive information directly from him.
No, I didn’t. My family would have never told me anything; they wouldn’t have let me write anything [so personal]. When I sent the novel to my father, my husband and I took a walk and my dad was calling. I didn’t dare answer. I remember the conversation with him in the car. He was so mad, so I was just listening. He’s a very small character in the book but he said he didn’t recognise himself. But now he’s my biggest fan and is so proud.
Silence seems to be the surprising protagonist in The Dinner Guest. Now it’s published, has it opened the channels of communication with your family?
It’s amazing how much we communicate through silence. For me, one of the most powerful things in the book is what is not being said. My dad was so angry when I first told him what I was writing. He said why did you write this? I didn’t suffer when it happened, this doesn’t affect us. Later, I think he began to realise that many things had happened to him that were not normal. It allowed him to express himself and be more open about his life, and his father’s kidnapping. Through silence so many traumas are inherited, so I think this process has been therapeutic for the entire family.
Something that really comes across in The Dinner Guest is the sense of private pain and public tragedy.
My mother led a very quiet life, but when she died there were three or four obituaries in the papers. I wondered why anyone would care about my mother’s death. It’s so hard to accurately describe people and capture their experiences. People wrote about her who didn’t even know her, which I found unsettling.
What amazed me most about her was the way she dealt with death. Around that time, I read the Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art. She talks about how she first loses her watch, her country, and then a person. But it doesn’t matter. When I read it, I thought this is my mother. It was as if she had been practicing her whole life to die.
As if she had been shedding things along the way.
I’m sure at times she was really scared, but I felt the way my mother accepted her death allowed her to die in peace. And even though he was in the worst possible conditions, I think my grandfather’s religious beliefs also allowed him to die with acceptance.
Sometimes there is this sense that we should fight against death or ask for a miracle. But they seemed to quietly accept it with humility. What interests me in both cases is that waiting period – the agony. One is the agony of illness and the other, the agony of kidnapping.
The threat had become so familiar, a part of everyday life. Anything can become routine, even terrorism
The line She found acceptance in the time it took her to eat the yoghurt on her meal tray is so simple but seems to perfectly capture your mother’s resilience. How was your own reaction?
I surprised myself because I enjoyed my last days with her so much. I never thought death was something you could enjoy because I had always assumed it to be horrible and dramatic. It was sad of course but there was also a lot of happiness and intensity. And a lot of love.
In the book, your mother gives you wonderful advice – to live lightly. Is that something you carry with you?
That is one of the most important things I learned from her. I would like to live as lightly and to die as lightly as possible.
For such emotional subject matter, you seem to maintain distance through a direct and minimalist writing style. Was that deliberate?
When I was too obvious with emotions, it became kind of cheesy. For me, it’s more powerful when they are taken away. When I write, I spend more time moving pieces around like a puzzle than actually writing. I sometimes feel like a detective in my own life, looking for clues to make sense of it. I don’t know how to say it in English, but in Spanish there is a phrase there are writers with a map and writers with a compass. I think I’m the one with a compass. I go on instinct.
One of the most moving tributes in The Dinner Guest is when you return to the places that were important during your mother’s illness.
I tried exposing myself to situations and environments, to write about what I felt as I felt it. It was an experiment. I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion just after my mother died. Initially, I didn’t understand it and thought she was quite weird! Why had she kept her dead husband’s shoes? But then I started to revisit these places – my mother’s hospital, for example – and thought wow, I’m doing the same thing. I returned to these places as an excuse: Maybe I’ll see my mother; this is the last place I saw her so maybe she’ll still be there. When you write, you find out what you really think.
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra is published on Vintage