Humanizing Politics and Building Bridges: Katie Brown's Literature-Based View of Venezuela

Katie Brown presenting her work on "Manifiesto: País," where she explores responses to the "prescriptive nationalism of Bolivarian cultural politics." Screenshot taken from the presentation uploaded on YouTube by the Venezuelan Research Network.

Katie Brown presenting her work on “Manifiesto: País,” where she explores responses to the “prescriptive nationalism of Bolivarian cultural politics.” Screenshot taken from the presentation uploaded on YouTube by the Venezuelan Research Network.

Inside the growing number of online spaces exploring literature from Latin America, Katie Brown's blog Venezuelan Literature has a presence all of its own. Her project is a careful collection of interviews, works of fiction from Venezuela, and more—all seen through the lens of a British academic.

On her blog, Brown promotes the study of Venezuelan literature, working to expand the public's understanding of the country's complex society and political history by learning about the local fiction. Venezuelan Literature collects and examines this important side of the country. Though she's never even visited Venezuela, Brown has used its literature to form an intimate connection with the country and its culture. Global Voices recently spoke to Brown about this relationship and more.

Global Voices (GV): You say that Venezuela, along with other Latin American countries are absent from the English-speaking publishing scene. What made you choose Venezuela and not any of the others?

Katie Brown (KB): Partly because Venezuela is such a large and rich country, compared to the other countries absent from the English-speaking literary market, like Ecuador, Paraguay, or Central American countries. Since [former President Hugo] Chávez came to power, Venezuela has also increasingly been the focus of political and anthropological research, so I found it strange that this wasn’t matched in cultural studies.

At the same time, I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the link between nationalism and culture, so I was drawn to Venezuela, given the hyper-nationalism that has characterized the Bolivarian government. [The “Bolivarian Revolution” refers to a leftist social movement and political process in Venezuela launched by Hugo Chávez.] 

GV: You've also said you were hooked when you read your first Venezuelan works of literature. What about it so attracted you?

KB: Victor Bravo talks of Venezuelan literary tradition as defined by the absurd, the grotesque, the fantastical, and a fascination with evil. I’ve always been attracted to the weird and the dark. 

I love different Venezuelan novels and short-story collections for different reasons, but there seems to be something dark about all of them. The black comedy of Chulapos Mambo (Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez). The beautiful melancholy of Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul (Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles) and La Enfermedad (Alberto Barrera Tyszka)two books which really moved me with their reflections on love and loss. 

GV: What stories are most commonly told in the Venezuelan literature of today?

KB: I’m currently working on an anthology of contemporary Venezuelan writing to be published by Ragpicker Press. We received over 100 stories, crónicas [a nonfiction story recounting particular events in social life] and extracts from novels, which present a huge variety in terms of both subject matter and style. We have noticed certain themes recur, though: mainly, lots of death and lots of sex!

We have several harrowing stories from the coups of 1992 and the protests of 2014, which really brought home the similarities between the two and the continued insecurity Venezuelans face. Economic insecurity, scarcity, polarized politics, and crime are common themes, but so are memories and nostalgia, and familiar relations. It’s bleak, but among these stories there is still humor, warmth, and resilience.

GV: What idea of the country have you been able to construct through these stories? What is moving Venezuelan writers to write these days?

KB: Above all, I think there’s a desire to tell a good story, in an innovative way, to move readers in some way. Beyond that, each writer has his or her own reasons for writing. 

For too many years, there has been a perception of Venezuelan literature as a failure, largely because of the absence of Venezuelan authors in the [Latin American literary] Boom, and the invisibility of Venezuelan literature abroad. As people now begin to leave the country and share their literature with their new neighbors, as small private publishing houses within Venezuela like Lugar Común, Bid&Co and PuntoCero are building up a reputation, Venezuelans are realizing that their literature does have worth. I think that is encouraging more writers to try to get their work out there.

GV: What stories do you think there are left to tell in Venezuelan literature?

KB: What stories are left to tell anywhere?! In Rating, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, the protagonist Manuel Izquierdo argues that everyone should just stop writing now as mankind has told all of its stories. I completely disagree. I’m constantly finding new, surprising stories—or ways of telling them—in all literature, not just in Venezuela.

GV: What other blogs about Latin American literature do you follow?

KB: I follow a lot of sources reporting on Venezuelan literature, obviously, especially Ficción Breve, which is doing great things to support authors, especially their annual Premio de la Crítica. Also Prodavinci, Qué Leer [What to Read], Letralia, and the one that I feel slightly awkward about putting in my PhD bibliography: Nalgas y Libros [Butts and Books]. I always recommend Guillermo Parra’s Venepoetics blog, where he posts translations of Venezuelan poetry.

GV: What other countries are absent in the English-speaking world? 

KB: Except for Eduardo Halfón’s The Polish Boxer, what little literature from Central America that has been translated hasn’t been particularly visible. Similarly, Paraguay and Uruguay are totally absent from The Three Percent’s databases of translations into English in recent years. Not to mention Spanish-language literature from outside of Latin America, from countries like the Philippines or Morocco.

More of Katie Brown's work can be found online at the Venezuelan Research Network. In 2014, Brown delivered a lecture about an axhibition that took place at the Central University of Venezuela, in which over 60 Venezuelan writers and intellectuals worked to develop “an idea of the country.”

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