Why do you always use the words North America to describe the United States?
It bothers me that the people of the United States have appropriated the word America as if they were the only Americans. America, in fact, begins at the South Pole and ends at the North Pole. When residents of the United States call themselves Americans, they are telling us they think of themselves as the only Americans. Actually, those people are residents of a country with no name.
What do you mean?
No name. They should find a name, because right now they have none. We have the United States of Mexico, the United States of Brazil. But the United States? The United States of what? Now, remember, this is said with affection. As I mentioned, I love North American literature. The only academy of letters I belong to (in 1982) is that of the United States. Critics of the United States are those who best understand my works.
But as a Latin American, as a partisan for Latin America, I can’t help but be resentful when North Americans appropriate the word America for themselves. As I see America, it is like a boat—with a first class, a tourist class, a hold and sailors. We Latin Americans don’t want to be in the hold of the boat and we don’t want the North Americans to be in First Class. Nor do we want to sink the first class, because if we do, the entire boat sinks. Our historical destiny—Latin America’s and North America’s—is to navigate this entire boat together. For another thing, Cuba is very much a part of this American ship. Sometimes, I think it would be safer for the Cuban revolution if its people could get a tugboat and tow themselves elsewhere—somewhere other than 90 miles from Florida.
Since we’re playing God with geography, what else can we move?
If one could do this, perhaps one could move rivers and oceans to where they are needed. Things are so unfair. In any case, it’s already been done, no? Half of Mexico was taken and moved to the United States. The United States did the same with Puerto Rico—for which we feel great nostalgia because it is a Latin American country. The same thing happens to many countries of Eastern Europe. I don’t want to appear sectarian.
Didn’t you take a bus trip through the U.S. South in 1961 as a fairly broke reporter?
Yes. I had recently read Faulkner and greatly admired him, so I made this trip by—what do you call it? Greyhound, from New York down to the Mexican border. I traveled by bus because I wanted to see the country from the small dusty roads that Faulkner described and also because I had almost no money.
How did the region look?
I saw a world very similar to my hometown of Aracataca in Colombia. As a company town built by United Fruit, Aracataca had the same wooden shacks with roofs made of zinc and tin. In Faulkner’s country, I remember seeing the small stores along the roadway with people seated out front with their feet up on railings. There was the same kind of poverty contrasting with great wealth. In some ways, it seemed to me that Faulkner was also a writer of the Caribbean because of the great influence the area has had on the Gulf of Mexico and on the Mississippi.
We'll be talking extensively about your work, but let us pursue this question of literature and politics a bit further. You are fascinated by the relationship between the two subjects, aren’t you?
I am fascinated by the relationship between literature and journalism. I began my career as a journalist in Colombia and working as a reporter is something I never stopped being. When I’m not working on fiction, I am running around the world practicing my craft as a reporter. It will interest you to know that I do every kind of journalism—except interviews.With interviews, the interviewer has to work much too hard. But to return to your question, what has happened is that I have, as a result of the success of my novels, this huge reputation—and, yes, I am a Latin American, and considering all that is going on in Latin America, it would be a crime not to be interested in politics. If I came from a part of the world that didn’t have Latin America’s enormous political, economic and social problems, I could ignore politics and live, very happily, on a Greek Island.
However, I am, indeed, a Latin American, and so the only choice I have is to be an emergency politician.