Meet the 2011 faculty: Daniel Alarcón

Posted by on June 2nd, 2011

Daniel AlarconNew conference faculty member Daniel Alarcón was born in Lima, Peru. When he was three, he and his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama. He was educated in the United States, returned to Peru on a Fulbright scholarship, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s currently both a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and editor of [the Lima-based arts and culture journal _Etiqueta Negra_](

At Iowa, he worked on the stories that would comprise his first book, _War by Candlelight_, published in 2005 and nominated for a 2006 PEN/Hemingway award. Perhaps not surprisingly given his bi-cultural upbringing, the stories range from Lima to New York and often address the yearning the inhabitants feel for distant lands. For readers accustomed to equating South American writers with lush magical realism, Alarcón’s style marked a bracing departure. [As Brad Vice noted in his San Francisco Chronicle review](,

Alarcón’s stories are tales of urban street crime mixed with a social realist’s political sensitivities; his prose might be categorized as political noir. He reminds one of a strange combination of Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler, or perhaps that great portrayer of the gritty underclass, the now-forgotten Nelson Algren.

Alarcón’s _Lost City Radio_, winner of the [International Literature Prize from Germany’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt](, was set in South America, in a city rent by a recent war. The nameless locale and use of language as a tool of conflict give the novel “the portentious chill of fable,” [wrote Los Angeles Times reviewer Ariel Swartley]( Nonetheless, she noted, Alarcón’s story brims with specificity:

Like Orwell, Alarcón has a keen ear for the language of repression — the government’s secret detention center is known as the Moon — and he knows that the more shameless the severing of intent and meaning, the more effectively it takes our breath, and voice, away. His primary allegiance, though, is to fiction’s defiant particularity. He’s entranced with the precise composition of the flotsam on a winter beach, the boastful posturing in a dance hall, the eagerness of a new father to explain ‘to a passenger in the seat beside him, always a woman, that he was exhausted because the baby had been up all night.’ This country doesn’t need a name to make us feel that Alarcon knows it.

Even as Alarcón’s works represented a departure from the “ethnic” norm for U.S. audiences, he argued against such pigeonholing in the first place, saying South and Latin American fiction has always been more diverse than U.S. offerings indicate. As guest editor of [_Zoetrope: All Story_’s Latin American issue](, he said he was gratified that among the selections, “no single style reigns.” [He told La Bloga](,

There is no unified voice in Latin America, and I don’t believe there ever was — in a region this large and diverse, how could there be? It seems more likely that the dominance of magical realism was a function of external market forces, a commercial response to the powerful example of Gabriel García Márquez, a novelist so exceptional that most honest writers would never risk imitating him. Could one literary aesthetic really have reigned for so long in an area spanning the better part of two continents and more than twenty countries? Of course not.

Alarcón has published works in Spanish, presenting a collection of stories in _El Rey Siempre Esta por Encime del Pueblo_ and collaborating with artist Sheila Alvarado on _Ciudad de Payasos_, a graphic novel based on one of his first short stories, which had the equivalent English name (“City of Clowns”). [Alarcón told Granta](, “The literary graphic novel is an interesting way of telling a story and the form is largely unknown in Latin America so I wanted to expand the readership.”

Alarcón has dipped into non-fiction, too — [blogging about soccer’s World Cup for the New Republic]( in the summer of 2010, and editing _The Secret Miracle: A Novelist’s Handbook_, which collects ruminations on craft from more than 50 authors, from Edwidge Danticat to Stephen King. [In the introductory essay](, Alarcón notes, “It’s reassuring to be reminded that everyone works differently, that there is no single way to arrive at your destination, that, in fact, your destination is necessarily a very different place from anyone elses.” He states:

This book is not a how-to. No such book exists because it cannot be written. The caveats that would precede it would eb longer than the book itself, rendering the entire project useless. This book, I hope, is not useless. I hope it inspires, consoles, frightens, prods, angers, and excites many of you who pick it up.

If you’d like to be inspired, consoled, etc. by Alarcón live in person this summer, [apply to the workshops today]( or [check the schedule of readings and lectures]( to drop in to see him. Meantime, here’s still more to peruse:

– [Smithsonian magazine profile: Crossing the Divide](
– [Loggernaut interview: Daniel Alarcón’s Internal Migrations](
– [The Elegant Variation interview: Daniel Alarcón](
– Daniel Alarcón’s [Web site]( and [Facebook page](

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