In your story “My Sad Dead,” a woman, Emma, is able, to some extent, to communicate with ghosts, especially the ghosts of people whose lives ended violently or painfully. What gives her this ability when those around her are haunted by the ghosts but unable to do anything about it?
I don’t think that I know, or that Emma does. She is sensitive. Maybe it’s hereditary. Maybe it has to do with the fact that she is compassionate, and working in a hospital brought her close to death. I just wanted to portray a normal, middle-aged woman who is also a medium. Argentina has many such people, or at least people who claim to be! Most of them, unlike Emma, have specific techniques, offer you channels of communication, and charge you for the experience. And many are fake. Emma doesn’t think she’s special. She just has a gift that she doesn’t want to profit from. She’s also partly based on women in my family who claim to see ghosts, usually of their parents and siblings. To them, that’s everyday life. Just to note, I’ve never seen anything supernatural, which is kind of disappointing, since it runs in my family!
In some ways, this is a classic ghost story; in others, it’s more of a sociological commentary. The story is set in a middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood that is marooned between housing projects dominated by drug dealers and a makeshift slum. What made you want to link the ghost-story genre to this particular setting?
Yes, it’s both ghost story and social commentary. I look at all the people who die violent deaths, whether at the hands of the state or at the hands of criminals, in countries like mine where institutions are weak and justice has many hurdles to overcome, including corruption. I imagine them becoming “traditional” ghosts, the kind who appear again and again to ask for justice or just to say, “I lived. People cared about me. Why am I forgotten?” Also—and this is a common trope in horror fiction but still very useful—ghosts are an expression of trauma. Something that doesn’t and won’t go away. Neighborhoods like the housing projects and the slum I describe are populated by forgotten people, people nobody bothers to look for if they disappear. I’m thinking now, for example, of Tehuel de la Torre, a young trans man from a similar setting, who disappeared in March of 2021 and is still missing today. His story is not covered in the news: it seems that people just lost interest. He is one of the ghosts that might appear to Emma.
Is the neighborhood based on a particular district in Buenos Aires?
Not really, but there are many such places: the slum grows, and property values fall in the middle-class neighborhood beside it—the classic capitalist reaction—and then the middle-class people start to leave. So you see these rows of middle-class houses with “For Sale” signs out front and the slum looming behind them, and it’s phantasmagoric and sad, because people are literally scared of their neighbors. There’s crime in the slums, but there’s crime in the middle classes, too, though Argentina is not yet a very violent country in comparison with many others. But you see this transformation, and it’s really silly to deny it out of a wish to be politically correct: middle-class people are afraid of poor people because they are afraid of becoming like them, which is a real possibility. Oh, I do have to say that both cases, the shooting of the three teen-age girls and the murder of the teen-age boy, are based on real incidents, from very different and distant neighborhoods, and in different years.
Emma is at odds with most of her neighbors, who believe that the occupants of the slum and the housing projects are “a bunch of freeloaders and immigrants and miscreants and deadbeats, all expendable and unsalvageable.” She, like her neighbors, feels threatened by the robberies, muggings, and murders that are becoming more common, but she doesn’t blame the perpetrators in the same way. Why not?
The neighbors are utterly scared and also full of prejudice. They’re just repeating what they hear in WhatsApp groups, on Facebook and TV, and in all the stigmatizing discourses about poverty and the slums. The slums are filled with people who have been excluded and who have no opportunities. Some, yes, turn to crime. Not all of them. I think Emma sees the whole picture—the disadvantages, what it means to be desperate. The rest don’t. She has the same fear that her neighbors have, but she doesn’t share their xenophobia and prejudice. The extreme class inequality in Latin America has a long history and is among the worst in the world, sadly.
The ghosts seem to be condemned to repeatedly reëxperience their own deaths. The story obliquely raises the question of whether they are remnants of the dead or a product of the imaginations of the living, who can’t get past the trauma of those deaths. Which do you think is true?
I think both are true. Those, to me, are the factors that create a ghost. The guilt and trauma of the living, and the ghost’s confusion or its need for vengeance or at least acknowledgment.
Emma is capable of communing with the supernatural, but her voice is very matter-of-fact and down to earth. How did you develop her tone?
She just came that way. I didn’t want to make her the kind of medium who deals in gothic accoutrements, candles and cards and oils and such. Just someone who could be a grandma or a middle-aged mom. So that’s her tone.
Your novel “Our Share of Night” comes out this week in the U.S. It is also, in part, a ghost story. Is there any connection between it and “My Sad Dead” (which hasn’t yet been published in Spanish)?
Not really. In “Our Share,” I was more into heritage and the occult: family and curses. Now I’m writing a lot about ghosts, so I think this story is more connected to what’s coming next. All my fiction is related, anyway, in the sense that traumatic past events haunt the present in my narratives. That William Faulkner quotation “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has always haunted me, and I think it’s very true. ♦