María Teresa Andruetto

Acceptance speech

2012 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award winner

María Teresa Andruetto

Firstly, I would like to begin by thanking

  • Ibby’s team of directors
  • the organization’s founder, Jella Lepman, for her great contribution
  • the representatives of all the delegations here today
  • ALIJA, IBBY’s Argentinian representatives
  • the Honourable Jury who judged this prize
  • my fellow prize winner, Peter Sís
  • all of the institutions in the world who disseminate quality children’s literature, and particularly CEDILIJ, my head office
  • and all Latin American writers, illustrators and specialists
  • for their deep belief in their work, the joy they have shared, and the warmth of their company.

I was brought up in a village in the provinces, in a country in a continent which almost entirely shares one language. Despite its overwhelming vastness – we’re talking about the voice of over 450 million people – the literature of this continent occupies a somewhat peripheral place in terms of translation into other languages. However, this Spanish of mine – which gave birth to styles such as the Baroque and Conceptismo – is not one single language but rather a great range of variants developed in Spain and Latin America. These different ways of speaking and writing are hybrids made up of the voice of the original inhabitants and the contribution of Africans, Europeans and Asians. Whether they were enslaved, conquered, accepted or welcomed, they all permeated our ways of speaking and thinking.

The most important phrase in my house was: this generous country took your father in. I am descended from immigrants or, in other words, from the poor and the exiled. For as long as I remember, and no doubt long before, I heard stories about people who arrived in Latin America many years ago: men and women whose humble episodes took on a new relevance as the tale unfolded. I was brought up by a mother who loved telling stories and a father who had left his family behind in Italy and who retold the tale of travelling to Argentina and meeting my mother an infinite number of times. I was brought up on the Argentinian plains in a land of melancholy pragmatists, in a family with a great thirst for knowledge and a house where there were always books, and people told very detailed stories about the lives of those came before. Maybe that is why I am so passionate about finding the extraordinary in the lives of every one of us; about finding the extraordinary in life itself.

And so I grew up with a great familiarity with stories and books and the idea that we need to know a little about everything in order to live in the world. I remember the exact moment when I discovered – in a book very much of that era which I found in the family kitchen – that those little drawings called letters could come together and form words and that those words were the names of things. It wasn’t a question of literature; it was life itself which was presenting itself in that way for everyone to see, in every house and every family – or so I thought at the time. Many years later I realized that not all children had access to books and that is what caused me to take a certain direction in life: that of helping to construct readers.

Giving sense to experience: life’s beauty lies in the awareness of this need. Living consciously is about defending our own singularity both as individuals and as a people. There is much demand for books to standardize their subject matter and use of language, so that they all become slightly neutral, but literature always seeks out the particular, the real pulsing of the language and its ever-slippery movement. Editors from other countries or languages have often told me that my writing is “too Argentinian”. However, it is precisely there – in the language of the society that contains us – that a writer’s greatest challenge lies: that is his or her battlefield. And yet, the more deeply we delve into the individual and the less standard our writing becomes, the more difficult it is to export it. This is particularly complicated in my case, as I have written from the perspective of different types of Argentinian Spanish from my country’s various regions, not because I want to create a panorama of the many ways of speaking in my homeland but because my chosen narrator has demanded it. I always imagine a narrator and try to hear how he or she speaks, and then he or she opens the door and shows me the right road to follow. I have always experienced the act of writing as a defence of what is most deeply mine: I try to capture an animal made of words, with the hope of finding something that I can offer to others. I travel towards finding the right subject matter and the right way of speaking, since the greatest aspiration of any writer is to use the language spoken by everyone to construct a language that has never been heard before.

What literary tradition should a writer insert herself into when she is descended from Europeans and was brought up in a village in a Latin American country? When her mother never dreamed that her children would go to university, and she only had access to further studies because her country offers free education in public universities? What sources do writers for children drink from in our countries? The universal and the local, the Latin American and the European, the central and the peripheral, the classic and the contemporary, what is written for children and what is published for adults: these conflicts disturb and provoke us with a web of tensions where the greatest value is found in defiance, discomfort and a constant questioning, all of which stimulate creation. That is why it is so important for us to free children’s literature from its ties and corsets, to centre it around the idea of working with language, as I tried to explain in my book Towards a literature without adjectives (Hacia una literatura sin adjetivos). As democracy began to recover in my country, my generation started carrying one phrase and one conviction into classrooms: “Children’s literature is literature too”. However, in order for these words to ring true, we need to overcome the stereotypes, overacting and rhetoric which fill so many books for children: servile writing dressed up in new clothes.

I write in order to understand; or maybe in the hope of being understood. Writing is the road towards knowledge for myself, and maybe for whoever reads me too, as words can wake us like the sleeping princess in one of my stories. What I write is the fruit of my era, of my society and of my experience – not so much in terms of the adventures I describe, but because of my use of language, since every writer’s language reflects their convictions and contradictions, their knowledge and confusion. Words are where the battle is fought out, and they create a fissure through which we can reach a private language somewhere in the immense sea of the language of society; a fissure which causes the official language to stammer, a kind of counter-power battling against facelessness and hegemony.

Over the course of all these years I’ve searched for who-knows-what in many different genres and I’ve launched bottles into a sea of diverse readers, always believing that there are no closed-off areas between what interests children and young people and what might interest an adult. For me there is little difference between writing for one and writing for the other; in fact, I never think about children when I write. It is more about the desire to look at certain images “through someone else’s eyes” – images that demand an explanation from me, which resist being forgotten. Most importantly, when I write I confront all of my prejudices; I question myself and I would like my readers – whether child or adult – to question themselves as well, and to find themselves forced to take a stance. Writing is born out of intense looking and intense listening. Emotion is my compass and I depend on it, but I try to stay alert because often something distracts me or clouds my judgement and then I lose my way.

The history of art is also the history of human subjectivity, or the need to share pain, happiness or amazement with other individuals either now or in the future; to attempt to add a few words to the great story of the world. As for me, I would like to touch the heart of whoever reads me, to lead him or her to feel and think, because literature offers one of the deepest possible immersions in ourselves and our society – helping to combat the numbing of our consciousness. Literature is constructed from language, which is a social asset that belongs to all of us, and which feeds off the stories generated by the society to which it belongs. It is good to remember from time to time that we writers appropriate that common heritage and that in return it reminds us to pay attention to others. It asks us to look and listen carefully, persistently, imprudently and disobediently, not in order to give answers but to generate questions. There is some sacred connection between a writer, their language and their society. The link between cultural conditions and the aesthetic forms of expression found by an individual is a milestone on the road back to understanding personal or social pain which – in the alchemy of writing – is transformed into depth, harmony or beauty, just as our beloved Andersen transformed poverty or ridicule in The Little Match Girl or The Ugly Duckling.

In other words, writing is a road which a woman takes on a journey towards the essence of her own self and of her society. Discovering the essence of ourselves also means discovering that unknown part of ourselves, a voice that is fed and sustained by the voices of many other people. By searching for my own identity in the story of a boy who crossed the ocean, or of slum children who collect rubbish to sell, or of a girl who longs to live with her mother, or of a young woman who has lost her way – characters who are numb, upright or in need of love – I was therefore in some mysterious way searching for the identity of my own people. I have realized this in recent years, but the fact that this road has led me from that peripheral place to this institution, this context and this congress, and to receive this great prize, – the consequences of which I can hardly begin to measure –  is something that astonishes and moves me, and that I haven’t yet managed to understand.

María Teresa Andruetto.

Translated from Spanish by Cat Mansfield

Science Museum, London, 25 August 2012