I first heard of Radio Ambulante while at City Lights Books several months ago, where author Daniel Alarcón mentioned it during a reading. I was intrigued by the idea: a Spanish-language radio program showcasing compelling stories from around Latin America and the United States. As a fan of shows like This American Life and Radiolab, I’ve always taken great radio for granted. But this kind of radio journalism doesn’t really exist in the Spanish-speaking world. Radio Ambulante is changing that. They have built a network of journalists and storytellers from around the Americas and will produce a monthly podcast of stories that can only be told in Spanish. I emailed about the project with Alarcón, now an Executive Producer at Radio Ambulante, and we talked about the art of storytelling and the power of radio.
Daniel Alarcón is author of the story collection War by Candlelight and the novel Lost City Radio. He is Associate Editor of Etiqueta Negra, a quarterly published in his native Lima, Peru, and a Contributing Editor to Granta. He was recently named one of The New Yorker’s 20 under Forty, and his fiction, journalism, and translations have appeared in A Public Space, El País, McSweeney’s, n+1, and Harper’s. Alarcón lives in Oakland, California, where he is a Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.
Nancy Smith: Tell me about Radio Ambulante. How did this project get started?
Daniel Alarcón: In late 2007, I was asked by the BBC to host a documentary about Andean migration to Lima. Naturally, I was intrigued. I come from a radio family, had just published a novel about radio, and the opportunity seemed frankly too good to be true. They sent a great producer from London who took care of the recording, and left me to do the interviews and the narration. I’d just come off a year of book tour, where you read the same text every night, and answer mostly the same questions. I felt my brain had turned off some time in mid-June, but then, doing this radio piece, I suddenly felt like I was thinking again. It was amazing. We spent ten days recording, and I loved every minute of it. But then the audio was mixed down and edited in London without my involvement, and when the final piece was aired, I felt a lot of the most interesting voices had been left out. We’d done interviews in both Spanish and English, and the English speakers got more time. This makes sense from an aesthetic point of view–of course the BBC couldn’t have 45 minutes of voiceovers on the air– it’s just that how do you tell the story of Latin American migration without Spanish speakers? That experience left me thinking about the need for a Spanish language space to tell Latin American stories.
NS: One of your goals is to “tell stories that can only be told in Spanish.” What does this mean for you? There is a lack of this kind of journalism in the Spanish-speaking world, and I also wonder what this means at the level of language and culture.
DA: I’m referring to stories that are by and for Latin Americans, where a certain amount of cultural fluency is expected, where we can delight in the details, the humor, the particularities of speech, of dialects. Something is always lost in translation; we know instinctively that this is the case. A Radio Ambulante story looks at Latin America from the inside.
A lot of attention has been paid in Latin America to the new generation of nonfiction writers, authors like Julio Villanueva Chang, Diego Osorno, Cristóbal Peña, Gabriela Wiener, Leila Guerriero, Cristian Alarcón, among others. These are writers doing important, groundbreaking work. So the talent is there, as is the habit of radio listenership, and what we propose to do is unite the two. We want to have these immensely gifted journalists–men and women who’ve already revitalized the long-form narrative–we want them to tell their stories in sound.
NS: Radio Ambulante brings up some issues of translation. I often wonder if I’m missing anything in a translation. Alejandro Zambra is one of my favorite writers, yet I’ve only read him in English. I’d love to know what goes into translation, especially with fiction, which isn’t just pure content, but style as well. Have you discovered anything in your work that simply can’t be translated?
DA: You’re right, of course: meaning can be usually be approximated, but often by sacrificing style. When I review my translations into Spanish, that’s what I’m most concerned with, reading the sentences aloud in Spanish to make sure they sound the way I want them to. To be honest, I much prefer being translated into Greek or Japanese; in those cases, you have no way of being involved, and no pressure.
Still, I’m a believer in the benefits of translation. It’s a necessity and a privilege–it would be awful to be limited to reading authors who’s work was composed in the languages I happen to have learned.
NS: It looks like you’ll have audio in English at some point too?
DA: Yeah, though we’re still working out how that can be done. We’re producing a bonus track in English for every episode–beginning with a great piece by producer Annie Murphy, but there’s a philosophical as well as aesthetic question that has to be answered: if Radio Ambulante is a Spanish language podcast, what does a Radio Ambulante story in English sound like? How would a Radio Ambulante story in English be different from a similar story produced by This American Life or The Moth or Snap Judgment?
NS: Because Radio Ambulante covers stories from all over Latin America and the United States, I wonder if you see any regional differences in the kinds of stories you produce? Any particular cultural influences that you’ve seen in any of the individual countries? Or are there commonalities?
DA: We begin from the premise that the United States, with 55 million Spanish speakers, is a Latin American country. And to be quite honest, those cultural differences you’re talking about are part of what I find so exciting about this project. I want to hear the diverse accents of Spanish as it is spoken across the Americas. I want to hear those stories that challenge and complicate accepted notions of what Latin America is. We’re working on pieces about the Jewish community in Guatemala, about Mexico City’s best gay soccer team, about a Colombian shaman caught up in a scandal because he couldn’t make it stop raining. The stories we’re looking for are both very specific and completely universal. Of course there will be cultural differences between a story from say, Cuba and a story from Bolivia, but that’s fine. It’s wonderful, in fact.
NS: You mention stories being both very specific and completely universal. The first episode is all about “moving.” Migration, exile, and travel, which seem like completely universal things. Yet we all have very specific, unique stories about moving. How did this theme come together? Will all the episodes have themes?
DA: We wanted to launch with a theme that everyone could understand and relate to, and stories started coming in that were all based on the idea of a move. All of our episodes will have a theme.
NS: I noticed that you’re also featuring fiction writers on the site! This is such a great addition to the journalism.
DA: Thanks! Yeah, it’s something we all agreed is important to the concept of Radio Ambulante. We are journalists, and we are storytellers, and we don’t see that there is a contradiction there. And of course, as a novelist myself, I was committed to the idea of including the voices of the writers I admire. I’m hoping we can someday put out the Radio Ambulante Anthology of Latin American Fiction, in print in both English and Spanish, and as an audio book in Spanish. That would be really exciting, and a fun way to get new voices out there.
NS: Aside from reminding me how rusty my Spanish is, listening to Yuri Herrera read from his novel reminded me how writing is so tied into sound. The element of the human voice feels so essential here, and being able to hear someone speak (as opposed to hearing our own voice in our heads when we read) feels like a more elemental kind of storytelling. More like having a conversation.
DA: That’s what’s great about radio, or at least about the kind of radio we propose to do. It can be almost like a conversation, that intimate, that personal.
NS: You’ve written about radio before in your novel Lost City Radio. What is it about radio that you find compelling? What can radio do that a book can’t do?
DA: Radio is the medium that most closely approximates the experience of reading. As a novelist, I find it very exciting to be able to reach people who might not ever pick up one of my books, either because they can’t afford it (as is often the case in Latin America), or because they just don’t have the habit of reading novels. Radio, or at least the kind of radio we’re proposing to do, can cut through that. It can reach people who would otherwise never hear your work, and of course I find that very notion inspiring. Radio stories are powerful because the human voice is powerful. It has been and will continue to be the most basic element of storytelling. As a novelist (and I should note that working my novel is the first thing I do in the morning and the very last thing I do before I sleep), shifting into this new medium is entirely logical. It’s still narrative, only with different tools.
NS: What have you been reading lately? What Latin American writers should we be reading?
DA: Patricio Pron and Samanta Schweblin of Argentina, Alejandro Zambra and Cristian Alarcón of Chile, Marco Aviles and Gabriela Wiener of Peru, Yuri Herrera, Diego Osorno, and Guadalupe Nettel of Mexico, just to name a few.
Illustration by Joshua Cowan