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The Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages was delighted to welcome Samanta Schweblin to Oxford this week to deliver the 2024 Taylor Lecture. 

Olivia Vázquez Medina and Ben Bollig provide the following account of the lecture and Samanta's work.

Samanta Schweblin (Buenos Aires, 1978) is one of the most acclaimed contemporary authors working in Spanish today. Her novel Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) was a finalist for the International Man Booker Prize and was translated by Megan McDowell (who has rendered all of Schweblin’s works into English). Her collection of short stories, Pájaros en la boca (Mouthful of Birds), and her novel Kentukis (Little Eyes) were both longlisted for the same prize. In 2022, her short story collection Seven Empty Houses (Siete casas vacías) won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. In 2021, Distancia de rescate was adapted for Netflix by the director Claudia Llosa and the author herself. Schweblin lives in Berlin and in 2020/2021 she held the Samuel Fischer Visiting Professorship for Literature in the Peter Szondi-Institut für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft at the Free University of Berlin. She has won multiple awards around the world and her work has been translated into more than 40 languages.

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Samanta Schweblin
Samanta Schweblin © Suhrkamp Verlag II

Beyond critical acclaim and literary prizes, Schweblin’s work is perhaps most notable for the pull that her stories exert over readers, and how enthralling the experience of reading them is. Anyone who has read Distancia de rescate will remember how intrigued, uneasy, and even scared they felt. Samanta is an exceptional storyteller: her works explore many sides of our problematic present from unexpected angles – but more than this, it is the precision in her use of language, pace, and technique, that results in our attention and our imagination being thoroughly captivated. Distancia de rescate deals with the very urgent issues of environmental toxicity and ecological devastation, but it is also a story about fear; as such, it is critically concerned with how this emotion is invited and sustained on the reader’s part. Schweblin’s work often focuses on the small detail, the apparently mundane action, which might have unimaginable consequences. For example (as in one of her short stories), what if in the mindless act of squashing a butterfly we were killing that which we love the most? What if we could use an ordinary object – such as a mechanical pet powered by the simplest technology— not only to allow a stranger into our private lives, but also to emotionally hurt each other in unthinkable ways, as she explores in Kentukis? In Schweblin’s fiction, the strange and the unsettling are found in the everyday; and, in turn, such strangeness reveals the oddness and absurdity of what we might consider normal and even inevitable in the real world. Moreover, her work also evinces a concern with how to tell a story, and this was precisely what the author explored in the Taylor Lecture.

Entitled ‘The Hidden Dance of Writer and Reader: Creative Tensions in Fiction’, Schweblin’s lecture drew a picture of how fiction emerges from the interplay between the writer’s use of language and the reader’s imagination. This is central to her conception of what fiction is and does. To a packed Main Hall and a rapt audience, Schweblin spoke about her own creative process, and the importance of working with – and at times against – readers’ expectations of setting, character, and story. After the talk, the author spoke to her many admirers and fans, including current graduate and undergraduate students, alumni, academics, members of the general public, and exchange students from the Universidad de San Andrés, Buenos Aires. Schweblin and special guests were then welcomed for dinner at Exeter College, home of the Alfonso XIII Chair in Spanish (Professor Jonathan Thacker).  

The Taylor Lecture is a prestigious annual lecture on Modern European Literature, delivered at the Taylor Institution in the University of Oxford since 1889. Previous speakers have included Lina Bolzoni, Harry Levin and Walter Pater. The organisers would like to thank Samanta for a wonderful presentation, and all those involved in coordinating and supporting the event.

 

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