Sunday Spotlight on Authors Writing in Languages Spoken by Few: Interview with Basque Author Harkaitz Cano

by Alexandra Büchler

The second interview in our Sunday Spotlight series that focuses on authors writing in languages spoken by few takes us to the Basque Country in northern Spain.

Prominent Basque author Harkaitz Cano (1975) has published over thirty books of poetry, short stories, novels and comics, as well as books for children which are characterized by poetic playfulness, and a sense of the surreal. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, including Spanish, German, Polish and Russian. His novels A Blade of Light and Twist were published in English translation by Archipelago in 2010 and 2018 respectively, both translated by Amaia Gabantxo. He is also script writer and translator, and his translations into Basque include works by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Allen Ginsberg. He collaborates with artists, musicians and theatre people producing works for stage and performing his poetry. He is currently writing a court drama for Basque television. www.harkaitzcano.com

Alexandra Büchler: You are a very prolific writer in a variety of genres – you have published prose, poetry, graphic novels, as well as writing for stage and now TV. Where does writing for children and young readers fit in this wide range?

Harkaitz Cano: I started writing for children almost by chance: I had a somewhat naive idea for what I thought could be a short film and when my agent asked me if I had ever considered writing for children, it came to my mind that maybe that idea could be adapted and become a book. That was back in 2000 and the story was Itsasoa etxe barruan (The Sea in My House) about a boy who believes the kitchen in his house is under the sea because of its blue-painted walls and he insists on wearing a snorkel to breakfast. It’s been reprinted every year since and became my bestselling book to date, even considering all the books I’ve written for adults. Chance sometimes works for us. After that, I met a bunch of amazing illustrators who I fell in love with and I quit the idea of making films. It’s much more fun working with illustrators and we´re lucky enough to have plenty of them in the Basque Country.

AB: What are your children’s books about and what age are they for? Tell us about the characters you have created.

HC: ‘Age brackets’ are something very complicated for me. I never think about the readers’ age, my editor does. I guess I write for readers around 10-12 years maybe…? Some of them may even be younger. My characters are outsiders, people who have problems finding their place in the world. They defy conventions and rules. For example, Manu, the main character of Orkestra Lurtarra (The Earthly Orchestra) is a musician whose instrument of choice is something few would even consider a musical tool – the broom – and he forms an orchestra whose members have equally unexpected approaches to playing music. It’s a story about creativity, the search for a vocation, friendship and collaboration. The book is yet to be translated into English but they’re already producing an animated feature film to be released next year.

AB: What feedback have you had from your young readers, are they fierce but fair critics?

HC: They’re the best. I remember I wrote a little piece for a collection called Lotarako ipuinak (Bedtime Stories). For most of them, the plan was that children would read them at bedtime, but I thought it would be funny to write a scary story instead. So I did. I recalled one that my father used to tell me and it scared me to death. Some weeks later, my bookseller gave me a handwritten scrap of paper by a little girl saying: “Dear Harkaitz, Sorry but your story is not a bedtime story. Sincerely yours…”

AB: You have published in a number of genres, including graphic novels. Are any of these for younger readers and how does a collaboration on a graphic novel come about for you?

HC: In fact, the four graphic novels I published together with Iñaki G. Holgado are aimed at young adults and were originally commissioned by a comic magazine called Xabiroi that focuses on school readers. We usually agree on some characters, the genre (sci-fi, noir, gothic, etc.) and after that we work in an episodic way: I write the script for the first chapter (8-10 pages) and Holgado draws only that part of the story. From that moment on, his drawings become also part of the script as they help me to write the second chapter, and so on… It takes two and a half to three years to finish a graphic story of 50-55 pages.

AB: The dilemma every bilingual writer faces at some point is whether they should write for what may be perceived as a limited audience or address a larger readership in their second, major language. Have you yourself grappled with this question and what has determined your choice to write in Basque?

HC: Experience has taught me that being rooted in a certain community language is by far more important than the hypothetical scale benefits of a major language: is not only a matter of what you write, but the role you play there. Most of my books — for children and for adults— have eventually been translated into Spanish by good publishing houses, but I have rarely achieved the impact of the original language, not even among Spanish-language readers in the bilingual Basque Country. Why? Because I’m rooted in the Basque-speaking community and its culture. To me, writing in Basque is not exactly “a choice” but something that comes naturally. Not to mention that I write much better in Basque than I could ever do in Spanish!

AB: What, in your view, characterizes the Basque ‘kid-lit’ scene and how much of Basque-language writing for children or young readers travels into other languages beyond Spain?

HC: I can proudly say that Basque ‘kid-lit’ scene is bold and goes beyond the political correctness that has become so widespread these days. Unfortunately, and maybe on account of that, or maybe because our lack of specialized literary agents, our work is not very well known outside the country. Even in the case of our greatest authors (Mariasun Landa, Bernardo Atxaga, Patxi Zubizarreta or Juan Kruz Igerabide…) there’re many brilliant works by them still waiting to be translated. Among other characteristics, I would also highlight an acute and surreal sense of humor in much of our writing and a taste for poetry for younger children.

AB: Do you have any books for young readers in the pipeline or are you completely focused on the courtroom drama you are now writing for Basque TV?

HC: I’ll soon publish two illustrated poems with drawings by an illustrator I love. She’s so minimal, subtle and intriguing that we always have problems to find a publisher … One of the poems is entitled “15 Reasons To Be Quiet” and the other one “15 Reasons to Howl”. Two sides of the same story! It’s one of those works that blur the boundaries, and that can  be read by both for adults and young readers. Most publishers feel uncomfortable with that kind of book, one that can’t be pigeonholed in terms of target readership. We need more kamikaze editors. 

On the other hand, during the quarantine I reread Ray Bradbury´s Dandelion Wine. It was magic again, very inspiring and uplifting and as a result of that I took some notes for a new character. I already have an illustrator in mind … 

Next week, we’ll be talking to award-winning Maltese author and translator Clare Azzopardi.

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