By Julieta Lionetti
CORDOBA: Maria Teresa Andruetto is the first Argentine author to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, the “Nobel” prize for children’s literature, organized since 1956 by the International Board of Books for Young People and presented each year at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair. She lives in blissful seclusion at the “sierras” of Cordoba (900 km Northwest of Buenos Aires). She doesn’t own a cell phone, loves family, cats and dogs, and didn’t quite get what I meant by a Skype conference in order to interview her for Publishing Perspectives.
Born in 1954 amidst a family of immigrants from Piamonte, Italy, in what then constituted the Wheat Belt of the Argentine Pampas, Andruetto is convinced that her writing wouldn’t be the same if she hadn’t “grown up in a small town where the children of Italians weren’t seen as an oddity.” Arroyo Cabral, the town in question, was in those distant days the other melting pot of the Americas: Syrians, Lebanese, Turks, Basques, Galician, Jews, lived in harmony, striving to achieve (the later defeated) dream of “making it” in the New Continent.
“You write with what you are; stories are experiences you need to share after they’ve been washed by the waters of time,” she says. “A husband who suffered political exile, having to provide for my daughters in dire times, my short but meaningful exile in Patagonia, my contact with people of every walk of life, an early developed social awareness, are the fabric of my books.” That, and the influence of her father, an Italian partisan who found a way to leave Italy in 1948 when earning overseas passage in the post-war years was extremely difficult.
“There were too many people absent in my father’s house — the family left behind in Europe, the dead. I grew up in a house full of books, but what’d been more important to my development as a storyteller were the family tales endlessly woven at dinner, over and over.”
You should know: Andruetto’s books for children and young adults are closer to Louis Sachar’s Holes than to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
She’s also an award winning writer of novels, a poet and a playwright. “I don’t see so many differences in writing for children and for a grown up audience. Nor do I find any constraints in changing genres. They are instances of the same experience unfolding in stories that are unique. It’s the story I start writing that decides its own audience and I follow it, humbly.”
Text-centric, Andruetto does not work in a team with illustrators. She finishes the story and then she waits for the interpretation of the artist. “Sometimes, I choose the illustrator, as was the case with Cecilia Afonso Estevez or Liliana Menendez. At other times, it’s the publishing house that decides.”
Not surprisingly, asked about new technologies and the opportunities they open for children’s books, Andruetto downplays their importance as a creative tool. “I write stories and those stories get edited and then published. The container doesn’t mind because it’s external to writing,” she adds, as somebody so familiar with the codex format that it has disappeared in her eyes as a restriction shaping literary creation for centuries, just as apps will shape a new kind of storytelling.
Andruetto has been involved with children and young-adult fiction for over 30 years, but not exclusively as a writer. “It’s been a lifetime working from the grassroots, training school teachers in new competences, introducing contemporary children fiction in schools and libraries. When I was young, I thought I would be happy if I could write full-time, but now I know that I need these other activities to keep focus. Having all the time on the computer, I would start myriads of different books at the same time,” she laughs.
To confirm her multitasking drive, Andruetto is now involved in an ambitious project about Argentine women writers that is being hosted by the Universidad de Villa María, in Cordoba. “I adore this project and I’m so happy that the university has hosted it. There were many talented women writers in Argentina during the ’60s and ’70s who we are rescuing from oblivion. Due to political, social and historic circumstances, these writers went out of print, nobody remembered them and they are worth reading. Not only for their intrinsic values but also because we need to recover our past, as the family tales in my father’s house kept alive those who were gone.”
Maria Teresa Andruetto’s works are published by Random House Mondadori. She’s been translated into German, Portuguese, Italian and Galician and she sees the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and other prizes she’s already won, as an opportunity to reach more readers.