| Don’t Write Alone
Notes From Class Javier Sinay Believes We Have to Make Our Stories More Complex
In this interview, Catapult’s head instructor, Gabrielle Bellot, talks with instructor Javier Sinay about a Latin American literary genre called “crónica.”
Next month, Catapult is excited to offer a new section of a course by the Argentinian writer Javier Sinay, which will be oriented around the Latin American literary genre of the “crónica,” a form that sits at many intersections: journalism, the personal essay, prose poetry, and more. Crónicas, as Javier notes, have a storied history throughout Latin America because they offer readers something unique, and yet this fascinating, flexible form is often unknown by readers outside of the region. Javier’s eight-week course seeks to address this gap, allowing students the chance to read a variety of crónicas and to try their hand at composing them, all while learning from an established cronista himself. In this chat with Catapult’s head instructor, Gabrielle Bellot, Javier shares his thoughts about what makes the crónica special and why it matters now.
Gabrielle Bellot: Your Catapult class focuses on the literary genre known as the “crónica,” which has a long history in Latin America for both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese writers. How would you define a crónica for someone unfamiliar with the genre, and what makes it special to you?
Javier Sinay: The crónica is a genre that is related to journalism, but while journalistic it takes the techniques of fiction to tell the reality: It uses scenes, dialogue, descriptions, plot twists. A crónica can be written from any point of view, including the first person (even for current affairs, even for breaking news). There are short crónicas and there are crónicas that result in 500-page books. Ultimately, the genre only has one rule: You Will Not Invent the Facts. With that said, the crónica assumes that reality is always told by someone and from a subjectivity, that is why the author’s perspective is fundamental and is something that we can train to be more and more original. The more you investigate, the more you will know about the facts, and therefore the more innovative your point of view may be.
Since it is a malleable, hybrid, mutating genre (for example, the authors Martín Caparrós and Alberto Fuguet have experimented with crónica-poetry in verse), the crónica has more than one name; it has also been called literary journalism, narrative journalism, the testimonial novel, a novel without fiction, etc. My class starts with a question: “How to identify a true story to investigate it and write a crónica?” In that question are the three moments of the process of a crónica: first to say, “This is the story I want to tell”; then to investigate it thoroughly; and finally to write it.
And what I find fascinating about the crónica is how these three moments influence each other: The identification of a topic directs the investigation, but a good investigation will probably lead you to revise your previous ideas and to make a new perspective on that topic, and everything—at the time of writing—acquires a final form, sometimes with a new meaning very different from the one you had when you started.
GB: What makes a crónica different from any other form of journalism or creative nonfiction?
JS: What makes it different is its evolution and all the style that its literary tradition in Latin America gives to it. The crónica was born in the pages of some of the great Latin American newspapers of the late nineteenth century, written by poets such as the Cuban José Martí and the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, who—though they would later become famous—needed money at the time and turned to journalism. These poets experimented with writing news: They said that the newspaper was “a laboratory of style” and that “every day is a poem.”
That “every day is a poem” interests me: At first glance it seems corny, but what Martí meant is that reality could be told in a new way, opening a new door of perception for readers. Half a century later, the genre became even more interesting when the Argentine Rodolfo Walsh published the book Operación Masacre (1957), a crónica denouncing clandestine murders committed by the army. Later, the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez would publish several political, irony-laden crónicas.
Today the crónica continues to be a political genre, although not always explicitly. But all of the above is now in the DNA of the crónica and makes it unique: its originality, its political criticism, its sense of humor, and a denunciation of what those in power want to hide.
GB: If you had to select one of your favorite examples of the crónica, what would it be and why does it stand out to you?
JS: It is difficult to name just one, but I am going to choose the book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. It is a recent crónica about drug cartels in Mexico, and it begins when the author himself receives a phone call from his main source, who tells him that there is a plan to assassinate him. Corchado finds out that they want to kill him because one of his articles in the Dallas Morning News affected the bribes that drug traffickers give to police, military, and Mexican government officials. And as he escapes for his life, he seeks to decipher the situation in the country, tells a story of the war on drugs that has turned Mexico into a big grave, and shares his own family history in an intimate way. It is an excellent work that combines a personal story and analysis of some serious political problems.
GB: How did you start writing crónicas yourself?
JS: I started in a natural way: In my twenties in the 2000s, I was a journalist, contributing to Rolling Stone Argentina , and I enjoyed reading the magazines Gatopardo and Etiqueta Negra (which had wonderful crónicas and profiles). In 2006, Leila Guerriero published her first book, Los suicidas del fin del mundo , and Martín Caparrós published El interior , a crónica about life in some Argentine provinces. Those two books captivated me and from that moment I only wanted to write and read chronicles—something that, in fact, was not very different from what I had been doing in my own journalism . . . I just didn’t know it had that name.
In 2008 I had the chance to write a story for Gatopardo about a school shooting in a city called Carmen de Patagones. It was a hard, painful story, and my editor was Leila Guerriero. In 2009 I published my first book, Sangre joven: Matar y morir antes de la adultez (Young Blood: Killing and Dying Before Adulthood ), with six crónicas on the crimes of teenagers and twentysomethings. The goal was not only to narrate six murders but also to make a portrait of my generation. In my second book, The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America (2013), researching twenty-two homicides that occurred between 1889 and 1906 allowed me to tell a family story of migration and resilience. A crónica, as I say to my students, must tell a story that is bigger than itself.
GB: Crónicas can be intensely personal, and they can also be very playful, as in the crónicas of Clarice Lispector; Lispector’s crónicas sometimes pushed the boundaries of nonfiction and fiction. In 2022, though, there seems to be such a high demand for simple, unadorned facts in journalism—that is, for presenting a clear truth, as opposed to, say, a dangerous conspiracy theory. A crónica can do this, but they are often more complicated than a simple retelling of facts. Why do you think it’s important for us—as readers, journalists, and writers—to study the crónica today, in 2022?
JS: In an era of fake news and immediacy, there are few things more necessary than stopping for a minute to understand the context of what is happening and to empathize with others. The crónica is about exactly that: creating meaning and approaching an experience. The telling of the events comes to us through an author who can never be 100 percent objective because the author narrates from their own subjectivity, yet they can also be 100 percent honest. The author can be honest when threading a story that shows points of tension and contradictions. The crónica avoids showing a world of good guys and bad guys: human beings are three-dimensional and complicated.
The task, then, for a crónica is to understand why what happened happened and to make the reader not be taken for a fool with simple tales. I believe that there is always something new to say, but before saying it you have to know how to look around: In the chaos of reality, things happen simultaneously, mixing, and we are the ones who order them in chains of cause and consequence. Thus, many times without thinking, we create plots. A new look is an unprecedented appreciation, even on a known subject. The stories we don’t forget are made with the clay of empathy, tension, detail, and ideas that leave us moved.
We have to make our stories more complex. As Leila Guerriero said: “There are stories that cannot be told in a short space; the crónica is for these complex realities.” I start my workshops talking about the power of stories because sometimes as journalists we are set on doing purely informative writing, but underneath there is always a human story, with subtleties, and that is what allows the information to reach the public. Stories matter.
GB: When critics outside of Latin America talk about the region’s literary traditions, it’s very common for them to focus on twentieth-century fiction and poetry, particularly the so-called Latin American Boom period exemplified by writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and other novelists. While the crónica has received some attention, it’s not nearly as widely known. With the recent surge in interest in personal essays and memoir in North America, do you think the crónica will finally get the critical attention that it deserves as a powerful, fascinating Latin American genre?
JS: It would be great if it finally happens. Personal essays and memoirs share so much with crónicas. After all, the crónica never stops asking itself how to incorporate a deep point of view in a journalistic investigation. The point of view, the look of an author, is what unites cronistas with essayists and memoirists. If art is a way of referring to reality, the challenge of the crónica, or rather one of its many challenges, is to make writing about reality, even in a newspaper, an art.
The good news is that there are more and more crónicas translated into English. In my Catapult class we read some of the best: Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre , Gabriel García Márquez’s I Can’t Think of Any Title , Martín Caparrós’s Hunger , Leila Guerriero’s The Trace in the Bones , Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo , Julio Villanueva Chang’s Señor Socket and the Señora from the Café , Gabriela Wiener’s Sexographies , Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico , Diego Enrique Osorno’s Carlos Slim , Óscar Martínez’s The Hollywood Kid , Joseph Zárate’s An Ounce of Gold and Máxima Acuña Atalaya , and many more.