For Karina Lickorish Quinn, the marginalization of stories is a global reality, but one that takes on “its own flavor” depending on each context. For the Peruvian-British writer, fiction is a way of understanding the painful weight of history.
Her first novel, “The Dust Never Settles,” draws this process from a yellow house, the return home, and the dialogue with the ghosts of the past.
The story follows Anaïs Echeverría’s return to her native Lima after decades of living abroad. Anaïs must sell her grandmother’s house, but life and history will get in the way, sending the reader into a spiral of self-discovery.
For Lickorish Quinn, the process of writing her debut novel began when her grandparents died in Lima in a house full of symbolism for the author.
“The novel came from a very personal grief that much later became a metaphor for the national grief and trauma,” Lickorish Quinn told BELatina in an exclusive interview. “The initial idea came from when my grandparents died. They lived in Lima in a house that I loved. The house was nothing like the house in the novel, but the spirit of the house is the same, and it was being sold and demolished after they died. And I felt heartbroken because I felt like it was my last connection with them that was being lost and that got me thinking about grief and ghosts.”
As Karina Lickorish Quinn began researching her family history, she discovered how “we tend to tell the stories of European ancestors and then hide the story and any stories that might link your family to indigenous groups or any other kinds of roots.”
“They become some sort of black holes in the family genealogy,” the author explains, with the sadness of one who recognizes the extent of racism, shame, and “self-hatred” that exists in Latin America as a consequence of colonialism.
We spoke with Lickorish Quinn about “The Dust Never Settles,” the importance of knowing history, and the process of self-discovery through literature.
In “The Dust Never Settles,” there is this powerful reckoning process of colonialism. How was this process for you?
What really inspired me were my own feelings of sadness and regret that these genealogies are lost to us. And I felt very sad about that. All people and families in my history whose voices have been silenced. And I started to think, what would they want to say if the dead could speak to us? And I think that’s probably, especially because I just lost my grandparents. And I was thinking about talking with the dead and how we keep a relationship with them.
But then I started to research history. I started to see all these stories that, shamefully, I had no idea about. I didn’t know the stories of people trafficked to work on the Guano Islands in Peru. I didn’t know the details of African enslaved people’s lives in Peru. I didn’t know the details because it is not taught and not discussed. And I felt ashamed and angry, and I thought: “These dead want these things to be said.” So that’s really where it came from.
How was the process of creating the two characters in the novel?
I recognize I’m a massively privileged Peruvian person, both in terms of the family that I have in Peru and, also, I happen to live in Britain. So, I have the added layer of privilege from having a British passport and a British education and being in this country. One has to think about these things, I think, in order to even begin to see how we might rectify them because if we don’t think about them now, It’ll just continue.
I’m realistic about the limitations of what I do as a writer. I don’t have illusions that I’m changing the world. I’m not. Or at least not very much. You know, the people who are really doing a lot of the hard work are the actual activists. But I think the one thing we can do as writers is open up conversations.
I’m politically driven to write about stories of the oppressed when in many ways, I am not an oppressed person. You know, the patriarchy exists, and I’m a woman, for instance. But, for the most part, I’m a fairly privileged person on a global scale. So, writing without appropriating stories that aren’t mine is the challenge that I’m constantly thinking about. And my conclusion at the moment is that the way to do it is to write acknowledging my perspective on things. Acknowledging my position as a person of privilege and not trying to tell stories as if they were my story.
So, Anais isn’t me. She isn’t autobiographical– she is the lens of a person similar to me, with that level of privilege playing the role of an observer. But, of course, when you write a character observing injustices from a position of privilege, I tend to find that the privileged character becomes quite unlikable. Because how could they not? They need to have some kind of conflict or malaise for the story to work. There has to be some sort of conflict or challenge that they face, but they’re looking at all these stories from a place of privilege. So, they’re inevitably going to end up seeming spoiled or self-centered.
I think that’s what happened to Anais, that became this sort of fairly self-centered moral character. Obviously, she’s had her challenges, but they’re fairly minor challenges in the spectrum of life. So, if the reader notices that, for me, that’s OK because it’s true. Her challenges are so minor compared to the challenges of Julia or, you know, of any of the other characters from the history of Peru. And I kind of feel like that juxtaposition is important for the reader to see the ways in which people who are oppressed find agency and find the strength to live their lives with dignity and courage. Versus there are others of us, who face relatively minor challenges and find ways to stew in our own self-importance.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a novel about the Marañón river, which is one of the sources of the Amazon River. So, it might change because very early in the project, but I’m working on a hydroelectric dam, building on the manual and like political corruption around that, which of course, is a cause of massive concern for the whole planet. Because if our natural resources in places as important as the Amazon aren’t being managed and protected properly, it puts all of us in danger.