Talking with Elena Medel and Lizzie Davis, author and translator of ‘The Wonders’
Elena Medel’s debut novel is set for release in 15 languages this year. AL DÍA met with Medel and Davis to discuss the work.
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Elena Medel’s debut novel The Wonders originally released in Spanish during the Fall of 2020.
Based primarily in Madrid, covering much ground across the Spanish city, the novel also spends some time in Córdoba. Both locations bear significance to Medel, who grew up in the former and lives in the latter today.
Now, the novel has been translated into 15 languages, and was published in the U.S. by Algonquin Books, and in the U.K. through Pushkin Press.
The Wonders was translated by Lizzie Davis, with Thomas Bunstead also doing translation work for the novel.
Davis previously worked with Medel in translating her poetry collection, My First Bikini. Davis is a translator and editor for Coffee House Press.
“I had the great fortune of translating Elena’s poetry collection, My First Bikini, in 2015, and fell in love with her work; had a chance to meet her in person and fell in love with her as a person, too,” said Davis.
Medel wrote My First Bikini when she was 16, and opened her publishing house, La Bella Varsovia, at 19.
Her first novel, The Wonders, explores themes of family, class, desire, sex, and womanhood through inner-generational storytelling.
Following two protagonists, María and Alicia, the novel focuses on a grandmother and granddaughter who have never met, living in Madrid where they exist in close proximity.
María and Alicia’s stories unfold over several decades from about the early 1970s to its present day — 2018.
When it comes to history within the novel, memory and the concept of being on the “wrong side” of history are considered:
“When we talk about history, big history in capital letters, we think about objectivity,” said Medel. “I wanted to write a novel based on history, common history related to the common people. In [The Wonders] we can rethink the history.”
The novel spans the waning days of the Francisco Franco regime, the 2008 financial crisis, and political protests of the 2010s.
Throughout, the reader sees the two characters navigate income, identity, and a sense of belonging.
Where The Wonders begins
Medel’s novel is the winner of the Francisco Umbral Prize for Best Book of the Year. With the win, she became the first woman to receive the award.
She is also the recipient of the XXVI Loewe Prize for Young Poets, the 2016 Princess of Girona Foundation Award (in the Arts and Literature category), and the 2019 Harper's Bazaar Spain Award.
Her novel begins, in chronological order, with María, but it was Alicia who Medel first wrote. Alicia first appeared in an earlier, separate story from Medel. Overall, the first chapter written was ‘Kingdom.’
The Wonders’ story begins in 1969 when María relocates to Madrid for work, leaving behind her daughter, Carmen, in the care of family members.
Intending to save some money and later care for Carmen herself without financial stress, María’s plan fails to deliver under the salary of a housekeeper and caregiver.
Medel’s novel explores money from several perspectives, including not having enough for yourself, not having enough to care for those you love, and having so much that you become a bitter person.
María’s life is split between work — consuming the majority of her time — and local activism through a neighborhood association.
She seeks solitude in her political activism, but even at meetings with the neighborhood association, her thoughts and ideas are overshadowed and even stolen by the men of the group.
As María works her way through life in Madrid, Carmen grows up apart from her mother, forming a strong contempt and distance.
Soon enough, Carmen has children of her own: Alicia and Eva. The daughters grow up without a line of contact to their grandmother.
Behind the characters: A chat with Elena Medel and Lizzie Davis
Reacting to the distance her family placed between her, María declines photographs of her granddaughters each time her brother, Chico, offers.
“She thinks that if she sees the photos, and knows the faces of her grandchildren, the grandchild exist,” said Medel. “Lo que no se nombra no existe… if you don’t see that, that doesn’t exist.”
As a reaction to the personal trauma, María rejects the potential to gain a renewed sense of belonging.
Her granddaughter Alicia grows up bitter, transitioning from a family of wealth to a family struggling on various levels after great tragedy.
Responding to her own trauma, Alicia often takes comfort in others’ hardships to mask her own.
“She has the consciousness of being cruel, laughing about other people, but people don’t know,” said Medel. “She’s mainly being cruel with herself.”
Alicia and María are both born in Córdoba and move to Madrid as young adults. Strained relationships keep the two from a formal meeting, opening the doors to their intertwined story.
While María and Alicia end up in similar routines, their common connection, Carmen, is an outlier from many traits exchanged between María and her granddaughter.
One glaring example is Carmen’s willingness to financially rely on a man, a noted aspect of her pursuits that goes against María and Alicia's vehement avoidance of the same.
“[María and Alicia]’s absences from each others’ lives do affect their lives,'' said Davis. “Each generation, regardless of how proximate they are… appear in the generations that come after.”
The story concerns the struggles of working women afflicted by unhealthy, negative working culture and financial insecurity, exploring how their character is affected by these factors.
Touched on often in the same settings, the women are both untrusting of men — their lacking trust propelled by in-novel interactions seen through long-term relationships.
When considering the most prominent male characters of the novel — Chico and the protagonist’s love interests of Pedro and Nando — they are respected for caring for their families, while María is disowned for doing the same.
“Motherhood is one of the centers of the novel,” said Medel. “When we talk about a woman who cares about her family, we think it's natural, because we have to do this. If we talk about a man who cares about his family we think it's extraordinary, he’s like a hero.”
Themes of protest remain present as the story centers further in on the 2018 Madrid Women’s March, where Alicia and María unknowingly meet.
In The Wonders, protesting is described as someone people need money for: “You need money even to protest,” remarks María.
The contrasts of the novel, juxtaposition between the two main characters, goes deeper with María and Alicia’s varying thoughts on the protest.
In a break from their similarity, protesting is everything to María by the time Alicia unknowingly stumbles into the women’s march.
The contrast showcases how María and Alicia differ by the novel’s end with María having found a sense of belonging while Alicia dwells in solitude.
Their meeting at the protest also reflects Medel’s structure, and a non-chronological story coming full circle.
To exemplify this further, the first and last chapter — which each feature the protest — are entitled ‘Day’ and ‘Night.’
“I wanted to make a circle from the first chapter to the last chapter,” said Medel. “The shape of the city is very important. If you search for the places where Alicia & María work, all the places are in a circle… The places where Alicia & María live, they live out of the circle.”
The Wonders, internationally
A year and a half after its Spanish release, The Wonders can now be shared across 15 languages.
Medel’s novel is a wonderful read for Women’s History Month this March, and with this week’s International Women’s Day in mind.
The debut novel from Medel has been a long time coming. The seasoned poet has been drafting novels for years, waiting until she found the book she was looking for.
When it comes to the writing of others, Medel’s advice is to be a good critic for yourself:
“There is something more important in writing than the act of being in front of the computer,” said Medel. “That is, the moment when you have the text… you have to reread the text, and rewrite the text, and say maybe, well, it doesn’t work."
To gain an understanding of one’s own work, a writer may need to form a relationship with their work that invites self-criticism, but strives towards self-actualization.
Through trial and error, Medel crafted her debut novel with a signature and admirable attention to detail.
The Wonders is available now through Algonquin Books.
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