The Expat: Maxine Swann

Who? Maxine Swann
Born: Pennsylvania, USA
Age: 42
Profession: Writer of The Foreigners (August 2011, Riverhead)
Education: Bachelor’s in comparative literature at Columbia, Master’s in French literature at the Sorbonne
Currently reading: Boyhood by J.M. Loetzee
Last film watched: Grizzly Man
Gadget: My Flip camera

How did you come to Argentina?
I’d been living with an Argentine for 10 years. We met in Paris then we lived in different places. He just did not want to return to Argentina but I had this incredible fantasy world about it. He had told me all his childhood stories and it was a place in my mind. I kept saying “let’s go” but he didn’t want to.
I met him in 1991 and we finally came here in 2001 for a four-month project as he was working on a TV script. That was a success, so we ended up staying.

2001 was a tricky time...
We arrived just in time to see the whole country collapse. We separated a few years later but by that point I was having such a great time I decided to stay. We were living in Barrio Norte in an enormous apartment we could afford because of the crazy prices and the crash.

Did Argentina meet your expectations?
I wasn’t at all happy here for several years. I couldn’t make friends. I felt like I had a sign on my forehead that said “don’t be my friend!” and I was quite lonely. So it didn’t live up to my expectations at first.
As I started to make friends, particularly Argentine ones, I started to discover the place and found it to be beyond what I had imagined, which I continue to feel to this day. It’s such a vibrant, interesting place.

What were your first impressions?
I liked the city when I first got here and just walked around everywhere anonymously. I didn’t know anyone and my husband was working. I was also walking around when all the protests and cacerolazos (pot banging at demonstrations) started. I don’t think I’d been in a city in that amount of turmoil and it was definitely a marking experience. It stuck in my mind, and the moment my book (The Foreigners) starts is in early 2002.

How did you make friends?
It’s comical now but at the time, someone I knew said if you’re trying to meet someone, a partner for example, it doesn’t happen. I’d go to an event to try and meet someone, and I just never did. Then an Argentine took me under her wing.

Did you work?
I had a contract to write a book so I was writing a much as I could. I’d get to a certain point then I’d start walking around the city. I love Chacarita cemetery. I grew up in the countryside so there is something remarkable about Chacarita that it’s this huge swathe of countryside in the middle of the city. It’s enormous.

What stands out from that period?
I most remember being in the middle of the protests. Something would happen and people would start running. I’d lived in France and there are protests every day in Paris. But they are calm and orderly. This was the opposite feeling. Something else was happening.

Where do you live?
In Palermo Hollywood as my partner has a home there. But there’s a little bit too much going on for my tastes, at this point. Many of the streets are beautiful and there is a look and feeling that I love about this neighbourhood, which I particularly loved when I first came to Buenos Aires. Now I feel that it’s there on one street but you turn a corner and it doesn’t feel like that any more.

What did Chacarita do for you?
It has a countryside feel to it as it was quiet with trees, birds, and the place I lived in looked like nothing from the outside. It was this crappy door and you went down this long passageway which led to a warehouse that opened up to the sky. It was a complete surprise and is something particular to that neighbourhood. I love the graveyard and the micro-worlds around it, the railroad tracks, the dogs, the graffiti…

Why did you stay after your separation?
There was something here that I needed to pursue before leaving. It was an interesting time as on the one hand I was defeated but on the other discovering a new place. There’s something about the lifestyle that makes me feel much better when I’m here. I get anxious when I go to the States and when I come back, I feel calmer.
A lot of expats must feel that they were defined by their family growing up which can lead you to feel these inner restrictions which lead you to behave in a certain way.

How did you meet your Argentine partner?
I used to teach English and in 2007 a friend said she had a language student for me. I’d done that in Paris, and I didn’t think I was very good at it, but she said “no, I really think that you should take this student on.” Martín needed to work on his written English and we made it through about three classes.

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
There is an irreverence I find in Argentines which I like, which has to do with what Borges famously talked about: that Argentines know everything about Western culture but are outside it, so they have this other perspective and freedom to play with.
Argentines are big performers as I thought my ex-husband was unique in that sense. Then I came here and everyone does it. They can be so dazzling, pulling out references from everywhere. I come from a totally different tradition but that has been good for me as I’ve had to correct the tendency to hide out all the time.

Write on: local literati gathers
This Thursday, Maxine Swann presents her third novel, The Foreigners, in Palermo and it will be quite the local literary gathering.
David Leavitt, the American author of The Indian Clerk who lives in Argentina, and Argentine novelists Pola Oloixarac and Pedro Mairal, will join Swann in a discussion about The Foreigners, her novel about two expats who come together in Buenos Aires at the start of the economic crisis in 2002.
It’s set to be an interesting meeting of literary minds, given that Oloixarac received international acclaim for her 2008 novel for Las teorías salvajes.
The event takes place behind “one of the closed doors” that captivated Swann from the early days as she wandered the streets. She says: “It has one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, gardens in Palermo.”
Swann is not the only foreigner living in Buenos Aires to reach book shelves this year. The Expat interviewed journalist-turned-author Ian Mount in June. Mount took it upon himself to visit many, if not all, Argentina’s wineries as he researched The Vineyard at the End of the World. That book is due for release in January.
And last Tuesday, the Herald witnessed its own rather special moment when Michael Soltys, senior editor of the the newspaper published his 7,000th editorial for the paper since he started writing them in 1985. Marking this monumental occasion with some delicious chocolate for the editorial team, Soltys recalled that his 6,000th editorial passed by relatively unnoticed given that it was on a weekend.
With an average of 450 words per editorial, he has racked up a remarkable word count (although Herald staffers measure stories in centimetres rather than by the number of words) of 3.15 million — which obviously doesn’t include any other stories he has written since 1983.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 27, 2011.
Photo by Mario Mosca

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