The Spanish Riveter: Galician Literature: a Small Nation Seeks Readers by Eva Moreda

With a population of 2.7 million, it would appear that Galicia’s literary output is destined to face the issues inherent in a ‘small nation’s’ literature,of which there are many examples in Europe. But there are additional complexities: the language’s long history of marginalisation – from the early-modern era through to the Franco regime – means that a significant percentage of the Galician population currently do not have Galician as their primary reading language. And in the case of older generations, literacy in Galician can be a barrier: before the 1980s, the language was not taught in schools, so Galicians learned how to read exclusively in Spanish. Among younger demographics, Galician-language literature also faces competition from a range of cultural products, mainly in Spanish. For every Galician-language book sold in Galicia, as many as three or four might be sold in Spanish, and levels of professionalisation in the literary scene are extremely low: the average Galician publisher employs no more than five people, and it is highly doubtful that there are more than a dozen or so authors in Galicia who live exclusively from their work. Most others combine creative writing with other jobs – typically in teaching, academia or the publishing industry itself.

A comparatively small but vigorous and committed group within Galician literature (reintegracionismo) advocates for the Galician language to take on Portuguese spelling conventions, on account of the close similarities between the languages. This might solve the ‘small nation’ problem by opening up markets in Portugal, Brazil and beyond – but that’s not to say it might not create other difficulties.

In this context, it is not surprising that the successes of Galician writers outside Galicia are often celebrated as something of a collective victory. These successes are certainly plentiful – for example, in the last few years, the Spanish government’s Premios Nacionales (aimed at distinguishing the best work in a given genre published in Spain, in any language, during a calendar year) have been awarded to a comparatively high number of Galician authors, including Ledicia Costas (children’s literature), Gonzalo Hermo, Ismael Ramos, Alba Cid (poetry by a young author), Pilar Pallarés, Olga Novo (poetry), Xesús Fraga and Marilar Aleixandre (prose). These celebrations are often intertwined with debates about what Galician literature should be and how Galician writers should attract new readers both in Galicia and abroad, and these debates in turn shape what gets written, what gets published and what is made visible. Two writers’ names frequently come up in these conversations: Suso de Toro and Manuel Rivas (both still active), who have been credited with reviving Galician-language prose formally and thematically since the 1980s and expanding audiences beyond a small circle of highly educated and committed readers. To these names we might add Domingo Villar (who died in 2022 at the age of fifty-one), who in the 2000s finally realised one of the long-standing aspirations of the Galician publishing industry: the Galician genre bestseller – highly profitable yet at the same time relatable to broad sections of the Galician population, and exportable too. Indeed genre fiction continues to thrive in Galicia, mostly noir and thrillers, with authors such as Diego Ameixeiras, Xavier Quiroga and Pedro Feijoo proving that they are comfortable intertwining generic archetypes with realistic, distinctive and ultimately positive portrayals of Galicia present and past. Other genres, such as fantasy and horror, are perhaps less visible in the broader market, despite authors such as Ramón Caride Ogando being widely regarded as canonical. 

It is what we might term literary fiction, however, that tends to attract most attention – perhaps because it is perceived as a sort of Holy Grail: commercially self-sustainable if accessible to a broad readership, while at the same time carrying prestige and providing fertile ground from which a contemporary Galician identity can grow. The last fifteen or so years have certainly seen a number of fine examples of such literary fiction – formally ambitious yet not impenetrable, engaging with key issues in Galicia’s past and present in ways that can appeal to non-Galicians – or, conversely, writing about universal preoccupations from a point of view that can be recognised as Galician. Women writers (Teresa Moure, Emma Pedreira, Iolanda Zúñiga, Susana Sánchez Arins, Berta Dávila) have had a very significant role here – which is remarkable, considering that until 2000 the number of women regularly publishing adult fiction in Galician could be counted on the fingers of one hand (including Helena Villar Janeiro and German-born Ursula Heinze, both still active). Other contributors include Antón Riveiro Coello, Isaac Xubín, Xavier López and the above-mentioned Xesús Fraga.

The pressures faced by authors to try and square this circle between prestige and broader appeal are strong, and can be seen, for example, in literary prizes, which are some-what overrepresented in Galicia compared to similar literary scenes. Despite the successes above, this has resulted in quite a lot of less-inspiring fiction, which has perhaps done little to convince Galicians to engage with Galician-language literature. Similarly, fiction that is less accessible (although not necessarily experimental) or less obviously relatable to issues considered current, such as that of Iván García Campos, Mario Caneiro, Manuel Darriba, Samuel Solleiro and Xavier Queipo, has sometimes been neglected by critics and readers. Interestingly, this was not necessarily the case twenty or twenty-five years ago, and the challenging fiction of Xurxo Borrazás and Xosé Cid Cabido, both prominent in the nineties and noughties, is still held in high esteem.

Poetry, on the other hand, is often regarded in Galician literary circles as a more established genre. Sheltered from the pressures of the market to a greater extent than prose, and drawing upon Galicia’s significant poetic tradition, contemporary Galician poetry is a diverse, thriving mosaic with appreciable international recognition that ranges from well-defined poetic voices articulated around key themes such as the body (Yolanda Castaño, Lupe Gómez), place (Martín Veiga, Olga Novo) or political-social matters (Daniel Salgado, Oriana Méndez, Calros Solla), to deeply unique projects touching upon a number of axes, including the questioning of the boundaries of language (Chus Pato, Pilar Pallarés, María do Cebreiro).

Eva Moreda

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