Isidora Cortes-Monroy was announced as the winner of the 2021 Bristol Short Story Prize just over a week ago.
Originally from Chile, and raised in Switzerland, Isidora left her studies in Hotel Management and went on to do a BA in English Literature and Spanish at the University of Manchester, an MPhil in Comparative Literatures at the University of Cambridge, and has recently started a PhD in Hispanic Literatures at the University of Toronto.
We took the opportunity to ask Isidora about her win, her writing and her influences.
What did you think when you were announced as the winner of this year’s BSSP?
I was completely caught off guard to be honest. So much so that I let out an involuntary scream, which – understandably – prompted a few questions from my flat mates! I was already proud of being included in the anthology as it was going to be the first time seeing one of my stories in a book. The announcement was just a (massive) extra I hadn’t counted on.
What do you think your win will mean for you and your writing?
It sounds silly, but I think it’s already had an effect on my writing in that I’ve returned to it with a renewed energy. The problem with graduate work is that your personal writing often gets pushed to the margins, almost entirely disappearing. It also helps to know that someone has read my work and liked it, enough to put it into a book alongside nineteen other writers. As my grandfather rightly described it, writing is by nature a solitary activity; but knowing that your writing is worth sharing with other readers makes it feel a lot less lonely.
Family is central to your winning story, Cake for the Disappeared. You have also commented after the ceremony about how important and exciting it was for your family to be able to see your success. What influence does your family have on your work?
I just don’t think my work would be the same without them. Having grown up in an international environment in which every year meant meeting new people and saying goodbye to old ones, my family was the most solid thing I could rely on. This solidity has been key in shaping the way I interact with the world and, by extension, the way my writing reflects those interactions. Even the stories I’ve written that aren’t on the subject of family have traces of it, particularly if they explore notions of belonging and identity-building.
How much influence has Chile’s history had on your writing do you think?
My relationship with Chile, and perhaps Latin America more generally, is a curious one. “Chile” is a concept I’ve constructed from afar, a combination of what I’ve read, my childhood memories and what my family and friends tell me about it. Mi país inventado (my invented country) as Isabel Allende puts it. It’s always a shock to meet another Chilean, to realize that my accent is not the same and that there are so many cultural references I just don’t understand. So my writing is often a reflection of this país inventado. Not so much a representation of it, but a simulacrum of a reality (both the “real” Chile and my concept of it), that is very much aware of its own artifice. Perhaps this is why I find magical realism so appealing.
Why did you write Cake for the Disappeared?
The short answer: I needed to write a 1,500 word story in my first year of university to get into a creative writing module. But, in truth, it had been a story that I’d been mulling over a while. Although the dictatorship has been over for a while now, the disappearance of individuals is still a problem that Latin America struggles with. Take for instance, the 43 disappeared students in Mexico in 2014, or the Cuban journalists who were disappeared earlier this year, not to mention the countless individuals stuck in immigration detention centers on the US border, whose names often get lost in a poorly-managed system. I chose to set my story during the Pinochet dictatorship because that was the country and historical period I was most familiarized with. But, in all honesty, it could have been set in any other time and place. The only thing I would have had to change were the pastries to make them less Chilean.
The story feels as though it has been honed with great care and attention through many drafts. How much work has gone into it and how much editing does your fiction receive?
I wrote the first draft five years ago, so it’s had time to go through many drafts and edits. The ending was perhaps the part that underwent the most changes, thanks to another student, Spandan Bandyopadhyay. After reading a draft that had gone through very few changes since it’s first writing, she suggested I look into the role of bureaucracy in the story, a topic she had been studying for her PhD. I’m immensely thankful for that suggestion as it provided another form of violence that I hadn’t explored in the story up until then.
You have a degree, an MA and have just started a PhD; how much impact or crossover has there been between your academic work and your fiction?
One of the most gratifying things I’ve found in my academic work are the ideas that sometimes emerge from my investigations. Not only because I’m lucky enough to be introduced to so many different texts, but because there are certain theoretical concepts that I sometimes want to explore in a manner that only fiction permits. For instance, while I could write a well-researched essay on the role of mothers in certain Latin American texts, writing Cake for the Disappeared allowed me to explore on a more emotional level that uncontainable, almost contagious, love and anger that a mourning mother might feel through the metaphor of the tide of cakes.
Which other writers do you admire?
The list is always changing! But the ones I always seem to return to are: Mónica Ojeda, for the way she tests the limits of language through a beautiful yet violent prose; Junot Díaz, for his brilliant use of narrative voice; Samantha Schweblin, for the powerful simplicity she uses in her short stories; and Julio Cortázar, for his use of magical realism, a genre (if we can call it that) which has been overused in our regional literature but which his texts nonetheless keep fresh, despite the years that have passed since their publication.
Isidora’s winning story is available now in our Volume 14 anthology, together with the other 19 stories shortlisted for this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. The anthology is published by Tangent Books: https://www.tangentbooks.co.uk/shop/bristol-short-story-prize-volume-14