St. Mary’s Spanish professor wins major Peruvian literary award

Arts and Humanities
February 08, 2024

Imagination in translation

by Jennifer R. Lloyd (M.B.A. ’16)

It wasn’t enough for Christian Elguera Olórtegui, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish at St. Mary’s University, to teach four Spanish literature and language classes, compose award-winning short stories, and translate pieces from Portuguese to Spanish and from the Andean indigenous language Quechua to English.

With a pen and a spiral notebook in hand, Elguera spent scraps of his free time researching and writing a novel in Spanish over six years. The effort paid off.

That novel, Los espectros, or The Specters, just won a top literary prize in Elguera’s home country of Peru — the Copé Award. Read his acceptance speech in Spanish here.

Fresh from receiving his award in Lima this February and looking forward to seeing his book’s publication this summer, Elguera sat down with Gold & Blue for this Q&A to share his perspectives on writing, translating and teaching the next generation how to share in the richness of language.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Copé Award and what it means to you to have won it?

A: This literary contest has a long history in my country. The Copé Award is organized by the Petroleum State Company, called Petroperú. They are the most prestigious literary awards in Peru. From 1979 to the present, important authors have received this prize, such as Washington Delgado, Óscar Colchado Lucio and Cronwell Jara, among others, defining the routes of the Peruvian literary tradition. A jury of distinguished Peruvian intellectuals decides the winner. If you are a writer in Peru, you want to receive this award.

Christian Elguera Olórtegui visits the library at St. Mary's University.
Christian Elguera Olórtegui visits the library at St. Mary’s University.

Q: So, the competition was quite stiff?

A: For the novel portion of the prize, they received 177 entries. The judges had a lot of material to read. But this is not the first time I received this kind of award. In 2022, I received another accolade in a literary contest: the Copé Silver for my short story El ultimo sortilegio de Fernando Pessoa, or The Last Conjuring of Fernando Pessoa. In addition, in 2020, I received an honorable mention in the XXI Short Story Biennial Copé Award for my narration El extraño caso del señor Panizza, or The Strange Case of Mr. Panizza. For short stories and poems, the judges award prizes for first, second and third place. But in the novel section, there is just one winner.

My novel Los espectros discusses some serious problems in the current context of Peru. It’s a text about the history of the political crises in my country during the 20th and 21st centuries. So, in my case, it was a surprise to be awarded the prize for this kind of political fiction.

Q: You’ve said you expect the book to be in print by this summer and that it is the first in a trilogy. Can you tell us more about the plot of Los espectros?

A: The first intention of Los espectros was to be critical of the past and present socio-political climate in Peru. In this regard, the novel represents events from many decades ago and, principally, offers a fictionalized and hyperbolic portrait of a real person, Eudocio Ravines. During the 1930s, Ravines was the first secretary general of the Communist Party in Peru. But he later became a supporter of right-wing politics and a machinator against Peruvian presidents. In my novel, Ravines is a political chameleon, a sinister character who tries to destroy Peru. But he is actually a bit player in this game because the real masters of the political situation in Peru and around the world are called the Specters.

Q: How do you balance writing fiction with teaching at St. Mary’s University? How do these two areas of your life blend together?

A: I have many facets in my life. On the one hand, I am a professor, but I am also a translator and a scholar of indigenous literature. Honestly, I write at certain moments after my classes and investigations. Due to my academic responsibilities, I can stop my creative writing for many months. But my academic life also helped me create this novel because, for example, there is a character who is a historian presenting about Ravines at a conference at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima. So, I invented a fictional scenario. But the vocabulary, the style and the performance of this historian is that of a scholar. As I was writing, I also had to complete a methodical study about Ravines in Peru and the U.S. Because I am a literary scholar, I know how to conduct this research to create my character. Also, I teach different classes about the ideologies and political history of Latin America. These classes were very helpful in recreating significant debates about communism and indigenous struggles. Additionally, I created another character who is a translator and who reflects my own ideas and practice of translation. There is a synergy between these different aspects of my life.

Q: You’ve said that, as a young person, you didn’t think you could write a long novel. Now, you teach classrooms full of young people. How do you convey to them that achieving a goal like this is possible?

A: In Spring 2023, I taught the class Culture and Civilization of Spain. The principal goal was to discuss with students the tradition of Peninsular fantastic literature. One of the final assignments included an option to write a short story. I received a few short stories and am now editing them. We will try to publish them in a journal or magazine. I am doing something similar in my class on Latin American gothic and speculative fiction this semester. I try to dedicate one part of my life to teaching these students how to write a short story and how to use the language at a different level.

For instance, students of Spanish in the Department of Languages can start with the conjugation of the verbs and, subsequently, they can write long compositions. My next goal, in the upper division courses, is to motivate students to produce essays and short stories with this language. At this level, students can use Spanish in many ways, understanding the cultural, linguistic and artistic dimensions of Spanish.

As an award-winning author, one of my major aims is to inspire students to write fiction in Spanish. With this goal in mind, I organize some of my classes as literary workshops in which students understand and practice how to create a storyline, describe spaces, or use different narrative voices and literary devices.

I show students that they can use language in many ways. They can create new worlds. Once they know how to speak and read Spanish, they can create artistic expressions with the language.

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