Olé! Susan Swan goes Spanish

Flamboyant prize-winning novelist and York humanities Professor Susan Swan (left) might be forgiven if she suddenly breaks out the castanets and begins dancing wildly in the classroom, now that she is back from Spain. Her life has taken on a decidedly Mediterranean flavour lately, so much so that she is even thinking of taking Spanish lessons.

Why all this talk of things Spanish? Because the Spanish translation of Swan’s book, The Biggest Modern Woman in the World (English version, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1983, and Key Porter, 1998), was recently launched in Madrid and Swan herself is freshly back from a highly successful promotional book tour. 

The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, which was a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction and winner of Smith Books Best First Novel award, currently is being made into a film which Swan hopes will be directed by acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar. The translated version is entitled La mujer moderna más grande del mundo (right).

Swan’s book is the story of giantess Anna Swan, born in the mid-1800s – weighing a whopping 18 lbs at birth – to a family of Scottish crofters in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, and later exhibited in P.T. Barnum’s Museum of Wonders in New York City. The adult Anna Swan, standing seven feet six inches and weighing 413 lbs, married someone two inches shorter than she, had two giant babies who died, and later settled down in Seville, Ohio.

“She dressed like a Victorian lady,” said Swan, “and she was dangerous when she came into a room…her hoop skirt could knock a man off his chair.” For a synopsis of her novel, visit http://www.susanswanonline.com.

Left: The English version of La mujer moderna más grande del mundo

The novel was translated into Spanish and has generated great excitement in Spain. “The critic and novelist Alberto Manguel, who now lives in Mondion, France, has been telling me for years now that my fiction should be translated into all the Spanish-language cultures, because my work is closer to their literary tradition, with its intertwining of the real and the imaginary,” said Swan.

“I had been too busy finishing my new novel, What Casanova Told Me [Knopf, Canada, to be published Fall 2004] to listen to him. I registered these comments dimly, like the drone of a pesky mosquito…. But now that I’ve been to Spain and seen the ‘Biggest Woman’ novel celebrated, I find myself wondering why I didn’t listen to him sooner.”

On her book tour, Swan had some interesting moments as she tried communicating with her Spanish media audiences. She exuberantly sang out “olé” instead of the Spanish “hola”, the greeting for “hello”, during an interview in Spain. Fortunately, she had a Spanish interpreter most of the time.

“In each interview, I would try to say something new about the novel, to surprise my interpreter. It became a little game with us,” she said of her teasing, “and, of course, I ended up deciding to learn Spanish.” Her only interview in English was for El Pais, the Madrid newspaper which is said to be the Spanish equivalent of the New York Times.

“During a night of watching flamenco dancing with Carlos Ortega, editor of Losada, and his editorial manager, Ruth Zauner, we decided we would send The Biggest Modern Woman of the World with the film script, which was developed by Triptych Media, to Madrid director Pedro Almodovar. To have a movie directed by Pedro would be like winning a lottery. He understands women and has a wonderful sense of carnival,” said Swan.

“So when I was being interviewed later on Madrid radio, I publicly said that we were sending Pedro the script, and then made a personal appeal to him to read it and take it seriously.”

Swan’s experiences during her book tour even inspired her to write a poem, “The Little Pigs”. She was having lunch with a group of poets from Segovia, Spain, “and we all got through the language barrier by conversing, piecemeal fashion, in English, French or Spanish. As you might imagine, lunch was a hilarious event. The poem I wrote and read during lunch is about the creative spaces in a conversation when you can understand only a few words of another person’s language.”

Swan, whose books have been published in 19 countries, is also author of such works as The Wives of Bath (Knopf, Canada and US, 1993), a finalist for the UK’s Guardian Fiction Award and Ontario’s Trillium Award, and basis for the film, Lost and Delirious; Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With (Sommerville House, 1996); The Last of the Golden Girls (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, and Key Porter, 2001) and Unfit for Paradise (Christopher Dingle Editions, 1981).

Swan has received numerous awards, including the York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies Millennial Scholar, 1999-2001; Canada Council Award for Fiction, l998; Toronto Arts Council Award for Fiction, 1996; and Ontario Arts Council Award for Works-in-Progress, 1995. The film Lost and Delirious has been released in 32 countries and was featured as a Premiere Selection at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. In September 2003, Swan was asked to read at the Berlin Literary Festival where Lost and Delirious was shown as part of the festival offerings.