José Félix Valdivieso, born in Brussels, the son of a Canarian mother and an Ecuadorian father, cultivates his literary career in parallel with his professional career as Executive MBA at IE Business School, which keeps him in permanent transit through different countries of the world. This journey, to which is added his command of English or Japanese, among other languages, nourish the stories of his latest book, ‘Grafitis por el mundo. Graffiti of the world ‘, distinguished with the I International Prize Notebooks of the Labyrinth of Thought 2020, whose keys she reveals, along with many other questions, in this interview.
How did the idea for your book Grafitis por el mundo. Graffiti of the world (Cuadernos del Laberinto, 2020), edited in bilingual version and distinguished with the I International Prize Notebook of the Labyrinth of Thought 2020?
The truth is that the idea arose almost by chance, because previously, in 2014, I had written a book together with the Canarian painter Miguel Panadero, Drawings (Libros.com, 2017), in which the dynamic was that he would send me a watercolor and I was writing a piece inspired by his drawing. Then, at the end of that same 2014, I came across a graffiti on the street that caught my attention and, suddenly, I liked the idea of collecting graffiti during my work trips and capturing a reflection inspired by the graffiti that I found in different cities. And that is what I did throughout the whole of 2015 and which I finely captured in this book, which traces a kind of journey that begins with a graffiti in Las Palmas and ends with another in this same city, since it coincides with the dates when I always return to the island. In this sense, the one-year cycle is completed and, in between, I collected graffiti from Australia, China, Moscow, Brussels, Madrid, up to a total of 15 or 20 cities and countries with their different expressions in the form of graffiti.
“I am very interested in graffiti as a phenomenon because it goes to the root of the artistic experience”
What attracts you, specifically, about this urban art or visual testimony projected at street level, of which its “ephemeral nature” stands out?
Yes, without a doubt, it is the most Leninist thing about “ephemerality”, because they paint it and, the next day, it is either loaded by the same graffiti artist or by the town hall on duty to clean the wall if it is not legal graffiti . In that sense, my book has a lot to wonder why people dedicate themselves to doing graffiti. What interests me most, actually, is not so much the work of professional graffiti artists, which I do like, as that of those people who do it without any major consequence, because maybe they do it two or three times in a three-month period and then forget it and move on to something else. Therefore, I am very interested in this phenomenon because it goes to the root of the artistic experience and, in that sense, graffiti seems to me a good image of artistic expression: why does someone, at a certain moment, come out to say something, already be it painting, writing or through any type of creative manifestation.
“I have no other motivation than to share what is written or the pleasure of telling it”
To what extent does it also host a call to stop and observe what surrounds us, in these times marked by rush and hyper-connection through social networks?
Indeed, things are always close to us, but we do not observe them well, because, as soon as you observe a thing well, thousands of ramifications are born from that image, which, often, are connected to each other, like an ocean opens and where each aspect has an inner life that generates, in turn, many questions. Just look around you, like those masks that hang on the wall, where each one has come this far with its own story behind it. Or, for example, if we stop to think about what is happening around us with the crisis of the pandemic, each person has had a unique experience that they can tell.
What is the driving force behind your writing, which begins with the publication of the book Things and bats (Incipit Editores, 2010), where you take the pulse of different realities that surround us and influence us?
The engine is born simply of the desire to tell things, actually. I have never had a greater literary ambition, because I do not dedicate myself in a professional way to writing, so I have no other motivation than to share what I have written or the pleasure of telling it. In any case, I feel that the fact of writing a book is not much different from the fact of living, because in the course of our lives we are always telling things and interacting with each other based on our stories. In this sense, it seems to me that literature is a vital support or a vehicle to tell things where, simply, we capture it through the format of a book.
“In general, I do not set limits when writing, but it always depends on which snakes you step on”
Would you say that this lack of ambition or external pressure gives you greater creative freedom?
Well, it always depends on what snakes you step on (Laughter), that is, what issues you address and how you do it. For example, in Grafitis por el mundo. Graffiti of the world included a chapter dedicated to Snowden, who is currently in Moscow wanted by the North American justice, and the fact is that, in the United States, dealing with this subject is a very sensitive matter and they often react quite aggressively, among many other examples linked to the reality of each country that I frequent. But aside from these issues, I generally don’t set limits for myself when writing.
At the beginning you mentioned your book Drawings, how did you experience the creative process together with the Canarian painter Miguel Panadero, where it is the latter’s drawings that mark the line of your stories?
The creative process was very similar to the one I applied for the graffiti book, which, as I said, was born from the experience of Drawings. In that sense, what Miguel Panadero’s watercolor transmitted me took me in one direction or another, just as it happened in the graffiti book, where the street was what marked my directions. But it is true that this process is different and unusual, in the sense that the usual thing is that the books illustrate you once written, while this method was the opposite: to graph what was painted or to write about what was painted, which is what is called ekphrase.
“I am very interested that, when you talk about happiness, you can catch your own desire”
Drawings, where he exercises a more philosophical type of writing, hosts two stories almost in a row that dialogue or confront each other: The Waiters, which refers to that “legion of lonely waiters in their respective waiting rooms”, and Trapped, which he dedicates to writers who, trapped in their passion, find themselves imprisoned in what is written. With which of both do you identify?
I perfectly remember the germ of Los Esperadores, which is the Inuit word “iktsuarpok”, while in the case of Atrapado, the image of Miguel Panadero comes to mind first. Trapped refers to a character who likes to write very much and who, in fact, has his head in the shape of a pencil, as reflected in the drawing of Baker. And perhaps what I was trying to convey with that text is that I do not know if it is good to dedicate a lifetime to a single thing, such as writing, because, although apparently it is a true passion, maybe what they have done many writers is to create a prison for their own passion, because they do not leave there. In that regard, I am very interested in this question when it comes to happiness, because perhaps happiness is not so much in doing what you think will give it to you, because your own desire can get you. Then, the story of The Waiters can be taken from many senses: one is very positive, because it speaks of having hope but, on the other hand, the word itself also has a very sad connotation, in the sense that we are all waiting for may the time come. So, life is like a space in which you can do everything, waiting for something to come that makes you happy, while the reverse of the coin is that death is always present, until it arrives.
The past 2020 also published, before the confinement, the poetry book La geografía del erizo (Cuadernos del Laberinto, 2020), with new illustrations by Panadero, and which the prologue defines as “more than a love story, a story about the fear of love”. Is it your most personal work?
Well, I would never have defined it as such, but rather it is a change of style towards poetry, which always has that more intimate side, but, thinking about it, perhaps it is my most personal work. But what most caught my attention during the writing of that book was precisely the figure of the hedgehog as a metaphor for hundreds of things. In fact, there is the one that, without having a clue of what was going to happen to us in 2020, one of the poems is about distance, because hedgehogs necessarily keep their distance because, otherwise, they kill each other. And the past year has been marked by the obligation to keep the distance between us all the time.
“What most caught my attention was the figure of the hedgehog as a metaphor for hundreds of things”
Precisely, one of his poems says that “the hedgehog knows well that distance is key in love”, which evokes those verses by Cernuda: Like hedgehogs, you know, men one day felt their cold. And they wanted to share it. Then they invented love. The result was, you know, like hedgehogs.
The hedgehog is a character that cannot avoid hurting in his relationships and that has a number of nuances that seem very illustrative to me to represent human life. Then, curiously, hedgehogs have not been covered much in the literature, which is something that surprised me a lot. In the book I do not quote him, but I came across a first reference in Aristotle, who treats them from the zoological point of view and even analyzes their chewing system, which is very complex. Later, Eliano, Plutarco or Schopenhauer also speak of the hedgehogs, but very little for the amount of images that can bring. And indeed, Cernuda does it in that poem, but only in two verses, and also the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was adapted to the cinema, but the truth is that there is not much else.
To what extent would you say that your studies of so many languages such as English, Japanese, Yoruba, Greek or Latin has broadened or enriched your command of the Spanish language?
Well, I like languages a lot, but I don’t believe in accents so much, because what language basically serves is to communicate and to say what you have to say. So, if we spoke well, and by this I mean not only to speak correctly but to choose the words that make you convince the other, language would be the most powerful tool of all. The purpose of the language is to understand each other and that is why you have to focus on the study of the language, in general, not just one, but you have to open the range because, in the end, they are all the same and work exactly the same in their logic internal.
“I travel a lot for my work, but I don’t miss it as much as interacting with people”
All in all, what are your editorial plans for 2021, in which you may have a chance to resume your travels?
Note that this trip to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the first I have done since February 2020. The truth is that I travel a lot for my work and, however, I do not miss it as much as the interaction with people, and That things happen to you because, when you interact with others, things happen to you and you discover new things. But hey, in any case, I did start writing during confinement and I already have two books of poetry in my portfolio, which I hope will be published throughout this 2021, which I hope will come better.