BY Jennifer Kabat in Books , Opinion | 29 APR 21

Cecilia Pavón Finds A ‘Little Joy’ in the Wreckage of Neoliberalism

The Argentine author’s new short story collection, written in the wake of economic collapse, depict women finding pleasure in unexpected circumstances  

BY Jennifer Kabat in Books , Opinion | 29 APR 21

In the opening vignette of Cecilia Pavón’s collection Little Joy (2021), the unnamed narrator, emigrates from the Argentine provinces to Buenos Aires. She lives in the same windswept neighbourhood to which all such new arrivals move. She goes clubbing each night alone. To avoid meeting people, she uses EDM to ‘reeducate’ her ears. The harshness of the music helps her adjust to the harshness of the city where the broad, empty boulevards at 5 AM remind her of the country. She describes streets like the wilderness of the Andes. This is not Walter Benjamin’s romantic dictate about getting lost in the city as in a forest, but something darker: ‘After incorporating the arrangement of the unfamiliar music […] into my system of perception, the sounds of the street become like music to me,’ Pavón writes. ‘Then, I no longer suffer. Whenever I feel like that noise is wounding my soul, I say, ‘It’s not wounding it. It’s giving it joy.’ 

I want to be re-educated by someone for whom noise is pleasure. Since reading those lines I’ve been telling everyone, anyone, to read her. Her passages are blunt and brilliant, capturing the yearning of women’s lives. Little Joy is Pavón’s second book in English and the first of her prose. Technically stories, they can read as scenes and sketches we might call autofiction. For years she’s been incorporating into them stray elements of the everyday: lists, texts and WhatsApp messages.  

Cecilia Pavón, Little Joy, 2021. Courtesy: the author and Semiotext(e)

A poet and translator, Pavón co-founded Belleza y Felicidad with her friend, painter Fernanda Laguna, in the late 1990s. A small press and alternative art space, it helped them and their friends weather the economic chaos of the early 2000s in Argentina, where soaring inflation made books prohibitively expensive. Foreign editions cost nearly a month’s salary. Instead, theirs were bound in scavenged cardboard. The partners’ ethos grew from the zine culture of the US Pacific Northwest (where Pavón went to grad school), with its riot grrls and cut-and-paste immediacy. Since then, Pavón has translated Ariana Reines and Dorothea Lasky. Reines, in turn, has translated Pavón, but her work has made few appearances in the US. Her translator here, Jacob Steinberg, met her when he was an exchange student in Argentina. In his hands, her words have the bright flash of the immediate. 

Some of Pavón’s characters are translators themselves; all are women and most are writers (or quasi-writers). One begins a story: ‘I don’t want to be a professional writer—that I know!’ Another, a poet at a conference, suffers insomnia where time starts to bend with ‘Squinting, swinging lines. Spread-out, disconnected lines ….’ After nearly two sleepless days, she admits: ‘If I always feel like what I write about doesn’t matter to anybody, that my writing is bad, that my style is bad, that it’s full of errors in syntax and grammar, that it’s a waste of energy that will never move anybody other than me and my own ghosts (even though I secretly hold out hope that it will affect the ghosts of others, too), then what am I meant to do in this space where everything is about showing off how well I write?’ 

Pavón's stories here are in the first-person, present-tense. They’re affectless and immediate. Her women record their lives in the streets and avenues. There are kids, music, food, shopping. The women are lost in the urban swell and sway, but they are not flaneurs or neutral observers. They are the ones life is happening to in too many messy ways. They are in search of utopia and might need to find it in a pair of sequined jeans. In ‘Nuns, the Utopia of a World Without Men’, two young women go to the convent, not for the divine but for a world without bosses, and there happen upon a heaven of sorts. They discover lust, love and sex with women; the narrator says of her friend, ‘Even though we’ve never slept together, with her I’ve been to Paradise.’  

Belleza y Felicidad: Selected Writings of Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón, 2015. Translated by Stuart Krimko. Courtesy: Sand Paper Press

Written amidst the wreckage of neoliberalism, Pavón’s later stories feature a flood in an H+M and tours of social collapse via Zara. In ‘A Perfect Day’, after the mall floods and the narrator has to swim to safety in her underwear, she envisions her next partner as a man who will stitch dresses like sacks. The opposite of fast fashion, they transform her into someone ‘serious.’ In the ‘Post-Marxist Theory of Unhappiness’, the future is fashion: the world is running out of oil and the economy has broken down, so everyone learns to sew – men included – in order to build a new society. The government invests every last drop of oil into computers and phones ‘so love can flow unhindered through them,’ and ‘there are no more concepts like accumulation or the future.’ Instead, the goal is, Pavón writes, ‘to shine here now. To dazzle, to wrap yourself up in a symphony of shapes.’ This sounds like a future worth hoping for.  

Main image: Cecilia Pavón, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Rosana Shoijett

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.