Horacio Castellanos Moya: story of survival

By Shannon Keough
November 13, 2008

“Since I was very young I learned how to survive, how to go to a foreign place, to get a job and to try to survive-and not having time to complain . . . in that sense I think that life has been a challenge every day,” famed Latin American novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya said.

At 21, Moya entered a period of self-imposed exile due to the political turmoil in his country of El Salvador. In 1979, “the political situation in El Salvador was very, very complicated, very polarized and very risky,” Moya said.

During the time before he fled, he was studying at a university where students and teachers were assassinated. There were two sides both fighting for control of the university.

Moya left for Canada to study, returning to El Salvador a year and a half later to find that all of his closest friends were involved in the civil war. “I couldn’t fit because there was a big change in everybody; everybody was just thinking about the fighting and I couldn’t stay so I left,” Moya said.

Moya was a journalist during this period and heavily followed what was happening in the war. While still committed to his journalistic career, he began writing a series of novels.

In 1997, his third novel, “Revulsion,” which referenced political conflict in El Salvador, resulted in anonymous death threats on his life. Again, he was forced to leave the country and fled to various locations throughout Central America. “Every place has its own beauties and problems and I have been in all of these places in different periods of my life,” Moya said. Eventually he was accepted into a program in Frankfurt, Germany, called City of Refuge.

City of Refuge is almost identical to the program that Moya is currently participating in, called City of Asylum, in Pittsburgh, Pa. This two-year program is meant to support exiled and refugee writers, like Moya, by housing them, keeping them safe and promoting their written works. Although he admitted that spending all of his time writing is often “boring,” he said, “That’s what I do and when I don’t write, I read.”

Aside from the program, however, he teaches classes in creative writing and Spanish language literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Moya said, “When you are in this program you’re not supposed to come to teach, you’re supposed to come to write and to try to adapt your life to the new country in which you are and the situations you are facing.”

His time at City of Asylum will end shortly, but he plans to stay in the United States and possibly teach at other universities. “I feel safer just because here [in the U.S.] law really matters and that makes a big difference. In our countries [referring to many Central American nations], law almost doesn’t matter,” Moya said.

Although Moya no longer receives threats on his life and feels safer when he is here, he said, “It’s all the time thinking that nothing is stable forever and that death is just very close to you. It can touch you any moment.”

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Shannon Keough

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