Living in Barcelona and tired of what he views as the city’s self-absorbed Catalan nationalism, last year Santiago Roncagliolo reclaimed his Peruvian identity with the distinctive red and white diagonal striped shirt of his native country’s football team. "Was this before or after you qualified for the World Cup?" I ask. The writer laughs. "It was after qualification. It is easier when you are in the World Cup."
This simple act of identity politics and the lightness with which the author of Red April wears it has taken a long time to arrive. Roncagliolo’s family were exiled to Mexico when the writer was an infant.
The writer’s father was a journalist and a member of a leftist political party. "Not a communist party or a guerrilla movement, just an ordinary Labour Party," Roncagliolo explains, "but that was enough." The family did not face the physical torture that characterised the regimes in Argentina and Peru, but the level of harassment became unbearable. "The police would come to the house at two o’clock in the morning, or they would imprison my father’s brother-in-law, or they would come to the house unannounced so that my mother would get nervous and have to call my father."
Although part of the deal with the Mexican authorities was a bar on refugees talking about national politics, the family continued to express solidarity with leftists across the continent. "We would receive many people flying out from Argentina and Chile," Roncagliolo remembers.
He explains the role of Mexico City in the 1970s as a foundry of a new Latin American identity. Decades earlier, "Mexico had accepted many exiles from the Spanish Civil War, many intellectuals who helped to reinvent the country. So when the far-right dictatorships in Argentina and Chile and Peru and Uruguay started to expel people in the 1970s, Mexico once again opened its doors." It was, says Roncagliolo, "in that moment [that] a Latin American identity was born." Exiles from across the continent gathered and compared notes, coalescing around a common enemy and a common identity. The expatriate community in which the writer grew up was to foster the future key players in the return of democracy to many Latin American countries, including presidents like Uruguay’s Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica.
Roncagliolo’s generation were the sons and daughters of these cosmopolitan exiles, and even as a child he identified with a global struggle for socialism. Long before he donned the colours of the Peruvian football team, Roncagliolo was sporting t-shirts featuring the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua, and even Saddam Hussein. "Back then, he was a socialist."
But despite this internationalist outlook, the difference between Santiago Roncagliolo and his father in terms of identity was a perfect expression of what the writer later reveals as the key difference between a forcibly displaced person and an expatriate who has moved abroad by choice. "A refugee always wants to return," is his considered opinion. "My father’s country had been stolen. We had a great life in Mexico, and Peru was a country at war with itself and with an economic crisis when we went back. It was a horrible country." But for Roncagliolo Sr, to return from exile was part of the solution.
Still a schoolboy, Roncagliolo Jr had a hard time. "I was Mexican," he says. "In school I had sung the Mexican anthem every morning and learned Mexican history. The day we flew back to Peru, it was three o’clock in the morning, the sun was coming up and I was singing Mexican songs. Back in Peru, I was a strange guy. I was harassed and bullied."
And yet his teenage years became formative, helping forge a Peruvian identity that Roncagliolo retains to this day, a particular quality that reveals itself in his books. "My sense of humour, little jokes in the middle of paragraphs that nobody else would pick up on," are among the things that make him Peruvian despite the almost twenty years he has lived in Spain.
An exile again at 25 – this time by choice, pursuing his dream of being a writer by following in the footsteps of Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce – Roncagliolo spent his first decade in Spain feeling very much part of a European culture that he still loves. Coming from Peru, Roncagliolo appreciates the safety of European cities at night, the more relaxed attitudes to who you have sex with, and "the great films," but in recent years living in Barcelona has made him feel more and more of an outsider again.
"Europe is becoming more ethnic," he says. "I felt more Spanish ten years ago. Now I feel like a foreigner again." The context for this sense of regression has been the surge of Catalan nationalism. "Many people will tell you in the street: I only hire Catalan people; I only buy Catalan stuff; why don’t you write in Catalan?"
Despite speaking the language, Roncagliolo knows he will never fit in. "There’s a word they have – charnegos – which refers to people who have come to Catalonia from other areas of Spain." Roncagliolo is not even a charnego. "The answer to Catalan nationalism is the Spanish identity: we love bullfights and we are Catholic. So whoever wins, I’m not one of them."
Which brings him back to Latin America, and to Peru. "Everything around you conspires to put you back in touch with Peru." Roncagliolo explains that his parents are getting more elderly, and he has been working to create more connection between them and his children. Meanwhile, Peruvian culture is experiencing something of a boom. "In Peru, I’m part of a very exciting moment. I’ve just taken a call just now to make a television series, a Netflix kind of thing. So things are exciting there, whereas in Europe, there is a kind of decadent feeling: people feel like their parents lived better, and their children will live worse."
Given his peripatetic life, and the contrast between the forced exile of his childhood and his international success as an author translated into more than twenty languages, it makes sense that I finish by asking where Santiago Roncagliolo feels most at home. "I guess you are from the place where somebody loves you, and I have many places where I love people and some things and some people love me."
Santiago Roncagliolo is a Peruvian writer, screenwriter, translator and journalist. In 2006 he became the youngest ever winner of the Alfaguara Prize with his novel Red April (Abril Rojo). Dylan Moore is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now. Both appeared at Hay Festival Segovia 2018.