In Conversation: Isaí Moreno on Mathematics, Aesthetics and the Novel

I believe a work of initiation cannot exist without ruptures, without a certain violence and access to the blinding light of reality.

Isaí Moreno was born in Mexico City in 1967. He’s the author of the novels Pisot (winner of the Premio Juan Rulfo a Primera Novela in 1999) and Adicción (2004), both of which he wrote while earning his doctorate in mathematics at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. His third novel, El suicidio de una mariposa (2012), was a finalist for the 2008 Premio Rejadorada de Novela Breve in Valladolid, Spain. He leads novel-writing workshops and works as a professor and researcher in the creative writing faculty of the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. He has worked with literary journals, supplements, and blogs including Nexos, Letras Libres, La Tempestad, Lado B, and Nagari Magazine. His short stories have been published in anthologies including Así se acaba el mundo (Ediciones SM, 2012), Tierras insólitas (Almadía, 2013), and Sólo cuento (UNAM, 2015). In 2010, he earned a degree in Hispanic Language and Literatures at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) with the thesis “Hacia una estética de la destrucción en la literatura.” In 2012, he joined Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte. You can follow him on Twitter @isaimoreno.

Asymptote’s Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has been translating Moreno’s short fiction for over a year. He interviewed the author via email, touching on themes of geography, technology, and the aesthetics of destruction through the lens of his literature.

Arthur Dixon (AD): You wrote your novels Pisot and Adicción while you were earning your doctorate in mathematics, and it’s easy to perceive the influence of your mathematical knowledge in Pisot. To what extent has your study of mathematics influenced your literary work? Do mathematicians tend to make good writers?

Isaí Moreno (IM): Mathematics gave me discipline, and at the time when I was studying and practicing in the field, it spurred my obsessive search for beauty. In the world of mathematics, language is what matters most. It’s impossible to practice serious, ambitious mathematics without obsession and a sense of aesthetic perfectionism. The same thing happens in literature, especially in the case of the novel. The French naturalist the Comte de Buffon said that in order to write well, the first step is to think clearly: in my case, mathematical discipline was useful to help me think with greater clarity, not only in the symbolic sense but also in the sense of language. I retired from formally practicing mathematics more than five years ago, after dedicating myself to the field for almost sixteen years. When I was a student, I was so afraid of tests until I realized that it was simply a matter of facing my fears. In the end, this was my inheritance from mathematics: they forged my character, and character is what you need to write novels.

From my perspective, the most exemplary case of a writer who also practiced mathematics is the Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee, a trained mathematician who worked for IBM. When you read his work—even though his subject matter is not mathematical—you can immediately distinguish his capacity for ordered, rigorous, and implacable thought.

AD: You were born in Mexico City, and you continue to live in the former DF.[1] Would you say that the character of Mexico City has influenced your work? Do you always write in a specific place? And do you think your geographical location has an impact on your writing process, or on the finished product?

IM: Tangentially, yes. I was born in Mexico City, and after I moved with my parents to the state of Puebla, I always nursed a desire to go back. When I returned almost twenty years later, I saw the city as a foreigner—without exaggerating—and I didn’t recognize it: the city itself rejected me, as if warning me that once you leave you’ll never be welcomed back. So I have two ways of looking at the Distrito Federal: with the eyes of a child and with the eyes of an outsider. If you look at it the right way, that’s a literary issue par excellence. At some point I’ll have to explore the subject.

I’ve written the majority of my creative work in Mexico City, after reinstalling myself here. I don’t remember if it was Eliot or Pound, his teacher, who exalted the need to be in a place where you’re foreign in order to create. My false foreignness in the DF (or the CDMX, now) puts me in a favorable space for creativity.

For some reason, when I go through moments of writer’s block or I want to finish a novel, I leave Mexico City and go to the smaller cities in the outskirts. It’s essential to breathe different air every now and then.

AD: I know you’ve been hard at work on a new novel recently, but you’re also a prolific writer of short stories with work published in various anthologies. Which do you prefer: the process of writing a novel or the process of writing a short story? Do you think the two experiences can be compared?

IM: If I had to choose between the two, I’d stick with the all-consuming, oppressive process of writing a novel. I love to write short stories in the lapses between writing a novel, not only because telling stories is a reward in itself, but also because as I work on them I feel that I’m betraying the novel a little, only to return to it with greater devotion. It’s like running away from home and making it a few miles away only to come back homesick. I don’t trust in absolute fidelity to anything, at least in artistic terms.

The experiences of writing one genre or another are radically different. Short stories and novels have incompatible genetic codes. Because of that difference, sometimes you have to escape from the novel to taste a different flavor.

AD: Aside from your personal blog, Moleskine horizontal, you also administrate a blog called Ser Novelista, which is linked to the workshop of the same name that you’ve instructed. Your website also includes a section of “resources for novelists,” with book downloads, digital tools, and advice dedicated to potential novelists. Do you think it’s important to use digital resources to “generate” more novelists? Do you think we need more novelists specifically, rather than more poets, short story writers, etc.?

IM: Every time I lead a novel-writing workshop, a few people will ask me to lead one online for distance learners. Luckily, technology came to my aid, and my portal serves as a space to promote materials I’ve been compiling for years that relate to the novel. I enjoy technology immensely, I believe in technology, and what could be better than using it in the name of something as essential as the novel? Anyone who can benefit from the material I share is welcome: in the end, they’re only tools, and the resulting product will be a consequence of the writer’s dedication and capacity for self-criticism. Writing novels is a demanding and solitary task, and creators can feel incentivized by having blogs, software, and manuals at their disposal. I always enjoy seeing a novel published after watching it gestate in my workshops, and I always encourage my students to consult the blog’s content, which I curate with great care, with the goal of enriching their perspective.

Ser Novelista aims to make its visitors participants in a state of being. In passing, it’s a pretext that obliges me to organize my ideas. I administrate the virtual site, along with Facebook and Twitter pages (called Ser Novelista  and @sernovelista respectively) with my passion for the novel in mind. Without a doubt, there are wonderful websites devoted to writing short stories. I’m not as familiar with the virtual content available to help with writing poetry.

In the end, what we need is more good writers, with their own voices and original perspectives, without being concerned about which genre they cultivate.

AD: The first work of yours that I read was “Rottweiler,” a short story I translated to English for publication in a new bilingual ebook, Tiempos irredentos / Unrepentant Times, which will be published by Nagari this year. The first time we met in person, you kindly gave me a copy of your novel El suicidio de una mariposa. As soon as I began to read the novel, I realized there was a shared element between the two works—an effort to narrate the experiences of young people, children, who learn abruptly about the adult world through traumatic incidents. Why is it so important to tell these stories? What are the advantages and difficulties of writing from the perspective of a child?

IM: Through those stories, like any author, I am attempting to recuperate a lost inner world. In them there’s a search for redemption, if you like, or a desire to come home, even when home is sordid and dark. In its way, the story you mention (for whose lucid and precise translation I thank you), as well as the novel El suicidio de una mariposa, are works of initiation. I believe a work of initiation cannot exist without ruptures, without a certain violence and access to the blinding light of reality. In any work of that kind, the necessary disturbance is caused by knowledge, and normally that knowledge is accompanied by some traumatic event, even if said event takes place on an interior level.

Narrating from a child’s perspective gives you the advantage of recuperating ideas without preconceived notions, but it’s also difficult, most of all because it inevitably exercises your memory and forces you to explore what you’ve permanently lost.

AD: I’ve had the pleasure of translating some of your short stories, and I always like to ask the following question of the authors whose works I’ve translated: how do you feel when you see your own words in another language? What’s it like to be an author not only in Spanish, but also in English? Would you say that this experience has changed (or will change) your perspective on the act of writing?

IM: It’s exciting! The feeling is refreshing, since I get to read my own words through the interpretation and cultural experience of someone else, which are inevitably reflected in their language. Seeing my writing in another language makes me feel that it has “adapted” to survive a little longer, as Robert Stam would say. Having been translated to English (thanks to you, and the dedicated work of Omar Villasana) gives new life to my experience of writing in my own language, and it makes it even better, demanding as much of me as possible, since I aspire to be translated further in the future. And, of course, a writer always wants to leave a good taste in the mouths not only of native-language readers but also of potential translators.

AD: In 2010, you completed your degree in Hispanic Language and Literatures at UNAM with a thesis whose title could be rendered in English as “Towards an aesthetic of destruction in literature.” In your thesis, you write about the work of Roberto Bolaño, among other authors and artists, and your description of the “aesthetic of destruction” reminds me of Alexis Candia’s conceptualization of the “aesthetic of annihilation” in Bolaño’s work. Do you think your own creative work could be identified with aesthetics representative of destruction or evil? What’s the role of “destruction” in your work?

IM: Your question inspires me to continue exploring the subject of that old thesis, as I don’t know Alexis Candia’s aesthetic of annihilation. While I was writing my thesis, I always asked myself why catastrophes and heinous acts fascinate us and horrify us at the same time. The work of Ballard and DeLillo was always on my mind, including their apocalyptic spirit, their atrocity, their car crashes and their beauty. Bolaño is interesting because he deals with the same themes without the solemnity of Ballard or DeLillo—he knows how to be ironic, how to have a good time with elements of disaster. And yes, I hope my work can be identified with such aesthetics. I’d like to imagine that with time it can join the works of the authors I cite in my thesis, with all due respect.

My great obsessions in writing are beauty and knowledge. In all my literary efforts, beauty becomes destructive. Knowledge does the same. In fact, the premise of practically all my novels is that knowledge destroys.

[1] In January 2016, the name of Mexico City officially became “Ciudad de México” and the previous moniker, “DF” (for “Distrito Federal” or “Federal District”) was retired, at least on paper.

Arthur Dixon is a translator and poet from Ardmore, Oklahoma. He is currently the Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today, an online, bilingual literary journal affiliated with World Literature Today, and the Spanish Social Media Manager for Asymptote.


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