An interview with Valeria Luiselli

Ezio Neyra

Photograph by Alfredo Pelcastre

With last year's twin publication of her first essay collection and her debut novel, respectively titled Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press; in the UK, Granta published these in 2013 and 2012 respectively), Valeria Luiselli immediately joined the ranks of the best and smartest writers at work today. Having established a style that combines essay with memoir, fiction, and urban exploration, Luiselli soon delighted English-language readers of McSweeney'sThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, and her work also appeared in Where You Are, the wonderfully curated collection of maps in writing and art that also features peers such as Sheila Heti, Geoff Dyer, and Asymptote-contributor Alain de Botton. The roots of Luiselli's writings, meanwhile, reach even deeper, touching on Joseph Brodsky, G.K. Chesterton, and Montaigne.

As the daughter of the first Mexican ambassador to South Africa, Luiselli grew up speaking Spanish at home but English at school. Though she now lives in New York and occasionally writes in English (see this recent review of Clarice Lispector's The Complete Stories), Luiselli's three published books so far were all written in Spanish and then translated in close collaboration with Christina MacSweeney, the results of which often feed back into the Spanish 'original.' The title of her first book, a collection of essays entitled Papeles falsos, refers to an Italian phrase meaning 'forged documents' or 'false maps,' and was published in an English 'version'—as Luiselli prefers to think of MacSweeney's translations—as Sidewalks. This layered use of words and phrases recurs throughout this collection, most notably in an essay on the famously 'untranslatable' Portuguese word saudade: "'Saudade is the presence of an absence.' A stabbing pain in a phantom limb; a crack that opens up suddenly in the asphalt; the rivers and lakes of Mexico City; sheets after lovemaking." Elsewhere, when she isn't writing about the advantages of sleeping in other beds than one's own or about the bicycle's advantages for the flâneur, Luiselli tries to peel back the layers of the city and peer into its empty spaces: are cities organized chronologically, geographically, or even geologically; and how to read a megalopolis: horizontally or vertically?

Her first novel, Los ingrávidos (which literally translates to 'The weightless ones'), was also very well received in the Spanish-speaking literary world and was published in English as Faces in the Crowd, a title that borrows from a 14-word Ezra Pound poem that also haunts precursor Joan Didion's "The White Album" essay. As the story of a young mother working at a New York publishing house dedicated to translation overlaps with that of Mexican poet Gilberto Owen and Federico García Lorca, this book similarly layers versions of the city on top of each other in a process of literary historiocartography that is unexpectedly illuminating.

Luiselli's most recent book,
The Story of My Teeth (translated by MacSweeney, who also wrote an additional chapter for the English edition; published in the UK by Granta and forthcoming from Coffee House Press in September 2015), is the product of a collaborative process involving workers at a Jumex juice factory in Mexico. Originally commissioned as an artwork by the Jumex Foundation, an important Mexican contemporary art collection, it was written by Luiselli in installments that were then read in a workers' reading group, whose discussions were recorded, helping Luiselli write the next chapter. The story of a factory guard who becomes a successful auctioneer, the book argues that stories are an underappreciated part of what creates value in this world; you can 'sell' anything as long as the story is right for your audience of consumers, whether they be consumers of contemporary art, literature, juice, or loose teeth.

In Asymptote's interview, Ezio Neyra asked Luiselli about her bilingualism, her influences when it comes to both English and Spanish-language writers on life in the city, and the growing spotlight on Latin American literature.

—Florian Duijsens

Since your childhood, you've lived in many different places (South Korea, South Africa, India, among others). What effect do you think that upbringing has had on your writing?

I'd say that a fish doesn't see the water and toothpaste tastes the same everywhere. For me, normal life was changing countries every two, four, or five years. I think the impulse that led me to write can be found in that mobile childhood. I think some part of the desire to write has its origins in the lack of linguistic confidence caused by that constant shifting of environment, of language, and not just language, but accents and customs. I guess that relationship became a little awkward because I was always being identified as a foreigner. That generated a complex relationship with language, complex because speaking was always a difficult issue. It was obvious that I couldn't play the game of language as well as the people around me, despite the fact that I was Mexican too, but that sort of fast, lively street Spanish spoken by the Chilangos of Mexico City—I never learned to play it well. This all generated a conflictive relationship with language but, at the same time, a very intimate one with writing, because writing was a space I felt much more confident in than the space of speech.

With so much traveling about and so many different languages, did Spanish end up becoming a sort of home that gave you confidence, the place where you felt most at ease?

I'll start by saying that I don't think Spanish ever became that sort of refuge you mentioned. In fact, the language in which I was writing and reading was English. Outside home, my life was lived in English; my school life, my intellectual life all happened in English. The language in which I felt most comfortable was English, and that was the way it was for a long time. But you could say that, in terms of Spanish, I felt more confident writing than speaking. I didn't communicate badly in Spanish, but there were always high levels of uncertainty and resistance, and a sense of its not being natural. I spoke a sort of vacuum-packed Spanish. Out of context. I was aware that I spoke strangely, that I didn't speak with the same fluency as my sisters (they had stayed in Mexico), who used to tell stories at mealtimes, make us laugh, things I couldn't manage to do with Spanish. The terrain of writing in Spanish also ended up being a space where I could take more risks. It was a space where I could get my own back. I could experiment more without feeling observed or judged. In a sense, I used written Spanish as a way of making the language mine.

So when did you make the decision to write in Spanish?

I took that decision when I wrote my first book Papeles falsos [published in English as Sidewalks], when I'd returned to Mexico after finishing my education at a boarding school in India. That was also where I had a more meaningful contact with Spanish literature, because there was a group of Latin American students, and we studied literature together in Spanish, plus there was another group that met to read texts aloud and discuss them. It was there that I first read Juan Rulfo, read García Márquez in more depth, and Cortázar, but also San Juan de la Cruz and Lope de Vega. That's where I began to understand and feel myself to be part of a linguistic and literary tradition or community. When I returned to Mexico, it was with the firm intention of staying there and going to university. And then, during that time, I decided to start writing my first book, a book that, in the beginning, I wanted to be about Mexico City, as a way of making the space of that city my own. I'll express that idea in English because it's clearer that way: I wanted to write myself into the city. Write my way into the city. Though things didn't quite work out that way because it ended up being a book about several cities, and particularly about the impossibility of writing about Mexico City. In fact, when I finished the book, I left Mexico and came to live in New York.

Before that in-depth understanding of the Latin Americans, which authors would you say had the greatest impact on you, and came to have a certain resonance in your writing?

In general, I'd say the most important period of my education as a reader was in India. I think that before the age of sixteen, you don't read in the same way. Something was unloosed in me at sixteen that made me read better. Although it would be wrong to say that I'd never read any Latin American writers before going to India. When I was very young, I read José Emilio Pacheco, who had a big impact on me. In relation to the non-Hispanic authors who had a fundamental influence on me, the first that comes to mind is Joseph Conrad; he was one of those authors who made me write with great intensity, but also with an economical use of language, and that's still something that is very important in my writing. After that, I also read Joyce and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was another discovery, because I realized that you can choose a narrator who matures throughout the course of the novel. Even so, I'm not completely certain that one's early readings are necessarily the most formative.

During those constant moves in your childhood and adolescence, you must often have had to present an image of yourself to different groups of classmates in the schools you attended. Was there also an element of fiction in what you said about yourself, and can you perhaps trace part of your desire to create fiction back to that time?

I've never thought of it in those terms, but I guess so, there was a lot of fiction, especially in the sense of fabrication, of finding a narrative thread in the image of myself I put forward. On the one hand, in some of the countries I lived in, being Mexican was extremely exotic. For example, there were no other Mexican children in South Korea. Or in South Africa. When you're a child, exotic is the last thing you want to be. Adults can make a big deal of it and construct an image of themselves based on their exoticism, but children want the exact opposite. My personal narrative was constructed on the idea of reducing the distance between myself and others. For instance, when I got to South Africa, when I was ten, for a long time I said that I was Greek because another girl asked me if I was Greek or Lebanese. As I didn't know anything about Lebanon, I said I was Greek. And so the group of Greek girls accepted me and I stayed Greek until the fiction became unsustainable. But maybe the issue of nationality wasn't where I fictionalized most. I remember that that same Greek girl had lost her mother just before coming to South Africa, and she asked me, with that complete frankness children have, where my mother was, to which I replied, ambiguously, that she wasn't with us. Out of a sense of empathy, I kept that ambiguity up for several days, when in fact what had happened was that in 1994—when I went to South Africa with my father—my mom had decided to move to Chiapas to join an insurgent group helping the women and children of the area, and she stayed there for several years. Later, the fictions started to become more complex and also more imposed by the outside world.

Your first book, Papeles falsos, is about travel, about cities, the way we move around them and learn about them. In writing Papeles falsos, did you engage at all with other famous walkers like Benjamin, Baudelaire, or Sebald?

Papeles falsos was a book I wrote with a very clear program, which was, on the one hand, to learn to write in Spanish and, on the other, to write myself into the city. Anyway, it ended up being a sort of Bildungsessay. It's a coming-of-age book, in which I was trying to activate some of the things I'd been reading while writing the book, and others that I'd read beforehand. If only all books were like that, like arrowheads that you point in directions you hadn't necessarily foreseen at the outset. I'd say that Benjamin was definitely very present, and more specifically the Benjamin of One-Way Street. What I was reading a lot was Joseph Brodsky and I was also interested in writers who had been bilingual and were kind of linguistic transvestites, who had, at a certain moment, begun writing in another language. Come to think of it, what I was reading before and during the writing of Papeles falsos was exactly that, writers like Brodsky who had made the switch. When I read Conrad as a teenager, I didn't know that he had been a writer who had switched languages, too. I read Conrad a lot when I was writing Papeles falsos. His diaries as well. But, of course, the majority of what you read while writing a book doesn't appear in it. Maybe, at best, those readings appear as an atmosphere. An atmosphere you don't see, but is perhaps present.

And in writing a book that was originally intended to be about Mexico City, what Mexican authors were you reading?

I read Alfonso Reyes, more specifically Visión de Anahuac (Vision of Anahuac), which was an essay I kept on my bedside table during all that time. But I was also reading Salvador Novo from the twenties; that's to say, not the chronicler of the city of the thirties and forties, but the Novo of the essays published in the daily newspaper El Universal Ilustrado. They were very 'English' essays, in the sense that they were very Chestertonian, they had that form which is so characteristic of the English essay: circling, entering, and leaving topics with fluency and humor. I was reading that Novo, a Novo who, I believe, has his origins in the tradition of Alfonso Reyes and the English writers—he was able to read them in the original because he was one of the few who were completely bilingual from an early age. I was also reading Jorge Ibargüengoitia, who I always loved. I think I read the series of articles he published on urban spaces in Mexico City.

Were you also interested in the modernist Latin American chronicle, in the tradition of José Martí, Rubén Darío or Enrique Gómez Castillo, all precursors of the Latin American urban chronicle?

I've read those chronicles and find them fascinating, but they didn't form the material of either Papeles falsos or Los ingrávidos [published in English as Faces in the Crowd]. I'm interested in Martí's American chronicles and Darío's travel diaries, or even the letters they exchanged, which were written in the same vein. But they were chronicles I read many years later. What I was reading when I was thinking about New York in the twenties and the places that appear in Los ingrávidos doesn't come into the modernist chronicles, rather it was in the Anglo Saxon avant-garde writers. Gilberto Owen's letters were very much at the forefront of my mind—they were written in the style of the avant-garde chronicle. García Lorca's letters were also an important part of my reading. And then, maybe some passages from Return Ticket, by Salvador Novo. I was reading a lot of North American writers: John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, among others. And I also read a whole pile of texts that weren't strictly literary: articles and books on the construction of the subway or urban plans that didn't necessarily form part of the book but were part of its construction.

With Los ingrávidos were you also trying to find a way to write yourself into New York, and did you find it difficult to write about a city so well covered in literature?

I was very interested in telling Owen's story, not the history of New York, but one of the fragments of Owen's story that I was most interested in narrating happened in New York in the twenties. At first, out of some kind of timidity or fear, I even strongly resisted naming the city. I think something of that is still reflected in the opening pages of the novel, where I believe the words 'New York' don't appear. I refer to New York as 'the city' or 'that city,' until it began to seem a bit ridiculous not to name it. The relationship with the city was organic. It's also important to remember that in Owen's day, there still weren't many texts about the city. It was a trend that was still in its infancy in those days. But yes, it was complicated to write about New York. I considered never naming it. I didn't want the city to be the predominant element, but it ended up being a very strong presence, imposing itself. I guess what I felt was timidity and fear of just adding another drop of water to the ocean.

Would you say that your latest novel, La historia de mis dientes [published in English as The Story of My Teeth], is a radically different kind of book?

Of course. Los ingrávidos was a sort of spin off from Papeles falsos. Or you could say, it grew organically from Papeles falsos. It was almost a fictional continuation in many senses. Not just thematically, but by the end of Papeles falsos I'd found a voice that was no longer that of the narrative subject of the essay, but a sort of narrator who was different from my essayist voice. I began playing with that and on many levels I find it difficult to make a clear distinction between the two books. I'm not completely sure when I finished one and began the other. La historia de mis dientes originated from a very particular commission (a text commissioned by the Jumex Foundation for the catalog of an exhibition called El cazador y la fábrica [The Hunter and the Factory]) and it was written using a very peculiar procedure that completely determined its form and subject matter. There's no organic continuity between La historia de mis dientes and my earlier books. True, there are certain lines of exploration in it that are also present in the others, but it is a definitively different book. It's a sort of hiatus between my other books and what I'm writing now, but not standing apart. It's simply a different exploration.

Finally, and moving on to the area of literature in general, until Bolaño's posthumous surge of popularity, why do you think so many years went by during which so few Latin American authors were published in English? I'm thinking, for example, about the fact that Sergio Pitol, one of the great living Spanish-language authors, has only recently been published in English.

In fact, I wrote an article asking how it was possible that an author like Sergio Pitol, who to my mind is the most important living Spanish-language writer, hadn't been translated into English. It's curious, because North Americans seemed to be conscious that they had been getting things wrong in this area. Now, on the other hand, there's a large group of influential, deeply cultured people in the publishing industry in the United States who are not only conscious of this, but are also doing something to right that overly long journey through time that began when the Latin American Boom authors were first published and restarted with the English-language publication of Bolaño. I think this new opening-up of the English-language publishing market to Latin American literature is one hundred percent due to the Bolaño factor. It put an end to the preconception in the publishing world—not just in the United States, but in general—that Latin American authors only write magical realism. What was published after the Boom were, for the most part, novels by Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, who just followed in the wake of magical realism. Very little was published. Of course, they went on publishing new books by the Boom authors, but it wasn't until Bolaño that the interest in other authors truly broadened. The Bolaño thing was very unusual because he had an enormous impact on the reading public. And in some ways that's unjust, because many more authors have been published post-Bolaño than in the generation that was trapped between him and the Boom. My case is a little strange since, in some ways, I'm on the home side because I write in English for the North American press, yet, at the same time, my books are published in translation. I don't have to rely on a translator but neither do my books circulate in the home market. In any case, it's important to stress that there is now an interest in Latin American literature that hasn't existed for many years, and it is to be hoped that the presence of quality literature from that continent will continue to grow stronger.

translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney