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Interview with Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli’s second novel, The Story of My Teeth, was commissioned by two curators for an exhibition at Galeria Jumex, a Mexico City art gallery funded by Grupo Jumex ­– a juice factory. Written in a series of weekly installments that were published as chapbooks to be shared with factory’s employees, the project endeavoured to bridge the gap between the art world and that of blue-collar workers. Several employees gathered to talk informally about the exploits of Gustavo ‘Highway’ Sánchez Sánchez, the larger-than-life auctioneer at the heart of The Story of My Teeth. The book club’s conversations were recorded and subsequently emailed to Luiselli as MP3s, and those conversations informed her subsequent installments. As the author puts it in the afterword, ‘The formula, if there was one, would be something like Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG.’ The following exchange, which typifies Luiselli’s willingness to lay bare artifice and to expose ‘the many layers of its making,’ captures the spirit of her work – and the charm of the writer herself.

 

Q

The White Review

— Have you ever engaged with readers like this prior to writing this novel?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— Nobody has ever read my work-in-progress the way that the factory workers read and commented on the weekly installments of The Story of My Teeth. The procedure certainly influenced the novel, and in many ways shaped it, though I doubt that this particular experience will influence my work beyond it. I write every novel with a completely different set of circumstances, mechanisms and procedures – at least in my experience. But the process of writing this novel did make me more aware of the fact that the procedures leave very clear traces in the work. And I’m now more consciously interested in finding ways to make my procedures apparent in the final result. I like my work to expose – in a subtle way of course – the many layers of its making. The novel I am writing now, for example, is closely linked to a series of Polaroid pictures that my daughter and stepson – five and ten years old, respectively – took during a road trip last summer, when we drove from New York to Arizona and back. I don’t think I will include their photographs in the novel, though they are beautiful and strange, but I am now, very carefully, trying to engage in some kind of conversation with them as I write. I want the final result to look a little like a series of photographs taken from the point of view of two children – with their many imperfections, their overexposures, their awkward angles.

Q

The White Review

— I’m curious about you as a reader. The Story of My Teeth walks a fine line between homage to and irreverence toward literary predecessors. How do you consider both – homage and irreverence – with regards to acceptance of tradition?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— I think that literary tradition is not an automatic inheritance of the past, but a labourious appropriation of it. No one merely receives tradition by osmosis – except, perhaps, things like Catholic and Jewish guilt. But literary tradition is something you slowly appropriate, through hard work, constant practice, imitation, and – especially – a lot of reading. I have periods in which I read manically, in raptures of immense pleasure, and also rather untidily, and other periods in which I read slowly, almost gently, trying to understand the very fine connections that other minds make. These variations of temperament as a reader probably reflect on my own practice as a writer. I am sometimes more visceral in my approach to literary tradition, and other times more poised and reflective. I don’t want to be prescriptive about healthy balances: I know nothing of balance and health. But I suppose that learning things with a deep respect for them and then being able to de-solemnise your own relationship to them is a good way to avoid both arrogance, on the one hand, and intellectual subservience, on the other. In other words, engaging with literary tradition is about guarding your creative freedom without naively believing that you are inventing the wheel every time you sit down to write.

Q

The White Review

— You populate The Story of My Teeth with characters who share names with several contemporary writers. For instance, Yuri Herrera becomes a female police officer, etc. This kind of playful adjustment of reality is one of the more interesting formal elements in a novel full of interesting formal elements, and I wonder just how you came to the decision to blur the boundaries of reality and fiction like this.

A

Valeria Luiselli

— I had one question in mind when I decided to, quite literally, drop names of real writers into the narrative tissue of The Story of My Teeth. I wanted to explore how names modify the context into which they are placed, as well as how context re-frames names. In many ways, this was a process akin to using ready-mades in art. I found and used names of people, whose value and meaning both altered and were altered by context. While I was writing the novel, I engaged with procedures common to contemporary art, and looking for narrative or literary analogies to those procedures. Using names the way I did was a kind of narrative transposition of ready-mades. I basically used a series of writers – including myself – as if they were ready-mades or found objects, and did what many have done before me: dislocate them from their traditional context and relocate them to another, or decontextualise them and repurpose them, in order to reflect upon their value – be it use value, exchange value or symbolic value. If a reader has no idea who Yuri Herrera is, to use your example, then nothing in the narrative tissue around that name is altered. Yuri Herrera is just a policewoman. If, on the contrary, the name bears a certain weight by virtue of the many associations it has for the reader, then both the name and the narrative around it suffer a kind of indent. The name weighs more heavily and the narrative around it takes a different shape, and also envelopes the name more tightly. But the mere fact that this effect depends completely on the reader’s pre-conceptions of a name and its associations says a lot about the ultimate value, content or meaning of names. I see names as objects in this novel: objects that vary in value and meaning depending on a series of circumstances, both intrinsic and exterior to the book itself. The novel is a map, but it takes different readers to very different places, depending on what they bring to it.

Q

The White Review

— Gustavo is in some sense an anachronism, a larger-than-life figure not often seen in fiction anymore. Where did he come from and where do we find more like him?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— You will find more like him when re-reading Don Quixote, of course. He is very much modeled after that deeply tragic character. There is also a bit of Quevedo’s character Buscón Don Pablos in him, and a lot of Daniil Kharm’s narrators. But he is also a factory worker in Mexico City, Bombay or Dublin; and he is my uncle, who sells and auctions merchandise in a market called Central de Abastos.

Q

The White Review

— Ghosts and ghostliness seem to appeal to you. Is that so?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— I guess so. I have lived in many places and then left them for good. So in a way I have had many little deaths and rebirths; I’ve lived many short, compacted lives. I don’t know if my writing reflects this or if it is, rather, a way of coming to terms with it.

Q

The White Review

— I’m sure it’s annoying when readers try to psychologise your work, as I did in the previous question. I’m still curious, though. What haunts you? Or perhaps more to the point: as a writer, are you compelled by what haunts you?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— You’re right, I don’t love questions that attempt to link my work to very generalised aspects of my biography, which is itself already a kind of fiction around me. I guess it is because I cannot answer this kind of question in a few sentences. It takes me years of writing and reading to explore very specific, personal concerns, and so reducing them to a single, synthetic answer seems lazy and trivializing. But back to your question about being haunted – I think my ghosts are all very easy to detect in my three books. I don’t think I should list them here; dead writers are like the walls of a house off which the voices of the living once bounced. They allow a writer to hear a remote echo of his or her own ideas. The walls of my own house are visible because I usually name the writers I am in dialogue with.

Q

The White Review

— Stories are kind of like apparitions, aren’t they? Insofar as they exist in an in-between state, a foot in time and out of it.

A

Valeria Luiselli

— My only comment would be: I recommend reading Ricardo Piglia’s Formas breves, and in particular, a little essay he wrote in that book, about Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘La memoria de Shakespeare’. I had understood nothing about literature and its way of haunting us until I read those two brief masterpieces.

Q

The White Review

— Once we spoke in Asheville about tradition, and why it seems that Latin American writers wrestle more with the literary past than, for example, their North American counterparts. In both of the novels you’ve published so far, and of course in the essays, you seem to be confronting your forebears. Have you given much thought to why this tradition has such a strong hold on Latin American writers?

A

Valeria Luiselli

— I remember that conversation in Asheville. And I suspect that your idea of tradition, like mine, is more than a little influenced by that essay written by TS Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Eliot used to say that you could hardly make the term ‘tradition’ sound agreeable to English ears unless you were referring to ‘the reassuring science of archaeology,’ and he laments that the term was seldom used in English to refer to literature and writing. So what he does in that essay is to Latinise the term. He redefines it in the context of literary history, and gives it an entirely new meaning, closer to the meaning that the term has in Romance languages. What I like about that essay is that it conceives the idea of tradition as a process of constant renewal and re-signification of the past through the present, and also vice versa. The literary present, he says, is marked by the past as much as the past is modified by the present. Another writer that said something similar to this, but with more sense of humour, was Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’. Anyway, I think Eliot’s is a very lucid and sound understanding of the way that writers can engage with their literary past and negotiate their place in it while modifying it through their writing.

 

But your question is more difficult than that, because it involves linguistic and regional traditions, and the differences between American and Latin American writers in this respect. I agree that, at least the younger generation of American novelists, is less concerned with their belonging or non-belonging to a national literary tradition. Few young writers here think of their work in relation to, say, Faulkner, Hemingway or Dickinson, and few critics will read them with that kind of consideration in mind. Blurbers will always compare them to contemporary idols and icons, but that’s beside the point. Latin American literary criticism, on the contrary, is perhaps too concerned with a writer’s place in their regional past – it is all about drawing genealogies within the Spanish language, as if literature were somehow a linguistically segregated, controlled environment; as if Latin American writers did not read Russian, German, Nigerian or Japanese writers. This way of thinking about literature is always reinforced outside Latin America – or perhaps ‘outside’ is where it originates. As a Latin American writer in the USA, Germany, Australia, Slovenia, or wherever else, you are always forced into aligning with your regional or national ‘forebears,’ or into charting your work within a very limited constellation of writers. Everyone was compared to García Márquez or Fuentes once upon a time. Now it’s Bolaño or Vila-Matas (best case scenario). I am not sure what the reason for this is. There are many possible explanations. One may be that Latin America is still conceived by many as a kind of remote, torrid zone, an isolated and disconnected region of the world. So the only possible references associated with younger writers are the better-known older ones, always writing within the same language.

 

And why do American writers not have to wrestle with their literary past as much as we do? One reason may be that the current bastion of editorial power is in the USA, so there is no need for young American writers to explain their place in the world through the past. Writers borrow prestige from the past. But, at least in the eyes of others, being an American writer somehow absolves you from the need to borrow prestige: you are born into a language and a literature that is by default universal. A novel about Brooklyn doesn’t need to be explained in terms of other novels about that minute portion of a city, in a country, in the world, because it is already the centre of the world. If you are Latin American, the only way to become universal – forget universal, the only way to be visible or readable – is by riding on the shoulders of the familiar giants: Borges, Rulfo, Cortázar, García Márquez or Bolaño.

Q

The White Review

— This idea of borrowing prestige from the past strikes me as remarkably perceptive, but you left off just at the point where I am most interested in hearing your honest answer: do you feel that you have to clamber up to the shoulders of these familiar giants or is it the task of the critic to put you – or any writer – there? In other words, what kind of friction exists, if any, between writing as Valeria Luiselli and writing as Valeria Luiselli, a ‘Mexican writer’?

 

A

Valeria Luiselli

— I suspect this is a conversation we might be having for many years. Partly because I will never be able to give you a definite or satisfactory answer. Let me say this for now: I will always borrow from the past, but not necessarily from the Latin American past. I don’t write and have never written in a historical or cultural vacuum, but I don’t see myself as belonging to a single linguistic vessel, either. I ride on the shoulders of Rulfo as much as on those of Woolf or Brodsky. Not as a means of borrowing prestige. It’s more basic than that. I read and engage with other writers to understand simple things: constructing a good sentence, creating an atmosphere, bringing in dialogue to a narrative, using precise words. These are not things that nationality or linguistic regions determine. I borrow from whatever I find good and useful, or beautiful, and not from a sense of belonging to a specific language or culture.

 

I also don’t think this has anything to do with my personal background as a writer who has lived in many languages and countries. I would think this is a feeling any other Latin American writer has, even if literary critics, reviewers and bloggers tend to map us as an isolated region, in conversation only with itself. It is true that we have an ongoing conversation as a literary region. For example, I spent last weekend in DC with Álvaro Enrigue, Alejandro Zambra, Juan Gabriel Vázquez and Andrés Neuman, sharing conversations late into the night. Next week, Yuri Herrera and Guadalupe Nettel are coming to New York – he from New Orleans and she from whichever planet she lives on now. If I travel to Berlin, I always call Samanta Schweblin. If I go to Madrid, the first person I see is Laia Jufresa. Many of us exchange emails, ideas and even manuscripts. And all of us share a vibrant, vivid conversation. We can and probably will be mapped as a literary generation, the members of which mostly have in common their mother tongue and their many geographical and cultural displacements.

 

But this does not mean that, as writers, we are concerned only with the tiny constellation we compose. Or that our works share real, palpable relationships and correspondences. The idea of a cultural and linguistic generation is completely artificial, as is the historically neat notion of a regional literature articulated by some kind of lineage or genealogy. The Latin American Boom, for example, was a marketing strategy conceived by one agent and one publisher – in Spain – but it had more to do with literary politics than with writing itself. Reality is always more complex than that, and literary cartographies are always more multilateral than what any critic, writer or reader can ever grasp.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Stephen Sparks is a bookseller and writer in San Francisco.


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