AN INTERVIEW WITH VALERIA LUISELLI
by Natalie Eilbert
We had the esteemed honor of interviewing Valeria Luiselli for issue 5, our most recent issue. Luiselli’s latest novel, The Story of My Teeth, published last month from Granta Books. Chief editor Natalie Eilbert visited Luiselli in her Harlem apartment this past winter for the following conversation.
Natalie Eilbert: I first read Faces In the Crowd a couple months ago. I had seen you with Leslie Jamison at Community Bookstore and had already picked up your book and I thought, OK, great, can’t wait to read this, and then I also noticed, Sidewalks. They were both published by Coffee House. It’s really amazing that you’ve had two in one year. And then I read both of them and felt like there was such an overlap of ideas in the novel and in the essays, and I loved that there was this rich intersection between fiction and nonfiction. I love that it made me question which is the real Valeria and which is the young woman in the novel. Do you find yourself having to clarify your identity often?
Valeria Luiselli: I guess I did get that question a lot when the book came out, especially when it came out in Spanish. I wrote Sidewalks in my early twenties, but only published it in 2010. I wrote the novel sometime between then, and Sexto Piso published it in 2011. Here in the US, the two books were published at the same time, for many reasons I guess. My editor at Coffee House Press noticed the continuity and intersections between the two. At first I thought it was really strange to have two books coming out at the same time. But readers have done what you did, which is to read the books back to back and in fact discovered the bridges between the two. And yes I did get the question, especially in Mexico, when the novel came out. People wanted to know if it was autobiographical or self-fiction or what it was. I always rely on my biographical material—more than on my history, on my everyday-ness— to compose what I’m writing. I’m always hearing the sounds around me or just very conscious of the space that I’m writing in. I’m very conscious of my being in space, and that comes into my writing. In that sense, yes of course, all my writing somehow comes and springs from my everydayness, but it’s not autobiographical.
NE: Right, there’s an imprint of truth there, emotionally.
NE: There’s the objective correlative in there, you have the imprints of your story.
VL: I like the way you’re phrasing it. There’s an imprint. There’s a trace or an index, as academics would say. But it’s not the story of my life that I want to tell. I’m too young to say anything of interest about myself.
NE: Right, right. Christina MacSweeney, is that someone you had first contact with or is that someone Coffee House commissioned for you?
VL: Neither of the two. Christina was a reader for Granta in the UK. The way it works—at least in the UK and I guess here too to a certain extent—is that publishers rely a lot on translators and their taste and their readings, because most English publishers are not bilingual or not multilingual. I would say here in the US there are more French speakers among publishers, but there are very few people who are proficient in Spanish.
NE: At least working in editorial positions.
VL: Absolutely, of course! Everyone speaks Spanish, except people in publishing.
NE: It’s such a strange phenomenon!
VL: It is a strange phenomenon. I wonder if it’s going to change. I sometimes teach Spanish to a lot of undergraduates at Columbia, which is something that I love. It gives me the illusion, hopefully not a delusion, that more and more young people are learning Spanish going on to professions that perhaps didn’t require Spanish earlier. So maybe that’s going to change in publishing in the next few years. But as it is now, translators play a really important role. They really are the bridges between cultures. So Christina I guess was a reader for Granta and she responded very enthusiastically to the book, and I guess translated an excerpt. And then they gave her the translation. And I’m very glad because she is a brilliant translator. She’s a genius.
NE: Yeah it seems like very seamless language. You know I feel like sometimes I’ll read a translation that’s a little choppier or there’s an indirectness in the way that it’s been translated, and I was very surprised to learn when I finished that these were translated because they felt so wholly your voice.
VL: That’s the paradox, right? When translation is good, the translator is invisible. I would also say that my books are somehow rewritten in English because Christina translates them and translates them brilliantly and I give her a lot of creative space to not stick to certain metaphors that don’t work in English, and then she gives me a lot of space too. She lets me rewrite a lot on top of her translations and give my books another direction if I want to. And really, my books in English and in Spanish are versions of each other because when I make changes in English I often go back to Spanish and make more changes that I discovered in my English rendering of the text. So my second editions in Spanish are modified by my English translations.
NE: Yeah, I was going to ask if you read her translations and go, “OK, maybe that word is not exact” and is there a back and forth after the first translation draft?
VL: There is a long—approximately a year-long—back and forth. It’s both good and torturous for me because I spend one more year revising each book, and I discover a lot of things that perhaps didn’t really work that well, or that just slip past you in one language because the rhetoric of the language admits it. But then when you translate you realize where all the bullshit is, basically. Translation is a filter for a writer’s bullshit. I cut that. I cut a lot after I translate. I’ve also realized, and Christina had the same sensation, especially when translating Sidewalks, that it was as if the original language of the essays were English and somehow—
NE: Oh, interesting. They were thought in English?
VL: I’m sure a lot of them were thought in English because I think a lot in English and I read a lot in English. But there was something really natural about them going into English and when I read them, I had the feeling that that was their natural flow. So probably my Spanish has been molded by my English, not in the sense of incorporating neologisms or anglicisms or anything like that. I don’t. But it’s possible that the structure of my Spanish comes from having grown up somehow bilingual. Bilingual and sort of speaking South African English which is where I grew up, which is not the same as the English here. I’m sure all that had influenced my Spanish, so when I go back to English, there’s a seamlessness, as you said.
NE: There was something about when you were talking about Sidewalks that made realize that I’ve begun to see Sidewalks as a collection of essays that feel very American to me. And I think that has to do with the idea of the journey, you know almost like Ishmael on the Pequod. There’s something about setting forth in San Michele Cemetery or trying to find the ghost of Joseph Brodsky or you’re walking into your Harlem apartment and realizing the cultural intersection of your doorman and the whole working class ideas of being an emigrant and all of that. And I know that’s not the case, because obviously you grew up in different areas of the world, but it just always felt part of the American milieu.
VL: I’m not sure. I mean, I’m very grateful that you’ve traced a link to Moby Dick, you mentioned Ishmael. But I would say that as an essayist—my coming of age as an essayist—came about through reading the classic English essayists, which is where I guess the American essay comes from. When I say this I’m referring to Charles Lamb, Stevenson, Chesterton, and William Hazlitt. All those essayists were translated very early on into Spanish by a brilliant Mexican writer, thinker, translator, poet— he was a bit of everything—called Alfonso Reyes. Alfonso Reyes started translating the English essayists in the early 1920s and they became part of a corpus of literature in Spanish—especially in Mexico—and I think that to a large extent they left their own imprint in Mexican essay writing. I would also say my essays are very Mexican in terms of how the English essay, which itself came from the French tradition, was incorporated into Mexico and Mexican literature. And Sidewalks is in dialogue with the contemporary Mexican essayists that came from that tradition. One of those essayists is going be translated very soon, Sergio Pitol. I think the title in English is going to be The Art of Flight or The Art of Fugue. I don’t know, I think it’s The Art of Flight, and well, it’s really brilliant. Pitol was one of my most formative readings.
NE: And in what era did he write?
VL: He was born in the 30s, I think. Alive still. Unfortunately he has some form of—I don’t know, nobody really knows what he has—maybe some form of aphasia. So he doesn’t speak at all anymore. He connects completely, but he doesn’t write anymore. He doesn’t speak. But he wrote some of the best pages that have been written in Spanish in the later half of the 20th century.
NE: It’s almost like he’s out of words because he said everything. Well, that’s a poetic idea, but clearly he’s actually suffering.
VL: Right. I sometimes think he’s playing some sort of ruse, and that one day he’s going to come out with a masterpiece after this long silence.
NE: He’ll wake up and say “I fooled you all! Now here is my brilliance once more!”
VL: It’s sort of like he hasn’t wanted to come out. He doesn’t go to a doctor, he goes to Cuba to get all these witch doctor cures and spells. But they haven’t worked.
NE: That reminds me of something else I wanted to talk to you about. There’s so much liminality in both of your books. In Faces in the Crowd, you’re following Gilberto Owen and you’re sort of bringing him into the world. You’re making his life relevant. You’re making his opus readable and there’s fragments of his work in there. And I think you mention so many times, you with the editor White, I will translate Owen, I will be the translator. So there’s this sense between the threshold. And you’re quite literally sitting in the house that is haunted by the ghost—or maybe there are many. And that liminality that comes out in the essays too. You know, traipsing the cemetery or accidentally being in the cemetery when you meant to be elsewhere. So I want to know if, when you sit down to write about being at the threshold of these things, if that’s intended or if you fall into, like, a ghost-chasm.
VL: It’s a really good question. I think that if I can say I write from a particular viewpoint, it’s from that liminality. It’s not something that I “choose.” I choose certain viewpoints from which I write. But I guess I cannot put myself in any other place, except a place that is always in-between worlds. Either in between languages, or two countries, or two cultures, or inside-outside houses. I think that Sidewalks, particularly, is a book about shifting perspectives of the city. Perspectives of the city that are liminal and are not fixed in any possible way.
NE: Yeah, and I think that at some point you refer to yourself as an “alien nonresident.”
VL: <laughs> I’m still waiting for my green card. It’s like I’m actually, right now, in a limbo because, as I’ve asked for a green card, I don’t have the visa I originally had. That’s my reality, always. I’m in the absolute liminal state. I’m not an alien nonresident, I’m not not an alien nonresident. I’m just in a limbo.
NE: Right, and you also have an Italian passport?
VL: But it’s expired! It expired last month, so I’m a non-citizen!
NE: There’s that Edward Said phrase “transcendental homelessness.”
VL: Yes, and the idea of extraterritoriality. But this is now tipped over into my actual papers.
NE: So now you’re actually legally homeless.
VL: Yes, I’m between everything, but not for long.
NE: I’m glad you’ll soon be a resident and a non-alien non-nonresident eventually.
VL: Non-fiction, non-writing, all the nons in English.
NE: And that brings up how you might choose to identify yourself. Are you a Mexican writer. You grew up in South Africa and so you do feel you have South African roots. I mean you have English influences and you’re a fiction writer, you’re an essayist. You write both in Spanish and English. Do you feel like you have a means to identify yourself, or do you celebrate a multiplicity of voices inside you?
VL: I don’t always celebrate them… I think that my own understanding of my identity has shifted throughout my life, a few times at least. That’s an important freedom to grasp. In the moments of my life where I haven’t seen it as a freedom, but more like a curse or an imposition, it’s been more difficult to deal with having a not-fixed identity. I do write with a very clear conscience of my linguistic transvestism. That consciousness is very clear. Often, I sort of wallow in a very murky state, asking myself, without necessarily finding an answer for a long time, whether I should write in English or in Spanish. That part of my linguistic liminality is difficult and often unproductive until finally something comes of it. And I don’t know what to say in terms of shifting national identities. I think that right now I will never cease to consider myself a Mexican writer, but I don’t think that really says anything or explains my writing in any way either. I would love to be considered a South-African-Indian-Mexican-American writer, but that’s never going to happen. And now my kid is growing up in Harlem and she considers herself a Harlemite, completely, so that somehow is shifting my own identity. I’m a Harlem writer.
NE: And how long have you lived in Harlem?
VL: Well, I lived here for a year and then left. And now I’ve been here for about four. So about five years.
NE: I was thinking when you were talking about identifying as a Mexican writer, there’s that one part in, I think, “Permanent Resident,” where your father has put three palm trees in the ground when you’re children. This is when you’re going through this, I don’t know, vortex of feeling sick in a graveyard and you’re thinking I might die prematurely and my tree never grew. And when I was rereading that essay, I thought, my god, there are a lot of trees dead and alive or disappeared in your work. Is that something you’re conscious of, you know, stealing Gilberto Owen’s dead tree from the rooftop and all that.
VL: <laughs> I had never made that connection between the palm tree in Sidewalks and the dead tree in Faces in the Crowd. I mean, I guess trees are something that are very present in my family life. My father has an obsession. He took botanics courses and knew the names of trees, and Freudianly-strangely, my husband has that same obsession. My daughter is expected to know the names of all the trees we pass on our way to school. So I guess there’s a presence of trees in our life. But I don’t know why there are always dead trees or uprooted trees. I guess the easy answer would be that they’re a metaphor of rootedness? Maybe I should write about stones. There’s that Brodsky poem: “stones have their private mass/ which frees them from the bounds of normal rootedness.”
NE: I was imagining stealing the dead tree and claiming it. And I love that.
VL: But that’s what’s wonderful about writing: it’s always the reader that endows the writing with meaning, over and over again, and finds those connections that maybe the writer’s mind made but never actually discovered.
NE: We all have these unconscious symbols that we hang things on and around. They’re talking around us and that’s something that struck me, the symbolic consistencies between the novel and the essays is definitely there, and I love that there’s an intersection of objects happening.
Just to transition, there’s a part of your bio that I’m fascinated by and want to ask about, because I’ve tried to look it up and couldn’t find too much on this. But you write novellas for a juice factory? Is that right?
VL: <laughs> I mean I don’t do it as a permanent thing—
NE: Right, you’re not like a factory-writer-in-residence.
VL: I wish! I wish there was so some sort of continuity to that, or like a part B of what I did. But just last year, I did write a novella in installments for the workers in a juice factory in Mexico. So these are factory workers for a big monopoly of juices in Mexico called Jumex and the money from the juices funds one of the biggest contemporary art collections in the world, I guess, or at least the continent. And so the people from the collection were organizing an exhibition and wanted me to write a fiction piece for the catalog, which is something that I think is starting to happen in the contemporary artworld, I’m not sure why. Curators seem to be more interested in crossing boundaries and going over to fiction writers and playing with fiction and artwork. I find it fascinating that they’re trying to make that leap and wonder where it will take contemporary art. But anyway, they reached out to me to write a fiction piece for the catalog. Originally they wanted me to write some sort of fiction blog about the exhibition but I wasn’t interested in that option, partly because I wasn’t really interested in writing for blogs and I sort of get anguished with the idea that I have to feed it, you know, like a Tamagotchi.
NE: Right, this idea that you would need to make it relevant constantly and more relevant.
VL: Yes it sort of becomes this ongoing train you have to jump on to. So I said no to the blog. But I counter-proposed that I write for the workers of the factory in a serialized way. And we had some negotiations and then eventually they not only said yes, but they were very helpful and made it possible, so they bridged everything. And I sent the people, the team and the art collection funded by the workers, the installments and then they sent it to the workers. Or they published little chapbooks, rather, and then distributed them among the workers and then the workers formed a small reading group—12 workers—and got together once a week every Wednesday night to read out loud and then comment and criticize the pieces. And then they would record those sessions and send me the recordings of the whole session. I would hear their stories and voices, and then I would write the next installment.
NE: Oh wow, so it became a collaborative piece?
VL: Absolutely. And they would also comment on the pieces in exhibition. They were quite critical about the exhibition pieces. It was just a fascinating process, and out of this process came a novella. I would say it’s a novella rather than a novel, but maybe it’s a novel. But that’s a distinction that’s pretty arbitrary, or strictly editorial. And that’s the novel that’s coming out next year with Coffee House.
NE: Oh wow, so it had this collage or collaboration to it. Did you find that they had perspectives—obviously they had perspectives that you wouldn’t find in say, a Columbia student, or whoever—but did that give you a richer sense of cultural inheritance?
VL: Yeah, they were brutal with their criticism, in general, their social criticism. Their questions tended in one direction, which was a straightforward questioning of the value of art objects. I mean, their work funds these art objects. Hours, months, years of their work funds one piece—maybe a dessicated dog by Maurizio Catellan, or a single photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans—so a lot of their questioning went in that direction. I didn’t want to write a neo-realistic novel about life in factories. The novel is perhaps more allegorical, or perhaps touches upon those questions in more tangential ways. But it is a novel about the mechanisms of generating value in objects, in art objects in particular. So yes, they set the tone and they provided the questions that led me on to write what I wrote.
NE: That’s so funny, to have an interactive audience at the same time of having collaborators. So you’re having all the wheels turning at once. Being read and scrutinized and consumed at such a rapid productive level. That’s such a unique experience.
VL: It was unique. In many other ways, too, because their voices started to of course modify the way that I was thinking, the narrative voice, and I think that I ended up copying one of them in particular, I really liked the way he spoke. His rhythm, the way he inflected Spanish, and I ended up stealing that and putting it in the novel, as well as their stories, the stories that they told.
NE: And what’s the novel called?
VL: The Story of My Teeth.
NE: The Story of My Teeth. And it’s out next year?
VL: It’s out in 2015. It’s completely different to Sidewalks, and to Faces in the Crowd. A unique thing, an experience that cannot be repeated. The book came out from very particular circumstances. It’s probably not the direction my narrative work is going to take. It’s not a hiatus either. I think that a novel must reflect the process involved in writing. I think that the imprints of a writing process have to be visible to a certain degree; otherwise a book is just a dead, artificial object. Or that’s how I like to think of my work at least. My work retains the imprints of its surroundings and the processes of its making.