I sit at the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division, sipping wine as I wait to hear Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón and his translator, Suzanne Jill Levine, read from Mundo Cruel. As soon as they begin, the warmth of their friendly working relationship is immediately apparent in their onstage banter.
“We met at a café, and ten to fifteen minutes later, she invited me to her apartment,” Luis says with a grin.
Jill quips, “I was always that kind of girl.”
After they read a few stories, they take questions from the audience, and I ask Jill what was most challenging to translate.
“All of it was a challenge!” she tells me. She explains that she opted for “translation with an accent” by keeping Luis’s Puerto Rican slang.
Jill passes the mic to Luis. He expresses surprise at his popularity in his home country—Mundo Cruel is now in its third printing—where he’s a part of the queer arts community as a writer, editor, and curator. He co-edited Los Otros Cuerpos (The Other Bodies), a queer Puerto Rican writing anthology, and co-founded Producciones Mano Santa, an organization that champions art and culture. In addition to writing fiction, he’s studied journalism and reviewed films for such newspapers as Claridad and El Poeta. Maybe he’s surprised his book is a bestseller because he’s simply been too busy to notice.
“In Puerto Rico, a bestseller is fifty copies,” he grins. “Now old ladies come up to me and say, ‘I really liked your book!’ and I’m scared.”
Earlier that day, when I meet Luis at 88 Orchard on the Lower East Side, I momentarily worry that I’ll be unable to recognize him. The black-and-white author photo in Mundo Cruel is serious-looking, and he’s smoking. I detect a hint of humor in the photo, but maybe I’m unduly influenced by the stories in his book, which are filled with moments that cause uncomfortable laughs. In the title story, a gay male protagonist is appalled by a workplace presentation that homosexuality should be tolerated, and he vomits frequently, both out of disgust and out of concern for his physique. In another story, “For Guyama,” a man obsesses over taxidermying his dead dog—which is named after the city where Negrón was born.
After staking out a perfect spot, I notice that my laptop—which I want to use to record the interview—is low on battery. The only outlet in the café is on the other side of the room, between a couple that is either making up or breaking up—it’s hard to tell—and so I apologize and snake my computer cord through their argument.
When a man I think is Luis arrives, I have an idea: I hold up his book. If it turns out to be someone else, I’ll look a little unhinged, but that’s all right. He smiles. It’s him! He comes over to my table and introduces himself. We immediately launch into discussing his tour, the new book, and what comes next.
The Rumpus: Welcome to New York! I know you’ve been on the road a lot lately—where have you gone so far?
Luis Negrón: We went to Boston first and had our first event there. We were down here in the new year, and then next month we’re gonna go to the West Coast to see how it goes.
Negrón: L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle.
Rumpus: Have you been to any of those cities before?
Negrón: To Los Angeles. Actually, I used to live in Boston and I remember that one day when I was twenty-something, I think about going to Hollywood. I wanted to go to Hollywood, and I was on holiday, on vacation, and so I decided that I was gonna go cross-country.
Rumpus: On a bus?
Negrón: On a bus.
Rumpus: What bus line did you take?
Negrón: The Greyhound.
Rumpus: I spent two months traveling around on Greyhound. It’s an interesting way to see the country.
Negrón: I stopped first in New York, and then I went to Ohio, and then I went to Chicago. I went to Denver, then I went to Sante Fe, and then I arrived in Hollywood, but it wasn’t this great place. When I saw it I thought, They make movies, honey, but this is not a movie. I like old movies and stuff like that.
Rumpus: I can see some of that old-movie glamour in your book.
Negrón: I love old Hollywood movies and Mexican movies, stuff from the ’40s and ’50s.
Rumpus: What are your favorites?
Negrón: Well, I have a serious one and one that is just for pleasure. I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I love The Sound of Music. I really love The Sound of Music. Sunset Boulevard, too.
Rumpus: Are you saying that those movies aren’t serious?
Negrón: No, no, no, no, no. But they’re not like Tarkovsky, for example. Pelle The Conqueror is a perfect movie. But in terms of guilty pleasures, I like the Batman films. And I like melodramas. Actually, the first novel that I made was a melodrama. It’s the sort of thing that critics are not supposed to like, but I like it.
Rumpus: It has a negative connotation sometimes, I think. “Oh, it’s so melodramatic.”
Negrón: I think that melodrama is a safe way of suffering, because your suffering is fake. That’s why I like melodrama.
Rumpus: Where do you think that fits into your writing?
Negrón: Well, for example, even the title, Mundo Cruel—it’s saying, “Goodbye, cruel world.” You know that you cannot take that seriously, because it’s saying, “I’m suffering, but in a way you are existing.” Like I said, it’s a fake way of suffering.
Rumpus: Like in the title story.
Rumpus: There’s a line, “To make himself feel better he vomited, that always calmed his nerves,” you get the sense of that, the dark humor. I have to tell you, when I got this book in the mail, I saw the cover and thought, Oh, how cute! A little dog! But as soon I found out about there was a story about a taxidermied dog, I looked back at the cover and thought, Oh, no. I also noticed that the dog is named after the city that you were born in. What’s that all about?
Negrón: The thing is my brother—he told me one day, “Why do you write stories about Santurce? You’re not from Santurce. You’re from Guyama.” Sometimes in order to escape, you have to migrate to an inner city or country. When I was writing the story, I decided to call the dog Guyama to make fun of my brother. Because Guyama is a bitch, you know?
Rumpus: A lot of your characters treat each other very badly, and they face a lot of discrimination for being gay.
Negrón: These are the people that live on the margins of the margins. They are the ones that have the worst of all. Some of them, they don’t know that they’re supposed to be happy. They just try and survive and do what they can. And that’s one thing that I wanted to express in the book, that life has seen the worst faces on earth. It’s always alive. I remember I grew up in a poor family and we had almost nothing and we were not treated very well by our family. There was no safe haven for us. But somehow we always managed to be happy.
Rumpus: The two nosy neighbor women, in “So Many: Or How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell,” were two of the unhappiest characters, I think. Did you know women like this in Guyama, who gossiped constantly about who was gay in the neighborhood?
Negrón: The more that they say, “That one was gay. That one was gay,” the more they realize that they are surrounded by it. I also wanted to show in that story the hatred in Dominicans, that we have in Puerto Rico. And many people say, “Oh, we have nothing against Puerto Ricans,” and I wanted a way to unmask the people that say that they have nothing against gay people.
Rumpus: Like people that say, “I’m not racist, but,” and then they say something completely racist.
Negrón: Exactly. So I really had fun writing that, because I’ve heard a lot of people say things like that.
Rumpus: Me, too. I also want to ask you about translation, since this was the first time that you’ve had a book translated into English. What was that like? Did you have any disagreements over how phrases were going to be translated?
Negrón: For me, to be translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, it’s a dream. It’s a big deal, and I never ever, ever in my life thought it would happen to me. It didn’t cross my mind that I would be translated by her. So when they told me and they told me her name, I was like, “Okay.” But then I realized, I have her books here! And I was like, Oh my god, I’m in shock.
Then she came to New York for another week and it was very good working with her. It’s always great to work with masters, people who are really, truly good at what they do. People who are humble. I think that’s why she is who she is. And before Seven Stories wanted to translate Mundo Cruel, I was told that no one would read it outside of Puerto Rico, that the language was too Puerto Rican.
Rumpus: What were some particular words that they were pointing out as “too Puerto Rican”?
Negrón: Most of the words!
Rumpus: I think if someone translated my writing, I might wonder, Is that exactly what I’m saying in Spanish? Or how might it feel a little different?
Negrón: When I write in English—I mean, I wrote the draft and everything, but I also read it again when it was in the book, because that’s your responsibility to make sure everything was conveyed. So, I feel—I hear myself. I hear my voice. She was able to attain the way that I write. And also something that is very difficult to translate is the humor. It’s very difficult to translate humor and she was able to do that, I think. So I was thinking, How would an American audience react to this story?
Rumpus: Was there an particular joke that you were worried wouldn’t come across in the U.S.?
Negrón: “For Guyama.”
Rumpus: Oh really? The whole story?
Negrón: Yeah, because Americans are very sensitive about animals, so I was scared. Also, when it came out in Spanish, it was a big concern how gay people would react, because I think as a writer, it’s important to show the other part of being gay, not only the sex part. None of these guys—they want to get married, you know? They want a boyfriend or they want to get laid. And that’s basically what they want.
Rumpus: You definitely include some darker impulses, as well—like in “Botella,” where your protaganist murders someone to avoid being framed for another murder.
Negrón: What I wanted to show with that story is that sometimes people are trapped and they cannot be anything else but bad, you know? He’s not guilty of that crime. He’s trying to clean—I mean, he’s guilty of another crime. But he knows that it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, anyway, so he’s running away. It’s his shit, it will never go away.
Rumpus: I was thinking about the bleach, because there’s another smell in that story. Just trying to cover something up with bleach and then saying, “Oh, I had it on hand because I need it to clean up for other reasons.” It’s very striking.
Negrón: That scene was very difficult to write.
Rumpus: Because of the violence of it?
Negrón: Because of the violence. I wrote it probably in one draft, with few corrections. Not the others. The others I had to work more. That one, in particular, was one draft. And I write by hand. What I did with this one was, I—there was no other way that I could write the story because it was scary. It was really scary. To get in the mind and the heart and the humanity of this person, this outlaw—especially because in those days, there were all these hate crimes against gay people. So I decided to write about a character who is doing something like that. He will try to find his humanity there, and that’s the character that I wanted. That’s one story that I love the most.
Rumpus: It’s psychologically very complex—I was shocked by the murder, but I still felt bad for the main character. That he’s going to be blamed for the other crime. I think one of the reasons it’s scary is that by getting into that mind then you start to wonder, What would I do in that situation?
Negrón: And also when you’re writing, your mind has a place where the stories happen. With one word, you can get the idea of where you are. But in my mind, when I was writing this story, it was in my house and I couldn’t change the scenario, because it was happening in my house.
Rumpus: So you wrote it as fast as you could!
Negrón: It was happening in my bathroom and I was thinking, Oh my god. Sometimes even when I open the curtains in my bathroom, I see him there.
Rumpus: Another thing that I noticed that sort of came up a lot was this intersection between religion and sex, especially in the first story.
Negrón: Before I was writing this story, I was reading some essays about monstrosity in the Middle Ages and how monstrosity is really beauty, but beauty that someone does not understand, that most people cannot understand. So I wanted to show him as a monster, but also as a…I don’t know how to explain. He has his relationship with God. He feels that he’s the Chosen One. I wanted to show that nature cannot be stopped, and that’s why, when his father starts hitting him, he becomes more beautiful and more attractive. There’s no way that you can stop nature, and that was the story for me.
Abigail Welhouse wishes to thank Daniel Barron for his work transcribing this interview.
Featured image and final photograph of Luis Negrón © by Eny Roland Hernández.
Photographs of Luis Negrón and Suzanne Jill Levine © by Anne Rumberger.