For years, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, author of the superb debut collection Barefoot Dogs, had the biography of a writer—a childhood in a political family in Mexico, a stint selling handicrafts in Madrid, a Spanish-language journalism career in, of all places, Texas—but there was one crucial ingredient he lacked: English. Though fluent in speaking the language, his writing was shaky, and he feared making the leap between tongues. Then, left with no choice, he did.
The results, as they have been in the case of Aleksander Hemon and Yiyun Li, are electric. Not only is there no trace in these eight linked stories of the writer’s diffidence but rather a sense of overflow, as if the engines of the two languages, once in discord, have locked into a higher gear, ceding quick revolutions of prose. In “Origami Prunes,” Ruiz-Camacho channels the thoughts of a young man climbing into a dryer to impress his older, blasé lover:
It felt leaden in my lungs as if I were breathing from an air tank filled with morning breath. But then the space flattened out and the air cleared, the sense of flying in circles vanished, and I broke free. My body felt light as if made only of cartilage, the direction of my flight determined by subtle movements of my limbs and nose and brows. I hovered over the big city, savoring a bubblegum taste in the air I didn’t remember it had.
He might as well be describing his prose style. There are hundreds of felicities like this in the book—a woman’s “branchy hands,” for example, an umbilical cord that feels like “cutting a copper wire in two”—all of them presented in an alternately rushed and tender manner, blessed with the speed of Bolaño but free of his macho posturing.
The stories, with one exception, focus on rich Mexicans coping with exile in the wake of the kidnapping of a family member. In the first one, the gorgeous “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” four teenage girls giddily plot a summer trip to Italy against a backdrop of rapes in their native Mexico City. In “Origami Prunes,” an older Mexican housewife hooks up with a young consulate worker to distract herself while Austin shrivels and burns from drought. And in “I Clench My Hands Into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” two brats, holed up in a Lower East Side apartment without their parents, taunt each other to drown out their fear of New York.
What brings these characters together is their guilelessness and innocence, as if being rich in a third world country has blinded them to reality. Barefoot Dogs is a thrillingly honest depiction of what it means to be wealthy in a poor country—and to then leave it for another place where your wealth no longer makes you exceptional.
Ruiz-Camacho grew up in Toluca, Mexico but now lives in Austin. For this interview we met at Swad, an Indian restaurant in the north of the city. In a fresa salmon sweater and hipster-nerd glasses, eating a dosa, Ruiz-Camacho was at his relaxed, multicultural best.
The Rumpus: How did you write the stories in Barefoot Dogs?
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: Most of these stories started as assignments—I had to turn in two or three stories for a workshop as a student at the New Writers Project at UT Austin. My background as a journalist writing under deadline helped. The urgency in the prose comes from having to finish them. At the time, I had a full-time job overseeing the digital properties of Univision in Texas and California. I had a team of six to eight web editors to oversee. I had to take classes, TA. I had two kids and a wife, and I didn’t want my wife to leave me and my kids to hate me, so I’d write whenever I could—lunchtime, morning, after the family was asleep, the full day on the weekend. I was about thirty-eight and had been working as a journalist since I was twenty-three. I had a lot of experience writing.
Rumpus: How did you put aside your experiences as a journalist in Mexico City, Madrid, and Austin to write more directly about people of your class?
Ruiz-Camacho: That had to do with my transition from journalism to fiction. As a committed journalist, what I was trying to do was expose what wasn’t right, to give voice to people who didn’t have one in the public debate. The oppressed are entitled to justice whether they’re good or bad people. When you write a journalistic piece, you’re trying to find the bad guys. You can’t do that in fiction. The results are disastrous. You have to let your characters behave on the page.
When I got to the moment when I had to write about what I knew, what was closer to me, I clearly remembered people like the people in my collection. These characters are really privileged people who own the country, and whose decisions effect people living under them. To write stories that would make them relatable was a nice challenge.
When I write fiction, I write about things that I can’t get rid of. Growing up in a unique family of which one side was extremely rich and the other working class, almost poor at times, issues of powerlessness, class, and race were personal to me. The loss of my father from cancer when I was twenty-four—he was also an absent father—counts a lot in my writing, non-fiction or fiction.
Rumpus: Was there a story in the collection that represented a breakthrough when you wrote it?
Ruiz-Camacho: I was trying to do something with each story in terms of craft. I brought my first story into workshop. It was really bad. The comments I got—I didn’t feel well. I was still struggling with language. I took an English grammar class for undergraduates my first semester. I tried to test myself. I had the idea of “Deers,” and I challenged myself to write a story that was one sentence long. Another was entirely in present tense. In “Better Latitude” I tried to play with the poetic moment. Each was a little breakthrough. The hardest for me was “Origami Prunes.” Lots of weird things happen in the story: getting into the dryer, sexual tension, an unsympathetic older female character and an equally unsympathetic younger male character, the dismissal by these people of the working class. Some of things Laura, the protagonist, says are really, really corny.
Rumpus: Did you begin with the idea of these stories in Barefoot Dogs being connected? Or was there a point in the writing when you discovered the connections?
Ruiz-Camacho: When I wrote “Deers”, I didn’t know it had any relation to anything else. The second one I started was “Barefoot Dogs,” where the kidnapping comes up. Then I wrote the first story in the collection and realized: This is the granddaughter of the guy in “Barefoot Dogs.” These two members of the same family came to me like ghosts asking me to tell their story. The rest became an investigation of what happens to the members of the family after the kidnapping of the patriarch. One of the things that obsessed me was how these really strong emotions we can’t bear alter our sense of reality. The characters hardly talk of the event openly. They’re the elite: they’re in shock that this could happen to them. They have a sense of entitlement that comes from belonging to a certain class. Mixed with this is the uncertainty of becoming immigrants.
Rumpus: The stories seem to be a way of making sense of places you’ve lived yourself: Madrid, Austin, Palo Alto, Mexico City.
Ruiz-Camacho: It’s a professional deformation that I still have as a journalist, that if I write about a specific place—even if weird things are going to happen in that place—they have to be somehow real to me. I went back to writing what I know. You’re trying to process some of the emotions those places made you feel. When I started writing “Barefoot Dogs,” which is set in Madrid, I tried to use as much autobiographical information as possible—the apartment where we lived was in that neighborhood. We had a dog. We had houseplants in Mexico City we were heartbroken to leave behind.
Rumpus: How much English and Spanish did you learn growing up? When did you get to a point where you felt comfortable enough producing art in English?
Ruiz-Camacho: I went to a bilingual pre-K in Mexico City. Through my education in a private school, I knew English but was not fluent or confident about my writing. When we moved to Austin in 2004, I worked as the managing editor at a Spanish-language newspaper, part of a chain launching in Texas. I worked there for the next four years and realized I wanted to go back to full-time writing. I’d been writing fiction in Spanish for years—I started writing a novel in 1999. I had taken an informal fiction workshop in college. I had never considered becoming a writer. But these things are sometimes more powerful than you. I worked on the novel for many years. I thought I had finished it in 2007 and submitted it to contests in Mexico and Spain. I applied to the Knight Fellowship at Stanford, and one of my goals was to find a way to get back to writing.
I had never written anything but emails in English. When I wrote my Knight Fellowship application, friends helped me with grammar. I got through and started taking classes. It was terrifying—I didn’t feel comfortable about grammar. But when I showed work, the feedback was very encouraging. I started with several essays in a nonfiction class. By the end of the year the encouragement was so positive that I had applied and been admitted to Bread Loaf.
As long as no one tells me to stop, I like the challenge. A language is a way to see the world. The roots of English and Spanish are different. I fell in love with the way I expressed my world in English. I liked the results. I liked my own voice. A comment I would get was that I’d come up with phrases a native wouldn’t come up with because I was using the brain of a Spanish speaker. I decided to exploit that. But the fact that I was insecure about language made me concentrate on the story. My readers, I realized, wouldn’t care if English is my second language—the story has to work regardless of my background. I had to tone down my ambition in terms of language. I haven’t written in Spanish for a while. When I go back to read what I wrote, I feel I knew the language too well, and that it got unleashed and was out of control.
Rumpus: Do you identify with other bilingual writers like Nabokov, Conrad, and Aleksandar Hemon?
Ruiz-Camacho: It’s intimidating to ask, “Are you related to Nabokov?” I love Nabokov. I loved his memoir. At one point, when I was trying to publish my novel in Spanish, I met an author who told me I had to publish in Spanish in Latin America first. “Or you could start writing in English. Nabokov did it?” It didn’t feel nice because I couldn’t even consider it. Then Nabokov became an inspiration. An agent told me, at Stanford, that no one would publish me in Spanish in the US. At that moment, taking my first creative writing class, I realized, I’m not going back to Mexico or Spain, so I have to try this. In that sense—I haven’t talked to Yiyun Li or Hemon about this—but what I know is that it was out of necessity. Nabokov was raised with French and English—he was bilingual, like my kids, who’ve grown up here.
Rumpus: You’re of Mexican origin, but you’ve been gone from Mexico for years. Did you feel you’re part of a tradition of Mexican writing despite that?
Ruiz-Camacho: I left Mexico in 2001, almost fourteen years ago. I have a love-hate relationship with Mexico. When I was in Mexico I never hung around writers of my generation. Now I know a couple. There are several Mexican authors who are producing interesting stuff—like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera. They are my generation—Valeria is younger. They live abroad.
My perspective on Mexico has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t live in Mexico and that I am so critical of it. I miss it the way you would miss a country that doesn’t exist. I am always conflicted. I feel I have more to do with Latin American writers who live abroad than with other Mexican writers in Mexico or an American writer in America. I myself have more in common with you, though you write about India.
How are people in Mexico going to respond to what I wrote? I still don’t know. I want people to read my stories in Mexico—the unconscious longing for your parents to love you. I would feel very sad if my work was only read outside Mexico.
I’m going to do the translation into Spanish. When I heard Penguin Random House in Mexico wanted to buy the collection that was a very special moment. Being published in Mexico feels like a homecoming.
Author photo © Joel Salcido.