Valeria Luiselli’s writing blends fact and fiction, taking the mundane (such as looking in the mirror) and imbuing it with new significance. She’s lived and traveled across the globe and with her essays, she takes us on her strolls and bike rides, whispering thoughts into our ears. Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa. Her collection of essays, Sidewalks, and her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, were translated by Christina MacSweeney and published simultaneously by Coffee House Press in May of 2014 (they were released in Spanish in 2010 and 2011 respectively).
The Story of My Teeth is the product of artistic collaboration. In January 2013, Luiselli was commissioned to write a work of fiction for the catalog of The Hunter and the Factory, an exhibition at Galería Jumex, a gallery located just outside of Mexico City. She describes it as a “wasteland-like” neighborhood. Much of the Jumex Collection is funded by Grupo Jumex, a neighboring juice factory. She decided to bring those two different worlds together in a fresh way by writing for the factory workers. Each week, Luiselli wrote an installment of the novel and sent it to the workers in chapbook form. They would set up a recording device, then read aloud and discuss the installments. Luiselli then listened to those recordings and wrote the next installment after hearing the workers’ comments, criticisms, and discussion. MacSweeney even added her own installment to the end of the translated version—a timeline which blends the events in the story and relevant historical facts together.
In The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez uses his legendary auctioneering skills to sell his most precious possessions—the teeth of the “notorious infamous” such as Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. This is just one thread of the novel through which Highway also tells us his life story and mediates on the value of art and truth.
During the time of this interview, conducted via email, Luiselli was in the process of finishing up her PhD dissertation and preparing for the novel’s release and subsequent tour.
The Rumpus: As a writer, I’m exhilarated by your work and how it exemplifies the flexibility of language (not to mention translations) and the barriers between genres. Some look at your essay collection, Sidewalks, as a companion to your first novel, Faces in the Crowd. Your recently released novel, The Story of My Teeth, has been described as a combination of memoir, fiction, and art criticism. Can you discuss the ways in which you decide how you want to tell a story?
Valeria Luiselli: I must say, to begin, that it may seem that I write my books back-to-back, because that is how they have been published in the US. That’s why it may seem that Sidewalks is a companion to Faces in the Crowd, for example. In truth, I have written my three books over the course of a ten-year period. I began writing Sidewalks when I was twenty-one, while living in Madrid. I began Faces in the Crowd when I moved to New York, just before the 2008 economic crisis. They are certainly books that speak to each other, and Faces in the Crowd is in many ways a fictional offspring of the persona that speaks in Sidewalks. But very different preoccupations motivated the two books. Sidewalks is a kind of bibliographic autobiography, as much as it is a venture into urbanism from the viewpoint of literature. It’s a coming-of-age essay, full of vitality and innocence, which deals with our relationship to spaces, books, and languages, among other things. I taught myself to write while I wrote Sidewalks, so it is a book that has no pretense other than to find the most exact words for things I had never been able to articulate until that point. Faces in the Crowd is sadder, deeper, more complex. It is a novel that deals with displacement from a less romanticized perspective. It is a book about not coming to terms with the life we have chosen, and the way that fiction may either redeem us or further our sense of disconnection from our lives. I guess that the genres in which I chose to write each of those two books were simply the necessary means for the kinds of questions I was asking myself at the time I wrote them.
Rumpus: Can you speak a little about your relationship with your translator, Christina MacSweeney, and what it’s like to work with her? I’m interested in hearing more after reading that she translates your work and then you “heavily edit” it. Why did you choose to have a translator over translating yourself?
Luiselli: I am at home, though never entirely comfortable, in both English and Spanish. But it is also true that I would never be able to render myself into English as accurately and beautifully as Christina does. I can think in English, but cannot carry my thoughts accurately over from Spanish into English. I can write in English, but would never be able to find such inventive ways to translate myself if the original version is in Spanish. My professional relationship with Christina is a very good one. We have a way of working that is just perfect for both of us. We give one other the freedom that we need, and respect each other’s limits. One strange thing for me is that, when I write directly in English I often find myself asking the question, How would Christina put this? I guess that she has helped me, among other things, to find a voice in my second language.
Rumpus: I’ve only just recently started thinking more about translations and reading in translation and I’m learning how interesting and complex the process can be. Do you have any favorite translations of literature?
Luiselli: This is a difficult question to answer, as I don’t tend to compare translations. I remember being baffled at the UK version of Madame Bovary, while a teenager, and not understanding much, and then reading a US version, which made the original more palatable. But I’ve unfortunately never read the book in its original French, so I cannot say whether one translation is better than the other. I do think, however, that translations should expand the language into which they are rendered. So I would endorse translations that are bold and trust the reader’s intelligence and intellectual flexibility, rather than ones that over-explain things, and treat readers like little creatures that must be re-educated. In horrible but accurate words, I prefer a translation that foreignizes the text rather than one that domesticizes it.
Rumpus: Much of your work is fragmentary and carefully crafted together. You’ve said with The Story of My Teeth, you had to let go of any preciousness or vanity you feel with your work because you had to produce and share each chapter on a specific timeline for a specific audience. What was that experience like? Has it had an effect on subsequent work and your writing process?
Luiselli: Yes, writing in weekly installments for a group of readers in a factory forced me out of a comfort zone. I had to be less precious and less pretentious with my writing. I had no time to craft and perfect little fragments of thoughts and imagery, and had to rely more on voice as a cogent element, and more on simple, straightforward storytelling as a vehicle. I don’t know if this has had an effect on my subsequent work—we’ll see. But I do think that I learned to write a more pure form of fiction with The Story of My Teeth. I also think that putting fiction at the service of something larger was an important lesson for me. Writing literature can be such a bourgeois and self-indulgent thing. While writing this novel I had to both entertain tired factory workers after their long day’s work, and be able to extract from them enough material to write the next installment. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was like being a clown and a psychologist at the same time,which was humbling. Writers tend to think they occupy a much more relevant place in society than we actually do. But we really are closer to buffoons and jesters than we are to whistle-blowers or moral guides. Accepting our rather insignificant place in society can be depressing—but it’s also freeing.
Rumpus: The ideas of place, space, and landscape are such vague, expansive ideas, yet you write about them so concretely. How can we all be better observers? Can you speak to how traveling or moving around shaped your ideas about places and how to observe them, about home (or citizenship) and empty spaces?
Luiselli: Since I moved around all my life, I guess that I learned to occupy the space of an observer. I learned to keep at a certain distance from things—and to make myself a little bit invisible while I observed and understood them. Not an absolute distance, as survival in a new social setting depends on a being able to engage to a certain degree. But a distance. I have always been either a newcomer or someone who is about to leave, so that intermediate, almost ghostly position has always defined both my relationships to people and space. Writing from that particular position can be a great handicap or a vantage point, depending on how you see it. I will never be able to write a novel that gives a reader a sense of absolute worldliness, or deep knowledge of a particular place, a community, or a way of life. But I can always, quite easily, put myself in other people’s shoes, so to speak, and look at the world through them. I think that perpetual foreigners, such as myself, have that ability. They can erase themselves easily and look at the world quietly, slowly, without feeling compelled to take part in it. They do not act as protagonists, but as recorders of others’ lives. I appreciate writers, especially essayists, who are able to do exactly that in their writing. I like reading the world through a writer’s eyes, rather than seeing a writer looking at him or herself as if at the center of gravity of the world around them. One of the aspects of the recent “personal essay” that I disdain is how the notion of “personal” is understood as a kind of “me, me, me”: the selfie in its most arrogant and indulgent expression. I don’t want to see writers seeing themselves. I want to see others through their eyes.
Author photo © Alfredo Pelcastre.