David Naimon: Today’s program is brought to you in part by Manzanita Papers, a literary subscription box dedicated to incredible books that have flown under the radar. Each month, a different writer selects a book they cherish and writes a personalized introduction about why you might too. With each month’s book, subscribers receive this personalized introduction to it, as well as custom artwork based on the book itself in the form of postcards and bookmarks. So far this year, readers have been treated to Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti, Revenge by Yōko Ogawa, Silk Poems by Jen Bervin, and Labrador by Kathryn Davis with personal introductions by writing luminaries such as Karen Russell, Kate Bernheimer, and Ander Monson writing about the books they love, books that deserve more love, that they want to share with you. If you’d like to learn more or if you’d like to be surprised and delighted by some great book mail each month, find Manzanita Papers on Instagram or visit manzanitapapers.com to subscribe now. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses, which Dani Shapiro calls, “Searing, lucid, tender and wise.” The memoir tells the story of Maum’s return to horseback riding after many years away. Charting how she finds her way back to herself not only as a rider but as a mother, wife, daughter, writer, and woman. Alternating timelines and braided with historical portraits of women and horses alongside history’s attempts to tame both parties, The Year of the Horses is an inspiring love letter to the power of animals—and humans—to heal the mind and the heart. Says Lisa Taddeo, “Gorgeously written, wry but loving, heartbreaking and, most of all, roving. . . . The Year of the Horses is a memoir of power and beauty and pain that moves across the world like the beautiful horses that carry it.” The Year of the Horses is out on May 3rd from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today, I’m excited to welcome Cristina Rivera Garza back to the show for her new and selected short fiction with Dorothy Project. As the second half of the Dorothy Project double header following the conversation with Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat, the other book Dorothy released this spring, Cristina’s work holds a special place in my heart. I love that she writes across all genres, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and that within each, she works against what defines them as such. But also the range of her register from fantastical uncanny fiction to scholarly work, deeply philosophic and intellectual work that feels somehow still in conversation with the mysteries of her fiction. One particular treat of this New and Selected is that it’s an opportunity to step back, and look at the evolutions, and in Cristina’s case, we could say also mutations and re-envisionings of a writer’s work over three decades, then step forward at various points and see if what we see in one era or another looks different now. Cristina publishes with a wide variety of presses but the last time she was on the show, coincidentally, it was also with a book of hers from Dorothy, The Taiga Syndrome, which perhaps is a sign since Dorothy puts out two books a year, both by women and somehow both of these books are improbably episodes back to back this spring. As I mentioned in my intro to Caren Beilin, as part of this Dorothy celebration, they sent me a copy of each of their entire back catalog to date, all 22 books to divide into various bundles to offer to you the listener who hasn’t quite yet become a listener-supporter. Caren describes Dorothy as the great defender of the sentence. I do think that this is one really true way to frame the writers they publish and that so many of us love. Women writers with a distinctive style, voice, and syntax one to the next, language forward books, which I had the pleasure of grouping into these bundles from a surrealistic themed bundle with Cristina’s The Taiga Syndrome, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, and Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk to the largest bundle of seven remarkable stylists, including Amina Cain, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, to Nell Zink, and Jen George. Last time Cristina was on the show, she read three sections of her long poem Third World for the bonus audio archive that’s definitely worth seeking out. This time, the bonus audio is a long-form conversation with her long-time translator, Sarah Booker. This is a particularly great compliment to the conversation with Cristina, a conversation that is very much engaged with questions of authorship and identity, of relationality, and translation. With Sarah, we talk about the horizontal feminist ethics they operate under when they work together among many other things. To check out how to subscribe to the bonus audio and all the other potential benefits of joining the Between The Covers community, including this largesse of Dorothy Project books, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Cristina Rivera Garza.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, one of the most important contemporary Mexican writers, the only writer to win the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize twice, is novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, editor, and translator, Cristina Rivera Garza. Rivera Garza has lived and studied in both Mexico and the United States receiving degrees in Latin American history. She’s also been a professor in both Mexico and the United States of history, literature, and creative writing. Her work, much like her own life in the life of her migrant ancestors, is writing that is concerned with interrogates and crosses borders, whether the borders between English and Spanish or the United States and Mexico and those between writer and translator, or the borders between the human and the non-human, the forest and the city, or with regards to questions of gender, indigeneity, femicide, and ecocide, as well as writing that troubles existential borders of selfhood and authorship, of the notion of the independent and singular self-bounded border of identity. These questions animate her work in all three genres. In that spirit, she’s also the founder of the first Spanish-language PhD program in creative writing within the United States at the University of Houston. When Cristina first appeared on the show in 2019 to talk about two of her works of fiction recently translated into English, The Taiga Syndrome and The Iliac Crest, I remember that there was a wealth of nonfiction books by her that had yet to be translated. It’s truly remarkable what has happened in the three years since we talked, both in what has been carried across into English since and what she has written in Spanish during that time. To do justice to her accomplishments would require us to dispense with the interview entirely, so I will instead mention what has happened since we last talked. Since we last talked, she has published in English three books of nonfiction, the essay collection The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation translated by Robin Myers, the scholarly work La Castañeda Insane Asylum: Narratives of Pain in Modern Mexico translated by Laura Kanost, and the hybrid work of essays, journalism, and poetry Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country translated by Sarah Booker, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Several books have also been published in Spanish. In 2020, she published Autobiografía del algodón, Autobiography of Cotton, and in 2021, El invencible verano de Liliana about her sister, the victim of a femicide 30 years ago whose perpetrator was never brought to justice; winner of the Premio Iberoamericano de Letras José Donoso and she has also published Lo Roto Precede a Lo Entero: 125 Infraensayos inspired by Georges Perec’s posthumous book Lo infraordinario. As if that were not enough, she was finally recognized as a genius receiving the “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2020. Cristina Rivera Garza returns to Between The Covers today to talk about her latest book in English, her New and Selected Stories from Dorothy Project, stories that span her career, showing how she has changed and transformed as a writer over time, including stories that have not yet been translated into Spanish. The stories that have been translated into English from Spanish were translated by Sarah Booker, as well as by Lisa Dillman, Francisca Gonzalez-Arias, Alex Ross, and the author herself. Terry Hong for self-awareness says of Cristina’s latest book, “Rivera Garza’s presentations invite continued interpretations and interrogations. Transparent understanding, definitive endings, convincing closure won’t be found here; what Rivera Garza offers is invention, challenge, linguistic acrobatics and a more-than-occasional embrace of the impenetrable.” Kirkus in its starred review adds, “The stories in this collection tales from the most surreal of shadow lands are as varied as Rivera Garza’s remarkable career, and this book is an excellent introduction to a unique writer who deserves to be recognized not just in Mexico but all over the world.” Finally, Publishers Weekly in its starred review says, “This hypnotic, riveting collection of new and previously published stories from MacArthur Fellow Rivera Garza takes on love, migration, and violence. The author successfully deploys a range of styles and forms, influenced by prose poetry, fables, and postmodern experiments. Throughout, she documents the ravages of the real world while establishing a refuge in literature: These unsettling yet deeply approachable stories ought to earn Rivera Garza the wider attention she deserves.” Welcome back to Between The Covers, Cristina Rivera Garza.
Cristina Rivera Garza: Hi, David. Thank you for the invitation. It’s wonderful to be back here.
DN: I want to start with three medic questions about the arrival of the book before we get to the actual stories within the book. The first question I have is in the spirit of the introduction about your relationship to borders, particularly with regards to the notion of the individual or the individual bordered self because it feels like you take a similar approach to the self as you do to the notion of a book as an object. Whereas I think most people see the publication of a book as the arrival of something in its final form, a form that has clear borders meant to endure as such. It seems to me that every time one of your books comes out in translation, you see it as an opportunity to reimagine it, break it down, build it up again. For instance, your book Grieving is one you’ve characterized as mutating over time. Not only that it had different versions in Spanish but that its arrival in English was not only an opportunity to add more but to go back in and change what was already there. Your book La Castañeda by contrast started as a dissertation in English, then you translated into a less academic Spanish and published it like that, then it gets translated back into English. Here again with New and Selected Stories, not only have you written stories for this collection, which are appearing for the first time, and the first time they’re appearing, they’re appearing in English, you’ve also re-entered your Spanish language stories and revised some of them. You even revised some of the translations, becoming a translator in a sense. Talk to us about this phenomenon for you and how it relates to your notion of the book as a book, then maybe you can just talk a little bit also about the process of taking something apart that’s already found its form, then creating a new form.
CG: Wonderful. This is a really good question. I think if I have been learning something about translation, and translation has become a central feature of all I do, is its capacity to unfinish but what is apparently, complete, and finished. I’ve seen that as an opportunity in fact. As my works have been traveling from Spanish into English specifically because they’ve been translated into languages that I’m not proficient on and obviously, I don’t go through all these major work in languages, like French or I don’t know, Italian, but I’m very conscious about English to begin with because I live in the United States, I’ve been in this country for such a long time, and I’ve developed a very close relationship with wonderful translators, with Sarah Booker who’s been a sidekick now in several major projects, with Robin Myers who is also a poet, recently with Cheyla Samuelson, and you just mentioned the name of the translator of La Castañeda, Laura. Let me see. I believe that all work is work in progress and that when we write the word “the end” at the end of this project, it’s fiction. It’s just a way of pausing time, giving us some respite, a time to rearrange things to go over ideas. But certainly, the fact that I’ve been having to go back to this text, I would have never done this if I had remained only working in Spanish of course. I had no reason to go back to really read my own work. That’s something that I’m not actively looking forward to. But the work of the translation has required such an intimate detailed conversation with the translations as such and has given me this opportunity of revising the work, of following threats that I had left, just by themselves in previous attempts. It’s been in fact a rewriting process. I’ve been able to find new pathways in some of these texts. There were things that I didn’t even remember when I went back the first time that I read some of these, especially the longer novels or the longer essays. In that sense, I think it is actually a privilege. When I was living in Mexico and I started to publish some of my books in Mexico, I always had this idea. I wanted to change the titles, for example, of my books. I actually ran into this idea by my editors and they said, “We don’t think that might work because people will attach meanings to these titles,” then I was thinking the books change over time and that’s the issue. They are apparently done. They have acquired a specific and stable identity. Apparently only. Every time that these books go through borders, face new readerships, new audiences, if we’re lucky, they’re able to say new things. As I started working with my translators, we’ve been very aware of this traveling, of going back to the places where many of these works were first conceived. It’s been a very strange translation, retro translation, untranslation in a way and I take that to be a creative process as well. I am creating, with the very intimate collaboration of the translations, new works. In that sense, I’m also very aware of the fact that this is a collaborative effort. That what appeared in Spanish some years ago, 10, 20 years ago is one book and what we’re creating right now, surrounded by English, thinking about an English speaking audience as well, it’s a new book and it’s a new collaborative work. All writing to me in my view is collaborative work, is work made in a plural. In that sense, it’s very hard for me to conceive that isolated self that you mentioned at the beginning. I think translation just makes that process so visible, the fact that we’re always in dialogue with others when we’re writing.
DN: My second meta question is around something that you say in the introduction, which is that the process of revisiting and revising these old stories, which you’ve already intimated, was an uncomfortable journey. I couldn’t help but notice that only two stories from your first story collection are in the selected and only three from your second collection are included here, which made me curious about your encounter with your earliest writer self, what you discovered about those earliest stories, especially I guess about maybe the ones that aren’t there. But I know a lot of the listeners are writers or art makers and I’m sure people would be interested in hearing what things you saw in your own early writing that you now feel differently about or wouldn’t do or what things you learned about yourself by looking at that early work, if I’m maybe even reading too much into that, but also maybe the continuities you were surprised to discover from your first stories to now or even just what was uncomfortable about that journey of reentering work that spans 30 years.
CG: It was certainly an uncomfortable experience. These are many years and many years of continuous work too. There were, as you said, some continuities and I was not entirely surprised by them. There were issues that I now recognize as approaches that in my present view were failing but that I see also as learning processes as always is the case. There is a very deep concern about issues dealing with bodies and genders, and with danger with a sense of seeking violence that is not necessarily visible or identifiable but somewhat is permeating the whole scene, the interactions among characters. It seems to me that even though when I began writing, we were not explicitly talking about, for example, the so-called war on drugs or what we now know as the war on women, I was in a way collecting, paying attention to scenes that were enigmatic enough, hard to understand, hard to explain or that I was struggling not to normalize them. I can recognize now, looking from the present into the past, that intention of collecting these different scenes that somehow made the world a menacing place, a place that I was not able to normalize to fully understand, therefore, I had to pay attention to, very close attention, which to me is a good definition of what writing does. It helps us to pay very close attention to issues, specifically, at least, in my case that I don’t fully comprehend and that therefore they come back again, and again nagging me, asking me for some sort of, if not understanding, at least, approach to some connection. I was a voracious reader when I was young. As I guess most old writers are, I was playing with form. I was in a way dancing trying to find the specific tempo, tone, pitch, and sound for all these stories that I wanted to share. The first book is very realistic in my approach to storytelling. Even though there are moments in which my term as the fantastic takes place within the story, these were very pretty city based stories mostly related to Mexico City in the late 20th Century. I think that the evolution that, at least, became clear in my mind when I was reading all these materials is this slow but now this way of exploring form, different types of genres, and specifically, I was very seduced by the opportunities of the detective story on the one hand, of the possibilities, of the fantastic as such. I see that becoming more and more prominent as the stories reach our present. The concerns are more or less stable. Bodies are always there. What do we do with our bodies? How do we relate to each other? How gender, class, and race play a role in complicating those relationships? What do we do or what do I do as a writer in order to remain on my toes, to be alert at how danger is lurking through these relationships, not only between humans but also between humans and non-humans, the characters in these stories? That’s something that is being there as a constant concern throughout the stories. Of course, I was a young writer. Recently, this year, we released, in Spanish, a new version of my first short story collection. The original title was La guerra no importa or It doesn’t matter. Now we released it last year with a new title. Finally, my dream about changing titles came true, and it’s now called Andamos Perras, Andamos Diablas: We Go Like Bitches, We Go Like She-Devils, which I thought was more in tune with not only the stories but also the moment that we’re living in right now. Something that I mentioned there in the preface that I wrote is that I can see that very young writer dealing the best she could with issues of form and content, and that dance between the two and trying to find each other, and create something that is shareable. I see the writer failing quite often and failing big, and failing again, but the good thing is that the writer is trying and is trying again, and again. There is this curiosity, there is alertness about form and what form can do. But on the other hand, to see that was very uncomfortable because I was revising the pieces but I didn’t want to polish them unnecessarily. I wanted them to keep that writtenness. It was the first book and I wanted it to remain the first book. I didn’t want to invade the book. I just wanted to reread it, to make it more approachable but I didn’t want to drastically transform them. I didn’t want that book to be the book of the writer that I am now. It was important for me, at that point, that something that I saw in that very young writer, that there was an energy that I now envy. There is this vigor, like someone who is not actually paying much attention about decorum and how things should be done. It’s someone who is exploring and doing that as freely as we can at times. I was not that aware as I have become over the years about the state of a literary movement and the rules of our trade, issues of convention, all those kinds of things that I like to interrogate and I try to do very consciously now. I think when I was reading this work, this early work, what I saw was someone doing it with great energy and we know and respect it. I don’t know if that is a word that I’m looking for.
DN: I like that juxtaposition of the things that you are uncomfortable with but also the things that you envy.
CG: Yeah. We write our first book only once and that’s such a privilege. It’s a state of grace in many sense. There are no expectations for us from readers that even I myself had no expectations. There was this need and it was a wild forceful need to be there, to have these comments and goings with language. There was an experience that needed to be put into words in that specific way. That is strength. That’s something that I look back at, and I say, “Well, yeah, I want more of that in my own work even now.
DN: Now, let me ask you my third and last meta question, which is about fiction versus nonfiction because when we talked in 2019, even though your novels, The Iliac Crest and The Taiga Syndrome had both just come out in English, for the most part, you had been focusing on nonfiction in your own writing for many years, so you were revisiting at that point work that you had written a while ago in Spanish and you alluded to a dissatisfaction with fiction for you as an adequate vehicle for what you were aspiring toward when we talked, and since 2019, both the books you’ve written in Spanish and the ones that have arrived in English have overwhelmingly been nonfiction too, so it’s perhaps improbable that we find ourselves again talking about your fiction, given how much of your work is nonfiction. But I wondered if you could speak to your relationship to fiction now three years later, both generally speaking but also with regards to two rare nods to fiction in the last couple years for you. For instance, you’ve referred to your ostensibly nonfiction book The Autobiography of Cotton as a novel and you’ve also written new fictions for this New and Selected. Tell us where you’re at about the limitations or the opportunities of fiction for you and where you stand today in relationship to the imagined.
CG: I think I’ve developed a complicated relationship with fiction over the years and it’s a love-hate relationship. I taught an intro to fiction for many years at UCSD and I remember I used to tell my students in our first class, I used to ask them, “Why should we study fiction?” They all thought that it was a rhetorical question, the kind of question that a professor would pose to the class looking for support for fiction as such. I was always taken aback when they were just so smart and they offered all these possibilities. At one point, I was like, “Yeah, they must be right. There may be something that fiction does in that sense.” The possibility of fiction to create empathy, to put oneself on someone else’s shoes, the imagination, etc. I quoted what a Norwegian author Knausgård has said about fiction as lacking any power in a world in which pretty much everything is fiction. I think he said it quite right there. That’s my major qualm of that fiction right now. What can fiction do in a world in which pretty much everything is fiction? Is there any power in the sense of providing us with critical tools to look into the world and with critical tools to change our lives? I started to move away from fiction. At a certain point during the early 21st Century, I was thinking very hard about issues of appropriation and issues of research related to the writing of fiction as many others were interrogating the role of the author and the license that fiction authors often give themselves in order to deal with issues that require much ethical and aesthetic care. All that became a matter of much thought and concern, and therefore my relationship with fiction became, as I said, complicated. But I have to admit that even in works, my three last books that have yet to be translated into English, Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué, which is essentially my relationship with a major Mexican author, Juan Rulfo in a range of chronicles about my following of his steps in some Mexican territories, then what you mentioned, The Autobiography of Cotton, which is an exploration of the migrant experience of my maternal and paternal grandparents too, then obviously, the most recent, the Liliana’s Invincible Summer, which will be out by Hogarth Press in 2023, but the three books shared certain method or methodology if you want to call it that way. It’s an emphasis on research as a mode of care, as a way of caring for the materials and the topics that I’m trying to explore or become close to. The point here was that even though I was paying attention to the different modes of nonfiction, in order to tell these stories, I had to rely on fiction. I call The Autobiography of Cotton a novel because even though it’s written in different genres, I thought that the genre that became the host of all of them was in fact fiction. In order to fill out the gaps, in order to create the linkage that goes from beginning till end of the book, the total embrace of the book is something that fiction allows. Whereas in El Invencible Verano de Liliana, in the previous book, I think nonfiction played that role. It’s a matter of degree I suppose. I’m not in an either/or a position right now. I am less belligerent than I was some five years ago with fiction. I found myself not long ago at the end of last year writing, I wrote a lot of pages of something that might become a speculative novel and it’s totally fiction. I was absolutely startled by going back to a genre that allows much freedom but that also obviously has very strict rules, so I’m experimenting. I don’t think that I can unfiction myself. I don’t think I’m going to go back to fiction as I used to practice fiction. I think it’s going to be a different take and it’s going to be informed by all these questions and interrogations that I’ve been posing to my own work and my readings but there is something of course there that is very mercurial, and full of possibility as well. I’m again intrigued by that possibility.
DN: In the intro to your book La Castañeda about the narratives of pain in the Insane Asylum in Mexico, you say that we are in the presence of a conjoined twin brother separated at birth from its opposite twin sister. That your novel Nadie me verá llorar and this nonfiction book where we’re reading the introduction are conjoined twins, and that whether or not they recognize one another, they both need each other. That is one thing that I really love about your work. It’s the porousness between all of it. The ways the questions and the themes in your fiction, your nonfiction, and your poetry, they all seem to emigrate from one to the next, perhaps even inviting the reader to find connections or make connections. In that spirit, I wanted to propose a connection and see how it feels to you. Many of your fictional protagonists in your stories and novels are meaning makers, detectives, journalists, translators, ethnographers, and they by nature are seeking to construct meaning, to uncover a truth, to put things into language. But it feels like that the world of your stories often is working against the success of this. In The Taiga Syndrome, so much of the vital communication is mediated through a translator into a language that is nobody’s first language. In The Iliac Crest, there’s an invented language of the two women guests that excludes the host from understanding. Then in your New and Selected, we see that too, the breakdown of language miscommunication or fragmented communication. In speaking about your debut 1991 collection La Guerra No Importa, you say the term unknowing, which is also the name of one of the stories in it, is the best term to describe the intimate operation at the heart of the stories of your first book and also that unknowing was what you thought writing was for. When I’m thinking of all of this and I’m returning to this notion of conjoined twins across genres, I listened to a recent talk you gave and you were talking about writing your book El invencible verano de Liliana about the murder of your sister, and you read for the audience one paragraph that you must have translated into English, a very linear, straightforward, and factual paragraph about the situation of her death. Then you said that paragraph took you 30 years to be able to write and that you had been struck speechless up until then. When you said that, I thought back to what I mentioned about all these meaning making characters in your stories that are confronted with the failure of being able to make meaning and I wondered if you felt a connection between your speechlessness, and the way these stories are constructed with these characters that have a certain vocation, that is being sabotaged in a sense by the world in which they’re operating.
CG: This is just great. Thank you so much for that reading and for making those connections. I think you have summarized some of the operations central to most of my work definitely. These meaning makers are in a way like linguistic shifters. They are continuously moving, transforming themselves, and adapting or opposing circumstances that are apparently beyond their control. That tension is central to the story as such. It’s the reason why the story exists. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense. I’m reminded of what Ricardo Piglia said in that little book Formas breves, “Without paradox, we don’t have a story. There is no need to tell a story without paradox.” That contradiction at the heart of human experience in a way is what is propelling the storytelling as such. I think in my case, there are two issues equally relevant. On the one hand, the speechlessness or the frozen states and violence, forces very often. Adriana Cavarero said, and I think in a very convincing way, that the task of horror precisely is to freeze us, to paralyze us, to prevent us from having any reaction, which is what power wants obviously. In a way, I see writing as a possibility of going through that stage to finally put that experience, which could be the experience of trauma in words; identifying and containing the shapelessness that is violent at its core. That tension is fundamental. At the same time, on the other extreme, they’re very closely linked I think, is the issue of the naturalization of violence is on the one hand lack of language and on the other hand, the surplus of language; the way in which many of these hierarchies are accepted as such without questioning them or violence as such as just another component of everyday life. I think writing or these meaning makers, these characters that are continuously trying to, if not capturing, at least, to go through this experience to approach them in a way that are not overwhelming, I think these meaning makers, that’s what they are trying to do vis-à-vis the shapelessness that is violence or the fossilization, at the same time, this petrous nature of violence. Both of them are on the extremes of experience. I do believe that the writing is a way of going through them, not necessarily in order to solve a puzzle or to fix a problem but just to make the approach bearable I suppose. That’s an explanation of my own experience as a writer. That’s the reason why the four of the issues that you mentioned are so important, the presence of mediation in all stories. We have to know as readers how knowledge is being built and what are the different stages that language has to go through in order for us to be able to receive that. The story is about that. Regardless of the topic, regardless of the plot, the story is about how we get to even approach that experience that always belongs to others. First languages, all languages are invented languages. Language comes as a result of the specific conversations. I’ve been working a lot with literal meaning. There is a short story, I don’t think that one made it into this book, about a woman that gave her hand metaphorically as in marriage but the man was asking for her hand literally, as in maiming, so looking for those ways in which literal meaning emphasizes something that is dangerous and lurking our relationships has been important as well. When I say that unknowing is relevant, it is precisely because what we are usually facing is either that utter lack of language or that excess of language. Just opening new paths through that experience and looking at a world anew, just unknowing where we’ve been trained to look at and to perceive, I think that’s something that has been very glorious in fact as a reader for me. That’s what literature has given me as a reader. I would love to think that some of that might be what readers find also in my books if I’m lucky.
DN: It’s interesting to hear you speak about unknowing being important still because the way you phrased it in the intro was that for your first book, unknowing was what you thought writing was for, which seemed to me to have a subtext that maybe that wasn’t what writing was for you anymore. But in your essays in Grieving, when speaking about mourning, you say that by losing the other, you not only mourn the loss but become inscrutable to yourself, and that vulnerability and unknowing are the foundations from which to rethink a theory of collective power and responsibility. I do see you and your nonfiction weaving unknowing almost into a political theory or a political position.
CG: That’s definitely important to me. I think interrogating what we understand or what we don’t understand about our world is precisely what I’m trying to do when dealing with language. Posing a question, a question that is strong enough or at least enigmatic enough to attract someone else’s attention, I think that’s something that we do together and as such, might gain relevance for our daily life. Again, I’m referring also to my own experiences as a young reader, as a voracious reader always, as someone whose life has been transformed many ways by how I get the chance to approach two books in three languages. Specifically, in the case of reading this book, I think I was trying to just think through a very complicated, the most violent years in recent Mexican history. I was trying to make sense together with others about what our daily life was like, what we could do. The experience of pain was so widespread and the lack of language, the power of horror was very much established in our midst. Interrogating language and trying to think through those interrogations, that’s what kept me, at least, not only alive but willing to continue probing in what was our reality like, what could we do together. I’ve been reading recently the works by Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.
DN: I love that book.
CG: Yeah, it’s a marvelous book. The relationship that she makes between wake, the different levels, meanings of the word also related to grieving, to duelo in Spanish, and the way in which pain allows us to bring back with great force the sources of misfortune and tragedy, and therefore gives us the critical capacity to confront a new, a situation but always within the solidarities built with others, that embrace, I think that’s so relevant. I’m continuously thinking about how grieving allows us to do that and asks us, forces us, at least myself, to connect. We cannot grieve in singular as I said in the book. This is like writing something that we do in plural.
DN: I’m glad you brought up, a couple of times, horror. I really like your exploration of what you call horrorism in Grieving where you contrast terror, which is something one experiences with fear in attempts to escape, versus horror, which goes beyond fear, which renders one speechless, immobile, without agency, mouth hanging open, something that you call the extreme spectacle of power. Your book Grieving opens with two tortured bodies hanging from a bridge. All of that made me, with regards to questions of language, the question of horrorism related to speech, made me think of my conversation with the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. She talks about the inarticulate or stuttering speech of her character under occupation, a character who doesn’t have a sophisticated political analysis of her own situation where she’s often blaming herself for her inability to orient herself or navigate well what is otherwise a seamless, smooth articulate narrative of the state, a narrative that has erased her previous reality. When you ask in Grieving “What can we do in the face of horrorism when speechlessness and social paralysis prevail?” I wonder if this question is one that you feel animates your short stories as well.
CG: Yeah, just as you mentioned earlier, the relationship between Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry) and La Castañeda, the more academic book as twin sister and brother, I think reading as being a twin for several twin brother and sister at the same time, twin person for the short stories. I think I work like that. I work by following, at least, two different paths. One of them I’m trying to create arguments. I’m trying to write in a mood that allows me to approach specific very concrete contextual situations that I’m going through but at the same time, I’m looking for these other aspects that are more related to form, an exploration, a more conscious exploration of form, I would say; the elements of fiction, character, and dialogues, and narrative arcs, and all that kind of thing. [laughter] But I think there are layers of the same question, of the same curiosity, or the same impulse for survival. As the stories become more and more fantastic as I explore more issues in the genre of the fantastic, I think the essays become more clearly connected to issues that deal with agency and politics. It is like the two sides of the same coin. We are trying to go through those experiences with different tools and arriving certainly to different points, to different places.
DN: I want to take these questions into how you portray selfhood and identity of your characters in your New and Selected. You often have said that we never write alone and I think you even said it here today, that we’re always writing with others, that we’re indebted to others. You’ve also said that your work with your translator, Sarah Booker, has affected and changed the way that you write when you’re “alone” now, and you’ve also said today and elsewhere that similarly, it’s impossible to grieve in the first person singular; that we’re always grieving for someone and with someone, and that grieving connects us in ways that are subtly and candidly material. Thinking of this, I wonder about the question of naming in your fiction, the number of characters who assume names that are mistakenly given to them, who are wrongly named, who are nameless, or simply called names like stranger. One woman who calls herself Xian after she’s mistakenly called this in one story. In another story, this woman who’s assumed a mistaken name as her own gives a false name to another woman saying that truth is not what is important. Complicity is. But I wonder about these names and also about namelessness, things that seem to do more concealing than revealing and whether they somehow relate to your notions around writing and grieving as being collective, if somehow these are ways to destabilize the notion of a delimited border of the individual. If when you say in Grieving, “In the beginning there was the we. We being the most intimate and also most political form of accessing one’s subjectivity,” if perhaps the failed naming is part of this subjective we or maybe all of these curiosities or ways in which you’re engaging with naming is about something entirely else but I would love to hear about this repeated desire of you to destabilize the names of the characters.
CG: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about names and thinking about pronouns, and all of them have to do with the linguistic elements that we use to delineate identity. I’m always very suspicious of stable ideas or self-contained ideas of identity. I think my handling of names and my handling of pronouns, specifically in all these stories, has to be problematic. It is not a minor issue I want to say, so yes, indeed. We’ve been named so often. We are given names. We are given ways of knowing ourselves. We are given specific prescribed access to ourselves. That’s what power does in many ways, renaming, finding alternative names, names that are grown out of complicity instead of hierarchy or hierarchy making structures. I think about that when I’m naming my characters. One of the things that I realized as I was going back to these early stories is that’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time. I thought that it was a concern of mine as a result of some theoretical readings but I realized that it was right there at the very beginning. I would say that’s one of the instigators of writing, just to think of, “Why is someone naming me? Why should I respond to these characteristics, woman, young, Mexican? Why am I giving all these ways of knowing myself?” If I want to explore life in a critical way, I should start by the name. Yes, in those early stories, women are usually referred to in the wrong name but then they appropriate that wrongness. They make that wrongness their own. Therefore, they are transforming the way in which they are seen, they see themselves and they act upon the world as well. The same goes for the pronouns. I’ve been moving carefully from the he and she, and the we, and the they now, because all of them bring promise and bring danger as well. I try to be very careful about my handling of these elements in the story. I spend much of my time, especially when dealing with short stories, this is what short stories are for I think. The scope of the short story allows me to deal with these issues. It could be very complicated to do that in a novel, in a longer work in any case, without changing the story and without really having to start anew, and all those things. But in the more restricted context of the short story, I think that’s what I do, just to go through those specific questions. One of them is definitely the power of naming, the power of new names, of names that we give to ourselves and to others, the names that we appropriate and we make our own as we continue living, and the pronouns that we use in order to become actors in our stories.
DN: Many of my favorite stories in this selected are those in your third collection, La frontera mas distante, which often engage with questions through an anthropologic or ethnographic lens while also interrogating that lens I think. I’d love to spend some time with the story called Autoethnography with the Other. It’s narrated by an anthropologist or ethnographer and starts with the lines, “The man never said his name. Perhaps he didn’t know it or perhaps he had decided to hide it,” and later we learn that this studied man calls himself you and calls our narrator anthropologist I, and that the anthropologist has, in secret, hiding this from her colleagues, taken the studied man into her house and broken all the professional rules of propriety and objectivity, but the result of her well-meaningness is disastrous ultimately. I was hoping you could speak to this story and its animating questions for us.
CG: Many of the stories of this collection are to my mind pieces of speculative fiction. Even though they are not placed specifically in the future, they make oblique references in any case to a time that is not quite here yet. They move freely from the very origins of humanity to a future that might be a hundred or two hundred years away from us right now. In this story, as in other stories in this collection, there are societies inhabited by women only and this is one of them. At that point, I was spending some time thinking about what would happen, what would that entail, what kinds of power relationships would come out as a result of these connections of bodies and desire, and future’s fugitivity as well. In this story, I used a very basic lineal history of anthropology. In fact, I was attending a workshop by anthropologist Ruth Behar at that point. I was thinking, “Wow, this is just so interesting, these different stages that might allow us to have a sense of what anthropology has done in recent times.” That’s what I thought, “This is going to help me to be able to trace the different stages in a relationship.” In that case, it was in a heterosexual relationship within a context of an all-women society and the challenges that relationship posed to the new hierarchies, and the menace that this, which is now the normative hegemonic type of relationship, what would happen if we could invert those conditions? That was the question for me. As usual, that got connected to issues of language and knowing, and how this person, this man, this nameless man, this stranger, el extraño, el salvaje. They were not going to be able to capture, what kind of discomfort and what kind of disorder it’s going to bring into this society. That’s mostly the question. Obviously, the result is not going to be pleasant at the end of the story but I shouldn’t talk about that.
DN: I’m tempted to talk about it because I guess I would say that the traumatic moment comes around this studied man being brought to the movies and seen representation of self separate from self, this question of this way he names himself you versus I. Seeing the film is something that really is a fall from Eden in a way for him I think. You have this refrain in the book,
“Taxidermic ethnography expresses the desire of some scholars to make what is dead seem alive. Cinema, colonialism and anthropology were born at the same time.” We get this line many times. I just wondered if you could talk about it a little bit, about the significance of these three things coming or emerging together for you and the story.
CG: There are two moments in the story, the dramatic knot right here. One has to do with representation and the danger of representation, what it does to us. I think that’s very much related to what I was mentioning earlier about naming, with the names that we are given or imposed upon us. That’s the weight of representation. I think that fall from Eden that you’re referring to when the character looks at the movies, that’s precisely it. Whereas these two characters, they’ve been living away from the knowledge of others using the small apartment as a hideout, once they are out, once they have to become something, something to be known out there, the situation drastically changes. The other moment is in order for him to go out, he dresses as a woman. He uses lipstick. He has to undergo that gender transformation as well. Those two elements become, as I said, the dramatic knot of the story. They both have to do with the weight of representation. The jail, the prison, the representation very often allows and invites impact. That’s one of my bonds with identity, one that is imposed upon you. There is very little room to wiggle. There is very little room to experiment and to be able to host your many mutations of possibilities and potency. In emphasizing specifically that danger, that weight of representation through cinema or through naming, I think the writing is trying to bring out this critically, at least, by opposition in any case, these other possibilities.
DN: One real person that gets mentioned in the story as you go through the different eras of anthropology is Ishi, the so-called last Yahi Indian who, at the at the turn of the century, when his tribe had been decimated, he lived in the anthropology museum of the University of California, San Francisco. He was employed there as a janitor but he also entertained guests as a living museum installation and participated in the recording of Yahi myths, and songs, which became part of an early ethnographic film. Shortly after describing this, we get the line, “The taxidermic ethnography expresses the desire of some scholars to make what is dead seem alive.” One of the main anthropologists involved at that time, who I think you might mention by name, but you don’t go into it, is Alfred Kroeber. I bring this up because he’s Ursula Le Guin’s father and he’s also one of the most well-known anthropologists at the time of the birth of this field as an academic discipline. For a totally different conversation for the show, I was watching a lecture of Fred Moten called Transubstantiation and Cosubstantiality that looks at the work of an anthropologist that he really admires, a contemporary anthropologist, Elizabeth Povinelli, who works with Aboriginal Australians. She has a book called Economies of Abandonment, and that book uses Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Charles Burnett’s canonical work of avant-garde filmmaking, the Killer of Sheep, as frames to address questions of late liberalism within the Aboriginal community where Le Guin’s story, which is about a utopian society where everyone’s good life is substantively good, good in all the tangible ways of well-being, but that real and tangible well-being depends upon the continued suffering of a child in a broom closet. I don’t want to read too much into the fact that she chose a broom closet rather than a dungeon or a basement but it’s interesting to me that she worked as a janitor and that this child is in a broom closet. But what Povinelli finds powerful in Le Guin’s story as a critique of late liberalism is that she makes the body of this child consubstantial with that of the community. There’s no way to free the child without diminishing the benefits one has of good health, secure living, etc. That any solution other than enjoying your goodness and coming to terms with the fact that it comes from the ongoing suffering of another, the only other solution would be to acknowledge the child’s suffering as your own suffering and to take some of that on to lessen it for her. I don’t know if this is a question but I think about this with regards to that story and several of the other stories in this collection within your Selected. I just wondered if you had any further thoughts about this question of co-substantiality, which feels connected to me to you searching for a subjective we perhaps.
CG: It’s a very complex question and you put it beautifully right there. I’m reminded for example, in Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry), the main character, which is based on the file of an actual inmate—that’s the wording of the time, a patient we would say now—an inmate of the Insane Asylum in early 20th Century Mexico, one of the issues that was very prominent in the file was how tired she was of being seen. It was not said in this specific way but that’s something that I gathered from reading the documents. When I was reading the story of Ishi, and that was like the subtext of the whole story of Autoethnography with the Other, I kept that in mind, the issue of the museum, the issue of the gays that is being posed upon certain ways of structuring and representing again the world, and what real life brings to bear, the activity of this person working as a janitor right there in the same place. Bringing all those things together in a way that might allow some questioning, some alternative, some other possibility, I think that’s what I see myself doing. In order to do that, this whole notion of who is doing what to whom, it’s absolutely central. We don’t know exactly because of all these many mediations that take place in the way in which we approach the world and live through that, specifically for us as readers, getting to walk into a story as such. What I can say, David, about that is that is what occupies my mind. That’s what I’m trying to go through. I’m doing it in this multi-layered way, looking at stories that are out there, that are known, that are even famous, that are somehow canonical in many ways. They could be the stories like Ishi or they could be novels and entire works like Amparo Dávila in The Iliac Crest. There is always this interconnection in this inner structural dialogue within which the story as such develops, and the reason why in fact, let’s say, the story comes into being in the first place. I haven’t used the word cosubstantiality but I’ve read Povinelli with great attention. I think what she has to say about the different dramas, as she calls that in Geontologies, that’s something that has been very much in my mind in my more recent work. I’ve been working with this specific Geontologies book in my classes and has allowed me to reread entire words by Mexican authors in relation to the desert. In my own experience, writing The Autobiography of Cotton was very much permeated by her ideas.
DN: I want to return to cosubstantiality eventually in regards to the ecological themes in your work, but maybe depart from it for now or take a long route back to it and return to some fiction specific questions, particularly short story form questions. You speak about something that’s intriguing in your introduction. You’ve already mentioned Ricardo Piglia and you quote him. Doubleness is very important for him as a writer. He’s had an alter ego since he was a teenager that goes through his entire work, Emilio Renzi. His own autobiography is the fictional diaries of Emilio Renzi. But Piglia says in your introduction, “A short story always tells two stories. A visible story hides a secret tale,” and you add, “The short story is the name we have chosen to describe the production of the cultural and social space in which something hidden becomes visible and therefore shared but still as a secret.” You go farther to say Piglia’s statement helped you revise and rearrange the stories. But tell us about the notion of a story always telling two stories, why that’s important, why you would choose to open your introduction of your body of work to date in fiction and short fiction with this quote of Piglia’s.
CG: It was important to me to connect back to some Latin American tradition first. I admire Piglia’s work but I could have used some other authors as well from US writers or European traditions, but I intently wanted to make that connection. The notion of the two stories, of the subterranean story and the story that we are actually writing to me is relevant because it pays attention to the issue of form, and calls attention as well to the secret that we share. There is this other Argentinian author whose name of course is going to escape me right now. Eduardo Grüner, that’s his name. In this book, El fin de las pequeñas historias (the end of the little stories), he speaks there about poetry as a way in which we found to share something without actually capturing it; to share an experience as a secret in an innocent enigma. That to me is central in the making of the short story. There is a connection that I’m trying to create with readers but that is not based on explicitness and in a revolution, but rather, in the possibility of sharing a moment of disorientation, a moment of perhaps a failed meaning making as we were speaking earlier. But the fact that we’ve gone through that together, that’s what makes this story to me valuable. The fact of convoking that energy and that potentiality, that’s what’s relevant. I think Piglia does a good job in a very efficient way of pointing that specific strength of the short story. Although I’d say, to be honest, I think that’s not only something that is intrinsic to short stories. I would say that’s something that writing, in general, if lucky, can do.
DN: It might be a stretch to connect these two things but when I’m thinking about this notion about a story always telling two stories, or perhaps writing always telling two stories, I also think about some of the ideas you explore in The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation. I was just listening to the Poet Alice Oswald’s latest Oxford lecture, it’s called A Lament for the Earth. She relates a conversation she had with an old folk singer, an old folk singer who said that the old man who taught him to sing said that when you sing a song correctly with your ear to tradition, then the dead will show up and sing with you. I think of your quoting of John Berger and The Restless Dead also, the quote goes, “To see the dead as the individuals they once were tends to obscure their nature. Try to consider the living as we might assume the dead to do: collectively. The living reduce the dead to those who have lived, yet the dead already include the living in their own great collective.” This is so chillingly brilliant to me and also makes me think of Juan Rulfo who you engage with in this collection, and elsewhere, and your notion which you actually spoke about on one Rulfo panel that couldn’t be called one Juan Rulfo panel because his family had trademarked his name, but in this panel, secretly about him, your work doesn’t go back into the past but pulls the past forward into the lived contemporary moment, so in a way making the present a haunted space or a haunted dream space. But I wondered if you see a connection, say between this notion of the double story, Piglia’s notion of the double story, the visible and the secret one, and this other notion of necrowriting.
CG: There is definitely a connection there. I’ve been working more recently very closely with the notion of sediment and the sedimentation as a mode of writing as such. Of course, this is very much connected to basic teachings of geology. The present always containing the past and the task of the geologist lifting these different sediments of experience until you find, with this notion of course, a big time. These three elements have played a major role in my most recent work. I think it would be very difficult to do so if I didn’t have a layered notion of the short story and writing in general as this two-story combo or two-story operation. In many ways, that which is without words or that which is with many words, the two extremes that we were talking about at the beginning, confirm this haunted present. My task as a writer, if I want to go through that, is precisely that the critical operation linked to the sedimentation. In a way, I’m talking about the experience, the lived experience on the one hand, but also the writing experience as a material element, as a material practice as such. Two of them collide. They’re conversed. All of that has to do with our death, the death that are with us, not in a metaphorical way, but in a very material way, convoking us, invoking us, inviting us to be aware of their presence, which is to be aware of these many sediments that are encompassed in our present time. To be fully present is to be fully in that deep time. I think some of the tools that we use when we write are showing us the way. It’s a way of really intersecting and articulating that possibility.
DN: One thing I was really taken by in your book The Restless Dead was the notion of disappropriation. Then when you’re speaking now about the tools of writing, you go into detail around writing practices. Speaking of horrorism, you say that when horrorism leads not just to speechlessness and social paralysis but ultimately to a place where resistance and struggle are suffocated as soon as they emerge, that certain community-based writing practices become that much more relevant and vital. You name them, and I really love this part, writing practices that don’t hide their debt to others. Being more specific, you speak of the importance of processes that question the legitimacy and/or political usefulness of notions of authorship that don’t involve community connections, the importance of processes that emphasize the material conditions of production that either allow writing to exist or don’t allow writing to exist in the first place, and processes that underline the roles not only of authors but of readers and their communities in the production and sharing of writing materials. You say these writing practices usher in the disappropriation of materials with the goal being of returning all writing to its plural origin. I was hoping you could speak more into this notion of disappropriation, something that you’ve also called the poetics, a poetics that challenges the concept and practice of property, and challenges the concept and practice of propriety. Tell us if this plays a role in your fiction, but even if it doesn’t, I think writers would love to hear about disappropriation of materials.
CG: This was part of a very charged and larger conversation that was taking place in the United States in the early 21st Century. As I was moving back and forth between Oaxaca and California, it’s a conversation that I was developing in Oaxaca with concerns that somehow became very vivid as I became part of a writing community in Southern California. It’s a transnational type of interaction in a shared concern about who has the right to write stories and what do we do with materials that are never our own. That passage that goes from experience into language from so-called real life into the story that we’re trying to tell, that passage is full of ethical concerns. The disappropriation part of this conversation had to do precisely with addressing those ethical concerns. If we as writers are continuously writing the story of others—and that’s what we do and I’m convinced that that’s what we do, even we write the most intimate side of ourselves—once we touch language, we are in connection with others. To be a writer into my mind is not to write stories or to publish stories, it’s to actually contest and interrogate that transition, that mediation that goes from experience into language. Part of that conversation, a very charged and a very important conversation that I was part of at that time, was very much a thought entertained within the limits of identity. You approach certain stories because your identity was this or that, but that was very problematic for someone who has been thinking about the weight of representation, about the imposition created by names and specific hierarchies and narratives in that sense. I had to move away from the straight jacket, so to speak, of identity and find some other ways to address those ethical concerns from a slightly different angle. As a result of these many conversations, I think this concept of disappropriation, I started to use it more and more and it grew very slowly. On the one hand, it was important not to appropriate the stories of others, the value of others, the work of others, but to disappropriate that in a way as a code word to make that visible, to make that even palpable, that I wanted my work to be able to show that what I was doing was not the result of some individuality, a self-contained individuality but part of a larger dialogue that transfers me, that went through me but didn’t define me at the same time. I think central to that notion is what I was saying earlier, the whole notion, the whole practice of research, so we don’t know things. These stories are not intrinsic to what we are. Earlier you mentioned that I spoke of that very objective paragraph describing my latest book about my sister’s inside and that it had taken me 30 years to write such a seemingly smooth paragraph. Well, those 30 years I think have been years of a research understood in the most ample, most flexible of senses. The same goes for Autobiography of Cotton. I can’t summarize the plot right now and I can tell you it’s a story, and I’m exploring the migrant experiences of my paternal grandparents who walked all the way from San Luis Potosí from indigenous communities into the mining communities, coal mining communities of the north to finally settle themselves in the cotton fields along the Mexico-US border and said in that way, it would seem that that’s a story that I grew up with, that is somehow intrinsic to my sense of being which is not the case. In order to write that book and to write about the migrant story also of my maternal grandparents who lived all their lives in the United States and were expelled in the 1930s right after the crash of 1929, going back to a country that they hardly knew and finally establishing themselves also on those cotton fields along the Tamaulipas-Texas border, it could seem that I knew this story all along. Again, that’s not the case. Research is what allowed me to get close to those materials up to a certain point. I did the archival research. I went to these places, I did field research. I interviewed people. I tried very seriously to be as close as I could to all these materials. After all that work is done, then I have those 300 pages in this book, I can say this is a story of my grandparents and this story is told in such a way that fiction is the host because I didn’t have enough, because I could have been doing research forever but I will never have enough and we will never have enough. Just creating those connections and including those materials in the book as part of its own making, I think that’s another form of disappropriation; honoring the experience of others as others honoring their own modes of knowing and being, honoring the work that it entails just to be able to go to an archive, to find these documents. I think all that, which I’m referring to as labor, it’s central also to the notion of disappropriation. I’m trying of course to move away to these romantic notions of inspiration of this lonely gifted individual who, against all odds, will tell this story so well from the very beginning, all that notion that we’ve so often associated with the word memoir, this would be a way of interrogating both the experience and the format that we’ve used to deploy these experiences and to make this experience shareable with others. Disappropriation becomes, in that sense, a mode of approaching the materials but also a way that, in terms of the form, is very complicated to see how–let me rephrase that, academics have an answer for this, they quote the materials. There are strict rules about documentation and footnoting and MLA formats or APA or Chicago style, and those things, in the creative writing field, when we want to refer to these materials, we want to include these materials, so that’s not only an issue of acknowledging the work of others but also becomes an aesthetic issue; what kind of aesthetic decisions will I be making here to share with my readers that this is part of a larger process and a larger conversations in which the work of others, the text of others, the writing of others is fundamental, is essential, is inescapable? That’s something that I was able to answer, to me, with the term disappropriation, obviously, the question remains open for every single project, and that every single project will eventually—at least I’m talking about my own practice here—will eventually find its own specific tone, form, and mode of being in the world. That’s a task of writing. It’s less the story that I’m telling and more a way of creating that material is facing with these issues will have to be addressed in the company of others, both as actors in the story, as elements of the storytelling, and obviously as readers into this larger community of sentence making.
DN: Yeah. I love this idea that no matter what we’re writing about others, and with others, maybe the best example of it literally in your fiction is when you have Amparo Dávila and Alejandra Pizarnik in your work, their words in your work, them as figures in your fictions. Juan Rulfo also. But this is a great segue to talk about the non-human in your work too as another other that often gets erased or not acknowledged as part of the collaborative nature of writing. Staying with this notion of two stories within a story of Povinelli and Moten and Le Guin’s notion of co-substantiality and your notion of disappropriation, but coming back to your fiction, a first step back towards your fiction, I want to spend a moment with your conversation with Donna Haraway. Because much like you talk about both writing and grieving as non-solitary acts, when you two were talking, she seemed to do a similar thing with love, demanding that love is ultimately collective and communal. I wonder, I don’t know if this is a misuse of your term, disappropriation, but if she’s doing a disappropriation of love because she talked about the monarch butterfly, that if you really love this butterfly, as she does, when this butterfly arrives to where you live, if she’s to take this love seriously, it must extend beyond her own joy around the beauty of the butterfly to all the things that sustain the butterfly’s existence. Then she went on to mention one of the principal activists in Michoacán, which is the place where monarch butterflies migrate to and congregate, who was trying to build connections between farmers and forest conservationists who were engaging around the politics of water in the region and around the tourist industry, how this terribly important conservationist was murdered, and that for her to take her love of the butterfly seriously, if she was going to be worthy of loving the butterfly, her concern needed to extend to that and also to the plants that the butterfly needs to feed to the farms and agribusinesses and the pesticides that they use on the land. It’s the land that has been taken by conquest and by slavery in what she calls a continuous material tracing of being. I love that phrase. It feels like you do this with Autobiography of Cotton which you could say is about, as you’ve already mentioned, the part of your family that gets pushed south to the cotton fields and the part of your family that moves north to the cotton fields both attracted, perhaps in a way like Haraway’s butterflies, to a plant, and you could say that this story of your family is really the autobiography of a plant, as your title implies, and you in fact do say this. You say, “It is a history of cotton as I think cotton would have written it.” This is my long way of asking you to talk about the non-human in your fiction. But I guess maybe most specifically or most commonly seen as a forest; a forest that seems to be telling a story somehow that we can’t reduce to meaning. It’s like a story of the forest is one that we’re not able to translate. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Zone in Stalker or Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X. These forces outside of language feel like they are a character in some of your stories, many of your stories, shaping the stories, maybe writing the stories with you even though we’re not able to read them. But there’s something about the energy of the forest in your stories that often is part of the mystification happening to your meaning making characters.
CG: That’s again a wonderful question. I could organize a whole syllabus, a semester. [laughter] This is so rich. Let me try to start with the cotton first and then I’ll get to the forest. Even though in my work, the forest is first and the forest has been there very prominently in The Taiga Syndrome, of course, and I was reminded of the place of the forest in a short story included in this collection, The Carpathian Mountain Woman, and the way in which this enchanted forest of the fairy tales becomes a tale of horrorism too, and the extractive economies and capitalism run amok in many ways. Yes, there is that connection that has been very important to me; is to interrogate all these romantic notions attached to nature and nature in general, and specifically about the forest, and try to, again, sediment all these economic, financial, cultural elements that constitute forests as such. I said that I was going to be talking about that later and now I’m talking about that right now. [laughter] In any case, I set out to write Autobiography of Cotton because at the beginning, it was a very long project. I wanted to do a history of my own family based on the crops that have made these lives possible. For my grandparents, it was cotton. For my father who is a researcher, it was potatoes. That’s the reason why we moved to Central Mexico. I wanted to find links between those two, between cotton and potatoes. Of course, I wanted to listen carefully to the language of both cotton and potatoes. I don’t speak cottonies. I don’t know if there’s a wordship of cotton as such. [laughter] But the language of cotton is being translated through different disciplines and has been made knowledgeable to us through labor registers, through bank transactions, through the international market, the financial system, the field of agronomy, the language of fertilizers, the language of soil and soil caring. There are all these many attempts that we’ve used to be able to be conversant in cottonies, to be able to develop these, which is a one-sided and by hierarchical conversation with cotton. I was very aware of the tremendous relevance of the connection between cotton and slavery in the history of the United States, and how contrasting was the experience of cotton production on the border on the US-Mexico border and the sense of autonomy that it created in these specific communities, at least, for certain amounts of time, some 20, 30 years of great growth economic and otherwise. Instead of just talking about the human history of this section of my family of grandparents that I never knew or I hardly knew, I wanted the language of cotton to be present, so I had to resort to the translations that we’ve used to develop these uneven conversations. We go back to the beginning of our conversation, it’s again a translation and it’s again an unfinished translation. It’s a translation in which I’m including as much information that I’ve been digging through all these different research modes and it’s a conversation that, in many ways, I’m inventing an imagination that has resulted from the research and not otherwise. In the terms used by Donna Haraway, I was taking very seriously that possibility, seriously the work that a specific generation put into producing this crop and the relationship that emanated of that connection, and eventually the destruction that came as a result of all that, the soil degradation and the work of the different plagues that ended this which was a very successful economic financial story, at least for some 20 or 30 years. That was my way of bringing cotton into place. I wanted to interrogate the representations that weighed heavily on cotton as a crop and I wanted to create a space in which, I can say, cotton itself spoke because as I’ve said, I don’t speak that language, but in which the translations that we’ve been able to gather or to create of this language of cotton, I wanted that to be completely present and to in fact guide all the structure of the book and the responses, the reactions that members of my family had or developed vis-à-vis the challenges of cotton and the care that came with that. That was one way of joining this material tracing of being, as you mentioned. I think the relevance for me of all these elements is just to be relentless about posing those small questions. When we introduce objects in our stories, very often, we take all these objects for granted. We don’t interrogate them. Here are the lessons from Georges Perec which are very useful, about the infra-ordinary, interrogating every single element of the story, interrogating our objects, interrogating our streets, interrogating our names, trying to see where they are coming from, are there alternative ones? Can we rename things? What is the history of this spoon that I am taking my soup with? We devote all that time, if we really take this storytelling seriously, we will have to spend much time with all the smallest of elements as much as we spend with the larger arguments or the larger aspects of our stories. That was my intent with cotton. Obviously, I could have spent all my life writing the cotton story. Ends are artificial, we need to end somewhere. Because I believe of ending as an artificial contract, convention, an artificial convention. That’s the reason why it is rather easy for me to go back and say, “We need to change that. This is not how the story was meant to be. That’s how the story could be at that point in time.” But if we are lucky, stories grow and continue developing in ways that very often escape our own imagination. Going back to them, approaching them from the point of view of the translator, bringing them back to life, the sediment, all these elements have petrified in many ways their own structures. That’s part of what I claim writing has done for me as a reader. That’s something that, in a way, comes natural when I go back and revise.
DN: When you talk about interrogating and finding alternatives, it reminds me again of this notion of a double story with Piglia, but also thinking about the few female journalists that go to the City of Men in that story who end up hiding in the forest. You have lines like, “On the outskirts of order grows, with great stubbornness, another order. It isn’t an alternative city, exactly, but a series of anti-cities that, scattered across the narrow borders, survive in constant motion.” Then the story that you mentioned, The Carpathian Mountain Woman, we get this repeated line over and over again, which again reminds me of this Piglian notion of the story, “Every forest always has another forest inside of it.” I was hoping you could read just a short passage from that story if you have the book on hand.
[Cristina Rivera Garza reads from New and Selected Stories from Dorothy Project]
DN: We’ve been listening to Cristina Rivera Garza read from New and Selected Stories from Dorothy Project. Before we end today, Cristina, I wanted to spend at least a moment with the news stories that are only available in English that end the collection, many of which are much shorter, less beholden to narrative, more formally varied, and two of them which are doubled in a sense that are engaged with previous stories. Rothko’s Sunrise in Villanelles and The Survivor of Pripyat, they don’t feel like sequels, they feel like re-animations or re-envisionings, but talk to us about what you’ve discovered and what you’re working through with these new stories which feel more highly experimental and which seemed to foreground the mechanics or something of the mechanics of storytelling in a way, or the scaffolding of storytelling in a way that maybe your earliest stories are trying to conceal.
CG: Yeah, you’re right. I think I’ve used most of these very short stories as places to confront the specific formal challenges. Some of these stories at the end of this volume are related to, or come directly from, larger works. I just isolate some of them. I needed to know, for example, in reincarnation which is a story told on sentences that appear to be disjointed. I was trying to work against the notion of narration as the unfolding of meaning over time. This was the narration as the unfolding of the problems of making meaning over time in many ways. I wanted this disjointedness of the sentences to allow me to work with that operation that we’ve been talking about all throughout this conversation. But it was a way of iterating that possibility in any case. There were some other ones, Spí Uñieey Mat that deals with the last speaker of a dying language. Then at the end, there are these two stories that you’ve mentioned that appear at least in two versions, which doesn’t mean that there are more versions that I decided not to publish here. We go back to the topics that we’ve been addressing throughout these conversations. Now that you put it in this way so concisely out there, I can clearly see how, in the last five years or so, I’ve been very actively engaging and finishing my stories and creating versions, new versions, alternative versions of whatever I did in the past or are doing in the present. It has become a mode of working with my materials. I’m thinking of the way in which I worked with El invencible verano de Liliana, which is the book that I just published last year in Mexico, but in the making of the book, I was writing paragraphs, entire pages in Spanish and then going immediately into English and trying to write a version, which was not necessarily a translation, but a version of what I would have written in Spanish. How would I do that in English? What kind of version? How would the story be affected by the fact that I was talking about these same issues using the same materials but with the mediation and the intervention of another language? It was a very slow process, but essentially at its very core, it’s this version making and it is the translation of the materials as such. What we see at the end in the story about Rothko is a translation. It goes from one form into the other. One is a a narrative and the other one is a villanelle, and let’s see how the villanelle, which is a form, is always preventing the conclusion, it’s keeping the story in its unfinished state. I wanted to see how that form, which we usually associate with poetry, does to narrative as such. In fact, that’s an exercise that I usually use as a prompt with my students in intro to fiction classes. It’s just to see how the genre as such or specific forms, meter forms, how they interrogate narrative and, at times, posing very, very interesting questions to our plots and to our characters in general. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing. Now that I’m talking with you, I realized that that’s what I’ve been doing these last five to seven years.
DN: Yeah. The way we’re going to unfinish our conversation, I want to unfinish our conversation, I want to repeat the line from City of Men. “On the outskirts of order grows, with great stubbornness, another order.” It’s in this other order, constantly in motion where the female journalists are hiding from and within the City of Men. I wanted to end with the word stubbornness. If we go to an essay where you talk about stubbornness, we could consider this essay perhaps a conjoined twin to the story City of Men. You say, “I’m not an optimist. I’m stubborn. We don’t need hope, we need tenacity. There is no contradiction between this constant urging taking to the streets and this entering into the process of writing. We’re talking about the right side up and the inside out of the same process.” In this spirit, as our final exchange before the unfinished, what are you engaged with now? What are the animating things for you, unanswerable questions, or what’s driving you to the page, or away from the page, books that have captured you or books that we can expect from you? Project us into the future for a moment of Cristina Rivera Garza.
CG: Thank you so much, David. It’s so interesting that you chose these lines of the City of Men which is a short story that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and in fact, that I rewrote that several times and at one point, it became a short novel. Perhaps, it will be published, perhaps it won’t. I don’t know, but there were issues in the short story, most of them had to do with the point of view that I wanted to restructure. I think they needed some engineering work in that specific story. When I went back to interrogate every single thing, it turned out that story needed more pages, so it became this novel in the making right now. But that’s not what I’m doing. When I wrote The Autobiography of Cotton, my idea was to continue with the book on potatoes, The Solanum Tuberosum Diaries, that’s how I called that project. I was trying to write that book when the Liliana’s Invincible Summer just was constantly in my mind. I just interrupted the other book and I devoted my time to do the research and interviews and write the story. Now, I don’t know. I’m tempted to go back to the original pathway and continue with The Solanum Tuberosum Diaries. I tried that, but for some reason—and I’m going to go back again to the first question—instead of writing in this appropriative mode, I began writing what might as well be called a piece of speculative fiction. I don’t know if I’m going to continue with that. As I said, I go back to fiction but with all the questions that have been nagging me for the last 10, 15 years, it’s not going to be fiction as I knew fiction before all these years, it’s something else. But at the same time, I’ve been thinking about the whole process of writing Liliana’s Invincible Summer and the legal process, the police work that has come as a result of writing the book. I might be tempted to write a second book related to that process. I’m not so sure to be honest. I know that the writing remains in the field of the family that is very much taking advantage of archival materials, of interviews, field work, all the elements that I’ve been talking about in regards to this appropriation. There is this deprecation. On the one hand, continuing with this nonfiction-fiction type of work, and on the other hand, perhaps going back and shaking hands with fiction now in its more speculative form. I don’t know.
DN: Yeah. That’s exciting either way.
CG: It is. Perhaps I will end up doing both. I’ll just need time.
DN: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for spending all this time with me today, Cristina.
CG: I am very sincere when I say thank you for your questions. They are magnificent. I want to be thinking about those and I’m going to say, “No, I have now a better answer.” [laughter] Perhaps I will find myself calling you and saying I’m going to record a better answer but now that’s what I was able to do. But you are just amazing. Thank you so much, really.
DN: Thank you. Thank you so much, too. We were talking today to Cristina Rivera Garza about her New and Selected Stories from Dorothy Project. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. Today’s bonus audio is a long-form conversation with Cristina’s translator, Sarah Booker, about everything from questions of authenticity and authorship to feminism and translation activism. This joins Cristina’s own contribution to the archive from 2019, of a reading of three parts of her long poem Third World, and conversations with many fantastic translators from Emma Ramadan and Sophie Hughes to Megan McDowell. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Access to the bonus audio is just one potential benefit of doing so. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.