Cities haunted by ghosts, ghosts that are a metaphor for language in their haunting doubling and mistranslations, language that's full of holes, while the holes themselves are suggestive of abandoned places and writing that fails to describe anything accurately enough—this is Valeria Luiselli's terrain. She explores it in her novel Faces in the Crowd (whose title is taken from a poem by Pound) and her essay collection Sidewalks. Faces in the Crowd is the story of a young translator in Harlem who becomes obsessed with the nearly unknown Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. She follows in his footsteps, conjuring his ghost back to life; meanwhile, Owen's voice enters the narrative, and he starts seeing a woman who is quite possibly the narrator. In its telling, Luiselli's debut is daring and funny and a major rethink of what might be the urban gothic now—not to mention cities and language and how the city itself should/could/might shape a novel's structure.
I happened on her writing last autumn while living briefly in South London and feeling haunted by its history. Here was a woman tangling with language and urbanism in a way that undid the Baudelaire / Benjamin trope so common in essays on cities. Instead, she writes a "Manifesto A Velo" that begins: "Apologists for walking have elevated ambulating to the height of an activity with literary overtones." Not Luiselli. She's a new version of the urban philosopher—one who rides bikes and lives through earthquakes—and takes on the bourgeois flâneur with all his time for strolling slowly with a transcendent gaze. She brings urgency to bear on her landscape, and her city, Mexico City, gets torn up, concreted over, excavated, and cracked open with fissures. There is violence at the heart of her collection. The single-page (single-paragraph, in fact) essay "Cement" describes a murder that took place steps from her door; it makes me think of the one-page murder in Brixton that's at the center of Geoff Dyer's The Colour of Memory. Apt perhaps, as Brixton is where I first read her, and Dyer, with his downbeat meditations on the city, seems her forebear.
This summer Luiselli and I met in her Harlem apartment, near where her own narrator conjured a dead poet and inhabited his life. Here at her dining room table we talked about cities, cycling, road trips, and the novel versus the essay.
Valeria Luiselli You don't have a lighter, do you?
Jennifer Kabat I don't; I don't smoke.
VL I'm sorry to hear that.
JK You grew up in South Africa. When did you begin writing about Mexico? And how did you start to see Mexico City in this way, where you read the gaps or the relingos—these unloved pockets of space in cities—as a kind of metaphor for the city itself?
VL I was just reading, earlier today, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's book about Harlem, Harlem Is Nowhere. I was surprised by certain similarities between the way her book begins and the way I approached Mexico City in Sidewalks. She starts by looking at a picture of early twentieth-century Harlem, where there are just a few of these townhouses with huge gaps between them, and she tells the story of how these gaps get—
JK —filled in?
VL Yeah, but also how there are still a few of these gaps left, and how important they are to the city. How, without them, there's no room for imagining anything.
JK This is what I'm interested in with Bristol, for instance. It's a city full of holes, because of World War II bombings. When I discovered your writing, I felt like here's somebody else who sees cities as ghost stories, basically, and is obsessed with the gaps and holes in them as a way of experiencing urban space.
VL Well, in Mexico it's more about negligence. There isn't really a story to those holes that can be easily traced. In European cities, holes and absences are usually vestiges of wars, and many things that are missing in reality can be found in the archive. What happens in Mexico is different. The history of, say, downtown Mexico City may be well documented, but as you go outward, there are no records of what has gone on in the past decades. It's like a huge part of the city, on the page, is an absence, a relingo.
JK I want to own that word, relingo; it's so perfect.
VL Please use it! If a piece of writing can bring words back into circulation, then the writer has done his or her work. To go back to your question: I returned to Mexico City when I was twenty-one, after studying and working in Spain and France. I lived in a neighborhood called Colonia Roma, one of the neighborhoods that suffered the most collapses of buildings during the 1985 earthquake.
JK The earthquake that left these holes in the city, which are the fissures in the essays in Sidewalks and in Faces in the Crowd, your novel.
VL Yeah, I guess I'm part of the earthquake generation. When I read other Mexican writers my age, I realize that the earthquake is like a leitmotif in our writing, though most of us don't remember it. I was two when the earthquake happened, yet there are earthquakes in most of the things I write. There is, of course, a lyrical approach to things collapsing or disappearing that allows you to play with linguistic analogies—like stuttering and untranslatability, for example—but there's also the concrete fact that an earthquake can happen at any moment in Mexico City, and everything can just collapse again. I guess that since we are a generation who grew up knowing that, it's like a second instinct.
JK I lived in San Francisco for a while, and it felt like everybody was into New Age thinking because there was nothing to ground them, almost as if this earthquake mindset were a bigger part of the city's psychology.
VL For me, it's about reading the city in terms of its absences, but it's also about capturing a sense of fragility and political negligence, and questioning literature's role in all that. Some of my questions in Sidewalks were: What can we do to view this monstrous city in a way that makes it comprehensible and does justice to its many layers? Where do we stand in order to write about it? Of course, all cities are palimpsests—one can read into the layers of their histories—but many cities also do a very good job of wiping out their past.
JK New York does, though certain parts of the city feel spectral to me, where the past gets overlaid with the present. In the Lower East Side, I can feel haunted by myself as a twenty-two–year-old. Maybe it's because I'm rarely in the city, so I'm particularly aware of the changes. It feels like history from the past presses in on the present.
VL Mexico City conserves the layers, though not everywhere, not always. In the Centro Histórico, for example, they're doing a good job with the "museumification" of the past. There are still "accidental" spaces, but the center of town is a well-displayed showcase of the city's many lives. You probably know the story: the original Aztec city, Tenochtitlán, was built on a small island surrounded by a great lake. That island was where the colonial Cathedral and Zócalo are now. The Aztec constructions were razed by the Spaniards, who used the pyramids' rocks to build the cathedral and the main government buildings. In the twentieth century, when the government and private developers started excavating plots to erect new buildings, they started finding pyramids and shrines underneath the ground. Much of that is still there, since they'd have to leave things as they found them when excavating—and now many of these excavating grounds remain open.
JK That's amazing—like ghosts that can't be covered.
VL It's wonderful to walk across the center of town and see all those layers. Every building has been something other than what it is now. It's like the city is constantly being re-translated, on top of the "original."
JK This brings up questions about cities and language. Pretty early in Faces in the Crowd you have the protagonist memorize poems to affix to specific places, as if she'll gain a sense of place by doing so. So, Emily Dickinson's poem "Presentiment" is associated with the 116th Street subway station. There's the idea of language as a sort of perpetual failure, in a way, and then there's this notion of affixing language to a city.
VL For me, inhabiting new spaces is simultaneous with the process of inhabiting a new language. Attaching language to space is a way to make that space more habitable.
JK Is that partly about being peripatetic, so you use language to fill up a space with something that belongs to you?
VL Probably, yes. A psychologist might agree with that. The first time I left Mexico was in '85, right after the earthquake. We moved to the United States, so I learned English as I was learning Spanish. Then we moved to Costa Rica and, from there, to South Korea for four years, and then to South Africa, for five. Then I moved back to Mexico, and then to India. Adaptation, as a child, has to do with learning to play the local language games. But it's very difficult to learn how to speak like others, even when you're young. I was always self-conscious. I didn't quite stutter, but I hesitated a lot, and I always felt that my language was imperfect, full of holes and gaps. I still feel that way often. So I've always made a very conscious effort to learn through reading and writing. Books and writing were always a space of refuge within language. When I was six, for example, I was living in Korea and was being taught how to speak and write in English, and I was struggling. I didn't speak English at all and remember deciding to write a "book" to teach myself English. I folded a bunch of pieces of paper and started writing words that I heard in the classroom. According to me, I was writing a story, though it was just a bunch of words, really.
JK That was your way of owning the language.
VL Yeah, exactly. You know that Walter Benjamin fragment—I think it's in One-Way Street—where he speaks about how children play with toys because they're a small-scale representation of the world? We first learn to play things out, to simulate them, and only later can we start doing them. It was a similar thing for me with writing these toy-books.
JK Which is kind of like metonyms—a big theme in your work. You mention them a few times in Faces in the Crowd. I was thinking about the Collyer brothers' residence as a sort of overgrown metonym, where Langley Collyer tries to bring the world to his blind brother, Homer. He crams the house full of things to give Homer an approximation of the world, but the approximation of the world became the world because Langley had to keep filling it with stuff—this seems like a theme in your writing.
VL It's like Borges's story "Of Rigor in Science," where he speaks of the map that is as big as the territory, because—
JK —it's this one-to-one ratio.
VL That's what happens when you try to write about cities. The city always overflows the page. There's no way to slice the city in order to represent it on the page; the page becomes as complex and as chaotic. In the end, that's probably the best possible representation of the city. Going back to your first question, when I started living in my own apartment in Mexico City, I'd just bought a bike, so I started cycling around the city in an effort to map it out for myself. I was trying to become a Mexico City dweller, and the best way to do so seemed to be through biking and writing. I wanted a sense of depth of the city's history, and this was my way of researching it.
JK When you learn to cycle through a city, your sense of how the streets work is different from a walker's sense.
VL Absolutely; the cyclist's gaze is like the foreigner's, because you're not committed to every inch of space in the way you are when you inhabit a space as a local. There is a perfect distance.
JK When you're a local you see less, though, because you have to tune things out. It's like the Borges map. If you notice everything—every patch of gum on the sidewalk— you're going to go crazy.
VL There's a sense of expectation and openness when you're a foreigner. The best moment to write a novel or a book is when you've just arrived somewhere, because that's when you're most receptive. That's my experience, in any case. I started taking notes for Faces in the Crowd when I arrived in New York. Then I moved back to Mexico City. I started working on the novel again as I was joining a new family circle. My husband had two older sons, and I had just given birth, so I suddenly belonged to this new tribe, so to speak. Writing the novel was partly a process of recording the new language of my everyday life. So Faces in the Crowd is very much about how a family's language games work. But also about mapping out a new space. The narrator says over and over again that writing is not about furnishing, or about filling up a space with things and voices and stories, but about moving around an empty space and allowing that space to have enough holes for one's imagination to unfold.
JK In the novel, there's the boy who misappropriates language, owning it and taking it
VL —and also inventing it.
JK The language he uses gives you a larger sense of the book's themes too.
VL If the book were a classical Greek play, the boy would be the oracle. Like a prophesy, he both foreshadows and causes what's going to happen later on in the story by giving words to the narrator.
JK The novel and the essays in Sidewalks dovetail, in a way. The ideas in one get reformulated in the other.
VL I started writing the novel when I was writing the essays, but not as a separate thing. The last essay I wrote for Sidewalks was "Other Rooms," about doormen. That was the beginning of the novel—the narrator's voice was born there. Going from the essays to the novel was seamless, a continuation of the ideas that I'd been working with.
JK He's great, this doorman philosopher who imparts wisdom to a girl trying to figure out her way in the world. Does he exist?
VL Yes, his name is Richie. Of course, he didn't actually say everything that the doorman character says in the essay. That's when I realized that I was writing fiction, not essays, and that I needed to move on to a novel. Not because it was dishonest to do this—I'm not a journalist; my job is not to tell the "truth"—but because I was tired of the very present "I" of the essay, and was feeling more and more compelled to dissolve my own voice into other characters' voices.
JK Did Richie read the essay or know he inspired part of the novel?
VL The essay was published in the New York Times. I didn't tell Richie about it because I didn't know if he was going to like it. But he found it, and then one day I came home and he said, "You wrote this! This is me!" I replied, "Well, sort of." Then he gave me a big hug. He was really proud. He actually went and photocopied the newspaper article and gave it to the doormen around the area. And he has a copy of the novel too.
JK Back to the issue of dishonesty in fiction. I'm out of love with fiction at the moment. It doesn't feel elastic enough as a form. But the essay feels like something that's slightly abandoned.
VL There's a lot of freedom in the literary essay form, perhaps because there are fewer commercial expectations.
JK You could even stick a bit of fiction in and nobody would care, because there aren't any rules. You can stop time, reverse time, do everything. It can be additive and hybrid. I haven't found a way for fiction to do that, but that's one of the things that I like about Faces in the Crowd.
VL Well, that's the whole point; there are no rules in fiction even if creative writing programs everywhere have tried to make people believe there are. When I read fiction that has passed through the filter of too many workshops, I often get the feeling that I'm reading the same novel over and over again: the same way of being humorous, the same way of being candid, the same way of creating empathy.
JK I think that recession is going to be good for writing.
VL If we were walking in the city right now, we would be lost in the outskirts.
JK Totally! Speaking of getting lost, can we go back to Gilberto Owen? How did he get into your head? How did you discover that your life in New York City mirrored his, and then turn this doubling into the bones of your novel so that he became a central character?
VL A Mexican magazine, Letras Libres, was putting together an issue for which they wanted young writers to reread Mexican modernists. When I say modernists, I mean it only in the English-language sense. Modernismo in Spanish is something completely different: it precedes modernism, and its leading figure was Rubén Darío, whose writing was in conversation with French symbolism. Gilberto Owen, a post-modernista, or vanguardista, is a modernist only in English-language terms. Anyway, he and his friends published the first modernist magazines in Mexico, Ulises and Contemporáneos. They translated Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Langston Hughes. The Contemporáneos group, as they were later called, was very important, but not always liked; they were often accused of being too foreign-oriented. This was the period immediately after the Mexican Revolution, a time of national reconstruction and great nationalist ideals. They were the black sheep.
So, Letras Libres asked me to write on Owen, and I decided to read everything, which was easy because there isn't that much. Reading his letters, I discovered that he had lived in New York, opposite me, on the other side of Morningside Park, in the 1920s. I read his letters about Harlem over and over again. I'd always been in love with Harlem through the books from the Harlem Renaissance that I'd read, but they all seemed distant. Reading him did what literature does: it created a sense of intimacy and familiarity with a space. Owen's voice started accompanying me somehow. One day I visited his building on Morningside Avenue and I—
JK —stole a plant? Really? I love that stolen dead tree in Faces in the Crowd! How did you get to his apartment?
VL I was just loitering outside his building, trying to get a sense of what that street must have looked like in the late 1920s. An old man walked in, and I followed him. He went into an apartment; I walked up to the roof. I found a dead plant there, which I took home with me. I kept it until I decided to move back to Mexico. Before leaving, I took it to my friends in Princeton. Long story short, they kept the plant for a while, and eventually got divorced. They didn't know what to do with it, so they deposited it in the cemetery, on Einstein's housekeeper's grave, I think.
JK You know, I had no idea who Gilberto Owen was until I read your novel.
VL Most people have no idea.
JK I actually googled him, wondering if he existed. He's sort of a readymade to be filled with your inhabitations.
VL When you're writing your first novel, not knowing if it's going to get published, you're very unscrupulous about what you do. Once I'd finished the novel and was sure it would be published, I wondered if he had heirs and if it'd be a problem. I did find his son, Guillermo—a wonderful man and a prominent mathematician and Game Theory expert. I sent him the novel, saying, basically, "I wrote this and would like your approval." I explained that even though the book did not attempt to be a biography of his father, there was biographical material in there. He wrote back saying that he liked the novel and that he did not in fact know what his dad's life had been like during the '40s and '50s, because Gilberto Owen lived in Philadelphia and the rest of the family lived in New York City. But he said that he imagined his personal life could perhaps have been similar to what I'd written. In his letters to me he referred to Owen as "Papá"–and that moved me deeply. It suddenly created a sharp division for me between fiction and reality. It was important to have a back and forth with Guillermo. He told me at one point that he'd translated his father's poems and sent them to me.
JK How were his translations?
VL They were good—not the translations of a poet, but that made them more interesting. It was also a little uncanny that while I was correcting the novel and corresponding with Guillermo, one of the aspects of the novel started inhabiting my own reality. He'd been trying to get the poems published and suddenly, like the novel's narrator, I was trying to get these Owen translations published! Unlike the narrator, though, I failed to find them a publisher.
JK Yes, you've got this fictional narrator who is a translator creating a fictional translation that becomes a kind of novel. In your work, there's always this act of translation, and questions about what language you write in and how you play with the holes between the two languages. Translation in itself leaves this sort of ghostly imprint of the past.
VL I often write in English and then self-translate into Spanish, and vice-versa too. It's a messy process, but that messiness creates a space for more clear, lucid things to emerge. Not always, though. Often I just dwell for long periods in this completely confusing space, not knowing which language I should write in. I go back and forth and it's very unproductive, until one day something happens and I'm able to write, at least so far. That's what happened to me with Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd.
Also, when my writing is getting translated, I rewrite a lot, and work on it with the translator. I often bring those modifications back into the original. So the ghost of translation always haunts the original.
JK In Sidewalks you write an essay about saudade—this amazing, untranslatable Portuguese word. You go through all its linguistic possibilities. I like that you're probably thinking about this in Spanish and I'm reading it in English.
VL Right. I asked my English translator, Christina MacSweeney, to rewrite that whole meditation on the word so that it would speak directly to the English ear. It made no sense to do a direct translation of my musings in Spanish. Saudade and other untranslatable words somehow correspond to the idea of a relingo—they're gaps in the ideas that you're trying to form. They are generative because you have to circle around them, and in doing so, you find much more.
JK There's this bit in the novel where you have directions, sort of, like, horizontals and verticals. They're two-sentence insertions that address how a novel is constructed, how it fits the city, and reflects it back as if the city itself should govern the novel's structure.
VL The vertical and horizontal metaphors come from all those discussions during the 1920s about how cities should be viewed. Writers became obsessed with how the new cities should be envisaged and represented on the page. So, for example, there are Paul Morand's essays on New York, where he says that New York has to be seen from above, from the top of the Woolworth Tower. Gilberto Owen's take on the city is that New York has to be viewed from its intestines, from the subway. For him, it is that horizontal movement under the city that allows you to imagine it as a vertical construction. I like that view of New York, and tried to bring it back into the novel, as a sort of architectural model for it.
JK Urbanism and architecture seem a big part of how you look at the world. You're working on a doctoral thesis, right?
VL It's also about architecture, literature, and translation. The idea is to write a map of the itineraries and circuits of foreigners in Mexico City during the 1920s and 1930s. There are four chapters: one on cemeteries, one on rooftops, one on hotels, and another on movie theaters.
JK You're working on a novel too?
VL Yeah, I started working on it a few years ago, in English, so I'm going much more slowly. It's about South Africa. And perhaps about the USA too. I'm about to take a long road trip with my family.
VL We're not sure yet. We're going to go from New York to Tennessee first, and eventually to Arizona, then return through the northern states. I went to buy a map the other day and found a map of South Africa, so I bought it too. I have the feeling that if I overlap the two maps, I'll have a novel, somehow.
JK I can see that, since in Faces in the Crowd you're writing two novels that meet in the middle.
VL We'll see. At the moment, I'm in the process of correcting and rewriting the English translation of a novel I wrote in Spanish last year, The Story of My Teeth. I wrote it in installments for the workers in a factory. Originally it was a commission from the Jumex Foundation, an important contemporary art collection subsidized by the eponymous juice factory. Two curators, Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, asked me to write fiction for an exhibition there, and I suggested the idea of writing a novel in installments for the factory workers. I wrote one installment a week, and each was distributed as a chapbook among them. Some of the workers formed a weekly reading group. Their discussions were recorded in MP3 files that were sent back to me. I'd hear their feedback before writing the next part. So each installment grew from their stories about the factory's neighborhood, Ecatepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City, a sort of wasteland.
JK Interesting but weird at the same time.
VL There's something disturbing about these workers' labor in the juice factory subsidizing this big collection for the privileged consumption of art. I didn't know what I was going to write about for the workers; it was really their questions and comments that slowly built up the plot.
JK What kind of questions were they asking?
VL Their conversations usually revolved around the problem of what determines the value of the objects in Jumex's galleries. For instance, what generates the value of, I don't know, Maurizio Cattelan's desiccated dog. Or the value of these ghost window frames by Olafur Eliasson. They'd seen the exhibition and were discussing these pieces as I was tangentially writing about them.
The novel's narrator is an auction caller, but he auctions stories more than objects. I use a lot of names of writers in Mexico City, as if they were found objects, and displace them to a foreign context—an old procedure in contemporary art that is maybe not so common in fiction. I take the names, empty them of content, and place them in the context of a story very different from their real one.
JK You're using them as readymades, basically.
VL Exactly. I also used a lot of Google Maps images to write that novel. Some of those maps are hacked, I think. Surfing them I actually found a street called "Aquí vivo" (I live here). That cannot be possible.
JK Your essays seem to predate everybody having GPS on a phone, and Google Maps, even. Recently, I've been in all these cities that I don't know well, and I'm holding a phone, and there's this one-to-one correspondence between what's on my screen and where I'm walking. Google Maps can nearly follow my exact footsteps. I imagine you have something interesting to say about this because you're also thinking about doubling maps, and you're traveling across the US with paper maps, which are old school.
VL Well, paper maps are more reliable. It's also easier to plan and imagine routes with them. They don't suggest routes. They don't impose anything. They certainly don't talk to you, like a GPS does. And if you get lost using a paper map, there is a sort of calm resignation, because it's just your fault and it's not like you've been abandoned by technology in the middle of the desert.
JK I've gotten lost on roads that just end in the middle of nowhere. We have this terror of being lost now.
VL A few years ago I was in Spain with a group of friends. We were trying to get to a wedding, and someone said, "We have a GPS!" so we used it. We were five hours late; this GPS was a disaster! And we had immense fun. But that GPS was an exception, probably. Maybe it was being hacked. In a way, I hope there are hackers who continue to create—
JK —false maps?
VL Yes, so that people can get lost again. That's the whole idea of a road trip, right? Fighting with your partner because he thinks one way is better and you think another way is better until you end up getting lost because it turns out he was right and you were wrong—and the children in the backseat get bored to tears since you've been driving for too many hours. I don't want a GPS. It would be like traveling with two husbands, one of which is always right—unless he's hacked or broken, which would be like traveling with a corpse or a lunatic. So we don't have a GPS. It's a terrible thing for children not to get bored and for adults not to get lost anymore.