Carmen Boullosa by Rubén Gallo

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Carmen Boullosa. Photo by Raul Gonzalez. Courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

I first met Carmen Boullosa in the fall of 1996. She was in New York City to give a reading at Columbia University, and we had lunch at the now-legendary Tom’s Diner. Over sandwiches, we chatted about the world of intellectuals in Mexico City, American academia, and her career as a novelist.

I was impressed by Carmen’s versatility: primarily known as a novelist, she has also published poetry, short stories, and has written plays for El Hábito, the liveliest cabaret in Mexico City.

At the Columbia reading, Carmen recounted an anecdote about the nuns who ran her elementary school in Mexico City, and how, with their veils and habits, they would teach the girls not only history and geography, but also to be ashamed of their bodies.

In part, Carmen’s career as a novelist could be seen as a reaction against the grave Catholic nuns of her childhood. Her work makes explicit all that was suppressed from the convent school: love, eroticism, the body and the pleasures that can be experienced through the senses. Even her historical novels — They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, a novel about 17th century pirates who terrorized the Caribbean, or Llanto, novelas imposibles, the story of an Aztec emperor — emphasize what is invariably suppressed from traditional histories: the fact that history is lived by sensual beings, by men and women who experience life through their bodies and their emotions.

For this conversation, Carmen and I discussed the major themes of her work—eroticism, history, autobiography—as they appear in her two novels that have been translated into English: They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (Grove Press, 1997), and Leaving Tabasco (Grove Press, 2001).

Rubén Gallo They’re Cows, We’re Pigs is a novel about pirates set in the 17th century. I’m curious to know how you decided to write about pirates—an unlikely theme for a woman writer living in present-day Mexico City.

Carmen Boullosa The pirates of the Caribbean were what I call “strangers to the world”; they were foreigners everywhere they went, and, like children, they were unaware of their foreignness. These men rejected all social conventions, they formed a brotherhood, and saw one another as brothers, regardless of birth, race or religion. Gender, however, did matter, since women were not allowed into their community—a conventional but convenient decision. Women were prohibited as members of their community and even as inhabitants. In any case, the pirates were outlaws: they were hoodlums, criminals, even rapists, and as such were banished from society.

There were other reasons why I chose pirates: since I was a girl, I have been fascinated by novels about buccaneers and the sea, and eventually—driven by intellectual curiosity—I decided to research this world of outlaws; a community of outlaws that was also the first Caribbean experiment with socialism.

RG These uprooted characters whom you call “strangers to the world” appear in many of your other novels, like Llanto.

CB Yes, I also wrote a novel, Llanto, novelas imposibles [1992] about Montezuma, the Aztec emperor defeated by the Spanish conquistadors. Montezuma did have something in common with pirates: after the arrival of the Spaniards and the siege of his city, he too quite suddenly became a stranger in his own world. A man who had ruled an empire, who saw himself as the center of the universe, found himself defeated, and expelled from the world. He lost everything because of his inability to understand the events unfolding around him: he was not shrewd enough to “read” Cortés and see through his schemes. In my novel, I make Montezuma even more foreign: I revive him in Mexico City in 1989. I like placing myself in the shoes of strangers, foreigners, and all those who exist outside the world—perhaps that is why I write novels.

RG Leaving Tabasco, your most recent novel, describes the adventures of a little girl living in a village in the southern state of Tabasco. How did you go from writing about pirates and other “strangers to the world” to writing about the universe of children?

CB Children are also strangers to the world: they do not know the rules for living in society, they have not yet mastered language, and they are unaware of most social rules and customs. With time, children learn codes, but before they do, they are, to a certain extent, like foreigners.

RG A number of your books, including They’re CowsLlanto and Duerme [1994] are stories set in specific historical settings. How do you weave historical material into your fiction? What books did you read to get a sense of what life was like in the period you were describing? Do you use documents from archival sources?

CB In the three novels you mention, fiction and reality were equally important to me. Each of these novels was born as a powerful and seductive imaginary world—a universe I yearned to enter, where I could give free rein to my imagination. At the same time, I was fascinated by the historical context, and with each project, I began to explore and research the period. My curiosity pulled me in two opposite directions: I read original documents and historical commentaries, and I thought about the past constantly, 24 hours a day—I wanted to give new life to those events and bring them into the present. At the same time, I needed to transform history into fiction: characters and events had to be worked through, elaborated, fine-tuned, and adapted to the imaginary world of the novel. After reading documents and historical treatises, I began to write the novel, and this, for me, is a craft not unlike bricklaying. I’m not thinking of American construction workers, who arrive with ready-made walls and simply put them in place, but about Mexican bricklayers who painstakingly erect a building stone by stone, brick by brick. If you place a rock in the wrong place, it all comes tumbling down. And in a novel, if you put a sentence in the wrong place, the fictional building comes tumbling down.

I never feel that I have to be true to history: I have to be true to my story, so that it holds up. My novels use historical scenarios, but they are not at the service of history: they are neither memoirs nor testimonies. Like all novelists, I like reality, and I also like to betray reality by correcting its flaws and ultimately reinventing it.

RG Could you say a few words about the process of researching the historical period that serves as a backdrop for the novel?

CB Before I start to write, I go through a period of reading and analysis, which I enjoy very much. When I was writing Duerme I became a compulsive reader of the laws passed during the early years of the Spanish colony. I read volume after volume of royal decrees, and their bans and prohibitions allowed me a glimpse into colonial life. This work was not only archival; it also required a lot of imagination. The decrees never told the whole story, they only gave the ruling or the verdict; I had to fill in the blanks with plot and characters to weave a complete story. Once I found a decree banning carriages drawn by more than four horses from the streets of the “noble city of Mexico,” and I imagined that the reason behind this ruling was that someone had gone out in a six-horse carriage, and the authorities had decided that such ostentation was unnecessary. A ban on using clothing with more than four layers of sleeves was probably passed for the same reason—someone had worn six sleeves, flaunting their wealth, squandering fabric and the tailor’s labor, and in the process offended Spanish sensibilities. Using my imagination to read the histories, I discovered a colonial world that was vivid and true to life.

For Duerme I consulted many other historical sources, from 16th century maps of Mexico City, to 18th- and 19th-century historical commentaries. But I always returned to the royal decrees—I became addicted to them and they, in turn, became like a background music when I wrote.

RG What books and documents did you use for They’re Cows?

CB For They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, I worked with The Buccaneers of America by John Esquemeling, an author who became one of the characters in my novel. Though his treatise is quite boring, it was fascinating to see how completely the text and the stories change in their different translations. I used other books about pirates as well as historical analyses, but my background music for this novel was a 17th-century Spanish classic: Francisco de Quevedo’s El Buscón, a novel whose protagonist — like the narrator of They’re Cows — is a rogue, a wretched adventurer who recounts his mishaps. The picaresque tone and the descriptions of the period brought me close to my protagonist Esquemeling. I read El Buscón obsessively, and I took in its tone, its ring, its setting, its rhythm—it became my nourishment. But at the same time I kept reading other books, especially the Enciclopedia Espasa Calpe, a monumental encyclopedia composed by the idealistic architects of the Spanish republic, which is loaded with what we now consider “ideology,” “superstition,” and “mere sayings.” It was immensely valuable, with mountains of information and “politically incorrect” material. The entry for Gypsies, for example, explains that their women “are pretty and gracious,” their men “are treacherous in trade and excessive in their deliberations,” and “their manner of speaking is halting, grave, and slow. They love sweets and fruit, enjoy bread, prefer beer to wine, and especially spirits, all of them being alcoholics. Their preferred nourishment is rice, soup with peppers, meat with garlic and bread with onions….” Working with this “encyclopedia” is like wearing jewelry.

I also like to read poetry while writing a novel. I read the poems quickly, drinking them up, gulping them down, as if to get drunk. Poetry recharges my batteries. When I am rushing to finish a novel, I read poets like Lope de Vega, Jorge Guillén, Quevedo, Sor Juana, almost without reading them. They nourish my ear.

RG In addition to history, there seems to be another important element in your work: autobiographical writing. Even if your novels are not entirely autobiographical, a number of them seem to be woven from your personal experiences and memories. I am thinking especially of Leaving Tabasco, where Delmira, the protagonist, reminds me of Carmen Boullosa as a little girl, and the village, Agustini, evokes the towns in Tabasco where you spent your childhood summers.

CB When Leaving Tabasco had just come out, the telephone rang at home. It was Don José Luis Martinez, one of Mexico’s foremost literary critics, and a man whom we all respect, and for whom I have a deep affection. “Carmen, my copy of Leaving Tabasco is defective,” he told me. “I’m almost finished and I’m missing the last five pages. Please send me another copy of your book as soon as possible because I want to finish reading it right away. By the way, I really enjoyed the scene where your mother makes love to the priest!” My mother? My heart pounded. My mother would never have had an affair with a priest, nor did she have time for lovers; she had six children, earned two degrees, she adored her husband and she died very young. “Honestly, José Luis,” I told him, “she isn’t my mother, and the little girl isn’t me.”

Leaving Tabasco is not an autobiography, and it is not a roman à clef. I grew up in Mexico City, not in that little imaginary town. I had many siblings, Dad always lived with us and was involved, and my mother died when I was in my teens. My life is nothing like Delmira’s. Really, nothing at all. But I’m flattered that Delmira is perceived as “real,” which speaks to the novel’s power of persuasion. Leaving Tabasco can be read as an unlikely homage to my grandmother, whom I adored, because in the novel the grandmother is a cold and callous person. Mine was warm and pleasant, talkative and loving, however she did live on a cocoa plantation near Comalcalco, a small town in the southern state of Tabasco that was an Agustini of sorts. But she was born early in the last century—not in the 1950s. In the novel I collapsed her generation with my own, and created that child protagonist who is nothing like me or my grandmother or anyone I know. The novel is also a tribute to Delmira Augustini, the Uruguayan poet who wrote exquisite erotic texts. Both Delmira, the poet, and Delmira, my character, share an obsession: the elaboration of a body, the creation of their own bodies against the grain, the defense of their own eroticism against a hostile environment.

Agustini is and isn’t Comalcalco; it also looks like the villages in the state of Hidalgo that I knew as a child. Agustini is Agustini: a world inhabited by fictional characters who “smell” like the jungles and rivers of Tabasco and are ultimately a mirror image of Tabasco.

RG Perhaps your readers have wanted to read Leaving Tabasco as an autobiographical roman à clef because of the hints you provide in the narrative frame: the novel begins and ends with Delmira, a grown writer who reminisces about her childhood during a visit to Berlin. If I remember correctly, the novel came out just as you were returning from a one-year residency at the DAAD in Berlin, and thus we were tempted to read Delmira the grown-up as an alter ego of a grown-up Carmen remembering her childhood and especially her grandmother.

CB The narrative frame of Leaving Tabasco is indeed set in Berlin, and it was inspired by one of my visits to Germany. Not by the year I spent as a fellow at the DAAD, but by a short trip I made a year earlier. I had traveled to Frankfurt to accept a prize, and they put me up in Bad Homburg, a small, rich village 15 minutes north of the city, with one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen. I spent the whole night awake (it happens quite often, unfortunately, since I never learned how to sleep properly) and early in the morning, sleep-deprived and with nothing to read, I went out to buy something in the bookstore—a book that would protect me from another night of insomnia. Halfway through the park—one that was loved by both Hölderlin and Novalis—I thought, I finally know what I’ll ask for if I’m about to die. I want to visit the Bad Homburg park again. That idea pierced me like a bullet and I remembered my grandmother telling me how when her brother, Epitacio, was on his death bed he had requested “a passion fruit, please bring me a passion fruit, it’s my last will.” Back then, there was no passion fruit in Mexico City, where Epitacio was about to expire; passion fruit could only be found in Tabasco and in other warm climates, although they could have asked someone in the family to bring him one. So my grandmother ended her story by telling me, “Those heartless children weren’t good enough to find someone to bring Epitacio a damned passion fruit!” When my grandmother told me that anecdote, I was five years old and I thought, What would be my last will? I felt, for the very first time, scared of death, and I became aware that I was destined to die. That night and the following nights, as I lay awake in bed, the feeling came back: I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I had that same feeling again, in the middle of the Bad Homburg park: I was going to die. My grandmother had died about two years before and I remembered my love for her. I finally arrived at the bookstore and inside I found a miracle: several tables were heaped with volumes of Spanish masterpieces, on sale for one deutsche mark each. I hadn’t expected such luck. I quickly picked up several volumes of Lope de Vega, and headed back to my hotel. Browsing through one of the volumes I came upon something that almost made me choke. The author, who had gotten the title of one of Lope’s works wrong, had written himself a note and then proceeded to leave it in the book: “Change Caballero de Olmedo to El Caballero de Olmedo each time it appears.”

In that textual error I saw the future character of Leaving Tabasco: an editor of Lope de Vega’s works for German students of Spanish who alters the works of our great Spanish author ever so slightly. And from there I began to picture the novel.

RG Some academic critics have pointed to your novels as an example of “feminine writing.” Do you believe in feminine writing—that is to say, in a narrative voice that sets female writers apart from male writers? I see your novels as “masculine writing,” since you often assume a man’s narrative voice and point of view, as in the scenes of They’re Cows narrated from the pirate’s perspective.

CB I agree with you, to a certain extent. As a male narrator, however, I am an anomaly. I am also an anomaly as a woman. I don’t really believe in these gender issues. And I’m happy to be anomalous, because I think the emphasis on gender has unleashed a new type of misogyny. The market joyfully promotes worthless women writers as long as they reinforce the idea that ladies are dumb and sensitive, just as it promotes third-world writers as long as they reinforce the idea that South American nations are unintelligent but full of magic and fantasy. Fortunately, the market also promotes great authors, like Salman Rushdie. And even some women, like Penelope Fitzgerald, Amelie Nothomb and Jeanette Winterson, who are fantastic writers.

RG Besides novels, you’ve also written poetry, short stories, essays and even plays. I remember seeing one of your plays, The Children of Freud, performed at El Hábito, a well-known cabaret in Mexico City. As a novelist, what have you learned from these excursions into other genres?

CB It was theater that first brought me to the novel. Before 1980 I had been reluctant to publish anything but poetry. I experimented privately with other genres; I used to write short stories to amuse myself, but I knew that they were unpublishable—they were written in code, and only I could understand them. Then in 1980, Julio Castillo and Jesusa Rodríguez, two of the most active people in Mexican theater, invited me to participate in one of their projects: they needed a writer to create a script for a future production, which was eventually called Emptiness. The play was a great success. Fassbinder loved it so much that he used one of the scenes in his last film. After this adventure in theater, I felt the urge to write a novel. My journey from the private pleasures of poetry to the dialogue with otherness that constitutes fiction was slow and gradual. My first novel was Mejor desaparece [1987], a strange montage of giddy monologues. But it was not until my eldest daughter María was born that I came face to face with the “other.” Sylvia Plath claims that men continue to act like children throughout their lives because they never go through the experience of motherhood. I don’t completely agree, but in my case, when my daughter was born I experienced what people say you find in love: the realization in your own flesh that the other, someone who is not you, has a life of its own, an existence alien to your own desires and needs. María was born, and a short time afterward I envisioned Antes, my next novel. I wrote it, and like a whirlwind, while my two children were growing up, I jumped from one novel to the next.

The experience of love led me to poetry—I fell in love and I discovered what had been missing from my poems—friendship and collaboration led me to theater; and motherhood led me to the novel.

RG Unlike the United States, Mexico tends to give intellectuals and writers a privileged position in society. Writers are greatly respected by both the public and the government, and politicians can often be seen courting intellectuals and asking for their insights on social issues. The participation of intellectuals in political life has had mixed results: in the best of cases, figures like Octavio Paz have risen to become the moral conscience of the country, while other intellectuals have abused their power and privilege and have become cultural caciques…

CB …Or businessmen or beggars or pens-for-hire or grant-collectors who don’t even write anymore. A visit to the Mexican literary world recalls Dante’s procession through the inferno. I don’t want to point the finger at anyone in particular; it’s a collective evil. Octavio Paz was lucky to have lived in happier times. Though writers were already “yoked to the chariot of power”—the phrase was coined by Margo Glantz—as they have been since independence, their conscience and good names were still intact. I am especially disturbed by the corruption of the craft of the writer—contractors pass themselves off as intellectuals, thugs pretend to be poets—which has been so damaging to our critical conscience. This corruption reached grotesque levels during the term of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. We suffer at the hands of pseudohistorians and corrupt political analysts whose work legitimizes truly sinister public officials. The strategy to attain legitimacy through the endorsement of writers was a tactic invented by the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and is now on its deathbed. The strategy is pretty simple, and goes back to colonial times: colonial laws kept Indians away from books, like the medieval church kept the people away from the Bible for fear of heresy. As a result, reading became the privilege of a few Mexicans. But those who have this privilege also have access to power. Thus writers are on the side of power, and they can use their pen to legitimize the power that grants them privilege. This was painfully true in the last years of the PRI’s rule. Every six years (the length of a presidential term in Mexico) the new government sought out writers to legitimatize its rule. With these tactics, the ruling party astutely bribed many leftist intellectuals. This is a story we all know, but it needs to be put in print.

RG What is your role in the world of Mexican intellectuals? How does your work as a novelist relate to your political engagement?

CB First of all, I am not an intellectual. Fiction writers are not intellectuals, they are novelists. The poet isn’t an intellectual either, and neither is the playwright. I’m a novelist, a poet and a playwright, but that still doesn’t make me an intellectual. I repeat, I’m not an intellectual, nor do I want to be one. It is not part of my work. When I comment on political matters, I do so like a private citizen, not like a public figure, and perhaps this is why my intellectual freedom is still intact. Paradoxically, most intellectuals no longer have intellectual freedom—they have bartered their freedom for government jobs or grants. There are still a few intellectuals who have managed to maintain their freedom: Carlos Monsiváis is a rare example, and fortunately there are more, such as Roger Bartra and Gabriel Zaid. Others, like the painter Juan Soriano, have sustained an independent political vision—I use Soriano as an example because he is not part of the Left, and he thinks for himself. In the case of Paz, his words were transformed into reality by the government—which I suppose would be a dream for most intellectuals. President Salinas adopted Paz’s vision of modernity as his political program. Personally, I prefer to keep to my novels and poems, and to remain in the happy realm of accursed dreams.

RG But you are often very outspoken, especially on matters that involve women or issues that affect cultural life in Mexico.

CB As a private citizen, I’m pretty outspoken. I often take part in public matters. I can’t avoid it; I’m an activist. Now I will have to be even more of an activist, since the president-elect is a man of the Right. We should remember that in Mexico the Right can be extremely intolerant—about 15 years ago, a right-wing group stormed into a theater, interrupting the play and hitting the actors with pipes and sticks, all because they didn’t think the play was “decent.” And a few months ago a 13-year-old girl was forced to give birth by the government of a state controlled by the Right, even though she had been raped by a heroin addict and Mexican law allows abortions in such cases. If we don’t fight for spaces of tolerance and civility, Mexico could become a doomed country, marked by intolerance and fanaticism.

RG Let me ask one final question. Is it difficult to be a woman in the Mexican literary world? Do women writers enjoy the same rights and privileges as male authors, or do you feel as if you still live in the Mexico that stifled brilliant women like Sor Juana, Elena Garro and Inés Arredondo?

CB When I started to publish, at the end of the ‘70s, the literary world in Mexico celebrated the emergence of a generation composed mostly of women writers: Coral Bracho, Verónica Volkow, Bárbara Jacobs. Literary critics—whose work was then at a much higher level than it is now—rejoiced at the arrival of so many women, who for the most part were also great writers. Nowadays, this receptivity to women writers has disappeared. The Mexican literary world, afflicted by an ever-shrinking pool of readers, has closed itself off to women writers and to the modern notion of men and women with rights and equal intellectual capacity. It’s hard to explain why the younger generations are more misogynist, especially when we think that they are the sons and daughters of the ’60s generation. Perhaps this change can be explained by the fact that Mexico suddenly produced best-selling authors, like Laura Esquivel and Angeles Mastretta, who have a considerable readership in Germany, and Isabel Allende, who wrote and lived in Mexico for a time, and now Marcela Serrano, another best-selling Chilean writer who also lives in Mexico. So why would the commercial success of so many women writers inspire misogyny in the Mexican literary world? Because jealousy is an affect that is not merely tolerated in Mexico, but also celebrated with Mexican intensity. Another guess would be that gender studies have unintentionally produced a type of academic criticism that is so specialized and rarefied that it has created an insurmountable division between male and female writers.

The literary world in Mexico does indeed discriminate against women writers. I don’t mean to say that women in Mexico have lost their rights. Women study, work, and have more access to better opportunities in life; many of the families in Mexico City are headed and supported by women. And many women occupy important leadership positions in government: Rosario Robles is the mayor of Mexico City. Rosario Green is the minister of Foreign Affairs. And there is also a feminist movement in Mexico, or several feminist movements, working for women’s rights, organizing support groups for battered women, funding small businesses run by women, fighting for reproductive rights, demanding equitable salaries, etcetera. Women are not entirely excluded from public life and positions of power, but there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve equality between the two genders, in the literary world and elsewhere.

Translated from the Spanish by Rubén Gallo and Harry Morales.

Carmen Boullosa's Before, Translated by Peter Bush by Will Heinrich
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BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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