I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The author’s first novel is set in Mexico City, but its themes of violence, grief, and solitude are truly global.
Laia Jufresa once gave me a story she’d written about a man who wakes up and realizes he’s become a book—a modest riff on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. A few weeks later I gave her a story—a really bad one—which she returned to me with many suggestions, edits, and a gentle little note saying: “Perhaps there are too many cigarettes and coffees in your story?” We were nineteen years old. Since then, Laia and I have exchanged all our manuscripts, discussing each other’s work at length in cafés in remote Latin American and European cities, or over Skype, silently enjoying the slow coming into maturity of each other’s prose (there are no creative writing programs in Mexico, so people rely on the infinite patience of their friends). We studied philosophy together at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, so we perhaps read each other with the rigor and dedication we learned back then. I say without irony that Laia and I observe each other with a kind of “epistemological distance.” We follow and keep each other company with a precise balance of mutual admiration and respect, and a capacity for honest, sharp criticism. We question each other constantly, even when we don’t actually pose questions. On the occasion of the English-language publication of her quiet and masterful novel, Umami, we met in Paris in a small apartment on the Île Saint-Louis. From there, we walked over to Shakespeare & Co., where we found Laia’s book unexpectedly featured in the window. What could be a better opportunity to talk to her about books, Mexico, and octopuses?
Valeria Luiselli My plan was to walk over to Shakespeare & Co. and ask you to choose three books: one that’s important for you as a reader and writer, one that you’ve always wanted to read but never have, and a third that you’ve always felt you had to read and really don’t want to. Let’s start with the first.
Laia Jufresa As a reader, there are too many to name, but one that comes to mind for me as a writer is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of personal essays that explore his relationship to writing. That book was incredibly important for me because it gave me validation I didn’t know I was looking for. I was already writing, but I was also very intimidated. I had never really read what you were supposed to, and I was always trying to pretend I had, or saying, “Well, I haven’t, but I will!” I thought I was doing something wrong. The idea that I had to read certain books was a little overwhelming and had nothing to do with the way I wrote. Bradbury showed me that you have the right to follow your own path, both as a writer and a reader. He had made his own way, and he was very sure of himself in telling other writers that it was all right.
VL You seem to me like the least professionalized writer in the world. I’ve always greatly admired your freedom to explore writing from really different places. I remember an entire period in which you were making hats, or shoes, in Argentina.
VL You somehow connected that to your writing and to your poetics.
LJ You learn by doing. You have to read a lot to be a writer. But I don’t think it necessarily makes you better. Only writing a lot does that. It would be ridiculous to say that going to museums makes you a better painter. It just doesn’t. Of course, it makes you better in the sense that you learn from observing, but if you don’t get your hands dirty every day with the paint, you will not become a better painter.
VL You’ve been painting and drawing your whole life. You’ve done illustration for children’s books. And you’ve written a screenplay. You move with immense freedom between different genres and activities. How do these relate to your process as a writer?
LJ In many ways, drawing allows my mind to wander, and it constantly reminds me of the nature of craft and the importance of practice. It has also taught me that writing is the only thing that I will actually stick to.
VL No more shoes.
LJ I like to try everything for a little bit, and then I let go. Especially making shoes. That was really boring. With painting and drawing, which I still do, it took me years to realize that it was okay for them to be just hobbies. I say this, even though I did a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and a masters in illustration. As a student, I saw how some people could spend eighteen hours on a small corner of their canvas. Writing is the only thing I can be that obsessive about.
VL I would say “meticulous.”
LJ Maybe. I try not to let go of hobbies even when I’m writing full-time because they remind me at a subconscious level of how important it is to keep playing. When I’m painting, I’m very comfortable being a beginner—trying things out and making mistakes. It feeds my writing. When you begin to feel like you’re a professional and have deadlines to meet, it becomes really important to still be able to play.
VL Clarice Lispector had a similar take on how professionalism ruins people’s creativity. Can I ask you about what you just said—about being a beginner and enjoying it? Does it relate to being a foreigner? You were born in Mexico, but in the fifteen years I’ve known you, you’ve lived in probably more than fifteen apartments in Europe, Mexico, and the US.
LJ I don’t think I will ever tire of being a beginner. I want to write another novel now, but other than that, I have always started anew. My first book was a biography, which was followed by El esquinista (The cornerist), a book of short stories, then Umami, and then a screenplay. I think I create these spaces for myself to be a beginner because it feels like a huge challenge to take on something I’ve never done before. It’s also very liberating.
VL You were very young when you were writing the first drafts of your short stories, and someone offered to publish them. But you decided not to because you thought, I am a beginner, and this is not ready. How do you see this decision to wait before you published, even though you’d finished a book?
LJ For me, it wasn’t a big deal. I never was in a hurry to publish. I was very conscious of going through a learning process. Now, it’s different. I want to write books that I will publish. Back then, writing was just about writing. I’d walk into a bookstore and there would be so many books, and I would think, Why would I publish one that I’m not incredibly proud of?
VL What is your relationship to the languages in which you write? You grew up speaking Spanish, and then, early on, you learned French. Your English is flawless, too, and you write it beautifully.
LJ I’m learning German, now, too!
VL There are multiple languages always flowing through you. How do they nurture your writing?
LJ Well, I write my first drafts mostly in English, and then I translate them into Spanish.
VL That’s fascinating. Why?
LJ I first became a reader in English. My grandfather lived in the US, and he would send me books. I spontaneously reach for English when I’m starting a new project. Then I drop it once things get serious. It provides a peculiar mix of familiarity and discomfort. I am too constrained in French and too at ease in Spanish. In English, I’m more awake and aware, simultaneously at home and not quite at home.
VL You and I are NAFTA kids. We lived the change from a closed economy in Mexico, where you couldn’t get a Snickers bar except at an airport duty-free shop in the airport, to an open border. All of a sudden, we were flooded with American candy. Later on, it was books and music.
LJ Mexico is incredibly porous to the English language in ways that are interesting and different from the situations in other Latin American countries. English seeps into Mexico at all social levels because of the enormous number of people moving constantly back and forth. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing in Spanish.
VL Gilles Deleuze says that all great writers are foreigners in the language in which they write, even in their mother tongue. Do you feel that foreignness in Spanish?
LJ I do, but probably not as much as you. I haven’t lived abroad as long as you have, but I didn’t grow up in Mexico City, so Mexico City Spanish has always been always a little strange for me.
VL It’s hard to speak good chilango.
LJ I always feel like I am imitating someone, and I am very imitative. I used to feel bad about that. I thought it implied a complete lack of personality.
VL I was always proud of being that way, until recently.
LJ You should be proud. Someone explained to me that it has something to do with mirror neurons. It means you’re very empathic.
VL Like octopi, no? You have this thing with octopi?
LJ Octopi is actually not the correct plural, I learned recently.
VL You’re breaking my heart.
LJ If I remember correctly, octopi would be correct if it came from Latin, but it actually comes from Greek. So it’s octopuses.
VL Well, octopuses are really amazing animals. Do they empathize with others?
LJ It’s complicated.
VL Okay, so let’s leave that subject for later because I should ask you about the second book you’d choose in the bookstore, the one you’ve always wanted to read and haven’t yet.
LJ Oof. I think in English it’s The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It uses an incredible third-person omniscient narrator that no one uses anymore. Whenever I sit down to read it, after a few pages, its powerful storytelling makes me want to tell stories.
VL You’re describing a novel that’s completely different from the one you wrote. You have many different voices in Umami, and they’re all first-person or limited third-person narrators. Moreover, the narrative is anything but linear. It’s fragmentary in its composition. The structure you use is very architectural, because it’s based on the plans of a residential complex in which the houses are situated in such a way that they’re simultaneously together and apart. They share a kind of common space, where people’s stories and voices get mixed up—a very Mexico City thing. At the same time, the novel flows from one voice to another, from one house to another. So I’m wondering why you would choose to talk about a novel likeThe Leopard?
LJ I don’t know. When I started writing Umami, I was more interested in being able to build a polyphony of voices that’s modest, unflamboyant, and serve the purpose of building characters and telling the story, not a parade of voices for their own sake. For example, one of the most important characters in the novel, for me, is Linda, the mother of the girl who dies. She doesn’t speak in the novel, but everyone has an opinion about her. And in a way, their opinions are all true. We’re all like that, we’re all many different people. But as much as I’m interested in building characters gradually, and from a sort of kaleidoscope of opinions, story is key, and sometimes you need to describe things quickly and efficiently. Storytellers like Lampedusa are really good at balancing plot and detail, and that’s probably why The Leopardalways sends me back to writing. It’s like having a talent for anecdotes. Some people are very good at telling anecdotes, and some are terrible. The ones who are terrible might be telling you about something very interesting, but they make it so boring.
VL Yeah, like me telling jokes.
LJ Some people can tell you about a very minor thing that happened and bring it to life. I think good narrative comes from observing the world and what happens inside yourself. The opportunity to move in and out of two realities, your inner world and the world outside of you, is what I find fascinating about writing. If you just want to tell stories, there are other ways, other media, to do so.
VL Yet I would also say that you’re not the kind of writer who is always looking at herself looking at the world.
LJ No, but I do think if you’ve understood the complexity of one human being by observing your own contraditions, you will write more complex characters. Empathy is a game of reflection.
VL You haven’t told me if octopuses can really empathize or not.
LJ They don’t.
VL That’s disappointing.
LJ They’re terrible. They eat each other after sex.
VL Maybe that’s the deepest form of empathy. In my opinion, what’s wrong with the personal essay as a genre today is that it often adopts a hyperbolic understanding of “the personal.” It’s a very contemporary way of trying to create empathy, but how much do you want to see yourself seeing, and how much do you want to see others?
LJ I don’t want to see myself in my writing at all. I’m merely talking about the need to use yourself as a guinea pig. But I don’t think I’m particularly interesting—nor is any writer for that matter. I think that would be, for me, too como mirarse el ombligo.
LJ I have read writers who write about writers or about their relationship to writing in ways that I admire. But I personally find it a lot more interesting to make up stuff. Still, I don’t think I could do that without having looked inside myself. I don’t think anyone can.
VL In many ways, Umami is a book about grief. It’s also about solitude and childhood. The children’s voices are beautifully composed, as is their world, but they’re also very sad because of the loneliness that you’re so attuned to. Was this something you were particularly interested in exploring?
LJ Yes. When I started, I made the decision to write from the point of view of characters who were childless. I’d realized when my short story collection was published that there were no characters in it with children. At first, I thought that made me a terrible writer, merely projecting my own experiences. But eventually I decided to explore it further for my next book. Every parent tells you that their lives and worldviews completely changed after they had kids. If that’s true—and I knew I wanted to have children eventually—why not explore it to the fullest while I still could?
VL You should read Hijos sin hijos [Children without children], by Enrique Vila-Matas.
LJ Being a child became one of Umami’s primary themes, and one of its many made-up words, too: “offspringhood.” Sophie Hughes translated it beautifully into English. But once I had the narrators, the theme shifted. Grief became the book’s motor because the violence in Mexico had become unbearable. There were so many deaths and disappearances. I talk about it in the past tense, but it’s ongoing.
VL Yes, it is.
LJ I had left Mexico some years before because I had been in a shooting. Fourteen people were killed sixty feet away from me. I couldn’t bear it, and I had the privilege of leaving. So I did, and I didn’t want to give violence any more space, especially not in my writing. But I wanted to write about grief because we were all traumatized. Every time someone dies, it touches a lot of people. The same is true when someone disappears, though in a different and equally horrible way, because there’s no closure. So writing about grief was my way of making space for it.
VL Does the title speak to that?
LJ Yes. Umami is a flavor that is very hard to grasp. It completely modifies the taste of food, and it can be easily taken as being sweet or salty. Grief is like that, too. Sometimes you are flooded by it; at other times, it merely lingers as an aftertaste, discreet but still powerful enough to affect the way you experience life.
VL I remember a piece you wrote years ago. It was a diatribe against beetroot.
LJ Actually, I love them now.
VL (laughter) Well, back then you hated beetroot, and you said they tasted like goodbyes. That brings me to something else. As writers who live outside of Mexico, and who frequently do readings and talks in foreign countries, we are expected to somehow represent Mexico. Even though we’re not cultural ambassadors of any type, and we don’t represent anything—I’m sure you agree—we are nevertheless often expected to speak not only about Mexicans, but also about the world’s current narrative of what Mexico is. Mexican writers are expected to speak about drugs and violence and to act as experts on the nation’s problems.
LJ French writers are probably expected to talk about sex or something.
VL Which is so much nicer. I have a friend, a Brazilian friend, a writer, who told me, “I went to launch my novel in the UK not long ago, and I gave this very meticulous, intricate talk in English, which is hard for me, about how I constructed its very difficult architecture, about problems with cadence, rhythm, characters, and so forth.” And at the end someone from the audience—
LJ —asked about football?
VL No, about the Zika virus. “Can you tell us a little bit more about the Zika virus?” As Latin American writers, or writers from any so-called third-world country, we’re expected to stick to our allotted themes. We are only allowed to talk about those and, in the case of Mexican writers, only considered interesting if we can bring the world news about violence, poverty, and drugs. Obviously, these issues wake us up at night. The situation in Mexico is a labyrinth in which I spend a lot of my insomnias. But how do you see this as a writer living abroad and having to talk about these questions?
LJ Sometimes I find it really annoying and unfair, because it doesn’t happen to authors from the US or the UK, but it’s also an incredible privilege to be a writer and to get to do what you love and to talk about it. I don’t find it as annoying as I used to, because it’s an opportunity to tell people things they don’t know and remind them how incredible, complex, cosmopolitan, and old Mexico is, and how unfair it is to reduce it to a war zone when so many people are still building their lives there every day.
VL Do you think it’s our duty, as writers from a country that’s so fucked up, to create awareness and a more complex picture for people elsewhere in the world?
LJ No, I don’t. But I do think it’s our duty to answer the questions that we get when we’re giving talks. Sadly, they tend to go in that direction, and a lot of times I end up saying, “I am no expert.”
VL Do you think fiction has a role to play in a moment of political crisis such as the one we are currently living in Mexico?
LJ I ask myself that question constantly. I don’t think I have a good answer. When I was back home and people asked me if I felt like a Mexican writer, I would say, “No. I don’t feel like a Mexican writer. I feel like a writer in Mexico.” That means different things. It means being a female writer in an incredibly macho writing world and country. It also means living with the violence and everything else that is happening today. So, I don’t think it’s our duty to directly address the political situation in our country. Our only duty is to write the best we can. But I’ve come around to the idea that the more you exist in the public eye, the more you have to find ways to deal with this problem, because the questions are not going to stop.
VL No, and they’re valid and important, I guess. There’s a huge gap between the international narrative around Mexico and Mexico’s narrative about itself as a country. Writers play a difficult intermediary role. In elite international circles, “global” Mexican writers, the civilized barbarians of the south, are expected to both embody and contradict the national narrative, perhaps so that bien-pensant intellectuals can confirm their well-intentioned beliefs about us. At the same time, inside Mexico, those same writers are seen as a disconnected bourgeoisie who are not entitled to their opinions, because they speak from a situation of total privilege. In one world, we are smart little underdogs, in another we are oppressors.
LJ You’re right, it’s very contradictory. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and, having been on the receiving end of those kinds of attacks, it pains me. Yet I never respond. I don’t see the point. My writing should always speak for itself. I wanted to reach a bigger Mexican audience, so after the novel—something only a small minority of Mexicans care for or could afford—I wrote a film script, a commercial comedy, a satire that’s also a political critique. But I didn’t want to write it for people who already think like I do. I wanted to write it for people who think nothing like me, but who will go to watch a movie. Maybe I can communicate with them. One of the joys Umami has brought me is how foreign readers enjoy it like they might enjoy a book from any other place.
VL Of course, because Umami doesn’t set out to “represent” anything in particular. It’s not an ideological pamphlet or a travel guide to yet another third-world country. It’s a novel about complex human relationships in a complex metropolis.
LJ Coming back to this idea of duty, the only thing that I would probably feel a duty to do as a Mexican writer is make space for complex female characters. I feel that’s important because I just don’t see it happening.
VL Man, the other day I was teaching Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a book I love. I was surprised by how my female undergraduates responded to it. They were incredibly pissed off by its immensely macho content. There’s a part where the characters are talking about Mexican poets, woman poets. One of the characters says, “Lift a stone and you’ll find a girl writing about her little life.” The machismo that we grew up reading in Spanish and never reacted to—I remember the first time I got pissed off in my so-called professional experience was when I started writing for a magazine in Mexico. The editor of the magazine had asked me for a review, and afterward told me that it was very good. He asked if I would like to write more of them, because, he said, they needed more women writers. That was the first time I thought, Oh shit, there’s something wrong with this. They wanted me because they needed women. Affirmative action, when it’s applied to you so blatantly, is kind of disappointing.
LJ I understand, but I still think we need it in Mexico. We really do, because the numbers are sad. In reality, but also in fiction. If you look at some of the best books of the last decade in Mexico, they’re brilliant, but they don’t have a single woman in them, or if there is one, it’s always the mother. It’s always either la mamá or la puta. The mother or the whore.
VL In Mexico, there are only two women who are loved by all, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. One is a virgin and the other is a nun. It’s sinister.
LJ The moment you have a female narrator, no matter how complex, even the most serious Mexican critics will say something like, “Such a feminine book!” The other thing that people ask me is “How did you write a male voice that is so convincing?”
VL People have asked me that before, too.
LJ In a way, male voices are easier, because everything we’ve been taught as literature has been written by middle-aged white men. Nowadays, especially when I teach workshops, I like to point it out to students, to say to them, “If your character is a macho—”
VL They tend to point it out to you. I think that’s the difference now.
LJ But not so much in Mexico. By the way, I’m not talking about being politically correct. If your character is a macho, then let him be as macho as macho can be. Just recognize that if everything in your book is macho and you don’t realize it because that’s how you see the world, it’s a blindspot.
VL Mexicans are very politically incorrect. They have always disdained American political correctness. I myself did until I moved to the US. Now, I have these immense fights with my family when they say horrible things. I think that violence, whether it is social or personal, begins with language, which is much more powerful than people think it is. As a writer, what do you think about political correctness?
LJ In life, I think respecting others is the most important thing, way more important than literature. In writing, however, I don’t think we should ever worry about that. What matters is that a character is coherent. The other day I was speaking to a screenwriter I know who is married to a sociologist. He gives her his scripts so she can point out where all his characters are being macho. And I told him that’s why I don’t give my writing to my husband, who’s also a sociologist. It makes no sense to me that you’d want all your characters to be equally sensible and your fictional world to be so far removed from the dirty actuality of human life.
VL The other day I was listening to Esther Allen, a brilliant translator, speak on a panel. She recalled a time in the US, not so long ago, when editors would, without any kind of self-restraint, say that they don’t publish writers in translation. That’s like saying you don’t publish women or blacks.
LJ That’s pretty sad.
VL But this has changed. Today, foreign literature has become a niche product in the US market. I don’t think any editor would ever say, at least not out loud, that they wouldn’t publish a writer in translation.
LJ It will be a niche for a while, but I think it’s slowly changing. You see it already happening with Elena Ferrante, with Bolaño, and with the success of My Struggle.
VL I recently read Ferrante in Italian, and I didn’t find her very exciting.
LJ No, I didn’t either.
VL I’ve discussed this with Italian friends. For them, the problem with Ferrante, who’s a very capable writer, is that it’s a sort of secondhand reproduction of Italianness, easily digested by everyone else. I guess Italian writers have to deal with the same kind of shit that Mexican writers do. They’ll only be commercially successful outside of Italy if they successfully embody a cliché. In one case, it’s violence and drug culture; in the other, it’s a kind of Cinema Paradiso nostalgia where nonnas hang linen out their windows and children run free and wild around the neighborhood.
LJ True, but we also have the opposite. Your books, for example, are by no means a caricature of Mexico, yet they are being read in many languages.
VL Okay, one final question. Which book have you always felt that you’re obliged to read, and haven’t?
LJ Los detectives salvajes.
VL The Savage Detectives.
LJ Well, I’ve read the first part, and then I stopped.
VL Because the interviews in the middle are kind of boring?
LJ Maybe. I can’t remember why, but I lost interest.
VL I loved the first part when I read it. I really loved the scene in which the narrator is reading a book and has an erection in the Alameda Central, a public park in Mexico City, and he sees this horrible squirrel, and that really puts him off. That’s very Mexico City. Everyone’s always having sex in public parks, and then the squirrel comes and ruins the moment. Why do people in Mexico cuddle so much in parks?
LJ Because they come from Catholic homes, where they can’t smoke or fuck?
VL Public spaces are really spaces of intimacy in Catholic countries.
LJ If we were expected to speak like French writers, the stories we could tell…
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa. She is the author of a book of essays, Sidewalks, and two novels, Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth (all published by Coffee House Press). Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee