June 2014

Brendan Riley


An Interview with Guadalupe Nettel

The acclaimed Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel has just made her English language debut with Natural Histories (Seven Stories Press), the translation of her collection El matrimonio de los peces rojos. Born in Mexico City in 1973, Nettel earned her doctorate in linguistics from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Among other works, she is the author of four short story collections, a memoir, and a critical essay on one of her favorite writers, Julio Cortázar, who surfaces in the conversation below. In 2007 she was named one of the Bogotá 39 -- one of the most promising young Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine. She has been the recipient of numerous literary prizes in Mexico and Europe. Her short story collection Pétalos y otras historias incómodas was a 2008 finalist for the highly prestigious Herralde Novel Prize.

I recently had the unqualified pleasure of reading both Natural Histories, in its superb English translation from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein, as well as, in Spanish, her memoir El cuerpo en que nací (The Body Where I Was Born) due out in 2015 from Seven Stories Press, also in Lichtenstein's translation. As if that were not enough, Ms. Nettel graciously agreed to a whirlwind email interview, and was both generous and wonderfully precise in her responses to my numerous, sometimes elaborate questions.

Your collection of stories Natural Histories demonstrates and develops a deep and direct interest in biology and animals, both as characters in the stories and as metaphors. There are also quite a few animals in your autobiographical novel The Body Where I Was Born -- for example, Betty the dog, who, as a physical presence, seems to act as a guide dog for the narrator, and especially your fascinating personal metaphor of trilobites. As some of the oldest fossils, trilobites seem to offer an ideal metaphor for modern personal isolation, especially the kind that young people tend to experience. Could you say something about the possible emotional content of trilobites as a metaphor?

My idea about trilobites comes from the nickname or pet name my mother gave me when I was two years old: cucaracha (cockroach), from the way that I walked all hunched over. It's not a very common nickname, nor a very flattering one. If someone calls you something in a certain way, especially your own mother, you end up identifying with that name. I simply assumed that I was a cockroach and so those creatures started to become interesting to me. And of course that also inspired my enormous interest in Kafka's tale The Metamorphosis. Now, Kafka never specifically identified the type of insect featured in his story, but I certainly identified immediately with the very isolation that you mention, both with the rejection the narrator felt and with the kind of revulsion these creatures inspire in other people. One day I found out that cockroaches resist every kind of attempt to wipe them out, and that they can live in all kinds of conditions that other animals couldn't even dream of surviving. They are battle-hardened survivors with a long history, a history of mutation, of constant adaptations to their environment, and they are descended from one of the most ancient animals known to have lived on the earth: trilobites.

Could you comment a little further on how you conceive the trilobite to represent your narrator?

The Body Where I Was Born is an autobiographical novel, a memoir. It's not a work of fiction. Everything I relate therein is true, supposing that such a thing as truth really exists. I set myself the rule of only relating events that I truly recalled. For that reason, I did not make decisions with the same freedom that one can enjoy with other kinds of stories. The narrator -- I, myself -- felt that the trilobite represented me, not only because of the nickname my mother had given me but also because, in spite of the hard experiences of my childhood and the tragedies that it was my lot to witness, I kept my balance and met life head on, never looking away. Also because at the age of fifteen I already felt quite old, like a fossil.

As you write in The Body Where I Was Born, Aix-en-Provence is a city with a very lovely side as well as some much harder streets. I visited Aix for three or four days in 1991 and saw both sides. They are both quite intense. And when my stay was at an end I really didn't want to depart; I recall perfectly well boarding the train, and the engine starting up, and I had a terrible longing to stay. Few times and in few places have I ever had such a feeling. Did you really live there?

Yes, I lived in Aix between the ages of eleven and fifteen. I can't tell you why you felt the way you did but it's true that sometimes one feels a very strong attachment to a place even after being there a very short time. I felt something similar in Benin, where I visited when I was eighteen. I've returned to Aix four times since and I walk the streets with great affection, although each time I recognize it less. For me Aix is, above all, a psychological and, partially, imaginary territory where I occasionally return with both my rational memory and my emotional one.

In "War in the Trash Cans" (from Natural Histories) you create a disquieting tale by combining the revulsion most people would feel in simply thinking about eating cockroaches with a different prohibition, which comes from Clemencia, the mother of the maid Isabel, who tells the little boy that we must not eat cockroaches because they are our ancestors; eating them will bring us bad luck. The narrator of The Body Where I Was Born talks about reading Beat writers, and preferring Kerouac and Ginsberg to Burroughs or Bukowksi; this seems to mean that she chooses life over death, I think, but at the same time, Burroughs, who was a completely shameless explorer of things transgressive, employs revolting aspects of life and death to affirm life's survival from a biological perspective. Burroughs was also interested in reincarnation and he was both fascinated and repelled by creatures like centipedes. Although he is not your favorite writer can you comment on what interests or interested you about Burroughs and, possibly, what you learned from him?

I think that there are various readings of "War in the Trash Cans." It talks about class struggles in Mexico, which are very noticeable, about racism, about the symbiotic relationship between the rich and the oppressed. The family that appears in the story is a blonde one, and then there is the maid and this boy who is lost and has no place of his own. Suddenly the cockroaches appear and all the people must join forces, and when they begin to eat the cockroaches they create a secret connection that unites them all in a much stronger way than usually occurs through the secrets or skeletons in the closet that every family has. For me, the interesting fact of the story that you mention is rooted in the character's loneliness and how he overcomes it. Through passions and animality, the family becomes united and shares a moment of great complicity, something that this young man was greatly missing in his life. To find itself in such an intense way the family in the story has to transcend its own values. Sometimes, to find what we are longing for, it's necessary to go beyond our own prejudices.

I've not read too much of Burroughs, to be honest. I read Naked Lunch and Port of Saints many years ago. I liked them both well enough but no me volaron la cabeza, as we say here, they didn't really blow my mind. I'm sympathetic to the characteristic scatology and provocation in his writing but his books never moved me anywhere near the way that Ginsberg does. I think that Burroughs's interest in animals is more closely related to scatology and provocation than to the identification that a human can feel towards an animal and its behavior. In The Body Where I Was Born I relate one particularly anguishing moment when I imagined seeing creatures like hairy caterpillars or scorpions where there were none, or where others said there were none. Years later, I learned that in certain practices of Vajrayana Buddhism -- which interested the Beats, particularly Kerouac -- afflictive emotions are represented as spiders and other venomous insects which emerge from our bodies when we purify them.

Burroughs is never an easy writer to classify. I've heard his attitude or aesthetics described as "the politics of outrage." What do you think of that phrase? Do you accept it, at least in part, for your writing?

I've not read enough of Burroughs to be able to answer that question. What I can tell you is that it's not my intention to provoke. If my texts sometimes turn out to be disturbing, disquieting, or uncomfortable it is more than anything because I like to find beauty in places where people don't usually seek it out; in what is generally hidden, like illness, dementia, obsessions, and compulsions, psychological fragility, bodily secretions, and other things that a person usually prefers to hide. But always according to the logic of a story, and that of its characters. When I write, I don't plan to provoke a reaction or some feeling of rejection. Nor do I seek to avoid it. What I propose for myself is to share with the reader my idea of beauty, of those things, sometimes strange, sometimes terrible, which make us have aesthetic emotions.

Burroughs seemed to believe in biological strength for its own sake, more than in humans' self-destructive society, as a guarantee of survival. He demands that we confront biology even in its most disagreeable aspects. Do you think that there are traces, at least, of this perspective in your work? I'm thinking especially of your stories "Felina" and "Fungus."

I think so. Biological force impels us perhaps even more than our own willpower and in particular those two stories touch on that theme. In "Fungus" I wanted to talk about some very inconvenient love affairs which are nevertheless so strong that they seem to have a life of their own, resistant to everything. I liked very much the analogy of warts that are so difficult to eradicate. In "Felina" I was interested in exploring the naturalness with which animals accept some biological events while we humans generate a proliferation of thoughts, problems, and confusion surrounding these same events.

The narrator of The Body Where I Was Born does not enjoy her time at summer camp very much, and soon returns to Aix-en-Provence. Your work strikes me as having an especially urban perspective, but in it I also hear a voice that laments our ever-greater disconnection from nature and the loss of our cultural roots, a main fact of our experience. We seem to be chasing a totally illusory postmodern perfection at the cost of our identity.

Above all, in Natural Histories, I write about how disconnected we human beings are from our instincts and from that most primary wisdom that some refer to as hunches, or intuition. We human beings belong to the animal kingdom. It's not simply that we resemble animals but that we are animals. However, each animal has its own characteristics. Lions and elephants share between them the same behaviors and the same needs that they share with us.

Aristotle said: "If you want to understand the human being then you must closely observe nature and the animal kingdom." I chose two epigraphs for this book, and I believe they well describe our similarities and our differences. One comes from Gao Xingjian, Nobel laureate in literature: "Man belongs to an animal species that when injured can become particularly ferocious." Like some animals we humans can be very fierce when we feel our vital or intimate space to be threatened. The other quote comes from Pliny the Elder: "All animals know what it is they need, except for man." If you look closely, the key moments in an animal's life and in a human's life are practically the same: birth, mating, sickness, death. There is a reason why literature is filled with books about childhood, mating, sickness, and death. The fundamental difference is rooted in our capacity to reason and the way in which we abuse reason. When an animal knows that it is going to die, it simply crawls off into a corner and passes away. For humans, however, death is the most terrible, heartbreaking thing that can happen to us. I suppose that Pliny was referring to the loss of that so very basic wisdom that animals possess, and which we have buried within a very tangled web of speculative thoughts and doubts.

Chapter six of On the Road presents a road trip through Mexico, and in one moment, driving through the jungle, the beatnik road warriors end up covered in thousands of insects. The narrator, Sal Paradise, at first finds this totally revolting, but he follows the example of Dean Moriarty, who accepts the event as just one more road experience. Sal surrenders to the moment:

Lying on the top of the car with my face to the black sky was like lying in a closed trunk on a summer night. For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same. Soft infinitesimal showers of microscopic bugs fanned down on my face as I slept, and they were extremely pleasant and soothing. The sky was starless, utterly unseen and heavy. I could lie there all night long with my face exposed to the heavens, and it would do me no more harm than a velvet drape drawn over me. The dead bugs mingled with my blood; the live mosquitoes exchanged further portions; I began to tingle all over and to smell of the rank, hot, and rotten jungle, all over from hair and face to feet and toes. Of course I was barefoot. To minimize the sweat I put on my bug-smeared T-shirt and lay back again.

Sal is searching for a kind of crazy wisdom, what Japanese Buddhists call Satori, the sudden awakening. Do you believe that we find it in such moments? Do we have to rejoin nature? And given that that is increasingly difficult in the world of the twenty-first century, what can the average city dweller do? Or, with pollution, overpopulation, and global warming, is it already a lost cause? (You mention in The Body Where I Was Born a river where you and your brother once hunted axolotls but where "now, thirty years later, it would be unthinkable to swim in that river full of sewage and toxic residue.") Is your vision of the relationship between human beings and animals and the natural world comic or tragic? Optimistic or pessimistic? Or something more complicated in between? And if we have got to somehow become reunited with nature, is this more of a physical reunion (a relationship that we can actually recover) or something spiritual that can guide us through dark times?

Kerouac was very interested in Buddhism. He was a student of Chogyam Trungpa who speaks precisely of that "crazy wisdom" in several of his books, and I think that the paragraph you quote has got to do with this search and with those sorts of moments in which one ceases to feel a difference or a separation between nature and oneself and instead experiences a kind of happy unity. According to that philosophy these kinds of experiences are completely natural. The problem lies in the fact that we do not allow ourselves to take them seriously because of how busy we are thinking and conceptualizing everything. That idea is fully present in Natural Histories, where the characters discover their own nature thanks, in part, to the pets they live with.

I'm fascinated by the prominent aspect of your prose that could be called "reflectivity" or "mirror magic," where one thing turns into something else or two things turn into each other (people into other people or animals). Julio Cortázar often used this narrative strategy, especially in "Axolotl," as well as in "Bestiary" (where the children's fear and anger are manifested in a tiger that roams freely through the house) and "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" (where the narrator confesses to vomiting up bunny rabbits that finally take over the apartment and that he eventually kills by dropping them off the balcony to the street below). Are you inspired by this strategy Cortázar uses? Your story "The Marriage of the Red Fish," with its interesting reflection between the couple and their Siamese fighting fish, reminds me of the celebrated "Axolotl." Do I rightly detect some inspiration?

Yes! Cortázar is one of the Latin American short story writers whom I most admire and whom I have read the most. I love his way of conceiving the fantastic to be part of normal daily life and which allows itself to be discovered or at least glimpsed if one tries to pay attention to it. "Axolotl" is a masterful story and I definitely had it in mind when I was writing about that couple and their pair of fish.

In that story, Cortázar writes:

It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. (trans. Blackburn)

Do trilobites contain the same secret? That secret seems to have something to do with what you write near the end of The Body Where I Was Born:

I don't know if I'm fulfilling my goal of sticking to the facts but it doesn't matter anymore. Interpretations are entirely inevitable and, to be honest, I refuse to give up the immense pleasure I get from making them. Perhaps, when I finally finish it, for my parents and brother this book will be nothing but a string of lies. I take comfort in thinking that every objectivity is subjective.

Does this exchange of objectivity and subjectivity mean that The Body Where I Was Born is simultaneously autobiography, novel, and what they call automythography? Meaning, is it a mirage, a game of mirrors?

Something like that. It's a book constructed around my memories and the events of my childhood. The ideology that characterized the time of the '70s in many countries in the world, the life of two young characters in Mexico, exile from Latin America, experimental education, communes, and the enormous changes in family ties. At least consciously, I invented nothing that I tell therein. Nevertheless, when one writes their life, they create, like it or not, some kind of fiction. It is impossible to tell it all and to choose what to say and what to leave out, which aspects of reality to emphasize and which ones to avoid commenting on too much; one is making writerly decisions, those of a novelist. Although I do tell here a great deal of my childhood and my adolescence, and although I've not invented anything that appears in these pages, I did give this book a novelistic treatment. I searched for a literary logic, a rhythm, a structure and I followed the aesthetic criteria of literary language. On the other hand, I do not believe that there is any such thing as a single truth. Many interpretations can be made of a self, and everything depends on the subjectivity with which we contemplate it.

At the end of The Body Where I Was Born, when the mother and daughter travel to Philadelphia for the girl's eye surgery, they visit the Edgar Allan Poe house in Spring Garden. You refer to Poe's famous poem "The Raven" with its refrain of "Nevermore." What does that word mean for the girl? What is it that she never again has to do, think, or resist?

Reject herself. Desire to be a different person. Permit other people to decide how she needs to look and the rules of beauty she must follow.

Are there any other animals that would work well for you in your stories?

I think that the behavior of many different animals offers us material for a story. One might draw up a list of animals and try to establish some kind of parallelism or a game of mirrors between each one and man. I didn't write Natural Histories that way but you could do that. I also think that, while our relationship with animals is definitely fascinating, the most interesting thing in "The Marriage of the Red Fish" is the ways in which we human beings relate to one another. The animals that appear in that story are elusive, sinuous and slippery. I chose them as a reflection or metaphor for our most unutterable passions, for those decisions that simmer in our unconscious minds for years, until one day they force some reaction that seems incomprehensible to others.

This interview was translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley