There is a universe in which a man with a thing for sniffing women’s bathrooms coexists with a girl whose sexual initiation involves sliding down banisters; a universe also inhabited by a girl possessed by an evil being, a family that decides to live off cockroaches, and a balding model who compulsively plucks out her own hair. This literary universe belongs to Guadalupe Nettel, whose strange characters are connected by a solitude at times desolate and at others utterly relatable, desirable even.
Nettel, who won the Premio Herralde in 2014, has built an oeuvre around the obsessions, fears, and concerns that touch us all, even if we have never actually put our noses down public toilets or felt a Siamese presence speaking—and haunting—from within. Her stories affect us because, ultimately, we know what it is to feel alone.
After listening to Guadalupe talk at an event in Houston, Texas, a few months ago, I reread her books and reinhabited her universe. Naturally, several questions came to mind. Here are some of them.
Efrén Ordóñez: As storytellers, we’re often repeating phrases, but one I can’t get out of my mind is: “We’re always writing the same book.” I read an interview with Hubert Haddad in which he says that novelists run this risk. “Risk,” he called it. Another writer told me that all the novels he’s written are drafts of the latest one he plans to write. Where do you stand on this? If it’s true you’re writing the same book, what is that book? And if not, why not?
Guadalupe Nettel: I believe that as much for his or her biography as for the books that formed them, every writer has a series of stories they’re apt to tell and a list of themes that they approach in a way that is unique to them, that nobody else could. Only Toni Morrison could write like she did, and only Isaac Bashevis Singer could write stories like his. In this sense, we could speak of a unique oeuvre. But a unique book that is repeated over and again? I don’t know … at least I don’t think that’s my case. By the age of twenty I knew I was interested in writing about anomalies and outsiders, about beings who stand out from the crowd, because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that has never been far from me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum, but even so, I think each one of my books is different from the last. I also write stories, essays and novels. That further distinguishes each one from the others.
These interests or themes—not to say “obsessions”—appear in all of your work, but the book that comes to mind is your short story collection Pétalos, which was the first book of yours that I read. Speaking of anomalies and outsiders, those stories seem a perfect example. What are the themes and obsessions that appear in the collection? What readings inspired you to write it?
That collection of stories, which will be published in the United States at the start of 2020 as Bezoar by Seven Stories Press, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, brings together stories that I wrote in my youth, and I think it’s one of the books that best represents me. It’s really a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. As human beings, we tend to hold a very limited idea of our own beauty. We believe what we’re told by advertisements and fashions. They form us. Conversely, when we look at plants or trees, our minds become far more flexible and open. We don’t judge them in the same way. We’re more receptive to the presence of trees and their unique character. We don’t think: “That tree should be taller and slimmer and have more leaves up there and less down there.” We simply let the tree be and appreciate its beauty. The characters in these stories are somewhat monstrous—some of them physically, others in their behavior—and that is what makes them appealing, moving even, but they themselves spend their entire time trying to make sure no one notices. They try with all their might to be “normal” in order to survive in a world that strives to standardize, that represses difference.
This book was inspired above all by personal experiences and my observations of people. I wanted to write an elegy for those who, like me, were born with what we commonly call “birth defects.” But I was inspired, too, by writers like Charles Baudelaire, Kenzaburo Oé, Haruki Murakami, who also appreciate the beauty of strange beings, and by Julio Cortázar, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Lafcadio Hearn, for their subtle approaches to speculative fiction.
I could use an endless number of adjectives to describe your characters, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s call them “strange,” if you agree. The novel form permits you to develop their psychological characteristics—their peculiarities—with much finer brushstrokes, but the story form demands blunter, simpler strokes. Brevity. How do you achieve this in your stories? And how does writing a novel differ?
In both cases I focus on the physical characteristics and behavior of my characters, on that which they try to conceal from others so as not to be judged or marginalized. Only, in my stories often the plot revolves around those “anomalies,” while in the novels those anomalies are part of a bigger picture. The novel form allows me to develop in detail the origins of those behaviors, the way the characters engage with their surroundings and the way they change with new experiences.
The three novels you’ve written are, as you say, quite different from one another. El huésped, El cuerpo en que nací (The Body Where I Was Born, in English translation by J.T. Lichtenstein) and Después del invierno (After the Winter, translated by Rosalind Harvey). The second novel started out, as you have said, as a kind of autobiography. And yet, in El huésped (The Guest) you plumb the depths (quite literally, you go down into the Mexico City metro) of the theme of blindness, which, as you say, has been lurking, creeping up on you your whole life. Is it possible that the sensation of darkness that you depict in the novel is even more intimate than in the autobiography in the stricter sense?
Yes, El cuerpo en que nací is completely autobiographical, while El huésped is fiction, a novel inspired by a great fear in my life, which is the very real threat of becoming blind. I think that writing fiction gives us the freedom to write about that which most terrifies and obsesses us without fear of being judged, a freedom similar to wearing a mask at carnival. We have another identity in fiction: we can say and do whatever crazy things we like. Fiction gives us the chance to explore our most unspeakable sides. El huésped is my first novel and I was prompted to write it after overhearing a line spoken by indigenous people in Chiapas: “Only when we dare to confront the things that most scare and shame us can we know who we really are, which gives us enormous integrity and strength.” I took that phrase as a piece of existential but also literary advice. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal”—I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye—and because, as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to others. In El huésped I talk about these experiences in fiction, yes, but also confront them. Writing that book was a very powerful experience, and I think some of that power permeated its pages.
I’m suddenly struck by the idea of the solitude of your characters—the female characters, in particular—as a by-product of their physical, psychological, or even familial peculiarities. It’s quite common for people to turn their backs on them. We are all alone, but it seems to me that your characters are even more distant, even more isolated. Why? Do you see them that way?
Another theme that has marked my life is solitude. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. That sort of situation moves me a lot. I feel great empathy for the people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Even when we don’t choose it, it can turn out to be very fruitful. In my life I’ve had several long periods of solitude, and even though sometimes they were tough, I also got something out of those episodes: I was able to read, think, write, and also, once the wall that had isolated me came down, to relate in a very intense way with other people.
In the last two or three years I’ve noted a renewed interest in the essay form, in particular essays with an autobiographical component. It seems to me that literature is going down that route, albeit without entirely neglecting fiction, of course. How do you see the future of non-fiction?
I believe some people are more oriented toward reading fiction than others. As an adult, you need quite a particular temperament to enjoy immersing yourself in imaginary worlds created by someone else, and to decide to believe them as if those characters and their stories are real, to cry and laugh with them. And at the same time we have a very primal human instinct to imagine. Fiction has been with mankind since prehistoric times. Every culture has a tradition of telling stories at night, by the fire. Fiction, contrary to what we might think today, is very useful and important. Without da Vinci’s fictions we wouldn’t have submarines or airplanes as we know them, for example. It allows us to see the world in different ways and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, including those whom we tend to think of as strange or even as enemies. Thanks to fiction, an Israeli can imagine what a Palestinian might feel, and vice versa. I also think there are societies more given to listening to invented stories than others. Today, the European and North American markets are very focused on non-fiction: reportage, long-form journalism (crónica), testimony, memoir. As modern readers, we are very keen to know who is writing; we want to know the author’s life story and journey, what makes them tick and their opinions about the world, something that in the sixties didn’t matter in the slightest. I think that at some point this craze will pass and new generations will once again be more interested in fiction than in the author’s personality. It’s cyclical, I think, like many things in this world. It’s not only history that repeats itself, literature does as well.
Having read and re-read all of your books, I’m left wanting (and hoping) to read some of your obsessions explored in an essay collection. Are you writing one? If not, what would an essay collection of yours be about?
There are two books of essays I think about writing one day. One is about the figure of the double, doppelgängers, etc., and the other is about literature and blindness: blind writers and characters, from Homer to Borges, via Milton and Nabokov’s Albinus. I’ve already got the contents pages for both books, I’m just waiting for the right moment to sit down and write them.
Finally, I asked about Pétalos and El huésped because there are the works of fiction of yours that are yet to be published in English. Last year, in Houston, at the launch for After the Winter, I heard you talk about its translation. What has been your experience of the translation process from languages you speak and read? And, without wanting to put words into your mouth, how do you understand the importance of translators today?
Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going. Not only does a translator have to know the original language extremely well, but he or she must be capable of writing in different registers in the language into which they translate. Beyond understanding the meaning of the words, they must know how to reproduce the style, tone, register, hidden ironies, and other implied points, as well as to replicate the beauty of the original text. All of this has to sound as natural and fluent as if the text had originally been written in the target language. I read English, French, and Italian, and I tend to work closely on the translations from these languages. It’s much simpler for me when I don’t understand the language I’m translated into. I’ve also been lucky enough to have some very perceptive and careful translators to whom I am eternally grateful.
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
The original Spanish version of this conversation can be found at the Editorial Argonáutica blog.
Guadalupe Nettel was voted one of the thirty-nine most important Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine at the Bogotá Hay Festival in 2006. She has lived in Montreal and Paris and is now based in Mexico City. Her books that have appeared in English include After the Winter, Natural Histories, and The Body Where I Was Born.
Efrén Ordóñez is a writer, editor, and translator. He translated Melville’s Beard/Las barbas de Melville, by Mark Haber, for Argonáutica in 2017. He is the author of the novel Humo (Smoke, 2017), the short story collection Gris infierno (Gray Inferno, 2014), and the illustrated children’s book Tlacuache. Historia de una cola (Possum: A Story of a Tail, 2015). He is the founder of Argonáutica, a literary translation press. @efrenordonezg.
Sophie Hughes is a translator from Spanish. In 2018 she was named one of the Arts Foundation "25" for her contribution to the field of literary translation. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder.
Banner image: Guadalupe Nettel. Photo: Mely Ávila