Video: Carolina Rueda
In Fall of 2016, Mexican author Nadia Villafuerte visited the University of Oklahoma to share her work with students as part of a grant from the OU Humanities Forum. In this exclusive video interview, Arthur Dixon, Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today, sits down with Nadia Villafuerte to discuss national borders, geographic identity, and the future of the short story.
Arthur Dixon: You’ve written a lot about migration across Mexico’s borders – especially its southern border – and about migration and the movement of people in general. Do you think we’re living in a particularly important moment to talk about questions related to national borders and migration? Why? Why is it especially important to address these questions through literature?
Nadia Villafuerte: I believe so. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I believe the most important social phenomenon of the 21st century is the phenomenon of migration, as a consequence of unbalance in the global economic system. This is taking place in both the Americas and Europe. I also think it’s important to talk about migration because we’re living in a moment of high social tension against the Other – the Other who seems strange, who’s different. It happens here in the United States, through racism and xenophobia toward outsiders. It happens in our countries through misogyny and homophobia. These are all borders of identity that we’re afraid to cross. There’s a great deal of fear of the Other’s apparent difference. I’m not sure why.
AD: Several contemporary Mexican authors – such as Yuri Herrera, for example – have also written about their country’s borders and migration, although they tend to focus on the border between Mexico and the US. Do you think this “border literature” should be conceived of as a movement to itself within contemporary Mexican literature?
NV: I don’t think so, and I think we can clearly distinguish between those authors who make use of a theme to establish themselves in the literary scene or in publishing news and those who talk about circumstances they’ve experienced as people before experiencing them as authors. Yuri Herrera is an artist who has talked about not only geographical borders but also the borders of language, the borders of identities, the borders of the page as a trans-territorial space, and I see that work as a genuine, unique contribution.
AD: What do you think when you see your work translated to English, or to any other language? Do you think your work would be easy or difficult to translate? Do you think it’s important for your work to be translated for an English-language audience?
NV: I don’t know if it’s important, but it is important that more Latin American writers be translated, because the cultural exchange between countries is still uneven in that context. Latin American readers know a lot more about US authors than US readers know about contemporary Latin American authors. Elena Garro is just as relevant as Eudora Welty. Why should one be translated so much more than the other?
AD: You’re originally from Chiapas, but you’re currently living and studying in New York. How did you find the transition from Mexico to the US? Would you say that this transition has impacted what you write, or how you write?
NV: It’s been difficult, but stimulating. Now I have to write from this side of the wall. I like writing from the south, because geography has an important presence in my senses. That being said, having some distance from which to observe the madness of one’s own country is a profound and uncomfortable experience. It’s profound in that you discover how much historical baggage we carry uphill, even when we’re displaced to somewhere else. It’s uncomfortable because it makes you conscious of a political and economic reality in which certain countries are powerful thanks to their exploitation of others. The relationship between Mexico and the United States is anomalous. It’s uncomfortable to be here. It’s uncomfortable to see this level of consumption, for example, when in our countries we see different levels of poverty.
I still can’t be sure of how this experience is affecting my writing. I’m sure the fact that I’m more politically conscious of certain facts must have some influence. I’ve thought, now that I live in New York, about the condition of being different: my indigenous roots (I’m from Chiapas, and you can see my Maya heritage in my face) have grown more present in my work because people remind me of them here. In Mexico, no one would ask me about that. I’ve also been unearthing the southern Mexican Spanish I used to hide, partially out of shame, and also to survive in Mexico City after I moved there from Chiapas. The presence of such diverse Spanish in the capital city has renewed my desire to recuperate my manner of speaking – that applies to both my accent and many words that bear the register of territoriality.
AD: Do you write for a specific audience, or not? Do you have a specific reader in mind when you sit down to write?
NV: No, I don’t write for any audience. In principle, I write for myself, as a way to see through the haze around me, or to disorder what’s already too legible, too rational. Of course, I use my words to communicate my message, but I don’t think about the audience. I wrote several of my stories to continue the maddening internal monologue I keep in my head.
AD: Who are your favorite authors? And your favorite authors from your generation of Mexican narrators?
NV: I have a few favorite authors who I always come back to because I’m interested in the way their writing is essentially linked to language: Rulfo, Faulkner, in general I have a soft spot for writers from the southern US (Tennessee Williams, Faulkner again, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty). I’d also include several women writers whose universes interest me for various reasons: Herta Müller, Clarice Lispector, Elena Garro, Alice Munro, Natalia Ginzburg. Among the contemporary Mexican writers who interest me are Yuri Herrera, Julián Herbert, Gabriela Torres Olivares, Fernanda Melchor, Daniela Tarazona, Antonio Ortuño, and Carlos Velázquez.
AD: Can you describe your writing process? How do you start writing a story? How do you know when it’s finished?
NV: I’m very visual. I’m pursued by an image, or I have photographic memories of certain images from extreme situations, situations that put me in a circumstance of ambiguity or conflict. From there, I want to write a story. And it takes me awhile to think about the beginning and end of a story. It’s hard for me to make that cut, that incision implied by writing the first sentence, and the incision in suspense, like a world hanging from the page, left behind by a final sentence. There has to be a meeting between those two sentences.
AD: Do you think contemporary literature is changing? In what sense? What developments or technological, ideological, or communicative innovations are most important to you in the course of this change.
NV: I believe so, necessarily. Change is part of the nature of communicative acts. Writing is a process. Writing has been affected by its immersion in the languages of technology. We read at a different speed thanks to the Internet. We write with ten Internet tabs open, and all of that time, all of those worlds, influence and enter and transform what we write.
AD: Do you consider yourself a “geographical” writer, in the sense of being associated with a particular place, or do you perceive your own writing in universal terms?
NV: Yes, I am geographical and I like to think about that because the writers I most appreciate deeply explore what has happened and is happening in their own territory. Territory matters to me. My deepest fears, my shortcomings, everything that brought me to books emerged in Chiapas, in the place where I was born. I write from that colonized, violent, uneasy place. Having lived outside of it for sixteen years has given me the perspective to observe it more calmly, but over the course of that flight, that separation, I’ve never stopped looking toward home.
AD: One last question. You chose a line by Roberto Bolaño as the epigraph of your book Barcos en Houston: “We went from south to north / and so slowly / that it seemed like, really / we weren’t moving.” Why did you choose that quote? Would you say that Bolaño’s work has a lot to do with your own work?
NV: Because that’s what happens in the south. You feel as if there’s no movement. Every station is a delay. Every kilometer is an obstacle. The trip gets slow. The trip never ends, really. An immigrant never really arrives.