The author of a broad and prolific body of work, Carmen Boullosa’s most recent publications include the poetry collection La patria insomne (2011), and the novels Las paredes hablan (2010) and El complot de los románticos (2009), winner of the Café Gijón Prize. On the occasion of her recent visit to Houston, we had the opportunity to sit down with Boullosa and talk about the process of literary creation and the magic of language.
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ECM: I’d like to begin by talking about translation. I’m very interested in your involvement in the process of translating your work. Could we start with Treinta años, which was translated as Leaving Tabasco?
CB: I’ve had relationships with various translators, and they have been quite different. In the case of Treinta años, there were problems that completely defied translation. I’m not just thinking of the word pejelagartos, which doesn’t exist in English. It’s like ‘lizard’, but it’s not. Pejelagartos is peje, ‘fish’, and lagarto, ‘lizard’–something I always saw, by the way, during my childhood visits to Tabasco to see my grandmother. But there were many things that couldn’t be translated because they were local terms, and so the translator opted for an internationalization of sorts. In the end, I decided not to intervene, because it was the translator’s decision. The translator has to be a writer who can capture the atmosphere of a book. The problem isn’t a word or title, or even rhythm, but how to translate atmosphere, the music of words. Words and resonance create an atmosphere. And this is something I can’t judge, not even in the case of Treinta años.
ECM: Have you translated poetry?
CB: Very little. Every now and then, when I fall in love with a poem, I translate it. Maybe just to play with the poem a little. But it’s not a job that I have taken very seriously, as some Mexican poets have done. I don’t have the kind of generosity a translator must have. The translator needs to submit to another’s work. It’s really hard for me to read translated poetry. You can tell immediately that it isn’t the voice of the author, but that of an imposter. It shows that the rhythm is different; you can perceive the rigidity, the awkwardness, the absence of playfulness, of flexibility. You see the very personality of the translator. A translator’s personality should be invisible.
ECM: Speaking of this play and this flexibility, I’d like to talk a little about your writing process. With such a prolific body of work and these obsessions you’ve confessed to having, I wonder about your process, in terms of research and revision.
CB: First, I read, I devour written material. In other words, I become obsessed with the theme. I map out the stages of creation of a no-vel that has a precise, historical setting. I discover or find the novel, or begin the psychological and imaginary journey that is the creation of the character or situation. Then, I start reading about subject matter. That is a stage I really enjoy. I delve into the library and start snooping. When I was writing La virgen y el violín, about Sofonisba Anguissola, I’d wind up among the Africa shelves on my way to the Renaissance painting section. I would stop, open up books on the subject, and sit down to read. Thus I was able to create one of the characters, thinking it would be for another project. I started taking notes for another novel. I set the one about Sofonisba aside in order to write my novel on the black population of Mexico, because I was able to understand the grandeur of a certain moment in Africa: Gao, Timbuktu, the first great university of the world, the first one attended by women students. I read about the three great cities that fell, and how the slave trade began. All this because I was headed toward another section. That is the marvel of open stacks in libraries. The last novel I wrote, which is about Texas, was a recreation of Brownsville and Matamoros in the time of the grand thievery. I was lucky enough to have my own electronic library on my Kindle. I took lots of notes, and dreamed, and imagined. And once I had it all together, I wrote many newspaper articles about the subject in my column for El Universal while I was in Texas. It was a truly wonderful time in which I read, took notes, then sat down to write.
ECM: In your historical novels there is a strong awareness of the impossibility of accessing historical actuality. Do you feel that it is possible to represent the real through the novel?
CB: Yes, I think that literature does represent the real, even fantasy literature, and that the literary is intrinsically linked to the real in a way that is not epidermal, but very, very deep. I don’t doubt this in the least.
ECM: So, is there something that might be communicated through literature–some aspect of reality or some reality–that is not viable through historiography, or the essay, for example?
CB: I believe that literature is painting in full and in body, painting with depth. What happens is that literature articulates more than what fits into words, into the intellect. And literature is like painting, music, silence. It is capable of capturing the soul of a moment. It’s my favorite art, literature, it’s what I prefer. Now then, a painter would disagree. I believe that painting–if it were permissible to stage a competition–that literature wins the contest. It wears the golden crown, because it reproduces everything. The essay has other, rational limitations that literature doesn’t have. Life can’t be fully explained through reason. Nor is truth fully rational. Now then, the literary essay also succeeds in evoking that which doesn’t fit in words, to evoke that which is outside of explanation.
ECM: And would you say that this something that is evoked, this something that exists beyond the intellect, beyond reason, is attained through the body? Because the body is also very much present in your writing, and it seems to be an instrument for gaining knowledge.
CB: Yes, the body is an instrument for gaining knowledge in my writing, but it is also a bit like a puppet’s body, or a caricature. Moreover, it is a stage. Not a real body, but a body in the “abstract” sense.
ECM: You’ve written that the literary body devours the bodies of reality.
CB: Yes, of reality, yes.
ECM: Your work recognizes the primacy of that which is literary, but at the same time it exposes the deep structures of social injustice, patriarchy, Mexican Marianism, ecological destruction, violence in history, etc. Beyond all that, do you think that art can inspire hope?
CB: I believe that all art toys with the critique and demolition of all that surrounds it, and with the possible creation of a utopia or anti-utopia. In reality, all does is portray multiple facets of social phenomena, of human life, and of nature. Likewise, there is an art that proposes utopia or anti-utopia. It’s one of the favorite games or exercises of pop literature and film, and it’s an exercise that I like. I don’t always do it. But I do like to imagine “what would happen if…” Like in Cielos de la tierra, what would happen if a utopian community were founded that wanted to erase the memory of the past in order to make us the destroyers of Earth and man, in order to create the perfect destruction of the past, one that would destroy language? This is the premise behind Cielos de la tierra. Terrifying, right?
ECM: To write about a world in which everything is composed of air, or about a day when all the birds stop flying, or to resurrect Moctezuma in 1989, in the midst of all this fantasy, this exploration of “what would happen if?”, have you ever asked yourself, “Do I dare, or have I gone too far this time?”
CB: I’m not prudent at all, I’m quite reckless! When I’m writing, I know no fear or moderation. I think that’s my strength and might possibly also be my Achilles heel. I throw myself at and into everything. To tell you the truth, when I’m not writing, when I’m not in the middle of it, I turn around and say, “What are you thinking, writing a novel about the Battle of Lepanto?” and, “No! You are who you are. You are this person with these two hands and your own story. Write about that!” Let’s call that my prudent self, but my prudent self is not the one who writes. My writing self is something else entirely, it’s an adventurous self, a self that is daring and wants take on writing like a supreme adventure. And actually, this is what language is, because language is always a bridge reaching out toward a place where you don’t know what will be on the other side. This is the miraculous quality of language, what is embodied in literature. That is the kind of literature that interests me, which doesn’t mean that I won’t write a book some day about my own personal story. But that would be another adventure.