The Fantastic Is Always Possible: A Q&A with Guadalupe Nettel

Article by mark

by Mark Haber, interview translated by Barbara Volkmer de Ruiz

Guadalupe Nettel is an incredible writer. I can think of no other way to describe her. The Mexican author’s first book in English, NATURAL HISTORIES, is a collection of five stories that are strange and literary and deceptively simple—but more than anything, they are stunning. It was one of my favorite books of last year. The stories are dreamlike yet grounded, examining the relationships we have with each other and the natural world around us. Fungi, cockroaches, cats, snakes—nothing is off limits. Nettel puts human behavior on full display, reflecting it back to the reader in ways that are strange and repugnant, yet also illuminating. Childbirth, obsession, the difficult cohabitation of quarreling couples—all of these “animal” experiences are displayed through Nettel’s singular imagination. Her voice is at once literary and accessible; imagine the eeriness of Franz Kafka meeting the tangible everyday of John Cheever. I finished reading Nettel and found the world around me rearranged.

I pushed copies of NATURAL HISTORIES upon friends and customers, and they regarded me with expressions of gratitude the next time I saw them. It’s one of those books about which you don’t have to explain anything. Selling it takes only an earnest look, followed by two words: “Read this.”

Now, with her autobiographical novel THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN, Nettel should be discovered by a much wider audience. THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN is a frank account of growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s and her years spent in France from the ages of eleven to sixteen. From a psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator reflects on her unconventional childhood. It’s a brave work, confronting the difficulties of growing up as an outsider. Born with an abnormality in her eye, the narrator was forced to wear an eyepatch for much of her childhood. This, combined with her parents’ separation and a move across the ocean, was enough to set the narrator apart from much of her generation.

The recipient of many prizes, Nettel most recently won the prestigious Herralde Novel Award. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Nettel over email. She is currently in Barcelona, where she works as a translator and holds writing seminars and workshops on Potential Literature. Nettel’s responses were written in Spanish, and I couldn’t have translated them without the kind assistance of Barbara Ruiz and Itzel Herrera, to whom I’m extremely thankful.

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Brazos Bookstore: In THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN, the question of what it means to be normal, of belonging, is a major theme. I get the impression that you gained strength from being different (whatever different means), that observing life from the edge can actually be an advantage, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Do you see it that way?

Guadalupe Nettel: We are all different. But there are some of us that, for some reason, have suffered time and time again the rejection and prejudices of others. In my case, it all began with a minuscule spot on my cornea from which a cataract detached and from that small “imperfection” a whole experience of life -- my mother insisting on correcting my "defects", other children making fun of me, and a defensive attitude that I built in order to survive that did not seem comprehensible to others. Unfortunately, [this created] the sense of rejection due to our physical or psychological characteristics that I have. However, being aware of my wounds and talking about them, sometimes even being able to laugh at myself, is something that has unleashed my creativity and has inspired me to write many stories about myself but also about other beings with similar experiences. My idea of beauty is founded on this experience, as well as my idea of dignity, integrity and respect.

BB: When I describe your collection, NATURAL HISTORIES, I always find myself using words like “quiet” and “subtle” to describe them. They are those things, but they’re also powerful and strange and disturbing as well. Is this something you seek when writing or do these things emerge intuitively?

GN: Subtlety is something that I have always admired and I believe I do look for it deliberately. If sometimes my texts result in something unsettling, disturbing or uncomfortable, it is because I like to find beauty in places where people tend not to look or don't want to discover it; where it usually hides is in sickness, obsessions and compulsions, psychological frailty, eccentric bodies and other things that people prefer to hide. Yet I always do this for the purpose of the story with its own logic and that of its characters. When I write, I am not thinking of provoking a reaction of rejection. I am not thinking of avoiding it either. What I aim at is to share with the reader my idea of beauty, of those things, sometimes strange and sometimes terrible, that make us feel aesthetic emotions.

BB: I love the idea that your fiction seems to live in reality but always with the possibility of the fantastic, that something other is never far away. Do you feel that way about contemporary life? With our obsession of popular culture and dependence on technology, is the fantastic still possible in the everyday?

GN: The fantastic is always possible given that it depends on a point of view. Ever since the 19th century, they have sold us the idea that there is only one reality and that it is subjective, when in reality there are as many realities as there are people and subjectivities. I share the idea with Cortázar that the fantastic constitutes a part of our daily life and that it is possible to discover it or, at least, glimpse it if we are alert at its doors.

BB: Besides Mexico, you’ve lived in both France and Canada. Do you identify yourself as a Mexican writer? Is that something that is important to you?

GN: My idea of belonging to a literary tradition doesn't have as much to do with the geographical territory where one was born or where one has lived but more so with the authors one has read and who have left their mark. In that sense I feel much more in debt to writers like Julio Cortázar or Arthur Machen than to authors like José Vasconcelos or Octavio Paz, although the former are not Mexican. However, there are also Mexican authors of the fantastical to whom I can identify with, such as Francisco Tario or Elena Garro, and authors I admire like Juan Rulfo. Traveling and living in different countries has left me with both good and bad experiences and, without a doubt, has nurtured my stories and inspired many of my characters. That is why so many of my stories take place outside Mexico. Reading authors from other countries has had a similar effect. One can learn so much about a culture from reading its writers.

BB: THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN is a moving and profound work, but maybe more importantly, it’s brave. Was it difficult to write so directly about your own life and family? Did you approach the writing of this book differently than your fiction?

GN: Thanks. To be honest, it was never my intention to write a memoir, nor anything autobiographical. It was almost a coincidence: my first child had just been born and around that time a magazine, that knew nothing of my recent maternity, asked me for a long text about my childhood. The conjunction of these two things served as a detonator. I was flooded with memories and also reflections about the time in which I was born to: the hippie movement, the progressive ideas of families like mine, etc...Once I started writing, I couldn't stop. I finished the text for the magazine and kept writing the book without knowing if I would publish it, not even if I would finish it...It helped a lot to think I could destroy it before anyone else read it. When I finished the first draft, I decided that I would turn that manuscript into a book and even possibly publish it. From then on, without straying from the facts, I started treating it like a novel with a literary rhythm, structure, and logic. At least consciously I didn't invent anything that I wrote there. Everything is based on my memories and experiences. However, when one writes about one’s life, willingly or not, it is a type of fiction. You emphasize certain things and omit others. I don't think a single truth exists. Many interpretations can be made of the same incident; it all depends on how we look at it.

BB: Personally, I feel like translated literature is finally getting some attention in the United States. There’s an increasing interest in writers from all over the world and even literary presses devoted solely to works in translation. Working in a bookstore, I see translated fiction being published more frequently and with more attention given to it. Do you see this as well, or am I just being optimistic?

GN: I think you are right and that is great news, for both foreign writers as well as American readers. Amos Oz has a beautiful article about literature as a window that lets us enter other homes, other countries, other universes. For years the United States has turned its back to those windows and now, finally, decides to look through them, look beyond the borders of its language and culture. It is something wonderful that we must celebrate.

BB: Do you have a hand in the translations of your work? Are you able to work with the translators?

GN: I worry with the translation of my texts in the languages that I understand such as English or French. I read them and try to contribute as much as I can so that the text corresponds with the original. However, there are many other languages such as Swedish or Dutch that I do not speak at all and so even though I answer all of my translators' questions, I have no other option than to trust in their expertise and sensibility.


The Body Where I Was Born Cover Image
$22.95
ISBN: 9781609805265
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Published: Seven Stories Press - June 16th, 2015

Natural Histories: Stories Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781609806057
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Published: Seven Stories Press - June 16th, 2015

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