At Once Familiar and Utterly Foreign: A Q&A with Valeria Luiselli

Article by mark

Valeria Luiselli’s THE STORY OF MY TEETH is the most likable book this year. Don’t misunderstand: likeable doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant or original or genre-defying or any of those other great things because, indeed, it is all of those things. But it’s also Luiselli’s inventiveness, the pure joy she takes in the act of storytelling, that makes this novel so exuberant..

Reading her first two books, the essay collection SIDEWALKS and the novel FACES IN THE CROWD, I was an immediate fan. Philosophical, literary, and uniquely surreal, Luiselli’s writing often combines disparate elements, ideas the reader would never expect to fit together, and unites them like two halves of a shell.

Unlike her first two books, the mood of THE STORY OF MY TEETH isn’t quiet or meditative but rollicking. It’s a novel about many things: familial responsibility, Mexico City, the ineffable layers storytelling adds to our lives. Much of its likability comes down to the novel’s antihero, Gustavo ‘Highway’ Sánchez. He is a delinquent father, a late-bloomer, a modern-day misadventurer, but most importantly he’s the greatest auctioneer in the world—wait, scratch that: he believes he’s the greatest auctioneer in the world. For what does an auctioneer do but give value to objects through hyperbole and grift—in short, by spinning yarns? And it’s Highway’s self-belief that makes him an unforgettable narrator in an unforgettable story.

It was a delight to email back and forth with Luiselli, who graciously took the time to answer my questions while also sharing incredible suggestions for Mexico City, her birthplace and my most recent travel destination.

Brazos Bookstore: One of my favorite aspects of literature is that it can work as a dialogue with itself. A writer can include an author or a work in their own book and it becomes a response or a conversation with that book. To me, that dynamic adds layers and makes literature this sort of infinite tapestry woven by writers across time. You have continued this tradition wonderfully. Do you have any feelings about the idea that literature, in a sense, is having a conversation with itself?

Valeria Luiselli: I like the way you phrase this. Most people just throw out the term “metaliterary” when they vaguely refer to what you are getting at, without really stopping to think about the many nuances in the ways that literature can be in dialogue with literature. If one is intellectually lazy, then the easiest thing to do is to replace ideas with labels, right? “Metaliterary” has become a label: a way to group very different things together in a terribly messy way, much like how I throw unclassifiable objects into my deepest drawers and then forget about them for years. I think the key word you are using is tradition. I like novels that engage with tradition and bring it back to life. The list is of such novels is long, diverse, and deserves nuances, of course, but recent examples range from Vila-Matas’s HISTORIA ABREVIADA DE LA LITERATURA PORTÁTIL to Bolaño’s DETECTIVES SALVAJES, to, most recently, in the American landscape, Ben Lerner’s 10.04. I’m interested in literature that consciously and actively engages with literary history, because that is a way of creating a kind of simultaneity of the past and the present in the history of writing. It is a way of treating literary tradition as an entity that is alive and always changing, always re-signified by being brought back into new forms—rather than a immovable pantheon that has to be observed with the respect and reverence people are expected to show in a cemetery, a museum, or a memorial. The best thing about libraries is that they are nothing like cemeteries, museums or memorials.

BB: On the same note, there are writers that lead you to other writers—Sergio Pitol, Enrique Vila-Matas, Roberto Bolaño and you are some examples. You can read any one of their works, yours included, and one wants to jot down all the names of the other authors you mention and track down their works. Is this a conscious effort to share writers whom you love, or is it more a stylistic choice? Or both?

VL: It is a conscious effort, I think. I like books that point me toward other books. One of my favorite writers, for instance, is Joseph Brodsky, through whom I arrived to the works of W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, or Derek Walcott. I think that if I can offer anything to a reader, it is the possibility of arriving to greater writers. I think of my books as maps to other books.

BB: One of my favorite aspects of THE STORY OF MY TEETH is how it strikes me as a warm and affectionate love letter to the act of storytelling. Do you see it that way?

VL: THE STORY OF MY TEETH is, indeed, a book about the nature of storytelling. While I was writing it, I was reading great storytellers, from Suetonious to Daniil Kharms. I was less focused on creating a particular atmosphere, as I had been when I wrote FACES IN THE CROWD, and less interested in constructing a persona, as I did when I wrote SIDEWALKS. I was enamored with oral, straightforward storytelling, and probably brought that in through the many different micro-narratives in the book.

BB: Highway reminds me in a lot of ways of Don Quixote: his self-invention and his self-mythologizing is so strong you can’t help but be swayed. Is he flawed? Sure, but he’s also inventive and spirited and in many ways optimistic. Did Highway appear to you fully-fleshed or was he a character that slowly gained dimension as you wrote the story? Was there a particular person, fictional or not, who inspired the voice of Highway?

VL: I was thinking initially of an uncle of mine when I started writing in the voice of Gustavo (Highway). My uncle sells merchandise in a marketplace in Mexico City—from ham and cheese to car parts, to real estate. He is above all a great storyteller, capable of endowing even the most uninteresting of objects with an aura of mystery and value. He also owns a false denture, which he often pulled out and used to either entertain or horrify us at the dining table when we were kids.

But the comparison to Don Quixote is so very accurate, beyond character traits—and I’ll explain why. The only book I’ve read out loud from beginning to end is DON QUIXOTE. I read it to my mother when I was twenty years old, while we were both kind of convalescing from respective heartbreaks while on a trip through India, in 2003. I enjoyed reading Don Quixote out loud, I think, because it made my lips move a certain way, it almost tasted like something, and of course, because saying it out loud was like speaking a foreign language which we nonetheless understood. It made us laugh and cry, and feel bewildered, and also at home.

When I began writing the initial version of THE STORY OF MY TEETH—for the Jumex factory workers—I understood immediately that it was a novel that had to be read out loud. I wanted it to be a novel that also had to move the reader’s lips in a way that was at once familiar and utterly foreign. It had to be familiar because it had to engage a tired crowd of factory workers enough to produce a reaction in them, after a long day’s work. But it had to be foreign, because the novel itself was all about the distance between the world of the factory and the world of contemporary art that I was alluding to. So I had to both find a voice that was pleasurable to read aloud and a register that was disconcerting. I wanted to produce in the factory workers something similar to what Don Quixote had produced in my mother and me while reading Cervantes in India: an opportunity to hear our own everyday language in another register, to produce both pleasure and discomfort in saying things aloud, to both homage and disrespect Spanish syntax and vocabulary by putting obsolete words into circulation again and inventing new ones, and to engage with literary history playfully and free of any solemnity.

BB: Did that come easily to you?

VL: It did, which is a rare thing for me. As I said earlier, at first, I was thinking of an uncle of mine who is a salesman in a market in Mexico City. But then, after I heard the first round of readings by the factory workers, I started imitating and appropriating some of their voices. One man’s voice, in particular. I kind of started writing for him, as a composer might start composing for a particularly talented musician. It became very easy to write in the voice of Highway, because I could hear that man speaking every world I wrote.

BB: THE STORY OF MY TEETH is a departure in many ways from your previous works. Do you see yourself writing anything similar to it again, or do you think it’s a one-off?

VL: This is a very difficult question. I think I learned how to write fiction while writing this novel. My other two books had been more of a fictionalized register of everyday life, but this novel forced me out of a comfort zone, and thrust me into uncharted territories. I hope to have the wisdom to learn from the experience, as much as to forget everything I learned there and start anew.

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The Story of My Teeth Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566894098
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Coffee House Press - September 15th, 2015

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