Literature as a Political Responsibility: An Interview with Yuri Herrera
Rodrigo Figueroa: When you consider your academic background, including a bachelor’s in Political Science, a master’s in Creative Writing, and a doctorate in Hispanic Literatures, how has this education influenced your literature? Are there divergences between your writing and academia, or do they complement each other?
Yuri Herrera: Well, I would start by saying that my decision to study Political Science had to do with a bias more than a rational decision. That is to say, we hope that at the age of eighteen we’ll know exactly what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives, when in actual fact we don’t know what we want to do next weekend; all we really have is a series of desires, vague desires. The rational part, let’s say, has more to do with what follows. I already knew I wanted to write, I had published a few short stories, I had written a little column in a newspaper that came out in Pachuca, and I took that very seriously. And, for that very reason, I thought that if I wanted to write literature I couldn’t commit myself to studying literature. I no longer think that way, I believe that, if you want to write, you’ll find a way to write no matter what you do. And I’ve met authors who find space to write in the most difficult of circumstances. People with five kids, people with no job, people who are constantly moving. That was when I decided to study Political Science, and I don’t regret it.
The Political Science Department at UNAM was a fascinating space at that time. I arrived in 1989, and a lot of things were happening that year. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the defeat of the Sandinistas, Salinas de Gortari’s rise to power, etc. So there was a mixture of different kinds of anger, different kinds of hope, different kinds of activism, and all of that gave me the chance to read things I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. What’s more, I was a teaching assistant for a professor of social theory, and that professor was constantly skipping his own classes. He’d call me on the phone and tell me, “Look, I can’t make it, please do the lesson on The Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel.” Of course, I’d show up and say any old rubbish, but that didn’t matter as much as the effort to understand Hegel. That’s something I appreciate very much about the years I spent there. It was the era of Sandinismo, years that I spent being very angry, but at the same time it helped me to form a certain political position, a certain ethical position before what was happening in my country. All of this, of course, was related to my writing, since although there is a very clear line dividing one thing from the other, writing is always nourished by a series of ingredients. Anger is one of those ingredients, as well as information, your education, or your theoretical training.
That being said, I should clarify that I don’t write thesis novels. That is, although I think clearly about certain ideas with respect to the workings of political life in my country, my novels don’t attempt to extract their narrative from it; rather, I’d say it’s one of the many ingredients that make up a novel, and often other elements are more important, such as, for example, the emotional relationship between different characters or the way in which an atmosphere is put together, which could be, as the Colombians say, more telling than a paragraph of theory.
Radmila Stefkova: While working on your master’s, you lived in El Paso, Texas, and you’ve experienced life on the border and the realities of drug trafficking and violence. How do these realities influence your work? Which other writers who deal with this theme have influenced you?
YH: Well, something I always say is that it doesn’t matter if you write about teenage vampires, hobbits, or space aliens: you’re always talking about your own world. That’s inevitable. And when I was living on the border, I lived in El Paso, but I spent a lot of time in Juárez, I have family in Juárez, I did most of my shopping in Juárez and I drank almost all of my drinks in Juárez. That was when, somehow, not like something planned but like a sort of discovery, like when you discover something that has always been in front of you but you didn’t include in your purposes, I understood that this was the space in which I should tell a story that had been swimming around in my head for some time. More than a story, what I had was the nucleus of a story, and that nucleus was the tension between two characters who were ethically distinct, between a powerful man and an artist.
The model I had in mind for the story was the model of certain artists at the European courts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but I knew I didn’t want to write the story of a painter in the court of Louis XIV, even though this was the model of how an artist could preserve his freedom and his autonomy despite the fact that his life belonged to someone else. This relationship between the powerful man and the artist was the nucleus, and this is something I’ve elaborated over time. Each book has a nucleus from which the rest of the book proliferates, and this nucleus can be different in each and every book. In Kingdom Cons the nucleus is a relationship, in my next novel the nucleus is the experience of a journey. The rest is language. The characters come from a process of reflection on this nucleus that develops in an aesthetic order.
So, for me, it’s not a novel about narco trafficking, it’s a novel that uses narco trafficking as an important element of the context in which the story takes place. It includes language and characters who are associated with the phenomenon of narco trafficking, there is a political reality that somehow works for me as the context of the story, but I never thought of it in that way. I make a lot of lists before I prepare a book: lists of stories, lists of words I like, lists of words that I won’t use. That last one might be the most important list, and that has to do with the need to avoid cliches, to not repeat certain predigested concepts in place of problems or emotions that are much more complex than those concepts. So, the list of words I refused to use in Kingdom Cons included “Mexico,” “United States,” “border,” “drugs,” and “narco trafficking.” And that wasn’t enough to avoid being called a writer of narco novels, which is fine, since once a book is out there the readers can find different ways of reading it, but I think that’s not the only possibility.
RF: Speaking of Kingdom Cons and the archetypes that you employ, do you think this relationship between European courts and the Mexican realities of the twenty-first century, could in some way indicate that the relationships between power and art are a constant throughout history? Does the artist have some sort of agency in this game between art and power?
YH: Yes, Mexican drug traffickers didn’t invent sadism or madness for power. What we can see is a modality in which madness and the sadism of power are expressed, as well as certain groups of people who surround these powerful men. Now, not all narco ballads talk about the powerful, there are some that talk about common criminals, but they also talk about the victims, about the police, and this is a much more complex phenomenon. But this is the issue: in every era, under every regime, there are powerful subjects who surround themselves with people who, in one way or another, elaborate discourses that legitimize - or even eulogize - their exercise of power. One of the most obscene cases, of course, was that of Salinas de Gortari, who did everything he could during his presidency to buy out the highest possible number of artists and intellectuals, of the left and the right, from offering them business deals to letting them take photos with him. So, in that sense, my book can be read as an allegory in terms of how the powerful, even when their power is founded upon the use of violence, do not limit themselves to physical violence but also turn to the exchange of symbolic values.
RS: Speaking of symbolism, in your other book, Signs Preceding the End of the World, the main character, Makina, takes a sort of mythological journey, represented by her crossing the border. How do you make use of mythology in your writing, and what is its purpose?
YH: For me, the novel is the story of a journey, of a woman looking for her brother who, through this passage, transforms herself and learns how to transform her language and how to transform the vision she has of both countries, the one she leaves and the one she enters. Part of the references I used to tell this story, which were important for me in its development, although they are not absolutely necessary in order to understand it, have to do with this: several years before, I had already thought that the story of the descent to Ixtlán was a narrative structure that contained within itself an error.
For the Mexica, there were at least three places (I say at least because some sources mention four) where the dead went to spend the afterlife. One was Ilhuicac, the place for warriors or women who died in childbirth, because they considered that these women died in the midst of a battle, with a prisoner inside themselves to boot. In this place, the dead fired arrows into the sun every day. There was a second place called the Tlalocan for all those who died due to water. And there was a third place for everyone else, those who died of old age, from some accident or some illness, and they arrived there by passing through nine underworlds. This was all I knew, that you had to pass through nine underworlds. It’s possible that the versions of this story that we’ve seen include some European influence. This was one of my research projects during my doctorate at Berkeley, I talked to the few people who knew about the subject, I consulted the few extant sources and I found the description of the nine underworlds; there are very few divergences, such as the exact moment when the dog appears that will accompany you on the journey. Each one of these stages has a symbolic meaning that one might suspect, but whose exact significance cannot be defined. And that seemed to be part of the story’s richness. What I tried to do was not to relive this, but to take this narrative as a found object and place it in a different context to see how it would work. I thought of it as similar to something my father liked to do: go to an outdoor market, buy things, and put them to some other use in the house. This is something like that, it’s a narrative that is mythological in its meaning, but I hope I somehow reactivated its utility.
RF: Now that you mention your experience at Berkeley, in your doctoral thesis you talk about a fire in the mines of Hidalgo, and you say at one point, speaking of the diverse texts you analyzed, that these objects allow us to talk about ourselves, giving life to moral rules, and that through them the reader can reclaim her agency in reading and be constructed as a creator of ethics. In what way do you yourself, as both a writer and a reader of contemporary Mexico, make sure that your work or your characters reclaim their agency and their place within these texts that circulate within the world in which you insert yourself?
YH: That thesis is unpublishable in its present state, but I’m going to pick it back up, that’s the project I’m currently working on. Put briefly, what I did was use a legal record, an investigation of a fire that took place in 1920 in a mine in Pachuca called El Bordo. The mine owners were from the United States, and they decided to collapse the mine to stop the fire, which might have some sort of logic in technical terms, if we don’t consider the detail that there were about a hundred miners inside. There was an investigation that concluded, after a series of analyses, that nobody was guilty and that the miners themselves should be suspected of lighting the fire by accident. This is something we’ve seen a lot in recent years in Mexico, when the victims are the suspects of their own tragedy. I did a linguistic analysis of the record’s rhetoric; what I want to do now is convert that into a historical narrative, to tell the story, with the few sources I have, the irrefutable facts. I think it’s important because almost no one knows about the tragedy in Pachuca, and it should be part of public memory.
A discussion that seems particularly relevant at present is how texts can intervene in the formation of a collective ethics. Literature cannot take full responsibility for creating good or bad men and women, but what it can do is give you the tools to make yourself into a conscious citizen. In this sense, I believe literature always entails a political responsibility. Not only explicitly political texts, but when you write, when you make up a story, even if you’re not doing it consciously to faithfully represent what’s happening, you’re elaborating certain present problems in a different language. I think that’s one of the greatest responsibilities and one of the greatest virtues of literature and of art in general: to find different ways to talk about this, so we as citizens don’t depend exclusively on language provided by and for power and mass media.
RS: Finally, we’d like you to tell us a little about the process of translating your books to English, in particular your novel Signs Preceding the End of the World.
YH: The novel was translated before to French, Dutch, German, and Italian. I’ve received positive responses to these translations, but the most remarkable reaction, we could say, has been in the United States and England. I’ve worked much more closely on the English version with its translator, Lisa Dillman. I never put pressure on translators, but I make myself available to clarify their doubts. Lisa asked me a lot of questions about the book because there were a lot of difficulties. Sometimes I invent words or take words from other eras, placing them in another context, and sometimes I play games with syntax. That requires not a simple transcription to another language, but a re-creation. I’ll give you an example. In this book, I decided to use the word “jarcha,” which, as you know, comes from the 12th century and refers to a lyrical composition that began to appear as a derivative of Arabic poetry. It was typically written in the voice of a woman saying goodbye. I remember telling myself: this is the discourse of my novel, it’s a woman in transition saying goodbye, I’m going to use that word without explaining anything to anyone to see how people find its meaning thanks to context. Translators hate me for things like that. What Lisa did was search for a word with a similar connotation. Among various options, she proposed that the noun “jarcha” and the verb “jarchar” could be substituted with “verse” and “to verse,” thinking as well that in English there are many words that use “verse” to describe movement, such as “traverse,” “converse,” etc.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, Yuri Herrera studied Politics in Mexico, Creative Writing in El Paso and took his PhD in literature at Berkeley. His first novel to appear in English, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was published to great critical acclaim in 2015 and included in many Best-of-Year lists, including The Guardian‘s Best Fiction and NBC News’s Ten Great Latino Books, going on to win the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. He is currently teaching at the University of Tulane, in New Orleans.
Radmila Stefkova (Lale) is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches and conducts research on contemporary Mexican literature, publishing, and media. She is a regular contributor and editor for the Spanish and Portuguese Review. Her non-academic work includes advertising and promotion, human rights advocacy, and translation. Lale holds a Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Rodrigo Figueroa earned his doctorate in Hispanic Literature from the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century Mexican literature. He is the author of the verse collections Una frontera transparente (2013), Poemas para orquestra y cuatro colibríes (2003), and Paganas procesiones (2001), as well as the drama La breve jornada (2008). He has published academic articles in U.S. and Mexican journals, and he has worked as an editor and collaborator with various literary and cultural journals in the U.S. and Mexico. He currently works as a lecturer at Texas Christian University.