Sickness as Normality: An Interview with Lina Meruane
Lina Meruane is an award-winning Chilean author, essayist and cultural journalist whose works have been translated into numerous languages, including English, Italian, Portuguese, French and German. In 2012, her novel Sangre en el ojo (translated by Megan McDowell into English as Seeing Red), about a woman coping with the onset of blindness, was awarded the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. In an interview that took place before the current global pandemic, Meruane talked to me about the genesis of her prize-winning novel, her thoughts on writing and translation, and her latest book, Nervous System, due to be published in English in 2021, which she hopes will be the final installment in a trilogy about sickness.
Victor Meadowcroft: I’ve read that, like the protagonist of your novel Seeing Red, you suffered a period of sight loss at one point in your life. This raises the question: what is the relationship between the Lina (Lucina) Meruane of Seeing Red and the Lina Meruane who wrote the book?
Lina Meruane: It’s true, I experienced a period of blindness that was later resolved by surgery, and, in that moment, I felt it could make for interesting material. The many novels about blind people that exist in Latin American and world literature describe blindness from the viewpoint of the seeing person, and I’d had an experience that allowed me to glimpse this experience of not seeing from inside, rather than outside. So it felt to me like material that was personal, tough, but also interesting. And, although I thought this at the time, and even before the episode of blindness, which I had known was coming, it took me many years to be able to write about it. I began writing what I thought would be a memoir. I wanted to write a memoir. I’d never written one, and thought it might be a more direct way of writing. But, perhaps because so much time had passed, or because I’d read so much about blindness and thought so much about what had happened, this relationship with the truth ceased to interest me so much. The text immediately began to turn into a fictional narrative. And at that point, in the first version of this novel, the character’s name wasn’t Lina, or even Lucina. I don’t think I even had a name for my protagonist. However, once I’d finished the novel, I felt it was important to reinstate my name to indicate that there was a referential background, a background in truth. I was also interested in experimenting with the reader’s expectations. Readers seem to assume that writers, especially women writers, always write autobiographically, so I thought I’d use that, I’d allow them to think that everything taking place in the novel was true. Leaving them in check in relation to their own reading experience and seeing what happened when they reached the end—what would happen if they kept believing that every single bit of it was actually true?
V.M.: There is a scene in the same novel in which Lucina is in hospital about to have her eye operation and, among the usual things a patient might be asked by nurses, someone poses the incongruous question: “What is fiction for you?” Can you answer this?
L.M.: That’s a great follow-on question because, in fact, it’s right here that I drop a hint that this is what is going on, that there’s an element of fiction in the story. That is to say, it’s like announcing to my reader that perhaps everything they’re reading is also fiction; that it’s real, but also fiction, or that it’s real but moving towards fiction; that fiction is the energy which has been propelling this novel forward. Fiction for me, well… What is fiction? It’s a difficult question; one for which I have only tentative, intuitive answers. For me, the difference between reality and fiction is that any piece of writing is a made-up thing, which might seem like reality but never is. There’s always invention to some degree, even when we want to tell something real, we chop it up, select pieces, rewrite them; we employ a narrator who comes and goes and says things that a single “I” cannot possibly know. That’s where the element of invention gets to work, the element of imagination, the element of symbolism, and of language, which never has a fixed meaning. Fiction is a way of confronting the real, separating yourself from the real, reimagining the real, utilizing the fictional device that is memory, pure invention. For me fiction is always anchored at some point—a smaller point or greater point—to an element of the real in the life of the author. Life is a raw material, clay which the writer moulds. And this takes place as much in nonfiction novels as in fictional ones. You could say that the difference is the degree of imagination, the degree of re-elaboration, the degree of separation, that a text, and an author, exercises over that element of the real.
V.M.: One thing I really enjoyed about Seeing Red was the way the protagonist’s experience of blindness seemed to heighten her perception of all her senses, including, paradoxically, some kind of sense of sight. Was this something you drew from your own experience of temporary blindness?
L.M.: Well, I wanted to write a dark novel, a novel with no visual elements. I thought that was the kind of novel I’d be writing when I began. It was going to be a novel where the character could see nothing, and the reader could see nothing, and it would simply be a novel told through the other senses. But, of course, it’s very difficult to write a novel without images, and to make things even harder, my recollections of many of the events I based my novel on were visually very vivid. In fact, I sometimes found myself asking my man if he could remember whether, when X or Y took place, I had been able to see or not. And this was a very strange question. He would say no, that took place while you were blind, and I would say, how weird, because I remember it so, so visually. One day, during a conversation with a perceptual psychologist, this theme of blindness came up, along with some studies she had conducted or read about relating to it, and I commented on the strange fact that my writing came out so visually, in incredible visual detail. Then she told me that this was exactly as it should be, because if someone has been sighted and lost the ability to see, and, above all, if they then regain their sight, they will configure those memories visually. What happens then is that the memory continues to operate in the same way and fills in the unseen with the seen. Which also led me to believe that, in reality, whenever we remember an event, we are simply filling it in with images that weren’t there, which we have added later, which our memory itself has constructed visually. To me this seemed really fascinating, really beautiful, and it also authorized me to write this very visual novel of a blind woman who has been sighted and writes after recovering her vision.
V.M.: In 2019, you spent a week with a group of translators at the BCLT Summer School translating a section of your novel Cercada [Besieged]. How did you find the experience of working so closely with translators and revisiting one of your early works? Will this experience change anything about how you work with your own translators in future?
L.M.: It was an incredibly intense experience, returning to a book from the year 2000—that’s to say, from twenty years ago—because I found, looking over this text, that there was already a series of literary strategies here that I’ve gone on to develop in the more recent books I’ve written. There is something that’s there very early on in my writing and that reappears, not just in terms of literary technique, like fragmentation, the shifting point of view, but also in terms of content: here I find early scenes of very closed, very conflicted relationships in the context of the dictatorship and (later) the post-dictatorship era, of violence against bodies, of feminine protagonists who are confused by their situation and trying to understand the discourses and realities that surround them. This novel is a documentary novel. That is to say, I used the testimony of someone I knew, the son of a disappeared detainee, to construct a fiction; the fiction comes from this constructedness and from the other characters appearing in the book. So it was interesting for me to see that, already in this early book, there was a way of narrating, a way of thinking, a way of posing certain problems.
The translation exercise led me to the ever difficult task of finding the right word. I battle with this, so to speak, when I write my own texts in Spanish, and so the translation exercise felt like an extension, in another language, of something I do all the time. And this was very consistent with a writing practice that, for me, is very intense. I was amused, for example, to discover that one of the sections selected by workshop leader Anne McLean—who is simply marvellous—was precisely a moment when the protagonist of Cercada is asked what the word “traición” [treason] means to her. She looks inside a dictionary—something I do frequently when I write—for all the possibilities, all the associations possible for this word. And, in the translation, this was a really fascinating moment, trying to find translations for all of the meanings and nuances of “traición.” And this, what we could call the complex repertoire of a word, struck me as a very beautiful exercise. Now, how might this affect the way I work? I don’t think it will really affect it, because when I write in Spanish I’m not thinking about how things will be translated, but rather trying to find the exact word, the right word, and also, very often, associations generated by that word, which move the text forward. So I never think of myself as a translator, nor do I envision myself engaging in translation, or self-translation. It’s the one writing exercise I’ve never wanted to do, as I know that, rather than the pleasure I get from writing, I would suffer immensely. I have so little time for my own writing, and translating a book would take time away for my own fresh work.
V.M.: Finally, I gather the next book you will be releasing in English is called Nervous System. Can you tell us a little about it?
L.M.: Yes, Sistema nervioso, which is the original title in Spanish, is being translated into English, to my delight, by Megan McDowell. The novel revisits the problem of sickness. So far—and I hope this will be my last book on the subject—I have written a trilogy of novels about sickness. The first was, Fruta podrida [Rotten fruit], and the second, Seeing Red. What these two novels have in common is the fact that you have a sick woman, and then the rest of the characters are healthy. In this new novel about sickness, I posed myself the challenge of ending what might be described as a Manichean relationship between the sick and the healthy, between the non-normative and the norm; between these strange, unusual, troubled women, and the rest. So I turned this whole family into a family of sufferers. They’re all sick, sickness is the new normality. But perhaps the biggest departure in this novel is that the protagonist is an astrophysicist. She’s a woman who studies planetary sciences. And, therefore, what we have in this novel is a combination of systems. On one hand, there are the organic systems—the nervous system, the digestive system, the immune system—in short, all of the systems by which the family suffers. There’s also the system of the family, a tense and intense network of relationships between the various members of this family unit. A communication system, because the protagonist is in the land of the north and the rest of the family is in the land of the south, and therefore there is a series of phone calls, text messages, breakdowns in communication, linguistic alterations between Spanish and English—it’s a system of communication that sometimes goes awry. And there is also the solar system, the cosmological system, which the protagonist studies very intensely. Finally, there is the system of the novel. This is a very fragmented novel, told in a nonlinear way, because what interested me was not the regular causal structure of storytelling, but the more entangled structure of relationships between characters, and, therefore, the novel itself needed to be written as if it were a system, as a network of sorts, in which the problems, the conversations between the characters, orbit around a centre, which is sickness. That, roughly speaking, is the novel, and it will be the third and last on this theme; I’m now working on other things.
Translated by Victor Meadowcroft
Victor Meadowcroft is a translator from Portuguese and Spanish and a graduate of the MA in Literary Translation program at the University of East Anglia. With Margaret Jull Costa, he has produced co-translations of stories by Agustina Bessa-Luís, a pillar of twentieth-century Portuguese literature, which appeared in the anthology Take Six: Six Portuguese Women Writers (Dedalus). He has also translated works by authors such as María Fernanda Ampuero, Itamar Vieira Junior, and Murilo Rubião, and is currently working on co-translations of two novels by Evelio Rosero, with Anne McLean.
Lina Meruane is an award-winning Chilean fiction writer and essayist. She has published a host of short stories and five novels. Translated by Megan McDowell into English are her latest: Seeing Red (Deep Vellum), which was awarded the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Novel Prize (Mexico) and The Valle-Inclán Prize for translation (UK), and Nervous System (Graywolf, forthcoming 2021). Meruane has written several nonfiction books, among which is her essay on the representation of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American literature, Viral Voyages (Palgrave). She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a DAAD Writer in Residence in Berlin. She currently teaches Global Cultures and Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo