“Latin American noir is the story of our daily lives”: An Interview with Daniel Salinas Basave
Author of Bajo la luz de una estrella muerta [Under the light of a dead star] (FOEM, 2015–Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz International Prize), Días de whisky malo [Days of bad whisky] (2016), Vientos de Santa Ana [Winds of Santa Ana] (2016), Predrag (2016), Dispárenme como a Blancornelas [Shoot me like Blancornelas] (Nitro Press, 2016–La Paz Story Prize), Juglares del Bordo [Onboard jugglers] (2018–El Libro Foundation Prize), and El Sámurai de Graflex [The samurai of Graflex] (2019), his short stories have been published in several collections, including Nada podría salir mal [Nothing could go wrong] (2017) and Latinoir (2018). Daniel Salinas Basave is one of the most important writers of stories and feature articles from the North of Mexico. The urgency and passion in his work are rare among literary voices in the region. He is a storyteller of great authenticity, sincerity and honesty, and with a good helping of black humor, a contemporary author worth reading. He spoke with us about current Latin American noir fiction, literary creation and how to bring Mexican literature to the world.
Joseph M. Towle: How would you situate today’s Latin American noir novel with respect to North American or European noir?
Daniel Salinas Basave: Latin America today is the most violent region in the world. Look at global lists of the 50 cities with the most murders per one hundred thousand inhabitants, and you will find that 40 of them are in Latin America, and the rest are in the United States or South Africa. Tijuana was first place in 2018. Acapulco and Ciudad Juárez were first in recent years. Also San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Caracas; and more than a few Brazilian cities. When we take these factors into account, we can conclude that Latin American noir is the story of our daily lives. Even a novel not about crime cannot avoid this reality because the violence permeates everything. To paraphrase Federico Campbell, who was a prophet, we live in an era of criminality in failed states with criminal foundations. The Latin American noir novel is pure realism, long-form journalism. There is no reason to make things up. In contrast, Europe is the safest region in the world, with the lowest homicide rate. In fact, historically the homicide rate has never been so low in Europe, or at least that’s what the statistics say. There is violent crime, there is mafia, but murder is atypical. Within Europe, which is safe in and of itself, Scandinavia is the most peaceful region. What a paradox. Possibly in one week in Baja California, there is more violent crime than in all five Scandinavian countries in one year. That’s why European writers still have to focus on plot, puzzles, invention, twists. In the United States there is an enormous amount of diversity. Take the anthology Vivir y morir en USA [To live and die in the USA] (Océano 2014), with the best stories of Akashic noir, and you find a little bit of everything, from Don Winslow and Michael Connelly to Joyce Carol Oates or Dennis Lehane.
J.T.: How do you situate the police genre within contemporary Mexican literature in general? Do you find any special characteristics in Mexican noir that distinguishes it from the rest?
D.S.B.: Maybe the main characteristic is that here the police are always corrupt and authority can only inspire mistrust. I can’t think of a Mexican noir novel where the courts or a government ministry was heroic or inspired trust. Our starting point and assumption is that the action occurs in a failed and corrupt state in which the criminal is confused with the police. The criminal apparatus is all-encompassing, an amalgamation capable of swallowing us whole. Of course, there are examples of Mexicans who are very faithful to the detective novel canon. I’m thinking of Hilario Peña and “Malasuerte” or José Salvador Ruiz and “Aqueberro” or Haghenbeck himself and “Pascal.” A political thriller like La doble vida de Jesús [The double life of Jesús] (Alfaguara 2015) by Enrique Serna embodies the essence of a government completely consumed by a criminal metastasis in which even the righteous crimefighter has to debase himself in order to be victorious. On the other hand, we have books like No toda la sangre es roja [Not all blood is red] (Nitro 2014) by Carlos Padilla, which are long-form journalistic articles, pure police reporting work that is nevertheless pure noir. I also really like what Imanol Caneyada did in La fiesta de los niños desnudos [The party of the naked children] (Tusquets 2014) or Hotel de arraigo [Under arrest] (Suma 2015).
J.T.: You live and write at the border. What is the role of that setting in the production of detective novels?
D.S.B.: Tijuana is both blessed and damned by its geography. Whatever happens, we will always be the crown jewel for any criminal enterprise, for any kind of smuggling, because we are the entry point to the abundance of California, the market that everyone wants access to. We’ve held first place as the most violent city in the world. Over this past year, I myself, despite no longer being a reporter, have seen three dead bodies of murder victims on the highway where I live. I used to see them almost every day, but that was because I worked in that field, but now, even if you try to stay away, you can’t avoid it. Violence is everywhere and permeates everything. Our habits, our topics of conversation, our lifestyle. It’s omnipresent.
J.T.: Recently Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz wrote that the detective novel is becoming the central genre of Mexican narrative. Also, he notes that these novels “are not necessarily written for a wider audience, but for connoisseurs of the genre.” Is he right?
D.S.B.: It is the central genre, I agree. Even if you don’t want to write noir, almost all Mexican fiction in which the plot takes place in contemporary Mexico ends up featuring the criminal side. It’s impossible to avoid. There isn’t a wide audience for any literary genre. We readers of any genre are a sect, a guild, like a stamp collecting club, but we are very stubborn and persistent.
J.T.: We’ve seen the popular waves of Swedish detective novels and now from Iceland. How do we get Mexican noir welcomed into other countries? When will Mexican detective novels become popular internationally? Will there ever be that moment when the rest of the world comes to have copies of Mexican writers on their bookshelves?
D.S.B.: At one point, I read a lot of Scandinavian detective novels. A lot. I read most of Henning Mankell, and then Stieg Larsson became all the rage and the translations. Scandinavian detective novels are like the Social Democracy of noir, very much set within topics like feminism, migration, violence against women. The legacy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In fact, female detective writers have become popular, such as Åsa Larsson and Camila Läckberg. It’s a trend, a movement, and the publishing industry is often on autopilot. There are a lot of good things about the Scandinavians, but a lot of other things are extraneous. We Latin Americans need to get our nose to the grindstone. It seems like nowadays it’s irrelevant where you live and where you publish, but the truth is we are continuing to lose a lot of things. There is a huge number of very good Colombians who only publish in Colombia or Argentinians who only publish in Argentina, or Ecuadoreans who only publish in Ecuador, and we never read them in Mexico. I mention these three countries because I’ve been in close contact with them and I’ve visited them recently. They are very receptive in South America. Spain, unfortunately, is still monologuing, not to mention the United States. Those are closed publishing markets that are marked by stereotypes. It seems like in the United States, the mass market only accepts what fits with a Latino or Chicano cliché. I think what imprints like Nitro Press are doing helps us understand and introduce ourselves to each other. Thanks to Nitro, I met Lorenzo Lunar, Gabriela Cabezón, Kike Ferrari, Paula Parisot. It’s like a guerrilla war of the literary underground. Thanks to Contrabando, this year in Spain we published De narcos a luchadores [From narcos to fighters] (Contrabando 2019), a three-part book where I share space with Carlos Padilla and Aldo Rosales. The El Libro Foundation Prize allowed me to publish Juglares del Bordo in Argentina, and being a finalist for the García Márquez allowed me to publish Días de whisky malo in Colombia. It’s about slogging away and being stubborn and persistent, but we are stubborn. You don’t need Planeta or Random House to jump to another country.
J.T.: Where do you draw the line and say, “this is noir fiction, this isn’t.” Isn’t it to a certain extent a personal and arbitrary opinion?
D.S.B.: There is a very orthodox canon that above all, respects the figure of the detective, the crime to be solved, and there are also people who continue being faithful to the locked room. I think that as long as the crime is the nerve center of the story, we can talk about it as noir, but I myself don’t know where the exact border is. For example, I have never had a character who was a detective or a police officer or a drug smuggler. My characters are usually reporters. Do I fit within noir? In Juglares del Bordo, I share space with a story that is purely noir, but the eight remaining stories don’t have anything to do with the genre (a crime sets the context or background in only two of them, but it isn’t the central theme), but even so, in Argentina they pigeonholed me as “narcoliterature.”
Ansley Miller/Audrey Iorio: How has journalism impacted your career as a writer? How is writing from a journalistic perspective different in comparison to other forms of writing?
D.S.B.: I owe a lot to journalism, or maybe I should say I owe everything to it. It was my best university for telling stories, my best doctoral program for creative writing, but it was also my worst enemy and I had to leave it behind to be able to start to get serious about writing. Maybe that’s why I sometimes harbor resentment, because sometimes I think journalism robbed me of a decade and a half of my life, and that only when I returned to literature did I become myself again and live fully. A little bit of resentment, sure, but there is much more for me to be grateful for. I’m indebted to journalism but I also have a lot to complain about. Vientos de Santa Ana and Dispárenme como a Blancornelas are my payback. I choose to do fiction work because I hit a wall with my reporting work. I came to a dead end, and then I listened to the teachings of a master like Federico Campbell. I think the epigraph by Federico that appears on the first page of Vientos de Santa Ana defines the meaning of the novel and the search for that meaning, and by the way, the meaning of a good part of my work. It’s almost a declaration of principles. Sometimes the only way out is the literary imagination and the license to create fantasies. The truth of the street, the truth that goes beyond court files, can only be found in a creative form of journalism. That journalistic work was what I did in a book called La liturgia del tigre blanco [The liturgy of the white tiger] (Océano 2012). This is a completely journalistic book, without one iota of fiction, which tells the story of Jorge Hank Rhon from a neutral, unbiased angle. Vientos de Santa Ana, in contrast, is a story of what could have been. A story where a historical violent crime is the starting point and a central theme, but which aims to go far beyond simply finding out who killed the cat. It is a story about the brutal reality of the grunts who do the work of reporting and the impossibility of doing justice. And of course, there are also the terrible stories arising from migration, the border wall, the deportees injecting heroin at the Tijuana River canal, or our challenging and chaotic landscape. When I walk the city streets, I try to look at them as if I were doing it for the first time, as if I were a recent arrival able to be surprised by our daily life.
A.M.: What kinds of research or experiences help you write your stories? In these moments, what elements of real life are you interested in including in your stories?
D.S.B.: Many stories about reporters arise from situations, characters or anecdotes from real life. More than half (or maybe I should say three fourths) of my fictional stories have border reporters as characters. Of course, they aren’t the only ones, and I can’t say that everything I write is all based on my journalistic escapades. I have a story that takes place in Kazakhstan, a country I’ve never been to, and a novella that takes place in Serbia, a country I still have a bone to pick with as far as travelling. But still, I can’t hide the fact that having a reporter’s life on the street has been a great source of stories.
A.I.: Have you experienced the events you describe in your stories, either partially or completely? Do you think a writer should experience or clearly understand the events/subjects they write about?
D.S.B.: When you work at a newspaper you learn to work hard and produce results even if you don’t have an ounce of inspiration. You learn that a deadline can’t wait, that the article comes out because it comes out, and 500 words is 500 words, not 510 or 490. You learn to eliminate unnecessary fluff, to get to the point, to say more with less. This attitude of being a serial producer was very useful to me in journalism and it is fundamental for books by request (yes, I also do work for hire, and like a good carpenter, I deliver a piece of furniture with the requested dimensions). To this date I maintain: if you really want to do this professionally, then you have to become a worker, a miner able to break rocks for long hours, but be careful, that’s not enough. Wow, that’s not enough. The spark that turns on the engine able to work for hours has to be the same spark that led me to write for the sake of writing when I was a teenager, for the pure and base masturbatory pleasure of doing it, without expecting it to come to anything. You can work like a machine, and you need a somewhat robotic set of gears to do the donkeywork, but the foundation and the substance, the vital energy flow of creation lies in desire.
Joseph M. Towle is an associate professor at Augsburg University. Audrey Iorio and Ansley Miller are students at this same university.
Translated by Slava Faybysh
Joseph M. Towle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at Augsburg University. He teaches Latin American literatures and cultures, Latin American Noir and Detective Fiction, and Latin American Science Fiction. His research areas also include Latin American revolutions and social movements, the Zapatistas, and human rights with a particular focus on contemporary Mexican literatures and cultures. His most recent project, Sunny Places for Shady People: El post-policiaco mexicano (Artificios, 2018), invited diverse voices that explore a new shift in contemporary Mexican literature.
Audrey Iorio is an undergraduate student at Augsburg University, studying English Literature, Language and Theory with minors in Spanish and Psychology. She works as a tutor in the university’s Writing Center.
Ansley Miller is an undergraduate student at Augsburg University.
Daniel Salinas Basave (Monterrey, 1974) is a reader, reporter, and storyteller of the Mexican border. He is the author of fourteen books, including short stories, essays, novels, and journalistic chronicles. Standout works include Días de whisky malo (UANL-Tusquets, 2014 Gilberto Owen National Short Story Prize and finalist for the 2017 Gabriel García Márquez Hispanoamerican Short Story Prize in Bogotá, Colombia); Dispárenme como a Blancornelas (Nitro Press-ISC, 2014 La Paz Short Story Prize); Vientos de Santa Ana (Literatura Random House 2016, finalist for the Mauricio Achar Prize); Bajo la luz de una estrella muerta (FOEM, 2015 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz International Prize), and El Samurái de la Gráflex (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2019). He started working as a reporter for El Norte de Monterrey and founded the periodical Frontera in Tijuana in 1999. He was sent as a reporter to Ground Zero in New York in 2001.
Slava Faybysh is a freelance translator based in Chicago. His translations can be viewed on Asymptote, Lunch Ticket, and Palabras Errantes.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.