"Searching for Ways to Sacralize Desire": An Interview with Ana Clavel
Seated in a small room in Bizzell Memorial Library, and surrounded by books, the Mexican writer Ana Clavel pauses to discuss her book El amor es hambre [Love is hunger] (Alfaguara, 2015). Author of the novels Las violetas son flores del deseo [Violets are flowers of desire] (Alfaguara, 2007) and Las ninfas a veces sonríen [Nymphs sometimes smile] (Alfaguara, 2013), Clavel defines her writing as “an assertive will to secure myself in life to all its labyrinths, all its nooks and crannies, and, in a sense, to take on the role of a deity within my own existence.”
Claudia Cavallín: The name of your novel’s protagonist, Artemisa, references Artemis, sister of the Greek god Apollo and goddess of animals. So, the question is, how can this girl ignite the senses of the animals and sate the hunger of a wolf named Rodolfo? Could this story be situated somewhere between the human and the animal?
Ana Clavel: When it occurred to me to build a story of seduction with a sui generis wolf - in this case Artemisa’s tutor - around the character of Little Red Riding Hood, I imagined a girl who, walking through the forest almost naturally, transforms into Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting and animals. A character who, in accordance with tradition, at least in the story by Charles Perrault, loses her way in the forest and is devoured by a wolf. Or, according to the story by the Brothers Grimm, is rescued by a hunter, and in this case makes a leap…
CC: A leap towards where?
AC: Vulnerable to her unfolding appetites, the little virgin is transformed into a sort of goddess who, far from appearing defenseless, becomes a woman in control of her interior forests. That is how the story succeeds, at least in an ironic turn of the screw; but when we look closer at the nucleus of the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, we discover the concept that gave rise to Perrault’s censored version, born from a wild seed and very powerful. So, when we proclaim her the goddess of the forests, we follow the intuition suggested by the character herself.
In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim mentions how difficult it is to consider Little Red Riding Hood as a silly girl lacking the necessary elements to understand that she’s playing with fire, approached by an irremediable danger. At this point we remember the true purpose of fairy tales, which contributes to integrating the menacing zones exterior to ourselves, but also those within us. That’s when we perceive the original character, who had all the gifts necessary to transform into a goddess.
But, while in El amor es hambre Little Red is revealed as a character of fantasy, in my previous novel, Las ninfas a veces sonríen, Ada, the central character, possesses the quality of a sort of nymph, a deity who becomes the owner of her own desire, of her own corporeality, of her own rebellion until becoming a goddess herself. It never occurred to me that, from the start, I would have to manifest so deliberately the affirmation of her personality and her will. But, in the end, these two characters, Ada and Artemisa, as they become owners of their own sensuality, reconstitute themselves as autonomous beings. It’s a little like what we think really happened to Little Red, in the original version, in which she - thanks to her own ingenuity - is able to trick the wolf and exit without assistance into the forest, only recognizing her own areas of darkness, her own interior forest, putting it to work as an affirmation of her consciousness and her attributes.
In short, this is what allows her to balance the exterior forces and move forward. And this was not so deliberate. It was the character’s intuition, because when you work with previous incarnations of Little Red you realize that the character lives beyond the censorship and normativity to which she’s been submitted.
CC: When we refer to the synonyms of the verb “to tempt”: to touch, to feel, to caress, to handle, to paw; I recall the fingers of temptation in the case of Artemisa’s stepmother. In this novel, is there a representation of how we are carried away by temptations outside of ourselves, in the place where women can exist, but that also questions their very existence?
AC: The subject of temptation can serve as a pretext to talk about the function of metaphors. In everyday life, we constantly appeal to the use of temptation because, in spite of centuries of despising our own bodies, this constitutes our first entry point of familiarity and contact with the universe. In this sense, everything we attempt to incorporate, even on a conceptual level, is easier to comprehend when it passes through the filter of the body. In El amor es hambre, I tell how the act of eating, devouring, connects us from our infancies, through the mouth, the lips, the pores, which always give us a way to nourish ourselves in the world. Being as we are, we drink the constellation of the maternal breast, in the manner of Antonio Machado, who wrote that hunger is our first knowledge.
All of this is to give a dimension to the body, because there is a moment at which all desires that can be manifested underneath or outside the skin form an approximation of that which tempts us, which makes us desire, almost like a physical touch, like hands delving into us. There is all that capacity that, often - owing to religion, society, or ideologies - we leave by the wayside, although in reality it can become the true paradise that we can access in a very real way. This earthly dimension is the joy of our own body. It’s the conceptual baggage that drives the novel, because it explores what it means to nourish oneself in the world and to devour others, be it through textures, through symbolic acts like the Eucharist, or in a much more physical sense: through romantic love.
CC: So is literature a space in which to visualize desire?
AC: I believe so. In our societies of sophisticated barbarity, we need spaces in which to visualize desire. Our hyper-capitalist era sells us bodies, sex, our religious conceptions and everything else in a perpetual market. The problem is that the human being can define herself by her capacity for desire before her capacity for language.
CC: Can you explain the nature of this predominance of desire over language?
AC: Language confers our condition as Homo sapiens, and we ought not minimize its role. The capacity to desire constitutes a foundational, primordial element of our being because, thanks to it, we cease to be what we are to become something more. We are always eager to incorporate something that will allow us to fulfil ourselves, and this is what keeps us in motion on an existential level. In fact, the cycle of incarnations and reincarnations, the entire concept of karma in Asian disciplines, operates thanks to desire. That is what moves us from inside, but nevertheless, when that capacity finds no adequate outlet, it can degenerate into a cause of abominations. So we have to find ways to sacralize, ritualize, and symbolize desire.
AC: Through literature, visual arts, and any other resource that can help us explore our interior forests, just as in the case of the protagonist of El amor es hambre. In that way, we can attain a more complete understanding of our own areas of darkness, so we don’t let ourselves be frightened by the shadows they project. But it’s not just about the act of devouring and all those functions that lead us to submit to others. When we see a little baby and say we want to eat it all up, we are resorting to an affectionate way of assuming a function related to a much more primal necessity. These intermediate states, which we tolerate, speak to us of the need to symbolize, so as to avoid turning into cannibals.
CC: Is this the case for Artemisa?
AC: Through Artemisa, I learned that it’s not only about the psychopathic desires that we all feel from time to time, but also the impulse that makes us judge the fact of being devoured. All these contradictions, which at a given moment could make you think they don’t lead to a healthy way of life, speak to us about the wealth, in darkness, that reigns over human beings. That’s why we have unconscious states linked to the territoriality that remains there, immersed, since the days when we walked on four legs and were closer to reptiles. So, when I started writing El amor es hambre, at first I thought of Artemisa, marked by a desire to submit to others, as the story’s true wolf.
Nevertheless, as I came to understand the character to the point that she showed me the right path, I discovered that in her childhood she was neither a predator nor a victim. On the contrary, everything produced greater darkness in the character’s interior, and there I discovered that in Artemisa, like in any human being, there is a heart that, in reality, is a forest. And so, the cardinal phrase of the novel that accompanied me throughout the writing process: in every heart lives a forest. Thinking of her with all her thickets, chiaoscuros, shadows, predators, hunters, animals to serve as sacrifice, all of that, before finding a single register, constituted that interior forest that carries us to sublime realizations, like art and literature, although it can also lead us to darker registers.
But we could never speak about the development of the human if we remain anchored to mere repression. As long as we appeal to all sorts of forces and utilize them through language and art, we have found the path to integrate the dreams that manifest our unconscious, and we ensure they do not deteriorate into forms as dark as those that appear in nightmares and horror films.
CC: Your answer reminds me of Wittgenstein, when he says that a fact is only a fact after it is said. All of us live through these phenomena, put we stay silent about them until they come up in literature which speaks to us about them. Is that true in your case?
AC: For me, literature is a sort of black mirror that reveals unusual things that we assumed were not there. Paul Valéry said something that sheds light on the subject: “Whatever is unknown in me is what makes me myself.” Literature illuminates these unknown areas that allow us to discover that we have lived a false life, and that these ignored spaces are those that truly define us. So we realize not only that we could have lived another experience, but also that we could have written about it. I believe literature possesses an incredibly valuable role in the conformation of human beings who are more integral, more complete, and (why not?) more joyful in the Nietzschean sense - that is to say, in that state of human completeness that has to do with appropriating both the earthly and the sacred dimensions. And, perhaps not so consciously, I have been examining that role from one novel to another.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Ana Clavel is a writer born in Mexico City. She has published her work in El Nacional, El Universal, La Jornada, Nexos, Punto de Partida, Tierra Adentro, and Unomásuno. In recent years, Ana Clavel has been awarded various cultural and literary prizes for her novels, including: finalist recognition for the Premio Alfaguara de Novela (1999) for Los deseos y su sombra; the Silver Medal from the Sociéte Académique "Arts-Sciences-Lettres" (2004); and the Premio de Novela Corta Juan Rulfo from Radio Francia Internacional (2005) for Las violetas son flores del deseo. She was also selected as the winner of the Premio Iberoamericano de Novela Elena Poniatowska. Her recent novel El amor es hambre (2016) offers a glimpse of one of her multicultural facets, combining literature with images of a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood.
Claudia Cavallin is a writer, journalist, and university professor, and she serves as Media Manager of Latin American Literature Today. She is the author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguage que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012).