“The Noir Genre Helps Mediate between Reality and Fiction”: An Interview with José Salvador Ruiz
José Salvador Ruiz, a Mexican and Cachanilla author, is a native of Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, the second hottest city in the world. Ruiz belongs to the most recent generation of Mexican noir authors, the so-called “Z generation.” In his short stories as well as his recent novels Nepantla P.I. (Artificios, 2014) and Hotel Chinesca (Editorial de Otro Tipo, 2018), the reader can encounter rehabilitated taco sellers who were once hitmen, women who avenge their families by killing those who create injustice, and a mythical, dark, subterranean world: the famous Chinese neighborhood in Mexicali, la Chinesca. In addition to his contribution to the contemporary noir novel, he is also a pioneer of the detective novel of Mexico’s north and its border. Most of his narratives are set in the imaginary world of the northern Mexico border and as he himself explains: in a contact zone “where the asymmetric power relations between the two countries are articulated, the plots of these novels can take place on both sides of the border, and there is a degree of linguistic hybridization due to the reality of the border…”
Jovana Gómez: Can you talk about the reception (currently or how it has been changing in the last few years) of the detective novel in Mexico? How is it received by the general public and by literary critics? From the publication of El complot mongol [The Mongol conspiracy] to the present, what are the characteristics that have been established as the “format” for the detective novel in Mexico?
José Salvador Ruiz: In general terms, the noir and detective novels have been having a favorable reception among readers. It seems to me that the social networks, some independent publishers, and the genre book fairs and festivals have contributed to being able to reach more people. Additionally, the explosion of detective series on all platforms has also had an impact on interest for the genre. Furthermore, the critic’s reception has also been changing a little. It was not unusual for the noir genre to be reviled and even though there is still some disdain from a sector of the criticism, in the last few years this has changed and as proof of this is the fact that several of the state, regional, and national literary prizes have been awarded to works within this genre. I think the noir novel is enjoying full health and has been gaining a place within Mexican letters. It seems to me that since the rediscovery of El complot mongol to the present, the noir genre has been in constant evolution. I say rediscovery because, even if there were a few negative reviews the same year as its publication, it is known that the novel went unnoticed and warehoused for several years and it was not until its re-edition in the Lecturas Mexicanas collection in 1985 that it achieved greater impact on readers. But as Iván Farías mentions in a recent article, El complot mongol already had what later would be essential elements of the Mexican detective noir; “everyday language, characters without faith in justice, sense of humor, anomia, and simulation.” Let’s add impunity, social criticism, and the exploration of identity and the city and we have an x-ray of the Mexican detective novel. With the neo-detective of Taibo II, the detective novel continues in the line of social criticism, of the denunciation that puts the government on the dock of the accused as the source of crime, corruption, etc. But the genre is extremely flexible and that has allowed its constant evolution and its hybridization with other genres as well as with the formal experimentation that some authors have prioritized. Since the 90s, there were already noir novels that were breaking with some of the formal aspects of the genre: Un asesino solitario [A lonely assassin] by Élmer Mendoza, El crimen de la calle Aramberri [The crime of Aramberri Street] by Hugo Valdés, Juan Justino Judicial by Gerardo Cornejo, and La novela inconclusa de Bernardino Casablanca [The unfinished novel of Bernardino Casablanca] by César López Cuadras to mention a few. Already in the twenty-first century, the Mexican noir novel continues to show its flexibility by incorporating forms from comics, terror, science fiction, etc., but it also incorporates the themes of the drug trafficker, which in turn generates a subgenre with its own characteristics. This noir novel that takes a certain distance from the neo-detective has been post-detective (José Ramón Ortiz and Joseph Towle) or post neo-detective (María Carpio Manickam).
J.G.: Talk about the books that formed you. Which ones specifically introduced you to the genre of the detective novel? At what moment of your literary education did you know that you wanted to write in this genre?
J.S.R.: I would be lying if I were to say that I devoured the classics since childhood; there is nothing further from the truth. My first approach to the genre were the little books called La Novela Policiaca [The detective novel] that were published by Novaro Press and were sold in magazine stands. I don’t know who at home bought them, I suppose it was my brother, but those little books and the American detective television series that were rebroadcast on Channel Three such as Columbo, Kojak, Mágnum P.I., Starsky and Hutch, TJ Hooker, and Mike Hammer were my first encounters with the genre during my childhood and adolescence. I came late to the genre as reader and writer. It was not until I was asked to introduce the book El norte y su frontera en la narrativa policíaca [The north and its border in detective narrative] that I became interested in the genre and its northern Mexican authors, first as a researcher and later as an author. The more I read the noir novel, the more interested I became in writing one, and that was how I wrote my first novel Neplanta P.I. I have a special weakness for Chandler and I have written a couple of stories following that hard-boiled model that I like so much.
J.G.: How much of the sociocultural context is represented in the detective novel? Is this genre a reference to understanding reality? What is the limit between reality and fiction in your writing and how do you define it?
J.S.R.: It is not news to say that an author lives in surroundings and a particular time from which he cannot detach himself, hence, the noir author regularly registers sociocultural aspects from his region, or his country. Taibo II already said that the detective novel “begins recounting a crime and ends up recounting what that society is like.” The noir genre helps mediate between reality and fiction. It is, of course, a subjective exercise, imaginative, but feeds from reality and fiction in order to, sometimes, delve into the dark side of human beings. In my case, the social reality that I live on the border is what provides me with narrative material on which I rely to create authenticity, but everything else is the product of fiction, a completely subjective exercise.
J.G.: Some authors/critics have used the term border detective novel and have set forth a distinction between the detective novel from the rest of the country and the one from the border in order to refer to novels such as those written, for example, by Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta and Salvador C. Fernández, El norte y su frontera en la narrativa policíaca mexicana. Does the term exist? If it does, is it an emerging term? Would it be alluding to a branch or category of the detective novel? What differences would there be between a detective novel and the border detective novel?
J.S.R.: Yes, we could talk about a border detective narrative in as much as said novels are set in the northern border and due to this particular geographic circumstance, they register a theme associated with that extraliterary reality. Some characteristics and recurring themes can be noted; we are talking about a literature that is set in what Mary Louise Pratt calls “a contact zone,” where asymmetric power relationships are articulated between the two countries. The plots of these stories can occur on both sides of the border; there is a degree of linguistic hybridization due to the reality of the border. The topics are migration, human trafficking, drug trafficking, but also matters of identity and, in some cases, a criticism of the effect of the neoliberalism of this border region.
J.G.: From where and for what reason does your fascination with the Chinesca neighborhood arise?
J.S.R.: My fascination with the Chinese neighborhood arises from its mythification by the people of Mexicali. Since my childhood there were rumors of the existence of a subterranean Chinese neighborhood. It was said that hundreds, perhaps thousands of Chinese people were living in a kind of subterranean citadel underneath the Chinesca and that only the Chinese were able to have access to that subterranean city. But they were only rumors and just a few years ago, now that the Chinese no longer live in the Chinesca (even though they continue owning the buildings) anybody can have access to some of those subterranean rooms. Now, you can go into the basements of the Chinesca, the accesses that connected them are bricked in, but that is just a stimulus to the imagination. It has become a sort of obsession to fictionalize the lives of the people who would visit the opium dens and the subterranean casinos. But also, it cannot be forgotten that the Chinese were a fundamental part of the economic growth of that incipient city, first as laborers and tenant farmers, and later as businessmen. That’s what fascinates me about the Chinese neighborhood, the stories that were lived there, the lives, the dreams, the sufferings that inhabit behind the walls of those basements. Bernardo Fernández, BEF, himself was seduced by the myth of the Chinesca and his novel Ojos de lagarto [Lizard eyes] is set there.
J.G.: What strikes me is that Kotex is a male detective, not a woman. What can you tell us in this regard? For you, what could be the reason for which women either as authors and/or characters have not had the same level of prominence or role as the men within the detective novel world? How do you perceive the role of women as authors and as characters in the current detective novel panorama both on the border and in the rest of the country?
J.S.R.: “Kotex” is a character that spontaneously emerged when I saw a photograph of an old author who was dressed in an extravagant manner. I then imagined a judicial policeman with those characteristics and with the maladies and diseases of a man in his old age. The nickname was born out of what we in northern Mexico call “carilla,” or taunt. This character must wear diapers for adults and for that reason his co-workers gave him the nickname of “The Kotex.”
It is becoming more common to meet women authors who write within the genre, but the visible ones continue being a minority. I would dare to say that there are many more women authors who write crime novels or short stories, but perhaps they are not visible because they have published with publishers who have little or no distribution. But let’s not forget that one of the precursors of the detective novel in Mexico was María Elvira Bermúdez, known as the Mexican Agatha Christie, who even created the first Latin American female detective, María Elena Morán, as the researcher Perla Hoguín, who has studied Bermúdez’s work in detail, tells us. I refuse to think that there are no other women detective or noir writers. I believe that what is needed is a deeper search by the specialists of the genre, something like what Liliana Pedroza did in her book Historia secreta del cuento mexicano. At the moment, we have few visible women writers, but I am certain that this will change with time and also because of the boom that the genre is experiencing. Here on the border we just published with Artificios of Mexicali, Baja Noir, an anthology of short stories, or criminal/noir stories and we include four women writers and eight male writers. I believe we have two female narrators who have been working well within the genre since for the last few years: Elma Correa and Nylsa Martínez. And in Ciudad Juarez we find Elpidía García and a few others who may not write detective stories exclusively, but who have made incursions into the genre. Of the women writers who take up the central place in the current Mexican noir genre, we find Iris García Cuevas and her novel 36 toneladas [36 tons] and her short story book Ojos que no ven, corazón desierto [Eyes that don’t see, heart deserted], in addition to the stories published in anthologies of the noir genre. These women authors show their great talent and mastery of the constituent elements of noir.
J.G.: What projects are you working on now?
J.S.R.: I am always working on several projects at the same time because when I get blocked on one I can jump to another one. Right now, I have started several short stories that may form a book of short crime stories, a novel set in the 20s in Mexicali, and a book of chronicles based on the news about crimes that happened in Mexicali, but were published in American newspapers in a period covering between 1909 to 1924, more or less. In addition, there is a book of short stories that could come out this year, another one of criminal mini-fiction. I am also working slowly on an essay about the genre.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis
Jovana Gómez is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her main research area is detective and crime literature, especially narratives in which feminine characters kill, asking for neither pardon nor permission.
José Salvador Ruiz, a line-crossing writer of the noir border, is author of the essay collections Pájaros de cuentos. El cuento criminal bajacaliforniano y sus autores intelectuales (1982-2015) [Birds of stories: the Baja Californian crime story and its intellectual authors (1982-2015)] (2016), and Muertos en el tintero. La narrativa policiaca de Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz [Dead in the inkwell: the detective narrative of Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz] (2017). He is the author of the novels Nepantla P.I. (2014) and Hotel Chinesca (2018). He has published the books of short stories Hotel Kennedy (2016), Crímenes sueltos [Assorted crimes] (2017) Ni deis lugar al diablo [Neither give place to the devil] (2017), and Lawless Border Towns (2018). He has been awarded the National Rafael Ramírez Heredia Short Story Prize, the State Literature Prize of Baja California in the categories of short story and essay, and the Regional City of La Paz Short Story Prize.
Rosario Drucker Davis was born in Mexico to an American father and Mexican mother. At the age of eleven, she moved with her family to Lexington, Kentucky where her father took a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Rosario earned a B.A. in linguistics at the University of Kentucky, an M.A. in English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in French literature at the University of Cincinnati. During the 2007-08 academic year, she was a visiting teaching assistant at the English Department at the University of Angers, France. She currently teaches Spanish at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College.
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.