Issue 50 / December 2012


“I think that anyone who has ever written a novel – or even any devoted reader of novels – would agree that reality is quite vulnerable to fiction. When we become wrapped up in a fiction, our immediate reality bends itself to accommodate it.”

Photograph: © Alfredo Pelcastre

Cultivating Fact and Fiction by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983 and now lives in New York, where she is completing a PhD at Columbia University. Formerly the online editor for the literary magazine Letras Libres, she has published literary criticism, poetry translations and personal essays in several magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. She looks back on the genesis of her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, a playfully experimental story of passion, identity and loss.

Between the original idea for this book and the moment I knew I was finally writing it, almost two years went by and a few things happened: I moved from Mexico City to New York, and back again, I published a book of essays, I had a baby, I fell in love and got married. And just to put the cherry on the cliché, I planted a tree - one of those ceibas that grow to over 50 metres - in the middle of the patio of a historic art deco building in Mexico City. I did it because there was a spare patch of earth in a big barren area, and also because I was thoroughly intoxicated by prenatal hormones and thus overtaken by a cake-baking, tree-planting sort of zeal. No one in his or her right, hormone-less mind plants a ceiba next to a historic building because the tree either dies after a few days or kills the building after a few years.

FacesIntheCrowd.jpgIt was in an apartment in that building, next to a window overlooking the murderous tree, that I wrote Faces in the Crowd - even though I had begun to take notes for it two years earlier, while living in Harlem, New York. The idea developed in many different stages. Initially, I wanted to write a novel in which the main character was in the process of disappearing. I was interested in what would happen at a formal, syntactical, even grammatical level to a novel in which the character went through a slow psychological but also material dissolution. How would that hypothetical character eat, walk or make love? But especially, what would happen to their speech? Would the character's voice gain or lose weightiness as the story advanced? In fact, the title for the novel in Spanish is Los ingrávidos, which translates as The Weightless Ones (I decided not to use it, because in English it sounds like Japanese in translation). All these questions were really just an overly intellectual prelude to writing because no one can write a novel based solely on formal concerns. A novel requires a bit of intelligence, and a lot of saliva, sweat and shit.

I think that anyone who has ever written a novel - or even any devoted reader of novels - would agree that reality is quite vulnerable to fiction. When we become wrapped up in a fiction, our immediate reality bends itself to accommodate it. I found the character for my novel while reading a letter written in 1928 by the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, who was living in Harlem at that time. In that letter, Owen tells a friend that he weighs himself every morning in the subway station because he thinks that he's losing pounds at an unreasonable speed, and believes he is possibly disappearing. That was the character I had been conceiving. I hadn't invented him - I had foreseen him.

I became rather obsessed with Owen. But not in a particularly scholarly and serious way, I must confess - he published very few books so there was a limit, or at least a word limit, to scholarly Owen-passion. I was more interested in reading his letters, written in the late 1920s in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance and just before the economic crash. I was living in Harlem 80 years later, when the country was on the brink of the 2008 crash. But mine was a more barren, simultaneously backward-looking and future-speculative, gentrified Harlem. Owen became a sort of ghostly companion in a world I was trying to vicariously make sense of. And not only Owen. There were a few other writers, mostly American and British modernists, who made my everyday Harlem more livable. If my books are bookish it's because I live - not only but also - through the writers I read. I don't know any other way of coping with either tedium or excess. I filter through other people's fictions.

So I began to write a novel about all that. It was a novel about fiction. It was also a novel with personal and political concerns - how does a Latin American Catholic-raised criollo deal with WASPland, how can a Mexican in Harlem appropriate or relate to 'black is beautiful', how does a Spanish-speaking writer swim around American insularity? There were also, of course, many literary and some pseudo-philosophical concerns involved in that process. I was constantly trying to work out how the modernist reinvention of cities, for example, was still today a paradigm that was difficult to overcome in our experience of time and space. That problem obsessed me.

Then I became pregnant and I pretty much turned into a ruminating cow and stopped caring about crashes and Renaissances and modernist chronotopes. That's when the baking and tree-planting thing began. When I said I was concerned because I was only 26 and had lost all intellectual vigour and curiosity, the doctor told me that I was probably producing too much oxytocin. I don't know if that's what happened, but I was indeed unable to even spell oxytocin. I did read a lot, though. Or, mostly, I napped with books over my face and intermittently grasped paragraphs. I read novels from the 1920s and contemporary novels too, good and bad. I read architectural histories of Harlem, urban planning manuals, museum catalogues, biographies, letters, poetry, everything. The good thing is that pregnancy only lasts 10 months (not 9, as most people think). When I gave birth, I almost became myself again. Fortunately, not myself all over again, but at least some version of a person I could relate to.

Predictably, I discovered that the things which had most interested me just a year or so back were no longer as emotionally or intellectually engaging, and that there were new, more urgent, more vital concerns. I had to discard most of what I had written up to then. It's a commonplace to say this, but the only important thing when writing a novel is to find a standpoint. A place to stand - temporally and spatially speaking. There seemed to be such a décalage between the person I was when I began to think about the novel and the person that I had become, it took me some time to find a place that was honest, true and transparent.

As soon as I found it, though, the novel just streamed out. It was finished in a matter of six or seven months. The space I found was, in one word, family. A self-obsessed, single, inward-looking, lonely and dense individual told the story I had been writing. A typically modernist construct, informed by my modernist readings, if you will. The way I had to now retell that story was from the standpoint of the family ecosystem. Especially, from its raw material: the private language games that develop within a family. That's not to say that I had to reproduce my family relationships - happily for me, my novel is not autobiographical - but I had to go to the heart of family structure to produce a language, and a vision, a space, and even a rhythm that could serve as an axis for the book. The novel ended up being, as should have been clear to me from the beginning, a vehement defence of fiction - and of reality's vulnerability to becoming fictionalised.

I now live in New York again, far from trees, but my former neighbours in Mexico report that the ceiba is irrepressibly and irresponsibly growing taller. I guess one of the roots made its way to an underground spring and is sucking the city dry. It's inconceivable, otherwise, that a tree can survive in a post-ecosystem like Mexico City - a metropolis which is, involuntarily, the 21st-century materialisation of The Waste Land. I am told that if the tree doesn't stop growing and I'm ever discovered to be its official cultivator, I will be imprisoned for harming the Mexican architectural patrimony. Out of sheer guilt, I guess, I've been writing a long fictional piece - perhaps a story, perhaps an eventual novel - about the architect who designed that building.

Faces in the Crowd is published by Granta Books.


Wednesday, 9 May, 2012

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