The impetus for this long-overdue interview was the publication of Sarah Booker’s recent English-language translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest. The book, which is a sort of fable set near a sanitarium and involving gedner, illness, madness, and borders (all common themes of the author) can be read about here in great depth. I will only say that this remarkably resilient, interpretable, and eye-opening book was a wonderful excuse to converse with an admired, original, and like-minded writer. Throughout this interview Rivera Garza was kind, generous, and surprising, and were there more time in the world this conversation would have run to two or three times this length.
Scott Esposito: Your work has been noted for its feminist themes, as well those of flux, transformations, borders, illness, migration—all things that are present in The Iliac Crest. To start, can you tell us a little about what drew you toward this subject matter as your identity as a writer began to form toward the beginning of your career?
Cristina Rivera Garza: I am interested in borders, borders of all kind, geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death. I spend most of my time thinking of ways to cross such borders. How come we are allowed, even invited at times, to walk over some of them, but are prevented from even approaching others? In what ways what we are or the way we look or behave allow us to come close to some and reach other borders? I was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, right on the other side of Brownsville, Texas, and have lived a good chunk of my life in between San Diego and Tijuana—one of the most dynamic borders of our contemporary world—so that may explain this fascination. And yet, there is something else. There is this originary out-of-placeness, if you will. My family has migrated both within and outside Mexico for generations now. I did learn from an early age that we were not from there (and there was everywhere). The eyes of a nomadic foreigner look at the world in skewed ways. You are more cautious and more irreverent at the same time. You become aware that your body, your mere presence, complicates things. This experience later became an aesthetics. I have realized lately that both in terms of content and form I am usually looking for that angle, that gaze I am fond of complicating things!
SE: In addition to those themes already named, I would say your work, insofar as I know it, is characterized by a certain kind of darkness, or maybe a kind of search for the obscure corners of perception and experience; in its English translation, The Iliac Crest begins with the prototypical “dark and stormy night,” and it takes us through a world where things are rarely what they seem, and one that is characterized by that stormy feeling of turbulence, the elemental, and danger, maybe even a little romanticism on top of it all. What were some of your formative writers in this aesthetic?
CRG: I was a near-sighted child and, as my parents did not realize this until later, I never wore corrective glasses. And so I became an early reader. And we travelled much—long stretches of lonely highways both in central and northern Mexico with no radio can indeed activate your imagination! I am the granddaughter of migrant mine workers, agricultural workers, and deportees from the United States, but my father is a scientist, so my first contact with books came early and in the form of glorified biographies of researchers and inventors, adventurers and ethnographers, botanists. I have just recently realized that one of my formative reading experiences was none other than Alexander Von Humboldt—I came to this realization upon reading the amazing Inventing Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. I have read poetry all my life, from the beautiful, so feminine verses by Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde, whose work I transcribed in my Lettera 33 typewriter as a school exercise in middle school, to the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I have told pretty much everybody that I read Rulfo as an assignment in one of the public schools I attended fleetingly when we moved from town to town in the north of Mexico. Didn’t understand much back then, but became so intrigued that I continued going back to Pedro Páramo and El llano en llamas so much so that I ended publishing a book around Juan Rulfo and his work last year. I read many women writers from the start: Virginia Woolf, Rosario Castellanos, Marguerite Duras, Gabriela Mistral, Santa Teresa de Jesús, Mary Shelley. Thanks to a very cheap collection of universal literature you’d buy at the super market, I read all my dearest Russian authors—and I thank the nameless translators that achieved that feat—Dostoevsky above all, but also Tolstoy‚especially Anna Karenina—Chekhov, Pushkin. Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva would come later. You could say that when I was looking for ways to tell the story of The Iliac Crest, this reading experience came in handy. I knew I wanted to take readers—and myself—into uncharted territory, and I had learned by then that you can only do so if you offer your reader something familiar to hold on to. So I chose this “dark stormy night” of our gothic stories to approach what was happening in that state housing complex by foggy shore. Hospitals have never ceased intriguing me—the bodies in pain, the organic, atrocious love between patients and those who care for them, the manners of physicians. The nameless doctor who works for a state hospital for the terminally ill comes form the long years I spent researching medical files from a famous (or infamous) insane asylum established in Mexico in 1910—La Castañeda (about which I had written at least two books). I had read Amparo Dávila’s work by then, and had literally fallen in love with some of her atmospheres and characters, so I decided to turn her—her persona and her literary style—into one of the main characters of this book.
SE: I’m curious about what you say regarding your interest to cross borders. I feel that most people, if only subconsciously, sense that the maintenance of borders is what holds the world as we know it together, that to eradicate a border means changing the world. This can either be a threatening or liberating prospect, regarding your point of view. I imagine that you are someone who is familiar with border-crossings in terms of national borders and borders of genre. Are there other borders you have crossed? Are there borders you are not willing to cross?
CRG: I am prone to write in between genres (remember that, in Spanish, género translates as both gender and genre). I am always interested in what happens there, in that middle ground or limbo. My suspicion is that relevant, interesting operations are met, and at times resolved, in those spaces. It’s a lucha libre of sorts, where the tools usually associated with one genre (verse to poetry, for example, of paragraph to prose) are subverted and diverted. Most contemporary works I read tread on those turbulent waters called cross-genre. The adjective I have used to describe these works is colindante, a term that describes what is both contiguous and colliding.
Similarly, in a time of post-autonomous literature (Josefina Ludmer dixit), the line between fiction and non-fiction has become increasingly thin, which doesn’t mean it is irrelevant but complex.
On the other hand, our bodies are keys that open only certain doors. Our features, behaviors, demeanors are read and codified not only by friends but also by the enemy. The world is perpetually in flux, but border-making and wall-building are concomitant processes. The state and the market draw tight lines, but writing—when felicitous—might open up escape routes.
While I know I will have to cross that border that separates life and death eventually, I hope it is not that soon! In any case, as our religions and our arts and our hauntings tells us, even that border is porous.
SE: What was some of the dynamism you witnessed in the space between San Diego and Tijuana, and do you believe this dynamism is a source of artistic creativity?
CRG: I lived on the border for about 20 years. I first came to San Diego in 1997, when I accepted a job as a professor in the U.S. academic system. Soon enough I found myself crossing the border more than I expected, developing friendships and, eventually, a community on both sides of the border. I was a proud owner of a SENTRI card, which allowed me to cross the border in record time, instead of waiting in those long, interminable lines.
The most interesting feature of San Diego is, without doubt, Tijuana. The many Mexicos that Tijuana actually is. To be sure, Tijuana is not pretty, but it is quite intense. The visual arts scene is particularly strong, drawing energies and inspiration from migrant populations from across the globe. I taught a writing workshop a while ago—it was a one-year-long adventure that initiated me in the Tijuana devotion I now share. Cruel at times, defined by high social and economic contrasts, and limited by the grey waters of the Pacific ocean, Tijuana pokes at you constantly. You simply can’t rest in peace in its midst. What I found there for so many years was, above all, a community—like-minded people interested in writing practices able to open up space for questions both critical and human. I might have found that elsewhere, perhaps, but borders make these decisions, which belong to the realm of both ethics and aesthetics, inescapable.
I wrote The Iliac Crest during my early years on the border. I didn’t want to write the Tijuana novel in vogue back then—realist in tone and more or less traditional in terms of structure—opting instead for the register of the fantastic and the resources of what I learned from experimental aesthetics of the West Coast. And here you have it, the radical questioning of both the state and the market coming from radical traditions in the U.S. has been incredibly relevant to grasp the border I experienced. That convergence of forces, the many contradictions it brings on, have become central for my understanding of both writing and life. I no longer live in SD-TJ, but once you have lived on the border, you take it you wherever you go.
SE: Could you tell us a little more about what made La Castañeda so infamous and what drew you toward researching it?
CRG: I am a historian by training; I am used to archives. I began reading medical files from the La Castañeda Insane Asylum around 1993, when I was preparing my Ph.D. thesis in Latin American history. I had started visiting the National Archive in Mexico City when I ran into someone who, totally by chance, mentioned that the files of the asylum—75,000 in total—were only about to be open to the public in a small archive in downtown Mexico City. I went there and, as you can see, I haven’t truly left.
La Castañeda was a massive state asylum that provided—or attempted to provide—care for poor men and women diagnosed as mentally ill in early twentieth century Mexico City. Founded on September 1, 1910, only a couple months before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, the hospital was the culmination of the Porfirian regime it represented. The life stories contained in the medical files of the institution bore traces of the darkest side of Mexican modernity. The weakest among the weak, these men and women committed to the asylum, led harsh lives, often without protection or solution. Their stories, which were both human and dramatic, also brought about their latent, poignant criticism against the sources of their misfortune—the hospital, indeed, but also the regime, the city, the police, the state. These were not active revolutionaries, to be sure, but common people, common men and women, reacting in as many ways as possible against a hostile world while sliding, almost surreptitiously, their own interpretation of that world. I was fascinated by that operation. The medical files, organized according to the interests of the institution and the doctors alike, harbored in fact a highly dynamic semiotic operation in which both psychiatrists-to-be and would-be patients (back then they were still called “inmates”) debated the lines between normality and abnormality, health and illness, life and death. How could I not be enthralled by it all? I was.
I ended up using these files, especially one belonging to a woman who had migrated to the capital city early in her youth only to become a destitute worker and, later, a prostitute, to prepare my first published novel: No One Will See Me Cry. I saw Modesta Burgo’s picture and read her file the first day I arrived in the Archive of Public Health, and I have been in conversation with her for many years afterwards. Our lives, which developed both in trepid times, times of great contrast and conflict, converged in the reading of that file. When that happened, I became the addressee of a letter—her life in that file—addressed, in fact, to doctors and institutions of Mexico’s first modernity. I interrupted and deviated that journey. I like to think that No One Will See Me Cry turned readers into addressees of that letter never intended but always looking for us.
SE: What you say about “our bodies are keys that open only certain doors” rings very true to me. So two questions on this subject: First, your novel The Iliac Crest is titled for a part of the body that revels biological sex. Specifically, in the book it is described as the part of the hip bone that gives that characteristic curve to the female body, and the straighter hip to the male. This bone becomes a motif of the book, repeated multiple times throughout the novel, and it struck me that this bone establishes a kind of pole, a point of static, unchanging definition in this book in which everything else is constantly in flux. Are there aspects of our identity that we cannot change?
CRG: In reading the translation by Sarah Booker, as I was working with her chapter after chapter, at times adding entire scenes or deleting passages from the original version in Spanish, I came to think of the possibility that this novel is made out of bones. Bones and only bones. After all, the iliac crest becomes relevant in defining the sex of person when you have only bones left. An ultimate refuge of sorts? The materiality against which we have to pause? The object that could finally yield conclusive answers? Perhaps. I am still thinking about it.
SE: And secondly, as someone who enjoys crossing the borders between the genders, I have found the online space liberating because it allows me to abstract myself away from my body, or to present my body in more versatile ways than may be possible offline—in effect, I’ve found in it one of those “escape routes” that you mention. Are you at all interested in the online space as a place of flux, flow, or more generally freedom from our bodies—or perhaps as an institution where we may find new definitions of old concepts?
CRG: I have always said that the great loser of our times is the body. I did not mean it only in a negative sense. Processes of materialization and de-materialization converge in what we do in front of our screens. I too have experienced certain relief and even pleasure when navigating the net or when using different kind of social platforms, especially at the start of all this. I see ourselves in a different stage now, once the curiosity or the devotion of the recently converted has worn off. We have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to replicate many of the problems we faced before digital technology came to be an important component of our urban lives. Let’s not forget that capital and economic interests remain a massive force behind current technological transformations. Recent use of our personal data (data related to the behaviors of our bodies) in electoral times is but an example of how online spaces are great sources of profit and power for the few.
SE: One of the mysteries of The Iliac Crest is the gender of the narrator, which is thrown into doubt throughout the novel. He believes himself to be male, but other characters in the book regard him as female. One of the stranger things about this book is that the narrator also at times refers to his past in which he was a tree—literally, a tree. I found this statement at first utterly confusing, but I thought a key to it might lie in the fact that trees can be broken into “male” and “female” genders, although some trees are at once both genders, and their genders exist in ways that are profoundly different from human genders. How metaphorically are we to take the narrator’s remarks about his past life as a tree?
CRG: I have become increasingly interested in the expressive capacities of human and non-human components in my stories. I see that reference to the narrator’s life as a tree in The Iliac Crest as a wince in that direction. I was not only interested in the crossing of gender borders but also of borders in between species. As many in our times, I have been paying attention to the challenges that the so-called new materialisms and/or Object Oriented Ontologies throw our ways as writers.
SE: I’m curious to know more about your interest in new materialisms and Object Oriented Ontologies, terms that are still rather new and that I only have a loose grasp of. Why do these disciplines feel relevant to you, and how do you see them working their way into your literature in the future?
CRG: I have always been interested in bodies and embodiment processes. I am less interested in writing about the body and more about working with language to produce the effect of presence and irruption. Rather than merely depicting reality, writing produces reality. So, while I am aware that the field of new materialisms and OOO is ample (and in constant revision), I use some of these ideas to anchor, so to speak, these interests of mine. What kind of contracts am I subscribing when I say that I am interested in the materiality of writing? Which ones when I insist in the relevance of objects and the marks they bring into play? From Jussi Parikka to Janet Bennett, from Gastón Gordillo (author of this great book: Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction) to Eyal Weizman, these books help me to problematize and deepen my relationship with language in regards to lived matter, matter in conflict.
SE: The Iliac Crest takes place largely in and around an asylum, and throughout the novel its characters engage in their own “lucha libre” regarding various defining lines that they are struggling over. In what other institutions do you think these struggles are most evident and enthralling?
CRG: While the hospital described in The Iliac Crest resembles the structure and workings of large insane asylums, this sanatorium remains a place where patients are left to die. More a cemetery, in that sense. Or a place right in between a hospital proper and a collection of tombs. The struggle you make reference to, a struggle developed from below in structures clearly organized vertically, is a usual component in state institutions such as jails and orphanages, to mention just a few. But we can extend the metaphor, I believe, to families and the educational system. I am and suspect I will be always be interested in the ways in which bodies—human and otherwise—complicate smooth narratives of power, both in our books and in our daily lives.
SE: To get back to your point about this novel mutating in translation, an idea I like very much—this is something I admire in, for instance, Mario Bellatín, the way he encourages his translators and publishers to actively take part in redefining the work as it finds its new language—I’d like to ask why you decided to let this book change as it made its way from Spanish to English. A desire to revise what you had written, or to better prepare it for the new cultural context, or some other reasons?
CRG: Translating The Iliac Crest with Sarah Booker has been such a pleasure. The book traveled all these years—from that tip of the U.S.-Mexico border to central México and to Spain (it was also published by Tusquets-Barcelona), from Spanish into English, from the U.S. to the U.K. (will be out soon with And Other Stories)—and mutation would be a good word to describe the process at large. The closest of readings, translation and transcription require unparalleled attention and great care, but also much imagination. As Sarah was turning in entire sections of her draft, I had to admit it: I was reading a different book. I was not only facing her version of a novel I no longer knew as solely mine, but a new novel as such, translated or not, because it lived now in a distinctive context that produced—or accentuated—more or alternative meanings. Translation gave me the opportunity to become an outsider, to create some intriguing distance between the text and myself, to detach. Ultimately, translation gifted me with a new book.
It all began with a seemingly innocent conversation with Lauren Hook, my editor at Feminist Press. As we meander around phrases and paragraphs, she happened to mention that, since it was my book, I could add or delete scenes or pages at will. I had thought about it, of course, mulling over the possibilities. I had so many things to do back then (as now), and that effort, I was sure, would require time. I pondered. I hesitated—then, I smiled. And I plunged ahead.
To be sure, I did not want to include paragraphs or dialogues to explain motives or plot. I had in mind new English-speaking readers but that did not necessarily drove my effort. I thought loosely about an updating, an actualization, that had more to do with language than with anecdote. It was something more intimate and more mischievous. I once toyed with the idea of changing the titles of my books on regular basis—let’s say, every five years, or so—also introducing minor characters, perhaps too small to be really noticeable at once, or improbable twists in specific scenes. Well, I haven’t been able to do so in the original versions in Spanish, but translation allowed me to materialize that wish. I am now the two-time author of La cresta de Ilión, which is, in turn, at least two books.
I wrote the added material directly in English and, I have to say, I am a writer in Spanish and a very different one in English. I grew up on the border, listening to both languages, although I mostly spoke Spanish at home (TV, however, was mostly in English). Now, after 25 or so years of life in the U.S. and U.S. English, I can say that there are forms of intimacy with language, any language, that are not necessarily based on familiarity. My long-lasting intimacy with English, for example, comes from years of utter alertness, from an inner system of hyper-vigilance, if you will. While it is common to say that you are more true to yourself as a writer in your mother tongue, I have to say that there are truths—deep, painful, risky—uncovered too, and perhaps only, by the second language. I am not referring here to personal truths so much as truths of language itself, of language in relation to self and others. Language in contention.
So, instead of a La cresta de Ilión, a title bearing obvious winks to the classics, now we have The Iliac Crest, a title that places grater emphasis on the materiality of bones, and the way in which bones keep or betray our deepest secrets. The resilience and the vulnerability of bones, both emerge here with greater clarity on that hipbone that so much mesmerized the narrator in the opening scenes of this novel. More bodily grounded, this English version asks for a reading that is forensic in nature. Sadly, it is a reading that better fits our violent times plagued by gruesome murders and, at least in Mexico, a low intensity war that has decimated thousands, transforming the territory in an open grave—an ample cemetery of common bones. This is what we have at the end, when lucky. Bones. Does this make the novel more overtly political even when winks to gothic and fantasy genres remain unaltered? I sure hope so.
SE: Families and the educational system are two of the modern world’s most prevalent institutions—I think they had affected all of us. Since you are the Director of the Creative Writing Program at The University of Houston, I’m curious to know how you feel about holding that position of authority and if you have found ways to deconstruct that power structure in the practice of your official duties.
CRG: Teaching is such a noble profession. I truly enjoy the hours I spend designing syllabi and developing classroom strategies to create lively, relevant conversations. This last semester I taught Writing and Community, a graduate workshop in which each student was responsible for designing and implementing a writing-related community project in the Second Ward, a neighborhood where Spanish is widely spoken here in Houston. Students found ways to connect with schools, community gardens, graffiti workers, and labor organizations, among others. Our last class sessions have taken place both in the classroom, where we continue to workshop their 25-page long pieces, and out in the community, sharing meals and words and work with men and women, children and teenagers, for whom writing is clearly an empowering tool. We had read Lazzarato’s Signs and Machines, Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, Floriberto Díaz’s Escritos, and Raquel Gutiérrez’s Horizontes Comunitario-Populares, among others, and with them all we embraced the complexity of our task as writers in connection with communities, as critical thinkers, and as activists.
Remember that we launched the first Ph.D. in Creative Writing in Spanish at The University of Houston—which is both a public university and a Hispanic-serving institution—right at the start of a regime that has flatly attacked Spanish and its practitioners. We were in the resistance from the start, Scott. Writing in Spanish—a language practiced by about 50 million people in the United States, the second largest Hispanophone country in the world—has been and continues to be both an act of celebration and act of resistance. We write in Spanish, indeed, but always in connection with English; we write as we live: in connection with others, other languages, other fields of inquiry and knowledge. Rather than a backward-looking move (Spanish as something from the past), writing in this way places ourselves in this forward-moving wave. Spanish-in-connection-with-English is the future and the present of this country.
Finally, traditional university hierarchies crumble when, after ending the workshop session, you go to the university pool with your students, swim about 50 laps and, still breathless, continue the conversation about writing and life, about life always.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
Image by Thelmadatter – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36743507
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