John Pluecker: The Quarterly Conversation is publishing Daniel Shapiro’s translation of your story “Lizard á la Heart” in this issue. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the story and how it fits into your larger project as an author?
Roberto Ransom: When I was very young, eight or nine years old, I read a novel about a young boy and his dog that travel through the bayous in a wooden dug-out canoe, in a world of water and plant life, the large trees and their hanging limbs—willows mostly, I imagine—as silent, omnipresent witnesses, hunting for snakes. The boy has a long, pronged stick with which he traps them against a hard surface, takes them behind the head, “milks” their venom into a jar, and then releases them back into the water or back onto the land, from the same place he’d taken them. He sells the venom to the pharmaceutical companies. His father is not present or has died, and he takes care of his mother and younger sister or sisters. This story impressed me deeply. Years later I read one of Pynchon’s novels—I think V—in which one of the narratives is about a group of teenagers who live by hunting the huge, blind, white alligators that live beneath New York City in the sewer system—whose origin are the baby alligators brought back from Florida over the winter holidays and then eventually flushed down the toilets—and selling the skins. A third literary source would be Jean-Pierre Hallet’s Animal Kitabu, a fascinating read. Another “seed” came from our actual lives and a series of problems that arose when we purchased and moved into a new home we later found out had a plethora of legal complications having to do with the home and the land it was on: we had bought the house, but the land it was built on still belonged to a third party. Then the ex-owner wanted his house back and showed up at all hours of the night, drunk and shouting threats mixed with pleading. This somehow metamorphosed into an overgrown pet that threats, moans, and literally rips the family apart.
As a last seed, but after the fact: I did have pretty good notions of Egyptian civilization and mythology, but I only realized the connection between the Egyptian nature of my crocodile when I visited, four years after the story had been written and published, an exposition in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City on the Egyptian solar gods. And there was my crocodile, especially in a small figure—three inches tops.
JP: I was able to find and read some of your early works, specifically Historia de dos leones (A Tale of Two Lions) and La línea del agua (The Water Line), which, though not your very first books are among your early ones from the 1990s. How did you initially come to writing? Why did you decide to remain?
RR: My first forays into literature were in English, given the fact my English literature professor identified me as a talented student in sophomore year of high school. That was sufficient reason for me not to take any of his courses in junior year. I’d loved reading since a very young age, but the mere thought of being a writer was both strange and somehow daunting. A reaction that, looking back on it, was quite insightful. I returned, however, to Mr. Gilbert Weatherbee’s class in senior year, an excellent professor whose readings aloud of Malamud, Salinger, Vonnegut, Faulkner, McCullough, were mesmerizing, but by then his enthusiasm regarding my vocation had cooled, aided by the fact that I seemed too ‘caught up in the world’ by his standards, and especially by the world of the Model United Nations and my inclinations at that age towards a career in international law and foreign relations. It took another three years for me to decide that yes I wanted to be a writer…whatever that may mean…so I discontinued my studies in agronomy and forestry in order to present the exam at the UNAM. I passed, was accepted, and entered the School of Philosophy and Literature where I ended up studying Dramatic Literature and Theatre.
I wrote one novel at the age of twenty-one titled A Sketch of Miguel Galván and a dozen or so stories in English by the age of twenty-three. I quit school for a year to travel to where my brother had been studying, and worked at three jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, as an undocumented immigrant, with the idea of placing my work and making enough money to continue studying in Mexico and holding me over as a writer for another handful of years while I wrote a second novel. I was very brave—or rash—and not a little naive. I returned home five months later, with very positive rejection slips—in the form of letters—from several publishing houses or magazines, including Simon & Schuster and The New Yorker. I had sent out five manuscripts. I had saved money. I had gotten sick; I think it was my first strong depressive episode, but I can say this only in hindsight. My health improved, gradually, I put back on some of the weight I’d lost, and I still had half a year, almost, before returning to the university. It didn’t take much convincing on my brother’s part to travel with him to Manaos, Brazil, and then by river boat and bus to Sao Paulo—a month of traveling!—and stay with him for a spell in Sao Paulo, where he was studying. Despite the austerity of our means of travel and lifestyle, there went my savings. Four or five months into Brazil, almost out of money, and ready to head back to Mexico City soon, I decided I couldn’t be so far South (and East) and not go to either Montevideo or Buenos Aires, where a handful of my favorite writers were from. I decided on Buenos Aires, took a 24-hour bus trip there, spent 72 hours in the city, and took a 24-hour trip back to Sao Paulo. I still have very fond memories of that trip, and it seemed I was there a lot longer. On the return trip, I read Calvino’s Cosmic Comics. It was very late. I think the bus driver and I were the only ones awake. There was a very large, if not full, moon and we were surrounded by the expanses of the Argentinean or Brazilian pampas. I was reading “The Aquatic Uncle” and at one moment laughed aloud. The bus driver tuned his head backwards in my direction. We were accomplices. I then returned to Mexico City and to the UNAM and finished my studies.
I continued to send out stories, not a barrage of them but one every month or two, and received signed rejection slips, some with encouraging remarks, from prestigious literary magazines and quarterlies, which my dear friend, Jennifer Clement, told me was a very good and encouraging sign. Jennifer had also read my novel, and some of the stories, and was very enthusiastic regarding my writing. However, I’d lived my entire life in Mexico—except for the stint stateside I already mentioned and, thirteen years later, the three years I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia with my family, doing my doctoral studies at UVa—and had done my university studies in Mexico. Being second generation Mexican, of American grandparents who, were in turn, to a greater or lesser degree, themselves descendants of recent immigrants to the U.S., didn’t help matters much, given the history between our two nations and the fact that Mexico, unlike the United States, Argentina or Brazil, is not a nation of immigrants, except for select and numerically small groups. Besides, we were generationally still enmeshed (and, in many senses, still are) in a certain nationalist ideology that has been the predominant since the post-revolutionary period, at least; we have yet to truly see ourselves as a heterogeneous and pluralist nation. I was already very critical of this monolithic and, therefore, simplistic, view of Mexico but at the same time wanted to belong and be accepted. My options, therefore, seemed more black and white: fit in or move out. If I chose to be Mexican then it followed that I would write in Spanish. My aunt, born in Mexico City but educated in an American college and a U.S. resident for many years, was an important influence in this choice, for she commented, after reading my work, that the English was excellent but that the author did not seem an American writing on Spain or Mexico, but an educated Mexican writing in English on his own reality, which made the writing idiosyncratic. It was this that was making my work difficult for an American reader. (This was the early ’80s.) If I chose to continue writing in English, I would do well in changing my subject matter. The last turn of the screw was a girlfriend of mine —daughter of an American father and Mexican mother—with whom I was mostly in touch by correspondence. She told me she preferred when I wrote to her in Spanish. I happened to be in love with her.
I rewrote—not translated—my novel into Spanish. A year later, 1986, it won the honorary mention in a national contest sponsored by the National Institute of Fine Arts. That seemed a sure sign I’d made the right choice. The novel, En esa otra tierra, was not published until early 1991. A long wait, but the publishing house was a prestigious one, Alianza. So, a mixed sign. Now, I cannot say if I made the right choice, nor can I say which of the two paths would have been the wisest. As do most writers everywhere, I write whenever I can—during vacations or Saturday mornings, hours I rob in between teaching or being with my family, for stretches early in the morning or late at night, concentrated dives that last three weeks of twelve to fourteen writing hours a day—but I do dare say that had I chosen to continue writing in English, I think I’d be living from my writing by now. The difference in the U.S., up until recently at least, was the number of people who enjoyed reading and had the education and the privilege (the right) of doing so, therefore, the possibility of quality novels being backed by publishing houses and reaching sales of 100,000 copies, say, and not as something extraordinary. All the American and European writers I grew up reading were bestsellers in this sense. I have now been writing in Spanish twenty-five years and, mostly, for a Mexican readership, except for a few works of non fiction in English.
JP: Jorge Luis Borges famously criticized his early work as “forgettable and forgotten,” pointing to a significant dilemma for any established writer: one’s relationship to their early literary production. One of your earliest books, Historia de dos leones (A Tale of Two Lions), came out in 1994 in Spanish and then in an English translation by Jasper Reid in 2007. Can you talk about the process of writing this book and then working on the translation thirteen years later? What is your relationship now to the text?
RR: I don’t consider anything “forgettable and forgotten,” and yet I consider everything “forgettable and forgotten.” Of my favorite authors in many cases I would chose their early works. Art isn’t progressive in a linear way, but rather every new work is a new start. Besides, I would be the last person to grade my own work. Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, “Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?” “Yes, in fact, I do,” responds Bioy. “What I don’t remember,” continues Borges, “is if we did so or not.”
The process of writing Historia de dos leones was a lot of fun. I can’t say that of most of my work. It began with a newspaper clipping that had to do with a cat, and a short story based on the same. You know the manner in which when something catches your mind’s eye, then you begin to see that something frequently, if not everywhere? Well, for a time I kept a sketchbook of newspaper clippings regarding felines, mostly lions (of course, even in newspaper clippings, lions shove most every other living being out of the limelight). I received a creative writing grant, chose three of the newspaper clippings and put together a short novel. In the original version, the clippings remain and are the subtexts of the rest. In the published version, both in Spanish and then in English, they are the pre-texts that have been removed. I’m not sure I don’t prefer the former.
Historia de dos leones was more the result of the work of a community of people, rather than my work alone: besides the editor, Horacio Romero, two of my dearest friends, painters, Luis Fracchia and Rosanna Durán, contributed the ink drawings and the one-line drawings; one of my favorite living poets in Spanish and a dear friend, Antonio Deltoro, wrote the prologue; and my then four-year-old son, Roberto Elías, had a drawing we used for the cover. The presentation was in the Capilla Alfonsina in Mexico City, and another dear friend, Guillermo Samperio, presented the book. The book came out in a very attractive, elegant but rustic, understated, format, but with little distribution and not much attention paid to it by the critics, except for two reviews, one by Ignacio Padilla and the other by Federico Patán, who both praised it highly, and made up for any other lack of response. So when my agent, Tom Colchie, placed the book with Tom Mayer at W. W. Norton it gave the book a new life.
The translation was the work of four hands, Jasper Reid’s and my own, and required tons of energy. Jasper did an excellent job, and gave the text an elegance that I find quite British—sorry, Scots—which was later toned down a bit for an American audience. I felt like two pianists with the same score and playing on the same piano, but at a distance and in a call and response mode.
Sixteen years later, I’m glad both the English and Spanish versions exist. I would like for Historia de dos leones to be published again in Spanish, and I still hope there is a paperback version, which was once planned, in English.
JP: Your work spans a plethora of locations—from Chihuahua to Kenya to Rome to the Amazon to the United States—and a variety of nationalities—Germans, Mexicans, Americans, Italians, French. This panoply of settings and characters makes me think of something Jorge Volpi said in an interview: “I feel very Latin American, which made it absolutely natural for me to write a novel in which Latin America doesn’t appear at all…Literature has never recognized the restrictive borders of the actual world. We belong to multiple traditions, and that does not make us any less Latin American or Mexican.” Can you talk about your decision to set your work in such far-flung locales with such diverse characters?
RR: Volpi belongs to the Generación del Crack and, in fact, I was at the reading of the manifesto in the San Angel cultural center in 1996. They themselves are quick to note this doesn’t mean anything besides the fact they are friends. I not only do not belong to their generation, but I feel our writing projects are quite different, with all and the surface overlaps. I identify as a narrator, more with my strict contemporaries, like Ana García or Francisco Segovia, for example, but mostly with poets, my age or older: Tedi López Mills, Alicia García, Antonio del Toro, Fabio Morábito, Javier Sicilia….Although Volpi and I share that a good part of what we write takes part elsewhere and with foreigners (in that sense my novel En esa otra tierra is a precursor of what the ‘generación del crack’ proposed in its manifesto as a part of its poetics), I can’t talk about feeling “very Latin American.” I find it difficult feeling from the city I actually live in, Chihuahua. Mexico, in its tremendous complexity (which is being forced into a simplified form of itself very rapidly) is difficult enough to hold onto, without pretending to speak in broader terms. Furthermore, if one were to put social justice as a future scenario and a return to something akin to a caste system as a second scenario, Mexico is headed in the direction of the second. If we must generalize, I don’t think Latin American reality has changed greatly since the ‘seventies, with all and the postmodern, first-world, democratic posturing of its elites, and is best understood from a postcolonial perspective.
I agree with Volpi in that we belong to multiple traditions. I disagree in that, contrary to his view, I feel literature has always necessarily recognized the restrictive borders of the actual world. The contrary would be like saying we are not corporeal. In a sense, there is no returning from abroad, for one never truly goes abroad. If one does return, the appropriation—and transformation—has begun before leaving home. Volpi may think Latin America doesn’t appear at all in a good deal of his work, but it is there surely.
I have no precise answer for your question. I love painting, and the plastic arts in general, as well as music, although to a lesser degree, and I think a lot of my writing comes from these, as well as from the reading of literature and written texts in general. I enjoy reading history and I also enjoy reading texts on science for the common reader. Since late adolescence, I’m an enthusiastic reader of theology, which I recognize is a rather rare liking. When younger I read in an indiscriminate manner; now I read more selectively, which includes a lot of rereading. So the sources sort of give the place and/or characters, ¿no? But all this does tie back to life, my own, and that of those with whom I’m in contact, and, therefore, I never really leave where I am, or do so only to bring back things that respond to my/our needs, enthusiasms, sufferings….I do believe that albeit in a very indirect way, the writer is speaking more from the collective than from the individual.
JP: While you currently live in Chihuahua in northern Mexico, you are from Mexico City. How have the places you have lived (and especially these two places) influenced your writing over the years?
RR: I don’t belong to any literary group, but have dear friends in several. Which is both a plus and a minus, more the latter, in our medium. Mexico City is definitely the place and the community(ies) I most identify with and am fondest of.
There is a word here in Chihuahua that describes my situation: they either refer to me as from Chihuahua when presenting me or any of my works—and I have to remind them I’m very fond of Chihuahua but have never denied being from Mexico City—or they say I am an avecindado. This word translates roughly as “I have become a neighbor” but has stronger connotations, since Chihuahua during most of its history and, until very recently, was not only very isolated but also a frontier land, Mexico’s North. Another contributing factor is that Mexico’s largest state has a population of less than four million inhabitants, of which most live in the two major cities. I just recently came to terms with feeling a fondness for certain aspects of my present reality and feeling a stranger as well. I’m learning to see this as a liberating attribute that, paradoxically, enables stronger, more fruitful relations.
I once asked a musician friend of mine why he lived in El Paso. He responded that “it was a good place to come back to”, and that “you could see the end of the world from there.” When he told me that, many years ago, it seemed a good response, for Chihuahua City is even more insular than El Paso and, therefore, periodically, if only for short breaks, leaving it, to return to it, is a necessary ingredient of its attractiveness. This, however, requires the economic resources in order to be able to do so, and most people don’t have these. Besides my friends, and family, my closest tie to Chihuahua is my students, since I teach and have taught this entire time at the public university. My children have made very close friends, and this is also very meaningful. Things made sense for a long time. Now they don’t. And I speak for most of us. Bad government, violence (mostly related to the drug cartels), crime, and a drought that was the longest in the state’s recorded history, have taken away a lot of its nature of “being a good place to come back to.” In regards to seeing the end of the world, that has never interested me: topographically or apocalyptically.
Traveling and living in other places is something I enjoy, but have only done for brief periods of time. It permits a parenthesis, a rest from the place or places of origin, contact with other realities and therefore stimulation to the senses and the imagination. I love sceneries, landscapes, different creatures of all sorts, real or man-made, fantastic or not. When I’m in a new place, I walk enormous distances, and read the local newspaper daily (if I understand the language). I spend many hours at art museums. I enjoy visiting the markets and seeing what the local produce is. Road trips are great, as are trains. I love the outdoors, and I still hike, camp, fish, ski whenever I’m able to do so. The idea of getting to know a new city is very exciting, and we plan trips, the few we make, around cities or regions, not countries. Places have definitely marked me and my work. Space (or place) in and of itself, in relation to the narrative triad (characters/crisis or conflict/place) is very important to me as a writer. It is part of my formation in dramatic literature and theater or what led me to study this in the first place as an undergraduate.
My most recent book, a collection of long stories and one novella that is in my editor’s hands as we speak, Vidas colapsadas (Collapsed Lives), would probably have been unimaginable without this reality in Chihuahua—the open spaces and open sky, the extreme weather, the character of the people—but also by what I brought to this reality. However, I’m certain, and this statement is hardly original, that by a very young age we have the raw material we are to re-work over and over again for a lifetime.
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, and literary translator. His short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in journals and magazines in Mexico and the U.S.
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