Portrait by Lisbeth Salas
Guadalupe Nettel was named one of Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers in 2013. Since then, however, her story collection Natural Histories has appeared in English and The Body Where I was Born will appear in June. Tank spoke to Nettel over coffee, just after her latest novel, Después del invierno, had been awarded Spain’s prestigious Herralde Prize.
Lidija Haas You’ve written about feeling foreign, not only during the years you spent in France growing up, but even in Mexico City itself.
Guadalupe Nettel It was something that began when I was born. I had an issue with one eye, which was almost blind. For half the day I had to wear an eye patch, so I lived in a world that was foggy and not certain at all. And I had to go to school like that, so I was the strange one in my classroom. I didn’t have an easy relationship with other children, so I started reading: I totally submerged myself in stories. Then, when we moved to France, we lived in a very poor Arabic neighbourhood. They couldn’t place us – we weren’t French, but didn’t sound Spanish either. They used to call us “the English”! And when I was very little in my neighbourhood in Mexico City, we had other Latin American exiles: all these Argentinians, Brazilians, people from Uruguay and Chile. They were coming from dictatorships; the parents of these children had been tortured or murdered or disappeared. So that left a very strong mark on my childhood. It’s more or less because of that that I identify with the outsider.
LH And that feeling of difference shapes your writing?
GN It does. Being not only a geographical but also a physical and psychological outsider. The second book I published, Pétalos y otras historias incómodas, is about compulsions and tics and obsessions. My idea of beauty has to do with this, the kind of thing we usually want to hide from other people. When you see a plant, you don’t think it should be smaller or taller or thinner or whatever. You just appreciate it as it is, with all its strange leaves. And you can say: “It is a beautiful plant. It doesn’t look like any other plant.” It would be awful if every plant were the same. Yet we want people to be the same.
LH You quote Pliny: “All animals know what it is they need, except for man.”
GN It means that we are not in touch with our instincts or inner wisdom. In literature, what are the most important topics? Childhood, marriage, illness. For animals, it’s the same periods in their lives that are important. But they just know what to do. They have to reproduce, so they reproduce. They have to die, so they go to a place and they die. And we are totally lost in our thinking. I like the story about a spider who meets a centipede. The spider asks: “How do you do it? I only have eight legs and I’m totally lost!” And the centipede tries to figure out how he was managing to walk – and he can never walk again! The moment you start thinking how things should be, you lose. In Natural Histories all the stories are more or less about that. About how people relate to maternity, food, things that are very instinctive, and that all species have to deal with, and which we make more difficult. And it also comes from that moment I was telling you about, when I was too self-conscious.
LH But isn’t that the natural condition of a writer – thinking too much, slightly detached from everybody else?
GN Yes, because your life is your primary material. But you have to learn how to get rid of that. For writing or for any creative work, you need to take two steps. First, before you even think about how it’s going – what the critics will say about it, what your mother will say about it – you just do it. And it’s very useful to tell yourself that it’s secret. Then the second step: you call in the internal judge.
LH Do you feel part of a Mexican tradition?
GN In a way. But I identify with the outsiders, like Josefina Vicens, women writers who were not so much in the spotlight. I’m more and more under the lights now, and it’s not the way I’m used to relating to myself: I’m always hiding a little bit. So the big tradition of writers like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, I admire them in some ways, especially Paz, because he was open to other cultures and philosophies – reading about India from the point of view of a Mexican and comparing cultures is beautiful – but it’s not that I feel I have the obligation to continue it. With women writers, Vicens, Elena Garro, Rosario Castellanos, I understand the families they grew up in, because even though I had hippie parents, I also grew up with my grandmother, who was really traditional. I felt this oppression, this message that you are a woman, you have to serve a man, always be behind your brother. So I can see where these women came from and all the ways they had to find to unchain themselves from these beliefs.
LH What about contemporaries outside Mexico – do you feel your work is connected to theirs?
GN Totally. A lot of Latin American writers my age, we read each other, we comment. And there is a connection between our books. Some books came out at the same time as my memoir – like Alejandro Zambra’s Formas de volver a casa or Patricio Pron’s El Espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia – and we didn’t know that we were writing more or less on the same topic: the 1970s.
LH You write about living in the Olympic village in Mexico City, about a very particular moment.
GN In Latin America we were marked by the dictatorship and exile, the fact that you had to leave your country and meet another culture. My parents were not political refugees but we had to leave our country for a different reason. On the other hand, we were the children of this generation that wanted to change the world, have different bonds with their children, invent new families. They experimented a lot with us, like: “Let’s do this, let’s live in a triangle.” We were like guinea pigs. My father was into psychoanalysis; he used to work as an analyst. And he wanted me to do therapy from when I was six. I didn’t have a lot to explain – just six years to analyse! But I’m not the only one: my generation was like that. My memoir was like the Woody Allen line: comedy is tragedy plus time. I laugh about a lot of things that used to make me suffer. It was hilarious to write about it. The commune experience with my mother, it lasted a couple of weeks, but we didn’t know how long we were going to stay there, we were trying something new…
LH What was all of that like for you?
GN In a way it was fun. But it gave you a lot of uncertainty, because one day your parents were together, the next they were apart, they were with someone else. The structures weren’t clear. And I think we are much more conservative than they were, because of that. We are cynical, a little bit disappointed. We don’t believe in: “Yeah, let’s change the world!” Going into the streets and demonstrating – we think it’s hopeless.
LH In terms of the past few years, what is the effect of the political context on your generation of writers?
GN There are a lot of people writing about violence. Especially the ones who live outside Mexico City, because they face it every day. But there is a kind of fashion as well – all films are about that. And I think a writer needs to write about what he needs to write about. Some of them are honest; some are taking advantage of the subject because it’s interesting and sensational. I feel I write about violence, but not drug trafficking. I write about violence in families, in couples. Because I know I would feel fake or dishonest if I wrote about what’s going on in the north of Mexico, Oaxaca or Michoacán.
LH How do you react to becoming more part of the literary establishment, winning the Herralde Prize and so on?
GN It is a little bit strange and surprising. The only way I can react is to laugh a little bit about myself. Fortunately, I never said, “I’m an anarchist and I will never go with the mainstream” – but I’ve seen a lot of people do that and in the end, they are really happy in the mainstream!
LH Mexico has sometimes seemed to ask a lot of its writers, wanting them to take part in public life in a certain way…
GN It used to be like that, more in the time of Paz. Now, Elena Poniatowska, for instance, is someone who doesn’t agree with the government. She’s always been a little bit in opposition, and nobody says, “You can’t be this big figure.” Also Juan Villoro, he’s on the left and has been there every time it’s been needed. Then there are others who don’t want to get involved.
LH You don’t feel you have to proclaim your politics?
GN I do it in a certain way: I have a weekly column were I write about the city and sometimes about politics too. I also go to demonstrations but I like to preserve my literature from it. For the moment it is still safe to say what you think. It would be horrible if there began to be a witch hunt. And it could happen, because this government is very much into that.