Francisco Goldman has called Yuri Herrera “Mexico’s greatest novelist”, and with a slew of his works coming out in English, Tank got in touch with the Mexican wunderkind to discuss his work, his influences and the borders between fantasy and reality. Herrera has also contributed a series of short fictions to the issue.
Interview: Thomas Roueché/Portrait: Tori Bush
Thomas Roueché Can you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be a writer?
Yuri Herrera I am from Actopan, Hidalgo. Lived in Pachuca, the capital of the state of Hidalgo, until I was 18, when I moved to Mexico City to study political science. Even then I knew that what I wanted to do was to write fiction, which I did daily, but I didn’t want to study literature. Afterwards I did a creative writing MFA in El Paso and a PhD in Hispanic Language and Literature at Berkeley, but I have been writing since I was a kid.
TR We recently did an issue on Mexico City. I’m interested in how you relate to the city.
YH I am from Pachuca, which is an old mining city close to Mexico City. I lived for 12 years in Mexico City, in a period in which it was the most dangerous city of the country, and still loved it. It is a very conflictive, complex, seemingly never-ending city.
TR And how is the region reflected in your writing?
YH Pachuca, Mexico City and the north all are present in my novels, not in a “realistic” way, but as models for the places in which my stories take place, and in the language I use to tell them.
TR Do you see yourself as part of a community of writers?
YH I don’t see myself as part of a group, but I am in touch with various communities of writers – the Spanish-speaking writers of Mexico and other countries, and with English-speaking writers in New Orleans.
TR Our issue is concerned with ideas around the real. To what extent does your work grapple with ideas of the fault lines between reality and fiction?
YH It’s not one of my leitmotifs, but it is there: the tension between the way we create a fantasy of what life looks like and how we experience it at every moment.
TR Are you committed to realism?
YH I don’t see myself like that. Writing about reality is a given for everyone, whether they accept it or not, because it is our lived experience that allows us to depict tragedies, pleasure, emotions. But it is a different thing to be “committed to realism”. That implies that there is an accurate way to speak about the world, and an incorrect one, whereas I think fiction is precisely about finding new ways of talking about reality, of not being hostage to what a “realist” style indicates.
TR How does this affect the way you write about borders?
YH Magical is a word I would never use to depict the border, but the places in which there is a “border condition” – which are not only places on geopolitical borders, but where you have different communities exchanging goods and symbolic capital – are laboratories for the creation of new identities, languages or political practices.
TR Much of your new novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World, seems to be contrasting the tangible and the intangible – in a way the border, hyper-visible from Mexico and almost invisible from the U.S., seems to be the prime example of this. Is that fair?
YH It’s fair as part of the ideas of the novel, albeit maybe not the central one, which for me is the way in which the main character is changing, and how she is becoming aware of the instability of the world around her.
TR Likewise there is something intriguing in your portrayal of cities – they almost feel organic. Again it feels like they take on another level of symbolic potency and power.
YH Yes, cities are large forms that apparently shape people in a certain way no matter what you do, but this is precisely one of the ideas in the novel: that you can resist that shaping because even the forms of cities are not rigid; they are changing with you, with the words you bring from afar to define them.
TR Mexico seems to have an amazing power to flip our understanding of the binaries and polarities that people in the U.S. take for granted. Do you agree?
YH If I understand you correctly, yes – once people take the time to try to understand Mexico’s virtues and problems in relation with our neighbours, simplistic binaries cease to make sense.
TR What are the dangers or risks of writing from the perspective of a migrant at a time, in the U.S. at least, of a highly politicised national debate around migration?
YH Being misunderstood, I guess, but that happens constantly with literature, whose influence cannot be measured in the short term.
TR How do you relate to the current political situation for writers at the moment in Mexico?
YH Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and even in the face of the indolence of the government, a lot of people are doing high-quality journalism. That is the first thing that should be said about this, the bravery of journalists. Also, fiction writers are producing an important amount of works that, from different approaches, are trying to grasp the national zeitgeist.
TR Some people talk of a “Mexico moment”. Do you see scope for optimism in Mexico?
YH Not right now. The politicians seem too busy saving face while making deals with the big businessmen, who have one and only one formula for “bettering things”: taking away more and more rights from workers to “attract investment”, and not assuming their responsibility as part of the disaster. Billions of dollars have been laundered for organised crime, and this has not happened in a clandestine way, but with the consent of the oligarchs.
TR What are your current and future projects?
YH I am writing short stories and publishing them in magazines; maybe eventually they will become a book. Also, I am finally working on a book based on the research I did for my PhD dissertation, about a fire in a mine in my hometown, Pachuca, in which almost 100 miners died because the administrator of the mine decided to close off the mine to cut the oxygen and stop the fire. It will not be a novel, but a historical narrative following the few sources I found. §
Signs Preceding the End of the World, published by And Other Stories, is out now.