From the Other Side
Hablemos del norte… / Let’s talk about the North…
A conversation between Valeria Luiselli and María Inés Rodríguez
The Mexican writer and the Columbian curator talk North and South
María Inés Rodríguez: Hablemos del norte… / Let’s talk about the North…
Valeria Luiselli: One of the first instances of discrimination I encountered in the United States was about my racial background. The first weeks I was in New York I got a call from a newspaper editor who proposed to give me a regular column. Specifically, I was asked to write from the viewpoint of a coloured woman. I decided not to accept it. I wouldn’t have minded speaking as a foreigner, but it seemed ridiculous to speak from a racist, stereotypical stance as if this classification determined, in whole or in part, my views on anything. I suppose that “woman of colour” is another way of saying “woman from the South”.
MIR: The various economic or political crises have spawned movements within a country or internationally, in all directions, which lead to major social change. There are northerners and southerners in all places, irrespective of geography. What is the North to you?
VL: In Mexico, “north” means the northern part of the country. The notion of north/northerner is very common in the everyday life and language of Mexico: we talk about northern literature, northern music, the prosperous norteños versus the poor southerners. Now, alas, the South is also associated with the violence of drug trafficking. What I mean to stress is the curious fact that when we talk about the North we mean the north of the country, not the United States. In Tijuana, for instance, we don’t say “let’s go north” when we mean to cross the border: we say “let’s go on the other side”—an expression I like a lot.
From a broader Latin-American perspective, of course, “north” certainly refers to the US—although I must confess I don’t usually think in Latin-American terms. This may be a case of sound urban arrogance … but we have cities like Mexico City, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and it would cost me to think of them prosaically as “the South”.
On the other hand, having lived in the US for several years I came across descriptions I used to ignore. I am a “woman of colour”, “Hispanic” or even a “non-resident alien”. Such divisions are even more brutal than a simple north/south dichotomy.
Have you lived in the United States? Have you ever had to fill out
questionnaires which ask you to specify your ethnic origin—where you have to write Hispanic, Caucasian, etc.?
MIR: Yes, I am Hispanic … and in this there is a strong relation between nationality and language. In Europe, the economic crisis has rekindled the North/South debate. The French artistic duo of Claire Fontaine created a work called P.I.G.S, referencing the acronym coined by a British financial medium in the nineties to describe the fragile European economies. Their piece represents these countries on fluorescent maps on the wall, which are set on fire during a performance; at the end, all that is left is like a large stain of ashes. All this demonstrates that the concept of ‘South’ depends on one’s point of view. Greece, Spain and Portugal mirror many things that have occurred in Latin America or in Africa: corruption, mismanagement, etc.
VL: For some years now there has been a clear feeling that the relationship between Latin America and Spain is changing. The hub of publishing, for instance, was traditionally in Madrid and Barcelona, yet the recent rise of independent Latin American publishing houses is set to challenge all this: you no longer have to be published in Spain to gain broad readership and distribution.
It’s a similar thing with language. Many writers of the previous generations employed words and formats acceptable to the Spanish market, but now the feeling is that you can write the language you speak in your city, your neighbourhood. There are Spanish writers from many different places, and using and understanding them all demonstrates the wealth of our language.
MIR: Along this line of thought, and in relation to the North as a concept in literature… There was a necessity for stories with a specific idea about Latin America or on Latin American themes, and this was also true in visual art.
It seems to me that a radical change took place in the nineties, when writers started to talk from another starting point.
VL: The course was very clear for writers at the time. Cosmopolitanism was almost an ideological banner for those who no longer wished to talk about Macondo. I believe it was an important movement which, luckily, also ran its course. I don’t stop to think whether my text should be cosmopolitan or reflect “Latin-Americanism”. I think my generation liberated itself from this debate.
What is the case with art?
MIR: It’s the same every time. It is important that working networks have been created which go beyond geographical proximity to demonstrate affinities and correspondences among people from all parts of the world.
VL: A visual artist certainly enjoys more freedom than a writer. We writers have a critical problem in that our work needs to be translated to cross the borders, which is not the case with visual art; not in the same way.
MIR: To this we must add the crisis in publishing all over the world. The new technologies are challenging the old monopoly of printing and causing upheaval in the market, including that of the local bookshop.
VL: There is clearly a problem, and those of us involved in pub lishing were caught sleeping when the crisis broke out in November 2008, but I don’t think that e-books will replace traditional printing. The e-book enjoyed a boom in English, but was not as successful in other languages. I don’t have the global figures, but I know from my German publishers that just 2% of their output goes into e-books, simply because the demand is not there. My books in Spanish are not available as e-books, and the same is true of their Portuguese and Italian translations. I believe that the e-book will be entrenched—it is already, in certain places—but I definitely don’t think it will replace traditional books.
MIR: To go back to the subject of the North, do you see yourself as a southerner?
VL: Well, I don’t think of my identity in such terms, but since you put it like that, yes! And I believe there are some interesting things taking place in the great cities south of the Rio Bravo border. Mexico City, aside from the violence of drugs, is going through a phase of great vitality. The same is true of Buenos Aires, especially in publishing: despite the crisis, it is a radiant, lively city. At the end of the day, I may feel like a southerner but not as if I represent something. Sometimes I satirise the Anglo-Saxon publishing market’s conception of Latin-American writers, but I don’t feel like a southern ambassador. How about you?
MIR: I am definitely from the South, but I have lived over half of my years in the North, if that is what France is. Of course, it was
always important for me to be aware of my background so as to have a position even in contexts which did not include me. Some time ago I was talking with film director Andrés di Tella about his documentary on his Indian mother. He was saying how he had been born and raised in Buenos Aires, and always felt to come from those parts. It was only when he went to London, in his teens, that he realised his true origin, which was not well-received in that context. It was a shock that changed his perception of his own identity.
VL: In our line of work we try not to give in to publishers’ pressures to adopt a fixed classification. It is all about the attitude one assumes to resist such expectations. I believe this comes from the knowledge of coming from a South which is much more rich and flexible than it is commonly believed in the North. While you were saying how you have lived in France and Geneva, I was trying to think of the places I have lived in terms of North/South; except for now that I live in New York, I have always lived below the imaginary dividing line that distinguishes the South—politically rather than geographically. I think I have adopted various kinds of “South”.
MIR: We have often referred to language as something which determines various things. When you are able to use another language, it becomes a valuable tool which allows you to conquer other areas and get to know the other better than he knows you if he does not speak your language. I think that this is particularly important in literature; being able to write—and be read—in another language is like a huge treasure, for all the difficulties it entails.
VL: Yes, and the spectrum of English includes many distinguished English as well as Spanish people. I grew up in South Africa, for example, and the book I am writing is about that time in my life. I am writing in English but in the southern idiom, “contaminated” by other languages: it is South African English. I am bound to have enormous problems when I send it off to my editors: a Mexican woman writing in English, but a “colonial”, southern variety of English. How do you classify this in a world when the only identities you have are “Hispanic”, “non-resident alien” and “woman of colour”?
Fosdinovo, Italy, June 2013
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983, and since then she has lived in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa, India, Spain and the United States. She is the author of the book of essays Sidewalks (Granta 2013) and the widely acclaimed novel Faces in the Crowd (Granta 2012), translated to multiple languages. Luiselli has collaborated on numerous multidisciplinary projects; among them, a ballet libretto for choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and the NYC Ballet, and a novella for the Jumex Collection, writtenin installments for workers in a factory. Luiselli’s short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times, Granta, Brick, McSweeneys and Dazed and Confused. She lives in New York City.