Border Characters

Border Characters

The Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera talks about the first English translation of one of his novels, the Mexica afterlife, and Dante.


Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (And Other Stories; Paper $13.95) is a deceptively small book—barely a hundred pages, with generous margins—and its prose is baked dry and hard, picked clean like a body left out in the desert. But just as, on the first page, the ground opens up beneath its protagonist—an interpreter, a hard-boiled go-between, and a pilgrim named Makina—Herrera’s novel contains uncharted depths beneath. On the surface, it’s a novel about the US/Mexico border, today, and Makina is a border resident as Dashiell Hammett might have written her, or Raymond Chandler, or Walter Mosley. But as she sets off into the northern underworld to find her lost brother, she is revealed as a Mexican Orpheus, traveling deeper and deeper through the nine layers of the Mexica afterlife, Mictlan the kingdom of the dead, ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl.

This interview was conducted in September 2015 over Skype, and has been edited and condensed—in collaboration with the author—for clarity and space.

Aaron Bady: Signs Preceding the End of the World is your first novel to be translated into English, but it’s not the first novel you’ve written.

Yuri Herrera: Yes, Signs is the second novel that I published. The first one is called Trabajos del reino; the third one is called La transmigración de los cuerpos. Before, I wrote another novel that will never be published, because it’s…bad.

My publisher in English decided that they wanted to start with this one, rather than publish them in the order they were originally published in Spanish. I’m not sure why… I think maybe they were thinking of the migration issue, of the importance of that, and one of the ways you can read this book is a book about migration. In any case, the second book they are going to publish will be my third novel, La transmigración de los cuerpos, which will be called The Transmigration of Bodies. And in 2017, if everything goes well, they’re going to finally publish Trabajos del reino, which the provisional title is Kingdom Cons.

AB: Are these novels a trilogy, in any sense?

YH: They ended up being a trilogy, though that wasn’t planned. When I wrote the first novel, I had a lot of ideas I wanted to write, but I didn’t know when, or if they were going to have connections with the first book. When I was writing the second novel, though, I was thinking of the third novel. You know that cliché that writers have a fear of the white page? What happens to me is that I have too many projects, and I don’t have the time to do them, and I write a lot more than I publish. So these books can be considered a trilogy, but only in terms of the presence of certain topics, certain ways of using of the language.

AB: How would you describe the connections between this novel and the other ones?

YH: Well, you can only see these connections in retrospect. There should be an asterisk, saying it was a trilogy that was created afterwards. They are independent books, with no strict organic connections, in other words; there are different characters in each.

But, that said, the protagonists in all three novels are what I would call “border characters,” though not only in the sense that they live on the actual physical border between two countries; they share the border condition, which is any situation where you have different individuals and different communities exchanging values, exchanging goods, always in conflict but also in different levels of dialogue.

In different fashions, in different contexts, these three characters try to put things in contact. They try to put different people in contact—enemies, or people that seem to be enemies, or people that are far away from each other. They try to understand and shape the different roles that they are in the middle of, between.

AB: That’s interesting, because as a translator, interpreter, and go-between, Makina’s “border condition” is not just that she lives on the US/Mexico border, or not only that. I mean, the novel is obviously set there, but there’s also a lack of specificity to the setting, a kind of mythic quality. It reminded me of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, actually, in that way.

YH: I get that a lot.

AB: Was Rulfo a particular influence?

YH: It’s not something that I was conscious of when I was writing it. I mean, I love Juan Rulfo, I have read each of his books several times. But he’s not one of my intimate, personal authors. I don’t mind being compared to Rulfo, because he is probably the best novelist we have ever had—but it’s not something I set out to do.

Rulfo is, in Mexican culture, a monument. And monuments are in the middle of the square. Whether you know who he is or not, whether you stand in front of the monument and reflect on it, you organize your life around this monument. You have dates by the monument, you smoke a cigarette by the monument. You take a leak behind the monument. It determines a lot of things. And so, Rulfo, yes, of course! He’s not someone that I have as a personal teacher. But as someone who has read a lot of Mexican literature, Rulfo is important to me. He’s someone that I would like to learn from. There is this sort of dryness in his literature that is really difficult to achieve, and that I have tried to achieve.

Of course, it’s not only him. There are other Mexican writers that have tried to do this; I would mention Jesús Gardea, who is an obscure, difficult author from the north of Mexico, who is not very widely read. And there is Ricardo Garibay, a writer from my state who wrote a lot of very different books. One of them—well, he wrote several that deal with the north of Mexico, but one of them, specifically—was called La casa que arde de noche, which is about a whorehouse of the border. It was only in retrospect, but I realized that I also have tried to learn something from that book. I have tried to learn from Rulfo, the same way I have tried to learn from Gardea or Garibay. But again, that’s something I’m not very conscious of doing it while I’m doing it. It’s something you realize later.

AB: I love that way of describing the novel’s dryness. It’s such a small book, and yet Signs is also a big book, even epic. There’s something to the sparseness and blank spaces that makes a tiny novel into something vast.

YH: Some of my first stories were written when I was living in the state of Hidalgo. Hidalgo is a weird state, because it was created in the second half of the 19th century, when the French invaded Mexico and the then-president, Benito Juarez, created a military zone out of parts of different states in the center of Mexico. When the French finally abandoned Mexico, this military area would become a new state, so it has a mix of very different ecosystems and very different landscapes. One of these landscapes is called Valle del Mezquital, which is a sort of desertic area. Some of the first stories I wrote, when I was a teenager, were based on this area. And so, one of my first tasks, when I started writing seriously, was to find a beauty in dry, hot, deserted areas, in this absence of exuberance.

When I moved to Texas, I had already lived in Hidalgo, then in Mexico City, and then I lived for one year in France. But I wrote my first novel when I moved to Texas, and I took as a model that area of the border around El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. It’s one of the challenges in writing, to discover things under the surface of spaces, of people, of situations, of objects. That are apparently dry, or even, or empty, or without a lot of…

AB: Layers?

YH: Layers. Part of the interest and pleasure of writing, and the difficulty of writing, is discovering and recreating all those layers.

AB: Those layers make me think of Dante’s Inferno. Is that kind of mythological structure—of the pilgrim that goes deeper and deeper—is that a part of this novel? Or should we use that asterisk you mentioned, that when you’re writing, you try not to think about those other books that might have influenced you?

YH: I do make a deliberate effort not to. If you’re too worried about what category people will put you in, it will stop you from doing anything. And my list of favorite writers is always changing. For a long time, Boris Vian was very important to me, the French writer. Also, the American hard-boiled novel or what we call novela negra, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosley. And at some point, I discovered medieval literature; I don’t understand why many more people don’t read medieval literature, because it’s a time when writers are openly inventing categories; it doesn’t matter if they have visited a place or not, they are just creating an image of the world. There’s a border book, somewhere between a play and a novel, called La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, that I have been obsessed with. Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, in some other moments. But this is a list that keeps changing constantly. Kundera, Italo Calvino.

AB: And Dante?

YH: About Dante, in my next novel, there is a very specific thing that I have… well, pretty much stolen from the Inferno, in the last page of that novel. In this one, when I was thinking about the whole novel, this was one of the structures I had in mind. But it’s not the main structure I was thinking about. There is a myth present, there, but it’s not Dante.

It’s something that we can spend a lot of time talking about it, actually, this is the only novel where I actually did very specific research for the purpose of giving me a structure, and giving me particular symbols to use, and giving me certain features of several characters. But before telling you about this, I have to say that my purpose was to write a novel in which it was not necessary for the reader to know all these other things. All of these things that I am going to tell you, they were important to me, in terms of telling me an organic narrative, and helped me to establish certain connections between the characters, and certain symbols. But what I wanted to do was to write a story in which the reader could feel the density of that, but that they didn’t feel they needed footnotes, or wouldn’t need to go and look up these things. It’s not a re-creation of the myth; I’m using that myth as a found object. I take it, and I put it in this other context, in this other time, in this other situation, and let it do its thing. But I’m not trying to revive it.

Anyway, the thing is this: Among the Mexicas, what are commonly known as the Aztecs (actually, their name is Mexicas, that’s where the name “Mexico” comes from), there were different places where you go when you die. One of them is the place where the warriors go after they died, both the warriors and the women who died in labor (because that was considered as dying in the middle of a battle). Another one was a place for people that died by water, like drowning. But another place, the place where most people went after they died, was called “Mictlan.” There were two rulers, though that was really one ruler, because—with this people—all the gods were at the same time two gods, feminine and masculine. There would be a feminine and masculine part of the same god, for example, the two rulers as the two versions of the one god of the dead. In order to get there, you would have to go through nine underworlds. In each one of these underworlds, you would have to face a challenge. Nobody knows the exact meanings of these challenges, because this is a world that disappeared, that was destroyed by the Spaniards. We only have a general understanding, not very precise. But we do understand that with each underworld that you cross, you are getting rid of some part of you, some part that makes you a living human being. And when you get to the last underworld, there is only silence; no others and no sounds and no life. The first Spanish priests identified that point as hell, even though there was no such thing as “hell” among the Mexicas. That place is the place of re-creation. In this world, you didn’t die and disappear, and you weren’t reincarnated: You came to this place of silence to somehow be part of a re-creation.

I had known about this for a lot of years, and I had thought about it for a lot of years, and I had thought it could be the structure of a novel. When I was at Berkeley, I researched the sources that exist about this. There were not a lot. But I took certain symbols of the Mexica cultures, I took certain gods of the Mexica culture; in a very loose way, these correspond to the first guys that Makina visits at the beginning of the novel, who help her. And I took the names of these underworld as the titles of the chapters. But it was just something that I used; I wasn’t trying to tell you about the Mexica culture. I just used it, I took it, and then I did whatever I wanted with it.

AB: Maybe not knowing all that it makes it feel more deep and vivid than if I did know. If there were footnotes, maybe I would feel like I had to look them up first, before reading.

YH: There’s a way in which objects contain history: You can feel the presence of other times in stories, and objects. This narrative, this mythology, is an object for me. And the presence is felt, not as a paying passenger, but a stowaway. This is the thing with this mythology: Its meaning and its depth and its force is like a stowaway. It’s not supposed to be the main thing in the story.

AB: What about the neologism jarchar, which Lisa Dillman translated as “to verse”? Is that a similar kind of stowaway?

YH: The first thing I have to say is that I’m really happy with the translation that Lisa Dillman has done. This book has been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, and now English, and I always try not to put pressure on the translators, not to micro-manage. Translators know their literary field; they know their readers. But I’m always available and I’m willing to work as close as they want. Lisa decided to work really close to me, so, for months, we exchanged daily emails.

Jarchar is a word that defines a part of a poem in the middle ages, in what is now is Spain, in poems that were written in Arabic characters, but when they sounded like what would later be called the Spanish language. In a way, this word defined a lot of things that I had in my novel. For me, this novel is about a character, Makina, who is in transition, who is moving in between countries, who is moving between languages, who is moving between identities. Jarchar defines a part of a poem, that is not strictly Spanish, not strictly Arabic; a part that used to be the last part of the poem, and very frequently it would be a feminine voice, saying good-bye.

It was really just an intuition. I decided that I wanted to use it, without any explanation, and that I would use it very loosely, as a synonym for going out, going between one place and another.

I know that this poses a difficulty for a translator, and this is one of the things that I discussed with Lisa. She decided on “to verse,” and I really like that solution. Because you have in English several words that describe movement like include the word “verse”: traverse, converse, reverse. And also verse as poetry. But there’s not a straightforward clear-cut translation; it has more to do with what the reader is going to do with the word.

AB: How do Spanish-speakers read it?

YH: It’s interesting, because in Spain people sometimes ask me if it’s a word that comes from some language in Mexico. In Mexico, they ask if I got the word from a Spanish text. This is part of what I wanted: to create some strangeness, to open some space for the reader to resignify the text in his or her own terms. Even if people don’t know where the word comes from, they will understand the function of the word—in terms of what it does as a verb—but also they will understand that it has something else to it. The fact that I didn’t use the word “exit” or “going out” will give the reader a hint that there’s something important that has to be named with a different word. It is not simply going through a door or exiting; it’s what this process is doing to you.

AB: Like when a camera in a movie lingers on some object, and you don’t know why, but the director is telling you what to look at?

YH: And you would ruin it if you explained it!

AB: What is your opinion about the translator’s note at the end that explains all of this?

YH: Well, the publisher wanted a prologue or an introduction. Introductions are fine with books that already have a life of their own, that have already been published. But with the first edition, it seemed to me that a prologue or an introduction can sometimes feel like a lightning rod.

I told the publisher that if it is needed for the English-speaking world, fine, it’s ok. But it feels more like an apology than something that really helps the reader. So let’s instead include a note from the translator. And I’m happy with that because it reflects the very rich and creative relationship that we established. I think that was important, especially in this book. But in general, translators deserve a lot more recognition than they get. Translating is not just transposing a story; it’s recreating, it’s reimagining, it’s doing a lot of stuff. So I feel good about it because even though it explains a lot of thing, it leaves all the spaces open.

AB: Do you know how the other translators worked with the word jarchar in those other languages?

YH: I learned afterwards that the French translator decided just to translate in a very straightforward way, just “goes out.” I think it’s a very good translation, but this is a detail that I hope will be changed in the future, because it’s an important part of it.

AB: Even “to verse” is not really a perfect solution.

Well, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. It’s impossible; every translation loses something from the original, and adds something else. That’s why I can’t try to micro-manage every single part of it; if a translator asks me for my cooperation, I always do it. Otherwise, you have to assume, and just walk into the abyss.

AB: Is it hard to let go of the text?

YH: [long pause] Well, yeah but… I don’t show it [laughs]. You always hope the text, in other languages, is going to do the same things that it does in your language. But you can’t be absolutely certain. So you just have to let go.

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