The Need of the Forgotten

The Need of the Forgotten

The novelist and poet Carmen Boullosa talks about her obsession with lost stories and found textual objects, and how rereading gives books new faces.


Carmen Boullosa’s novels are bitter, brave, and hilarious, and they cannot be read lightly. For all her humor and wicked strangeness, Boullosa is drawn to violence and writes her novels in blood (which they feature in great abundance). But when I spoke to Boullosa, over the buzz of a Skype connection, I found her vulnerability and sensitivity almost overwhelming. She answered my questions so honestly, so completely, that it felt as if my words were changing as she spoke, or as if she were answering questions I hadn’t realized I’d been asking.

Boullosa was a poet first, and still is. But over the past few decades, she has established herself as one of the great novelists of our generation, even if we in the Anglophone world are only now slowly coming to realize it. She has written about pirates, children, Cleopatra, Montezuma, romantic poets in the age of Cervantes, and the Mexican-American frontier. She has one novel dictated by a historian from the future, living in the clouds in a world made of solid air, and another framed as the lost novel written by Anna Karenina. She has an obsession with lost stories and found textual objects, and her books almost invariably begin with a scene of reading, a discovery of some lost voice. In that commitment to lost worlds and languages, too, we find a feminism so deep and fundamental that the word itself seems almost superfluous.

This interview was conducted in English and has been lightly edited and condensed.

How long have you lived in the United States?

I never thought I was going to live here; it was not in my imagination. It’s so strange! Life is so strange. In 2001, I came as a fellow of the New York Public Library. We arrived in August, me and my two children—and then 9/11. It was a very disruptive year, pretty terrible in many ways. But it was also like a wound that ties me to the city. Then I met Mike, who is now my husband and my wonderful partner in life. He was going through a divorce (and I had recently split from the father of my children), so it was a strange moment of healing and pain and wanting to be alive again. And then, when NYU invited me to be with them for a year, and then Columbia invited me, I was tied. The tie of the wound was sealed. Suddenly, I was a New Yorker.

But I never really left Mexico, and I go there very frequently. We stay there for five months each year, and it’s exciting: Every time I arrive in Mexico City, I have that feeling that people don’t normally have when they live in a place. I have a romance with Mexico City—and I also have a romance with New York City! Romance and hatred—something very alive, non-routine. It’s not normality. But it’s love.

Do you feel torn between the two places? Or is it easy to be in both at once?

It’s very problematic to claim a nationality, because one is always an outsider. I grew up in Mexico, and I matured there as a writer, so my whole taste and formation is from those years. But Mexico City has changed so much, and maybe my anchor is to a time that is gone. I was born in a city of 3 million inhabitants, and now Mexico City has 22 million. The roads are no longer there, the fountains are no longer there, the houses are no longer there, and the people are no longer there—my people, the people I grew up with.

Nevertheless, I have this umbilical cord that never breaks. It’s not precisely beautiful, nor comfortable, nor a sense of future. But it is a sense of belonging. It’s always pain, a strange sense of belonging. I have an attachment to the things I read when I was a kid—I was a kid reading [Marguerite Yourcenar’s] Fuegos; I was a kid reading Saki; I was a kid reading Victor Hugo; I was a kid reading Borges. But though they are always there, they always change, too. You read them again and you feel like they have new faces.

Who have you been reading lately?

Every time I finish a book, it’s like a ritual: I always go back to Emily Dickinson. I go back to her, and I do little translations in Spanish of her poetry. I get a little bit obsessed, a little bit crazy. And then I go to the next thing, whatever it is. It’s like a ritual, a phase.

But I live in poetry. Again and again, there is Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor Juana, the poet, the Mexican nun. She is so much fun! I haven’t gone to Lope de Vega like I usually do. But this kind of returning after finishing a book is like a returning to my former self. Then, when I am back in my own shoes, I can begin writing again.

I love your description of your reading, because so many of your novels have so much about rereading archives, or bringing new life out of something by reading it slant.

Maybe it is because I have very bad memory. A volatile memory is like a bottle of alcohol: You leave it open, and it vanishes. But it leaves a smell, an imprint that is strange and inundates the surroundings. Then you have to fill it again. It’s a passion to reread, but also it’s a passion to discover a new book. I would love to be reading The Manuscript Found in Saragossa for the first time again, the Jan Potocki novel. Oh, I would be so happy to be reading it for the first time.

Some people read with their heads; but in my case, reading is like the tail of a dog, or a cat. It doesn’t guide me like the brains guide you; it gives me a sense of space and makes me able to walk. It gives me an orientation. And it’s also another face, a way of expressing; I read with something that is like my tail.

Do you read a lot of contemporary writing?

I used to. If Yuri Herrera publishes a new book, I read him. I try to catch up with César Aira, which isn’t easy, because he always has something new. I do have my things—but fewer in foreign languages. I have a desire for literature in Spanish, I think because of my gringo husband.

How so?

Well, every day I speak English with him, but I need Spanish every day, too. Mike doesn’t speak Spanish.

My Spanish is so atrocious, I’m afraid to subject you to it.

It’s an American problem!

How does it feel to be coming back into English? A few of your novels were translated and published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but there hadn’t been a new translation until 2015, with Texas: The Great Theft.

Maybe it was time to go back to Mexico. It’s strange. Maybe my gods are all Aztec and got mad at me. They didn’t want me at a distance; they wanted to pull me back. But I’m a terrible follower, because I speak no Nahuatl—I only speak Spanish.

But now, Deep Vellum is going to publish quite a few of your novels over the next few years.

I love being in the hands of such a young and full-of-life publisher. It feels like I am young again, because when I was young, my editors and publishers were not doing business but books. They were really reading the texts. I feel like that with Deep Vellum—a totally literary adventure. It is fantastic!

Publisher Will Evans is so excited about bringing you into English…

And Piglia! He’s bringing Ricardo Piglia!

And Sergio Pitol, too.

Yes, Pitol! Yes, yes, yes!

For gringos like me, it’s a wonderful time to be reading Latin American writers; there are so many young writers emerging, and also so many established writers like yourself suddenly being published again in English.

It’s a new wave—from Argentina, from Chile, from Peru, from all over. I don’t know why. Mexico has returned to the front covers, but not for literary reasons. It is for very painful reasons that have to do with death and violence and not with literature. It is not a project. It’s not like during “the Boom,” when there were dreams in Latin America. This is not a moment of dreams. It’s a difficult moment.

I think it is totally due to the new publishers, the independent publishers that are paying attention to this. And I think it’s good.

In an interview you did with Roberto Bolaño, you asked him, “What do you call the tradition you belong to? Where are the roots of your genealogical tree, and where do its branches grow?” How would you answer that question? What’s your tradition?

I belong to a Latin American tradition, the 1970s in Mexico; that is my tree. But so many of the authors that I admired then and admire now, from Juan Rulfo to Tomás Segovia, Juan García Ponce, Salvador Elizondo, Rosario Castellanos, Inés Arredondo, and, of course, Octavio Paz—all of these authors were so cosmopolitan, so aware of what was being published abroad. If I was reading Juan García Ponce, I had to read Robert Musil, because it was his obsession. If I was reading Arredondo, I had to read Marcel Proust, because she brought him along. If I was reading Elizondo, I had to read James Joyce, because he was so into Joyce—he had a literary radio show where he was always talking about Joyce. And Thomas Mann came with Segovia. They brought the world with them. It was pretty wonderful, that intellectual surrounding. That was my tree. None of them thought about fame, or contracts, or dollars.

Do you think that changed after the 1970s generation?

It did change for many years, I think. Writers wanted to be famous; they wanted to write best sellers. Yes, it changed. But now, I don’t know: When I read the newest ones, and I admire them, I think they have again become sensible. Yuri Herrera; Juan Pablo Villalobos, who I love; Valeria Luiselli, who I love. They are writing.

You seem to have a fascination with marginal texts—fragments or lost scrolls, texts that have been forgotten.

You’re totally right: It’s a passion. I found this Renaissance painter who, in her time, was so well-known, and nobody talks about her; nobody cares about her. But I do. When I wrote about pirates, the dreams they had, no one cared about them.

Now I am fixated on these two Ecuadorian ladies. One of their books was published in 1919, and no one has printed it again. I love it! And nobody knows them! Why on earth?

Who are they?

Marieta de Veintemilla—she was the first lady of Ecuador. She even became leader of the nation’s troops. Her uncle was president, and she was influential in running the country—and when she lost power, she was exiled to Peru and wrote a book. It is so fun, and she was so well-read. I love her book, but it’s never been printed since 1890.

I don’t know, I guess I like the unfashionable. I think the things we forget are more important than the things we remember. I like the forgotten. I need the forgotten.

Does that relate to writing about gender, and to being a writer who is also a woman? I’ve been reading Pitol’s Art of Flight and he’s always talking about writers, but it’s such a male pantheon.

The pantheon is made out of males; it’s a problem. It’s like academia, or the big intellectual institutions: They are full of men. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best. Not long ago, I reread Piglia’s wonderful book The Last Reader [El Último Lector], and it’s also all males—males all over.

Is that why you like to dig through the archives?

Honestly, I have no idea why I have this proclivity—if it’s that I was born a girl, that by chance I am a Carmen and not a Carmelo. Maybe if I were Carmelo, I would also be digging around and finding the forgotten ones. But maybe not—maybe if I were Carmelo, I would only be writing about Kafka.

These are my Kafkas, my girls, my Kafkaesque girls, the ones I found. They are fantastic. I think they are first-class, but no one talks about them. No one talks about the Uraguayan poet Delmira Agustini, whom I adore. I always return to read her. I love her, maybe because she’s forgotten?

How did you begin as a novelist?

At first, I didn’t want to be a novelist—I wanted to be a poet. And I was a poet: I had already published poetry, and I had respect as a poet. I had readers, reviewers, and people liked me as a poet. I was considered a first-class poet. And I knew that if I was also a novelist, I was going to lose my glamour. But it’s also more than that, because there’s something sacred in the figure of a poet: The poet doesn’t get stained by the kind of labor that a novel implies. Being a poet is another thing.

I hid my first novel, a very violent novel about children; I hid it in the deepest corner of a drawer. And then I wrote a second one, on children too. Then I knew I was doomed. I was a novelist, and I had to publish the first one. After writing my second novel, I wrote a third novel, also about children. I wanted to do another one, but it was no longer need but desire. I needed to write the first ones; with the fourth and fifth ones, it was more the joy of telling a story. And I did not want to repeat the same book, out of respect for what a novel is and out of love for my profession. The idea of making one book similar to the other one seemed dishonest. So I needed a different space. I started looking for a different setting, because that would force me to write a different book. And I was right: The setting forced me to another form, another attitude toward language, another treatment of the characters. But with my same obsessions.

I have these obsessions that I don’t know how to name. But they gnaw at me. And they eat me alive if I’m not writing. So I write.

Are you still writing poetry?

When I started getting obsessed by the Mexican situation, the so-called War on Drugs, I wrote a long poem, “La Patria Insomne.” And last week, I opened my last two notebooks, and I saw with surprise that I had so many new poems—enough for a book.

Would you ever write a novel about the drug war in Mexico?

I don’t know. I have no appetite for that. I’ve been trying to write a play, after Antigone. But I don’t know—I don’t think I can. It just… it overwhelms me. It eats me—it eats me alive. I can’t. I look at the writers who can, and I admire them, but I just can’t. It’s too terrible.

I like demons to write, but… I like the demons of my childhood. But these demons I don’t know. So, no, I can’t do a novel. It eats me. It’s only pain. It’s only pain. And it’s not literary. It obsesses me, obviously. I wrote a poem, and I tried to do a book on the drug war, alone, and I wrote a draft. But I can’t digest it—I can’t. And so I pulled Mike into it, and we worked together, because I do think it’s useful. But it doesn’t heal the pain. It’s such a horrific tragedy; it is not a literary adventure. I cannot… I have no words for it.

But you know, many years ago an interviewer asked me, “Are you ever going to write about a man?” And I said, “No! Of course not—men are crazy!” But the next thing I wrote about was my book of pirates. So who knows? Maybe I will be able to write about it. But I don’t think so.

You once said that you only became a novelist after you were a mother.

I wouldn’t have become a novelist if I hadn’t become a mother. I was convinced that a young woman poet could not be a caring mother, because you have to be totally devoted to poetry to be a real poet. You have to give yourself over to poetry.

But then, I needed a child to live. I was being asphyxiated. I wanted a baby, and so I had María. And I changed as a writer; I got disturbed as a writer. And there I became a novelist. Because I was forced to see the needs of another person—the baby, the child. I was taken out of my being-inside-me and my studying, and it was a revelation in many ways. I became an adult.

But another phase of adulthood is when they leave. When they leave, it’s another phase; you no longer have them as the center. And for me, the painful thing is that when my children left, my Mexico, my wider home, it got eaten by this violence.

It’s been a difficult transition. I had an attraction to violence, as a writer. Violence was an atmosphere I felt comfortable with. And now I can’t stand violence.

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