Sight is invisible, until it disappears. Then it becomes a blind spot. When the protagonist of Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red (Deep Vellum; $14.95) loses her vision suddenly (a blood vessel bursts in her eye), she—and we—learn to see blindness. Like the experience of being plunged into darkness, it is impossible to describe. But you know it when you see it…
Seeing Red was first published in Spanish in 2012 as Sangre en el ojo, and won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize. It’s Lina Meruane’s fourth novel. Her voice is relatively new to the Anglophone world—though she lives in New York—so her book carries the inevitable carte de introduccion from Roberto Bolaño on its back cover (“Lina Meruane’s prose has great literary force: it emerges from the hammer blows of conscience, but also from the ungraspable, and from pain…. one of the one or two greats in the new generation of Chilean writers”). But we shouldn’t mistake her for an “emerging voice”; Seeing Red is the triumphant realization of a stunning artistic vision, a novel as black and bitter and bloody (and beautiful) as its central conceit. It’s a novel that’s hard to describe. But you know it’s great when you read it.
This interview was conducted over e-mail, in English, over the course of several weeks, and has been lightly edited.
This novel is like a memoir: The protagonist has almost the same name as you, and you went through a very similar experience, temporarily losing your sight. But if you wanted to write a memoir, you could have. Why did you write a novel instead?
I thought I would write a memoir about going blind. I had in mind Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, the most intense memoirs I’ve ever read. But when I tried to write my own, I failed. By page three, I realized that the writing needed to go somewhere else—and already had! There were too many constraints in telling only true events, in describing characters as they were in real life. So I liberated myself from the pains of autobiography.
What didn’t true events let you write about?
I felt pushed to explore aspects of blindness that I had not experienced. The autobiographical element was the trigger, but fiction allowed me to take the situation to an extreme and to look into it with a raw eye. Consider this: We romantically blind ourselves with the promise of unconditional love (“I’ll do anything for you”); what if that promise was delivered, literally? And consider this: We tend to think of the ill as powerless, but what if the ill were not powerless at all? What if the protagonist was able to find strength and exercise power in her blindness? Those questions were much more interesting to me than a truthful account of the events. So I went in that direction at the risk of having readers believe, as they often have, that I am a monster.
Did writing this novel change how you would tell the true version of what happened to you?
After writing this book, I decided not to talk about the real experience. I have written in order to distance myself from that event, to forget all about it. That has allowed the novel to be its own thing. Something happened in the process, too: Writing the novel forced me to think and feel like Lucina [the main character] in such a way that, now, I don’t seem to remember the real details. So now the only “true” story, so to speak, is what is told in the novel. The same way we are not able to remember our childhood other than by remembering the pictures taken of us at that moment of our lives—we remember those images, not the real events.
That seems like a healthy way to process trauma. Or maybe I mean “normal”? The way our minds dream new realities at night, to protect us from events that have hurt us during the day.
I see your point, but one can write and still get terribly depressed and need to knock memories out with some medication.… I am not sure writing about a traumatic event, re-creating it in fiction, works as a cure. I certainly don’t believe literature should make anyone feel good.
I wonder if blindness is something you can even “witness” anyway. After all, “witness” is usually a synonym for seeing, and so much of the rich texture of this novel is the inability to see, to experience.
I did witness: I went blind while I was sighted. But witnessing is not only visual, and even more interesting, one can remember—visually remember—events one did not see. Vision is produced and stored by the mind, and the absence of vision might also be completed as image. The mind is very inventive! I have come to believe that writing is always produced in a sort of blindness: You need to be blinded so you can allow your mind to create.
Do you mean that closing off your senses helps the mind imagine new realities? I’m fascinated by the relationship you’re suggesting between sensory deprivation and creation; when I’m writing, sometimes I need to go off by myself, in silence, and sometimes I need to be in a noisy café with lots of distractions. I don’t know why…
Perhaps you are like César Aira, who is said to write at coffee shops and use events happening there to nurture his writing. A bird that crashes into the shop’s window might slip into his narration, for example. But I think most writers work from memory, and that means working without seeing the events unfold in front of you. Even if you saw it yesterday, it’s not there anymore when you actually write; it’s gone. It has left a trace, but even a very vivid image will be transformed by writing.… Writers are mostly looking inward, into their imagination, even if they are not writing about themselves.
Does the protagonist use your name, Lina, as her pen name—when she’s actually named Lucina—to indicate that “liberation” that you mentioned before?
It happened like this: When I realized I was writing a novel, I gave the protagonist the name Lucina, as a wink to the reader, to indicate that while this was fiction, something close to my experience was being folded into the story. But when the book was finished, I threw my real name back into the book, to make sure the connection was explicit and to underline the trick: Lina Meruane is Lucina’s pen name, while my true name is Lina; there’s no pen name in my real life (though I’ve often been asked whether I am actually Carolina, Catalina, Paulina; if my name is in fact my true name, my complete name…). I wanted to indicate, in the novel, that “Lina Meruane” names the persona, the construction, not the real person. A book, even if it’s close to your experience, is always a creation; it always exceeds you; it’s always a representation.
So many of my favorite writers of the last few years are writing novels in the form of memoir. I was just reading Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born, which is also an autobiographical narrative about perception and eye trauma.
In an earlier novel, El Huésped, which has not been translated into English yet, blindness is already a central theme, connected to paranormal activity and political rebellion. I was subdued by that short novel, and when I met Nettel, the first thing I did was ask her why she had written about blindness…. We talked about her eyes and mine. It’s certainly a strange coincidence: two Latin American writers of the same generation…. And then I read The Body Where I Was Born. I was a little concerned our books might tell a similar story, or tell the eye experience in a similar fashion, from the same point of view; soon enough I discovered our books belonged to different planets, as they must. No two narrators share the same eyes!
Could I take that as a comment on the end of Seeing Red? The impossibility of sharing eyes, and everything they represent…
Yes! (But let’s not spoil it for the reader!)
When you spoke with Nettel, did you come to any conclusions about why you both felt drawn to that theme?
No, we didn’t, but perhaps we both assumed that one uses bodily experiences as a starting point and as a frame for one’s thinking about the world. I think our bodies are more immediate experiences than generational ones. But we didn’t talk about this…. Your question has made me realize how little one shares with other writers one’s own writing dilemmas. Writers, at least the ones I know, tend to talk in detail only about books written by others…
Well, I’m happy to ask those questions. For example: How does the protagonist’s blindness illuminate her relationship with Ignacio? Her loss of sight forces her to rely on him in really interesting ways.
She relies on him, but paradoxically Ignacio understands that her need has become their relationship’s strength. He is afraid she might recover and leave him.
You said that readers might think you’re a “monster” if they take Lucina for you; does that make Ignacio a victim? Is she afraid that Ignacio will—out of love—make her into a monster?
Maybe—there is a sort of agreement. Ignacio is pushed to agree to everything out of love, or a sense of ethical responsibility. Does that make him a victim? And what is the opposite of victim?
Victimizer? Because he does agree to everything, like you say. And if anything, he is victimizing himself. But I’m struck by the word “monster,” again…
I’m afraid I’ve already said too much about how I see Lucina. Your questions point in interesting directions, but I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on others…. It would be authoritative to go so far. Readers have a right to their own interpretation without the author meddling…
One of the most striking things to me about this novel is the way living and safety are in conflict. Before Lucina is blind, she needs to not drink, smoke, have sex, or even bend over to keep her eyes safe; then, once she is blind, Ignacio wants her to stay still, to stop moving, to keep herself safe. But, of course, she can’t. To live is dangerous!
Being alive is the most amazing thing; one cannot take it for granted. But she has never felt safe. There is no safety. To be safe, to keep our lives intact at all costs, is, ironically, to lose one’s life. If one protects life, one does not live fully.
That makes me think about how dense with experience this novel is: Lucina’s blindness is not really a period of deprivation, not life with “only” four senses—it’s the opposite, an overwhelming explosion of sensation and noise and feeling. Taking one sense away actually seems to slow time down, filling every minute with much more information to process.
So true, and yet to me it also feels like the pace is very accelerated, don’t you think?
I don’t know! I actually took a long time to read this book; I kept putting it down because I felt like I was saturated, like I was full. I kept rereading rather than moving forward. But when I lent it to a friend, she devoured it in an afternoon.
The rhythm, for me, is very intense, more than anything I have ever written. Many readers have told me they had to pause, just so they wouldn’t finish the book in one sitting, so it would last just a little longer and they could enjoy it more.
To me, reading this book felt like what I imagine it must feel like to navigate by senses other than sight: There’s a lot of information to go by, but it’s disconnected, out of context. And the walls move, the furniture shifts…
“Navigate” is a useful verb—I navigate a little blindly through my writing, without knowing where it’s going until the very end. I never see the story as a complete thing. I don’t plan a plot—I just follow it until I arrive. My novels are made from bits and pieces held together by words. And it’s really those words that drive the writing forward. In this book more than in any of the previous ones, what really mattered were the words: A word that conveyed a precise feeling or image (not only visual but sensorial) would sometimes be enough. And I would build the entire scene from that word, not from the plot.
You mean the boldfaced section headings like “Sleepwalker,” for the waiting-room conversation on medical insurance?
Sometimes, but not always. I remember being stuck at the beginning of the scene in which Lucina is welcomed by her mother. And then the word “Medusa” came to the rescue. I worked my way from that word, because all the images surrounding it were of such beauty. But the title of the section is “Iron Hand,” because that’s where the word led me to. There’s a music to it. If I can get into a rhythm, the text writes itself out…
Following the music and being guided by sound feels exactly right for a novel about blindness! Readers only have the words on the page to go by, the way an unsighted person needs to follow the instructions of her sighted partner, the way Lucina “borrows” her partner’s eyes through his vocal instructions: the same dependence on words to replace the absent images, perhaps?
The author and the reader follow blindly, but also the protagonist borrows her partner’s eyes, and then he needs to borrow hers when they travel to Chile.
Does traveling inward (by being deprived of sight) help her “see” Chile in new ways?
Absolutely. She is forced to see through her memories. It’s an extremely subjective way of seeing the place she has returned to. You might like a quote I came across when I was preparing for teaching: In 1870, Flaubert said to Maupassant, “There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown.”
Is any of the music lost in translation?
The music is there. Megan McDowell did a great job in capturing it—I couldn’t be more satisfied with her translation!
But Chilean Spanish can also pretty odd when it becomes English: “drop the cassettes” for spilling someone else’s secrets, for example (though, of course, “spill the beans” is just as strange). Do you think an expression like “Pure Chile” evokes different memories, say, than “Puro Chile”?
Megan and I struggled a little with the oddities of Chilean expressions! But I always struggle with the oddities of English. All languages have these strange expressions, but they do not feel odd to us until we have to explain them or translate them. “Pure Chile” is something my husband wondered about: He speaks Spanish but is not Chilean. I had to explain that it’s a wordplay between “purity,” which Chile has very little of, and the national anthem, which starts with the line “Puro Chile es tu cielo azulado,” which means “Chile, so clean is your blue sky.” But we also use “puro” to aggrandize things, like in “pura sangre.”
I think I had to put all my trust on words, as a blind person would on a cane or on a guide dog, because I had very little time to think about what I was writing. I wrote in a sort of hurry, because I could only count on an hour or two each morning. So each scene is almost a short story or flash fiction. Each episode has a punch that I could complete in one sitting. If I found the right word, it would see me through the entire episode.
Why did you only have an hour or two at a time to write?
I had to finish my dissertation, or I was going to be kicked out of school without a title! I actually had to interrupt the novel because I couldn’t write such different books at the same time.
Were there any areas of overlap between your dissertation and this novel? In its introduction, you described your dissertation as the product of “two of my oldest obsessions: literature as a meandering expression of the real and the disciplinary discourse surrounding illness.” But that’s a fair description of this novel, too.
Yes, although these are very distinct books. I now think of Viral Voyages, Seeing Red, and Rotten Fruit (the still-untranslated previous novel) as an “involuntary trilogy.” While I read for my dissertation, I was taking notes for both novels; I was looking at the ways in which writers had narrated other diseases and was inspired by them. But I grew sick of illness after 10 years of dealing with these issues!
What are you writing now? I know you’ve published two books of essays since Sangre en el ojo—Volverse Palestina/Volvernos Otros and Contra los hijos—but I’d also love to hear what direction your creative writing is taking.
I am back to fiction, and enjoying every minute of it, though minutes continue to be scarce now that I have a full-time job teaching. I said I was sick of illness, and I thought I had moved away from it, only to discover that I was writing about war—and the pain that wars inflict on civilians as well as soldiers. But I am also not sure it will be only about war, because it’s moving in a different direction. This is the beauty of fiction: You know where you start, but not where you will end. You always write into what you don’t know.