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.