Raw Speech, Raw Stories: A Conversation With Fernanda Melchor

Raw Speech, Raw Stories: A Conversation With Fernanda Melchor

Raw Speech, Raw Stories: A Conversation With Fernanda Melchor

Her new novel, Paradais, is an explosive exploration of the boundaries of the Spanish language and the the banal brutality of everyday violence.


Fernanda Melchor says she’s done empathizing with her characters.

Her previous novel, Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), was published in the United States in early 2020. Long-listed for the National Book Award and short-listed for the Booker Prize, Hurricane Season told the story of a brutal crime in a small town on the Mexican Gulf Coast by channeling the voices of four characters close to the killer. Though it is also set in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, and though it too explores an explosive act of misogynistic violence, Melchor’s latest novel, Paradais, is more tightly focused—employing not a chorus of narrators but a duet.

The novel clatters through the turbulent minds of two teenagers, Franco and Polo, who meet in a gated community located just outside a rural town named Progreso. Franco lives in the community—whose name, Paradise, yields the phonetic spelling of the book’s title—with his grandparents and leads a life of obsessive depravity, lusting after his middle-aged neighbor Señora Marian in extended violent soliloquies and lengthy masturbation sessions. Polo, meanwhile, works at the community as a gardener and lives in Progreso with his mother and his cousin Zorayda. Though Polo doesn’t share Franco’s obsession with Señora Marian, he does share the rich boy’s fixation with alcohol. Eventually he convinces himself to help Franco enact his fantasies, believing that doing so will help him escape Paradise and Progreso forever.

Melchor and I spoke earlier this spring. She dialed in from Berlin, where she is based for the year. We spoke about why writing is considered a “boring” activity in Veracruz, about her use of slang and her irreverent relationship to the Spanish language, about the senselessness of certain kinds of violence, and about the ability to bring a voice out of one language and into another.

This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited and condensed for clarity.

—Lucas Iberico Lozada

Lucas Iberico Lozada: Why do you keep returning to Veracruz in your fiction?

Fernanda Melchor: I owe so much to Veracruz. And not only because it’s given me things to write about, as well as a setting for my books. It’s a fascinating place, full of contrasts and contradictions. When Cortés first arrived to the shores of Veracruz, he was supposed to return to Cuba and report on what he’d found. But he decided, instead, to found a base there from which to undertake the conquest of this empire he’d been hearing about. Everything good, and everything bad, that has come into Mexico—and the American continent—first arrived in Veracruz. It’s a puerto [port] and a puerta [door].

It doesn’t have beaches nearly as beautiful as those in the Riviera Maya or Oaxaca, but it’s also a place where many Mexicans see the ocean for the first time. People there are known for being very happy, very friendly, yet it’s a site of immense violence, especially now. All the clichés of tropical places—the women, the fruit, the colors, the sun—all of that lives alongside a darkness. For me, it was fascinating to grow up in a place with so much history.

LIL: I’m fascinated by the use of slang in your novels.

FM: In our countries, Spanish was imposed upon us at sword’s edge. If you wanted to participate in social life, you learned Spanish. But I think there’s an attitude in Mexico of not taking this language too seriously. When you go to Spain, there’s a correct way of pronouncing words. There’s a dictionary published by the Royal Academy that tells you which words are accepted and which ones aren’t. But in Mexico there’s a constant process of incorporating new words, even new words from other languages. There’s a delight in mixing things up, in the exchange, the loan, the negotiation, the joke, the game—in not taking the language too seriously. No one would get angry if you made up a word or flipped its meaning around.

In Veracruz, this tendency is even stronger. There’s a certain social prestige attached to people who are good storytellers, but not to writers. Writing stories down makes you seem like a boring person, like someone who spends too much time alone, when everyone knows that the most important thing is partying, not writing. The language we use is all mixed up. We freely use bad words, swear words—and in great variety. And what’s interesting is that they’re used not as a way to insult or offend, but rather to reaffirm ties of friendship. You insult someone as a friendly gesture. Or perhaps simply to emphasize something.

There’s a poetry to these expressions, even the most vulgar among them. It’s been my intention in my fiction to use this street Spanish and build something literary out of it.

LIL: Where did Polo’s voice come from? Is he the narrator of this book?

FM: No, not exactly. I’d been reading Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. There’s a story in there called “Good Old Neon.” Reading it, you slowly figure out that the person telling the story is dead. He’s telling you about his life in that second in which, supposedly, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Foster Wallace was trying to explain how that second can contain three novels or 20—or 10. That second can last as long as you want it to. It’s a moment of total synchronicity.

I wanted to tell a story that would be a kind of mental trip through the exact instant when a dude is saying to himself, “Shit. What happened? What am I going to do, and what am I going to say?” That moment when, as we say in Mexico, se le cayó el veinte.

But I didn’t want to anchor myself to a single character. I wanted the freedom to come and go in time and in space. It’s a novel that travels between Paradise and Progreso, back and forth, back and forth. I wanted to challenge myself to write in a voice that would know everything this character knew, but which at the same time could resist the temptation of falling into the victimized narrative Polo always wants to fall into.

I wanted to talk about all those excuses we use to justify our violence. Because, in the end—and without spoiling anything—Polo commits an act of terrible violence. But he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it. So I wanted a voice that would be able to put those justifications forward, but which would at the same time put a layer of separation between the reader and the character, one that would allow you to see them as excuses.

For a long time I’ve tried to write stories that show how violence is something we all carry within us. But there are things that lead us toward or away from that violence. I write about the lives of characters who feel drawn to the violence.

When I was writing Hurricane Season, I was trying to find out the meaning behind that violence. I tried to say: Yes, this person did this horrible thing, but they did it because horrible things were done to them. Because they were mistreated. Because they were unloved. Because they’ve been looking, desperately, for love. Because they hate themselves. Because they can’t handle their own desires.

But when I started Paradais, I realized that I didn’t want to justify or even understand why violence happens. Instead I wanted to show how sometimes violence happens for no good reason at all. Or for the stupidest possible reason. That’s why I made the characters a pair of teenagers, a little like Beavis and Butt-Head. After a certain point, you realize that their stupidity has generated its own propulsive power.

LIL: We’re talking about violence more generally, but both Paradais and Hurricane Season deal explicitly with misogynistic violence.

FM: The reader is confronted with extremely raw speech in the novel, the kind that regards women as sexual objects, as things, as meat. Women as the source of all frustration, as castrators, emasculators. As though the relationship between men and women were always one of war.

I’ve always been interested in writing into that kind of language, which can seem extreme, but at the same time it’s the speech we lived with for a long time. We’re in a time now where you’re not as likely to hear it spoken as openly as in the past. But I grew up hearing those things.

For many years I had to fight to oppose everything I didn’t like, everything I didn’t understand, everything that seemed totally unjust to me. It’s been a whole struggle for me. But at the same time I wanted the reading experience to be a violent one. I wanted the reader to be confronted with that vision of the world, with that language.

I wanted Paradais to be a claustrophobic book. It’s a book where these misogynistic and patriarchal things are amplified, even exaggerated, precisely to generate that shock in the reader. Perhaps that’s a little aggressive on my part.

But even though some of this language is exaggerated, it’s also a perfectly realist novel. These are modes of speech that surround us all the time—and not only in Latin America, either. And perhaps this kind of speech extends out into the class frustration so many of us are subjected to at all times. And occasionally that frustration explodes on sacrificial lambs.

LIL: The victims of the crime in the novel are, seen from Polo’s eyes, pretty loathsome people. Yet they are totally innocent.

FM: The “joke” in the novel is to show all the ways in which Polo is not a victim. We’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, victims of the system. Polo certainly is. But he also has some responsibility in the matter, responsibility that he just totally refuses to acknowledge. And I think the novel runs on that discrepancy.

Franco, the other main character of the book, is less interesting precisely because he’s completely obsessed with sex. I was much more interested in the perspective of someone who not only lacks that obsession but is almost indifferent to sex. Polo is not drawn to possess other people in the same way that Franco is. Nevertheless, he still participates in the same horrible crime. I was more interested—even morally—in the perspective of someone like Polo.

That’s why, since the beginning of this writing project, I always knew that I was interested in narrating a story from the point of view of someone who is sure that it wasn’t his fault. From the point of view of someone who knows exactly what he wants.

LIL: At the end of the novel, Polo says all he ever wanted was to be free. What would freedom even mean for Polo?

FM: I think the crime is an act of liberation for him. For me, the novel ends on a happy note in his mind. I imagine him smiling as he’s arrested. Though he didn’t manage to escape, they are still taking him away from the place he’d wanted to leave. It’s a change, finally. But it’s a freedom that won’t last long. That first Saturday, the first thing he will see is his mother going to visit him, showing up to nag him.

In the end, the hardest thing to shake is hope. These characters—though it seems they live lives they cannot escape, in their hearts they are hoping to escape. And this hope is the thing that is feeding all of their mistaken escape routes. Like alcohol, for example: They see a certain liberation there.

LIL: This novel deals much more explicitly with drug trafficking and the cartels than Hurricane Season did. Why is that?

FM: In Mexico, there’s been a long discussion—since at least the ’80s—of what the proper role of the drug trade should be in literature. Narcoliteratura is a whole genre, one that stretches from crime thrillers like the ones written by Elmer Mendoza to more literary efforts like those of Yuri Herrera or Juan Pablo Villalobos.

I felt that I didn’t want to add to that debate. Not because I think it isn’t important—I was interested instead in how narcotrafficking, like capitalism, becomes a pressure point on people. I wanted the drug trade to appear, like it does in many parts of Mexico, as yet another source of power among others. Part of the landscape.

If I wanted to write about a small rural town in Veracruz, I had to write about narcotrafficking. That’s how Mexico is. You have people who live in gated communities, totally safe, totally disconnected from what’s happening around them, and who only interact with everyday people when they hire them to serve as their employees. And then, just on the other side of the river, is a town that’s completely taken over by that other power.

Polo hates his job, he’s exploited, but he doesn’t want to be exploited by that other capitalism, either. Because, in the end, that’s what it is. The rich, just like the narcos, seek to exploit the young—exploit their bodies, their labor, their strength. Polo wants something more. The problem is that he doesn’t know what he wants.

LIL: You’ve written a book of nonfiction, a collection of crónicas set in Veracruz called Aquí No Es Miami. You also worked on a Netflix show, Somos. How do these other forms of writing influence your fiction?

FM: Writing for television has made me less neurotic. It’s fun to be in a writing room. It’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time I enjoy the collective creativity there.

I wrote Paradais while I was working on Somos. I would work on the show from 9 to 5, then I would come home to the room I was renting and I would draft Paradais at night. That was a very creative period in my life. I wrote the first draft thinking, “I’m just going to write this, and I don’t care if it’s not perfect. I’m just going to keep going.” It was the best thing I could have done. The process with the earlier novels was much more tortured. I would suffer a lot, because they weren’t turning out how they were supposed to. I would go back, again and again.

LIL: What was your job on the show?

FM: Executive translator. (Laughs) I’ve worked on a bunch of shows that haven’t been green-lit. The official title for my role is “tropicalization consultant.” I take scripts and “show bibles” that have been written by gringos, or by whitexicans, and I give them a patina of reality. That authentic working-class Mexican sheen—that’s what they want. I find the work fascinating. And occasionally very fun.

LIL: You’ve also worked as a literary translator, and of course your novels have been translated into many languages. When I read you in Spanish, I can hardly imagine how difficult it must be to translate the specificity of your prose. Sophie Hughes, your English translator, set herself a heroic task with these two books.

FM: I owe Sophie most of the credit for the publication of my books in English. The American and British markets have always been pretty insular, pretty closed-off.

With Sophie, the truth is, she’s crazy for wanting to do it. Respect! When I wrote Hurricane Season, I never thought it would be translated. Didn’t even cross my mind. As a translator myself, I don’t believe that anything is untranslatable. Just that some things are harder to translate than others. It’s the old Ulysses debate.

The English translation is in a strange tongue, isn’t it? But I think that’s a good thing. Because the truth is, the original isn’t strictly jarocha. It’s very Mexican, very southern Mexican, but in the end it’s a re-creation. And I think that’s what Sophie did too.

Sophie is British. As a Mexican woman who learned English by absorbing everything I could of US culture, I assumed the [English translations] would be full of motherfuckers. Instead it’s more cunts and twats. I think they turned out really well.

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