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.