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Private Acts: An Interview with Guadalupe Nettel

By David Iaconangelo

Born in Mexico City in 1973, Guadalupe Nettel had already won Radio France Internationale’s award for best French-language short story from outside the Francophone world by the time she was nineteen. Since then she has published—among other things—a novel and numerous short story collections, fictions which often turn out to be elaborate and rather sympathetic explorations of the grotesque.

David Iaconangelo: In much of your writing, the main characters suffer from unusual illnesses or have obsessions, manias. In other interviews of yours that I’ve read, you refer to an idea of pain as “the cornerstone of spiritual growth . . . in pain, people cease to be “falsa.” What do you mean by “falsa”—in the sense of dishonesty? What aspect of truth do you mean?

Guadalupe Nettel: An idea that I’ve elaborated on in various texts of mine is that people often go about trying to conceal what they consider their defects and weak points, and bend over backwards to show that they’re someone else, when in reality, in these particular traits lies their true beauty. Instead of exhibiting the value of that original beauty, they pretend. They hide themselves behind an infinite number of masks, masks of who they believe they should be. As William Shakespeare would say, “we renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” It’s the theme of “Bonsai,” of “Bezoar” and one of the themes of El huésped [The Guest]. In moments of pain or in extreme circumstances, we stop faking. The mask lifts, and it’s then that the splendor of our humanity is revealed: fragile, at times very brave, and moving in all of its contradictions.

DI: There exists a kind of medical vocabulary, a way of explaining human behavior in terms of normality and abnormality. Those two categories are always shifting, expanding in some ways and shrinking in others; that narrative is inextricably tied, I think, to any idea of modernity. But they exist so that a treatment might be conceived of. But for a writer of fiction, it seems to be a vocabulary which serves for very little. In writing your works, do you feel the pressure of this type of medical interpretation? Do you fear that the narrator’s account of things might lose authority because of it?

GN: I don’t agree with what you just said. Those categories don’t exist only to develop a treatment for determined pathologies. What’s normal and abnormal are stupid categories which have been in effect forever, in practically all societies, and have to do with aesthetic, moral, class, or racial values and not just with medicine. It’s the origin of discrimination and racism: fear of difference, of that which questions us. In my works I mock and criticize these attitudes and these systems of values, or pre-established parameters, and I maintain that human beauty is similar to that of a work of art, or that of plants. It’s that strength radiated by living beings (works of art are also alive, in their own way) in their unique and unrepeatable condition which is at once moving and surprising.

My interest in these matters has to do with my own biography, as tends to be the case with themes which interest authors. In one of his most recent books titled Cartas a un joven novelista (Letters to a Young Novelist), Mario Vargas Llosa says, “the authentic novelist is the novelist who docilely obeys the rules life dictates, writing on these themes born out of experience and possessed of urgency and avoiding all others.” As I’ve said on other occasions, I was born with what is still often called a “birth defect” related to my vision. One of my eyes was smaller than the other and I saw considerably less than half as well. I still do. In my childhood I had 10% vision. That’s why the themes of vision and normality/abnormality interest me so much. I don’t write thinking of the medical interpretation. I don’t even write thinking of my readers, or very little. I write fiction in the way very private acts are carried out. Sometimes like someone making a confession for themselves or a settling of scores; for that reason I always find it difficult to publish. I start to think about the readers only when the text is already written and I begin correcting it, never before that.

DI: Some writers feel obligated to write because of nostalgia, because of a longing for a place in which they once lived. You spent much of your childhood and adolescence in France, and your stories take place in various countries. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of this type? Does nostalgia inspire you?

GN: As you said, I’ve lived much of my life in France, but also in Canada and Spain. Those places, and others which I’ve traveled in, have inspired me to write, and in them I’ve met many characters. I think that my being a nomad has marked me as a person as much as a writer. However, I don’t think that nostalgia is the motor of my stories, or at least not the principal one. I would say it’s curiosity, the desire to understand and explain things, the desire to interpret certain situations that I’ve seen or happened to have lived through.

DI: Most of your works were published by Editorial Anagrama. What do you think, first of all, of the publishing scene in Mexico, and second, of the reading campaigns undertaken by the government—are they efficient?

GN: Over the last few years some really interesting independent publishing houses have grown up in Mexico—Tumbona, Almadía, Sexto Piso, just to mention a few. It’s something I’m very happy about. There are also publishing houses of much greater experience and prestige, like the Fondo de Cultura Económica. On the campaigns to promote reading: they are good projects but I think there’s a lot left to be done in that area. More energy and budgeting would have to be dedicated to really get people from every social stratum interested in reading. We could, for example, take inspiration from what’s been done in Colombia lately, like the creation of a large number of public libraries in underprivileged neighborhoods, or the famous “burroteca” which seem to have worked like a dream.

DI: Your works have been translated into various languages. Apart from French and Spanish, which other languages do you know, and how involved do you get with the translations? Have they ever brought you new understandings of your works?

GN: I also speak English and a bit of Portuguese. I’m very interested in reading the translations of everything I write whenever I know the language and, of course, it’s always worthwhile to read good translations of my books. The ways in which a text can be interpreted is very interesting. Something similar happens with the adaptations of my stories to other genres. I’m thinking mostly about film scripts but also about their adaptation into music or theater.

Read Guadalupe Nettel's "Bonsai" in the September 2011 "Homages" issue of Words without Borders over here.

Published Oct 14, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Iaconangelo

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