Geoff Bendeck speaks with Verónica Gerber Bicecci about her novel Empty Set, translated by Christina MacSweeney and out this month with Coffee House Press.
It feels rare these days to encounter books so fundamentally different, fundamentally unique from those encountered across a lifetime of reading. Several years ago, I heard rumblings from a friend connected to the Mexican literary world about a different book, one that had managed to combine a quiet, poetic elegance with drawings and sketches to tell the tale of a young woman navigating the singular worlds of Mexico City, love, and memory. I spent a day navigating the bookstores of that same city in search of Conjunto Vacío. Days later, in a different Mexican city, I finally found it.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set, inspired and influenced by writers who also drew and artists who also wrote, finds the meridian points of life in the space where words fail to convey the whole spectrum of emotion. In Empty Set, Verónica Gerber Bicecci has found a seemingly new and fascinating way to tell and show us a vital story of modern loneliness, exile, and imagination.
I sat down with Verónica in a breezy café just below her art studio and writing space at the edge of Mexico City’s Parque las Americas to talk about Empty Set, artists who write, writers who draw, and much, much more.
Geoff Bendeck (GB): You call yourself a visual artist who also writes. Why not the other way around?
Verónica Gerber Bicecci (VGB): Well, that’s what I studied: visual arts, and that’s why visual arts go first. (Laughs.)
GB: Have you always written and drawn together?
VGB: Somehow I realized they went together when I started writing seriously. When I studied visual arts I always used words and it was a very big problem. It is not easy to use words with images without putting them in a hierarchy. So when I understood that I wanted to find other relationships between words and images, I began to call myself a visual artist who writes. This means that, as many other artists, I use a book in the same way I use a wall or a performance.
GB: Can you tell me about your childhood, growing up in Mexico City?
VGB: I spend a great part of my childhood playing with a friend in Parque Mexico, in the Condesa neighborhood. I’m the daughter of a family of exiles. The environment I had at home was different from the one I had at school: different food, different words, different ways of writing out mathematical equations! My parents came to Mexico in 1976 because of the dictatorship in Argentina. They finished their degrees in psychology, which was a very suspicious field of study, and they decided to come to Mexico.
GB: It seems to be a common story among writers in Mexico City, like Roberto Bolaño escaping the dictatorship in Chile, or the Colombian writers escaping the violence there.
VGB: Well I wasn’t persecuted, I was born exiled. But yes, Mexico had a schizophrenic foreign policy (now especially brutal as concerns Central America): In the seventies, Mexico received migrants from the dictatorships in South America but, at the same time, it repressed its own people. Many intellectuals exiled from Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile came and still live in Mexico.
GB: How do you think that has shaped Mexican literature?
VGB: Many of them became teachers. You can ask any person who has studied at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), and I’m sure they all had at least one exiled or migrant teacher. And the classroom is the place where collective transformation occurs, I think.
GB: How has Mexico shaped you as a visual artist and writer? How has it affected your identity?
VGB: Well, I was born here and everything that has happened to me has happened here. I’m completely Mexican. But it’s also true that every time I go to Argentina I feel like there is something of mine there, but I don’t know exactly what. Empty Set is an attempt to understand what it means to be born exiled and how exile manifests itself many years after being exiled.
GB: So much of Empty Set seems to play with identity and what is missing in that sense from our inner lives. Early in the book you say, and I’m paraphrasing, “At what moment do we stop being the person we were before?” It is simple and yet heartbreaking. How do you apply that to yourself, especially after the acclaim Empty Set received in Latin America?
VGB: I am a different person now than the one who wrote Empty Set. At least I hope so! But it is interesting what you say about identity in the book: when you are born exiled it forces you to think about identity in one way or another.
I like to think of Empty Set as an in situ installation in the field of literature.
GB: Was Empty Set an experimental novel of sorts?
VGB: I’m not even sure if Empty Set is a novel. From my way of seeing things, it is an art project, like any other I’ve done before. The thing with this piece is that it comes in a book and you have to read it instead of going to an exhibition space. So, to me, it’s an artifact in the medium of a book.
Empty Set is also about trying to combine writing and drawing—to understand how to tell a story using drawings, to tell things that words say differently. Or to use the drawings to see something you can’t see in another way—to have another perspective of the story through diagrams. So: I like to think of Empty Set as an in situ installation in the field of literature, and this is not my idea—a fantastic curator, Roselin Rodríguez, described it this way.
GB: You chose to name your narrator Verónica, to follow in that kind of self-ironic, autobiographical novel tradition of giving your narrator your name and playing with the audience’s perception of what exactly that means in reference to truth. It makes me smile that Coffee House is your publisher, because the novel actually reminded me a lot of Leaving the Atocha Station. They are, of course, very different books, but there is a playful existentialism and meandering to them both—with themes of loneliness and absence. Empty Set is very playful. I can see where you are smiling as you write certain scenes.
VGB: Yes. I thought of the meaning of my own name. Verónica means “true image.” And it was perfect for a character who was trying to see what she can’t.
GB: There seem to be a lot of counterweights in the story, people pushing and pulling against each other. Argentina and Mexico, Buenos Aires and DF pull against each other in the eyes of Verónica as she is going back and forth on her trip. Verónica and Tordo, Alonso and Verónica, Marissa and S. Empty Set’s form is experimental, it doesn’t go in a straight line. It uses many different forms. How did you envision this novel? Did this book take on a life of its own?
VGB: I didn’t have everything clear from the beginning, not even the basic story. All these mirrors that you see between the characters and situations were something that happened without me thinking about it at first, I began to work on those when I realized they were happening. With the letters and drawings, I went back and forth from my computer to my drawing desk, to see how I could make them work together. It was a mixed process by hand and computer, and it took a very long time. I figured out things as I went along.
GB: I was very entertained and moved by the lovemaking scene between Alonso and Verónica shown in drawings. How did that come about?
VGB: Well, I have to confess that I used the drawings to avoid writing scenes that would sound cheesy.
GB: Writing sex scenes is one of the hardest things to do in literature.
VGB: I think so. In this case it ended up being a sort of visual poem. I hope it works well!
To me translation is a process of creation, and I like saying that Christina wrote Empty Set in English instead of saying she translated it.
G: One of my favorite lines from the book was “We were two strangers helping each other cross the street.” The line reminded me about how books help us survive the darkness. What books and art have helped you to “cross the street”?
VGB: The Alexandria Quartet changed me a lot. Also, Borges has been very important for me. The artists I wrote about in Mudanza, my other book—Vito Acconci, Ulises Carrión, Sophie Calle, Oivind Fälshtrom, Marcel Broodthaers. There are many more. For example: Juan Luis Martínez, a Chilean who wrote La nueva novela. The Diary of Anne Frank was also very important to me. And The Little Prince.
GB: One section of Empty Set belongs to the character Marisa. We read letters that she writes to another character, S. At one point you say, “You’ll never know who S. is.” Can you tell me about the role of personal letters in your life and in Empty Set?
VGB: When I was twelve or so I got interested in my family history and I started writing long letters to my grandmother to ask her about it. She sent me lots of written stories, and so letters became a way of being close to her. They have been very important in my life. In Empty Set letters were the path to invent a private language between two characters. Or maybe that’s what letters always are!
GB: How was it working with Christina MacSweeney on the translation?
VGB: It was a beautiful process. To me translation is a process of creation, and I like saying that Christina wrote Empty Set in English instead of saying she translated it. I wanted Christina to appropriate the text as much as possible, and I think it really happened, so the book now has shared custody!
Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist who writes. In 2013 she was awarded the third Aura Estrada Prize for Literature. She is an editor with Tumbona Ediciones, a publishing cooperative with a catalog that explores the intersections between literature and art.