A couple of weeks ago, acclaimed author Carmen Boullosa, the voice behind Texas, the Grand Theft, or A Narco History (both published in English) among others, visited Dallas brought by Deep Vellum Publishing to make some presentations. Amongst her busy agenda, we had a chance to chat with her about her work, reading and inspiration.
Deep Ellum, a coffeeshop, Wednesday afternoon, I can’t believe I’m about to meet Carmen Boullosa. Passionate, atypical, fully committed with life and writing, she is a force to reckon with. I’m meeting her before her reading at the Latino Cultural Center; I have tons of questions scribbled and I don’t know how to start. Carmen has a calming, transparent aura but at the same time she seems about to burst with energy and passion every time she speaks. It’s happening.
Two years ago, Carmen visited Dallas to present her latest novel, Texas, the Grand Theft, published by Deep Vellum. “The first time I came to Texas, I was terrified!” she recalls, “I didn’t know how would the Texan public will receive the book, and it was Will Evans first book.” Carmen smiles broadly, “It has been a wonderful adventure. Will is marvelous publisher and a marvelous person. Working with him takes me back to when I started publishing. I worked with editors that were also my friends, Juan Pascoe from Taller Martin Pescador, Federico Campbell from La Maquina de Escribir, Neus Espresate from Editorial Era, and Octavio Paz from Editorial Vuelta. Will has taken me back to the real adventure of being published. Me ha llenado de vida (he has filled me with life).”
Since then, Carmen has been busy. “I’ve published Narco History, a book I wrote with my husband. It’s a historic essay about how since the prohibition of psychoactive substances, Mexico and the States jointly created the Mexican Drug War.” She also published the essays; “When Mexico Recaptures Texas” translated and published by Nicholas Kanellos, and finished another essay about the Mexican Antigones. “There are several cases,” explains Carmen, “Javier Sicilia, Marisela Escobedo, Juan Nepomuceno and many others… I compared the classic Antigone with specific stories of fathers, mothers, sons who paid to bury their dead, many times with their own lives.”
Carmen is a prolific author, a poet, playwright, and novelist. Her books are difficult to categorize, different formats, varied scenarios from the Caribbean Islands to Arizona, from her first novel Mejor Desaparece (Just Disappear) to Texas, she has changed subjects, eras, topics, so I wonder what is it that unifies her books. “What do all your works have in common?” I asked. “My fury,” she pauses, “My love for life. It is a strange combination, but defines me… I started with poetry… it has been many decades now,” she stops and looks for a word, a phrase to help me understand, an image “I’m a die, not a spin. A spin top dances on one spot; I had been a die. I’ve pressed through many layers, other surfaces, not just the topics. Even in the form, I’ve become more irregular, more odd.”
“Mejor desaparece, it’s very bizarre, but so is Texas, imagine the first two hundred pages are just about three or four minutes. I never do a conventional thing,” Carmen smiles proudly. “My new novel is a fairy tale Boullosa style,” she affirms “a mix of my fury, my passion for life and literature. I’m a blend between the 70s and the Spanish Golden Century.”
Siruela will publish Anna’s Book in May. The story is based on Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina. In the novel, Anna writes a book but refuses to publish because it’s just a draft. “I was rereading it, and thought… of course she wrote it again!” Carmen’s eyes sparkle while she remembers “and I have to tell that story! It’s mentioned in Tolstoi’s novel that is a book for the youth. Russian’s passion at that time was fairy tales. I initially had several approaches to the story; I tried verse, then novel. It ended up being how does Anna’s book appear at her son’s house, a day before the Russian Revolution. Then we see her novel, a brief novel, a maddened story, fairy tales written by a woman that uses opium every night to be able to sleep, a feverish woman on the verge of suicide.”
I am not 100% a woman; I am a person with chromosomes and a cultural background
Woman, women, women that write, and feminism… I know she dislikes labels, but it’s inevitable that we talk about the subject. “What’s your opinion about feminine literature / feminist literature? Does genre matter in literature?” “It is a very complicated subject. I am not 100% a woman; I am a person with chromosomes and a cultural background,” she explains. “I was very close to the feminist movement in the 70s. I always have been fond of female authors; since I was young my bookshelves were full of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Wolf, Silvina Ocampo, Rosario Castellanos. It was not because they were women, but because I was drawn to their world; the same way I was interested in Lawrence Durrell’s world. I’ve taken the feminist banner several times, because women author’s are often relegated to a second place.”
“I finished a book about an Ecuadorian writer, Marieta Veintemilla, that has been totally forgotten. I found her work and fell in love with it, I brought it to the Fondo de Cultura Economica, and they said write a introductory study about her. Well, I did 200 pages on her. That’s my cause. But I want to think that if I were a man, with good literary taste I also would have written a book about Veintemilla, I would be devout of Rosario Castellanos, no matter how much soccer I would watch. If I were a man, I would also be a writer.”
I always kept in the closet that I love to cook. I’ve decided to come out of the closet.
Carmen is always in the move, always thinking about the next book. “What are you working on currently?” “Right now, I’ve come back to a project I had in the back burner and mixes two of my passions: women authors and a passion I always kept secret,” she pauses and I feel the anticipation of a discovery. “Maybe for my generation, or because I’m a feminist… I always kept in the closet that I love to cook. I’ve decided to come out of the closet,” she smiles. “I’m writing a book inspired by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. In her piece she invites 39 prominent historical women to dinner, she sets a table with ceramic plates made for each one of them. There are no Spanish-speaking guests among them. So, I decided to make my own table.”
Once again, I can see her raising the banner of the forgotten; “I’m inviting around twenty Spanish speaking female authors from Teresa de Avila to Rosario Castellanos. I’m writing their literary profile and creating a recipe for each one as homage,” she explains. “I’m rehearsing the recipes, preparing the dishes in my kitchen, mixing the ingredients that they could have used, I use any reference in their works or simply what I logically think they might have liked. So far the title is “Aristotle’s Apron” in reference to Sor Juana’s quote “had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.” I’m having so much fun with it, I letting loose my passion for onions, garlic, rice!” she sentences.
I don’t believe in inspiration. I’m a soldier. Completely masculine, I believe in work, love for reading, writing and editing.
Certainly she is difficult to label, I am simply amazed at her versatility. “What inspires you?” I asked naively. “Reading,” she answers simply but then adds, “I don’t believe in inspiration. I’m a soldier. Completely masculine, I believe in work, love for reading, writing and editing. Inspiration to me is walk on the street and suddenly start dancing. Writing is another thing; it is discipline, dedication, devotion, and fight. It is a battle, it’s love. It’s a continuum that you have to keep building.”
“It’s daily work, every book asks for something different. My ideas come from one book to another,” she tries to explain, “for example, now I have an idea that I obviously not going to write, but still haunts me. When Teresa de Avila died – if she was truly dead, cause she had catatonic episodes before – the doctor cut her hand and he kept a finger. They thought she was going to become a saint so every relic was precious. Apparently, he also took her heart out, and gave it to the Alba family. Indeed, it’s said that when the doctor fell prisoner of the Otoman corsairs and his ransom was paid, he had to pay extra for Saint Teresa’s finger. Anyways… the point is that Teresa de Avila died from bleeding, there was something in her uterus that made her bleed terribly. Maybe tumors, but nobody knows for sure. That’s the story, but I imagine that when they were piercing her body, someone took what was in her uterus… and that was a demonic thing used for witchcraft. I thought it would be great to make a novel about the Teresa de Avila’s tumor… but I wont do it,” she smiles. “Of course, reality goes further than fiction,” she adds “Spanish dictator Franco always carried with him, her hand. His family returned to the church once he died. Imagine, the tyrant traveling with the saint’s hand… My point is there is always something to write about, there are stories everywhere.”
Carmen spends considerable time in New York, so I wondered about her take on Spanish-speaking Literature in United States. “It has a rich tradition in the States, Nicolas Kanellos has dedicated his life to rescue it. You also have writers like Martí, that wrote their most important works here, so did Octavio Paz. There is an intense relationship between Latinamerica and Spain and the United States, a continous exchange, a love-hate history. Right now, something wonderful is happening in New York. Eduardo Mitre, the great Bolivian poet, Jose Manuel Prieto, the wonderful Cuban writer, Sylvia Molloy, Alvaro Enrigue, Lina Meruane, Valeria Luiselli, Alejandro Zambra are there.”
This winter, Deep Vellum will publish the English translation of her second novel, Before. “It’s a very dear book to me,” affirms Carmen, “I published at Octavio Paz publishing house. It received the Xavier Villaurrutia award and has many readers to this day. Peter Bush translated it and tried to edit it sometime ago, then we got distracted and we left it there. When I was presenting Texas with Will, I remembered about Peter’s translation. I thought it would be a good idea to link a legend in the translation world with a new publisher.”
So many things have changed in Dallas these last two years, and many of us dream about a Literary Dallas. “Is it possible? I asked.” “When you fight you get the best outcome, it is difficult to find a bookstore like The Wild Detectives or an editor like Will Evans in the world. The battle produces something magnificent.”
Her words are contagious, they give hope, awaken curiosity and wonder. Her thought process, her non-stop idea-generating mind, amazes me. I’m moved by her passion and conviction, and her thrive to never repeat herself. She inspires. As we close the interview she tells me, “Si quieres ser feliz, lee. Quieres escribir, lee. Leer da mucha vida, y escribir es una demoledora. No se puede escribir sino se lee. Se escribe en dialogo con otros autores.” (If you want to be happy, read. If you want to write, read. Reading gives life. Writing is a wrecking machine. You can’t write if you don’t read, you write in dialogue with other authors.)