Valeria Luiselli: the Novelist All Your Smart Friends Are Talking About
We got coffee with the up-and-coming Mexican writer to discuss grad school (bad), personal essays (usually bad), and her new novel (critically acclaimed and very difficult).
Photo by Alfredo Pecastre courtesy of Coffee House Press
Taking the train to interview Valeria Luiselli, I tried to prepare myself to meet a very smart person. I had felt increasingly out of my depth over the course of reading the 32-year-old Mexican writer's three short books, and I feared I would nod my way into a conversation—about Sebald, or an obscure Greek—in which I would not be able to participate. Her essay collection, Sidewalks, was totally gettable, with only occasional sparks of difficulty that I could either skip over or Google. Her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, was also fairly breezy; it's more wistful than Sidewalks, with narrators that bleed into each other and are thus a little confusing, but it's nothing too strenuous—a combination of Jenny Offill and Ali Smith, with a Bolaño-esque scattering of both explicit and hidden literary allusions and the dry surprise of Zadie Smith's sense of humor.
Luiselli's most recent novel, The Story of My Teeth, however, felt very hard. A four-part postmodern romp about a wayward auctioneer who sells sets of teeth he claims once belonged to the mouths of Plato, Virginia Woolf, and several other historical figures, the book has gotten very good reviews. But the tone in these reviews has been kind of cheeky, backing away from engagement with the seriousness Luiselli's difficulty and instead offering vague descriptions that blurrily approximate the fun-yet-sinister sense of the novel. One example: The New York Times Book Review used the headline "Choppers" for its piece on the novel, which describes little of what goes on in the book itself, instead calling a narrative shift "interesting," another strategy "slightly puzzling." It's not hard to see, the reviewer writes, that "there's more afoot here than merely an old-fashioned good time." I take these cute adjectives to mean that the reviewer recognized what I knew sitting on my train to Harlem: Valeria Luiselli is smarter than all of us.
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Thankfully, hers is a likeable brilliance. As in her work, she'll crack a joke at the right moment, often at her own expense; she applies her enthusiastic curiosity to everything she talks about, even if she's talking about something she hates. At the end of our talk, I left the Ethiopian café where we met feeling like I should go to graduate school, even though Luiselli, who is finishing up her dissertation in comparative literature at Columbia, described it as "the worst thing" she's ever done. (The other "worst thing" she says she's ever done is pregnancy, because she couldn't smoke or read or write the whole time.)
When you hear about Luiselli's childhood, it makes sense that her work would be so rich; she treats her literary allusions like anecdotes about places she's traveled. Luiselli was born in Mexico City, but her family began moving around the world when she was two years old—first to the States, then to Costa Rica, then to Korea, and finally to South Africa, where they settled for awhile; her father worked for the Mexican government on diplomatic appointments, which Luiselli says are "a form of exiling someone that you don't want too near but you [do] want inside the umbrella of state supervision." (Her father had worked as an advisor for President José López Portillo, and his successor, the "dreaded" Carlos Salinas de Gortari, wanted him "far away.") When the family returned to Mexico during Luiselli's teens, she found herself out of place and her Spanish flat. "I felt like I didn't have the right to be a foreigner, and I was extremely foreign," she says. She immediately applied for and got a scholarship to spend her last two years of high school in India, where she discovered intentional, serious reading (in English). She returned to Mexico City to study philosophy, which is often where it seems to start with people we think are very smart, and she spent time in Europe—including Venice, which is the setting for my favorite essay in Sidewalks—before moving to Harlem to start the aforementioned PhD. Now, in addition to writing every day (at night), she takes dance classes and rides her Dutch-style bicycle and volunteers as an interpreter for underage migrants from Central America, hearing the children's stories in Spanish and translating them into English so lawyers can decide whether they want to take them on.
Despite its difficulty, The Story of My Teeth is poised to make Luiselli a recurring name in the rotation of literary-world favorites—a friend described her to me as "like a female Ben Lerner," another young (thirtysomething), obviously smart writer with whom Luiselli could easily be compared. (It makes sense that they shared a US publisher, the respected independent Coffee House Press, until the hallowed mainstream FSG took on his most recent novel.) Nevertheless, The Story of My Teeth is still a very singular departure from both popular literary fiction and Luiselli's past work, in that it doesn't take Valeria Luiselli or someone similar as a protagonist and in that she wrote it in serial using feedback from workers in the Jumex juice factory.
It's a misunderstanding of the personal essay when there's a lot more weight on the personal than on the essay of it.
Wait, what? Yes: Teeth is a challenging, allusive, postmodern literary novel created using an elaborate social justice framework, and somehow, it works. (I think.) The novel came about when Luiselli was commissioned to contribute a work of fiction to an exhibition catalog for Galería Jumex, which is funded by the behemoth juice corporation Grupo Jumex. (Until recently, the gallery was located in the actual factory.) Luiselli's commission "was to reflect upon the bridges—or lack thereof—between the featured artwork, the gallery, and the larger context of which the gallery formed part."
"There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice," Luiselli writes, in her characteristically even, paced tone. She goes on to explain, in an equally even, paced tone, that she accomplished this feat of bizarre connection by taking 19th-century Cuba's "tobacco readers" as inspiration and writing Teeth in installments that were distributed to the factory workers, who then conducted book club sessions about each installment. The book clubs were recorded, and the recordings were sent back to Luiselli in New York, where she used their feedback to write the next section. The Jumex team sent Luiselli photos—of the neighborhood, the gallery, the artwork—so she could "move around and explore the spaces [she] was writing about." She tells me she also took cues from the absurdist Russian short story writer Daniil Kharms, "manuals on rhetoric," and "Latin classics" like Suetonius's 121 AD biographical work The Twelve Caesars. Now, of course, it all makes sense.
This almost unfathomably ambitious project is representative of Luiselli's style, which is academic and ranging, but still reaching for accessibility, and it might be related to her staunch stance on the role of the author. Luiselli is precise in distinguishing a writer's gaze from a writer's voice: The former is a way of looking outside the self; the latter is a way of expressing what is inside the self. "I think that maybe there is too much emphasis on voice, especially when writing personal essays, and less care [with] a gaze, a way of saying," she says. "And that's very difficult to accomplish. I think it's easier to create a voice, especially if your text goes through so many revisions in a workshop by other writers and fellow peers. Of course all those texts sound good—they're well written. But it's not always interesting. I look, in an essay, more for the gaze looking at the world than [for] a gaze looking at [oneself].
"It's a misunderstanding of the personal essay," she continues, "when there's a lot more weight on the personal than on the essay of it. It's all wrong. I don't mind people talking about their own experiences, but sometimes it's really just an exhibition of a private life."
If you just repeat the formula, you might as well stop writing.
Indeed, Luiselli's thought process—and it does seem to merit the word process—is one of careful examination of the world around her, though her writing process is less purposeful, more perfectionist. "It's not like I'm trying to make a point on postmodern fragmented existence," she says of the fragments that make up her three books; although they are, as I say, hard, they're at least very digestible. "It's not a stylistic gesture. I am usually very meticulous with what I write. I think that format is kind of the format in which my mind travels best; it's smaller, more compact, working through the inside." She demonstrates her mind working with small, precise hand motions, as if she is laying out her books in front of her.
This tendency can sometimes become a "vice." Luiselli wrote The Story of My Teeth after discarding a novel that "tormented" her because she couldn't quit returning techniques she had used to solve "compositional problems" she'd had with Faces in the Crowd—writing had become a "formula." "When you write a novel, you learn a lot," she says, "and some of that knowledge you can bring with you to next one, but if you just repeat the formula, you might as well stop writing. I found myself to be not exploring anymore, just kind of repeating things that had worked for me before." While Luiselli spent ten years reworking Sidewalks before it was published, the installment schedule for Teeth required her to abandon the "crafty" preciousness that gives her earlier work its measured tone—nearing deadlines, she would go to sleep at 4 AM and wake up again four hours later. "I learned how to be a writer [when] it wasn't about bringing something out of my experience that I had been accumulating and tending for years," she says. "I was doing something almost utilitarian. I was producing something for someone else."