Mexican novelist, Yuri Herrera, talks to Alejandro Soifer about his work which explores the relationship between power and art. The conversation centres around two of Herrera’s most recent English translations, showing how novelists can deftly challenge the fictions of the particular societies that they are portraying. He reads from his work Transmigration of Bodies, (published in Mexico in 2013 and translated to English in 2016 by Lisa Dillman) and demonstrates how there is humour to be found even in the midst of violence and terror that challenge the very structures of power that keep a country from receding into chaos. Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, Yuri Herrera studied Politics in Mexico, Creative Writing in El Paso and took his PhD in literature at Berkeley. His first novel to appear in English, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was published to great critical acclaim in 2015 and included in many Best-of-Year lists, including The Guardian‘s Best Fiction and NBC News’s Ten Great Latino Books, going on to win the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. He is currently teaching at the Tulane University, in New Orleans. The host of this episode is Alejandro Soifer. Alejandro was born in Buenos Aires in 1983 and holds a degree in Letras (Comparative Literature) with a specialization in Argentinian and Latin American Literature and a degree in Spanish Language and Literature Teaching both granted by the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Book History and Print Culture program. His field of studies is Modern and Contemporary Hispanic Literature and Culture (1700-present) and his field of research is popular literature genres in Latin America. His current research is on contemporary noir, hardboiled and mystery Mexican literature.
Books by Yuri Herrera
Signs Preceding the End of the World
The Transmigration of Bodies
Other Related Materials
Twenty Questions with Yuri Herrera (opens a Times Literary Supplement article)
Literature as Political Responsibility: an Interview with Yuri Herrera (opens a Latin American Literature Today article)
A Narco-History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created
A Concise History of Mexico
Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations features curated discussions and interviews with some of today’s best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library’s 100 branches.
Episodes are produced by Natalie Kertes, Jorge Amigo, and Gregory McCormick. Technical support by Michelle De Marco and George Panayotou. AV support by Jennifer Kasper and Mesfin Bayssassew. Marketing support by Tanya Oleksuik.
Music is by The Worst Pop Band Ever.
S2E6: Live Mic
Yuri Herrera and Post-Apocalyptic Noir
Gregory McCormick: Welcome to Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations, our regular Toronto Public Library podcast series featuring curated discussions and interviews with some of today’s best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library’s 100 branches.
AS: So I would like to start our talk addressing your first novel that's called "Kingdom Cons" in English. It's the last one that came translated to English, right? But it was the first one that you published in Spanish. And it's very important. It's one of the novels that's considered to be one of the jumpstarters of this genre that's called narconovela or narc narratives. So I want to ask you about how you feel about you being put under this name tag, this genre. And if you think that's a fair description for your novel, and if you think that narc narrative or narconovela is a term that describes well your novel and others that fall under the same genre tag.
Yuri Herrera (YH): Okay. Thank you. Well, that's a novel that I wrote when I was living in the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. This is a place that used to be one city, and now it's two cities. It used to be called Paso del Norte. I went there to study an MFA. I already had been writing for a long time, but when I was there and I engaged with the border culture in a way that has been... That made that time one of my most productive moments in my life intellectually. The border is a place, that border specifically, is a place that is always challenging you. It is always challenging your preconceptions about identity, your ideas about language, your ideas about national states. And it is, I always say like a laboratory for new linguistic forms, for new political practices, for new ways of understanding these two countries.
YH: Being a border citizen, a bordeno, which is how they call it, it's quite different from being just Mexican or being just American. So it was in this context when I started shaping what would be my first published novel. Before this novel I already had written another novel that of course it's never gonna be published because it's just bad.
YH: But I have to say that those bad novels that you write when you think that you are already a writer, but you're just becoming a writer... Those novels are really important because that's when you start learning about your limits, about what works for you when you are starting to understand your craft. Anyway, but that was the first novel that I published. What I wanted to do was a novel in which I would talk about the relationship between art and power. And I had, as a model for this relationship, the idea of the artist that used to work with kings and queens in Europe, and I always wondered how did Velasquez or how did Bach did all their work. Just working for all this incestuous, stupid, ignorant guys who didn't work one day in their life, these kings. And at the same time, they were able to be independent thinkers, and really original artists.
YH: So this was a really interesting question for me. And in general I think that the question of how artists and power, artists and institutions, artists and market, establish a relationship is a really important one. I was not planning to write a novel based in Europe in the 17th Century, or 18th century because what I was seeing there was an ideal stage for what I was trying to say. What I chose as the representation of power was this guy who is like a drug lord. And as a representation of the artist, a singer who is creating songs to praise this guy. They are not based in any person in real life, but they are just based in models of powerful men and of artist. More so, I would say that if I had to find an equivalent of that kind of powerful guy in reality, I would say that it's... Really, this is not an easy joke. I would think someone like Trump. Trump really has the same mentality of the '80s Mexican drug lords in the sense... No. Really, in the sense that it's people that think with their balls, they don't think with their brains. That they love to put their names in golden letters everywhere, and they love to have their furniture covered with the skin of animals.
YH: And it's all a certain aesthetic that in Mexico people call this art narco. But it's much older. It's much older, this kind of really cheesy, really cheesy thing. Anyway. I told you before that sometimes I took a long time answering. This was my model. This was my model to create this novel. But for me, this is not a novel about drug trafficking, or drug war. But just the drug trafficking and the drug war is part of the context in which I talk about something that is older, and it's broad that which is the relationship between power and art. If I feel fairly represented by this text, no, but that's not important. Once you publish a book, the book's no longer yours, and people can do whatever they want with that book. They can read it from any perspective they feel they wanna do it. I'm fine with that.
AS: Okay, but at the same time I think that you recall that this genre is very popular now in Mexico. I was thinking that it's kind of a paradox because on the one hand it says books, it says art. There are a lot of artists that are doing things with the narcos and all that. And of course, the TV series Narcos Mexico, and all that. But don't you think that this, I don't know, contributes in some way to the anti-Mexican rhetoric that's used by some politicians in the US. Well, you mentioned Trump and you mentioned that maybe your novel has this representation of this kingpin, this drug lord that maybe is the idea that Trump pulls with his public, right?
YH: Well, Americans have never needed a pretext to be racist and to be violent against Mexicans. There's a long, long history of lynchings of Mexicans and... That is not registered, but I mean, it is registered, but it's not just registered in popular culture. And there is a long history of snatching of children also, not only of Mexican children from other countries in American history. And what I would say is that, at least I know, one of the things that it does, is that it tries to add a layer of complexity to this issue that is not just a re-creation of certain cliches of how we understand, how we understand criminality. And before we were talking about the noir novel, that is what we understand now as a noir novel and which is really interesting how... And when the American noir novel started becoming respectable. Yes, to say, it was thanks to the French critics and that said "These writers are saying something that is really important which is that you cannot simply divide society between good and evil, and it's not as simple as the police and the detectives representing good and the thieves and the killers representing evil." But very often the line disappears.
YH: In Latin America, as you know, that line has never existed. We have never trusted the police in the same way that in North America, there is this trust in the police. That is one of the reasons why the noir novel is so successful in our countries. So what I'm going to is that, one of the things that literature does is to contest the institutional fictions and to challenge the fictions about how society is organized. So I cannot control if the people that are previously racist use one of my books to do it or just to give you one last example.
YH: Politicians tend to use art to justify their own failures. So very often, for instance, in Mexico in other moments, there have been politicians that tried to forbid narcocorridos, these songs that talk about these issues because they say that they give bad ideas to the young, to the young people; which is the most stupid thing. It's like, "Oh yeah, I just heard a song about a guy who makes a lot of money and now I'm gonna just buy a gun and start killing people." It's like criminals don't become criminals just because they hear a song. And again, Donald Trump didn't become this evil man just because, just because he listened to the Smiths or something in the '80s because it's a whole other set of circumstances.
AS: Okay well, that's very interesting and as you mentioned, the noir novel. I want to bring to attention the thing that you recently... The prologue to these very classic noir Mexican that's called "The Mongolian Conspiracy" By Rafael Bernal and you also wrote a prologue to the book "Narcoleaks" by Wilbert Torre. So I was thinking if you see that there's a connection between this first Noir in Mexico to the current narratives or the current noir narratives in Mexico or if you think that's something totally different or maybe you can talk about your feelings for this novel by Bernal that you said before that's very important for you.
YH: Well, this novel, if you haven't read it, please read it. It's a really, really important novel for a couple of generations of writers. It's already translated into English. "The Mongolian Conspiracy"?
YH: It's in Spanish, "El Complot Mongol." In its moment, nobody read it. It was just about this Mexican police who has to work with a KGB agent and a CIA agent because they are trying to stop a possible plot against an American President who's gonna visit Mexico. And it's this whole reflection of power from a Mexican policemen who is a killer, who has no morals, who is a thug. And this guy who is a thug, he's looking at the KGB agent and the CIA agent and says, like, "Wow these guys have no morals." So that is... That is a really interesting thing. But more than that, one thing that this book did for American literature in the way that the noir novel did for the American literature is that it...
YH: I'm not gonna say that it broke a certain glass ceiling, but it has made more apparent, that this supposed division between low art and high art was just artificial and that you can use the popular language and vulgar problems, to talk about important issues. And in that way, yes, that is a novel that taught us a lot of things of how to speak about things that are happening right now. And maybe to go back using this question, to the last question is, when people challenge how this kind of writing, in general, this kind of art can be interpreted by the public or by power. I always give this example, think about the story of a guy who has sex with his mother, killed his father, and then he takes his own eyes. That is like a narco story totally, and that is one of the monuments of Western culture. So this kind of senseless violence has been a source for art, in every single society, it's so close that sometimes people don't see that it's real art and that it's talking about important issues.
AS: Yeah, that's an interesting idea. I always think about how when we read or we watch the Godfather movies, we don't get... I don't know, we accepted them and we watch them as pieces of art, but maybe sometimes when we talk about narco narrativa or narco novella there are all these things that come out, like the thing that you said about narcocorrido that... And these novels are being used as examples for the people, things like that. And I think that when we, again, when we watch the Godfather, we will never think of that, but that's something that happened like 30 years ago, 40 years ago. So maybe that's the difference, right?
YH: Yeah, yeah, time makes things less scandalous in that sense.
AS: Like Oedipus.
AS: Okay, so let's move to your other novels, the "Signs Preceding the End of the World", and "The Transmigration of Bodies" that you have here, and you're going to read a passage after which is by the way, one of my favourites and your editor's as well, right? You told me. I'm interested in... If... Well, because these both novels seems to have the sense of ending, termination or dystopia. And I was wondering if there are any particular reasons for this common topic in both novels, and while "Signs Preceding the End of the World" has clear reference to Mexican indigenous culture and mythology. I was wondering if there's anything similar to be found in the dystopia that you present in the "The Transmigration of Bodies".
YH: No, they are very different books. In retrospect, they have been considered, and I'm fine with that, as a trilogy because they share certain linguistic traits, and they share certain similarities that the protagonist... Things that I only see now but that in the moment, I really didn't plan it like that. Like the characters and the protagonists in all three novels, somehow they are in between. In between countries, in between spaces, in between people that are fighting and in a way, they are translators or negotiators. And obviously, that is something that has been in my mind all this time, but I didn't plan it like that. The structure for "Signs Preceding the End of the World" is something that I had a while before I wrote the novel. This is... I'm gonna try to keep this short because I can just keep talking about this specific thing for a long time. There is a narrative in Mexican culture, which is the narrative of descend to Mictlan. We don't know exactly what it meant, we don't have the exact account, of what it was, this narrative, but I'm gonna tell you what I know.
YH: And based on what I knew before and what I researched, for the novel. Among them, Mishikas, what usually is known like the Aztecs, but the official name would be Mishikas. When you died, you would go to either... To one of three places, either it would be a Tlalocan, which is a place where you would go if you die as a child, or if you die a death by water and because Tlaloc is the God of water. And this is a place that frankly was really nice, all you did all day was to have honey and there was a lot of birds. And there's the Huitzilopochtli which is a place where you would go if you were a warrior or if you were a woman who died in labor. Because in those cases, women were considered like warriors, that died in the middle of a battle. And then there was the Mictlan, which is the place where you would go if you died of old age, accident, or a regular disease. And as I'm saying there's a lot of gaps, but this is what we know. And in order to get to this place, to the Mictlan, you would have to go through several underworlds. And in each of these underworlds, there was...
YH: Something happened there. And the way it's interpreted is that in each of these underworlds, you would be stripped of something that constitute you as a human being, of your sense of feeling, of your sense of taste, of your memories, whatever, until you reach the last one, which is not hell, which is the erroneous way in which the Spanish friars interpreted. It's just a place without smell, without light, without sound. And there, you become part of some sort of spiral of recreation. Anyway, I knew part of this, I knew a simpler version of this since I was young. And I always thought this is a great structure for a novel. And when I decided to do it, I researched a lot more of it and I decided to use not only the structure, but other things. Other values from the pre-Hispanic culture, other symbols. But what I decided was also that the reader didn't need to know this, this was just a model that I used to give density and volume and certain breadth to the novel, but this is not an archaeological text, this is not a history text. So this was just something that I used to give direction to the story. And the story is the story of a woman who goes to this other side, which could be interpreted as United States but it could be interpreted also as death.
AS: Okay, so I think that answers why there aren't any names on these places because that's one of the things that comes to the reader that you can identify maybe these places by the geography or the things that happen or things surrounding. But there aren't any names. Is this the reason?
YH: Well it's part of the reason. Names are really important for me and they're so important that I rarely use the names that we have in the real world, let's say. I'm gonna try just to explain this. If I say "this is happening in Mexico" readers who don't know Mexico or Mexican readers, they have a very fixed idea maybe of what it means, the word. The same way that if I say "This is happening in Australia", people immediately start imagine a plot with a lot of Kangaroos. I don't know. I'm just saying that words, sometimes words tend to simplify really complex things. So this is the reason why, instead of using the names of places, I make that bet that people will do that in their heads. But that I'm not doing the work for them before. That what I'm offering is a complex story, and then they can relate it, "Oh well, this has to do with the Mexican issue, with the American issue, with the border issue. With the kangaroo issue." I don't know.
YH: I'm sure there's a commission in Australia about that.
AS: Okay, I will like now take a little advantage on your degree in political science, and talk about politics a little, maybe. So last year, for the first time, a left-leaning politician won the presidency in Mexico. And I would like to ask you what you think about this turn of events, if you think that Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be able to provide on the promises that landed him the presidency and if you think that Mexico is definitely turning to the left or if AMLO was just an exception.
YH: I don't think AMLO's leftist. I think he's a different thing. I don't even know he's sure what he is in this sense. I think he... What he... I think he represents the real possibility of breaking with the previous administrations and with the previous regimes. The thing is, we have had a change of regime in the year 2000 and then there was another government by Pan, by the right-wing party and they were total failures. And not only... The word failure, I think it's too soft for what they did to the country in the last 18 years.
YH: So, López Obrador is more than a clear path was just the clear decision to break with that inertia that had different colours, but it was basically the same thing. So what I think he's doing with a lot of problems, with a lot of resistance from the oligarchy, from certain part of the media, from the really weak but really, really loud opposition, what he's doing, and with his own mistakes, and some of them are really serious. What he's doing, I think, is trying to dismantle this old order. Disappearing certain institutions. But I'm not sure that he has clarity of the path ahead, which it has its advantages and it has a lot of problems. It has its advantages because we are a society that we have been taught that we have just to follow what...
YH: What the man in charge told us. So, in that sense, he is betting to... He is... Maybe betting is not the word, he is putting forward certain decisions that create the space for people to create new institutions and new ways of doing politics. But, as we know in moments of chaos, in moments when the old order is disappearing, anything can happen. So, in that way I understand that a lot of people are scared. It is a scary moment because during the pre-regime, it was not as scary, it was dull and it was authoritarian and it was repressive, but it was not as scary. And during the PAN regime, during the 12 years of the PAN government, it was incredibly mediocre and corrupt and eventually it became scary, but for different reasons. So, I really don't know. What I can tell you is this, I truly think that he is an honest man, which is revolutionary in itself in a country as Mexico. And I think he is making serious mistakes in terms of not being able to create viable solutions in the short term while at the same time he is demanding loyalty from a lot of people to these decisions in the short term. If my answer is not that clear, is because I am part of this chaos. But... Well, that's it.
AS: Okay. I would like to ask you about your last published book which has not been translated to English yet, right? It's called "El Incendio de la mina El Bordo", that we can say it's kind of the fire in the El Bordo mine which is a non-fiction. Well, the first question is obviously is it going to be published in English?
YH: Yes. Yes, this is a book that I expected to be just basically for the readers not only in Mexico, but just in my hometown in Pachuca, and I'll explain in a second why. But, my editor in other stories in London, he read it and he said, "I totally wanna publish it." So, it's going to be out in English next year. Yeah.
AS: Okay. Could you introduce the public of this novel?
YH: Yes. So the thing is this... This is part of my PhD dissertation when I was in Berkeley. I decided that I didn't want to do a PhD dissertation that had to do something horrible like life and works of Octavio Paz, or something like that.
YH: So, I wanted to do something that was really relevant for me and I knew this story that in 1920 there was a fire in a mine in Pachuca, my hometown that used to be a mining town. And in that moment the mine was owned by... Administrated by an American company. And there was a fire in March 10, 1920. And what they decided to do was to close off the mine, which was called El Bordo, to stop the fire. But, they did it when many of the miners were still inside. So, basically, they just murdered them. And there was an investigation, and the investigation was not about why they did it, but was just about the origin of the fire. So, what I did in my dissertation that... It actually sounds better than what I'm saying, but what I did was that I analyzed the judicial file of that investigation as fiction because this is something that is part of Mexican normalcy, the institutional fictions, the institutional lies.
YH: And I compared that with the other side of texts that have to do with the issue of impunity in Mexico. But, afterwards, I decided to just take that part of the dissertation and tell the story as it is because even though a lot of people in Pachuca know it, it's basically the people who have families that work in the mines. And I wanted it to be part of the memory of the city. So, I took what I thought was more credible of the different sources that I found, and I just told the story in... Like in a single shot. I wanted it to be like a powerful story. It's non-fiction, it was... It's probably the book that has been more difficult for me for a lot of reasons, but the main reason is that I didn't want to speculate. I didn't want to fantasize, which is what I always do. And I didn't want to use other language beyond the language that I found in the sources. So, this was a very clear limit and... But, in the end... Well, I was able to do a very short book. Yes, it's coming out next year in English. Thank you for...
AS: Well, it is in fact very powerful, so when it comes out, I recommend you to read it. So, we're wrapping up, but first I want you to read us a page of the "Transmigration of Bodies", if you're okay with that.
YH: Should I read just one page, I've... No, no, because I had to... We have time?
AS: Yes, we have time? Yeah, okay.
YH: I'm okay.
AS: So, as you wish.
YH: Okay. This is a novel about a guy who wants to stay inside but has to go outside. He... I don't know how that sound but... This is a guy who, for lack of a better word is a fixer and he wants to stay inside because there is a woman he likes and he has to go outside because he has a boss that asked him to go outside to solve a problem. And he wants to stay inside also because outside there is a lot of fear because there is an epidemic and he doesn't want to be in touch with that. And I have always thought about the theme of the epidemic is a really interesting one to create a novel because that's when you test yourself, how brave you are, how much you trust your neighbour, how much empathy you can have. And at that same time, it had to do with the way I understood what was happening in Mexico, which was all distrust of the authorities, of our neighbours, and a state of fear.
YH: So what I'm gonna read I'm just gonna read the first two pages and then a couple of pages of what happens when he is inside, and he still doesn't know that he has to go outside.
YH: A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mescal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day. He had no way of knowing it already was, had been for hours truly awful. Much more awful than the private little inferno he built himself on booze. He decided to go out, he opened his door, was disconcerted not to see this camper of Lanora who'd lived there since the days when the big house was actually a big house and not two floors of little houses. Room for folks have down of their luck. And then opened the front door and walked out. The second he took a step his back creaked to tell him something was off. He knew he wasn't dreaming because his dreams were so unremarkable.
YH: If ever he managed to sleep several hours in a row he dreamt, but his dreams were so life-like they provided no rest. Only small variation on his everyday undertakings and his everyday conversations and everyday fears. Occasionally, his teeth fell out, but aside from that it was just everyday stuff. Nothing like this buzzing. Then a dense block of mosquitoes tethering themselves to a puddle of water as though attempting to lift it. There was no one, nothing. Not a single voice, not one sound on an avenue that by that time should have been rammed with cars. Then he looked closely. The puddle began at the foot of a tree like someone had leaned up against it to vomit and what the mosquitoes were sucking up wasn't water but blood. And there was no wind. Afternoons, it blew like a bitch, so there should be at least a light breeze, yet all he got was stagnation, solid lethargy. Things feel much more present when they look so abandoned. He closed the door and stood there for a second not knowing what to do.
YH: He returned to his room and he stood there too, staring at the table and the bed. He sat on the bed. What worried him most was not knowing what to fear. He was used to fending off the unexpected but even though unexpected, the unexpected had its limits. You could trust that when you open the door every morning... You could trust that when you opened the door every morning, the world wouldn't be emptied of people. These though was like falling asleep in an elevator and waking up with the doors open on a floor you never knew existed. "One thing at a time," he said to himself. "First, water then we'll figure out what the fuck. Water."
YH: He picked up his nose and turned attempted to look around the place again and then said aloud, "Of course." He got up, went into the bathroom with a glass, pulled the lid of the tank and saw barely three fingers. He'd gotten up in the night to pee and the tank hadn't refilled after he flushed. He scraped the bottom with the glass but there was only enough for half. One drop of water was all that was left in his body and it had picked the precise place of his temple to burrow its way out. "Fuck it," he said. "Since when do I believe those bastards?"
YH: So those bastards are the government and because they have been talking about something that is gonna happen and now realize... He realized that this actually happens, the epidemic. So in the next pages he's inside and he gets in touch finally with this woman who is called here the three times blond, and because he has never had the time, the opportunity to be in touch with her. Now that they are caged inside this big house he finally has this one shot and he's about to do it when he realizes that something has... That's he's lacking time.
YH: As soon as he sensed he didn't need for the permission, he pulled off her panties and got naked and pulled her to him by the hips, but then she said, "Where's the condom? Mother fuck the condom." He had asked himself the same thing and hadn't answered himself, "Don't fucking worry about it right now." He puts his pants back on. Said, "Don't move."
YH: He stepped into the hall barefoot. The anaemic student was nowhere to be seen. He ran into his apartment reciting the prayer of the overheated horn dog. "Oh please, oh please, oh please. May he the drunken me, may he the dumb fuck me. May he, the me who never ever, ever knows where the shit is, may he have saved one, just one, lubricated or corrugated, coloured, flavoured, magnum or tight fit. Oh, please, holy saint of horned dogs, grant me just one condom." But he knew there were none. He'd used that prayer the last time, months ago and managed to unearth one under the bed, gleaming and glorious as a national hero. The very last one. This was not a time for heroes or miracles. Fear was what had granted him these hours of intimacy, but now it was showing its virulent side. Go on off to the shop, lady killer. That's it.
AS: Thank you, thank you for your reading. It was very powerful.
YH: Let me just say one thing. Once I received... When I had a Twitter account, I deleted it because I was always angry. Anyway, once I received a message from a guy saying, "I used the prayer yesterday, and it worked." So if literature can serve a purpose...
AS: It's good to know.
YH: To help people have safe sex, that's it.
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