by Maddie King
“He chose to use the language that we would speak during our journey through the boreal forest: a language that was not strictly his nor mine, a third space, a second tongue in common.”
–The Taiga Syndrome
Cristina Rivera Garza is the author of several novels, collections of short stories and poetry, and nonfiction. Though she favors her native Spanish for her own writing, she has a background in translation and teaches both Latin American History and Creative Writing in the United States. Her work has been translated into multiple languages, including English, French, Korean, Italian, and Portuguese.
Her latest novel, The Taiga Syndrome (El Mal de Taiga) is the story of a failed detective turned author of noir-mystery novels who, accompanied by a translator, investigates the disappearance of a woman and her lover in the forest.
I walked through this book like a somnambulist–Rivera Garza makes one feel miles away, yet eerily present on the most visceral level. Brimming with illicit curiosity, I found many like-minded sleep-walkers/investigators on my way. This is a story full of curious minds, addicted to the tension between what repels yet fascinates, horrifies yet arouses, beguiles, bewitches.
Celebrated in her native Mexico, Rivera Garza is the recipient of such distinguished awards as 2000 IMPAC/CONARTE/ITESM National Award for Best Published Novel in Mexico, the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize, and the 1997 José Rubén Romero National Literary Award for Best Novel.
She currently works in Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston.
M.K : You published your first book, No me vera llorar, in 1999, and have since come out with a number of novels (Taiga being the most recent), as well as poems and collections of short stories. You have also been an active blogger for some time–I enjoyed falling down the rabbit hole of A Relationship with the Light, letters from a vampire woman produced in the form on online entries. How has self-publishing and more old-school press publication complemented each other, in your experience?
CRG: I began publishing novels and short story books with Tusquets, a Barcelona-based publisher well-known for its literary seal. It was a real pleasure working with them. They were, as they liked to say, the smallest transnational press in the Spanish-speaking world, paying equal attention and being extremely personable throughout the process and aggressively distributing my books in Mexico and Spain. I was fairly happy. And yet, I became very enthusiastic about the technological revolution that put writers in closer contact with readers. I started my first blog thanks to the influence of students at a writing workshop I taught in Tijuana. I then migrated, full of curiosity, to Twitter. I even tried my hand at Facebook.
Writers are prone to say they “hear voices” when they write. Well, the digital revolution that swept the writing world made that hearing and the voices possible and real. One of my first experiments featured in a blog I soon discontinued consisted on writing a novel based on characters I met in my daily life. I talked to them about, among other things, the course of the novel, and they gladly participated in the design and unfolding of the main plot line. I was thrilled by all that energy—young and old people alike believing they were writers, and acting accordingly.
Before Twitter admitted the use of images, when it was only a textual sea, I attempted to write stories fleetingly connecting the disjointed units of the original 140 characters. It was all a thrilling exercise in processual aesthetics—the rejection of a final version, the mixing and exchange of writers and readers, the provisional and plural nature of literary work. That’s how I began thinking of disappropriation and community-based forms of writing as ways of keeping my own writing on its toes, that is to say, as a critical exploration of the world we share with others.
M.K : Tell us about your experience publishing with smaller presses like the Dorothy Project and Feminist Press.
CRG: Before publishing the translations of two of my novels with The Feminist Press and Dorothy Project, I had worked with the SurPlus, an independent press located in Oaxaca, Mexico. They published a book of personal essays on the so-called War on Drugs that was sweeping our country with violence and despair. I admired the autonomous spirit of this press, the way editors looked for an explicit engagement with the world. They were rebellious, free-spirited, and fun. They were also a bunch of daring readers. Independent publishers both in Mexico and the United States—and throughout the world–are fundamental in a market dominated by a handful of transnational companies prone to bet on certain aesthetics. Independent publishers make sure readers know that there are writers—a myriad of writers; writers in all kinds of shapes; diverse writers–creating worlds we can inhabit. And they make these worlds reachable. I have made a strategic decision regarding the publication of some my books in Spanish with Random House. I like to think of these books as Trojan horses of sorts. And I have continued working with independent presses both in Mexico and the U.S., thrilled by the possibility of reaching readers looking for wayward books, books in translation, books announcing other worlds are possible.
M.K: Taiga explores how stories, namely well-known fairytales like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” mutate over the course of multiple retellings–how they become “transfigured” (p.30) over time. Something similar happens when your narrator and her translator wander through the forest, interrogating its inhabitants: the details in their stories warp as they pass from one mouth to the next. I’m curious to hear your perspective on translating, both as a translator and an author in translation. Does the process lead to a kind of transfiguration, or even disfigurement?
CRG: Translation and transcription are two of the most demanding, detail-oriented, and precise readings we can find. Isn´t it interesting (and somewhat paradoxical) that the most demanding of readings is at the same time the most liberating? I understand with Mireille Gansel (Translation as Transhumance), that translation is both “a risk-taking and a continual re-examination,” “a learning to listen to the silences in between the lines,” “the essence of hospitality.” I am less interested in fidelity and more on versioning. Instead of thinking of translation as a smooth transition or a harmonious process, I am interested in how translation brings up dissent, discordance, deviation, contention. There are always issues of power when translating, for example, indigenous languages—which are not minor as much as they have been minorized—into European languages. The same applies for translations between English and Spanish, especially these days when a racist and xenophobic president has continuously attacked migrants from Mexico and Central America. I believe in an engaged translation; a translation that neither forgets the hierarchies of the world we live in nor its commitment for critical theory and practice.
M.K: “Taiga” refers to an illness as well as a location in your fictional world; it is both a forest and a landscape of the mind. You have had a long-time interest in topics of psychosis and psychiatry in both a scholarly and writerly framework. What are the results of your investigation–how do mind and place intersect?
CRG: Marc Auge made an argument not too long ago about the no-places we are prone to inhabit. This, which may be read as a displacement of place, has, in fact, emphasized the tentative, provisional, at times impersonal nature of place in our contemporary world. I tend to think less about space as such and more about territory (space plus politics). Just as I write from and through a body—a body among bodies—I do so in territories linked by economic inequality and cultural diversity. Am I addressing the question of accumulation? This is what I ask of my writing process. Am I attentive enough to issues of territory and embodiment? Answers to these questions not only generate different plot lines but also encourage a wide array of formal explorations. I am increasingly interested in the material conditions that allow (or don´t) the writing process—and I have tried to bring this interest as a motive both in terms of plot and in terms of literary strategy in all my writing projects.
M.K: Your work has been acclaimed and well-known in Mexico since the late 80s; English translations came many years later. How did the translations come about? How has your career as an author and your sense of yourself as an author changed with this larger audience?
CRG: I owe the translation of my work to the hard work and the generous devotion of translators Sarah Booker, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Aviva Kana. They have devoted countless hours [and] many conversations to painstakingly read[ing] and inhabit[ing] the worlds contained in The Iliac Crest and The Taiga Syndrome. I wrote these books while living in the U.S. and working in English. I was, and continue to be, a voracious reader of some experimental work by U.S. authors. While written in Spanish, these two books were conceived in a very close relationship with English, conversing with specific literary traditions of this country. It is then somewhat expected that I understand these translations as a coming back, a returning of sorts, of these books to their “original” language. Translation has somehow peeled off the Spanish to let the English emerge. For quite a long time I was in a one-sided conversation with a tradition whose practitioners were not able to read my work. These translations have made the dialogue real.
M.K: Your protagonist seeks solace in a run-down house in a coastal city to write the noir-novellas based on her failed cases (p.20). Are there specific places or mindsets that you need to inhabit in order to write?
CRG: I might take the easy way out and tell you that I write pretty much everywhere and all the time. Which is true, to a point. But if I want to answer this very complicated question honestly, I have to tell you that, in order to write, I have to reach a mental state in which danger and exhilaration are one and the same. I have to feel that my life is at stake and that I am safe (through the writing) simultaneously. I tend to be quite disciplined (many years in American universities have taught me that), and that contributes to my writing, but not as much as this wild, racing process that puts together language and rage, hope, evanescence.
M.K “I remember the cold. Above all, I remember the cold. I remember my clenched jaw, fists deep in my coat pockets.” (p.8) “Recuerdo…” “I remember…”–this incantation courses through the whole book, and brings with every refrain a new sensory detail that anchors both the reader and your narrator to the story as it unfolds. You teach Latin American History as well as Creative Writing–two disciplines that I would have said are rather different, but upon reflection, are not so dissimilar. They have to do with stories, memory… in your experience, does the sum total of your interests, scholarly and fictitious, make for a keener understanding of narrative, and of human perception?
CRG: I am an interdisciplinary scholar moving quite freely from history to literature and critical theory, and a cross-genre writer never quite at home in any given genre. What this experience in between borders of all kinds (as much geopolitical as conceptual) has taught me is to formulate questions broad enough to require the participation of all the fields I have my feet on. As soon as something acquires the shape of an answer, there is immediately a hand ready to take the torch of the next question. It is always a matter of making things as complicated in writing as they are in experience. Or perhaps this is all rubbish and I am really what my father once told me out of exasperation: “You are such a contrarian,” he said, “that if one day you were to drown—and God forbid this ever happen to you—I will look for you up the river, where I am sure you will show up, and not down the river.” So, here you have it: a contrarian by nature, by training, and by choice—to the chagrin of my beloved father, some good friends, and not a few literary critics in Mexico.
Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film.