A Writer Who's Redefining Borders All Over Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Latin American lit need not be about drug gangs and beaches. It can be about New York.
By Shannon Sims
About two decades ago, a 12-year-old girl on a layover at Paris/Charles de Gaulle Airport decided to start a journey. Down an escalator, past baggage claim and out the glass doors she went. Alone. She boarded the train into Paris and headed to Cité Universitaire, figuring she might run into other young kids there. For the first time but not the last, she experienced an exhilarating feeling: total independence.
For Valeria Luiselli, the rising literary star who looks younger but writes older than her 31 years of age, it’s a feeling that echoes throughout her work, as characters disembark into new cities. When she relished her newfound independence and rebellious transgression that afternoon in Paris, Luiselli did what only those born-to-be-authors would do: She found a cafe and journaled. “Solitude mediated by writing,” she calls it.
Today, she’s one of the hottest authors around. Her first work, Faces in the Crowd, and its companion essay collection, Sidewalks, are both hits with critics. In fact, moments before she speaks to OZY, in a cold New York City park, Luiselli learns Faces is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Book Prize for First Fiction, whose winner will be announced in April. Named by the National Book Foundation as one of its 5 Under 35 writers last year, reviews of her book — “lovely and eccentric” and “exciting new female voice [in] a new wave of Latin American authors” — read like a mosh pit of praise.
Only, she’s not exactly a Latin American author. Or at least not the kind you might think. What should her geographical label read? “The truth is, I don’t know,” she says, preferring to identify herself as extraterritorial.
In that sense, she’s not alone. Leylha Ahuile, editor of Publishers Weekly’s “Books in Spanish” column, notes that Luiselli is part of a new class of worldly writers with ties to that region. “One of the new tendencies of Latin American literature is for writers to write beyond their borders,” she says. “Their books are no longer just situated in Latin America, as was the case during the Latin American boom.”
Luiselli, to some extent, disagrees. She points to boom author Gabriel García Márquez as one example: He was Colombian, but his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was written in Mexico. She says what’s different for her generation of Latin American writers is their cosmopolitanism and “sense of plurality that saves us from the solitude a 20th century writer must have felt.” Luiselli adds, “I’m as much rooted in South Africa as I am in Mexico.”
That’s what happens when you’re the child of an ambassador. Born in Mexico, she’s since lived in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa, India, Spain and France — eternally a stranger in a new land, finding her own way in the world, picking up traveler skills like “streetwiseness” and independence, which she notes with pride.
Now, she’s found her spot in West Harlem, of all places, and she says she’s staying. “I’m now deeply inserted into my community in Harlem.” She’s finishing up a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia and is married to another notable Mexican author, Álvaro Enrigue. Together they have a 5-year-old daughter named Maia. Luiselli spends her days doing what New York has encouraged introspective writers to do for time immemorial: stalk the streets in observance of the ebbs and flows of life before tucking into quiet corners — her preference is obscure libraries — to reflect and write. Between cigarette breaks, of course.
Her writing has a lot to do with cities, which she often views from the blurred perspective of her dashing bike. Her characters float into their urban worlds as if in a dream, driven by obsession, ambition, blending reality with fantasy. Her writing is both cerebral — chock-full of academic-ish references — and fluid, but salted with a bit of structural edge. In many of her works, including Faces in the Crowd, she uses narrative disjunctions to foster the reader’s distrust in the narrator. Some readers, though, have a hard time keeping up with the zigzagging. “As the story increasingly fragments and threads itself back together, I found myself increasingly disinterested,” says Ryan Kwon Waguespack, a 29-year-old reader from Houston. “Fragmentary and fantastical,” is how The Wall Street Journal described it.
It’s definitely not a case of lost in translation. Luiselli speaks English fluently, but she still uses a translator. Only she does it differently: She edits the translations “heavily,” turning them almost into unique works of their own. These days, though, she’s busy working on several pieces, including one about deportation. Brainstorming aloud, she tells OZY she plans for the piece to begin with an adult perspective of the passing country on a road trip and, in her trademark narrative disjunction, end with a child’s perspective.
She reveals the core of the story, which sounds a lot like her own: “I think it will be about children imagining traveling alone.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place in Mexico.