Q&A w/ laia jufresa, sophie hughes

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 9/12/16

How to stump me as a bookseller: come into the store and ask me for a funny, happy book where nothing bad happens. Because the truth is, I will fail you, one hundred percent of the time. The flip side? People ask me about my favorite books and often, I can see their eyes glaze over as I mention rape, suicide, addiction—as if those books can’t also have moments that are funny and happy.

Laia Jufresa’s debut novel, UMAMI, is such a book. In a hovel nested inside Mexico City, three families lose a mother, a daughter, and a wife. One leaves, one drowns, and one dies. However, Jufresa is not interested in that. Instead, UMAMI focuses on the next four years, and the way the neighbors inside the Belldrop Mews wade through their grief. Each character speaks in the present tense from a different year, between 2000 and 2004. Together, their accounts make a portrait of the ways we learn (or refuse) to cope.

Jufresa and her translator Sophie Hughes were kind enough to answer questions about the novel via e-mail.


Brazos Bookstore: UMAMI, to me, feels rooted in Mexico, even though the characters rarely leave their cloister. How do the Belldrop Mews and its tenants reflect the larger Mexico City? What is missing?

Laia Jufresa: Over 20 million people live in Mexico City. It’s a chaotic place that somehow manages to function and which, despite its unambiguous name, is more like many different cities at once. So this story, which takes place mostly inside an enclosed space of only five houses, does not portray the city (nor was that my intention). However, I agree with you in that the novel is very rooted in Mexico, but perhaps this happens not out of some sense of place as much as through the language, the atmospheres, the day-to-day of the characters and the tone of the relationships between neighbors and family members. I have lived in Mexico City, but only for about a third of my life, so in my heart and imaginary it remains a place made of emotional ties and singular expressions more than concrete streets and corners. So perhaps that’s what came through when I used it as a setting.

Sophie Hughes: I’ll only add that this novel touched me because it is universal. UMAMI brims with Mexico, but not the one I’d ever been sold in documentaries, articles, or movies before I moved here. I don’t read books set in foreign lands to see how exotic and foreign they are, but rather to hope to find in them common facets that define human nature. That’s the key for me. That’s why literature must be translated: so that books like UMAMI can come along and be brilliantly, movingly, entertainingly self-aware and honest in their observations about a place we may have a dubiously warped outsider’s vision of. Laia rips any narco-lit or magical realism label off a truly indefinable city.

BB: Why tell a story over five years through five voices?

LJ: I wanted to write about grief not in a melodramatic or immediate way, but by paying attention to its many ripples over time and as felt by different members of a small community. This interest led me to strive for a polyphony. Long before I had the story clear in my head, I was working on the different voices. I had the voice of a little girl who dies, and the voice of her sister seemingly finally over her period of mourning. This meant I needed a chronological structure that would allow those voices to coexist. I didn’t want to write a novel where the dead speak, so I needed the novel’s time span to allow me to include those two realities. Ditto for the other characters and their different losses or absences.

BB: There are two mysteries the characters want to solve—Why did Chela leave? How did Luz drown if she knows how to swim?—and another that is a riddle for the reader—What are “The Girls” that Alfonso is always on about?

The last section solves two of these puzzles and both revelations are mesmerizing! How do you create a universe in which these things are possible and also taken seriously?

LJ: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s one answer. In a way the whole book is my answer to how you would do just that—combine the serious and the absurd sides of real life—for this particular story.

I think one big important thing for me is achieving a sort of straight-forwardness with the voice, a place where I feel the voice is speaking truthfully, and then the story itself can be about anything at all. So perhaps it’s not so much about things being possible and taken seriously, as much as achieving a narration that makes things (anything) feel plausible, and feel as important to the reader as they do to the characters. But that building takes time and that’s why the last section seems to reveal so much.

The other key, I think, is the word you used: a universe. I think UMAMI is a book it takes a while to get into because it’s so far from the One Hero Journey roadmap that permeates so many of today’s narrative. I’ve read reviews that say things along the lines of “stick with it, it will be rewarding!”, and I sometimes cringe at this, thinking it is a flaw, perhaps one typical of first novels even, that I didn’t manage to fully hook the reader from page one. But other times I think what came through is that deep down I like books and characters—and people—that you have to get to know a bit before falling in love because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Building a universe, setting it up well enough—yet with only very minimal descriptions—so that the reader can leisurely move inside it, that’s something I’m really interested in. And I think perhaps building the Mews was the only way I could wrap my head around that task. Perhaps when you have closed walls you have spots where those mysteries and their many implications can bounce off or slowly percolate, whereas if the story was placed in an entire city as we discussed earlier, these very subtle nuances would get lost, and these puzzles that are so dear to the characters would seem meaningless.

BB: In this story, the female characters are bold while the men are passive and/or the ones who are left (either by death or by choice). Was that a conscious decision?

LJ: Not really. But so little in my writing process is a conscious decision…If it didn’t come naturally to me, though, I think this probably would be the one thing I’d make a point of attempting: to build complex multi-layered female characters. They’re rare where I come from. Not in life, of course, but Mexican literature, so rich in many other aspects—form, language, the mix of humor and seriousness, etc.—has taken so long to catch up to life in this one truth: that women are humans. I didn’t use to care but it bothers me more and more, somehow, to read book after book never finding a woman in it that isn’t a glaring stereotype—the whore or the mother. So yes, after this rant I’d say it probably was a decision, albeit an unconscious one, in that it’s something that matters to me. Not as a cause per se, but just because I find it ludicrous that something as rich and open as literature would be denied something as rich and endless as women’s inner worlds and daily acts of all sorts.

SH: This didn’t occur to me when I first read the book, but it certainly became clear as I translated it. I think Laia writes multi-layered characters whether they’re male, female, or inanimate reborn dolls. And I think when you read this book it’s not a glaringly obviously female targeted, if such a novel exists. Having said that, as a woman, I will never look at motherhood the same way again. Laia’s character’s decimation of society’s response to her having chosen not to have children is vital and brilliant, without ever moralizing. Of course, like any good novel, UMAMI doesn’t wear any moral or political messages on its sleeve, but it does pose some very pertinent questions about the human and female condition (and those terms themselves).

BB: Always, there is this sentiment from the characters that English dilutes everything in a way that is almost unforgivable. Bilingual characters are judged on whether they can mask their natural accent when using their second language. How did that attitude affect the translation process?

LJ: I’ll let Sophie get that one but I’ll just share that when my friend Carmen Cáceres, an Argentinian writer, read one of the first drafts she said to me, “This book is SO Mexican! They’re all obsessed with English!” I was taken aback. I would have named many other very Mexican features the book has before hitting upon that particular one. But then I thought about it and had to accept she was absolutely right.

SH: It wasn’t so much the attitude as the nitty-gritty “Gah, how will I get this outsider’s view of this English word across if the text I’m writing is in English?” Often, precisely because she’s so fluent and interested in English as a native Spanish speaker, the point of Laia’s jokes are at risk of being lost in English translation. To give an example: teenage Ana’s dad is Mexican, and her mom English, and she’s grown up bilingual.

“According to Dad, on principle you should distrust any language that uses the same word for libre and gratis.”

Here I had to trust that English readers have just enough of an awareness of (or subconscious link to) the Latin roots underpinning their language that even if they don’t speak Spanish, they’ll get the joke. If you don’t find any humor in UMAMI, you can be certain it’s because I’ve failed at my job.

BB: What projects are you working on now?

LJ: I just finished my first movie script. Hardest thing I’ve ever written, by the way. But now it has a director and a producer and if they somehow find loads of money, it will perhaps be a movie someday? In the meantime, I’m having a baby in a few months and striving to learn German so I can properly howl at the people in the delivery room when the time comes. (Because I live in Germany, not because I find that classier.)

SH: I’ve just translated a good chunk of LA RESTA (2015) by Alia Trabucco Zerán. Searing, intelligent, breathless, brave, uniquely crafted: you’ll definitely see this novel in English one day. And by chance, I translated a sample for a friend of hers, Guiseppe Caputo, who’s written a novel EL MUNDO HUÉRFANO that’s flying off the shelves in Colombia. I really want this book to find an English-language publisher. The setting is a kind of Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet beach wasteland/fairground. The relationship between father and his gay son one of the most tender I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The descriptions of the young man’s sex life are beautiful and brutal. I hope we get increasingly used to seeing literary novels that include homosexual sex in our bookshops. How can we hope for new novels to speak truthfully, as indeed Laia puts it, if we suppress what shocks us in its novelty or seeming inapplicability to our personal lives?

BB: What are recent works in translation you would recommend? What authors or works would you like to see translated into English?

LJ: I just found out Samantha Schweblin’s first novel (DISTANCIA DE RESCATE) is coming out in English! Do Not Miss It. It will be called FEVER DREAM and it’s translated by Megan McDowell.

And I wish Jorge Ibargüengoitia and Fabio Morabito were more available in translation.

SH: I wholeheartedly agree with Laia on Schweblin. I’m interested to see the reception. She may divide readers, but isn’t that what good books do—prompt discussion? FEVER DREAM appeals to me because it paints a dark, dramatic underbelly of motherhood. The same appeal as UMAMI had, in fact, although they are two very different novels. This is a good time for Latin American literature in translation. Mario Bellatín, Carmen Boullosa, Álvaro Enrigue, Verónica Gerber, Julián Herbert, Yuri Herrera, Laia Jufresa, Valeria Luiselli, Emiliano Monge, Guadalupe Nettel, Eduardo Rabasa, Daniel Saldaña Paris, Carlos Velázquez, and Juan Pablo Villalobos are contemporary authors recently or about to be published in English from Mexico alone! Just because no one (thankfully) has put a name on it yet (i.e. the Boom, the Crack) doesn’t mean something significant isn’t happening in front of readers’ eyes. I get the feeling at Brazos I’m preaching to the converted, though…

interview w/ lily hoang

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 8.15.16

Say you get to do an interview for the first time in four months and it is with the woman that wrote your favorite book this year. What you don’t know is that she is in Europe during the weeks you have to reach her. In fact, she’s been in Europe for eleven weeks: fourteen countries, one book tour, one week-long writing workshop in Barcelona. The last time you used Skype, you were a junior in college, and it was to talk to your best friend while she was in Scotland, and your crappy ex-boyfriend during his year in Japan. Seeing the interface and hearing the sound of the dial tone conjures more feelings than anticipated.

When I meet Lily Hoang, author of the essay collection A BESTIARY—and four other books I have not read—I am wearing a hoodie I bought in 2009 for a band I no longer pay to see and pulling a personal pizza out of the oven because it is 9pm and dinner isn’t going to eat itself. Hoang also is in her pajamas, wearing a black t-shirt with a reference to something unknown to me and smoking an e-cigarette in her Boston hotel room. She ordered Indian food for delivery—they don’t have Indian food in New Mexico, see—and this is what it means to be professional writers: to eat on live stream with strangers because it is all the time you have before the deadline.

For two months, I backed A BESTIARY every way I knew how: reviews for Ploughshares and Heavy Feather Review, staff picks for the store and our website, and now this. In so many ways, I had already said what I needed to say, that A BESTIARY is the thing that finally gave me permission to stop worrying about everybody else’s opinions regarding my Asian-ness. It is enough to be myself and Asian and American, all. There is no quota. There are no rules.

In A BESTIARY, Hoang discusses her disguises through the years, and how few of them fit. During her marriage to a white man she calls Chris, she let her husband “correct” her opinions because that’s what “a good wife” would do. She made pies from scratch, with cold butter. “This used to be me,” she writes. Bitter toward the ex-husband, sure, but much more disappointed in herself for contorting that way. She uses Professor Hoang as comparison: “In the classroom, I project confidence and strength. People tell me I intimidate them.” Though dubbed her “favorite Lily to wear,” it is still a performance. It is all a performance.

When I call Hoang, she knows that I have read her book, which means I know what kind of sex she likes (rough), the name of her best best friend (Dorothy), all of her hate (and love) for her Vietnamese parents. I know about her abusive ex-husband and her abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend, the fling she had in Albuquerque; I know that she masturbates every day. In other words, I already know everything I want to know, more than I deserve to know.

So, what do I ask? I ask where she went in Europe. I ask if any of the recurring characters in her essays have read the book. I am thinking of her parents, but she thinks I mean the men and without any hesitation pulls me into the gossip surrounding the awful boyfriend. She tells me where he lives, what he’s doing. She says that when she posted a status that she was coming back to America, he sent her a message asking if he could buy her a plane ticket to come see him. Her response to me—in real time, side-bar—is to make a face and imitate her asking him if he had read the book. Then, since he has: “What makes you think I have any intention of seeing you ever again?”

She takes another puff on her e-cig, and I think, I want to be this woman.

Scratching her head, she says, “Do you want to know how I wrote the book? That’s something that hasn’t been written up yet.” I say, “Okay,” but what I wonder is whether or not she would have said the same thing if we were talking without video, if she couldn’t see my face. She tells me about studying with Rikki Ducornet and how she is responsible for the book that is on my bookshelf. During their summer together, Hoang read Ducornet the manuscript out loud. (Ducornet is in her seventies and can’t see well.) She loved the first piece, but was less enthusiastic about the second. An old woman without pretense, Ducornet asked Hoang if she had anything better, because everything except the first section was too self-serving, too purple. “I want to see what your brain can do,” Ducornet said.

Despite all, Hoang’s manuscript, the same one she read Ducornet, wins two contests. The first would not let her do revisions—it was the manuscript as is or bust. The second was the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. CSU gave her twenty days. Her deadline was September 10, in the midst of her deadline for her tenure portfolio, which was due September 1. Over curry and okra—so much Indian food the delivery person gave her three sets of silverware—Hoang tells me about those marathon weeks, how she juggled starting classes, being associate department head, finishing the portfolio, rewriting the book. She did not sleep.

What became the essay titled “on the WAY TO THE TEMPLE OF TEN THOUSAND SKULLS” was thirty-five pages in its original form. In my version of A BESTIARY, it is four sentences. Total, there are, Hoang says, “maybe ten” pages that got saved. The rest went to the trash, and for the better. In her acknowledgments, Hoang thanks Ducornet for their “fairy tale summer together,” and I want to know how these things happen. Because the book I read? Hoang cares so little for her own pain that many times I want to intervene on her behalf. It is a difficult, almost impossible, balance—to say, “Yes, this was me,” without romanticizing it at all.

Attempting an approach at the diagonal, I ask her about the title, and she says there’s “no special meaning behind it.” Instead, she tells me her definition of a bestiary—“a collection of animals, real and imagined”—and that she is a “literal human being” who says “exactly what [she] means.” In fact, she tells me she often gets chided for not being able to detect sarcasm. “I believe everything,” she says, and at this point, when she has not slept in days, has already been on two planes today and has another one in the morning, before dawn, I cannot argue.

Last question: what next? Right off, she says, “Tindering My Way Through Europe” and describes her vision of this book of steamy essays about her trips across the continent with all these handsome men with doctorates—EVERY SINGLE ONE. Hoang’s PhD? On “geography of the imagination.”

interview w/ wendy s walters

This interview was originally published on BrazosBookstore.com in August 2015

“Lonely in America,” the first essay in Wendy S. Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE, begins like this: “I have never been particularly interested in slavery, perhaps because it is such an obvious fact of my family’s history.” Whatever the reason, the idea of a woman with slavery in her bloodline having little interest in her history intrigues me—especially when compared to someone like my friend Rachel, whose distant relative’s involvement in the Nazi movement caused her to question her own identity. Who chooses what we care about, or how we assess our personal histories against larger world histories? In “Lonely in America,” variations of this question eventually lead Walters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. Walters reports that “at least four of the remains in questions were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s.”

“[Portsmouth] is a really lovely town,” Walters tells me over the phone, “but beneath the city streets, there’s this history that’s really not part of the public identity of the city,” meaning that New England’s history with segregation often gets buried—literally, in this case. She was fascinated by the idea of “people [living] their daily lives on top of this cemetery,” not knowing what lay just below the surface. In this essay, and throughout the book, Walters searches for ways to keep herself awake, alert, and present. “There’s…a lot of pain in history and present context of America,” she tells me. “[MULTIPLY/DIVIDE], for me, is an attempt to figure out where the pain is located in these historical moments and historical records that we are familiar with.”

The story you remember from history class is not, should not, cannot, be the only story.

The overarching question Walters spent years contemplating was: “How functional is our democracy?” And beneath that was yet another question: “What makes someone visible or un-visible?” By “un-visible,” Walters doesn’t mean “invisible”; rather, she refers to the people we have the ability to see, but whom we choose not to recognize. All of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE centers around this distinction. “How do I become visible or not visible to people in my day-to-day experience?” Walters asks herself throughout this book. “How [do I make myself] more open to seeing people that I may have dismissed, ignored, or written off as a character of a trope of something I thought I understood? How do I make it so I learn to see better?”

Keeping a sharp eye becomes even more vital when one considers the number of race-motivated murders in America, and the disturbing or absent coverage of the deaths of black men and women in the mainstream media. The onslaught of violence grew all the more visible to Walters when she became a mother while writing MULTIPLY/DIVIDE. “I don’t know if [my newfound motherhood] was any more remarkable than anyone else’s,” Walters says, “but it certainly was one of those moments [when my] thinking was reset.”

In her “attempt to bring to light some of the contradictions about American identities and aspiration,” Walters employs a mix of genres. In fact, the introduction outlines which essays in the collection are fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, “a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reporting, actual and imagined events.” Why the combination? Why not just all fiction or all nonfiction? Why not poetry, like her previous books TROY, MICHIGAN and LONGER I WAIT, MORE YOU LOVE ME? “I make [these] categorizations because I think they are important,” Walters writes. “But I also make them with a bit of pause, because the border between nonfiction and fiction—while seemingly clear as black and white—is often porous enough to render the distinction as irrelevant.” Since the same could be said about the real and the surreal, as Walters points out, she hopes to address “nuances as they unfold place by place, argument by argument, and story by story,” rather than limit herself or her subject to a single genre. “I’m of the mindset that I just try to write down what I’m obsessed about and worry about how it fits into the larger puzzle later,” Walters tells me.

Sarabande Books, Walters’ publisher, frequently releases works of formal complexity. When I ask Kristen Radtke, Sarabande’s managing editor, about the form of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE—whether people will understand once it’s a thing out in the world—she says, “It’s easier to market things if you can say, ‘This is exactly what this is about,’ [but] what’s interesting about [Walters’] book is that it’s associative in the way our minds are.” It’s not one of those books that’s easy to pitch, but the writing itself will make its difficult subject matter more digestible. “You never really feel like you’re being preached at, but you feel like you’re living her experiences with her,” Radtke says. “She’s really talking about a lot of issues that we’re all thinking about, the way Americans need change.”

Radtke says that giving a bold but largely unknown writer like Wendy S. Walters a home “makes her feel like she’s succeeding.” Plus, “most of our authors that move on to larger houses still remain friends to Sarabande.” It truly seems like a family, especially when Radtke tells me that “we are actually a staff entirely of women,” which is unicorn-rare for the industry. “It’s kind of an amazing gift to be part of a team of forward-thinking, progressive women,” Radtke says. “It’s something that I never thought would be possible.”

What both women—Walters and Radtke—seem to be advocating is that we should not keep our biases about what is or isn’t possible buried, but that we should dig them up and hold them to the light. The hope? That acknowledging and assessing the mistakes in our own thinking can help craft better futures.