I would say that Sophie’s the only friend I’ve ever made through color notes in a word document. It’s such a treat to have someone translating your work because no one ever will read your work as closely as a translator does.
This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16
Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.
It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”
It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”
As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.
But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.
The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”
It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”
The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.
“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.
In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.
Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.
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…