Valeria Luiselli got the idea for her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, while riding the subway in New York City. Her train was running parallel to another at the same speed, and she found herself immersed in watching passengers in the adjacent car through the two panes of glass. Her narrator in Faces, an unhappy young mother and writer, has her own “moment of voyeurism.” She becomes obsessed with the life of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet, and starts to see him everywhere, both inside and outside the confines of real time and space.
Her most recent book, Sidewalks, (published by CoffeeHouse Press) is a collection of personal essays that continues to track Luiselli’s interest in observing, exploring, and moving through cities—particularly on bicycle. She talks to Halimah Marcus, editor of Electric Literature’s weekly fiction magazine Recommended Reading, about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, her nostalgia for South Africa where she was raised, and why bike travel is empowering for her. “[It's a] question of how you understand space through a bicycle,” Luiselli says. “I really understand cities that I ride across. I have a big picture and I have a small picture at the same time.”
Luiselli joins authors Amitava Kumar, Uday Prakash, and Jason Grunebaum for a reading and conversation moderated by Jonathan Shainin, news editor of newyorker.com. Tonight. Wedsnesday, May 7. 7 p.m. The Asian American Writer’s Workshop.
HALIMAH MARCUS: I want to first start by asking you how you approach fiction and nonfiction differently.
VALERIA LUISELLI: It’s an interesting question. I don’t think that I ever put it in those terms in my head. It’s more like how I approach each book that I’m writing and each particular project that I’m working on. And I would say that there’s a lot of correspondence between the way that I approach fiction and the way that I approach nonfiction. In fact, when I was writing Sidewalks, at some point, I realized that that I was fictionalizing, somehow. And not only that I was fictionalizing, but that I was needing tools that are commonly associated with fiction writing. I was needing characters to say something. In fact, the last essay that I wrote is not really an essay. There’s a character who comes in and speaks—the doorman—and then I realized that I was really just transitioning very seamlessly into fiction. That was the last essay I wrote in Sidewalks, and also the beginning of the story for Faces in the Crowd. It was almost like a bridge. I say all this because I think it reflects the way I move from fiction to nonfiction quite easily, and why I don’t like to think within the box of a genre.
I was talking recently with a friend about how so many people, especially young people, compulsively attach disclaimers to their opinions, particularly, they begin sentences with “I feel like …” I was really struck reading Sidewalks by the way your opinions and observations are stated with such authority, almost as if there has been some scientific method applied. Or it’s more an artistic method applied to arriving at them.
It’s really interesting how you notice that. I wouldn’t have ever noticed that in my writing. I’ve always thought that it’s a very American form of speaking to say, for example, I feel that, I think that. I don’t know if it’s a disclaimer but it’s a way of watering down the force of a statement. So I would tell you that if you find the tone slightly authoritative, it probably has to do with a very simple cultural difference. On the other hand, Sidewalks is a book written in conversation with the literary tradition of essay writing. And trying to think back on tone in essay writing, there is always, not an authoritative tone, but something playful that is not afraid of epigrammatic statements. The thing about the literary or personal essay is that you don’t have to prove anything. It’s not a scientific essay. It’s not academic writing. The only thing you have to really put together is the tone, the coherence of a voice. So I think that in the essay writing tradition you find a lot of statements that sound very authoritative but are not in fact claiming any form of absolute truth.
Thinking about what you were saying about blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, in Faces In the Crowd, I really enjoyed what I came to think of as an “authenticating device” where the narrator writes that her husband has just read a few pages that she has written and now he wants to know, did she really sleep with so and so or is she really moving to Philadelphia. What were you trying to achieve with this effect?
Well, this is really a book about the process of narrative. And about the place of fiction in people’s lives. So it’s a book that meditates constantly upon that barrier between fiction and life, or between reality and fiction. However you want to put it. So it’s a novel in which I wanted to show the process of construction of the novel in order to be able to meditate on that particular question. I don’t like to think of it as a novel that’s metafictional. But it is a novel in which one of the main preoccupations is to think about fiction. In that sense the rebar, wires, and scaffolding had to visible. I also think that it’s a more common characteristic of Latin American fiction to be conscious and to express the fact it’s being self-conscious about its “fictionness.” If you think about the difference between Anglo Saxon and Latin American or Spanish literature, there’s a lot more confidence in fiction, as such, in the English speaking world. It’s rare to find a novel that speaks about it’s own “fictionness” or process of construction in English. Whereas in the Latin American tradition there are many, many novels that are constantly revealing the fact that they know they are a novel. The inaugurating novel of the Spanish speaking tradition, El Quixote, is precisely that. It is always conscious of it’s own being a novel, being fiction.
I love that concept of being confident in fiction as a subject. I hadn’t thought of it that way, trusting in fiction like God.
Absolutely. Like God. It’s the spectacle business. It’s the movie business. It’s a society where fiction has a privileged place.
In Sidewalks, you quote many poets and philosophers and thinkers. Can you speak about the way your work interacts with the work of others? Why do you feel this interaction is important? I ask this because it seems so natural to you, but many novels and essays exist in a vacuum of personal experience, without that outside interaction.
It’s a nice way to phrase it. I like the way you are seeing it. I think many people may divide personal experience or “street” experience from reading as an experience. For me, reading and experience outside the textual are not completely separated, or are not separated at all. Of course, there is an ontological difference between, I don’t know, an experience such as giving birth and the experience of just reading a paragraph. There are degrees of difference. But fundamentally my personal experience—and not just mine, I would state, even in an authoritative tone—every experience is modified to degree by reading. Your experience of a space, of a country, of a city, is very much determined, or at least conditioned by what you may have read. If you are an American or a Latin American and you’ve read 20th-century Modernists and you go to Paris for the first time, what you experience is a city through its literature. And New York is a city that has been written about so many times, almost over-represented in literature, so it’s impossible not to relate to it through its signifiers and the symbols that literature has created around it.
I saw a connection to this line in Faces, “There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny. If you give them a pen, they write you a horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.” And I thought, if you’re constantly referencing or in conversation with outside works, then you can’t have a straight narrative because you’ll always be reaching out into other areas of thought.
That’s a nice image. I hadn’t viewed that connection, but there is a connection. I guess people who read with a certain intensity, or people who have a certain commitment to literature, are often finding themselves living many different lives at the same time. Reading is a form of becoming someone else for a while, as is writing. So in that sense lineality is not possible. Your life is constantly branching into other possible lives.
I don’t know if you read much contemporary American fiction, but do you find that it often is this sequential recounting of a story?
I do find there is certain rigidness in what a novel is expected to be. I think there are parameters that go by unquestioned, such as you have to empathize with the narrator. Why? Why do you have to empathize? I do think contemporary American fiction is less—the word is terrible—but less experimental. Less interested in questioning form. In questioning. It’s a moment of conventional writing, with exceptions as always. One thinks of the late 1920s in the U.S., and you can’t understand that after all that we’ve settled into this complacent reader-friendly literature. I mean, there is nothing wrong with reader-friendliness. Books have to be understood. Books do have to speak to the reader. One doesn’t write to just play around with words. A book has to connect to readers somehow. Maybe it’s not writers, maybe it’s also editors and what they believe is expected from readers, and what is expected to sell well, and what MFA teachers think is good literature that waters everything down into a friendliness that is not always interesting.
I want to talk to you about Manifesto å Velo, because I love riding my bike around the city and I especially loved that essay. You write about how a bicycle moves at a speed proportional to humans, and you compare viewing a city from a bicycle to viewing it through a movie camera. Walking is compared to a microscope, a plane is compared to a telescope. This might be a little abstract but I am wondering what is the equivalent speed, or the equivalent apparatus, for writing?
Definitely the bike. I wrote that essay on the bike. I was riding the bike and I was thinking of this essay and putting it together in my head. And I think, for example, that that rhythm is very well-reflected in the essay. It’s an essay that you read with a specific rhythm. It’s a rhythm that’s definitely not walking. It’s faster. It’s not frenetic or frantic but it has that bicycle rhythm. And I do think that metaphorically or abstractly speaking, the distance and speed that a bicycle gives you are the ones I always try to find in my writing.
Distance from the subject.
Distance from subject, distance from the world that I am trying to reconstruct. Distance from reality in general. I think it is the perfect distance. It’s not too distant, but it doesn’t linger too much in the unnecessary. As you said, this is all very abstract. Almost esoteric. But it is a distance and it’s a speed that I’d like to find in my writing. But of course not for everything. Not all the time. Writing requires a variation of tempos, changing cadences, shifting points of view.
If on the bicycle you see the world as if through a movie camera, and you have this comparison between bicycles and writing, then there is this other comparison between writing and movie cameras. If A = B and A = C than B = C.
I think it would be an acceptable analogy. What I am trying to ask in that essay and through that analogy is precisely that: what is the exact distance and speed for us to be able to cut what is unnecessary and to fix our gaze on that in which we are interested. A movie camera as much as a blank page are capable of giving you the freedom to frame what you really want to frame and to not focus on what you don’t.
I love this quote from Manifest å Velo: “Nowadays, only someone sensible enough to own a bicycle can claim to possess an extravagantly free spirit when he puts on a hat, leaves the writing room, or “room of phantoms,” and runs down the stairs to unchain his bicycle and ride out into the street.” What is it about a bicycle that you find so freeing and empowering?
I wonder. There’s definitely a medical explanation to it. The serotonin levels we reach, I don’t know. But what is it about the bicycle? There’s a freedom to not have to use the rhythm of public transport. That is a rhythm imposed upon you by the city in which you happen to live, be it Madrid, Mexico City, New York City, wherever. I think that living outside the rhythm of the city, choosing your own speed in the city is important. I don’t use a bike during the winter, and when I get back on the bike in the spring I remember how much I love this city and this space, which has to do with being able to choose the way I move around it. I also think that, beyond choice of speed and not having to subsume to the rhythm that the city imposes, beyond that there is also just the question of how you understand space through a bicycle. I really understand cities that I ride across. I have a big picture and I have a small picture at the same time. I started riding compulsively before Google Maps existed, but the relationship I had with Madrid—where I started riding a bike as a medium of transport—was completely Google Earthish, in the sense that I was capable of really distancing and abstracting, and capable of understanding its particular streets and corners.
New York is a city that has all this mythology attached to its unique nature. How much of that do you buy into? What do you think is special about New York?
I love New York. It’s a city where I want to live for many years. Probably not forever. I definitely don’t want to be old in New York. But it’s a city that I love. It’s easy to start taking a lot of things for granted when you’ve been in a place like this one, and of course I start missing other cities when I’m here. I really miss a laid backness of certain European cities where people have a beer at 1 p.m. before they go to lunch and it’s okay. There’s a Puritanism on the East Coast—I don’t know if it’s the East Coast or the whole of the U.S.—but there is a certain rigidness or “ruleyness” that I start getting upset with when I spend too much time here and I haven’t been away for a while. But at the same time those are the things that I think I like about New York. It’s a place where people respect your workaholism. Where people respect your loneliness.
You write about how nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos, “pain.” What is the place for which you have the most nostalgia?
I have a lot of nostalgia for South Africa. A lot of it. I grew up in South Africa partly. I arrived in South Africa when I was 10 years old and I left when I was 15. So it was an important moment. I arrived as a child and I left as a teenager. It was politically a really important moment and a really interesting one, and I was of course aware of that at that age. I arrived the year that Mandela became president and then left the year that he left the presidency. It was the beginning of the rainbow nation. It was a country where there was a feeling that something was happening, that something good was happening. There was certain excitement. Sort of like the months here when Obama was elected. There was a feeling that America was leaving a moment of obscurity and going toward something more positive. There was that same feeling in the air here. I have never been back. I feel quite South African, but of course I think a South African would never recognize that in me. I even experience all the clichés attached to basic nationalism, like supporting the Bafana Bafana team or feeling a certain something in my stomach when I hear the “Nkosi Sikelel,” the national anthem. I feel all those things, but at the same time I don’t think I would be considered by anyone but myself as a South African.
In Faces, there’s a narrator who is a mother, and her children seem to both keep her grounded because she is responsible for their well being, but they also enable her to venture further into fantasy. Has becoming a mother changed how you write and think about writing?
It’s a beautiful question. Being a mother changes, so the relationship between motherhood and writing is not always the same sort of relationship. When I began writing the book, I wasn’t a mother, and then I stopped writing it during pregnancy, and I returned to it a few months after giving birth. I had just gone through a period of zero intellectual activity because I just couldn’t. I think there are some women who become very active in pregnancy. I became a cow. Really I couldn’t do anything. So I was sort of being born again after pregnancy. I felt that I was coming out of this swamp of lethargy. I tried to go back to the novel I had been writing before pregnancy and it seemed to me like something that someone else had written. It seemed absurd to carry on writing as if nothing had happened to me as a person. It didn’t seem honest to go back into it just like that. I had all these new things. All the exigencies of having a newborn child. And I was trying to write against that for some time, trying to have the space of writing as a space that was just for myself and my imagination, until I realized that myself and my imagination was a completely porous thing that should incorporate everything there was around me and not try to push it away. So I started integrating immediate reality into the writing. And I think it really enriched the novel, the fact that I brought all that in. I learned how to do that in that novel, and it’s something I try to do now with everything I write.