Cristina Rivera-Garza - In this surreal queer novel, a mysterious woman disrupts the unhappy life of a doctor and forces him to confront the hidden depths of his gender identity
Cristina Rivera-Garza, The Iliac Crest, Trans. by Sarah Booker, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2017.
On a dark and stormy night, two mysterious women invade an unnamed narrator's house, where they proceed to ruthlessly question their host's identity. While the women are strangely intimate--even inventing a secret language--they harass the narrator by repeatedly claiming that they know his greatest secret: that he is, in fact, a woman. As the increasingly frantic protagonist fails to defend his supposed masculinity, he eventually finds himself in a sanatorium. Published for the first time in English, this Gothic tale destabilizes male-female binaries and subverts literary tropes.
The story begins on a dark stormy night when the unnamed protagonist lets a mysterious woman into his house, all while waiting for a different woman, his ex-partner. He soon finds himself in an unexpected circumstance with both women, whose remarkably eerie presence makes him question their real intentions as well as his own reality and, for some unbeknown reason, even his gender.
Cristina Rivera Garza fills every chapter with suspense and nonstop mystery. Nonetheless, the plot is not centered in resolving these mysteries, but rather, it provides the reader a mind-bending journey filled with symbolism and a reality that follows its own rules of logic. Like Dali's clocks, time and space melt before the reader's eyes as we discover the secret of The Iliac Crest. - Gerald A. Padilla
In this surreal queer novel, a mysterious woman disrupts the unhappy life of a doctor and forces him to confront the hidden depths of his gender identity.
“How is it possible that someone like me allowed an unknown woman in my house on a stormy night?” asks the narrator of Mexican writer Rivera Garza’s (No One Will See Me Cry, 2003, etc.) second novel to be translated into English. The unknown woman at the door claims to be Amparo Dávila, a major Mexican fantasy and horror writer from the 1950s and '60s. Dávila insinuates herself into the narrator’s life, weaving a fractured story of a conspiracy that resulted in her disappearance—and a precious stolen manuscript. To the narrator's horror, Dávila befriends his spurned former lover, starting up an intimate—and possibly erotic—relationship. The two women devise a secret language he cannot penetrate and, ultimately, reveal the narrator’s deepest fears. "I know you are a woman," Dávila whispers to the narrator one evening. Convinced that the two women are tormenting him on purpose, the narrator sets out to uncover Dávila's secrets so he can be rid of her. His quest leads him through medical archives and the lusty streets of the North City, uncovering doppelgängers and the depths of his own truth. Rivera Garza’s taut language drives the mystery forward, and she plays cleverly with the literary and political histories of Mexico, the importance of queer visibility, and the silencing of female authorship.
An existential gothic tale about the high stakes of understanding—and accepting—the self. —Kirkus Reviews
“An intelligent, beautiful story about bodies disguised as a story about language disguised as a story about night terrors. Cristina Rivera Garza does not respect what is expected of a writer, of a novel, of language. She is an agitator.” —Yuri Herrera
“Like the ocean itself, Cristina Rivera Garza writes a world where borders shift and dissolve. In the curves of the fantastic, the highest realism is born. This world is weird. This world is so deeply true. Reader, I love this wholly perfect book."—Samantha Hunt
“Warning: Cristina Rivera Garza is an explosive writer yet to be fully accounted for in English. She is an insubordinate stylist, a skilled creator of atmospheric and haunting language, and The Iliac Crest is a willfully queer piece where the workings of her wild imagination destabilize everything.” —Lina Meruane
Breathing heavily, with fat drops of sweat sliding down my face and chest, I thought of how you are never more authentic than when inside your own nightmares.I almost hesitate to write about The Iliac Crest. I feel that to tread too carelessly into the heart of this enigmatic dark fable would be risk fracturing its utterly devastating beauty. One may be best to enter its world of shifting borders where space, time, reality, fantasy, sanity, madness, identity, and gender are bent, blurred and ever so steadily unraveled without any preconceptions. Not that there is a viable bread crumb trail that could be followed to ensure Absolute Understanding. But it may be best to let the narrator be your guide, or rather to accompany him as his self-contained, apathetic existence is disturbed and distorted.
The novel is set in an undefined time, in an isolated borderland on the coast between North City and South City. To travel in either direction requires passing through heavily policed border checkpoints. Disappearance is contagious and faith in feminism is a faded notion—sexist attitudes toward women limit their roles in society. The image is a jarring one, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and decline is prevalent, nowhere more so than in the state hospital where the narrator works as a doctor tending to the destitute, wretched, and deranged who have come there to die.
A note from the author, Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, that opens the book provides some context. Navigating the US-Mexico border has been a constant in her life and this is reflected in the role that the idea of borders, geopolitical and otherwise, plays in this work. Many borders are challenged here, not least of which is the line between male and female. The consequences of rigid gender roles and the silencing of women’s lives and voices is a central concern in the story she has to tell. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” she says. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” As a reader with a gender different history myself, that question haunted me from the outset.
The narrative begins on the classic dark and stormy night, when a stranger appears seeking shelter. She introduces herself as Amparo Dávila. The narrator is instantly captivated by her striking appearance and her expansive presence. But she frightens him. Several hours later, the woman he had been expecting, a former lover referred to only as The Betrayed, arrives and immediately collapses on the threshold. Before long, the women have installed themselves in his home, disrupting his solitary life. While The Betrayed convalesces, Amparo Dávila sets up a daily routine which includes sitting down to write in a notebook. She informs him that she was once a great writer. Now she is writing about her “disappearance” and she believes he can help her.
The narrator is skeptical. He doesn’t trust his unwelcome houseguest. She claims to know truths about him that confuse and unnerve him. And as the Betrayed recovers, he is horrified to discover that they share strange language that is unlike any he has ever encountered. The more he tries to get to the truth behind the identity of The Disappeared as he comes to call the so-called writer, the more he finds himself balancing on the uncertain edge of reality. His emotions swing between desire and anger and fear. He finds himself alienated and isolated. At one point he remarks: “I felt as if I were in a parenthesis in a sentence in an unknown language.”
Certain images and expressions are repeated, like refrains that echo throughout the text, creating an incantatory quality, enhancing the increasingly unsettling mood. The clarity with which the narrator appears to begin his account is steadily eroded until he can no longer trust his own sensations. As the line between truth and lies is obfuscated, the narrative grows chillingly opaque. But the tone remains measured, the language hauntingly beautiful.
I have resisted delving too far into the sequence of events that unfold—real, remembered or imagined—because I feel this is a book best experienced without too much plot detail in advance. But I cannot resist a longer quote that captures the sheer beauty of the prose:
Hurried and intense brushes, a proximity that, out of so much fear, smelled of sweat and adrenaline. Everything, however, would return to normal with a kiss. Usually it was just that: a kiss. One. Lips together. Saliva. Time turned flesh, color. A long kiss, like an expedition. After, just after that, the separation began. The beginning. This. This walk like someone wearing shackles around their ankles, this sensation of the body against air in an age-old battle, this weariness, this desolation. What do I know about the great wings of love? The pelicans appeared again almost overhead, but much higher. I paused to watch them for a couple of minutes. Silence. Air. Time. I imagined them fleeing from their own wings and, in that moment, I raised my finger to my lips, trying to detect traces of something felt from far off in time. Yes, indeed, you turn back. And turning back achieves nothing.
I confess I finished this book breathless. Anxious even. Although I knew that Amparo Dávila, the author at the centre of the mystery, is a real woman—a Mexican writer whose own work often treads the uneasy borders between the real and the uncanny—I decided not to search her until I had finished reading the novel. I was pleased to find an article in the Paris Review online and one of her short stories in the Winter 2017 print issue. Originally published in Spanish in 2002, The Iliac Crest has helped rekindle interest in Dávila who is now in her late 80s. Christina Rivera Garza captures her spirit, but in a mesmerizing, wholly original tale that is perhaps more timely than ever.
The Illiac Crest is translated by Sarah Booker who also provides valuable insights in her Translator’s Note. The publisher is Feminist Press. - Joseph Schreiber
It was in a seminar on Hegel and Modernism that I first heard the phrase “the Spirit is a bone.” In that turbulent stream of complex texts and abstract concepts, I was, I suppose, staying afloat, doing my best to make sense of that difficulty while also forming something like my own way of thinking and writing.
In that context, “the Spirit is a bone” felt comforting. Its simple, fatalistic concision seemed to say that in the end, we are just stuff: calcium deposits elaborately cloaked in flesh, masquerading as subjects endowed with reason. It reminded me of the Spanish Baroque—specifically, of how Luis de Góngora described the inexorable decay of aging and death, wherein we become “dirt, and smoke, and dust, and shadow, and nothing.” Or across the Atlantic and decades later, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s own iteration of this trope: she contemplates her portrait and dismisses it pithily as mere “corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.”
Today, Googling these two lines, rereading the two sonnets, fiddling with the translations, the second one seems to speak more eloquently about the knowing disillusionment I felt back then. A portrait, Sor Juana writes from her cloister in Mexico City, is an “engaño”—a “counterfeit,” in Samuel Beckett’s translation. (A spectacle, I would add.) It lies to us, makes us believe there is something really there, something transcendent in those eyes or in that gesture, an illusion of depth. A Hieronymite nun, Sor Juana spoke a different vocabulary than Hegel would over a century later, but I imagine she could have also said, with him, “the Spirit is a bone.”
The phrase has stayed with me over the years. I could say that it visits me periodically. I find versions of it sometimes hidden in poems or essays. Or I simply summon it up at unexpected moments. I pronounce it silently; I imagine the improbability of my skeleton, its creaking fragility; I remember something essential about myself.
Such was my experience recently as I read The Iliac Crest, Sarah Booker’s extraordinary translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s 2002 novel, recently published by Feminist Press. Bones are everywhere in this short Gothic novel, set on a desolate stretch of the coast, in a small medical community that lies between a place called North City and another called South City. Medicine undergirds the entire text, in fact: the title refers to the upper and outer region of the ilium, the largest bone of the human pelvis, a diagram of which adorns the book’s cover. And the narrative is itself framed by mentions of this body part. The story opens with the sudden arrival of a strange woman at the house of a doctor, who is also our narrator. He is first captivated by her eyes: “Stars suspended in a devastating catlike face.” But as his gaze descends her body, it is a glimpse of her slightly protruding hip bone, whose anatomical name he cannot recall, that provokes in him the potent mix of desire and fear and curiosity that drives the narrative forward. By the last chapter, the woman is gone and the narrator has forgotten her eyes, her face. He finally remembers, however, the name of the bone:
The ilium, one of three regions that make up the hip bone. Wide and curved, its wings extend from either side of the dorsal spine. At the uppermost point of the ilium’s wings is the iliac crest. From there, from Ilion, from her crest, Odysseus departed on his return to Ithaca after the war.
Ilion, an Archaic name for Troy, gives us both the Iliad and the scientific name for the hip bone. The former tale often serves as a point of origin for the idea of “Western literature,” with all the erasures, delusions, and aspirations contained in this notion, but here it is just part of the body. The etymology of the word “ilium” thus seems to suggest, indirectly, the bony materiality of culture.
In her prefatory remarks to the translation, Rivera Garza mentions bones, as does Elena Poniatowska in her epilogue. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” the author writes. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” She contemplates this question as part of her meditation on borders and the demand to present oneself, to answer for one’s body, to the agents who police them—part and parcel of life in the borderlands of her native Mexico and the United States, where she currently lives. Similarly, in the novel, we follow the narrator’s passage through checkpoints, presenting documents with a smile indicative of one’s propriety. “You had to prove,” he comments summarily, “that you belonged to the state.”
But Rivera Garza’s question—“Will we be betrayed by our bones?”—alludes to more than the circumstances of citizenship. Bones tell stories. Preserved, disinterred, they reveal to the paleontologist or archaeologist information about past species and past civilizations. Or they might speak to other experts, to forensic investigators for example, about more recent lives and deaths. The late Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez titled his 2006 book about the epidemic of feminicides around Ciudad Juárez Huesos en el desierto, or “bones in the desert.” In a world where such cases of gendered violence were taken seriously by the responsible authorities (a different world, that is, not the one we occupy), the pelvis, among the bones in the body, might be of particular interest. As the narrator of The Iliac Crest tells us at the novel’s end, “the pelvis is the most definitive area to determine the sex of an individual.”
If our bones will betray us, if they can betray us, it is because they have stories to tell. Like the rings of a tree, our bones have secrets to share with those who know how to listen. And in fact, much of the plot of The Iliac Crest turns on a secret. “I know you are a woman,” the houseguest breathes into the narrator’s ear one evening. The doctor does not immediately react, but the revelation of the secret, the dramatic display of the power inherent in its possession, interrupts his internal world and sense of self.
While, as Booker emphasizes in her notes on the translation, the narrator overwhelmingly uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself, other characters employ the feminine form of address. The fear of being outed as a woman drives the protagonist to paranoia. While driving with two young women in his car on their way to a party, the narrator fantasizes about having sex with them. But then, suddenly remembering his secret, he grows angry and abruptly pulls over.
I stopped the car on the side of the highway and, with the pretext that I was going to take a piss behind a bush, I hid to touch myself and confirm that everything was still in its place: my penis and my testicles and my scrotum and all the evidence that flagrantly contradicted Amparo Dávila’s assertion. Taking advantage of the moment, I quickly masturbated and returned, a little more relaxed, to the car.
This frantic affirmation of his manhood is a common occurrence in the novel, particularly early on. The narrator addresses his female readers directly to explain how men think and do things. He is strongly invested in maintaining a self-image of scoffing masculinity. As the pages advance, however, this character becomes more doubtful internally and ambiguous externally. “There, at the water’s edge, I concluded that, when all is said and done, if by some stroke of misfortune I was actually a woman, nothing would change. There was no reason for me to become sweeter or crueler.”
“Nothing would change,” and yet discovering oneself to be a woman would be a “stroke of misfortune.” The latter affirmation responds to the strictures that characterize the lives of the women surrounding the narrator. To take the most important example, the woman who arrives at his house at the novel’s outset is named Amparo Dávila. She arrives to stay, and she spends her days writing. The first morning, she says she is writing about her disappearance. The second, she tells the narrator that she had been a great writer, her career undermined by a conspiracy that began small—her typewriters sabotaged, her pencils stolen—and ended in mob violence. The narrator, we are not surprised to learn, disbelieves her story.
This woman is not Amparo Dávila, but rather one of many “emissaries” acting in her place. The narrator eventually discovers and visits the real Amparo, whose disappearance inspired a movement to, as she puts it, “safeguard [her] words.” This character, in turn, stands in for the real-life Amparo Dávila, a mid-twentieth-century Mexican writer who has been marginalized in relation to the national literary canon. Among the many historical threads that this short book draws on, a central one is the multitude of practical difficulties long experienced by women writers in Mexico and elsewhere.
In her introduction, Rivera Garza draws a direct connection between the historical marginalization of women writers and the context of gendered violence in and around Ciudad Juárez in which this novel, originally published in 2002, appeared: “When women disappear from our factories and our history—from our lives—we have to reexamine what is normal.” Violence is to be expected when dismissiveness, hostility, and repression are the norm. The narrator seems aware of this fact, which explains his terror at the possibility of his repressed secret being revealed.
At the same time, however, he also believes that, were he a woman, “[n]othing would change.” What I understand from this apparent contradiction is that the narrator sees gender, or any other system of classification, as a matrix of positions, with power distributed differentially throughout it. Hence the relative absence of proper names in this novel. Characters play parts like “the Betrayed,” “the False One,” and “the Emissaries”—appelatives that indicate a role to be assumed. Hence also his observation that among the administrative employees in the hospital where he works, the women are just as capable of “indifference and professed maliciousness” as their male counterparts. “Nothing would change” because, in the end, these are simply positions to be occupied.
Like much of Rivera Garza’s writings, The Iliac Crest thus simultaneously explores the pathos of individual experience and the indifference of that experience in the world at large. Whether in her historical study of an important Mexican mental institution (La Castañeda) or in the novel (Nadie me verá llorar) that grew out of that research, whether in essays on the fate of bodies (Dolerse) or the fate of writing (Los muertos indóciles) under neoliberal governance, whether in short stories or poems or, most recently, in a marvelous study of Juan Rulfo as a writer and a worker—in all these cases, this author confronts us with characters or subjects who are, at first glance, unremarkable or interchangeable, who are like dry leaves blown by the uncaring winds of history, but who are, at the same time, completely engrossing and hopelessly unique. Her characters are passionately drawn and unforgettable. They are, like everyone else, themselves cogs in the cold wheels of time.
This is why the dominant image of bones bears out so brilliantly here. Stripped of all that animates them and gives them character, bones are purely residual—they are what remain after a life has ended and flesh has decayed. But they also have stories to tell about that life, whether through DNA analysis or through simple visual examination. They are at once anonymous and individual, just like all earthly beings. Any understanding of our material situation, however we define it, begins with acceptance of this duality between specificity and generality. It is for this reason that The Iliac Crest matters today: it carries out a sophisticated, dynamic inquiry into language, gender, and power, and leaves its readers transformed by its lyrical investigation of what it means to inhabit a body. - Craig Epplin
Cristina Rivera-Garza, No One Will See Me Cry, Curbstone Books, 2003.
Joaquín Buitrago, an ex-photographer of prostitutes and a portraitist in the mental hospital of La Castañeda in 1920, believes to have identified in one of the patients, Matilda Burgos, as a prostitute who he met years before in La Modernidad.
His obsession to confirm Matilda’s identity leads him to get a hold of her medical records. Joaquín will learn that she was a country girl adopted by her uncle, a doctor, and led a peaceful life until Cástulo, a young revolutionary, hid in her room from the authorities. This served to open Matilda’s eyes: the social turbulence will lead her to break away from her uncle and to take refuge with Diamantina Vicario, whose house is used to cook up political conspiracies. Her death will affect Matilda to such an extent that she will begin to wander without a direction, outside of herself, and to try out all types of occupations and positions, including the horizontal one. While the photographer learns of so many vicissitudes, he becomes convinced that Matilda and he must attempt at a life together. From their common defeat of morality and reason, and with a will fractured by a repressing society, they seek to found among the ruins an uncertain future that will, to some extent restore their liberty.
“There are books that […] take some time to receive the recognition that they deserve. I believe that this is the case of the extraordinary novel by the Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, titled Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry). It was published in 1999 and has not reached the deserved repercussion. I have given the book to European editors that did not know her either. Their enthusiasm runs similar to mine. We are before one of the most notable works of fiction, not only within Mexican literature, but rather in the Spanish language at this turn of the century”.
- Carlos Fuentes, El País
Joaquín Buitrago works as a photographer in a mental hospital in Mexico City at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a child, his first photographic memory was when, just by his house, he saw a badly beaten woman. The impression was like a photographic imprint on his mind. He took to photographing bodies in the morgue, not the whole body but only parts, such as the blue fingernails of a man who had committed suicide or the marks on the neck of a woman who had been strangled. At the Academy, he was highly critical of Mexico City. His friends would take him around the city to show him the glories of it. He would take them to the morgue or the flophouses or the hospitals for the indigent, to show them the seamy side of the city. Things changed a bit when he met Diamantina but it soon became apparent that this was a relationship that would not work and Diamantina moved on to Vera Cruz.
Now, he has a variety of problems. He had initially been a successful society photographer but then, in 1897, he had travelled to Rome, where he met Alberta. He divides his life in the period before he met Alberta and the period after he met her. Since he met her and lost her, his life has changed. Indeed, it has effectively gone downhill. He has worked in a prison as a photographer. He has photographed prostitutes, hoping, in his own way, to find a woman like Alberta. Now he is employed by a large mental hospital to photograph their patients. Not only has his career gone downhill. He is now addicted to morphine and finds difficulty in sleeping. - www.themodernnovel.org read more
An Interview with Mexico's Cristina Rivera-Garza
To think about Cristina Rivera Garza is to think about the experience of turning, in the sense of movement, of transformation, of beginnings. Like the experience of reading her writing, to turn back is at once a solitary and social experience. As Rivera Garza writes in The Iliac Crest, "something happens in the world when you turn back.” In her work, Rivera Garza calls you to navigate her words, her poetry, her expressions, and the borders she inhabits, inviting you to re-envision the world around you.
Championed by literary critics, Rivera Garza is one of the most important voices of this century. Born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, she writes fiction that breaks with conventional forms and reimagines history. Themes of borders, history, gender, sexuality, migration, illness, and class dynamics are central to her work. She is best known for her novel Nadie me verá llorar (Tusquets 1999), which has won several prizes, including the International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award in 2001. Her other novels include: Lo anterior (2004), La muerte me da (2007), Verde Shanghai (2011), and El mal de la taiga (2012). Translations of Rivera Garza’s work into English complement a growing body of strong, female, Mexican voices that include Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, and Carmen Boullosa. Furthermore, her literary voice, with its unique way of telling a story while addressing issues such as gender and migration, is especially pertinent to contemporary society.
In this dossier, we present the beginnings of a chronological arc of Rivera Garza’s stories. It is our hope that this collection shows her experimentation with literary form and her ongoing exploration of space, borders, and transgression. The first two stories, “There Is Also Beauty in Alienation” and “Never Trust a Woman that Suffers” come from one of Rivera Garza’s earlier collections, Ningún reloj cuenta esto (2002), “The Hostage” was published in the later La frontera más distante (2008), and “Spí Uñieey Mat” is a blog post from El milenio and will be published in her collection Dimunitus to be released later this year. Whether in medium or literary form, Rivera Garza continuously pushes against the expectations of the short story genre.
Although her writing shifts in response to the world around her, certain themes persist throughout Rivera Garza’s work. There is a consistent interest in spatial and temporal geography as characters move through marginalized and foreign spaces. One might think about the young Mexican woman living in San Antonio who is uprooted and relocated to New York City to translate a series of letters. Or the Vermillion Woman and Chicago Boy who seem more comfortable navigating their memories than the spaces in which they find themselves in the present. Or perhaps the way that tears form a peculiar, intimate connection between an abused boy and an anxious man, a connection that challenges traditional notions of chronological time. Finally, there is the estuary that seems to be located at the end of the world in which a young woman takes on a position as a museum attendant to find time to read. What seems to unite these disparate spaces is a sense of belonging and not belonging, of finding oneself a stranger in a strange land.
That constant sense of simultaneous presence and absence, of belonging and not belonging hints at the image of the border – both physical and metaphorical – that functions as a unifying theme in Rivera Garza’s work. Whether they are strange words in a foreign language that appear in images of marshes or the twisting of previously established knowledge, she constantly contests preconceptions because her writing is about that movement, about subverting and transgressing pre-established limitations. She asks her readers to question gender binaries and expression, to take another look at history, to move over political borders, to jump between the realms of fantasy and fiction, and to explore the possibilities of language to create this movement. - Sarah Booker Aviva Kana
The Cristina Rivera Garza Interview by Scott Esposito:
The impetus for this long-overdue interview was the publication of Sarah Booker’s recent English-language translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest. The book, which is a sort of fable set near a sanitarium and involving gedner, illness, madness, and borders (all common themes of the author) can be read about here in great depth. I will only say that this remarkably resilient, interpretable, and eye-opening book was a wonderful excuse to converse with an admired, original, and like-minded writer. Throughout this interview Rivera Garza was kind, generous, and surprising, and were there more time in the world this conversation would have run to two or three times this length. read it here
Cristina Rivera Garza is an award-winning author, translator, and critic. Her books, originally written in Spanish, have been translated into multiple languages. She is the recipient of the Roger Caillois Award for Latin American Literature (2013), the Anna Seghers-Preis (2005), and the only two-time winner of the International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize (2001; 2009). She received her PhD in 2012 in Latin American history from the University of Houston, where she is currently Distinguished Professor in Hispanic Studies.
The impetus for this long-overdue interview was the publication of Sarah Booker’s recent English-language translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest. The book, which is a sort of fable set near a sanitarium and involving gedner, illness, madness, and borders (all common themes of the author) can be read about here in great depth. I will only say that this remarkably resilient, interpretable, and eye-opening book was a wonderful excuse to converse with an admired, original, and like-minded writer. Throughout this interview Rivera Garza was kind, generous, and surprising, and were there more time in the world this conversation would have run to two or three times this length.
Scott Esposito: Your work has been noted for its feminist themes, as well those of flux, transformations, borders, illness, migration—all things that are present in The Iliac Crest. To start, can you tell us a little about what drew you toward this subject matter as your identity as a writer began to form toward the beginning of your career?
Cristina Rivera Garza: I am interested in borders, borders of all kind, geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death. I spend most of my time thinking of ways to cross such borders. How come we are allowed, even invited at times, to walk over some of them, but are prevented from even approaching others? In what ways what we are or the way we look or behave allow us to come close to some and reach other borders? I was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, right on the other side of Brownsville, Texas, and have lived a good chunk of my life in between San Diego and Tijuana—one of the most dynamic borders of our contemporary world—so that may explain this fascination. And yet, there is something else. There is this originary out-of-placeness, if you will. My family has migrated both within and outside Mexico for generations now. I did learn from an early age that we were not from there (and there was everywhere). The eyes of a nomadic foreigner look at the world in skewed ways. You are more cautious and more irreverent at the same time. You become aware that your body, your mere presence, complicates things. This experience later became an aesthetics. I have realized lately that both in terms of content and form I am usually looking for that angle, that gaze I am fond of complicating things!
SE: In addition to those themes already named, I would say your work, insofar as I know it, is characterized by a certain kind of darkness, or maybe a kind of search for the obscure corners of perception and experience; in its English translation, The Iliac Crest begins with the prototypical “dark and stormy night,” and it takes us through a world where things are rarely what they seem, and one that is characterized by that stormy feeling of turbulence, the elemental, and danger, maybe even a little romanticism on top of it all. What were some of your formative writers in this aesthetic?
CRG: I was a near-sighted child and, as my parents did not realize this until later, I never wore corrective glasses. And so I became an early reader. And we travelled much—long stretches of lonely highways both in central and northern Mexico with no radio can indeed activate your imagination! I am the granddaughter of migrant mine workers, agricultural workers, and deportees from the United States, but my father is a scientist, so my first contact with books came early and in the form of glorified biographies of researchers and inventors, adventurers and ethnographers, botanists. I have just recently realized that one of my formative reading experiences was none other than Alexander Von Humboldt—I came to this realization upon reading the amazing Inventing Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. I have read poetry all my life, from the beautiful, so feminine verses by Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde, whose work I transcribed in my Lettera 33 typewriter as a school exercise in middle school, to the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I have told pretty much everybody that I read Rulfo as an assignment in one of the public schools I attended fleetingly when we moved from town to town in the north of Mexico. Didn’t understand much back then, but became so intrigued that I continued going back to Pedro Páramo and El llano en llamas so much so that I ended publishing a book around Juan Rulfo and his work last year. I read many women writers from the start: Virginia Woolf, Rosario Castellanos, Marguerite Duras, Gabriela Mistral, Santa Teresa de Jesús, Mary Shelley. Thanks to a very cheap collection of universal literature you’d buy at the super market, I read all my dearest Russian authors—and I thank the nameless translators that achieved that feat—Dostoevsky above all, but also Tolstoy‚especially Anna Karenina—Chekhov, Pushkin. Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva would come later. You could say that when I was looking for ways to tell the story of The Iliac Crest, this reading experience came in handy. I knew I wanted to take readers—and myself—into uncharted territory, and I had learned by then that you can only do so if you offer your reader something familiar to hold on to. So I chose this “dark stormy night” of our gothic stories to approach what was happening in that state housing complex by foggy shore. Hospitals have never ceased intriguing me—the bodies in pain, the organic, atrocious love between patients and those who care for them, the manners of physicians. The nameless doctor who works for a state hospital for the terminally ill comes form the long years I spent researching medical files from a famous (or infamous) insane asylum established in Mexico in 1910—La Castañeda (about which I had written at least two books). I had read Amparo Dávila’s work by then, and had literally fallen in love with some of her atmospheres and characters, so I decided to turn her—her persona and her literary style—into one of the main characters of this book.
SE: I’m curious about what you say regarding your interest to cross borders. I feel that most people, if only subconsciously, sense that the maintenance of borders is what holds the world as we know it together, that to eradicate a border means changing the world. This can either be a threatening or liberating prospect, regarding your point of view. I imagine that you are someone who is familiar with border-crossings in terms of national borders and borders of genre. Are there other borders you have crossed? Are there borders you are not willing to cross?
CRG: I am prone to write in between genres (remember that, in Spanish, género translates as both gender and genre). I am always interested in what happens there, in that middle ground or limbo. My suspicion is that relevant, interesting operations are met, and at times resolved, in those spaces. It’s a lucha libre of sorts, where the tools usually associated with one genre (verse to poetry, for example, of paragraph to prose) are subverted and diverted. Most contemporary works I read tread on those turbulent waters called cross-genre. The adjective I have used to describe these works is colindante, a term that describes what is both contiguous and colliding.
Similarly, in a time of post-autonomous literature (Josefina Ludmer dixit), the line between fiction and non-fiction has become increasingly thin, which doesn’t mean it is irrelevant but complex.
On the other hand, our bodies are keys that open only certain doors. Our features, behaviors, demeanors are read and codified not only by friends but also by the enemy. The world is perpetually in flux, but border-making and wall-building are concomitant processes. The state and the market draw tight lines, but writing—when felicitous—might open up escape routes.
While I know I will have to cross that border that separates life and death eventually, I hope it is not that soon! In any case, as our religions and our arts and our hauntings tells us, even that border is porous.
SE: What was some of the dynamism you witnessed in the space between San Diego and Tijuana, and do you believe this dynamism is a source of artistic creativity?
CRG: I lived on the border for about 20 years. I first came to San Diego in 1997, when I accepted a job as a professor in the U.S. academic system. Soon enough I found myself crossing the border more than I expected, developing friendships and, eventually, a community on both sides of the border. I was a proud owner of a SENTRI card, which allowed me to cross the border in record time, instead of waiting in those long, interminable lines.
The most interesting feature of San Diego is, without doubt, Tijuana. The many Mexicos that Tijuana actually is. To be sure, Tijuana is not pretty, but it is quite intense. The visual arts scene is particularly strong, drawing energies and inspiration from migrant populations from across the globe. I taught a writing workshop a while ago—it was a one-year-long adventure that initiated me in the Tijuana devotion I now share. Cruel at times, defined by high social and economic contrasts, and limited by the grey waters of the Pacific ocean, Tijuana pokes at you constantly. You simply can’t rest in peace in its midst. What I found there for so many years was, above all, a community—like-minded people interested in writing practices able to open up space for questions both critical and human. I might have found that elsewhere, perhaps, but borders make these decisions, which belong to the realm of both ethics and aesthetics, inescapable.
I wrote The Iliac Crest during my early years on the border. I didn’t want to write the Tijuana novel in vogue back then—realist in tone and more or less traditional in terms of structure—opting instead for the register of the fantastic and the resources of what I learned from experimental aesthetics of the West Coast. And here you have it, the radical questioning of both the state and the market coming from radical traditions in the U.S. has been incredibly relevant to grasp the border I experienced. That convergence of forces, the many contradictions it brings on, have become central for my understanding of both writing and life. I no longer live in SD-TJ, but once you have lived on the border, you take it you wherever you go.
SE: Could you tell us a little more about what made La Castañeda so infamous and what drew you toward researching it?
CRG: I am a historian by training; I am used to archives. I began reading medical files from the La Castañeda Insane Asylum around 1993, when I was preparing my Ph.D. thesis in Latin American history. I had started visiting the National Archive in Mexico City when I ran into someone who, totally by chance, mentioned that the files of the asylum—75,000 in total—were only about to be open to the public in a small archive in downtown Mexico City. I went there and, as you can see, I haven’t truly left.
La Castañeda was a massive state asylum that provided—or attempted to provide—care for poor men and women diagnosed as mentally ill in early twentieth century Mexico City. Founded on September 1, 1910, only a couple months before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, the hospital was the culmination of the Porfirian regime it represented. The life stories contained in the medical files of the institution bore traces of the darkest side of Mexican modernity. The weakest among the weak, these men and women committed to the asylum, led harsh lives, often without protection or solution. Their stories, which were both human and dramatic, also brought about their latent, poignant criticism against the sources of their misfortune—the hospital, indeed, but also the regime, the city, the police, the state. These were not active revolutionaries, to be sure, but common people, common men and women, reacting in as many ways as possible against a hostile world while sliding, almost surreptitiously, their own interpretation of that world. I was fascinated by that operation. The medical files, organized according to the interests of the institution and the doctors alike, harbored in fact a highly dynamic semiotic operation in which both psychiatrists-to-be and would-be patients (back then they were still called “inmates”) debated the lines between normality and abnormality, health and illness, life and death. How could I not be enthralled by it all? I was.
I ended up using these files, especially one belonging to a woman who had migrated to the capital city early in her youth only to become a destitute worker and, later, a prostitute, to prepare my first published novel: No One Will See Me Cry. I saw Modesta Burgo’s picture and read her file the first day I arrived in the Archive of Public Health, and I have been in conversation with her for many years afterwards. Our lives, which developed both in trepid times, times of great contrast and conflict, converged in the reading of that file. When that happened, I became the addressee of a letter—her life in that file—addressed, in fact, to doctors and institutions of Mexico’s first modernity. I interrupted and deviated that journey. I like to think that No One Will See Me Cry turned readers into addressees of that letter never intended but always looking for us.
SE: What you say about “our bodies are keys that open only certain doors” rings very true to me. So two questions on this subject: First, your novel The Iliac Crest is titled for a part of the body that revels biological sex. Specifically, in the book it is described as the part of the hip bone that gives that characteristic curve to the female body, and the straighter hip to the male. This bone becomes a motif of the book, repeated multiple times throughout the novel, and it struck me that this bone establishes a kind of pole, a point of static, unchanging definition in this book in which everything else is constantly in flux. Are there aspects of our identity that we cannot change?
CRG: In reading the translation by Sarah Booker, as I was working with her chapter after chapter, at times adding entire scenes or deleting passages from the original version in Spanish, I came to think of the possibility that this novel is made out of bones. Bones and only bones. After all, the iliac crest becomes relevant in defining the sex of person when you have only bones left. An ultimate refuge of sorts? The materiality against which we have to pause? The object that could finally yield conclusive answers? Perhaps. I am still thinking about it.
SE: And secondly, as someone who enjoys crossing the borders between the genders, I have found the online space liberating because it allows me to abstract myself away from my body, or to present my body in more versatile ways than may be possible offline—in effect, I’ve found in it one of those “escape routes” that you mention. Are you at all interested in the online space as a place of flux, flow, or more generally freedom from our bodies—or perhaps as an institution where we may find new definitions of old concepts?
CRG: I have always said that the great loser of our times is the body. I did not mean it only in a negative sense. Processes of materialization and de-materialization converge in what we do in front of our screens. I too have experienced certain relief and even pleasure when navigating the net or when using different kind of social platforms, especially at the start of all this. I see ourselves in a different stage now, once the curiosity or the devotion of the recently converted has worn off. We have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to replicate many of the problems we faced before digital technology came to be an important component of our urban lives. Let’s not forget that capital and economic interests remain a massive force behind current technological transformations. Recent use of our personal data (data related to the behaviors of our bodies) in electoral times is but an example of how online spaces are great sources of profit and power for the few.
SE: One of the mysteries of The Iliac Crest is the gender of the narrator, which is thrown into doubt throughout the novel. He believes himself to be male, but other characters in the book regard him as female. One of the stranger things about this book is that the narrator also at times refers to his past in which he was a tree—literally, a tree. I found this statement at first utterly confusing, but I thought a key to it might lie in the fact that trees can be broken into “male” and “female” genders, although some trees are at once both genders, and their genders exist in ways that are profoundly different from human genders. How metaphorically are we to take the narrator’s remarks about his past life as a tree?
CRG: I have become increasingly interested in the expressive capacities of human and non-human components in my stories. I see that reference to the narrator’s life as a tree in The Iliac Crest as a wince in that direction. I was not only interested in the crossing of gender borders but also of borders in between species. As many in our times, I have been paying attention to the challenges that the so-called new materialisms and/or Object Oriented Ontologies throw our ways as writers.
SE: I’m curious to know more about your interest in new materialisms and Object Oriented Ontologies, terms that are still rather new and that I only have a loose grasp of. Why do these disciplines feel relevant to you, and how do you see them working their way into your literature in the future?
CRG: I have always been interested in bodies and embodiment processes. I am less interested in writing about the body and more about working with language to produce the effect of presence and irruption. Rather than merely depicting reality, writing produces reality. So, while I am aware that the field of new materialisms and OOO is ample (and in constant revision), I use some of these ideas to anchor, so to speak, these interests of mine. What kind of contracts am I subscribing when I say that I am interested in the materiality of writing? Which ones when I insist in the relevance of objects and the marks they bring into play? From Jussi Parikka to Janet Bennett, from Gastón Gordillo (author of this great book: Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction) to Eyal Weizman, these books help me to problematize and deepen my relationship with language in regards to lived matter, matter in conflict.
SE: The Iliac Crest takes place largely in and around an asylum, and throughout the novel its characters engage in their own “lucha libre” regarding various defining lines that they are struggling over. In what other institutions do you think these struggles are most evident and enthralling?
CRG: While the hospital described in The Iliac Crest resembles the structure and workings of large insane asylums, this sanatorium remains a place where patients are left to die. More a cemetery, in that sense. Or a place right in between a hospital proper and a collection of tombs. The struggle you make reference to, a struggle developed from below in structures clearly organized vertically, is a usual component in state institutions such as jails and orphanages, to mention just a few. But we can extend the metaphor, I believe, to families and the educational system. I am and suspect I will be always be interested in the ways in which bodies—human and otherwise—complicate smooth narratives of power, both in our books and in our daily lives.
SE: To get back to your point about this novel mutating in translation, an idea I like very much—this is something I admire in, for instance, Mario Bellatín, the way he encourages his translators and publishers to actively take part in redefining the work as it finds its new language—I’d like to ask why you decided to let this book change as it made its way from Spanish to English. A desire to revise what you had written, or to better prepare it for the new cultural context, or some other reasons?
CRG: Translating The Iliac Crest with Sarah Booker has been such a pleasure. The book traveled all these years—from that tip of the U.S.-Mexico border to central México and to Spain (it was also published by Tusquets-Barcelona), from Spanish into English, from the U.S. to the U.K. (will be out soon with And Other Stories)—and mutation would be a good word to describe the process at large. The closest of readings, translation and transcription require unparalleled attention and great care, but also much imagination. As Sarah was turning in entire sections of her draft, I had to admit it: I was reading a different book. I was not only facing her version of a novel I no longer knew as solely mine, but a new novel as such, translated or not, because it lived now in a distinctive context that produced—or accentuated—more or alternative meanings. Translation gave me the opportunity to become an outsider, to create some intriguing distance between the text and myself, to detach. Ultimately, translation gifted me with a new book.
It all began with a seemingly innocent conversation with Lauren Hook, my editor at Feminist Press. As we meander around phrases and paragraphs, she happened to mention that, since it was my book, I could add or delete scenes or pages at will. I had thought about it, of course, mulling over the possibilities. I had so many things to do back then (as now), and that effort, I was sure, would require time. I pondered. I hesitated—then, I smiled. And I plunged ahead.
To be sure, I did not want to include paragraphs or dialogues to explain motives or plot. I had in mind new English-speaking readers but that did not necessarily drove my effort. I thought loosely about an updating, an actualization, that had more to do with language than with anecdote. It was something more intimate and more mischievous. I once toyed with the idea of changing the titles of my books on regular basis—let’s say, every five years, or so—also introducing minor characters, perhaps too small to be really noticeable at once, or improbable twists in specific scenes. Well, I haven’t been able to do so in the original versions in Spanish, but translation allowed me to materialize that wish. I am now the two-time author of La cresta de Ilión, which is, in turn, at least two books.
I wrote the added material directly in English and, I have to say, I am a writer in Spanish and a very different one in English. I grew up on the border, listening to both languages, although I mostly spoke Spanish at home (TV, however, was mostly in English). Now, after 25 or so years of life in the U.S. and U.S. English, I can say that there are forms of intimacy with language, any language, that are not necessarily based on familiarity. My long-lasting intimacy with English, for example, comes from years of utter alertness, from an inner system of hyper-vigilance, if you will. While it is common to say that you are more true to yourself as a writer in your mother tongue, I have to say that there are truths—deep, painful, risky—uncovered too, and perhaps only, by the second language. I am not referring here to personal truths so much as truths of language itself, of language in relation to self and others. Language in contention.
So, instead of a La cresta de Ilión, a title bearing obvious winks to the classics, now we have The Iliac Crest, a title that places grater emphasis on the materiality of bones, and the way in which bones keep or betray our deepest secrets. The resilience and the vulnerability of bones, both emerge here with greater clarity on that hipbone that so much mesmerized the narrator in the opening scenes of this novel. More bodily grounded, this English version asks for a reading that is forensic in nature. Sadly, it is a reading that better fits our violent times plagued by gruesome murders and, at least in Mexico, a low intensity war that has decimated thousands, transforming the territory in an open grave—an ample cemetery of common bones. This is what we have at the end, when lucky. Bones. Does this make the novel more overtly political even when winks to gothic and fantasy genres remain unaltered? I sure hope so.
SE: Families and the educational system are two of the modern world’s most prevalent institutions—I think they had affected all of us. Since you are the Director of the Creative Writing Program at The University of Houston, I’m curious to know how you feel about holding that position of authority and if you have found ways to deconstruct that power structure in the practice of your official duties.
CRG: Teaching is such a noble profession. I truly enjoy the hours I spend designing syllabi and developing classroom strategies to create lively, relevant conversations. This last semester I taught Writing and Community, a graduate workshop in which each student was responsible for designing and implementing a writing-related community project in the Second Ward, a neighborhood where Spanish is widely spoken here in Houston. Students found ways to connect with schools, community gardens, graffiti workers, and labor organizations, among others. Our last class sessions have taken place both in the classroom, where we continue to workshop their 25-page long pieces, and out in the community, sharing meals and words and work with men and women, children and teenagers, for whom writing is clearly an empowering tool. We had read Lazzarato’s Signs and Machines, Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, Floriberto Díaz’s Escritos, and Raquel Gutiérrez’s Horizontes Comunitario-Populares, among others, and with them all we embraced the complexity of our task as writers in connection with communities, as critical thinkers, and as activists.
Remember that we launched the first Ph.D. in Creative Writing in Spanish at The University of Houston—which is both a public university and a Hispanic-serving institution—right at the start of a regime that has flatly attacked Spanish and its practitioners. We were in the resistance from the start, Scott. Writing in Spanish—a language practiced by about 50 million people in the United States, the second largest Hispanophone country in the world—has been and continues to be both an act of celebration and act of resistance. We write in Spanish, indeed, but always in connection with English; we write as we live: in connection with others, other languages, other fields of inquiry and knowledge. Rather than a backward-looking move (Spanish as something from the past), writing in this way places ourselves in this forward-moving wave. Spanish-in-connection-with-English is the future and the present of this country.
Finally, traditional university hierarchies crumble when, after ending the workshop session, you go to the university pool with your students, swim about 50 laps and, still breathless, continue the conversation about writing and life, about life always. - http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-cristina-rivera-garza-interview