Betina González on Economic Precarity, End Times, and
The Author of American Delirium Speaks With Yuri Herrera
Yuri Herrera—a deeply insightful and innovative writer whose Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman) won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award—talked with Betina González about her new book, American Delirium, which he describes as “a beautiful and ruthless novel that asks readers to dive into it with their whole selves […] a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.”
American Delirium traces, among other things, the ongoing disintegration of a society already worn thin by economic precarity and the relentless onslaught of consumer culture. In the dystopian world of the novel, deer are leaving the woods in droves and attacking the residents of a small, unnamed city in the United States, while many of the city’s residents are leaving their lives (and children) behind to live off the grid as “dropouts.”
We follow these events through three interrelated storylines; Vik the taxidermist, a refugee from an island known as the “Pompeii of the Caribbean,” discovers one of these dropouts living in his closet; Beryl, a former hippie with a gruff exterior and an enormous heart, is training the regulars of her local senior center to hunt the marauding deer; while Berenice, a young girl clever beyond her years, needs to find someone willing to claim her before anyone notices that she’s been abandoned and sends her to a government work farm for “left-behinds.” Uniting these storylines is the powerful hallucinogen found in the albaria flower.
Without further ado, here’s the exchange between these two amazing brains.
–Heather Cleary, translator of American Delirium
Yuri Herrera: Before writing a book, myself, I used to think a person could learn how to do it, that there were rules that you could follow in order to finish one. Now I know that every book is the result of a different process, depending on what you know, how you feel, where you are in your life. How did American Delirium come to be?
Betina González: I think you are right, each book is unique. With American Delirium I discovered that each novel also creates its own language. It began in 2006 with my relocation to Pittsburgh, a place that I loved instantly because I could relate to its contradictions. It is a diverse city with a magnificent past and at the same time, a city of decaying mansions, where lavish churches were on sale, and where you saw a lot of people left behind or living in the streets. This was for me the real America, the one with a colonial past and the one hidden behind the supposedly conflictless myth of “the melting pot.”
As an Argentinian I could relate to that, to the contradictions inside the American dream. So, at first I had only that atmosphere which was inspired by the city of Pittsburgh, but as you know, a novel is more than its atmosphere. By that time I already had the habit of collecting news and articles from the global press, so I started to save the ones which told of weird (for me) encounters with deers in Pittsburgh and its surroundings. I wanted to write about that, about a city where our relation with nature becomes as strange and unbalanced as our social bonds. But the novel really started when I read an article about a Japanese man who had found a woman living in his closet. I thought it was an amazing story to tell and I placed it in my imaginary city. That was when the novel really took off for me.
YH: This is very interesting to me, how the novel came together through a very abstract approach (the reflection on national myths) and the acute observation of crazy deer, or lucid deer, as a metonymy. Is this something that, besides the specific characteristics of each book, has nurtured your work? You have lived in several cities, what has each place given to you? Have the other places, their geography, their history, also been a key ingredient in your writing?
BG: No. This only happened to me with the city of Pittsburgh. In fact, after this book my fiction became more and more deterritorialized, something that you can already see in this novel, the blurring of geographical and national limits, I think you can see it in many immigrant writers. For me it was liberating, I realized most of the stories I wanted to tell are descendants of the fairy tale, the utopian and dystopian narratives, the adventure novels, those “pure fictional” (and at the same time so politically charged) genres are the ones I also prefer as a reader. I like to play with them as a writer without actually committing to their conventions. That is why it is important to stress that the city in American Delirium is not the city of Pittsburgh, it’s an invention.
And I must say that the theme of national myths was not clear to me at the beginning of my creative process, it is something that I developed unconsciously along with the plot. It is now, many years after the publication of the novel, that I can see it. About other places: I lived in El Paso for three years and I have always wanted to write something about it, it is a city where I was extremely happy. But so far I have only written one short story about it. As for Buenos Aires, as William Goyen said, “you never recover from the place where you were born.”
YH: You might be using the fairy tales as a base or model but to me your narrative is at the same time strongly grounded in the critique of reality. I see there certain recurrent themes: migration, memory, language, and the intersection of all of them, how we deal with the act of remembering, how we inherit or adopt a language. Do you think these themes as such, before starting to write, or do you follow a character or a plot and the themes just happen to permeate the stories?
BG: Everything happens in the act of writing, it is a very complex act. Fiction writing is an attempt to understand reality, especially the reality of others. One writes fiction as a way of not being confined to the self, as a way of being another person. In American Delirium that also required departing from what we call “realistic fiction.” I didn’t want to write a novel about the USA from the perspective of an outsider (you know: “just another immigrant novel”). I wanted to try and understand that society from the inside, that’s why I reserved the first person narrator for Miss Beryl. But at the same time I wanted to write about how it feels to be an immigrant in the US, to write about it beyond stereotypes and cliches. So I had Vik from the beginning, somebody who comes from a fictional country in the Caribe, that speaks many languages and feels alien—but at the same time slightly superior—to the people that surround him. Once I had these characters it was a matter of just following them, yes.
About language: we cannot choose our mother tongue but everything in writing is about choosing. That means that even within your mother tongue you have to be able to create your own language, and that language is also made of other languages, voices, readings, etc. Living in a foreign language for some time—in my case, almost ten years but since I also teach and read in English in Argentina, mine is an ongoing bilingual situation—gives you the opportunity to perceive your mother tongue in a different way, you start to question how you use it, you start to question the notion of nationality and belonging. It could be a painful experience but also a liberating one. A second language is always a secret weapon, a reality check, a way of perceiving the artificiality and the comfort zones of your own thinking, and, of course, of your writing. To be outside a language, to be outside a country is to be able to really perceive it.
YH: Yes, a secret weapon, I agree, but what is it used for? And now I am talking about literature, created with many versions of the mother tongue plus the other ones we learn. What do you think is the real influence it has in society nowadays, with this passion for immediacy in contrast to the slow, long life of books?
BG: Well, you are right, our time is a time of immediacy, and Borges once said that literature was not so important, that it was a form of entertainment and as such it would be replaced by others in the future. I think he was talking about a specific kind of fiction (books that are “all plot,” if you like, those that are easily made into movies). But good fiction, good literature goes beyond that. It creates a very intimate relationship with its reader, it goes directly to the heart of a stranger, as Lou Reed once said about rock and roll. I think the kind of emotion that written fiction provides—an emotion that is at the same time a shock of the intellect and of the heart— is not found in any other form of art or of storytelling. As for influence, I don’t know, I was saved by books in the darkest times of my life, so I would be extremely happy if someday I find out my book did something similar for a stranger.About language: we cannot choose our mother tongue but everything in writing is about choosing.
YH: I have always thought of you as a weird writer, one of those that are observant of the present but not hostages of the fashionable versions of the present. The diversity of your books is a testament to that. And, as far as I know, you are not part of any movement or literary group, but that doesn’t automatically mean you are not part of some community, isn’t it? Do you feel part of some larger group of writers, is there something that makes you feel part of a generation, for instance, or are we, in this time, beyond that way of understanding literature?
BG: I like the idea of being weird, I guess I have to thank my teenage years for that :)
Each book for me is an experiment, it has to be. Many people can write a story but what really makes you a fiction writer is a passion for difficulty. I need to feel that I am doing something different in each book. Of course, there are recurrent topics and obsessions but the form must feel new to me; I like to play with genres and traditions. I think fiction writing also begins in the act of reading others, it happens as a kind of unconscious conversation with your favorite texts, as it happened to me with the gothic novel in Las poseídas, or the fairy tale in my last short story collection.
I am not sure we can still talk about generations in the literary world, but I feel a close connection with a group of writers that are transforming the landscape of Latin American fiction, that are departing from a certain kind of national realism. These are writers that are always thinking about language and forms in a creative, non essentialist way (and that creative thinking goes also for our supposedly peripheral position in the global map). In that sense, and despite age and background differences, I feel close to the work of writers such as Esther Cross, Fernanda García Lao, Mariana Dimópulos, Samantha Schweblin, and Giovanna Rivero, to name just a few. It is not by chance that many of them lived abroad for several years and it is not by chance that all of them are women.
American Delirium by Betina González (trans. Heather Cleary) is available now via Henry Holt & Company.