Writer Cristina Rivera Garza in Conversation with Translator Sarah Booker
About Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country
Recently named MacArthur recipient Cristina Rivera Garza and I have been working together for almost five years, first on a translation of The Iliac Crest and now for the translation of Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country. This recent translation is the third iteration of what was first titled Dolerse (2007) in Spanish and that has expanded and evolved with rearrangements, additions, subtractions, and translations as it maintains a dialogue with its subject matter.
A hybrid collection of essays, poetry, and crónicas, Grieving examines the violence inflicted on either side of the US-Mexican border and proposes a politics of collective grieving as a mode of resistance to that violence. Focusing on this book, Cristina and I conducted this conversation via email in late September 2020.
Sarah K. Booker: A few years ago, after we had finished working on The Iliac Crest, we were in conversation about which project we could do next. You suggested Dolerse and were particularly enthusiastic about an English translation of this book. How did this book come about in Spanish, and why did you want it to be translated into English?
Cristina Rivera Garza: Writing Grieving was, from the start, a layered collaborative process. I did not know I was writing a book until a reader and editor of the independent press SurPlus, approached me with a plan: they wanted to publish a selection of articles included in “The Left Hand,” the weekly column I maintained for about seven years at Milenio newspaper.
The start of my column coincided with the inauguration of Calderón as president of Mexico and, although I did cover a range of issues, soon I was all consumed trying to understand the wave of violence that swept Mexico, the misnamed War on Drugs. I read and reread, realizing that pain, the language of pain, the possibility of feeling the pain of others, of reacting to pain inflicted on others, was a common thread.
Suffering gave voice to and structured an undercurrent of criticism against the regime. Suffering, the telling of it, allowed many of us to move away from the ranks of indifference, of indolence, to create emotional communities that transcended barriers of class or geography. Suffering did not turn us into passive victims but into members of larger communities ready to act upon the causes of our misfortunes.
I knew then that the book had to include the word pain in the title, but as a verb and in its reflexive form. (Brief note: reflexive verbs in Spanish are those in which the person affected by the action of a verb is the person who is performing the action of the verb—in more grammatical terms, they are verbs whose subject and object are the same.) In other words, I was not interested in dolor, or pain, per se and as a noun, but in dolerse, as an interrelated practice, what we do together and among ourselves as subjects and objects of the same action. Saul Hernández-Vargas and I selected, revised, and structured the materials for the two editions available in Spanish so far.
I moved back to the United States, to the San Diego-Tijuana region, when I was still writing my column. While I wrote it in Spanish, my scope increasingly encompassed both Mexico and Mexico in connection to the United States. Soon, I found myself writing and reflecting more inconspicuously from and about this position on the globe. An English translation of this work is, in this sense, commonsensical. Dolerse / Grieving is not a side piece in the context of my work but a central flow in perpetual motion, nurturing and feeding off what I write in other genres and formats.
SKB: Having read a lot of your work, this is so true, the ideas examined in this book are in constant dialogue with your other writing, regardless of the genre. Indeed, the first time I came to Dolerse in Spanish was when I was writing a paper on your novel Nadie me verá llorar and I wanted to better understand your notion of collective pain as a subversive act. I was particularly excited about translating this project because of what I thought it could add to an understanding of your work in English, expanding genres and more explicitly engaging with ongoing violence in both Mexico and the United States.
Within our current context, I find this notion of grief as a politically active position and the writing from this position to be particularly powerful. As you say at the end of the book, we must keep writing.
This book, like a lot of your work, is an ever-changing project in a lot of ways. One version of the book in Spanish includes essays from other contemporary Mexican writers, and in this English version we have re-arranged some pieces and added new ones. The three of us—you, Lauren Hook, and myself—made the decisions about the progression of the book together, and we were primarily thinking about how to make the identity of each section clear while maintaining a certain pace to the reading experience.
How did you decide which pieces you wanted to add to or remove from the collection? And more generally, how do you understand the evolution of your writing and the way it traverses Spanish and English?
CRG: In many ways, preparing a book for translation is like getting ready for a long trip. We need to think about what we will need on the road, but also about the place where we will soon arrive. We travel in certain ways in Spanish and in others in English, in part because of the intricacies of each language, but also because of the readers we are hoping to reach once we get there.
In the end, it is less a matter of choosing a language, and more a matter of selecting a conversation I would like to articulate with or be part of. Suffering, unnecessary suffering inflicted on migrants and children, for example, is an experience we all know well in contemporary United States. It is, in this regard, a conversation I am interested in having, in multiplying, in contributing to.
Writing for a newspaper on a weekly basis allows you to coincide with greater specificity on issues of the present. But the present, and our sense of presentness, changes over time. This was my main concern: to select texts able to move with a sense of presentness that began in the moment they were published but whose meaningfulness reaches the shores of this today.
SKB: I quite like this idea of thinking about the choice to write or translate something as a way of engaging with a particular conversation, but it also requires an understanding that these conversations change over time. I think that the translations of your work, and the ways you continue to shape your writing through that process of translation—adding relevant information, sharing new stories, emphasizing certain ideas—keeps these conversations active; they do not start and stop with a single publication.
As a writer you are constantly in dialogue with other writers—such as Juan Rulfo, Alejandra Pizarnik, or Lina Meruane—as a way of exploring this moving present you mention. How do you understand and develop these dialogues?
CRG: You are so right, Sarah. To keep these conversations active, that is what matters. Choice, in any case, sounds so cerebral. So smooth. In reality, though, there is a sense of urgency. Nothing could begin without this sense of urgency. There is something that overwhelms us, sweeping us away. We are already in it when we notice that it matters. That is the kind of “choice” I am referring to.
I believe it was poet Hugo García Manríquez who spoke about gravitational fields as a mode of inquiry. Influence does not trigger any kind of anxiety in me. On the contrary, finding the elements of the gravitational fields I am part of or am attracted to, is a central operation of the dialogues I look forward to.
Books, it is all well known, are not isolated creatures, but components of a larger collective practice we call reading. And conversing. Can we engage in conversation with the dead? Literature teaches us that this is indeed the case.
SKB: Yes, that makes sense to me; perhaps “choice” is something easier defined in retrospect. Rather we are constantly, and urgently, responding to one another, in this gravitational field that you speak of. What you say about your approach to writing, that it is a collective practice rings true to my own sense of translation.
I was first drawn to translation as a way of participating in these conversations, both through intensive reading and then recreation. Do you find that the practice of translation—both your own translation work and that of your writing—informs your writing?
CRG: Co-authors, that is what we are now, Sarah Booker. In our long conversations, constant give and take, our translation process affects and is affected by the writing practices that surround it. My most recent example: I have now staged a writing-revision practice that somehow resembles the way we work together: I write a version, let us say, in Spanish; then I write a version of those couple of paragraphs in English, keeping an eye open for revisions in the process; then I come back to Spanish with revisions included.
It is a maddeningly slow zigzag of a process, but one that encapsulates the way I am in the world. Translation as a technology of sorts. Translation as a method. I agree with Don Mee Choi when she argues, quite convincingly, about the capacity of translation to de-naturalize colonial entities—language and otherwise.
SKB: What an interesting approach, and one that does engage with a lot of Don Mee Choi’s ideas about both acknowledging difference and breaking it down, disrupting linguistic, cultural, political, and militaristic systems of power. I think this sort of zigzagging approach is relevant to the question of genre as it relates to your work.
Whereas up until now it has been your novels that have been translated into English, this year, perhaps serendipitously, you have three works of non-fiction appearing in translation: Grieving, Robin Myers’s translation of The Restless Dead and Laura Kanost’s translation of La Castañeda Insane Asylum. While these are works of non-fiction, I see that genre definition as perhaps a bit limiting of the actual structure or form of these books, which really embrace narrative hybridity.
This is something that I really felt in the process of translating the book, as we moved from the historical precision of the introduction or a piece like “War and Imagination” to the more poetic “Horrorism” or “Keep Writing” to the much more narrative “The Longest Sunday.” Having previously spent more time with your fiction, I actually found working on “The Longest Sunday” or even “Cacaluta” to almost be a respite as the language felt more familiar, even if the content continued to be emotionally challenging.
How do you approach the question of genre in your writing? How do you decide what form an idea will take?
CRG: Life overflows; experience cannot be categorized according to genre. Ricardo Piglia argued that enigmas—often disguised as paradoxes—are at the center of any writing process—and I tend to agree with this. In order to approach enigmas—not to resolve them because they are not riddles—I need as many tools, questions, languages as enigmas themselves contain. Again, I don’t see myself as choosing a genre or feeling more or less comfortable with any given genre, but as someone willing to pay close attention to the materials at hand and, above all, able to follow their dictates.
Genre as obedience. Genre as disobedience. Often, this process involves contextualizing and de-contextualizing normative notions of genre, forcing words or grammatical structures to play a new trick in order to honor the experience shared. It is the longest of processes, which often takes various versions and much time. It is, too, intense and, for sure, enjoyable—if you have tolerance for uncertainty, that is.
SKB: I think this slowing down of thought and writing that you speak to is so important for us these days.
CRG: You’re right. In a way, the pause created by the pandemic has forced us to pay more attention. Basic facts that used to go unnoticed, like the fact that we are connected to others in very real material ways—from processes of production to distribution of goods—like the fact that we depend on the labor and care of so many others, are unavoidable now.
While this government has downplayed the reach of the virus, withholding information and misreading statistics, loss and death grow rampant in our midst. Suffering has become a way of life, but what grieving together teaches us is that it does not have to be this way.
Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker is available now via Feminist Press.