Valeria Luiselli's newest novel took a village to write, or more accurately, a factory. The Story of My Teeth was written in collaboration with a group of juice factory workers who discussed a new chapter Luiselli sent them each week. The audio from those conversations was then sent back to Luiselli, who used it to write the next chapter. Then the whole thing was translated into English, rewritten back into Spanish, and then translated back into English again to become the novel it is now.
If that sounds to you like the work of a woman who must be a genius, you're absolutely correct. With The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli has become the first Mexican finalist for the very prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. I talked to Luiselli on the phone last week about how she wrote the novel, her place in the literary world, and feeling like an outsider.
How did you feel when you found out you'd been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award?
I was very honored. In fact, the only two writers writing in a foreign language who have been nominated and received the NBCC for fiction were [Roberto] Bolaño and [W.G.] Sebald. So I'm very honored.
And also [I was] extremely, very, very surprised, and happy, and of course nervous. At the same time, writers are always waiting for something. It’s either a manuscript that’s just turned in, or a prize you were nominated for, or whatever else. It’s really important not to let those future key days distract you from your work and take away your peace of mind. You have to learn to put them in a different part of your brain.
You wrote this book in weekly installments for a group of readers in a juice factory. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to do that?
I like collaborating with people from different disciplines. But of course, this kind of collaboration was very different than any I had ever done. I’ve never had a group of readers that read my work as it was being produced. I had never had such an intense collaboration with a group of people.
They would read out loud, and then they would criticize, and then they would talk about whatever. It was during those periods where they were talking more freely without such a clear direction that a lot of stories and topics emerged that I was interested in talking about and fishing out. In that time spent in solitude listening to them, I became acquainted with them. I started recognizing certain things about their personalities.
But I wasn’t very conscious that I was writing a novel while I was writing The Story of My Teeth. At that moment it was just a project, and idea, a collaboration, so I had complete freedom to explore and to write without a sense of having to finish something and create a book and follow a certain set of guidelines.
But I did have the commitment to that weekly deadline, and it produced a rhythm in my writing that was very different than any rhythm I’ve ever had. It kind of emulated the factory workers I was writing for, because I was working at this very fast-paced, frenetic speed.
Did you ever wish you could meet any of the factory workers who were your readers?
There were some voices that I particularly liked. One in particular I liked so much that I ended up emulating it even in the way that I wrote, much in the same way that a composer might write a piece of music for a very specific musician. That was an unexpected surprise.
I did meet two of them. The younger ones, or the ones who sounded younger, I guess. The two of them came to the book launch in Mexico City and said, "We're them." It was really fantastic. But [before that] they didn't see my face and I didn't see theirs.
I was writing under a masculine pen name, because I thought that they would all be men, which was completely mistaken because most of the people who got involved with the reading group were women. But by that time I had already written one installment, and I couldn’t just take back my name and start all over again.
So you just defaulted to male? Have you experienced discrimination as a woman writing?
I think there are lots of little things that add up, not necessarily big traumatic events, especially when I was younger. Many times you get paid less. But there are also things like, you know, you get invited to a woman’s panel. Not a panel in which everyone happens to be a woman, that is good and fine. But a panel which is conceived and conceptualized as the woman’s panel, which I think is terrible.
I think, if you’re a woman, you have to be doubly smart and doubly careful and professional. You have to draw very clear limits in order to gain any respect as an intellectual and as a creator. Something that’s very common, I think—but perhaps more common in Latin America, where I'm from, than in the U.S.—is this idea: I feel that a lot of women writers in Latin America, if their work does well, are kind of conceived as having fame but not prestige.
Even just the word "fame" in Spanish, fama, has a bit of a negative connotation. It's kind of an empty thing. Fame is what Kim Kardashian has, but not what a real writer should have. It's just terrible. There are very few woman intellectuals who have respect because of the reception of their work.
Speaking of Spanish, you wrote this book in Spanish and had it translated into English even though you speak English fluently. Why use a translator?
I think what has happened with me and [my translator] Christina [MacSweeney] is that, though I am bilingual and have been writing in English my whole life, she is an integral part of my process. Because she translated my first three books into English, I think that I’ve ended up being influenced by her writing of me in English. I will write and she will translate, and then I will maybe see something that has not translated as well as it should, and rewrite it on top of her, and so on and so on.
She was part of the intestines of [The Story of My Teeth]. We began collaborating early on while I was still in the very early stages of writing. She had to produce an English version of what I was writing for a catalog in the gallery at the factory. In order for her to be able to do that well, I decided I would send her the worker’s sessions. So while I was in New York listening to the recordings from the worker's conversations [about the latest installment], she was doing the same thing and writing and translating my work.
But translation does serve as a form of close reading. You translate yourself and rewrite on top of what’s been rewritten. You end up going through a very deep editing process. It's helped me produce a work that I've worked on so much that I'm generally not dissatisfied with.
Since you exist in these two literary traditions—one in Spanish and one in English—do you ever feel like an outsider?
I think I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in just a very plain literal sense of the word. I’ve always been someone who’s just arrived to live in that place. I’ve always had that kind of ghostliness, and I’ve learned to only live like that. Any other kind of permanence scares the hell out of me.
I’ve only just crossed the line in New York, and I’m really scared that I might end up belonging. I’ve never lived anywhere for more than five years in a row. I had never lived in the same house for more than two years in a row. Never in my life, well, maybe since I was ten. And now I’ve been in my house for six years in Harlem. It’s very scary to think that I might stop being an outsider eventually.
But then I might move. Maybe across the road. If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz wins, I will definitely move to another country. I mean, I'm Mexican and those guys hate us. Seriously, if Donald Trump wins, I don’t think I can stay here. But I think that's not going to happen.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.