Since her novel The Story of My Teeth hit book shelves in early Fall of 2015, Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli has been garnering buzz as a young literary talent to keep an eye on. A six-part postmodern novel, The Story of My Teeth chronicles Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez’s mission to sell and upgrade every one of his teeth, which he claims come from the mouths Borges, Plato, and Virginia Woolf, among others. (This is really just one aspect of the complicated narrative, which later takes a series of shifts.)
The novel came about when Luiselli was commissioned to contribute a work of fiction to an exhibition catalog for Galería Jumex, the art gallery sponsored by Mexican juice corporation Jumex. She became interested in exploring the relationships and juxtapositions between a contemporary art gallery and a factory, artists and workers, and art work and juice, and these concerns worked themselves into the novel through the serial, iterative process Luiselli developed to write it. Teeth was written in installments, each of which Luiselli shared with the Jumex workers for feedback. The workers conducted and recorded book club sessions on each installment and sent them back to Luiselli, which she used to inform the next installments she wrote.
In January, the National Book Critics Circle named the 32 year-old a finalist for an NBCCA Award, making The Story of My Teeth the third fiction piece in a foreign language to ever be nominated. We caught up with the writer – who has lived in Mexico City, South Africa, India, South Korea, and now NYC – to talk about her process writing this book and what it’s like to be part of the young Latin American literary scene.
How does it feel to be nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award?
Being considered as a finalist is great news! It’s a very important award, one that carries a lot of tradition. The only two writers that have been nominated for fiction in a foreign language are Roberto Bolaño (Chilean) and W.G. Sebald (German). There hasn’t been anyone else!
Tell us a little bit about your process writing “The Story of my Teeth.” It was a collaboration between you as a writer and factory workers from the Jumex juice factory in México.
That is correct. I would send them a weekly chapter. The workers would then get together at night, after their workday and read that chapter out loud. They would also critique the chapter, comment on everything. An audio mp3 file of each of these sessions was recorded and sent to me here in New York. I would listen to the complete session, take notes and shape the following chapter according to the feedback I had received from the workers. I would spend the entire following week working on the next chapter so that they could receive it a week later. It was pretty labor intensive on my side as well! I felt almost like a factory myself. But it was immensely fulfilling. It almost felt like a conversation but one that is slightly delayed.
An artist’s success depends on their ability to build a character out of themselves.
I was very interested in this idea that you were only receiving their voices and never got to see any of their faces. Did you ever meet any of the Jumex workers or was it all vía mp3?
I only got to meet two of them. There were twelve in total. But not all twelve of them attended every session. There were two of them, the two younger ones – or rather, the two that sounded the youngest – who came to the novel’s official launch in Mexico. They were a part of the audience and then they came up to me and said “It’s us!” It was very amazing. Very, very moving! We had never seen each others faces. I hadn’t seen them. they hadn’t seen me. I actually used a pseudonym during the process. I was trying to avoid prejudice. But that was just me. I decided to write under a masculine pseudonym because I assumed that if this was a factory, all of the workers involved were going to be men. And of course, I was wrong! The majority of workers involved were women.
What was your pseudonym?
Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, Carretera. [This happens to be the name of the novel’s main character.]
You make a lot of references from the literary canon in the novel – to Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, etc. What do Benjamin and a juice factory have in common? Is this a kind of juxtaposition that you usually work with?
The idea of this dialogue with the workers was aimed at knitting together a vision of what is happening not at the factory, but at the gallery that is right next to that factory. Those works of art that are lying in there could eventually be bought by one of the workers in the factory. It’s a complex relationship. Work, money, the gallery as a place that generates prestige and status. One of the subjects that the workers tended to engage with in the chapters I submitted to them was how little they valued the works of art that were in the gallery. Or how ugly they found them!
It’s almost pointless to have a gallery for them.
Yes. I mean, imagine how many work hours does a factory worker need to buy a dissected dog by artist Maurizio Cattelan? I couldn’t take these relationships lightly – or be too simplistic in my approach. The idea was to grab names of writers, philosophers (people with great “value”) and put them in the narrative, using the names as if they were objects. Lifting them from the literary canon and throwing them into the factory space. Almost in the same way you would grab a work of art and change its context.
Bringing it out of the respectable, cultural context to place it in a day to day reality.
Exactly. It leaves the solemnity of the gallery that gives it its status and therefore, its value. The name is then displaced.
And what happens when it is displaced?
The names lose value! I don’t give a shit about who Walter Benjamin is. The name is an empty object. It’s any other object. A dissected dog. See what I mean?
Sure! It’s like taking my parents to the contemporary art museum. We’ve all been there.
Yes. That is a sensation that a lot of us have had, that we have lived through in relationship to people who do not care about contemporary art. I wasn’t able to appreciate [contemporary art] for a while, and then with time and dedication I managed to observe things and learn. Or maybe I just took the pill.
You drank the Kool-aid! I did too!
[Laughs] Well, the point is that what we are saying now has been said before. I had to find another way, a more sophisticated and less simplistic way to talk about how one generates value in contemporary art. Not only [in a gallery] but in the literary world. The novel is full of narrative devices that imitate techniques in contemporary art. This thing about displacing or decontextualizing names and seeing what happens to them. Also, to explore the notion of eccentricity in the person or the artist. That is something I have always been interested in. I have always been under the impression that an artist’s success depends on their ability to build a character out of themselves. A unique one – exotic, extravagant, eccentric.
The novel is full of narrative devices that imitate techniques in contemporary art.
Speaking of displacements… I read that you have a pretty close relationship with your bicycle. Do you think riding a bike informs your process in some way, your experience of the world? I’m sorry. I feel like this is a weird question.
Not at all. I guess you are asking because you’ve read Papeles Falsos, my first book of essays. I dedicate a whole essay to my bike there. [For the bike nerds out there, the essay is titled “La velocidad á velo”].In fact, a few months ago I had an issue with a bike thief in my neighborhood. Someone was stealing separate parts of my bike, so I decided to write him a letter. It’s called “Dear Bicycle Thief,” and its composed of several phrases that different people sent to me. My daughter and I hung the posters around the neighborhood and we never heard from the bicycle thief again! Not only that, but other people started sending and hanging their own letters around the neighborhood. Some of them took my letters and left me a note saying “Sorry, I did not take your letter, I just took it home to photocopy it and put it around my block because my bike was also stolen.”
That’s a great story. What a superhero. Last but not least, do you consider yourself a part of the younger Latin American literary scene right now?
Well, of course. I wouldn’t refer to it as a “scene” though – it’s a hardly that. There is a constellation of Latin American writers that I am constantly in conversation with. A lot of those times our conversations are about heartbreak and things like that. [Laughs] It’s not like we hold literary salons or anything. We are human beings that are friends and that are also in constant communication. I read them, I respect them and follow their work closely. It’s a sort of family.