An Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, one of Mexico's Most Exciting Writers Today
Guadalupe Nettel was born in Mexico City in 1973. She lived in Aix-en-Provence, France, as a teenager, studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, and earned her doctorate in linguistics from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Among other works, she is the author of four short story collections, a memoir, and two novels; she also writes for several literary magazines. In 2007 she was included on the Bogotá 39 list, which named the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39. She has been awarded a number of literary prizes in Mexico and in Europe and her books have been translated into many languages. Natural Histories, for which she won the 2013 Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award, and her memoir The Body Where I was Born are her first books to be published in English. Her novel Después del invierno (After the Winter), which won Spain’s Herralde Novel Award in 2014, will be published in English in 2017.
What was the first “real” book that you read? In your autobiographical novel, In the Body Where I was Born, you mention reading Gabriel García Márquez’s The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother.
I read the Márquez book when I was 11 years old just before we moved to France. I had read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at 8 or 9 years old. I didn’t fully understand it, but when I re-read it later, I realized I had pretty much understood the gist of it. When I was in France I didn’t read books in Spanish but I adapted well to reading books in French. I was hungry for stories. I remember very clearly reading [Alain-Fournier’s] Le Grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer). There was a wonderful library in Aix that had a great children’s and young adult section. I would ask the librarian for recommendations. I remember reading [Joseph Joffo’s] Un Sac de Billes, (A Bag of Marbles) and [Howard Buten’s] Le Cœur sous le rouleau compresseur, (Heart under a steamroller). I didn’t have my own room at the time, my brother and I shared the living room, and reading was my only refuge.
You wrote stories as a young child, did you continue as an adolescent when you moved to France?
I wrote sagas when I lived in Aix; I wasn’t entirely comfortable with writing in French, I probably wrote them in Spanish. I wrote with a much greater sense of urgency when I was 16 and had returned to Mexico City. I went to a writing workshop in Coyoacán. My mother had often showed my poems and my writing to Enrique González Rojo, a writer friend of hers, and he recommended this workshop run by writer Rafael Ramírez Heredia who was very strict and cutting. This galvanized me and got me used to criticism and showed me the profession: how to structure stories, the tone and the rhythm. It was very useful. Then I went to another workshop with the author Juan Villoro, who had himself been in a writers’ workshop with [Guatemalan author] Augusto Monterroso. There’s a great tradition of writers’ workshops in Mexico and Latin America in general. Anyway this workshop wasn’t traditional at all. When I was in high school I had started a short story that ended up winning two prizes, one of which was a French prize for stories coming from non-francophone countries.
This galvanized me and got me used to criticism and showed me the profession: how to structure stories, the tone and the rhythm.
After high school I was studying at a university in France, and the prize-giving ceremony for the French prize was held in Benin. I travelled there and was fascinated by the country. I met a playwright who knew Mexican literature far better than I did. It embarrassed me. Something else that happened to me in Africa was that my social awareness was born. I realized that living in Mexico I had developed a sort of blindness to poverty. When I went back to my university I realized I couldn’t continue living in France, I wanted to return to Mexico to do some form of humanitarian or social work. I went to UNAM where I first studied philosophy and then Hispanic literature. At that time the Zapatista movement had burst onto the scene and UNAM was very much involved in the movement and I become so too. With four other women students we went to Aguascalientes in Chiapas and built a library in the jungle. For the first time I heard Mexicans talking about dignity, and integration. The Zapatistas said that Mexicans don’t look where it hurts the most, and where it’s most shameful. It is only when we can integrate the Indian world and the Mestizo world that the country can move forward. What he [leader of the Zapatista movement, Subcomandante Marcos] said had a tremendous effect on me. I began to think about doing this on a personal level. I think that everything I have been able to write came from that point on. It was thanks to the Zapatistas. To go see where one doesn’t want to go.
As a child, you felt different from the others because of an eye patch you had to wear. Then, in Aix, you were different because you were Mexican. When you returned to Mexico, did you feel as if you had found your identity?
When you’ve lived in several countries you feel as though you have roots in all the places you’ve lived in. I feel mostly Mexican but not only. I think [national] identity is not something one should build but something one should get rid of. It leads to nationalism and xenophobia or rejection of the other. My ideal is inclusion, not exclusion. What pains me most in Mexico is the immense chasm between the Indian population and the Mestizos.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your writing?
I think it was my last novel, Después del invierno (After the Winter). There were two narrators and each voice had to be distinct. One narrator is a girl from Oaxaca who leaves for Paris, and the masculine narrator is Cuban and goes to New York. I had to create two very different voices and two types of Spanish.
Is there a particular subject you would like to explore in your work?
There are so many! I have a tendency to have an explosive temper, which comes from my father, a fiery, depressive anger. I am exploring this side of my personality that I’m not very proud of but that interests me. And my father’s story. He died two years ago and his death triggered [temporary] writer’s block, which for me, is rare.
Is Mexico a culture that is always present in the background when you are writing?
I think it is, even though I write stories that don’t necessarily take place in Mexico. Mexico is the scale to which I compare things. I like that aspect in Octavio Paz’s writing. Although he travelled a lot, each time he compared everything with Mexico, even in his essay on India he was comparing Indian fruit with Mexican dishes.
Do you think that books can foster change in the world?
Yes absolutely. I have never adhered to politically engaged literature, I don’t think one should subject literature to a political cause. But literature exposes us to other cultures. It allows us to become sensitized to another’s subjectivity. Thanks to novels, we can understand in an intimate, personal way, experiences we haven’t lived, such as exile, for example. Literature can make us feel much more than newspapers. It is a power and a responsibility to provide an opening to other ways of thinking. You can read books by fundamentalist and right wing authors and understand better their way of thinking. It also encourages empathy. There is a short text by Amos Oz that I love, that he read when he received the  Prince of Asturias award. He said that when you travel, you discover a country, and if you’re lucky, you can even speak to people. But when you read a novel, you’re invited into people’s homes, into their intimacy.
I had a project after my brief experience in Africa. I wanted Mexicans to discover African literature and I wanted to assemble an anthology, which unfortunately never happened. But from 2006-2009 I edited a magazine with a friend in order to establish a link between francophone and Spanish-speaking countries and we had texts from countries outside of Europe that were published in both languages. We must break out of this euro-centrism in which we have been trapped.
Can you recommend some contemporary Mexican authors for our readers?
Laia Jufresa, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Emiliano Monge, Antonio Ortuño, Álvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli.