Photo: Barry Domínguez
Ana Clavel is considered one of the most prominent writers of her generation in Latin America. Her novel Las ninfas a veces sonríen (Nymphs Sometimes Smile), published by distinguished Spanish publishing house Alfaguara, was awarded the prestigious Elena Poniatowska Ibero-American Novel Prize in 2013. In March of 2015, the UK-based publisher Legenda Books released Jane Lavery’s The Art of Ana Clavel: Ghosts, Urinals, Dolls, Shadows, and Outlaw Desires, a critical edition dedicated to Clavel’s vast oeuvre. Clavel and I had a long conversation at her home in the Mixcoac neighborhood of Mexico City, the very same neighborhood in which Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz lived as a child. We sat down for a long conversation about the unique visual aspects she brings to her writing practice, Mexico’s long list of talented female writers, and her book recommendations for a North American reader of contemporary Mexican literature.
Some literary critics, such as Jane Lavery, have said that you are a multimedia writer. Do you agree? How would you define the concept of “multimedia writer” and how does it differentiate from a “pure” writer?
That was Jane Lavery’s idea. I only say, and I sustain it at all times, that I am a writer. A particular kind of writer. Although I do understand the need to forge the concept of “multimedia writer,” as well as the attempt to define other forms of writing practices, because it is also true that what I do is not very common. I am a visual person, but I insist: I am not a visual artist, not even when I make multimedia projects based on my books. And I say this because these projects are not autonomous; they are indeed like satellites of my books, peripheral approaches, sometimes convergent, sometimes a little more divergent from my books.
Does it make you uncomfortable to be called a visual artist?
Yes, it makes me feel out of balance as a writer because I cannot present myself, technically speaking, as a visual artist. I cannot go around saying that I am a visual artist. No way. I am a writer who also makes projects based on my books, but I also understand that other writers generally don’t make installations, videos, or other multimedia expressions based on their books as I do. I find that writers often “just” write a book, and then they distance themselves from it—they only get close to it again during a book signing or interviews. That’s why Mario [Bellatin] understood well what I was telling him about this multimedia writer concept and my eagerness to make clear that I am only a writer. I recently chatted with Mario about this, and he told me: “Our craft is writing, even though we sometimes engage in different projects, such as taking pictures or doing a performance or whatever—no matter what, we keep writing, because that is our craft.” And what he said, I thought, complemented my idea and desire to present myself only as a writer.
Your editor gives you a lot of freedom, to the point where you can even make the covers of your own books—that doesn’t seem like common practice among editors, let alone commercial publishers such as Alfaguara?
No, it is not common, but I think that it all happened because the publisher and my editor really liked the image I suggested for the cover of my novel Shipwrecked Body. Also, when I showed them my photo for the cover of Violets Are Flowers of Desire, they liked it so much that they didn’t even consider how disturbing the image could have seemed to some people. We actually ran into problems with the cover at some bookstores where the book couldn’t be sold due to the cover . . .
Did you begin with your multimedia work by designing the covers of your books?
Yes. I did my first multimedia performance at the Cultural Center of Spain in Mexico with Shipwrecked Body. Later, I had the opportunity to present this performance in a museum that sometimes not even visual artists have the opportunity to access. But I was lucky because the director of the museum at the time, Ángeles Albert de León, was very interested in gender issues—and my novel was dealing with the story of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, only the other way around: a woman wakes up in a man’s body. I enjoy this multimedia way of exploring my work quite a lot; it is a sort of game, and an audacious approach which indeed allows my work to reach a broader public. People that don’t like to read are suddenly able to reach my books through my visual or multimedia performances.
Based on the success of your multimedia and visual projects, do you think that someday you will become a full-time visual artist?
Let the cobbler stick to his last, I would say. Technology allows us to dabble in different artistic expressions, but there is an inherent respect for each artistic craft. I cannot draw, for instance; I could perhaps draw with a very elemental technique just like any other person could, I may even have a vague sense of proportion, but I really cannot draw—and I get the sense that to be considered a visual artist I must be able to make a sketch with a high degree of technical dexterity.
The other day I read, via Cornell professor Edmundo Paz-Soldán, that Mario Bellatin writes on his cellphone (I think an iPhone) and that he publishes those texts straight from his cellphone. What do you think of such writing practices?
I do not believe that Mario publishes straight from a cellphone. I do not believe it (laughter). I generally consider Mario’s work to be very finished, with an acute precision of its resources, and with lots of sophistication. I understand that, when you have been working for decades, as in Mario’s case, practically all you write has a high degree of elaboration from the very beginning. But, no, I cannot believe it . . . (more laughter). This reminds me of the automatic writing of the Surrealists, in the sense that the writing flows; if you write on a cellphone, perhaps the result may seem interesting because it emerged from an immediate input, almost spontaneously, but this may also disperse the care and attention that the reader deserves. But well, I know that Mario is very experimental and maybe he has done such things a few times, but I do not believe that this kind of writing is sustainable in the long run.
I was rereading your novel Nymphs Sometimes Smile, and structurally it reminded me a lot of Cartucho by Nellie Campobello, mostly for the brevity of the forms and its fragmentary structure, to such a point that it seems like a group of flash fiction pieces are joined together in order to build a broader narrative structure. Do you agree with this impression of mine—that you include flash fiction in your novels?
I have written one book of flash fiction, CorazoNadas. My first novels do not include this sort of narrative form, but then I wrote Violets Are Flowers of Desire, which is a novella. That’s when I encountered an interesting structure, because the genre allows you to bring together density and slowness, but also brevity, which all combined produces a very accurate effect—a sudden and surprising effect. After Violets are Flowers of Desire, I published The Draftsman of Shadows, which is not exactly a novella, but in this novel I included short chapters, suggesting a non-existent brevity.
In the US, it seems like the few Mexican works that are translated usually deal only with clichés such as violence, borderland experiences, economic and political issues, etcetera, but the fact is that the circulation of contemporary Mexican literature in the US is very limited, so it is not surprising that American readers assume that in Mexico there is only one kind of culture, which is that suggested in the clichés aforementioned. How do these clichés influence your work?
The current Mexican reality is so overwhelming in a negative way, but that’s not always the case—just look at how we’re chatting right now, drinking tea—but the truth is that the other reality,the violent one,does exist, and sometimes it strikes us on a daily basis. In my case, since I am dealing with different topics, like many other authors in Mexico, I sometimes feel guilty for writing about experiences that do not express the current violence that is destroying our country. But the other day, Elmer Mendoza— a very generous and clearheaded author who writes almost exclusively about violence and themes dealing with drug traffic—was telling me that literature should touch all aspects of life. This way, we can also contribute on a cultural level by producing works that deal with universal and aesthetic approaches outside of the atrocious reality of contemporary Mexico.
What books or authors would you recommend to an avid American reader that is interested in contemporary Mexican literature?
Well, I wonder what kind of American reader could be interested in recent Mexican literature. This type of reader, I suppose, must be intelligent enough to recognize that there are other literary universes beyond his or her very specific one. So, if we are talking about this kind of intelligent reader, I would recommend Secondary Effects by Rosa Beltrán, which is a great short novel. I would also recommend the works of Cristina Rivera Garza, because she is an author constantly reading what is produced everywhere, and that makes her a very original contemporary writer. I would also love for this kind of reader to read my work, because I present an aspect of Mexican literature that articulates transgression at different levels, and this may result in an interesting reading experience. I would also recommend Formol by Carla Faesler and Pandora by Liliana V. Blum. Guadalupe Nettel is also a great writer, although I like her short stories more than her novels. Black Roses by Ana García Bergua is also a novel I would recommend.
You mentioned only female writers. Do you think that the conditions for women to become writers have changed in Mexico since you started publishing during the mid-eighties?
Just like Jane Lavery, among other British literary critics, has mentioned, there is a sort of feminine Mexican literary boom, and I would say that this applies at the Latin American level as well—but this boom is not like magic realism. It is instead a sudden emergence of many female authors with very different styles and projects. There is a higher level of interest in women, and themes related to them, than in the past. When I started writing, feminism as a movement had already passed and was entering a stage of decay, but not because the feminist claims were not valuable and real. I am convinced that, at some level, any human being with good judgment would agree on eradicating domination and violence based on gender. In the past, it had become a pre-designed formula to publish female authors that only wrote about the “woman’s world,” which reduced the feminine experience in literature to the kitchen, the bedroom, and other closed spaces. So when I started to write, I didn’t want people to know that I was a woman, so most of my characters and narrative voices were masculine, because I was interested in demonstrating that I knew how to write, regardless of my gender. Now I have been writing for thirty years and (laughter) I do not mind if my readers know that I am a woman.
Do you think that one day, just like Phillip Roth recently announced, you will stop writing?
I believe it is quite legitimate and honest to quit writing. Now that I am fifty-three years old, I realize that our faculties do not remain the same. One gains experience over time, but we are also losing brain cells, and that could affect our skills. At that point, quitting writing seems to be a valid and intellectually honest decision. But I feel that I am still twenty years away from starting to think about quitting.
Ana Clavel was born in Mexico City in 1961. She holds an M.A. in Latin American literature from UNAM. She is the author of the short story collections: Out of Scene (1984), Raving Loving People (1992), Trembling Paradises (2002), and the volume of collected short stories Love and Other Suicides (2012). She was awarded the National Short Story Prize Gilberto Owen in 1991, and the Silver Medal of the Société Académique Arts-Sciences-Lettres of France in 2004. Some of her novels have been translated to English, French and Arabic. Violets Are Flowers of Desire was awarded the Prix Juan Rulfo 2005 organized by Radio France Internationale, and Nymphs Sometimes Smile was awarded the prestigious Spanish American Novel Prize Elena Poniatowska. Her most recent novel is Love is Hunger (2015). Her books have originated diverse multimedia projects, including videos, photos, installations, performances, and acting elements.