2020 MacArthur Fellow Cristina Rivera Garza and her translator Robin Myers discuss their new publication The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation.
Cheyla Samuelson (CRS): Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation (trans. Robin Myers) was recently published with the new Critical Mexican Studies series from Vanderbilt Press. Cristina and Robin, you must be so pleased with the translation and publication of The Restless Dead. The book is tremendously influential among readers in Spanish, so it will be exciting to see its reception in English. Can you talk about how the project to translate Los muertos indóciles came about?
Cristina Rivera Garza (CRG): It all begins with an invitation. I received a translation grant from the University I work for, and I invited Robin to join this translating team. Some of my fiction had been published recently in English and I thought it was now the right time to work directly with my non-fiction—not a minor component of my work.
Robin Myers (RM): I’d translated some poems of Cristina’s for a bilingual publication in Mexico City before she approached me about translating The Restless Dead. I love the unapologetic multiplicity of The Restless Dead: it contains literary criticism, personal essays, contemporary sociopolitical commentary, technological musings, a sort of past-and-present look institutional and extra-institutional writing communities in the US and Mexico.
CRS: With its eclectic subject matter and style, The Restless Dead recalls some of the classic essayists like Umberto Eco, Walter Benjamin or Gloria Anzaldúa. Although it deals with profound questions and ideas, it also strikes me as a deeply personal book that is welcoming to a wide range of readers. Part of the character of these essays comes from their origin in your weekly column in El Milenio. Can you talk about how the work evolved as a book?
CRG: I maintained “The Left Hand”, a weekly column at the Milenio newspaper, for about 7 years. From the plethora of articles on books, traveling, arts, matters of daily life, I selected those pieces more closely related to writing, specifically on the relationship between writing, community, and violence, three pivotal elements surrounding my practice. These are, you´re right, deeply personal articles firmly anchored in the present. Once the main structure of the book was decided, the revision and rewriting of the texts began. I removed entire paragraphs or wrote new transitional pieces to help build general arguments. I rearranged chapters. I penned new pieces if that helped bring points across. The postproduction work allowed me to think of the larger argumentative arcs of the book.
CRS: The Restless Dead is, in some ways, a book of quotations. There is a sustained engagement with not only the ideas of other writers, but also with the actual words of others. This strikes me as an embodiment of your oft-referenced idea of disappropriation. For readers who aren’t familiar with this concept, how would you describe it?
CRG: The discussion about cultural appropriation swept us away and surrounded much of what we worked with in the writing workshops I taught at UCSD. As a migrant writer, a Mexican author writing in Spanish, and often in English, from within the United States, the questions mattered personally. It was both an ethical and an aesthetical query from the start. Soon, I began working with the concept of disappropriation—a writing practice in which the texts and experiences of others play a visible, almost palpable, role in pieces I would then accept responsibility for, signing them. Disappropriative aesthetics manifest the plural and collaborative roots of writing practices, a process often obscured by the all-encompassing myth of the author as an individual force and the prominence of commercial distribution of texts through the book industry. Emphasis on reading assemblies, material debt, and shareng are also included in its definition.
CRS: Several of the essays in The Restless Dead address the tragedy of contemporary Mexico. I’m curious about how you developed the idea of necrowriting, which seems to be formulated as a counterbalance to what Achille Mbembe defines as necropolitics. Why did you feel the need to incorporate death into a practice meant to counteract the politics and culture of death?
CRG: I am especially interested in writings that, while acknowledging that man-made death surrounds us with its gaping maw, incorporate a range of grammatical, syntactical and/or semiotic operations in order to resist its onslaught. I believe that writings by Gerardo Arana, such as Bulgaria Mexicalli; or that pieces by multi-genre writer and activist Eugenio Tisselli work within this paradigm: slowly unveiling the layers of violence sedimented in experience through disappropriative writing practices that don’t forget the aesthetic and ethical dimension.
CRS: You write that the debate over “literatura comprometida” versus “arte por el arte” is effectively over. You propose the idea of a “writing activism.” What has changed that makes that old debate superfluous?
CRG: The old debate assumed that engaged literature or art for art’s sake were choices writers made—a matter of ideology. We work with language—a humble yet powerful force shared by entire communities of practitioners. We are, therefore, engaged from the start. Writing is an ethical inquiry—there is no way around it.
CRS: There is a critique that in Latin America essayists tend to frame questions in the context of Eurocentric theory. You are clearly well-read in those terms, but I also see you working towards developing ideas that originate from the specificity of Mexico’s history and contemporary reality, including indigenous theory and thinkers.
CRG: This book could not have been possible without the careful reading of Floriberto Diaz’s work. A Mixe anthropologist and activist, Díaz wrote insightfully about the defense of the territory, the social and cultural mechanics of communality, and the very survival of Mixe pueblos in the highlands of Oaxaca. Díaz, in other words, was unconcerned with issues of creative writing in the United States, yet his historically-grounded analyses about the power dynamics governing the workings of written language—closely related to the labor-based practice of communality—opened up a whole field of inquiry. Díaz’s work is relevant to a range of contemporary discussions, from indigeneity to new materialisms, from language activism to issues of social justice and anti-coloniality, to mention just a few. His approach made me question notions of community, for example, and place emphasis on the material aspects involved in the written production and distribution of the written word.
CRS: You write optimistically about Twitter. Lately, so much of what we hear about how we interact with contemporary technology is negative and even ominous. How do you parse the movement between the creative and communitarian possibilities of 21st century technology with the normative and isolating effect that big tech can have?
CRG: You were there at the start of it all, I believe. The unleashed energy, the shared amazement, the freshness: even a 12-year old girl thinks she can write, said a conservative male writer, complaining about the risks of our age. But the phrase was rather telling: yes, even a 12-year old girl was convinced she could become a writer. The early stages of life, relationships and, yes, technology frequently invoke these kind of enthusiasm—because everything is there, brimming with possibility. The market and investors were there too, ready to shape the process, which they managed to do. I kept these chapters in the book because often enough we have to excavate in the recent past to find traces of what is possible, even probable. We are not lunatic utopians, but careful observers of our past.
CRS: I love David Markson, and you have a whole chapter devoted to him! One of the first times we met, we ended up talking about Wittgenstein’s Mistress in which the protagonist seems to be the last person alive on Earth. Do you think that novel offers us a way to think about the very current issues of writing, loneliness and the end of civilization?
CRG: After reading Wittgenstein´s Mistress I became a fan a Markson’s later work. The novel haunted me constantly, helping me pose questions that were or had been otherwise difficult to grasp. The possibility of writing in an autobiographical mode in such an impersonal manner startled me. The reflections about the natural history of culture and the place of women´s bodies in the process were no less relevant. There is a displacement of the anthropocentric gaze there that fascinated me then and continues to have weight in my work now.
CRS: I loved your description of your relationship to English, which you call “The Second Language.” What is productive for you about that defamiliarization in your second language, which you have also called your step-mother tongue?
CRG: Bi- or multi-lingualism is less a skill and more a mode of perception and resistance. The defamiliarization you mentioned, which lies at the root of such mode, triggers a constant awareness about the potency of each of the components of language. In many ways, I am describing what translation is capable of—in between languages or within specific languages.
CRS: At one point in the book you say you are “used to going away.” It’s a lovely meditation on what we leave behind and what we carry, sometimes unwillingly, when we leave a place. You also liken landscape as we understand our relation to a place as writing.
CRG: I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between bodies and territories. I am delving more and more in modes of writing able to bring together the most salient elements of both human and non-human dramas, always in close connection with each other. My suspicion is that the material features and relationships embedded in territory affect us in ways that are not readily transparent, conforming the silhouettes of our so-called internal worlds. They produce modes of affect that shape us from outside and from within. We are emotional beings because we are located in specific points on the crust of the earth.
CRS: Dolerse is an important companion to The Restless Dead. In Dolerse you really dig down into the ethics of representation and violence. Dolerse has been translated by Sara Booker as Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country and will come out this fall with The Feminist Press. Was it intentional to bring them out at the same time, and how do you see the relationship between these two books?
CRG: Of course.
If we had planned it, even millimetrically, down to the last detail, we would have not been able to work it out the way it did. It does make sense, however, to read these books in tandem. They resulted from the same original materials (the newspaper column I maintained for about 7 years) and underwent a similar postproduction (involving re-writing, removing, revising), and yet the angle is unique to each project. I am more focused on writing per se in The Restless Dead, while Dolerse forced me to face the larger phenomena of loss, the empathy stemming from pain shared, and the need to abandon indolence (the inability to feel and react before the pain of others) to create, instead, emotional communities able to counteract state and capital violence.
CRS: One of the most important subjects that you touch on in the book is the relationship of power to violence in the neoliberal era. Although you are talking about the current situation in Mexico, recent developments in the US make me think that some of your analyses can be very relevant for thinking about what has happened here over the past four years, and what might happen as we confront the possibility of four more years of reactionary and right wing populism.
CRG: Books age. Some do it gracefully, some don’t. Some cease to be urgent. Sadly, even regretfully, Dolerse continues to be relevant in a contemporary world in which—senseless, cruel, avoidable– suffering has become a way of life. I have included recent essays on the war against women and the war against migrants—two of the greatest tragedies of our times—in Grieving because the language of shared pain might help us identify the sources of the misfortune and the sources of our strength.
CRS: I was tremendously moved in Merida by your acceptance speech for the Premio Excelencia en las Letras José Emilio Pacheco, and to see it now translated as a new afterward for the Restless Dead seems particularly apt. Many of us are experiencing a real “trauma fatigue,” something which you acknowledge. Nevertheless, you argue for a stubbornness that you refuse to identity as optimism.
CRG: Emily Dickinson once said that No was the wildest word consigned by language. I agree. The word no is generative, and beautiful, and it opens all kinds of doors. It is at the base of the destructive character described by Walter Benjamin, always at the crossroads. Did I ever tell you the story about my father telling me that, in case I drowned, he would look for me up river and never down river? Here you have it: not an optimist, but a contrarian. And a stubborn one at that.
CRS: Robin, Reading The Restless Dead in English, I’m really struck by how good the translation is. Cristina’s Spanish is often intentionally nonstandard, which is part of the ethics and aesthetics of her writing, so I am wondering how you dealt with that.
RM: Cristina’s prose is both freewheeling and intensely deliberate: it’s like you can feel her language thinking, observing itself, cultivating its intentions, which makes for a lot of syntactical leaps, loops, winks, bilingual wordplay, and neologisms, as you’ve mentioned. In general, though, I tried to focus on and follow the thinking-arc of Cristina’s language, taking cues from her twin senses of deliberateness and surprise in a way that helped me explore compatible forms of playfulness and expressiveness in English.
CRS: Cristina and Robin, Cristina’s English is pretty close to perfect, so I’m wondering about your collaborative process for translation. And, given Cristina’s attitude toward cocreation and writing, whose book is this?
CRG: We are co-authors, of course. Robin has gifted me with a new book, an artifact now shared by both. It is, in any case, an ongoing conversation. I not only removed and re-arranged materials, but wrote entire sections directly in English in the process. Robin curated those as well. So, at this point, it would be really difficult to tell which sections were written originally in Spanish and which ones in English. Enmeshed and dialogical (diabolical?), that’s how translations look like quite often.
RM: Many of my favorite passages in The Restless Dead put forth more collective, flexible, and mutable definitions of writing and authorship. All writing is re-writing, and all writing is communal, has been nurtured and changed by the communities surrounding its creation. Translation is maybe even more obviously so: it’s an act of writing-with and writing-through and writing-enmeshed-in. For me, working with Cristina on this book meant constantly encountering and absorbing—and then trying to consciously practice—the very same ideas she explores in it. I hadn’t experienced anything quite like it before, and it’s an experience I know I’ll treasure going forward.
Cristina Rivera Garza: Author, translator, critic. Recent publications include: The Iliac Crest, trad. por Sarah Booker (The Feminist Press, 2017); The Taiga Syndrome, trad. por Suzanne Jill Levine y Aviva Kana (Dorothy Project, 2018); Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué (Random House, 2016), Autobiografía del algodón (Random House, 2020); Grieving. Dispatches from a Wounded County, trans. Sarah Booker (Feminist Press, 2020); The Restless Dead.Necrowriting and Disappropriation, trans. Robin Myers (Vanderbilt Press, 2020); La Castañeda Insane Asylum: Narratives of Pain from Modern Mexico, trans. Laura Kanost, (Oklahoma Press, 2020). She is Distinguished Professor and director of the PhD track in Creative Writing in Spanish at the University of Houston.
Robin Myers is the translator of, recently, The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza, Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos, and Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel; forthcoming translations include books by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Tedi López Mills, Leonardo Teja, and Daniel Lipara. She was among the winners of the 2019 Poems in Translation Contest (Words Without Borders / Academy of American Poets).