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Eight Questions for Yuri Herrera

Yuri Herrera

Mexican writer Yuri Herrera is the author of three novels: Trabajos del reino, Señales que precederán al fin del mundo and La Transmigración de los cuerpos. Lisa Dillman’s English translation of Señales que precederán al fin del mundo was published as Signs Preceding the End of the World by And Other Stories in 2015. Readers took notice: it is critically acclaimed for its fearless telling of the story of Makina and her journey across the US-Mexico border, and won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. The Transmigration of Bodies is forthcoming, and Trabajos del reino is scheduled for release in 2017. Herrera’s fictional world is made up of criminals and artists treated like criminals and regular people turned criminal out of necessity – not dissimilar, you might say, to the world we call real. Herrera, it is clear, feels compelled to tell these stories, finding in them an outlet for his art. But it takes bravery. These are stories of the brave, both the characters and their creator. It’s a crazy world – saying so is innocuous, it’s in the showing so that the danger lies.
– Tristan Foster


3:AM Magazine: Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a journey across the US-Mexico border. The Transmigration of Bodies is a story of gang violence with a calamitous backdrop. Your debut novel Trabajos del reino sits within the growing tradition of narcoliterature. These are big themes for the small border towns in which the stories take place. Is it right to say that these themes are, for you, unavoidable?

Yuri Herrera: More than being the themes, they are part of my fiction, they are the context in which the stories that concern me happen. I don’t think about them as themes that exist apart from the language in which they are told, the musicality that this language creates, or the conflicts that develop within these issues. The characters and the images are given birth concomitantly with the conflicts, which, by the way, are not always happening near the physical border (The Transmigration of Bodies happens in a place that has nothing to do with the physical border), although they can be situated in what I call the “border condition” (“lo fronterizo”), by which I understand things usually associated with the border but that can happen in other places: the exchange of goods and symbolic values, the creation of new identities, of new linguistic forms, of new political practices.

3:AM: Transmigration is multilayered and transitions between several modes. It’s a noirish murder mystery, it seems a step or two away from turning into a zombie story, it has the characteristics of the adventure tale. What was the genesis of this story?

YH: I have always thought that individuals are not statically defined once and for all, but that are tested repeatedly in the face of liminal situations. And an epidemic is a situation in which you are tested in a variety of ways: how you deal with your suspicions towards your neighbors, how you deal with mass hysteria, how you confront the authorities. I had been thinking about this for a while and was in the process of preparing for the novel when the big swine flu scare happened in Mexico City. I was there, so I had the opportunity to see firsthand how a place is transformed by fear, even a place as big and complex as Mexico City.

But that is just part of the answer, because I think a book is never tightly thought through, it is always intervened by other obsessions, in this case some ideas that have to do with the role of masculinity, memory and how to understand personal flaws.

The Transmigration of Bodies

3:AM: Despite both the seriousness of its themes and the apocalyptic backdrop, Transmigration is full of an absurd kind of fun. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the scene at the strip club; the strippers have taken off everything except for their facemasks, but they use the allure of removing the masks to excite the men watching. Is this writing fun? Is fun crucial to this kind of writing?

YH: The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun. To create your own paths in a room without light. Of course, this sometimes is also frustrating, when you just keep bumping into things, most commonly into my own very clumsy self. Eventually you discover that you have not been walking completely in the dark but with some sort of intuitive sense of direction, some creative spine. But until you discover that, you alternate between the joy and the anxiety and puzzling with words.

3:AM: The protagonist of Transmigration is named The Redeemer, a fixer for hire. But he is predisposed to balancing the world despite who is paying him, serving as the story’s moral centre. This is also the case for Makina, the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World — you write that she is “a hinge”, which I think describes The Redeemer just as well. What value do you see in having distinctly moral characters in distinctly immoral worlds? Is there a moral purpose at play?

YH: Not as an ideological program, but as a sort of confession of my own moral limitations. It is my own attempt to understand the impossibility of moral dogmas along with the impossibility of not having a moral compass. These characters evolve within that paradox, trying to create their own set of moral rules in spite of some forces of the world pushing to renounce them.

3:AM: J.G. Ballard, when questioned about his prescience, characterised himself as “an investigator and a sort of early warning system” and said he had “a very sceptical eye”. Both of your novels available in English translation have analogues in reality. Trump’s wall and anti-immigrant rhetoric forces an extra layer of relevance on Signs and the epidemic in Transmigration correlates with the outbreak of the Zika virus. Can you identify with Ballard’s comments or is something else driving your motivations?

YH: I can identify with the way he sees himself as an investigator, but not as a system. I think part of the advantages of art is that it discovers things thanks more to an attitude than to a method. It is necessary to be alert, but it is equally important to acknowledge subjects and topics that are already there but we prefer not to be because they are disruptive to our normalcy. To create out of the parameters of what is considered normal, yes, that is part of what drives me.

3:AM: Part of the success of Signs is the portrayal of Makina as a reluctant migrant. This reluctance is in contrast to the media’s portrayal of the migrant, a depiction that you allude to in the novel: “We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either.” Makina is duty-bound — she wants to do what she needs in the USA then get out as soon as she can. She doesn’t want to go and she doesn’t want to be there. This is a crucial element of a complex conversation that is very often missing. Does literature have a responsibility to pick up the slack in these conversations?

YH: The way I understand literature, yes, that is one of the possibilities, one of the virtues of literature. I do not want to tell others what is their moral or social responsibility, but the way I see it, literature gives you the opportunity to intervene in the public sphere from a freer margin, one more difficult to tame. The influence that literature exerts is quite different from that of journalism, it takes more time, but it brings to the table other ways of understanding our common problems, other nuances and other affections.

Signs Preceding the End of the World

3:AM: In your talk with Daniel Alarcón at Green Apple Books, you mentioned using mythology to give shape to Signs, specifically the Aztec myth of the descent to Mictlan. But there are other allusions and influences. The novel opens with a biblical image: an old man disappears into a sinkhole. And of course there are echoes of Dante’s Inferno. These are techniques for framing this particular narrative, but isn’t it a statement on the journey itself, and the people who take those journeys?

YH: Makina’s story is a story that has been happening pretty much in every single culture; every human group defines itself as the result of a journey, or as part of a journey. This is at the core of how new nations and new identities are created. But people in some rich countries prefer to think that this is a new phenomenon and disregard the heroic journey of the migrants. What Central Americans are living in their journey through Mexico and entering the United States, as what the Syrians are enduring escaping war while the European nations treat them as criminals, are events of biblical proportions.

Even though we should always strive to renew the language, that renewal can and should use words from other times and from other spaces to better express this new version of human events. Literature has to dig into uncomfortable vocabularies to find new ways of expression.

3:AM: I want to ask about the act of having been translated. You write in Spanish, and have had your books subsequently translated into French and Italian, and now into English by Lisa Dillman. What changes with a switch between languages? I want to know what, with respect to your stories, is gained and what is lost.

YH: My books have been translated into German, Dutch, Norwegian and Croatian too, and in each case it has been a different experience. I try not to put pressure on the translators, because I assume they know their readership much better than I ever will. What I strive for is to share what I think are some of the important words and images of the story and collaborate with them as much as they ask for. Translation is always a loss in the sense that the exact sense of the original version cannot be replicated. It’s like that Borges’ short story in which a map of the Empire keeps growing until it covers the Empire inch by inch. It is not possible to find the words that have the exact same meaning, but also it’s not possible to replicate the sound of the original, which is another source of meaning, another source of the affections that populate the text. But this loss should be seen as a possibility to create a new sensorial experience based on the original matrix. Because translation is treason only in the sense that every invention is betraying the original to keep existing in a different shape.


Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 6th, 2016.