As Valeria Luiselli describes her peripatetic childhood, it’s easy to see why themes of absence and loss pervade her essay collection, Sidewalks, and her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, which Coffee House Press will publish simultaneously in May. By the time she was 11, when she moved to South Africa with her father (Mexican ambassador to the newly multiracial democracy), Luiselli had lived in Mexico, Wisconsin, Costa Rica, and South Korea. She traveled later on her own. “My parents were separated, and when I went back to Mexico City with my mother when I was 16, I couldn’t quite adapt; I had learned how to be a foreigner, but I didn’t know how to be a Mexican. I got a scholarship in India and finished high school there by myself, then I did half my college in Mexico and half in Spain, with a bit in France.”
She came to New York on an internship with the United Nations and is now settled in Harlem with her four-year-old daughter and husband, Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue. “I decided New York was the place I wanted to live, because it was the place where I felt exactly the right equilibrium between being foreign and being at home. It’s not something I’m conscious about when I’m writing, but I can see in retrospect how absence and loss are there. Even more, I think there’s a very clear movement in my work of shifting viewpoints; it’s as if the voices that narrate my books, whoever they belong to, are always looking for a place to stand; the person is always asking himself or herself, ‘Where do I tell the story from?’ ”
Luiselli is telling me her story at the Café Latte on West 145th Street, a cozy spot featuring homemade pies and a big-band soundtrack assertive enough to make it necessary to ask her to speak up. “Both in English and Spanish, I have always felt slightly foreign,” she sighs. “My sisters [Luiselli is the youngest of three] are very eloquent and outspoken and have really loud voices, so even within my family space, I’ve always been pretty silent—I always had to rush what I had to say, otherwise they would start speaking on top of me! I found in writing the space to say things in the very slow and soft pace that I think in, with my particular rhythm and tone and volume, which is not very loud!”
“Faces in the Crowd is not about my life, but it has the rhythm of the way I was living when I wrote it. I started it when I was 25, five years ago, and while I was writing it I lived in at least five different countries and many different houses and was in a few different relationships—all before I met my husband. The novel is not biographical in what it tells, but it’s biographical in its mood and the way it looks back at the past and tries to absorb it.”
The novel grew from “Other Rooms,” an essay in Sidewalks that meditates on the nature of apartment-house life and records Luiselli’s interactions with a philosophical doorman. “I’m always moving between the novel and the essay,” she says. “What interests me most about writing is using writing space as a way to be in conversation with other disciplines.” The disciplines conversed with in Sidewalks include cartography, architecture, and urban planning; Luiselli bicycles through Mexico City, strolls the New York City streets, and visits Joseph Brodsky’s grave in Venice. These wanderings are unified by a distinctive narrative voice: pensive, questioning, always something of a stranger in a strange land. “Although Faces in the Crowd is very much a novel, the voice of one of the narrators can be related to the voice of the narrator in Sidewalks,” Luiselli says. “In that sense, it’s a continuation, a fictionalization of that voice.”
There are three narrators in Faces: a wife and mother in Mexico; her younger self, a translator in New York obsessed with the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen; and Owen himself. As the novel progresses, their voices begin to merge, and boundaries blur between the real and the imagined. “It’s a novel about people falling apart,” Luiselli says. “Gilberto Owen is dying, and the narrator’s marriage is in trouble. One of the biggest challenges at the formal level was to show in the language and syntax that these characters were somehow disintegrating. There’s not a word for it in English, but in Spanish the word is ‘afantasmarse,’ which means ‘to become ghostly.’ For that to happen, I had to break the language up—to transform the characters into just voices and utterances at the end.”
Titled Los Ingrávidos (The Weightless) in Spanish, the novel was first published by Sexto Piso in Mexico in 2011, the year after Luiselli’s essays appeared there as Papeles Falsos (False Papers). Coffee House decided to release them both in English at the same time, says marketing director Caroline Casey, because “the two books together really inform and amplify each other. Also, we acquired both with such enthusiasm and the conviction that Valeria’s work was important and deserving of attention that we wanted to make as big a splash as possible. It signals the space we want to carve out for her, and how unabashedly psyched we are about her as an artist and Coffee House author.”
Luiselli returns the compliment. “It’s a lovely relationship—I have a lovely dialogue with [Coffee House publisher] Chris Fishbach. My best connections are not with the biggest commercial publishers; my Mexican publisher is very much like Coffee House Press.” Her editors at Sexto Piso are generally the first to read her work, she says, although Fishbach read her newest novel, La Historia de Mis Dientes (The Story of My Teeth), at the same time.
“It was translated [when it was published in Spanish], because it was going to be part of a bilingual catalogue,” Luiselli explains. Approached by the curators of an exhibition at Galería Jumex in Mexico, a contemporary art gallery located next to a juice factory, whose proceeds fund the exhibitions, Luiselli proposed writing a novella in installments for the factory’s workers, whose comments would shape subsequent installments. “At first they were a bit skeptical, but I convinced them. I wanted to do it, because the concept of the exhibition was the context in which contemporary art occurs, and this was a very strange context: the gallery is next to the factory, but these worlds are completely apart. I wanted to link the two worlds by writing in collaboration and conversation with the factory workers.” Sexto Piso published La Historia de Mis Dientes last year; Coffee House will release the English translation in fall 2015.
“I either write in Spanish or in English; I don’t self-translate,” says Luiselli. (Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks are elegantly rendered in English by Christina MacSweeney.) “I’m writing the novel I’m currently working on in English, because it happened in English. I’ve been negotiating with my editors in Mexico; our agreement at this point is that I will rewrite it in Spanish, because it would be pretty absurd, having published three books in Spanish, to have the next one be translated. There is something completely awkward about that—but that’s my life!”