A relingo—an emptiness, an absence—is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.
— Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks
It’s my first time in Beijing and I find myself reading Valeria Luiselli. We’ve come separately to Beijing to attend the Bookworm Literary Festival; Luiselli is promoting her new novel The Story of My Teeth, whereas I’ve come to sit in the audience and learn about literature in translation.
Luiselli is a writer of empty spaces, or ‘relingos’, an architectural term she adopts as a motif in her 2013 essay collection, Sidewalks. Her book maps out the landscapes of Mexico City, Venice, New York and elsewhere, with a focus on areas, real and imaginary, left to abandon. It feels appropriate to read Luiselli in Beijing. It’s a city so geographically large, so densely populated, yet to the keen eye, filled with absences.
Beijing has been knocked down and rebuilt many times. When the Communists took control in the middle of last century they wanted to destroy all vestiges of feudalism and their solution was to smash any reminders to the ground. So how do you read a city like Beijing? How do you look past the gaps, physical and political? How do you look through the smog, thick as concrete?
Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book, so concludes Luiselli’s essay ‘Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces’. But she goes on: The metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments will be bridges; words will be like scaffolding which protect fragile constructions.
Luiselli shows a deep love for cities in her books. I feel drawn to her writing, in the same way I feel drawn to large cities far from the Australian one I call home. Her essays make me want to slide on my boots and explore unknown pavements. I’m never alone when I’m part of the crowd.
Faces in the Crowd
When critics talk about Luiselli’s writing, terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘fragmentary’ are routinely used. It’s probably because her books transcend the tidy three-act structure that we’ve absorbed as the traditional way to tell a story. I make a point of deliberately not calling her writing experimental when I meet her at the festival café, and she thanks me. “I don’t consider my work experimental at all – at all”, she says, raising her voice, in mock anger, her smile dropping, though. “It’s a label that I refuse as much as possible because I think it’s kind of lazy. It suggests that there isn’t an effort to tell a story or build a character or that it’s just experiment for the sake of experiment.”
You only need to read one of Luiselli’s books to see how carefully she’s composed her interlocking narratives. “Small fragments,” she claims, come more naturally to her, never chapters. “I would concentrate for periods of time on creating something very compact and small and very detailed and delicately crafted,” she says about her 2014 novel, Faces in the Crowd. It’s a process which takes time. “Ten years, three books, all very thin,” she says with an air of disappointment. But from this process comes something sturdy.
I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them, one of the characters, also a writer, says in Faces in the Crowd. This quotation is one of the ways we can read Luiselli; one of the ways of seeing scaffolding, instead of scattered debris.
In the station of the metro
Beijing is “knee-crushingly huge,” an Australian expat tells me, and I very quickly see what he means. Fortunately its subway, which services some nine million people each day—one of the largest networks in the world—saves my legs from exhaustion. A large bulk of my trip is spent navigating the dense underground system, crossing one side of the city to the other.
In the days before my interview with Luiselli, I reread Faces in the Crowd. The book is narrated from shifting viewpoints. In it, a woman living in Mexico City, reflects on her days living in New York City, where she was haunted by the ghost of real-life Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, one of the authors she’s assigned to translate. Fact begins to blur with fiction, and Ezra Pound’s poem, ‘In the station of the metro’—The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough—recurs throughout the plot, as characters flash by one another, like a speeding train, only to intersect and diverge in increasingly surreal ways.
I keep thinking about a line from the book: A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway. Jammed up against all the other peak-hour commuters, it’s impossible to make out the face of anyone, let alone your own. It’s hard to focus on just one thing. I start to disappear.
“Beijing is a terrible city to be a writer,” an American expat tells me. He’s not talking about the government censorship. He’s talking about the noise. There’s no space. You’re too busy reacting to everything around you, he stresses.
What is the ideal environment for writing? I wonder. Is silence really conducive to making art? I repeat to Luiselli what this man said, and she laughs: “I don’t write against the noise or try to create a little bubble of solitude in which to write—quite the contrary. I always rely on what’s accidentally going on around me to nurture and spur on my writing. I’m not one of those clichéd type of writers who sits in a café all day, waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time in my life.
“But I do often walk the city, taking notes, and I bike the city a lot. I’ve always lived in rather noisy places. In my current neighbourhood, everyone shouts all the time. I live in a house with children and chaos, and even though I write in the night, I’m always surrounded by some kind of activity. All that I allow to leave an imprint in my writing.”
This imprint can be heard in the pages of her books—sounds not uncommon to Beijing. Buildings being torn down; the sound of chisel hitting stone. The cry of children in the next apartment. A food vendor pushing his cart along the street. A plane coming into land. The gentle sounds of a writer typing at her computer, long into the night.
The Story of My Teeth
China is one of the largest manufacturers in the world, which is why the air is the colour it is. Some days I swear I taste it at the back of my throat. But for the most part, I catch a rare window of blue, a stroke of luck which colours my perception, literally, of Beijing.
By its nature, art is opposed to mechanical reproduction, but of all things a Mexican juice factory is responsible for Luiselli’s latest book, The Story of My Teeth. In 2013, she was commissioned by Groupo Jumex to write a work of fiction for its art collection, which is housed in what she describes as a “wasteland-like neighbourbood outside Mexico City”.
Luiselli was less interested in writing about the workers than writing for them. So she came up with an idea: drawing on the mid-nineteenth century tradition of the tobacco reader—a practice pioneered in cigar factories in Cuba, where workers were read stories to break up the tedium of their shift—she would write a serialised novel to be read aloud to Jumex’s staff. Chapbooks were produced, and the reading sessions were recorded and sent to Luiselli in New York. She would then write the next installment based on the workers’ comments.
Three years later comes what Luiselli describes as a “novel-essay” about “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and culture”. Isolating that quote makes it sound kind of earnest, which it is anything but. Less fragmented than her earlier work, and more comedic, the book is a hyperbolic tale about an auctioneer named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. We follow his many misadventures, including the bumbled sale of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth.
Luiselli waits until the afterword to explain the book’s unique writing process. (It’s fun to go back and reread it from the start, bearing in mind the many factory workers who helped shape the novel behind the scenes.)
Much like the 2006 video installation, Whose Utopia? by Chinese artist Cao Fei, (who also used factory workers) it’s hard not to think critically about the human side of industry when reading The Story of My Teeth. As Luiselli writes in her afterward, There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and factory… how could I link the two distant but neighbouring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?
Similar thoughts can be had walking around Beijing’s 798 Art District. There, Soviet-style, decommissioned military factories have been converted into workshops and galleries in the middle of the vast expanse of concrete that is Dashanzi. I visit on a particularly smoggy day and shelter in one of its more expensive galleries. In the window is a sculpture: the words ‘Made in China’ in colourful block letters. Like The Story of My Teeth, it playfully symbolises the tension between art and commerce. Two worlds not so separate.
One day a truck gets stuck down the street—or hutong—where I’m staying. Its carriage gets caught on the overhead guttering of someone’s home, and it takes several men to wedge it free. People live very close to one another in these narrow alleys. Whenever I walk down my hutong I have to stand to the side every few metres to let cars or bikes pass me. Rapid urbanisation over the past decades has lead to the construction of high-rise dwellings where many of the hutongs used to sit. I congratulate myself for staying in what feels like an older, more authentic neighbourhood, whatever that means. It’s considerably more residential than some other hutongs which have been developed to include souvenir shops, bars and restaurants.
I keep thinking back to a line I like from Sidewalks: The more often you spend the night in different places—rooms, pensions, hotels, borrowed couches, other people’s beds—the better.
I’m pleased that I was able to find my hostel in the first place, in a city where my normal anchor point, Google Maps, is blocked by the government. Walk towards the 400-year-old tree and there you will find the entry, read the rather Confucian directions from the hostel. And fairly quickly that tall tree, sprouting from the concrete, its bare limbs framed against the alternatingly grey-brown-blue sky—the hue depending on the air-quality index that day—becomes my anchor home. The unfamiliar quickly becomes the familiar.
Luiselli has lived in the US for eight years but travel has been a big part of her life. Born in Mexico City in 1983, she’s lived in places as different as South Korea, South Africa, India, and now New York City.
I ask her if she can see glimpses of Mexico City—a city which recurs again and again throughout her three books—in other places she visits. Of course, it’s unfair to ask someone to evaluate a city they’ve only spent a few nights in. But I’m aiming for the perfect bridge between my thoughts, to construct some symmetry. Interviewing can be parasitic like that. She tells me, “One is always trying to understand through comparisons. Thought is comparative. One also has to guard not to compare too much because often comparisons blur important nuances and differences.”
This has always been my biggest weakness. Isn’t all writing about building some connection?
“When you walk along the hutongs there’s something not unlike certain parts of downtown Mexico City, and of course certain parts of India where I lived for two years.
“The hutongs have a Mexican version which are the vecindades. In these, clustered dwelling spaces are organised around a central patio where neighbourhood life is very intense because people live close together, often sharing small rooms with many family members and just basic living quarters with others. And that is very interesting because it’s extremely similar to how the Mexican working classes originally lived in the city. What’s happening now with the hutongs being torn down and re-edified in their prettier version didn’t quite happen in Mexico, although vecindades in Mexico were to a degree romanticised through film and books and stories and photography.”
Often, when I walk along my hutong, I peek into the open doorways of people’s homes, but quickly turn my head if someone appears in the entranceway. I never want to intrude. I never want to be that tourist who blatantly interferes, who romanticises, who waves their camera, trying to take a souvenir of something that isn’t theirs to take.
If the disappearing hutongs feel like Beijing’s past, then the expat neighborhood of Sanlitun where the festival is held feels like its shiny future. Here, the booming Chinese economy of recent years glitters. Skyscrapers and shopping malls tower into the smog, and billboard-sized screens loop advertisements for Givenchy and Apple. Some people—by whom I mean Westerners—refer to it as the ‘most Western’ part of Beijing, erasing any nuances or differences that exist, in order, I guess, to feel at home.
It’s an interesting backdrop for an international book festival. In Australia, I wonder if our reading cultures are too focused on the Anglophone world, too insular? Where is the hunger for Asian translations in Australia? I share my thoughts with Luiselli, who argues this is not just an Australian problem.
The idea is foreshadowed by her narrator in Faces in the Crowd, who works as a translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems’. This sarcastic description is followed by the deadpan remark: Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion.
“In society there’s still little space for anything foreign that doesn’t in its foreignness confirm the prejudices or the ideas that one has about that foreignness, whatever it is, be it Chinese, Latin American,” Luiselli says.
When she arrived on the scene in 2008 “there were few contemporary Latin American writers translated into English. There were some paradigmatic, experimental-ish—I hate the word, now I’m using it—a specific type of writer similar to [Enrique] Vila-Matas but that was it. There was very little translation between the boom and [Roberto] Bolaño, except for the commercial, post-magical realism cheesy writers. Now there’s more writers than I can count with my hands that are translated or are being translated into English. Writers who are very interesting.” She lists some of her contemporaries: Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrera.
“The only problem is we skipped an entire generation in the middle—people that were writing at the time when Bolaño was. We’ve just jumped to the writers that are about my age and a little bit older.”
She mentions a Chinese writer I haven’t heard of, Can Xue. I add her name to the growing list of authors I’ve learned about at the festival but am yet to check out: A Yi, Shuang Xuetao, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Of course, once you fill one reading gap, another opens. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the idea of all the books I’ll probably never get to read, all the places I’ll never travel to.
The Cartography of Empty Space
On my days off from the festival I walk and walk and walk around the huge city that is Beijing, ticking off all the tourist sites. I try and imagine CPC officials taking a sledgehammer to the golden sandalwood Buddha at the Lama Temple, or the green and red pagodas of the Forbidden City but I can’t. The recklessness is too much. I feel thankful for the politicians who had enough foresight to spare them a dismal fate, who stopped them from becoming relingos in the patchwork of Beijing.
Genre-wise, Luiselli’s three books span different territories but they all converge at some point: wandering, both the physical and mental kind, is an ongoing theme. “A lot of the books entail going out into the city and just walking around and taking notes and observing,” she says, describing her creative process. “Sometimes it’s not something I do programmatically, it’s just that while I’m writing a book I’m writing it all the time so wherever I walk, whatever happens, is kind of being written inside my head while it’s happening and eventually becomes part of what I’m writing.”
But in this moment there is no writing. We’re both sitting in Sanlitun. A day ago the cafe surged with people but now the festival is over it feels empty. No one has turned the music on; the only disruption is the whirr of a coffee machine, the jangle of plates dropped in the sink. The city disappears.
She tells me a nice anecdote about The Story of My Teeth: “The recording was full of these little accidents that were so beautiful. One day it was pouring outside so you could hear the voices of the workers but really more than anything you could hear the pouring rain outside. It was like this very deep contact with Mexico City while I sitting there in my New York studio, closing my eyes, being there somehow with them.”
Writers need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.
Emily Laidlaw is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She was recently awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant to research literary cultures in Asia.