Grief Is Never Finished: A Conversation with María José Ferrada

By David MartinezJune 8, 2021

Grief Is Never Finished: A Conversation with María José Ferrada
AWARD-WINNING CHILEAN children’s author María José Ferrada has just released her first novel for adults, How to Order the Universe (beautifully translated into English by Elizabeth Bryer). The story follows the astute, seven-year-old M as she tags along on her father D’s sales calls. As she learns the profession, M scribbles her observations, including philosophies conveyed to her or discovered on her own. She works the trade, able to read others and elicit from them the emotional responses needed to sell products. On her travels, she encounters and works with other salesmen, such as S, and together with her father befriends a photographer, E, who will become instrumental in changing M’s and her family’s world.

Reading How to Order the Universe was an experience I didn’t know I needed, a testament to the power of sincere and well-written books. I was a different person when I finished — my universe had been reordered. The cigarette-smoking, hyper-observant young narrator soothed me; I became engrossed in the story, with its ode to the dying profession of itinerant salesmen and its commentary on the phenomenon of “the disappeared” in Chile. Ferrada communicates the joy of discovery that comes with experience gained before innocence is lost completely — in that place where visions are still real.

María José graciously discussed her book with me via email, and I have translated our Spanish dialogue into English.


DAVID MARTINEZ: Where did How to Order the Universe come from? How did it start in your mind?

MARÍA JOSÉ FERRADA: How to Order the Universe is an autobiographical story. So, it didn’t come but was in my head for a long time. My father was a salesman, and I accompanied him to work whenever he allowed me. I met his friends and I think they were somehow good friends for me. I never laughed again the way I laughed with them when I was 12 and they told me — exaggerating, of course — their stories full of curse words. On those trips, I also learned to exaggerate and to notice that their job allowed them to discover something important: if you told your story with grace, the interlocutor would want you to come back the following month. In that sense, salespeople were my first literature teachers.

It was a trade that worked well until the mid-’80s, when the small- and medium-sized businesses they were suppliers to were replaced by the large chains. Then it went from being a story that was lived to one that was fading. That was why I wanted to write it.

How long did it take you to write? 

From the first page to the email to the editor that said “Final Text” in the subject line, it was three years.

You started your career writing children’s books. Why this novel for adults now?

I continue to write children’s books and hope to do so for a long time. I began the novel without thinking about the age of the readers, but as it progressed, I noticed that there was a loneliness in it. Children are familiar with that loneliness, but I think it’s something they don’t need to analyze just yet. I think we use literature for that: to explore who we are, to analyze how human beings work. The knowledge of that loneliness is one thing you arrive at, sooner or later, but I don’t think it’s necessary for children to get ahead of themselves. They will find out, but only when they have to. I decided to continue writing, but I was already thinking of adult readers.

M is a sophisticated narrator, but she retains her essential childishness. How did writing children’s books influence this strategy?

Writing for children also means relating to them. I’m invited to schools a lot, where I have the opportunity to talk to my readers. I try to listen to them with all my attention. I think they get it and then they also speak to me deeply. It seems to me that children have a need for meaning that is very similar to our own, and they have very similar fears. The difference is that the material with which they construct their answers is what they find at hand and, therefore, is a more concrete material. M’s character has a lot of that — she needs to organize the world and for that she decides to use her father’s sales catalog.

There is an interesting juxtaposition in the book between a feeling of freedom and carelessness — rushing to get ahead, constant travel — and the sinister backdrop of Pinochet’s Chile. How did you approach this juxtaposition? 

This juxtaposition of different experiences is something I thought about a lot while writing the novel. There are moments, under a dictatorship, when horror seems to be a mantle that extends over everything. But in the midst of that darkness, there are also moments of joy, of tenderness. You look at your story and see the clear distinction between what was light and what was dark. This is something that you can do, and to some extent need to do, but you do so in theory only because reality is more complex. What I mean is that in the midst of pain there are also times when you laugh or fall in love. Does that make you a traitor to the pain of your time or to your own personal pain? I think not. I believe that humans, no matter how hard we try, don’t allow ourselves to be simplified so easily.

In my family’s city in Brazil, Fortaleza, there is a park with a giant baobab tree where a priest was once shot for a political crime. There are streets and buildings and houses that have been part of the city for hundreds of years, so much history, so much bloodshed. I can’t think of a city in all of South America without thinking of the tense conflicts of its long history, and I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience. Your novel is not about history per se, but history and place certainly mark it, make it what it is. How much of that is intentional? Did you think of history when you were writing about the ghosts E looks for through his camera, for example?

At first, I just wanted to tell the story of the disappearance of my father’s trade. But it has a bit to do with the previous question. You cannot isolate the facts: the history of a person is intertwined with the history of a family, the history of a country, the history of a continent, and so on. In this case, the question about the disappearance of a trade was broadened until reaching even more painful questions, such as the disappearance of bodies. The protagonist of the novel, in her need for labels, calls them ghosts. And ghosts don’t ask permission to enter rooms. Or to enter stories.

Which authors have inspired you the most? 

I read Japanese writers quite obsessively. Murasaki Shikibu, Ichiyō Higuchi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata. Right now, I am reading Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa by David Peace.

You write a little about E’s favorite movies. Which movies inspire you the most? 

I am interested in the way in which children observe and experience reality. In this vein, there are several directors I really like: Bill Douglas with his childhood trilogy, or Hirokazu Kore-eda; something more contemporary would be Nora Fingscheidt’s Systemsprenger [System Crasher, 2019]. And, from time to time, I also go back to those movies I watched in that run-down cinema of my childhood, many of which I saw several times (the movie listings were repeated quite often): Paper Moon, The Kid, The Red Balloon.

How to Order the Universe is so beautifully concise. How did you decide what to trim and cut?

I think that comes from my profession as a children’s book writer. You should explain things to a child in simple words. Even the big questions. I have learned to enjoy looking for that simplicity in expression, regardless of the age of the audience for whom I write.

The English translation by Elizabeth Bryer is wonderful. There is an exquisite simplicity that I am sure was difficult to retain in the conversion from Spanish. How close are you to the translation process of your own work?

Elizabeth asked me just a few things, very specific, and I think her work was impeccable. I have learned in greater depth about her process recently — with some interviews that we did together — and I have been able to better understand everything involved in this search for words, but also for precise silences. She perfectly understood what characters in How to Order the Universe were saying but also, above all, what they were not saying.

How much of How to Order the Universe was influenced by current events?

Time is a flux and I believe that, while How to Order the Universe is set in the past, the events that my country is experiencing today have their roots in that time: injustices that were not repaired, a savage system of neoliberalism that has silently unleashed intolerable levels of violence. The social unrest that began more than a year ago has been a response to decades of naturalized violence. I think most of the time it’s like this: you write about the past because you see how those things continue to mark the present.

Much of this book is about grief, and it has actually helped me with my own grief after the death of my brother. M seems to be born into mourning and formed by it long before her first life collapses. Her mother was always half-dreaming, a state brought on by her own grief, and her whole world is slowly suffering and fading, though it takes M awhile to realize it. How did the character of M evolve? Did she have the same personality when you conceived of her, or did she change as she progressed? How did that innocent sadness develop? 

I was deeply affected when you told me that you had read the novel in the middle of your own grief. I thought that maybe it would have been difficult for my words not to sound superficial to you. And words, insubstantial as they may be, are all they are.

M is born in the middle of a grief that is never finished. Dictatorships produce those kinds of wounds: things that cannot be said, bodies without farewells, cries you have to swallow. And then the pain, which needs a place, settles within people as a presence that keeps gaining space; it settles in your chest, where you feel a tightness without knowing why, it settles in the shadows under your eyes without you understanding how they got there. M’s mother is a direct victim, and since she cannot name her pain, her silence settles in and around her like that heavy mantle I named at the beginning. Everyone suffers that silence, because in this novel there are no heroic characters. They are secondary characters, even of their own tragedy.

In terms of character development, I think that was the most interesting thing for me as a writer: learning to leave space for the character to grow and gain independence. M does not behave as you would, but as she would taking the incentives given her. I think that, in M’s case, there is at first a need to understand chaos and then, when that task turns out to be impossible, a need to accept it.

M mentions that D looked like a human being that time had left in parentheses. Do you see that often, people and places that time has left within a kind of parenthesis?

I think this is an especially fierce time in that regard. The world has become a place that denies space to many. From a physical space — I think of the dispossessed and of all those who move around the map in search of a place denied to them at every border — to spaces that have to do with ideas. Nobody is more punished than the one who thinks differently from the group at a time that seems to demand strict and unquestionable adherence to one or the other side. And we already know how those things end.

Everything in this book takes a sharp turn with M’s fever. Indeed, M herself divides her life into before and after the fever. As you wrote, did you know that getting to this point in the book was going to change everything? Was it a natural progression? 

I think the fever has to do with that non-verbalized pain that haunts M throughout the novel, a pain that finally finds in the fever a way of speaking. Maybe your pain doesn’t even belong to you; maybe — as often happens with children — this pain that you carry is the pain of others, but you will still have to face it, there is no way around it.

Fever in that sense can be positive. Your body fights, and there is a point where you lose consciousness and let the body continue on its own, doing what it has to do. When M wakes up, she is still the same, but there is something about her that has changed. I think that many of those decisions that transform our lives are made in states that are much less rational than we like to think. In a world as chaotic as hers — or ours — fever results in sanity, and it is a place that, although she has tried to fix it with the products she sells, is disordered.

It was a natural progression more than it was a plan. As I wrote, I became fond of the character and looked for strategies to save her. Fever was one of them.

At one point, when M’s mother and teacher talk about her nervous breakdown, M says, “Would they understand? Not likely, so I didn’t say anything.” How common do you find this with children, this silence in the face of adult incomprehension, and what are the results? How does not saying anything to people who would not understand affect M’s trajectory and growth?

I think children look at us adults with deep and justified skepticism. Just look at how many of us, in the name of peace and good causes, act deeply aggressive and intolerant. We adults are quite crazy, and children notice it. In that sense, I believe that childhood is the time of great and true revelations. Obviously, that affects their trajectory, because it is always important to verbalize our pains, whether they are big or small. It seems, however, that adults are not interested in listening but only in talking, preferably about themselves.

You mentioned earlier that you thought it would be difficult for your words not to sound superficial to me because I was reading them in my grief. I found your words profound for a variety of reasons. My brother Mike, before he died of septic shock, had been in prison for a few years basically for drug abuse — a problem he and I grew up with and shared, in part due to a difficult childhood and adolescence. He died of sadness and abandonment under the thumb of a dystopian system that punishes the most downtrodden. When I thought of the disappeared people you mention in How to Order the Universe, I thought of something Angela Davis once said: “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” The ghosts E was looking for, the murders at the hands of the police, the deep stillness in M’s childlike simplicity, they were all so powerful to me. I needed to hear M’s voice — a character who, like Mike, was born into a kind of pain. 

Thank you for telling me about Mike. I worked for a few years in a prison, and it seemed to me that it was a place of great pain, a pain that often had its roots in childhood.

I like to think that books are a way to find beauty, especially when they reach those little hands that inhabit physical or psychological places difficult to imagine. I agree with Angela Davis’s precious words. We strive not to see the pain, perhaps because looking at it forces us to ask ourselves what we will do so that pain one day finally stops, even in just one of the people who suffers, even for a little while.

When I write for children, I sometimes imagine the time in their lives when they come across my books. Many children read before bed — as I did — and I imagine that, if they had a bad day, maybe the book will help that day end a little better. Thinking about that moment has changed my writing and has made me strive to find things that reconcile us with this world that at times seems to want to hide its beauty from us. Lately, I’ve been writing about animals — animals that go to school and envy the fox because they don’t know how he has gotten a flying backpack (they suspect that he stole an engine from the farmer’s workshop); animals that explain the stars as the luminous expanse of the flowers that the girl in the house waters every morning. Simple things that I try to make sound fun so that kid who had a bad day can end it with a smile.

All this is to tell you that I hope I have been kind company in this painful moment.

You have, María José, and I thank you so much for it.


David Martinez is a Brazilian-American writer who has lived all over the US, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He earned his MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert. His most recent work can be found in Please See Me, Writers, Resist, and Charge Magazine. He teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College in Arizona.

LARB Contributor

David Martinez is a Brazilian American writer who has lived all over the United States, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He earned his MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert. His most recent work can be found in Please See Me, Writers, Resist, and Charge Magazine. He teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College in Arizona.


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