Mexico’s Enduring Contrasts: An Interview with Nicholas Mainieri
By Andrea Penman-LomeliDecember 10, 2016
New Orleans–based Mainieri crafts both characters with striking lucidity, yet portrays Luz’s journey — fraught with drug lords, shoot-outs, and loss — with sincerity and compassion. Although Mainieri centers the violence in northern Mexico, he depicts the drug war as having no geographic center and ultimately targeting the most marginalized on both sides of the border. A unique iteration of the coming-of-age story and a politically urgent read, The Infinite dares to unearth the logic that induces violence in communities internationally while challenging monolithic depictions of violence-ridden Mexico.
At a delicate political moment, with unflinching honesty and grace, Mainieri concentrates on devastating stories that people on both sides of the border would perhaps rather ignore. In the conversation that follows, Mainieri addressed contemporary Mexican literature, writing as representation, and the sociopolitical reality of the border.
ANDREA PENMAN-LOMELI: You’ve published a number of short stories in literary magazines. Did any of those pieces lead to the writing of this novel? How long did it take you to write the novel?
NICHOLAS MAINIERI: A story called “Bird Shot,” which was originally published in The Southern Review, came to be the origin story for Jonah. I hadn’t quite planned that — I lucked into it. The novel really grew out of Luz’s character, before I knew who Jonah was. Some time later, pretty far down the road with a draft, I was looking through some old stories and wondered if the nameless boy in “Bird Shot,” who’s duck hunting with his big brother while their eldest brother is being shipped to war, might grow to become Jonah. And it worked. Once I had that, I think I was in good shape — things like family, history, origin, and so on, were coming to matter a great deal thematically in the novel, and now I had Jonah’s history. As far as how long it took … I wrote the first words of a draft sometime in 2010 and finished writing the final draft about a year and a half ago.
Why did you choose a (parallel) coming-of-age story? Were you inspired by other, similar stories? Was it significant that the destination of both their journeys was Mexico?
I don’t know how conscious a choice that was, the parallel coming-of-age story. I mean, I’m naturally drawn to those kinds of stories. I’m interested in the ways we each come to discover hard truths about life, about the world — and often these are things (e.g., love, violence, death, grief) we discover and learn to incorporate into our beings when we’re young. That’s something almost all of us share, I think, and so it seems a natural spot to find stories, to bridge our individual experiences. As far as Mexico being a destination … I love Mexico, personally, but I also have a fondness for what seems to be a subgenre of Anglo-American literature, the going-to-Mexico story. In some ways, I was aware of working in that perceived tradition; hopefully I’ve advanced the tradition — whether or not I actually have I’ll leave to the reader. But for this novel, in particular, something also seemed resonant about having the characters’ journeys bookended in some fashion by New Orleans and parts of Mexico. Just a few weeks ago, I was reading Jorge Hernández’s introduction to Sun, Stone, and Shadows (the excellent anthology of Mexican short fiction); he calls Mexico a place of “enduring contrasts.” New Orleans very much embodies that description as well.
Jonah and Luz bond over their dead parents and nearly orphan status. Is there a reason why their coming-of-age story involves little respect for a concrete parental figure?
If this story is concerned, in the background, with large societal forces, I wanted to closely follow characters who are caught up in and marginalized by those forces. Young people are often going to bear the worst or longest lasting effects of things like societal greed and violence, corrupt politics — and I’d imagined the backdrop of this story to be an inextricable fabric made of those kinds of things. I came to think that protagonists who are virtually on their own could bring these notions to the fore.
Your epigraph is a quotation from Octavio Paz, and almost half the novel is set in Mexico. Were you influenced in any way by Mexican literature? Or your own experience in Mexico?
My most significant experiences in Mexico occurred over a couple summers spent in and around the state of Guanajuato when I was in graduate school. I was studying, but I wasn’t consciously conducting research for this novel — the idea hadn’t occurred to me yet. Though, naturally, this wouldn’t have been a story I’d have attempted otherwise. The Paz line comes from a poem called “Niña” (he wrote at least two poems titled this that I’ve seen; this is from the older of those two) that I read while working on the novel. The poem seemed to speak to the themes of the novel, and, yes, I would think, influenced their development. As a writer, in general, I count works of Mexican literature among my influences. I’m as influenced by Rulfo and Azuela as I am by Yeats and Joyce and so on. I started reading the great contemporary author Yuri Herrera sometime while working on The Infinite. He’s extraordinarily talented.
Although you paint the narcos as ruthless, you expose a different logic for participation in these gangs; it is not so much whether you are in or out, but rather which gang you belong to specifically, based on family connections and what that gang can provide. Why did you choose to depict it in this way? Instead of, say, inserting the state or paramilitary forces?
I did actually attempt to make suggestions across this range of possibilities. One of the novel’s main antagonists is a former policeman, for instance. There are also suggestions about other ancillary characters’ origins, of course, and the notion of state or paramilitary involvement is at least touched on a few times, even outright stated once or twice. But I think of these as small details. My primary intention for the novel was to write a story about Luz and Jonah, their lives and choices, caught as they are against a turbulent, fraught backdrop. Exploring El Narco could not be my primary aim, but in the sense that the drug trade itself (its fuel and its consequences) was going to be part of this fictional world, I wanted the full thing to be implied as best as I could manage, for there to be a depth behind what our characters encounter. I wanted it to feel like what we’re brushing against with Luz and Jonah has a nearly boundless, implacable enterprise behind it. But to your question about family being the thing that draws some of the characters into the violence … I’d imagine that there are many reasons or impulses for why individuals would become involved, and this is one of them. Of course, we’re attempting here to place a logical framework upon something (the choice to become a murderer) that on some level exists outside the bounds of logic, but for the novel it still had to make narrative sense. Family ties, vendettas, and so on, drive a lot of the drug-trade-related violence in New Orleans, and so I appreciated the echo of this at both ends of the narrative, but also at both ends of the trade itself. And I also thought, specific to the events in the novel, it might work best to focus in on a local fictional conflict that was part of the larger war developing across northeastern Mexico in the spring of 2010, when the novel is set.
Did you feel any hesitation in being as graphic as you were with Mexican violence, given the way that Mexico is portrayed in the media?
I finished writing this book before the recent election cycle began, but the novel was inspired, in a different way, by the election cycle of 2008. Many of my neighbors in New Orleans at that time were recién llegados, jornaleros, people who’d come to the city for rebuilding work after Hurricane Katrina. Mexican, Honduran, Nicaraguan. Once election season rolled around, I became appalled by political attack ads on TV that vilified the people the city literally owed its existence to. These ads, as I recall them, were chock-full of offensive language and stereotypes. At the time, they were just local ads (though I think I read somewhere that versions of them ran in a few markets around the country). Of course, that kind of rhetoric — all the “beware the barbarians at the gate” bullshit — has only multiplied exponentially since then, sadly. But I did envision this as a story written against that kind of stuff.
When I began working on The Infinite, more than six years ago, my feeling was that, broadly, the American media was not paying adequate attention to a terrible thing that was driven, largely, by our country’s appetites — a hunger matched by our capacity to turn a blind eye toward consequence. A lot has changed since then, in terms of coverage in the United States; but, yeah, whatever news coverage exists, however El Narco appears in pop culture, whatever one-liners make their way into political discourse, it never extends into the territory of nuance or understanding or compassion. Or the acknowledgment of complicity. It doesn’t account for all of Mexico, either, or even very much of Mexico. We get used to consuming the sensational, monolithic, romantic notions of violence that often result in sweeping, harmful generalizations. My belief is that novels can, and should, work as antidotes to this, chiefly because in a novel we’ve got the lens of character.
It is a novelist’s job to be unflinching in portraying violent realities, sure, but also to be mindful of the effect on the character and the suggestion beyond the page. I’m hopeful I haven’t created any false, sweeping impressions, though I recognize the possibility — and sure, I was conscious of that while writing. I was aware of that with regard to New Orleans, too, which can also be an extraordinarily violent place (as is likewise depicted in the novel).
How did you prepare to write Luz’s character? Did you find it challenging to write from the perspective of a female, undocumented immigrant from Mexico?
None of the characters in this novel have lives or beings that resemble my own, but I do think I was most conscious of, most appreciative of, the responsibility and the challenge of Luz’s character from the get-go. Which is to say I tried to write her with as much intelligence and respect as I could muster. I’m proud of her, and I certainly hope she works for most readers, too. I imagine Luz grew, initially, out of certain people I’d met or spoken with, but I also hear the voices of a lot of women I look up to in my own life speaking through her. I don’t think I can say much about any kind of specific method of preparation, other than I just spent a lot of time thinking about her, writing her, rewriting her.
You mention that there is a border separating Luz and Jonah. Did you feel in writing their relationship that there were certain cultural facts that prevented them from understanding each other, or at least Jonah understanding Luz?
Thank you for asking this question. I’m hesitant to answer, however, because I don’t wish to interpret the book for anybody else; I know how I feel or what I think something in the book means, but I personally believe that the truth of a story exists somewhere between the page and the individual reader. Still, I’ll say that the operative facts in the moment you refer to are not cultural but experiential. To my mind, at least, that is what it is. That, in some fashion, the border separating them owes itself in part to what the actual geopolitical border has forced or imposed upon them (mainly Luz), but it is also the result of things they’ve each encountered and taken into their beings … I don’t know how much more I can say without revealing too many plot details.
The graduate student Victor says he’s more interested in what will emerge from Mexico than the politics of the drug war itself. Did that opinion shape your writing of the novel?
And thanks for asking this, too! No one has asked me about this scene, yet, and I humbly think it is an important one. I wish to stress that the opinion you’re referring to is a character’s, and not my own. If the opinion exerted any influence it was in my hopes of subverting it. I wanted the little lecture Victor gives to sound like something you’d find in academic historical or literary analyses, all the regeneration-through-violence stories we tell ourselves long after the fact. But for me — what follows is the opinion that shaped my idea of the novel — the most important detail in this scene is Jonah’s reaction to Victor. Jonah is pissed off; Jonah is angry because what Victor is saying doesn’t account for the individual or even the small group of individuals (a family or group of friends) who bear the effects of the violence, who must somehow navigate its aftermath, not in academic terms but in utterly real ones.
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