MAY 18, 2014
VALERIA LUISELLI SPEAKS with an accent. I have met her for tea at a Greek restaurant on 113th Street, in the shadow of Columbia University’s monolithic buildings. I am deaf, so she wants to know if, when I lipread her, I can tell what sort of an accent it is.
I answer that she does have a visible accent (not an audible one, a visible one), but that I have no idea where it’s from. “Nobody ever knows what kind it is,” she confesses. It is rootless, a mélange of all the places she has been. She grew up in Mexico, came of age in South Africa, returned many times to Mexico, traveled to India and western Europe, and has now more or less settled in the northern part of Manhattan where we are sitting and talking. She bears her status as an arriviste with an enviable élan, as if the world was nothing but opportunities.
Perhaps, for her, it is. “I feel very porous to the world around me,” she explains when I ask her about the inspiration and sources of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks, the novel and the essay collection she has just published with Coffee House Press this month.Both are at least partly set in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. When I read the novel in Morningside Park, I frequently looked up from a page of Faces in the Crowd to see the address one of the novel’s narrators marked on a building in front of me.
Faces in the Crowd interweaves the stories of a young mother taking care of her children in Mexico City; a younger translator living in Harlem and occasionally sleeping in other people’s apartments; and, several decades before, the letters and thoughts of the poet Gilberto Owen living in Philadelphia and traveling up to New York City to see his children and ex-wife. Each strand is told in the first person, and the three voices entwine and blur. Owen sees a young woman in a red coat through the window of a subway car, which echoes another narrator’s red coat. It’s never entirely clear if the young translator is a younger version of the mother in New Mexico, or someone leading a parallel life. And increasingly, the paragraph-long sections can’t be easily attributed to one narrator or another. All three speakers merge into a nuanced chorus of wishes and regrets, visions and hopes.
The novel opens with the two female narrators, and Owen’s voice comes in much later, but the historically rooted voice is one of the novel’s underpinnings. “I was living in Morningside Heights and reading through Owen’s poems and letters,” Luiselli tells me, “and then I saw his address. Right across the park from me.” (This is a discovery one of her female narrators makes in the novel, too.) “This is how I make myself feel at home in a new place, a new city: I go and read to get a sense of the history. What I read gives voice to the space around me.”
She wrote 20 or 30 pages in English, slowly considering this character from half a century earlier. “Then I went back to Mexico because I was pregnant. And I had to wait for my child to be born. I couldn’t read or write anything.” Her hands quiver, as if to show the struggle of waiting, and then sweep out with her next sentence: “When my daughter was born, everything rushed out. Six or seven months later, the novel was done.” She had written, entirely in Spanish, Los ingrávidos, and it was published in 2011; a year later, Christina MacSweeney had translated it from “The Weightless Ones” into Faces in the Crowd.
The novel, however, was not the first time I had heard of Valeria Luiselli. Years before, I had read her essay in The New York Times where, as a Columbia graduate student, she had been told by her doorman to try sleeping in other people’s apartments: “The more nights you spend in other rooms — hotels, rented apartments, borrowed beds, sofas, shared spaces — the more you will get to know yourself.” She admitted at the piece’s end that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to follow the doorman’s advice. That essay, in a much longer form, occupies the penultimate spot in her essay collection, Sidewalks.
“So you made up a character to do what you couldn’t do yourself?” I asked her — for the translator in Harlem in Faces in the Crowd goes out and does exactly that:
I didn’t like sleeping alone in my apartment. I lived on the seventh floor. I would lend my apartment to people and seek out other rooms, borrowed armchairs, shared beds in which to spend the night. I gave copies of my keys to a lot of people. They gave me theirs. Reciprocity, not generosity.
Luiselli nodded; the similarity had deeper roots than I’d suspected. “I originally wrote that piece for The New York Times, in English. That essay, in turn, transformed into two different things. First, I rewrote it in Spanish” and it became a longer essay in Sidewalks — which made MacSweeney’s translation of the essay a repatriation of sorts. MacSweeney’s translations, in fact, are unique in that she collaborates so thoroughly and so inventively with Luiselli that, like their translated titles, the English versions of both books bear significant differences from the Spanish originals.
And the essay went in another direction in English: “It started to slowly transform into fiction and eventually became a sort of Ur-text for Faces in the Crowd” alongside the research Luiselli had been doing on Gilberto Owen. “It was while I was working on it in English that I started to sketch some of the novel’s characters, some of the main threads in the plot, some of the metaphors that later became leitmotifs in the novel.”
So a doorman’s set of instructions was given a double life in print: in nonfiction and in fiction; through Spanish and through English; as mere hypothesis and as a character’s lived life.
Maybe living in different rooms is analogous to writing in different languages. Indeed, Luiselli’s unusual polyphony asserts itself everywhere as multiplicity. “When I’m working on a book I always write, almost simultaneously, in two languages, and I always read in three or four different languages, until I reach a point where I have to just commit to one language,” she explains. Her novel has not one narrator but three. Her characters are ghosts of one another more than they are individuals: the young translator quits when she realizes that she was only hired “because I smelled a bit like his [dead] wife,” and Gilberto Owen becomes more and more ghostly (or, to follow the Spanish title, weightless) as the novel draws to a close
Luiselli is publishing two books at the same time, each one commenting on the other, with new names and altered content. (Sidewalks was originally published as Papeles Falsos, itself a translation of the Italian phrase meaning both “forged documents” and “false map.”) Christina MacSweeney’s translations are so clean, so gorgeously rendered with Luiselli’s evident collaboration and approval, that my only regret was not seeing Luiselli’s own English at times. I am inclined to call her use of English both felicitous and unusual, and hearing her speak it made me wish I could read more of her own unique language — one she calls “‘contaminated’ or ‘foreignized’ by the others.”
Still, no matter the language, her formal and stylistic inventiveness is palpable. One of her narrators obsesses about the shape of her own partially written novel, which seems to be a stand-in for the whole of Faces in the Crowd: “A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within” followed by “Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.” She tries again: “A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway” and, a few pages later, “Or a horizontal novel, told vertically. A horizontal vertigo.”
The idea of horizontal and vertical seems so laden with potential significance. Yet Luiselli’s explanation over tea was, she admitted, a boring one: “I think and write spatially. But when I type in Word, it’s a vertical novel. You just scroll up and down. So I print out all the pages and spread them out on any flat surface I have, and then I can make it feel right.” By paring down the idea to its core and deploying it strategically — and organically — throughout her book, Luiselli gives this unstable dichotomy a metaphorical weight. Throughout her writing, this is her narrative strategy: “A metaphor says that A is B. A novel consists of linking A and B even more deeply than that, so that you can’t help but see the connection.”
Perhaps it is simplistic to attribute Luiselli’s preference for metaphors and multiplicity to her multilingual upbringing. Still, it is a detail that matters to her. She first learned to speak in Spanish, but she first learned to read and write in English. Her formative years in South Africa made English a more convenient language for her, and she can easily call up phrases in French as needed. At one point in our conversation, she says “genre” instead of “gender” before catching herself; the two words are one and the same across the Romance languages.
If every word, for her, has the shadow of two others behind it, and if every city in which she lives carries the ghostly afterimage of all the other cities she has known — as well as the voices of the writers she has researched upon her arrival — then her books become all the more enthralling for the multiplicity they champion. Stereotypically gendered spaces and responsibilities (such as childcare) become the province of both genders, as Gilberto Owen loves his children as much as, if not more, than his own writing. Social classes become permeable; one narrator mocks criollo people, but goes among them at a party, and even enjoys herself. An organic novel becomes both horizontal and vertical, told both ways and read both ways.
And in Sidewalks, every thing and mode is echoed, and is itself an echo. An essay about flying discusses the limits of analogies and comparisons; it is immediately followed by an essay about bicycling, which concerns itself with what biking is, is not, and is like. Unsurprisingly, words and their echoes appear as well:
Saudade isn’t homesickness, lack, or longing […] The German Sehnsucht and the Icelandic söknudur seem to suck out the meaning of the word; the Polish tesknota sounds bureaucratic; the Czech stesk shrinks, cringes, cowers; and the Estonion igatsus would come closer if spoken backwards. Maybe saudade isn’t saudade.
We are following her in this essay and in her others — mentally, as she traces the untranslatable meaning of the Portuguese word saudade, and physically, as the essay uses a set of directions for its subheadings. “Turn left at Durango” is the subheading for the block quote above, while the last subheading is “Calle Mérida — make a left — ride on the sidewalk — stop.” Why give us this information? Even in context of that particular essay, there is little significance. But a quick flip through the rest of the book shows a trajectory across the essays: the second essay uses city names for its subheadings; the next one uses phrases from road signs (“Speed limit: 160 km/hr”; “Keep your distance”); those driving directions guide the next essay before the blunt reality of “Cement,” the single-paragraph essay-report-observation at the center of the book. It has no subheading, but the following essays expand outward, mirroring the inward trajectory of the book’s first half: street warning signs in one essay, storefront signs in the next essay (“No soliciting”; “guaranteed repairs”).
“Did you plan out these essays and their order?” I ask Valeria Luiselli as I raise an already-empty teacup to my mouth. “Both your books feel so organic.” She shakes her head. “Not quite. I wrote the earliest of these essays when I was 21, and nine years later, here I am. I worked on both Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks over and over, rewriting and crossing out and adding.” She traces an arc with her hand.
The entire collection of essays does follow such a path. She opens with a piece set in San Michele, a nearly square island that serves as Venice’s cemetery. Each subheading is taken from a gravestone Luiselli passes as she tries to find Joseph Brodsky’s grave: “Enea Gandolfini (1883–1917)”; “Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971).” Then the entire book continues Luiselli’s arc, from air to street to sidewalk and into the process of picking up, of moving around. The collection comes to a climax with the gorgeous essay “Other Rooms,” breathing even more life and thought into The New York Times essay that had become the germ for Faces in the Crowd.
“You’ve got to build a life in other rooms,” Luiselli tells herself toward the essay’s end. And when I mention the beauty of that idea to her later, she answers, “you’ve detected a relationship or analogy I had never seen before: sleeping in other’s rooms is a bit like moving from language to language.” And indeed, without realizing it, she has been using metaphors of location and place as we discuss her life as a polyglot. “I don’t feel entirely at home in any one language.” That phrase comes up again, casually, several more times: “at home.” She could not say that unless she knew what “home,” a word so all-encompassing that it cannot be properly and completely translated into French or Spanish, means.
And indeed, the final essay of Sidewalks, “Permanent Residence,” anchors itself in a place and in a language, both of which are foreign but welcome her with unexpectedly open arms — a quiet whirlwind of bureaucratic paperwork as she urgently needs a doctor’s care while in Venice. The book’s closing essay circles back to its opening. The final and wonderfully appropriate subheading is drawn from an as-yet-nonexistent grave: “Valeria Luiselli (1983– ).” She calls Venice her “false permanent residence,” but it is no more false than all her other residences have been: South Africa, India, Mexico, and even the United States, where, she tells me, she is ready to stay for a good long while.
“Reality is quite vulnerable to fiction,” she wrote in an essay about the genesis of Faces in the Crowd; “When we become wrapped up in a fiction, our immediate reality bends itself to accommodate it.” At first I thought she must have meant it the other way around; the result of her labors bears all the markings of its formation, both in her essays drawn from life, and in her novel drawn from experience. But she had it right: the stories she tells me are shaping the reality I am making and envisioning of her.
Another description for the novel-in-progress within Faces in the Crowd is “a dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.” That word again: porous. And that image: a heart still growing and changing. Her writing is like her accent: porous. It absorbs parts of the world around her, and lets other parts pass though. To be in the middle of such heterogeneity, and to accept it in full, could be unpleasant or uncomfortable or even ugly. But the great beauty of her art is seeing all her contrasting stories collapse or blend or combine into an unexpected whole — whether three narrators in Faces in the Crowd becoming, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “petals on a wet, black bough” or a collection of essays forming the prismatic reflections of a single mind. And maybe that, for her, is the closest thing to a true idea of home: not a single place, not a single language, but a single heart and mind, taking in the multitudes of the real world, pumping out a multiplicity of brilliant words.