When I listen to the recording of my interview with Carmen Boullosa, I am struck by the places where her memory seems to stutter and her voice stalls out. It’s strange to hear her struggle with words: to call her “gifted” with language is a hilarious understatement, and even her bilingual malapropisms are somehow perfectly articulated gems. But when I spoke with her about her novel, Antes (1989)—recently translated by Peter Bush as Before (2016) and published by Deep Vellum Publishing—she kept getting stuck, caught up, reverting to a place of silence with this strange little book that launched her as a novelist. “I don’t know,” she said, again and again. “Honestly, I don’t know.”
Memories are fickle, of course, and the 1980s were more than a few years ago. But part of it is that Carmen Boullosa was a very different kind of writer in the ’70s and ‘80s. Then she was a young poet and dramatist at the center of a swirling Mexico City avant-garde; her first novel was a ferociously intimate evisceration of her own formative personal history as well as an exploration of everything that is lost with childhood and of the places of silence that precede speaking. It’s also a novel she wrote without a plan to ever publish, a novel so personal and unguarded that it almost isn’t a novel at all.
Today, seventeen novels later—and many books of poetry, plays, short stories, and nonfiction—Carmen Boullosa has become such a different, and differently formidable, writer that the translation and publication of her first work of prose fiction feels almost like opening a time capsule. Before is painfully revelatory in its intimacy and naïveté, while more recent works—like Texas: The Great Theft—are like archival symphonies, orchestrated choruses of real and imagined voices. And yet Antes is where she had to begin, the place where one of our greatest novelists became, first, a novelist.
—Aaron Bady for Guernica
Guernica: What is it like having this novel come out now? It’s not your first novel, but it’s definitely at the beginning of your career.
Carmen Boullosa: Well, Antes is my first, because the previous one, Mejor Desaparece, is more like vomit, extremely violent. It doesn’t have one singular character or a natural flow, so it’s not unified; it’s short stories, not a real novel. That one, I hid it and didn’t publish it for more than eight years. I didn’t dare; it’s so violent, and messy in its heart and its core.
Guernica: When did you start writing Antes?
Carmen Boullosa: It was something I had to write. In those days, I was writing theater. I had two babies. I had a very small theater bar—the center of artistic, cultural, and political-dissident life in Mexico—and I was also the cashier because we had very little money. It was like a co-op; we sustained the theater with the bar, but we only had two people working with us, and the place was always packed. We served the drinks—me and my partner, Alejandro Aura, the father of my children, who was an actor and a poet—and when the play was running, I would run up to work in the booth. I couldn’t even stand up, because everything was in there, the boxes of beer, everything. So I made the boxes into a desk, and I would be up there correcting my novel; while the play was going on—because it was a cabaret, people were down there laughing—I would be concentrating on my writing, and they would be my background. I was my own ghost, in a totally different rhythm from the play. When I heard the clapping, I had to run down to turn down the lights!
Anyway, there was a problem with the landlord, and we had to leave the little theater we had. We needed money to put the theater in another place. I had written my first corrupt novel—or to say it, my violent non-novel, which Christy Rodgers translated as Just Disappear—so I dared. I didn’t have time to fear. I was selling everything I could to have the money to set our theater some other place, so I gave Just Disappear to the house that paid me more. And when I was giving an interview—because I had the first narrative published—and we were talking, and I said, “Well, I also have this other book.”
The next morning, I received a phone call from the publishing house of Octavio Paz. The book was finished, and since I had come out of the closet as a novelist, I published it. But it had been lying on my desk for two years. I didn’t have the urge to publish it. With both novels—with the first fragmented one and also Before—I needed to write them. But it was a very big surprise that they were so well received.
Guernica: Why did you “need” to write Before?
Carmen Boullosa: My partner, Alejandro, had a boy, a son, that was five years older than my daughter, and he had fear at nights. He only stayed with us on weekends, but he walked back and forth, begging to be received in our bed. And that had been my childhood! I had walked all night, begging to be received in [my parents’] bed, because I felt fear. And my parents refused to let me sleep with them, so I begged my older sister. And she refused to receive me, and I begged my next sister, and I suffered fear all night. When I saw the boy, everything came back, that fear and also the presence of the death of my mother.
I think this story came out from the steps of that little kid, looking for a refuge… like a little refugee of fear, the night fear of children. From my childhood, and also from the death of my mother, I guess. I don’t know. I see it now from this side.
But also, now that I think of it—because it’s so far away, you know—Antes is so Mexican. I didn’t think it was so Mexican when I wrote it, but it is a ghost story in the Mexican way. I was a Mexican author like [Juan] Rulfo writing his ghost stories. Pedro Paramo is a big ghost story. And Elena Garro, with her wonderful Los recuerdos del porvenir; it’s a big, long ghost story.
Guernica: There are all these passages where the repetition shows the breakdown of language. For example, the passage where she repeats the word “scissors,” where she says, “There is this scissors, then there’s this other scissors, and this other scissors,” and the word “scissors” is somehow…
Carmen Boullosa: Fractured. It doesn’t have the power of a word. For an adult, a scissors is only a scissors, but she is still in the preverbal world. But the only way she has to tell us her story is in her voice.
Guernica: I’ve only read the English translation, but that sense of a world where everything is excessive and too much, and the words can’t catch them—that’s there. There’s this nonverbal world that she’s trying to capture with words, but it doesn’t work, and it falls apart.
Carmen Boullosa: That’s her, I think, and if the novel has a power, it’s to touch that consciousness behind words, or before words.
There is a kind of poet that always lives there, that lives in a preverbal world, and they work with their words to touch where the words cannot touch. They are always struggling. And maybe all the poetry I had written by then was like that.
You know, before I published my first novel, I was very highly considered as a poet in Mexico. And poets are (or were) very [prideful] of their craft. If you start publishing novels, you lose value, in their eyes. I went to that polluted universe that is the narrative world, the world of the narrators. If I had kept my novels hidden, I would have a very respected name as a poet.
The novel was an act of hatred against my own family, against my father, against the situation of the horrible stepmother that I had. That didn’t make me ashamed, but what made me ashamed was being against my father and against myself and exposing my family situation that had been so painful.
But it was also my pride as a poet. And as a poet, it was valid that I was trying to capture the pain and the feeling behind words. But as a novelist, it was not usual. And these two novels, they are nonverbal. They want to touch where words can’t touch. There are many things that cannot be touched by words. In this case, it was the world of the child. Infancy, childhood, and death. And the death of the mother.
It was the death of my mother, the novel had to do with that. My mother died in the same moment as the girl in the novel, and I turned into a woman. I felt for her, I felt for her pain, I felt for her… guilt. If it’s guilt. I mean it’s not guilt, but she felt guilt.
Guernica: But she feels guilty for what she caused, without knowing how she caused it. It’s guilt with nothing to attach to.
Carmen Boullosa: She doesn’t know. I think it’s a very Catholic novel. Not that I’m a Catholic, but I was raised as a Catholic, and that’s Catholicism. [Meanwhile] they don’t see what they are really guilty of.
It’s a ghost story that doesn’t have any rational explanation. It’s a real ghost story, because it doesn’t dissolve the ghost in a rational world. But here, it is domestic things, the real world of a little girl, where everything gets magnetized by the presence of her sense of… maybe it’s not even guilt, the word.… I don’t know. Yes, maybe it’s guilt. But it’s almost theological.
Guernica: You’re making me think about how often ghost stories are made to be too logical and rational, how ghosts operate by rules that you can predict and expect and respond to, and plan for.
Carmen Boullosa: But here, there’s no rule. It’s a child’s mind, I think.
You know it’s very different for me to look at the novel, because… I don’t know how I wrote it.… Well, I know how I wrote it, but it didn’t enter the rational side of my brain. It comes from another part, a part that maybe… maybe I’ve lost.
Guernica: What was it like for you after it was published? How did people respond?
Carmen Boullosa: Well, I was too young to notice, but now I know, obviously, that the Octavio Paz factor was very important in the novel being noticed. He was very respected in Mexico, and we adored him, or we hated him—equal parts. And so the critics were raving about the book. I felt… I don’t know!
But when I received Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, all I wanted to do was cry, because Octavio was sitting in the front row. He had received the same prize two years after I was born, and I respected and admired him so much, so it was beautiful; it was a gift. Those ghosts that I made suffer so much, they gave me joy.
Guernica: And once you had started, then you just kept writing novels.
Boullosa: Well, yes, and poems. I continued writing after that. I published two volumes of collected poems. And then I have continued writing poetry since then. I haven’t stopped.
Guernica: I didn’t mean that you had stopped writing poetry; I meant that when you wrote the first two, you were sort of hiding them away. You weren’t going to publish them. But since then, you’ve written so many novels, something like seventeen.
Boullosa: They are a vice. It’s a vice so big that I cannot keep it hidden. I love to tell stories. I love to tell stories the way I tell them, not the way anybody else tells them. I am all the time writing a novel. I think it has to do with joy: there’s an immense pleasure in threading or organizing in a personal way those novels, and I also think it has to do with my Catholic training. Because in Catholicism, you learn to worship a superior god that creates, who organizes and creates. And when you do novels, you have this illusion that you are following the model of the creator, that you are playing the creator who has to organize that. It is a vice and a sin, and I like to sin. I’m a vicious person.
Guernica: I read that when you were a poet in the 1970s you were afraid that the infrarealists would show up and disrupt your events.
Boullosa: Yes, of course I was terrified! I was terrified!
Guernica: Did it ever happen to you?
Boullosa: Well, when we were at a party, I saw one of the infras spilling a glass of wine on Octavio Paz. I mean, throwing it at him! Some of them were very aggressive.
Later in life, I lost the fear. But it took me a long time, and I was terrified. Also, I thought readings were more for a clown, not for a poet. I hated readings, at the beginning. But I learned to love them.
Guernica: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the poetry scene in the 1970s in Mexico City.
Boullosa: It was wonderful, because the city itself felt different. We always met at the same places, by the university, the Café de las Américas, in the midtown between downtown and the university… and the bookstores that were fantastic, where all my friends stole books. But not me, I never stole a book. It was wonderful, because we poets were there, like a plague. We felt the city was ours. We read all the same books. I remember following Juan Rulfo in the bookstore to see what books he touched and browsed and his expression, and so I went after the book he had just touched, and I read it in the bookstore, following [all these writers’] steps. We knew where to find Octavio Paz. The city was the natural stage for the poets. I remember going to the lectures of important poets, and writers, Cortázar, Borges, it was something so wonderful.… And you looked out at the same faces in the audience, we were all using the same huaraches from Oaxaca. We all had the long hair; we all were the same—in a way, very different, but also the same, post-hippies. It was very peculiar.
The only one who had ironed shirts, who used the shirts ironed, was Roberto Bolaño. Because he lived with his mother, and his mother ironed his shirts. None of us lived with our mothers. Well, I didn’t have a mother.
Guernica: You became friends with him, years later?
Boullosa: Yes, luckily. I admired him since he was a young poet. I liked his first long poem—a short book, but a long poem. And Verónica Volkow, who is the great-granddaughter of Trotsky, was the link between our circles, because of the Trotsky factor, and she was a poet like us.
Then luckily, when we were both published and respected authors, and we met again, and we were immediately talking about so and so, and this name and last name, and we were re-creating the life that he used for Savage Detectives. He was a wonderful guy, a beautiful friend.
Guernica: I am curious about the essay that he wrote, “Vienna and the Shadow of a Woman,” where he spends so much time saying how beautiful you are….
Boullosa: Oh, that’s very disgusting. He knew he was making me irritable about that. I never felt I was beautiful. I felt he was beautiful. You see, those days I was madly in love with a man that didn’t love me as I wanted him to love me. And he doesn’t tell this story, but we were there talking and talking, and I was crying, telling him about my love-pain. And then he started telling me his own love-pains. And he was very respectful of those secrets; I think he was using my false beauty, that I didn’t have—or if I did, who cares?—to hide, to cover. There we were, both of us, complaining about our love lives, and he was telling me things that I cannot tell, out of respect.
I hadn’t seen Roberto because he had left Mexico, and was living in another world. It was a beautiful thing that we met again. But when I read his piece on Boullosa, I was like, Oh, damn these men. They have no remedy. They always have to diminish us, saying, “Oh, they are beautiful!” or, “Oh, they were lovers of so-and-so.” Not the professional qualities. We never say that about men, when we write about them.
But I understand now. We were telling each other secrets. We were sitting in a bar, and we were talking of things that he did not publish. I think he was using that as a screen. Of course, he should have used another.
Guernica: But you forgave him?
Boullosa: Oh, of course! I forgave him in the very first moment. Yes, yes, yes. I forgive him.