Providing a Space for Madness: The Millions Interviews Yuri Herrera

November 15, 2017 | 1 7 min read

“He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as if made of finer threads. Other blood. The man took a seat at a table and his attendants fanned out in a semicircle behind him.” Thus begins Yuri Herrera’s brilliant and brutal debut Kingdom Cons, a story set on a fraught but nameless border where a young songwriter, drawn into a lethal world full of glitz and death, is forced to examine the meaning of loyalty and artistic integrity. The songwriter (Lobo or “the Artist”) is delighted to have found a wealthy patron (“the King”). He becomes the court bard at the King’s lavish palace, but soon finds out that the price he must pay to stay in this elevated world far outweighs what he receives in return. Kingdom Cons is the Mexican novelist’s first book but his third to be translated into English, and like his other two slim, impactful novels (Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies) the story he tells reaches out its tendril hands in many different directions. Herrera’s novels are at once evocative of royal court dramas, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean romances, old world fairytales, hardboiled detective novels, and philosophical treatises on the power of art and words.

covercoverI had the honor of speaking with Herrera recently about silence, power, creation, and translation.

The Millions: I want to start by asking you about the things not said in Kingdom Cons, the unnamed countries, cities, and even characters. The book is set on a border, but the border is not specified, the cities are not named, and most of the characters are referred to only by epithets or roles. The main character has a name that sounds more like a nickname, Lobo, and very quickly he becomes simply the Artist, and he is surrounded by the Girl, the King, the Heir, the Commoner, who in the final pages of the novel becomes simply She. Can you talk a little bit about the power of absence and what you intended by not naming people and places?

Yuri Herrera: I don’t think everything has to be explained in a novel. Silences are important because they are the most eloquent part of a creative work in how it allows the readers to reveal themselves when they fill them. In the case of the novel, not naming certain places helps avoiding clichés and easy formulations of issues that are much more complex than what the mass media and government speakers say. Regarding the names of the characters, these are like that in order to introduce an element of tension: their names as roles create an expectation of what they are supposed to do, and each character is going to define itself by resisting or obeying that expectation.

TM: At one point in Kingdom Cons the news arrives at the Palace that the Artist’s songs have been banned, the DJs get “orders to shut his groove down.” Something similar to this happened across northern Mexico in the early 2000s, city governments implemented bans on narcocorridos, claiming that they would poison the youth by glamorizing the narco lifestyle, a similar critique to one that has been voiced in the United States about gangster rap. The ban in Ciudad Juárez has apparently since been lifted because the new mayor is financially invested in several radio stations and the ban was not good for business, either way it did not really matter because the songs by groups like Los Tigres del Norte only got more popular when they were outlawed. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the popularity of narcocorridos and their influence and what it means for a society when people are banned from partaking in something?

YH: In the case of the corridos, the ban of certain songs is a simplification of a very complex phenomenon. Maybe some singers have worked for criminals, like scores of lawyers, financiers, and architects have done and still do, but the focus of these politicians is on the singers because they are an easy target, it allows them, the politicians, to transfer their responsibility to someone else, to blame artists of their own ineptitude. But corridos are not a genre that emerged with the War on Drugs, it has been around for a long time, and very often has been a way in which stories out of the mainstream have circulated.

TM: I’m interested in the influence of fairytales, folklore, and fables on your writing. Kingdom Cons includes lots of recognizable archetypes that appear in fairy or folktales across the globe—the King, the Witch, the Commoner, the Heir—can you talk a little bit about your choice to use these sorts of stock mythic characters?

YH: In this specific case it is because although I took for my model a very precise space, the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and a very precise issue, the criminal stupidity of the “War on Drugs,” designed by different American administrations and followed by several Mexican administrations, the craziness of the powerful was not invented by these criminals, the drug lords, it is something that has always been there. The present day criminals are a very explicit example of that, but the need to have your name in golden letters, to proceed following your testosterone, to not listen to other opinions, to believe that artists are there to promote your greatness, that kind of megalomania can be seen very clearly in the old kingdoms, as well as in decaying democracies with spoiled frat-boys-turned-presidents who decorate their houses with animal skins and golden furniture. As for the other characters, it has to do with the role that the King assigned to them, their names signal the tension between what they might or might not want to do and what power expects from them.

TM: You have a very distinctive writing style: charged but very clipped, deceptively simple, with short sentences and not a lot of description. There is a moment in the middle of Kingdom Cons when the Artist is talking about writing corridos and he says “The story tells itself but you have to coax it […] you take one or two words and the others revolve around them, that’s what holds it up. Cause if you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song. Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.” When I read this quote I couldn’t help but wonder if your writing process is anything like the Artist’s?

YH: I think it is a lot like that. For every story I find a core around which the rest of the text is going to proliferate, sometimes it is a tension between characters, sometimes it is a dramatic line, like a transformational journey, sometimes it is an atmosphere. And I try to understand what kind of language, what kind of landscape, what kind of behaviors are organic to that core that generates meaning.

TM: What are your thoughts on big novels versus small novels? All of your books are approximately the same slim size, somewhere around 100 pages. Should more novels be small and distilled? Are big novels just spinning their wheels and wasting everyone’s time?

coverYH: I always think my next novel is going to be as long as War and Peace, because I have many notes and I think that once I develop them it is going to be a long breadth book, but then I discover that my notes look a lot like how I want the story to sound, or that they require not more development but more concision and more versatility. I like words and phrases and paragraphs that do several things at a time. I guess that is why I can’t write long novels. But I would love to be able to create that kind of respiration, to engage with a tempo that depicts a different pace in which emotions develop.

TM: Your novels were all written in Spanish and then translated, often by the same translator, Lisa Dillman, into English. I’m curious what your relationship is to your translated texts? I’ve never had my writing translated so I have not yet had this experience and I’m curious how it feels to you to read your words in a different language? I’m also curious about the translation process and how involved you are in it?

YH: Translation is a step into the abyss, because it doesn’t matter how “accurate” it is, it will always create a different object, with unexpected meanings. And that is fine, that is something that should be embraced, precisely because it is a way of expanding the life of a text. This is something that has to do not only with the lexicon or the syntax, but with how the new version sounds; sound creates meaning, even if you cannot articulate it in words. So I trust the translators because I assume they know the readership in this other language much better than me, that they know how to activate those new meanings in the text. I participate in the process only as much as they ask me to. In the case of Lisa, we have had a very rich dialogue, with each book we exchanged daily emails for months, and even though I suggested ways to do it, the final decisions were hers, she always found graceful, inventive solutions.

TM: There is one word in Kingdom Cons that I kept coming back to and thinking about in terms of translation: the use of the word “tho” in place of “though.” To me, when I was reading, it was a visual cue to me to remind me that I was existing in Lobo’s world (similar to the way that the verb”‘verse” made me feel when I read Signs Preceding the End of the World.) The use of tho felt slightly off kilter in a really good way and it seemed perfect because Lobo is someone for whom spelling is probably not a main focus—it seems like a wonderful way to show what a slang culture he is living in. I wondered if there is an equivalent word that you used in the original Spanish or is this something that only exists in translation?

YH: There are a lot of words that work as markers of a certain rhythm and a certain character of Lobo, like Simón, which is another word for Yes, but, say, with more attitude. I think this word is a translational device, a compensation, to communicate that same attitude and rhythm, even if it’s not always in the exact same spots.

TM: When the Artist’s songs were banned the King comforted him, “He smiled and his smile seemed a protective embrace that said to the Artist, Why sugarcoat the ears of those fuckers? We know what we are and we’re good with it. Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” When I read this, it reminded me of something that another writer I know, Scott McClanahan, said recently in an interview. He said, “If you’re not asking the question “Could this possibly destroy my life?” then you shouldn’t write it. That’s what I think anyway.” Do you agree with the King and Scott McClanahan. Is risk the main reason to be an artist?

YH: I don’t know if it’s the main reason, but it’s something that you are going to have to face if you truly engage with the creative labor, because art implies creating new ways of looking at familiar subjects, and in order to do that you have to disassemble rules, meanings, certainties, you have to look at the arbitrariness of certain aspects of reality, or at the nonsense of cruelty, or at the complications of love, and in this manner you can not only mess with your readers’ emotional stability, but with your own. And this is a necessary step in order to provide a space for critical thinking, or for emotional discovery, but also for madness.

’s debut novel, Sugar Run, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in 2018. Her short stories and essays appear in Tin House, The Oxford American, Hobart, The Barcelona Review, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and other literary journals.

One comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent interview! I’ve read all of Yuri Herrera’s novels that have been translated to English and I find his work to be fascinating.

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