In early September, Cristina Rivera Garza received an email from a representative of the MacArthur Foundation. The nonprofit that awards the so-called Genius Grants wanted to speak with her—about a different candidate for the award. So Rivera Garza scheduled the call and then let it slip from her memory.
As a distinguished professor in Hispanic studies and director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, she had plenty to keep her busy. So she was taken aback when the MacArthur rep called and admitted that the organization wasn’t actually interested in other candidates, and then told her she needed a chair.
On Tuesday, she was officially named to this year’s list of 21 pioneering thinkers. Rivera Garza is one of two Texans in the 2020 MacArthur class, alongside Thomas Wilson Mitchell, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth who studies racial injustice in U.S. property law. Fellows receive $625,000, which they can spend however they wish.
The foundation saluted Rivera Garza for “exploring culturally constructed notions of language, memory, and gender from a transnational perspective.” She grew up in Matamoros, Mexico, and has lived primarily in the United States since 1989, teaching at universities in both countries. Rivera Garza is the author of six novels, three short story collections, five books of poetry, and three works of nonfiction. But these labels fail to fully encompass her work, which often blurs boundaries of genre, style, language (she writes in Spanish and revises in English), and culture—sometimes all in the same book. Rivera Garza spoke with Texas Monthly about her work, the ways literature can bring communities together, and how writing and teaching give her hope for the future.
Texas Monthly: How does it feel to finally be able to talk about the MacArthur grant?
Cristina Rivera Garza: It’s been an unreal month of considering the possibility that it was a lie or that I had dreamed it. Finally, yesterday, it all became real, and I can actually have a good night of sleep.
TM: In a video posted to the MacArthur website, you say, “If I had been comfortable with the world in which I was living, I would have never written a word.” How does writing help you feel comfortable with the world?
CRG: I think of writing as a critical practice, a way in which I approach the world with critical tools. Writing has been a way of posing questions that otherwise don’t come naturally to me. I had to go very slowly and analyze every single thing, and writing allows me to create these worlds, which are in fact questions that I give back to a world that I profoundly disagree with. It’s a world that I find unjust and unfair in many ways, and rather than giving lessons on how things should be, I use writing to pose questions and help others find themselves too.
TM: All your published work has been translated into English from Spanish. How do the two languages come together for you?
CRG: I’ve been living in this country for more than twenty-five years now, and I’ve been living, like as many as eleven million people do, a bilingual life. We are, remember, the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world.
I have developed a method where I write in one language, revise in the second language, then I go back to the other language. It’s been an interesting way of using these languages to actually get exactly the word I need.
TM: It’s like you’re translating yourself twice.
CRG: Yes, in the actual process of writing. I don’t translate my final work into other languages, but the actual creating process does include that act of self-translation.
TM: Your new work, Grieving: Dispatches From a Wounded Country, was published this week.The book uses essays and poetry to explore the causes of violence in Mexico. What role does the U.S. play in that violence?
CRG: This is a book very close to my heart. I explore the reality of both Mexico and my relationship to Mexico from within the U.S. as well. It includes fiction, nonfiction, some poetry. A range of writing modes, so that I can think through my position in this world.
There is, of course, a structural connection between the violence in Mexico and the causes of that violence, and all throughout Latin America, which in many ways goes back to the U.S. I’m interested in not only unveiling the origins of that violence but also in the many ways that communities both in Mexico and the United States have been so resilient and have been able to go through these extreme circumstances with dignity and with great strength. I think it’s very important to tell these stories and bring them up in our national conversation.
At its very core, writing teaches us that the world as it is, as we experience it, doesn’t have to be the way it is. That’s the critical characteristic of imagination, and imagination is central to writing too. So I would hope with this book we can touch upon the reasons for the violence and suffering that we share, but that we can also see what we’re doing right now as communities to envision and shape a world radically different from the world we’re living in right now.
TM: Do you think we should be hopeful about the future of the world?
CRG: It’s such a difficult question, because essentially I’m a very pessimistic person at heart. But I wouldn’t go back to writing as often as I do if I didn’t believe that writing is a community-making practice. I am with others when I write. Writing enables this possibility of connection and further transformation. When I say that I can hear myself, and I sound so optimistic, right? I almost feel guilty about that. But at the same time, I see plenty of examples of unnecessary suffering and cruelty imposed on migrant bodies and others, and yet I also see so many examples of resourcefulness and people coming together and exercising change.
These are very trying times. We’re preparing to make a very important decision. Is democracy still true in this country? The prognosis is usually bleak, and yet writing and what writing can do, it seems to me, is worthwhile. People have done extraordinary things. Entire communities have met these challenges again and again. So we’ll see.
TM: Do you deliver this message of hope to your students at UH?
CRG: This is so important to me. The other day, I was telling a friend after my seminar how privileged I was to get to spend three hours in very intense conversation with this very bright group of people. All of them are looking for ways of immersing themselves in the world we live in and looking to contribute to change. Yes, that [hope is] part of our conversation, especially since writing isn’t isolated from the world in which we live. We work in language, after all, and language doesn’t belong to us. Language belongs to entire communities. We work for them. We serve the communities which we belong to. I hope I convey this message every time I talk to my students.
TM: Is this communal aspect of language why you work in multiple genres?
CRG: Absolutely. I always tell my friends I’m quite a contrarian, which they already know. If I’m told to do things one way I always find a way of doing it the other way. I was also born on the border between Mexico and the United States, and I think that border mentality—of always looking at things from one side and then the other side—is very intrinsic in how I see reality. So crossing borders, genre-wise, is something that comes to me quite naturally.
TM: You’ve worked with musicians and even wrote an opera. Does music play a role in your creative process?
CRG: Actually, when I write I’m usually enunciating the words I’m working with. I need to know if my body is able to breathe through those specific sentences, so I need silence. I need to be able to hear myself enunciating sentences, paragraphs, lines.
So if you were to come to a room where I write you’d perhaps think I’m talking to someone, but I’m actually writing out loud. I need to concentrate on the rhythms, sound, pauses, the sonic elements of my own writing, so I usually don’t listen to music while I write.
TM: To me it almost sounds like you’re singing.
CRG: Ha, I’m telling you these things and it seems quite crazy. Writing in two languages, creating the sonic element in the room—I don’t know, but I do these things.
TM: Can you recommend some writers who you think aren’t getting the attention they deserve?
CRG: I didn’t know the full list of MacArthur fellows until yesterday, and I was so elated to find the name of Fred Moten. He’s a wonderful poet and a profound critic whose work I respect so much. To share this class of 2020 with him is a source of joy for me.
There are plenty of writers from the Spanish-speaking world being translated into English, and we have to pay attention to them. Wonderful work by people like Fernanda Melchor from Mexico [author of novel Hurricane Season, short-listed for the International Booker Prize].
Also, there are so many writers from the Spanish-speaking world who have made the U.S. their home, like Edmundo Paz Soldán [author of Norte]. Sometimes they write in Spanish, sometimes in English, but they bring a vibrancy that is very unique, and we should read them all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.