The Beauty of Anomaly – An interview with Guadalupe Nettel, by Thom Cuell

Guadalupe Nettel’s Bezoar is a collection of unsettling and intense short stories, focusing on small, private moments which illuminate an individual’s character. Originally published in Spanish in 2008, this is the first time these stories have been available in English.

The New York Times described Guadalupe Nettel’s acclaimed English-language debut, Natural Histories, as “five flawless stories.” A Bogotá 39 author and Granta “Best Untranslated Writer,” Nettel has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Gilberto Owen National Literature Prize, the Antonin Artaud Prize, the Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award, and most recently the 2014 Herralde Novel Prize. The Body Where I Was Born was her first novel to appear in English. She lives and works in Mexico City.

Were the stories that made up Bezoar written with the intention of being published together as a collection? If not, how did you select these particular stories for inclusion?

I’d say that it wasn’t deliberate, but rather that it occurred naturally. For years, I’ve been interested in people’s small faults and anomalies. I love monsters, not only those in movies but those I encounter on the streets. To me, those anomalous beings that stand out from the rest because of their physical appearance or their psychological characteristics embody beauty in its most unexpected form. I agree with French sociologist Roger Caillois, who says that the monster is a subversive being who transforms reality with its mere presence. Monsters break molds and conventions, which is why people find them intolerable. All of my texts have revolved around characters like this from when I began writing, all the ones I wrote between ages 15 and 35.

Is there a particular theme or mood that characterises Bezoar for you?

This book is a personal reflection on beauty. The beauty of anomaly. As human beings, we tend to hold a very limited idea of our own beauty. We believe what we’re told by advertisements and trends. They shape us. But when we look at plants or trees, our minds become far more flexible and open. We don’t judge them in the same way. We’re more receptive to the presence of trees and their unique character. We don’t think: “That tree should be taller and slimmer and have more leaves up there and less down there.” We simply let the tree be and appreciate its beauty. The characters in these stories are somewhat monstrous – some of them physically, others in their behaviour – and that is what makes them appealing, moving even, but they themselves spend their whole time trying to make sure no one notices. They try with all their might to be “normal” in order to survive in a world that strives to standardize, that represses difference.

Bezoar was first published in Spanish in 2008 – how has time changed your perspective on the stories, and how do you feel about them now?

I still think that this is one of the books that best represents me. Especially stories like “Petals,” “Bonsai,” and “Bezoar.”

There’s a voyeuristic quality to stories like Through Shades; does this reflect your way of looking the world, as an author?

That story was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. In the beginning, I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: “Do you see that vertical line?” he asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Many of your stories focus on small acts, of almost violent intensity to the individual doing them, but which seem unimportant to the rest of the world – from masturbating to pulling out hairs. What is it that draws you to these intimate moments?

There’s something very moving about the compulsions and small acts like those you mention. They are like small rituals that people return to in order to find an oasis of calm or a few seconds of happiness, in order to find relief—even if only for an instant—from the weight of suffering we human beings carry.

Again, your stories (like Petals and Other Side of the Dock) focus on small, semi-private places rather than public events. As a writer, do you feel like these spaces are where people reveal their true selves?

Private and intimate places give us the opportunity to get to know people. That is why the people who don’t want others to find out who they really are avoid it at all costs, which is what happens with the narrator in “Bezoar.” She isn’t willing to let anyone learn that she pulls her hair out, not for anything in the world. She suffered through so much mocking as a child and managed to build a public persona that protected her. But she pays a high price. She finally allows a guy she’s attracted to get to know her for real, and it is only then that she discovers that he is just as—or maybe even more—obsessive than she is. And even though she understands him, she is unable to tolerate his own compulsions.

You’ve published short fiction and novels in your career – what’s the appeal of short stories for you?

There’s a very important tradition of short story writers in Latin America, and I read them all with passion when I was a teenager: authors like Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Felisberto Hernández, Rubem Fonseca. And there are new authors that I now read with great pleasure: Mariana Enríquez and Samantha Schweblin. Although I also read stories from other areas. Short stories are much more concise. They say a lot in very few words, and they create a powerful atmosphere that a novel could never sustain. Chekhov affirmed that novels were like a marriage and stories were like a dazzling and ephemeral love.

What’s true is that short stories are more apt for an obsessive temperament like mine: they can be reworked again and again, even rewritten. That makes me feel comfortable within the genre.  

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

A box full of papyrus, a pipe full of hashish, a powerful amulet.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

I like this one very much: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” William Shakespeare

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

I love Cindy Sherman’s selfies.