USA, Literature, 2023, in Berlin

Rivera Garza

The mystery and obscurity that envelop Christina Rivera Garza’s fiction caress both gender and genre, words with a shared etymology. In The Iliac Crest, her second novel, gothic shades into noir, noir into fable, with fable climaxing in the metafiction cherished by Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges. Nothing is definitive anymore, least of all the relationship between anatomy and gender. This unsettling of boundaries conjures up various terms to describe Rivera Garza’s body of work as a writer and as a professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston: feminist, queer, trans, posthuman, and – the term stressed by the MacArthur Foundation which awarded her a “genius” grant in 2020 – transnational. The will to place her fiction seems to betray the very evasions on which it depends. But these terms help to excavate the political imagination of her sensuous border crossings and the national history behind her aesthetic of disappearance. After all, in Mexico, where she was born, women do not fade into texts with mysterious grace. They are snatched from the streets and thrown into unmarked cars.

Knowing and touching: these are the axes on which Rivera Garza’s fiction turns, with a certain predictable steadiness. Yet her single-mindedness is offset by the lure of her fractured forms, her gnomic sentences, and her fairy-tale settings. In her second collection, Ningún Reloj Cuenta Esto, men seeking women from their pasts trip from one metaphysical plane to another – from dream world to waking life, from the harsh present to the glow of memory. The stories in her third collection, La Frontera Más Distante, are crafted as elliptical variations on detective fiction, edging her readers toward, as she puts it, “a suspension of belief, a sudden break with the rules of the real.” Detectives, journalists, and anthropologists’ journeys in bewilderment from a city to its outskirts. Arriving in the desert, the mountains, or the taiga, they discover that men are women, women are trees, and trees are part beast, part shadow, creeping across the forest floor, indifferent to human intrusions.

What do her characters come to know? At first, nothing other than their frustrated desire to know. Then the pleasure of abandoning their quest and submitting to the ecstasy of not knowing, of pure physical sensation. The irrepressible energy of sexual desire grafts flesh onto the bones of Rivera Garza’s characters. Indeed, they are not so much people as exposed nerve endings, preternaturally responsive to the presence of others. In most other ways, they remain willfully undifferentiated. Search her New and Selected Stories for a character with a proper name and you will find only a handful. When they are not simply anonymous, they are given names like the Stranger, the Elderly Man, the Woman Who Disappeared Behind a Whirlwind. The substitution of a descriptive epithet is a baptismal act that reveals the lie behind all description. There is nothing natural or essential about the words – “man,” “woman” – that categorize people.

How to write about sexual experience in a way that is at once desiring and loving –unprecedented, unrepeatable, and always transparent? The nimbus of love, a word Rivera Garza dares not speak, creates a little pocket of freedom around her characters. Their touch shelters them from the idea that the knowledge of anthropologists, doctors, or governments can control why we want who we want. It spurs the mind beyond what seems most real, because it is most painful – death, cruelty – to find pleasure in imagining the relations between bodies.

Text: Merve Emre


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