There’s no denying that Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season includes distressing stories of the very basest human behaviours. At the same time, thanks to the striking authenticity of the voices contained within it, the novel embodies a great human act of compassion, in that its author truly listens without prejudice to what literary critic Helen Vassallo has called ‘the monsters we make’.
The Oscar-winning film director Bong Joon-ho recently wrote some lines that I find as true of Hurricane Season as of his masterpiece Parasite, ‘. . . who can point their finger at a struggling family, locked in a fight for survival, and call them parasites? It’s not that they were parasites from the start. They are our neighbours, friends and colleagues, who have merely been pushed to the edge of a precipice.’ Fernanda Melchor goes with her characters to the edge of the precipice. As her English translator, I followed her there and was left changed and with many questions about her method and influences, manipulating readers, and the unavoidable lure of darkness. We touched upon some of these topics in during the following conversation, in English, in late January 2020.
Sophie Hughes: Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ What are you more concerned to depict as a writer, the cracks or the light?
Fernanda Melchor: I love that song! I’m definitely more concerned with depicting the cracks inside myself through these experimental egos we call characters.
Hughes: Other people have said that Hurricane Season is about ‘lives governed by poverty and violence’, that it explores ‘violent mythologies’ (Ben Lerner) and is ‘propelled by a violent lyricism’ (Chloe Aridjis). What does violence mean to you?
Melchor: It’s always difficult to talk about violence as an isolated notion; it always seems to me that I end up saying banalities when I try to define it. For me, to be human is to be perpetually tempted by the shadow of violence, the appeal of rage and sheer force. A battle as old as literature and language themselves.
Hughes: Even when the characters in Hurricane Season commit the most unambiguously heinous acts, the subtlest characterising detail on your part (buck teeth, an absent father, an angelic singing voice) reserves a shred of vulnerability for them. Is pathos always important?
Melchor: I carefully choose the details that make up my characters because I always want the readers to experience them almost as living, three-dimensional people. In Hurricane Season, because of the nature of this story, I didn’t really want to position myself high above the characters. I wanted the reader to be on a level with them, to feel what they felt and long for what they longed for and to experience pleasure and pain and hope and dismay, all of which can be awkward and intense, but also beautiful aesthetic experiences, if you don’t let yourself be intimidated by all the curses and bad words. I’ve always thought literature’s task is to create empathy, put ourselves in other people’s places. Even if literature deals with violence, it actually fights our worst human tendencies because it favours language over silence, and empathy over hate. For me, this means I must try to tell a story in a way that prompts the reader to wonder, what are the true differences between her and this ruthless character she’s reading about? As the French writer Marcel Jouhandeau wrote: ‘Sometimes when my eyes rest on a prisoner, I feel a little guilty with him. I tell myself that maybe I just narrowly missed as tragic a fate as his’ (my terrible translation), and I guess he knew what he was talking about because Jouhandeau was one hell of an anti-Semite but he also strove to show the darkest corners of the human soul through his texts. Characters must reflect that kind of complexity, the struggles and agonies of the human soul.
Hughes: That not wanting to position yourself high above the characters, as you put it, makes sense of my reaction of relief when I read the novel. I realise I was really quite tired of reading opinions in fiction; authors views sometimes quite artlessly veiled behind their characters insights about this or that. In Hurricane Season, no one is really aware of anything that’s happening to them; not geo- or socio-politically, not even emotionally.
Melchor: Well, I had to create the illusion of neutrality through the narrator, this sort of expanded consciousness that borrows the direct voices of the characters without losing a certain subtle form of irony while telling us about the troubles and exploits they face. It was a very difficult task, because I wanted the narrator to be able to show some aspects of this world, like the widespread, normalised misogyny of the society of La Matosa, for example, without the reader thinking I, as an author, was promoting or advocating it. I think the key word here is show: I wanted a narrator who could show rather than just tell stuff, because I believe that literature should be an experience. Of course I have political and personal beliefs, as any writer in the world, and certainly those beliefs manage to seep through my work, but I’d rather show them and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Hughes: What makes a great work of art for you?
Melchor: I think the common denominator of all great works of art is that they are the result of a personal vision that questions and betrays and diverts not only the reality in which the artist lives, but also other works of art of various kinds.
Hughes: So for you, say, a great movie can automatically prompt you to think about new or different ways of writing. Can you think of any real examples where this has happened to you? I suppose this is a question about influence, but I’m especially interested in this crossover of influences between different art forms and how they question rather than mimic one another.
Melchor: Yeah, I think the purpose of all art forms is to pose questions, not so much to answer them. The reader/spectator’s interpretation is an answer among many. Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia (who I will be quoting a lot because I’ve been reading his splendid Crítica y ficción lately) wrote that the fiction writer is like a criminal, always ‘stealing’ and ‘disfiguring’ the texts of others, and trying to cover her tracks not to be discovered. I tend to consider movies, paintings and even music as texts, and it’s not uncommon for me to find a solution for a story in a film. Harmony Corine’s Gummo and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet were decisive works that helped me shape the aesthetics of my creative vision at a young age. Sometimes the ‘solution’ comes from questioning the work’s form. For example, looking at Flemish triptychs and thinking about the way we ‘read’ them helped me built the structure of my last novel. My subject has almost nothing to do with these paintings, but now there is an invisible thread of connections between them.
Hughes: Before translating Hurricane Season I watched Gummo because you told me it was one of your influences; you said you found the language in it ‘realistic and credible and excessive and callous’. Actually, the scene that has stayed with me, and which reminds me most of the novel, has almost no dialogue in it at all. It’s the almost absurdist scene in which insidious violence bubbles up between two brothers from nothing at all in an otherwise relaxed domestic setting. In the same way as in Hurricane Season, this scene hones in on a violence that is as destructive, arbitrary and unpreventable a force as a hurricane: it blows in, subsides, and leaves an awkward silence, felt in your novel as a void to which something seems to have been lost. What have the violent young men in Hurricane Season lost, and to what forces beyond their control?
Melchor: Literature (or at least the literature that I find interesting) is always trying to fill the void, to make sense of the silence at the heart of the crudest violence. I wanted to write about hate, the hate that the characters feel out of helplessness and abandon, but also about love, about desire and the murderous rage of loving someone without being loved in return, the rage of disillusionment. I think all my novels up until now have explored what it is like to be really young and really angry in a family that has broken up, in a country that cannot offer you a future, in a world that’s sinking. I’ve mostly written about young men for reasons I don’t fully understand myself yet, but I think it has something to do with my need as a woman to understand men. I’m also very interested in the different forms that women can exert violence, particularly within families.
Hughes: That’s interesting because as your reader I feel that your female characters’ behaviours are very keenly understood and seen, only they are often reactive behaviours; the women and girls react in whatever way they can to survive an overwhelming tide of machismo, so deeply ingrained in the society and even the language they inhabit.
I’ve never had to think so hard about how to swear in a translation, because with every chingada I had to translate, I felt I was chipping away at some insidious but important context regarding misogyny – here’s where I pull out Octavio Paz’s oft-quoted, ‘La chingada is above all the mother’ – but the truth is, I had an even more important job as I saw it, which was to make your characters (who really don’t care about Paz’s treatise on Mexican identity) speak and swear and rage believably. And it was especially difficult in the British translation because, for whatever reason, we don’t tend to involve our mothers as much as our American friends do (‘son of a bitch’, ‘motherfucker’). In the end I decided to forge a kind of idiolect that didn’t completely rule out either Americanisms or Briticisms; one that could subtly build up a picture of the encoded violence exerted against women in everyday speech and at the same time keep things colourful. Early on, I chose not to keep any Spanish-language expletives in the English text, so as not to break the spell and lift the readers out of the characters’ minds or out of the text even momentarily.
Melchor: I’ve always been fond of popular or common speech. I think colloquial expressions, even the rudest ones, are full of poetry and music and history and I’ve always admired the writers that could turn them into a form of art, like José Agustín and Armando Ramírez in Mexico, who really succeeded in depicting the playfulness and naughtiness of Mexican Spanish, with its double entendres and baroquisms. It took me a long time to realise that naturalness of speech in literature is an artifice, and a double-edged sword too, one that could get you trapped in the most rancid costumbrismo. Instead, I tried to emulate Juan Rulfo, who in Pedro Páramo and El Llano en llamas managed to create a new Mexican language with the same old words. I wanted Hurricane Season to be legible but also Veracruzan and coastal and torrid, and I wanted to create this small, fictional universe by using the very same words its inhabitants might use to describe it.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been to translate this novel and match all the colloquial expressions against others in English, especially because it never crossed my mind that somebody someday would be interested in translating it, but I’ve read the final result and I’m very, very pleased. Some people might say that there are some expressions in the original that are impossible to translate to English, but as a writer and a translator myself I disagree. Everything that matters is there: the fury, the irreverence and even the harsh music of vulgar language. I can’t complain.
Hughes: You’ve mentioned to me Dennis Cooper and Bret Easton Ellis as writers you admire; in interviews, you’ve mentioned Stephen King and Raymond Carver: do you tend to read a lot of American fiction?
Melchor: Yes, I’ve read American literature throughout my life. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first book I ever read, translated to Spanish. I think it was in my teens when I felt confident enough to start reading in English directly, although most of my reading was not exactly what you’d call high literature but thrillers and pseudo pornography that I managed to find in second-hand bookstores or lying around on my relatives’ shelves, stuff like V.C. Andrews, Harold Robbins, John Grisham, Anne Rice or Taylor Caldwell. I mean, I kind of knew they were crappy readings, but in literary matters I was totally dependent on the generosity of strangers until I got into college, where I started to gravitate towards William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Carver, John Fante, Jeffrey Eugenides, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, J.T. Leroy, A.M. Homes, etc.
Hughes: The novel is only just out, but several readers have written to me to tell me they read it in a couple of sittings, and that they ‘couldn’t put it down’, which is surprising when you consider that you deliberately subvert crime fiction convention (this is the story of a murder, but it’s not a murder mystery in any traditional sense). Did you set out to take your readers on a ride they can’t get off? Do you get a kick out of pulling the strings?
Melchor: Without a reader, a book is nothing, just paper and printed smudges. For me, the real book only exists inside the reader’s mind, and I take that very seriously. One of the things I really like of Stephen King’s books is that he’s always addressing his readers, saying things like: ‘Take my hand, Constant Reader, and let me guide you into this darkness’, and that’s precisely what I love about novels and books and literature in general: that they’re journeys, dreamscapes made possible only by the imagination of those who wrote them and those who read them. And it’s easy to forget the power of words in an era ruled by profuse, beautiful and entrancing images, a time where it seems impossible to focus on reading for more that ten, twenty minutes without feeling the urge to tweet about it. Never before have we been so distracted, and never before have those distractions been so enjoyable. Why bother to read a novel when you can buy a videogame console and be the hero of your own adventure? That’s why I wanted to make an experience of Hurricane Season. It seemed to me the only way possible to communicate that particular story, even if that meant grabbing the reader by the throat and roughing her up a little. But then that’s exactly the kind of books I like, the ones that are like natural disasters, the ones Kafka said were like axes for the frozen sea within us.
Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, is out now with Fitzcarraldo.