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Meet an Author: Valeria Luiselli, Mexico’s rising literary star

valeria luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is the author of the internationally acclaimed novel Faces in the Crowd (2012), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and The Story of My Teeth (2015), and the collection of essays Sidewalks (2014). She is a rising literay star whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Granta, andMcSweeney’s. In 2014 she won the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Born in Mexico City in 1983, she grew up in South Africa.

Books available at The Bookworm:

Faces in the Crowd (2012)

Sidewalks (2013)

The Story of My Teeth (2015)

Events at The Bookworm Beijing:

Saturday, March 26, 2 pm: The Story of My Teeth, moderated by Christopher Beam

Sunday, March 26, 8 pm: Whisky and Writers, with Alec Ash, Larry Feign, Han Yujoo, Matt Hulse; hosted by Anthony Tao

Sunday, March 27, 6 pm: Ibero-American Literature, with Javier Cercas, Sergio Del Molino; moderated by Guillermo Bravo

Story of My Teeth

Review of The Story of My Teeth, by Deva Eveland:

This book is partly the biography of an imaginary Mexican eccentric, partly the author’s collaboration with juice factory workers, and partly the catalogue of an actual exhibition of contemporary art. And since it’s filled with odd digressions, I’m going to jump right into one too.

My wife and I arrived in the Mexican city of Mérida, completely exhausted and with a vague plan to buy a hammock. The city is known for them. A man sat down beside us in the picturesque zócalo and started chatting in Spanish. I was actually the first one to bring up hammocks—he was that good. And then the conversation flowed naturally into his description of a local indigenous arts collective where they weave hammocks out of sisal, an organic local fiber which naturally repels mosquitoes. We later learned sisal was fictitious. So was the fair trade arts collective empowering indigenous artisans. But at the time, sleep deprived, negotiating a foreign language and eager for an authentic conversation with a friendly local, my wife and I went along with it. Including the part about how they closed in an hour and wouldn’t reopen for several days because of a holiday on the traditional Mayan calendar. Of course we’d have left town by then, but if we hurried we might make it before closing, and since he had nothing better to do, he didn’t mind showing us the way. And so we ended up buying a factory produced hammock at a 500% markup. I suppose that what we really bought was the story I’m sharing, and this takes us to Luiselli’s novel. The protagonist, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka “Highway,” is this sort of salesman, one so gifted in the art of bullshit he’s able to auction off his very teeth.

What monetary value would you attach to a single human tooth? What about a tooth purportedly from the mouth of a genius like Virginia Woolf? Or Plutarch? How would the value we attach to the person relate to the value of such an object? In 2011 a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair fetched $40,668 USD on eBay. I suspect his teeth wouldn’t have gotten as much because a lock of hair is the sort of thing a tween can smell and pet and fawn over. Teeth are hard and threatening. They get coated in plaque, they tear meat, and they don’t grow back again. Unlike the removal of hair, the extraction of teeth is a violent act that leaves its subject with disability. This makes Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez’s scheme more intimate, but also more absurd. On the one hand these teeth are like the sort of precious relics that can be found tucked into the alcoves of a Mexican cathedral. On the other hand, Sánchez negates each tooth’s actual utility in order to market and sell it. It’s a rather Duchampian idea, and points to something else Luiselli is thinking about, which is the value of art. Another lot Sánchez auctions off is in fact a collection of contemporary art. This artwork also exists outside the novel, being part of the corporate collection of the ubiquitous Mexican juice company Jumex. Luiselli’s ekphrastic writing (within the novel) served as the catalogue for a group show at Galería Jumex (without the novel). This is the sort of playful re-engineering of context Luiselli engages in throughout. For example, instead of pretending that translation is invisible, she draws attention to it by ceding authorship of a whole section of the book to its translator. (The result is a quirky timeline of the protagonist’s life stuffed with extraneous yet fascinating literary and historical events). The juice factory workers are also collaborators. Which digressions in the book are Luiselli’s inventions and which are the stories of the factory workers? How does our understanding of that authorship change how we read? Luiselli is deliberately pointing out the importance we attach to a thing or idea because of our perception of its creator. The most minor of characters are given the names of brilliant writers and philosophers. The names of famous contemporary artists are altered and their very real creations fictionalized through the act of writing. And of course Sánchez promotes the importance of his ripped out teeth with fabulous fictions about the illustrious mouths they supposedly come from. The Story of My Teeth’s playful re-contextualizations and detours are bound to leave you puzzled at some point—perhaps even many. If you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t mind this, the book is a delightfully weird meander into art, salesmanship, Mexican culture, and experimental dentistry.

Valeria Luiselli is an author participating at the 2016 Bookworm Literary Festival. To read about other participating authors, please see our Meet an Author series.

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