The PEN Pod: Diving Beneath the Waves with Carmen Boullosa
Today on The PEN Pod, we speak with Mexican poet, novelist, and playwright Carmen Barbosa, who is one of the country’s leading writers. Her countless books, essays, and dissertations have received multiple honors, and her new book, The Book of Anna, was just released last month. We spoke with her about the inspiration for the book, which is set in the world of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; how reading helps us make sense of the world; and what writers can do in times of crisis.
How would you describe The Book of Anna?
I was rereading Anna Karenina and found that Tolstoy says she wrote a book. The book is finished. There’s a publisher, editor, writer that wants to publish it, to make it a real book for everybody. Anna refuses, says it’s only a draft, and then the book never appears again. We know nothing about that book, and when I went through this passage, I couldn’t help but think how different her life would have been if she had published the book, as she was the talk of the town. Maybe the book was going to be a success. Maybe that would have given her a room of her own—a space, a professional space for herself—a way to stand up, not as the wife or the lover, or the adulterer, but a writer.
“Books control, in such a way, their authors, that you only prepare the soil for them, work for them, so they can flourish or be.”
So when I finished rereading Tolstoy, I thought it was justice to write the book Anna wrote. I did, first, one version in verse, making an homage to Pushkin too, because when Tolstoy found out the way to write Anna Karenina was after he was obsessed by the anecdote of this well-married woman—adulterous, who committed suicide. It was a real-life story. He wanted to do a novel with that theme. And when he met Pushkin’s daughter, he was captivated by her beauty. She was, as Pushkin, of African origin, different from the others, and she then was Anna Karenina. So I thought it was a way to be fair to the inspiration of the novel and to Anna.
And then I figured out that what I really needed was: What was the final version of that novel? What happened to Anna Karenina? She used her laudanum drops all night to try to sleep, she had been deprived of her son, she was isolated, she was desperate and unsatisfied—and in that mood, I imagined her rewriting what I had imagined she had written in the first version. And in order to make that manuscript appear, I also gave back to Anna her two adult children: her adored Sergei and Annie, her daughter with whom she could never really make a link. So I wrote this like Russian dolls, one story inside the other one. I started it as a justice act for Anna, and then obviously, the book drove me to its own pulse and tone. Books control, in such a way, their authors, that you only prepare the soil for them, work for them, so they can flourish or be, and that was it. That’s how the book was started.
“If you read, if you give life again to a literary text, to poems, to a book, you have to dive. You have to do it on your own. You have to find your own path. Even saying ‘diving’ is appropriate, because there are no roads for a reader. A reader has to find their own way, and feel how the waters go and find it with their own experience—compare it, measure it. It’s an incredible adventure.”
How do you think people who read The Book of Anna now might respond to it, in this moment of pandemic?
This is such a difficult question, especially because I myself don’t know how to respond to this pandemic. I mean, of course I know I’m obsessed by the theme—I read all I can, from scientific magazines, to newspapers—Spanish, French, German, Mexican, The Times, LA Times—I’m trying to figure out or to follow it, but I’m totally unsettled, if I tell you the truth. I’ve been reading that young readers have been reading more these days; they have increased their reading average. In my case, I feel like I have decreased my reading average because I’m in a state of—I don’t have the English word to tell you how I feel, but I don’t have it in Spanish, either. One understands that we were not prepared for this—because there’s not a health system for everybody, because the cuts that have been happening worldwide, because of many things, and also we have hurt our environment, etc.
Reading is always something so private, unless of course you want to read something only because the others say you have to read it, but then you don’t really read. You just ride over the waves. But if you read, if you give life again to a literary text, to poems, to a book, you have to dive. You have to do it on your own. You have to find your own path. Even saying “diving” is appropriate, because there are no roads for a reader. A reader has to find their own way, and feel how the waters go and find it with their own experience—compare it, measure it. It’s an incredible adventure. I have been more wondering, using my eyes to try to feed my reader instinct.
“I think the duty of a writer is to question everything more. I think the role of a poet or novelist is to open more doubts, to question, to say, ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’”
I have two key lectures I’m going to give in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been rereading authors and just under their influence—authors I admire and love, that are not very well-known—I think this is like the 8th of March, with women demonstrating all over the world. I think it has not been erased by the pandemic. I think this is a moment to think differently and consider: Half the world has been treated differently because of their gender. I think this is the moment to tilt and to look at the other side.
I wrote this novel thinking of the voice of Anna Karenina contradicting Tolstoy, because Tolstoy had problems with women. He mentions the novel of hers and then takes it up away from her, tears her from her own book. So I go against him, for a woman who was deprived of her own voice. And I think that a reader will read it that way, knowing it’s going to be a very erotic text in the center of the book, when they arrive to Anna’s book, but it’s a kind of eroticism and a voice that is the voice of a woman that has been kept in silence, for decades and decades, and centuries and centuries.
What role do you think writers can play in helping us emerge from all of this a little bit better than we were before?
I think the duty of a writer is to question everything more. I think the role of a poet or novelist is to open more doubts, to question, to say, “Why? Why are we doing this?” And I think it is a moment where writers have to be very alert, as it happens in all crisis. And this is a magnum crisis.
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