These Truths: Respecting the Silence with Fernanda Melchor and Yuri Herrera
These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
In this conversation, Fernanda Melchor, journalist and author of Hurricane Season, a novel recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, speaks with Yuri Herrera, whose next book, A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire, comes out in June. The two Mexican writers talk about their latest books and the power of literature to open doors to richer, more complicated understandings of culture.
CHIP ROLLEY: Welcome back to These Truths, a World Voices Podcast exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. I’m Chip Rolley, Director of the PEN World Voices Festival.
Today we listen in on a discussion between Mexican authors Fernanda Melchor and Yuri Herrera, who discuss the importance of silences in storytelling, and how literature can open the door to a more truthful—and more complicated—understanding of culture.
Here are Fernanda and Yuri in conversation.
YURI HERRERA: I’m Yuri Herrera. I am a writer living in New Orleans. I am originally from the state of Hidalgo in Mexico.
FERNANDA MELCHOR: My name is Fernanda Melchor. I’m a writer from Mexico, author of the book Hurricane Season. The novel takes place in a small, impoverished village in the South of Mexico. And the novel begins when a group of children find the corpse of the village witch. It progresses into the testimonies of the inhabitants of that small village. I wanted to create a novel that played with the rules of detective fiction. But at the same time, I wanted to talk about the deep realities of Mexico and Veracruz, especially the huge problem we have with femicide and family disintegration.
At first, I wanted to write a nonfiction story, a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, because, actually, I was inspired by news that I read in the paper a couple of years ago. And in this story, the reporter talked about the murder of a village witch that happened very near Veracruz. That’s the city port where I’m from. I just read this story, and I really wanted to find out why this person was murdered. And why was witchcraft being quoted as a motive for a murder?
I just thought that was very Veracruzonian-like—that kind of motive. And I wanted to explore what was behind the murder of a woman in a small place. But the reality was that it was very dangerous to travel to rural areas in Veracruz at that time, 2012. Even if I could get to the murderers—even if I could ask them why they did that atrocious act—maybe they wouldn’t even tell me. So, I decided to explore that act—that crime, that murder—through fiction. Because I think fiction is another way of telling the truth, right? And fiction can get us close to the truth, also.
“Because the truth of reality is not a rigid, stable thing to grasp, but it’s something that we recreate, using our emotions. The emotional relation we have with reality is part of the truth.”
HERRERA: Fernanda, you just pretty much answered the couple of things that I wanted to ask you. I was actually thinking about asking you what you took from your journalistic background, and what you took from the crime fiction tradition, because it’s really obvious that in this book, you are using certain elements from these two kinds of writing.
But you said a word that is really interesting for me—when you said that you wanted to “explore.” And that exploration has less to do with actually “exploring” a hill or “exploring” a town. It has more to do with a moral exploration and a narratological exploration, as a different kind of explanation of the facts. I wonder if you can expand a little bit more on what it means when we talk about a literary “exploration” of reality.
MELCHOR: Yes. I think I’m always doing that in a very instinctual way. For me, I’ve been interviewing a lot in the past time because of the nomination for the Booker International Award. And people are interested in knowing the case from which it came to be. But for me, it’s always so difficult to talk about this kind of exploration, because it’s something like a trance, where I try to imagine what it’s like to be a totally different being from what I am. And at the same time, trying to share the same emotions, or trying to share a common background.
So, when I was writing my first book—I have a nonfiction essay. We call it in Mexico crónicas. It’s this kind of literary genre that takes journalism—but at the same time tells a real story—with the tools of fiction. And I was always interested in trying to understand reality through subjectivity—in this case, mine, or a witness’s, or somebody else’s subjectivity. I think that reality, sometimes, is so vast and complex that we need to put on these particular glasses—these subjectivity glasses—to be able to grasp what the world, is or to explain it to yourself.
For me, exploring reality through literature is always trying to understand. There is this song of a Spaniard singer, Alejandro Sanz. He has this song that’s called “Amiga”—I love quoting, pop references and pop music all the time—and there’s a part where he tries to explain why he is singing this song to his girlfriend. And he says, “This is not my job. This is my language.” And for me, writing a novel is just that. It’s never a job. It’s more like the language I talk to try to explain to myself what the hell is going on in the world.
HERRERA: Everything you say really resonates with many things that I have thought, but you say them much better. Because the truth of reality is not a rigid, stable thing to grasp, but it’s something that we recreate, using our emotions. The emotional relation we have with reality is part of the truth. That’s something that I was thinking.
And that’s something that I also wanted to ask you regarding the narrative voice of Hurricane Season, because this narrative voice is at the same time a sort of a character without a body. And also like a synthesis of that ethical way in which you try to approach this terrible, terrible world. And I feel that even though you talk about all this cruelty and about all this moral misery—and for me, this is one of the great achievements of your novel—you also get to be really respectful in some other level towards the people that populate your book.
So, I wanted to ask, how do you create this voice? And if there is a certain conscious attitude that you want to imprint in the text, that has to do with respecting the dignity of the people populating your story.
MELCHOR: One of the hardest things about writing Hurricane Season was exactly the narrative voice. It was a search that took me lots of months of just writing a lot without being able to find what I really wanted for the novel. But I tend to write a lot, and then, while writing, try to figure out what the hell I want to write. I envy the novelists who are able to do their outlines and then fill in the information, and sometimes I wish I could write like that, and I’ve tried to write like that. It ends up being another different thing that I find during the process. It’s something also. . . Oh, how do you say brújula in English? Being guided by a—
HERRERA: A compass.
MELCHOR: By a compass, more than guided by a map, you know? So, after reading this news story, and then deciding that it was too dangerous to go to Ciudad Cardel in Veracruz, because it was full with narcos. So I decided to do a fiction novel. I already had the characters. I had the victim, the witch. I had murderers, the witnesses, and I had a scenario. I had this small village in an area of Veracruz that I knew really well. So, I started working from there.
And the first thing that I started to write was, like, these voices of women of the town, telling the story of the murder. I always wanted the narrative voice to have this gossip-like quality. For me, that was very important, and I wanted it to be a small tribute to the voices of my mom, my aunts, my grandmothers. When they used to hang around, and just start telling scary stories. And I remember being a child, and I pretended I was sleeping so I could hear, and they would start talking about things that they normally wouldn’t say in front of me.
So, I kind of went back to that age and pretended I was sleeping and hearing these voices of women. But at the end, I didn’t want the novel to be, like, a recollection of different voices and testimonies. I wanted the novel to have a more homogeneous voice that could transform itself into gossip women, but also being inside one of the criminals’ mind, and also be inside the mind of another person who has maybe nothing to do with the crime itself, but whose actions, in a certain way, had something to do, also. So, I was in search of this voice, trying to put together all of these different kind of voices.
And I was lucky to have Martín Solares, a very good friend. He’s a Mexican writer, and he recommended me to read The Autumn of the Patriarch. I think it’s the name in English. It’s a novel from Gabriel García Márquez.
HERRERA: García Márquez used to say that was his favorite novel. And it’s not one of the most popular, but it is a real feat. It’s like a constant rhythm, a constant respiration, a constant breathing. And now that you’re saying it, I totally see this in Hurricane Season.
MELCHOR: Yeah. I think that precise novel—El otoño del patriarca in Spanish—in fact, it isn’t one of his most known novels, but it’s a real tour-de-force. He considered it his best novel ever. And I really love it. It’s a magnificent literary feast. And luckily, I could find, in this novel, a kind of guide to what I was looking for.
It is not exactly the same narrator as the one in Hurricane Season. I wanted to give mine a sarcastic twist that sometimes García Márquez lacks. The voice in Hurricane Season, I imagine, is the voice of the devil, you know? But not a devil that feels happy about people being miserable, but that sometimes just can’t avoid feeling a lot of curiosity of what’s going on. And it is a voice that observes—that really looks close into the characters—with a lot of curiosity and sometimes even a naiveté that’s really objective.
And, that’s it. I was very lucky to find what, exactly, I needed, because I don’t know if that happens to you but—it’s so weird to be talking to you in English. I mean, I love it, and it’s great to be on this podcast. But at the same time, now that you said “cantina,” I kind of miss having a beer and just gossiping around about all the other Mexican writers. Why not?
“Literature intervenes into our language. Literature intervenes in our conscience. And that is how literature can be a political agent in society.”
HERRERA: I think this is the first time that you and I have talked without a drink.
MELCHOR: So, I want to ask you about your latest book, A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire, which reconstructs the tragedy in 1920 that left 87 workers dead. It’s described as “an act of restitution to the victims and their families.” This description makes the book feel as artful and ambitious in its attempt to portray a heartbreaking event as it does political.
So, I wanted to ask you, do you think literature should walk this tightrope between art and politics? And how do you find balance—when to tell the story, and the social concerns that you obviously want to explore?
HERRERA: Literature and politics—they are always, always tied together, you know? Because the way you represent reality is always intervened by a political gaze in reality. How you understand gender, how you understand power, how you understand injustice, and the way you talk about that—the way you describe it—is always saying something about the way you accept or you resist the world, and that is a political attitude towards it. What I think is a little bit naive is to think that our books would immediately provoke certain political change, because literature works in the public sphere in a really slow way.
Literature intervenes into our language. Literature intervenes in our conscience. And that is how literature can be a political agent in society.
And I want to link this with another part of your question. The thing is, this is an event that happened in reality in my hometown, in Pachuca. In 1920, there was a fire in this mine called “El Bordo,” and it had hundreds of miners inside. And the owners of the mine, who were Americans, decided to close off the mine when many of the miners were still inside.
So basically, they killed them to save the mine. There was an investigation, and the investigation only tried to find out how the fire started. But they never actually tried to find out if there was some criminal responsibility on the side of the owners.
So, I have heard about this story for a long, long time. And when I was doing my Ph.D. in Berkeley, I decided to do my dissertation based on this story. And so, I did research of all the written sources that still could be found about this, and I wrote up a sort of critique about the sources. But that was just the dissertation. And then what I decided is that I want to turn this into a straight-out narrative. That I wanted to tell it as a simple story that could be read as anyone because, in Pachuca, this is part of our memory that only existed within the families of the miners and people there in El Bordo. And I wanted it to be something more tangible, to stay there. I wanted to be a coherent version of events.
So, one of the first decisions that I made was that I wasn’t going to speculate on the emotions of the victims or on the motives of the murderers—which is what they were, the owners of the mine—because that would create a false memory. And what I decided was that the silences populating this story were a crucial part of the story. That the things we don’t know—because the powerful decided that we wouldn’t know—all the things we don’t know because time has obliterated them—that these silences are part of this tragedy. So, I would just try to say it as best as I understood the story, but not trying to repeat the mistakes of the press of the time, who were saying things like, “Oh, these poor miners, these Indians, they don’t care about their life”—which is an extremely racist thing that has happened in many registers throughout Mexican history.
For me, this is the tragedy—that these people were never able to say their part. For me, it was important to state that. And I don’t know if this is something that is important for you when you’re writing, but for me, what to do is important as what not to do, because this positions you in a certain place in front of it—the story in front of the characters, in front of the plot.
For me, respecting the silence of people instead of interpreting them is also a political attitude. And in the sense that our narrative voices are stating something about reality in an implicit way—which is something that your voice in Hurricane Season is doing all the time; it’s also stating ethical and political attitudes—in that sense is that we start participating in politics in a really slow, slow way.
MELCHOR: It’s like, the only way that literature can really change reality is, as you said, in this slow way, but also, always, like, from the margins, always from the edges of our reality.
And I want to also go back a little bit to something you said about respecting the silence—the absence of information about the emotions and subjectivity of the victims of this horrible. . . I will say “tragedy,” but it’s more like a disgrace. In a tragedy, one has the feeling that you can always choose your destiny a little bit. Right? But these people couldn’t choose. I always thought that even if we work with words, it’s a little bit as in music. Not only notes and sounds make a symphony, but also silence.
And in this case, what not to do or what not to talk about, for me, in a novel that seems to be so filled with discourses and bad words and, you already know, my novel only has eight huge paragraphs, filled with voices and descriptions and dialogue. But at the same time, I wanted to keep something really quiet, emulating the hurricane that’s in the title of the book. I wanted the crime itself to be like the eye of the hurricane. I wanted to reconstruct from imagination what it is like to be a woman in Mexico and to get killed because of whatever reason, and how afterward, nothing happens. No justice is ever made. So I felt that I needed to leave the victim—the witch, in this case—silent. With this narrative voice, we never get to hear or know what the witch is thinking. We never get to see her real close, because I wanted to leave that a mystery. And also, the main perpetrator is always silent. I wanted to leave the heart of this passionate crime—I wanted to leave that silent because—
HERRERA: In that great image of the hurricane—with a core that is silence—you create all these forces. That, for me, is an explanation of how art works. Not trying to explain something to the last detail, not trying to solve a problem, but trying to work towards it. It’s like harassing reality without the attempt of establishing a definitive truth, you know? It’s like just going around it and trying to find as many points of view, so that you get a glimpse of it, but always, the core of it is going to be elusive, no?
MELCHOR: I never thought that it could be expanded into art itself. I think it can be easily done.
Well, I’m really intrigued, because, I know we’re supposed to be talking about your last book in English, but I want to talk a little bit about your last book in Spanish. It’s called, Diez Planetas (Ten Planets). And I wanted to know, what’s in this genre—what’s in science fiction—that drove you to write these stories?
HERRERA: Well, the jump is not from quote-unquote “realism” to science fiction, but the opposite. For me, science fiction and fantasy are synonymous with literature—with writing—because this is how I started writing as a kid, and this is the most honest and powerful way of doing what is most important in literature, which is imagining other worlds. And this is something that even realist writers do. Because you’re not just transcribing something from reality but imagining possibilities in the past, imagining possibilities in the future. You are creating something based on your observation. That’s a part of the realist writing, and that is something that science fiction does in a very explicit way.
One of the things that I learned from science fiction is the weight of every single word, because in science fiction, since you are creating a planet, or a civilization, or a language, you have to be aware, as Borges would say, that every single word postulates a universe. That a word is like a biopsy, in that sense that you take a word, and from that word, you can reconstruct a certain context. That is something that is pretty apparent in science fiction—not so much in realist literature, but I think it’s the same principle that you can use in both ways. But also, what I would say is, as I was rewriting El Bordo Mine Fire, or turning the dissertation into this narrative, and I was so worried about being faithful to the sources, and being faithful to the language that existed in these documents. That demanded a lot of precision, but also, a lot of limiting of myself. So, at the same time, I started writing these stories in which I would, yes, do whatever I wanted to do, and it was a good balance.
I don’t think that literature discovers new things but that literature gives new names to the things we walk by every day, and that literature on discourse, situations, events, people—that literature puts the emphasis on certain emotions or in certain stories that we just miss. For me, science fiction does that in a very fun way. It allows you to say things that are right in front of us, but only when you literalize them in a sort of fantastic way. So, I’m just going to mention one more story, “El arte de los monstruos” (“The Art of the Monsters”). Because I have been thinking about this topic for a long time. Are we never going to listen to Michael Jackson? Are we never going to watch the movies produced by Harvey Weinstein? And 95% of the history of rock and roll. . . There’s a long, long list of horrible people who made great, great art.
Of course we need that, because a world in which we only read books or we only listen to music made by really decent people. . . Because we also need that part of human consciousness, the part that has to do with the terrible part of ourselves, the terrible part of our souls.
We need to make this part of our culture. And anyway, I have been thinking about this a lot. Of course, not having a solution, just thinking about it.
For me, this is literature, you know, just to get out of this room, and to imagine monsters and spaceships, and to find weird the euphemisms to talk about sex. I think this is one of my favorite things in literature. And there’s a couple of stories where I do this. But anyway, thank you for asking me about it, Fernanda.
“Sometimes, we think that being exposed to a lot of violence will make us insensible, but for me at least, it was the opposite. It made me think that I could be the killer, or I could be the criminal. . . So, true crime—it’s been an emotional education for me.”
MELCHOR: I always love to talk about monsters. A little bit of what I do has to do with that, but maybe from a realistic key.
Talking about this freedom dimension that writing science fiction is for you. . . For me, I think, it will be horror. And I’ve always been a horror story buff, but also, I love true crime. Sometimes they are not, like, the best written literature. And since I was a teenager, I connected with horror stories, because no matter how much my life sucked, I was always better than the character who was being chased by a killer psycho clown or something. I think horror stories liberate me from the tension of growing up in a violent society that allowed me to understand. You know, like a fairytale for children? For me, it was horror stories and true crime, too, like serial killer stories from when I was a child and a teenager.
I also think that helped me a lot to have empathy. Sometimes, we think that being exposed to a lot of violence will make us insensible, but for me at least, it was the opposite. It made me think that I could be the killer, or I could be the criminal, but I was lucky to have maybe not so bad parents, or maybe somebody who lent me a hand in the precise moment, or I was just lucky to find books instead of whatever. So, true crime—it’s been an emotional education for me.
“Sometimes, I think, it is easier to access the truth of an era through its novels than through its journalism, you know, because of the systemic problems of the press in Mexico and liberty of expression, freedom of speech. And fiction is just another way of telling the truth.”
HERRERA: Yeah, and I think it’s an education in the broader sense. No? Sometimes people think that education is just telling you the nice parts of the world, but horror stories or crime stories give you a moral blueprint of how humanity works.
It tells you certain extremes of the world. Not that it is something that is happening all the time, but there is something that might happen that is there. And I think this is a good moment to introduce this Werner Herzog quote that says, “the deeper truth is an invented one.” We have been talking about it, but I don’t know if you have any further idea about how storytelling brings us to deeper truths.
MELCHOR: Well. In a country like Mexico, where we grew up and where I still live, we have a very long-standing tradition of a corrupted press, right? And sometimes, I think, it is easier to access the truth of an era through its novels than through its journalism, you know, because of the systemic problems of the press in Mexico and liberty of expression, freedom of speech. And fiction is just another way of telling the truth. Ricardo Piglia, the Argentinian writer, used to say that it is not that fiction is true or false or a lie. It’s just that fiction is another reality, per se.
And when I was deciding between writing a nonfiction story for Hurricane Season or writing a novel, I had this dilemma in doing research or in exploring the feelings and emotion that I thought the characters should be having. And I got to the conclusion that they were different tasks, but at the same time, there were similar experiences. So one did not invalidate the other.
HERRERA: No, I think they’re complementary. I think that we need both kinds of discourses, and we need both kinds of writing. We need the kind of writing that is based on facts—that it is based on research—but we also need the kind of writing that is saying something that cannot be proved, even though it’s true. And this has to do with some of the most important things in life—like pain, like love, you know? And that is something that is beyond the explanations that science or journalism can give us about something that is so, so real, and that is so powerful as that.
MELCHOR: And I think, as George Steiner said, there’s a dimension about language that it’s always immoral, it’s always unethical, because language can be used to say anything.
People ask me if there’s any difference in writing fiction or nonfiction, and I always said that, no, because what I’m trying to do is tell a story the best way I can. And for that—that means to make sense. That’s what fiction and nonfiction offers you. It gives sense. It gives shape, because reality is this fugitive time that is always passing by.
And history, and science even, and philosophy, and literature doesn’t exist if people don’t try to make sense of what’s happening now with this language that can be used practically for anything.
Excerpt from the first chapter of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes
They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underwear, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn around. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blow flies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.
Excerpt from the introduction of Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
The El Bordo mine, located in the mining district of Pachuca-Real del Monte, had ten levels, each named for its depth in meters underground: 142, 207, 255, 305, 365, 392, 415, 445, 465, and 525. These could be reached via three different shafts: El Bordo, La Luz, and Sacramento, the latter belonging to the Santa Ana mine.
The El Bordo caught fire on the morning of March 10, 1920. At least eighty-seven people were killed.
Traces of this history are few: the Pachuca 1920–1966 case file, a handful of news stories, and a metal plaque that talks about something else. The file and news stories do not simply convey the events but are fragments of the events; they are part of the tragedy and the way its official version was imposed. In these texts there appear both favored men, who were never at risk of being so much as scratched by a prickly question, and men and women who were doomed from the outset. But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire; there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other 12 Yuri Herrera by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.
This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in an archive. But none of these words are mine. I reconstruct the El Bordo fire using the names, dates, and events that coincide in these accounts, insofar as coincidence is possible, and where the accounts disagree I use what appears to be most credible; I also call attention to some of the extraordinary contradictions and omissions in sources from that period that contributed to a persistent silence. Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.
These Truths is a production of the PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Jared Jackson provided editorial guidance. Special thanks to Viviane Eng, Nicole Gervasio, and Emily Folan.
Next time on the podcast, writers from across the globe, including Russian poet Tatiana Voltskaya, Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez, and Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut, join in solidarity to share powerful messages of resistance, resilience, and hope responding to injustice in their parts of the world.
About Yuri Herrera
Yuri Herrera was born in Actopan, México in 1970. He has written three novels, which have been translated into several languages. In 2016, he shared the Best Translated Book Award for Signs Preceding the End of the World with translator Lisa Dillman. His most recent works include A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire and the short story collection Diez planetas. He is currently an associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
About Fernanda Melchor
Fernanda Melchor was born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1982. She is widely recognized as one of the most exciting new voices of Mexican literature. Her novel, Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. Her story collection, This Is Not Miami, is forthcoming from New Directions.