Cristina Rivera Garza’s Bodies Politic

Cristina Rivera Garza’s Bodies Politic

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The “Torso of Adèle” is among the smallest and most sensual of Auguste Rodin’s partial figures. She has neither head nor legs; her body reclines with its elbows raised and one arm flung across her neck, her back arching into the air. The eye seeks the point that balances her movement. Skimming her breasts, her ribs, her navel, it comes to rest on her iliac crest, the bone that wings its way across the hip. “From there, from Ilion, from her crest, Odysseus departed on his return to Ithaca after the war,” thinks the narrator of “The Iliac Crest” (2002), the second novel by the Mexican-born writer Cristina Rivera Garza. To his wandering mind, “Iliac” summons Ilion, Homer’s Troy—a city destroyed because one selfish man desired one beautiful woman. In Rivera Garza’s fiction, quests for desirable bodies do not destroy cities. They destroy the identities—man, woman—worshipped by rulers.

No one clings to his manhood more ardently than the narrator of “The Iliac Crest,” a physician at a state-run sanatorium. He lives alone in a forbidding house, on a wild spit of land somewhere near the ocean, on the border of two nations. One storm-thrashed night, a woman arrives at his door, trembling and disconcertingly lovely. “What really captured my attention was her right hip bone, which, because of the way she was leaning against the doorframe and the weight of the water over her skirt’s faded flowers, could be glimpsed just below the unfinished hem of her T-shirt and just above the elastic of her waistband,” he observes. His clinical gaze is clouded by the allure of his visitor’s body. The learned language of anatomy eludes him: “It took me a long time to remember the specific name for that bone, but, without a doubt, the search began at that moment. I wanted her.”

This woman, whom he takes as the object of his quest, tells him that her name is Amparo Dávila. The name is the first obstacle he must confront. It is the name of an actual Mexican writer of fantastical short stories in the nineteen-seventies. Characters—sadistic house guests, elusive demons—and passages from Dávila’s fiction creep into “The Iliac Crest” as the Amparo Dávila of the novel usurps the narrator’s home, laying more obstacles in his path. She invites his ailing ex-lover to live with them, and the women begin to whisper conspiratorially in a private language. “Glu-glu,” they repeat, like rainfall. Engulfed by their dialect, the narrator starts to lose his grasp on his masculinity, the source of his power. “I know your secret. You are a woman,” Amparo Dávila tells him. Unsure of his identity, unable to differentiate between reality and fiction (or insanity), he—and we—start to lose the thread of the plot.

Desperate, the narrator embarks on a journey, crossing the border to track down the real Amparo Dávila. He finds an old woman who bears her name and claims to have disappeared into her writing. Addressing him with feminine parts of speech, she tells him he has been not only a woman but also a tree. “My half-buried, half-liberated body,” he thinks, seeing flashes from his vegetal past. “My own ruins.” The journey ends with no consummation of his desire, no reclaiming of his home. Instead, he must surrender to his undone, unsexed, antiheroic nature; he must plunge into “an infernal abyss” of desire that shatters his preconceptions about the body, identity, and language. “I felt as if I were inside a parenthesis in a sentence written in an unknown language,” the narrator thinks.

The mystery and obscurity that envelop Rivera Garza’s fiction caress both gender and genre, words with a shared etymology. In “The Iliac Crest,” gothic shades into noir, noir into fable, with fable climaxing in the metafiction cherished by Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges. Trapped in the undertow of this procession, it is easy to forget what prompted the narrator’s quest in the first place: the name of the hip bone. It appears only on the novel’s final page, when such cruel, inexplicable things have passed between him and his various Amparo Dávilas that the word “iliac” clarifies nothing. It hangs before us, flush with the deferred promise of some ruinous or transcendent revelation. “I smiled upon remembering, too, that the pelvis is the most definitive area to determine the sex of an individual,” the narrator thinks, with irony. 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 its “genius” grant in 2020—transnational. At times, 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. “Only a disappeared person could have materialized on the coast as she had,” the narrator thinks of Amparo Dávila, wondering if she has been a victim of the government, organized crime, or a medical institution like the one where he works. “Disappearance is contagious,” he thinks. “With scientific and technological advances, we now know that to become a disappeared person, previous contact with another such person is necessary.”

The disappearance of women here holds a cracked mirror up to the disappearance of women in the world beyond the novel. In Mexico, women do not fade into texts with mysterious grace. They are snatched from the streets and thrown into unmarked cars. Their bodies—raped, tortured, decapitated—are found days or months later, or never found at all. The rate of femicide has doubled in the past five years; ten women and girls are killed every day on average, and Mexico is the second most dangerous country for transgender people. The increase has been spurred by the rise in cartel violence since President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drugs, in 2006. “But we know other, more truthful names: the war against the Mexican people, the war against women,” Rivera Garza writes in her essay collection “Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country.” The word “femicide” never surfaces in Sarah Booker’s exquisite translation of “The Iliac Crest.” But it is the missing word that hurls the reader down to earth.

The primary tension in Rivera Garza’s fiction—between the unruly intensities of sexual desire and the political disciplining of the body—is at its most concentrated in the latest translation of her work, “New and Selected Stories” (Dorothy). The book assembles pieces from three collections first published in Spanish—“La Guerra No Importa” (1991), “Ningún Reloj Cuenta Esto” (2002), and “La Frontera Más Distante” (2008)—variously translated by Booker, Francisca González Arias, Lisa Dillman, and Alex Ross. And it adds a new collection of flash fiction, “Diminitus,” parts of which Rivera Garza translated herself, while founding the first Spanish-language creative-writing doctoral program in the United States.

In Rivera Garza’s refusal to elevate one language above the other, we glimpse her family’s bilingual history. In her essay “Writing in Migration,” she traces it to the turn of the past century, when the regime of Porfirio Díaz pursued a program of economic growth at the expense of the country’s peasantry and its Indigenous peoples. All four of her grandparents were exiled from their lands. Her father’s parents fled to ranches and mines on the Texas-Coahuila border; her mother’s parents, to the burgeoning cities of southern Texas, where they picked cotton, worked construction, and learned English, until one day, some thirty years after their arrival, they were deported to Mexico, casualties of Herbert Hoover’s Depression-era crackdown on immigration. Exiles again, they found themselves in the port city of Matamoros, whose northern limits follow the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river lies Brownsville, Texas.

Rivera Garza was born in Matamoros in 1964. She knew nothing of her family’s American past—only the fears and anxieties of her home town, the base of the Gulf Cartel, one of the oldest criminal syndicates in the country. Her childhood coincided with its expansion into the U.S. and across Latin America. Her adolescence saw the successful introduction of cocaine trafficking to the cartel’s operations, aided by the political ties of the narcos, “the fierce businessmen” of globalization. By the time she enrolled at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the state, like many others in the eighties, had ratcheted up its economic liberalization, seizing lands, privatizing social services, and watching as violence, especially violence against women, exploded. “For a unam graduate with a degree in sociology, the prospects for life in a country clearly turning toward neoliberalism were few,” she recalled.

In 1990, she arrived at the University of Houston to start a doctorate. Her dissertation examined the criminalization of prostitutes and insane people during the Díaz era and the “mad narratives” produced by doctors and inmates at La Castañeda General Insane Asylum. Inmates were often poor mestizo women, whose allegedly aberrant sexual desires informed much of the state’s discourse on mental illness. In the asylum’s archives, Rivera Garza found traces of their voices, raised in opposition and sometimes in supplication, when they confessed their sexual suffering and pleasure. “Asylum inmates pressed doctors, often successfully, to listen to their stories closely,” she wrote. “Suspicion and seduction must have played equal roles as their multiple encounters unfolded.” Reading the case files of inmates, she discovered acts of expressive freedom smuggled in through the diagnostic protocols of psychiatry and its production of knowledge designed to control women.

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