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CAT Book Club: Reflecting on Empty Set

Verónica Gerber Bicecci and Christina MacSweeney joined us in San Francisco to discuss their collaboration on Empty Set. The conversation touched on exile and postmemory, visual and linguistic codes, and translation as cannibalism. #TheCATBookClub.

In case you missed it, last month we introduced Empty Set to book club readers. And all spring long we’ve been talking about Empty Set and our other book club reads at #TheCATBookClub. Follow along as we read and join in on the conversation.

Mexican visual artist/writer Verónica Gerber Bicecci and translator Christina MacSweeney were at Green Apple Books on the Park in conversation with Silvia Oviedo López on March 29 and we have audio for you.

Before the event even began there were several signs that we were in for a treat. Earlier that day an article came out in the Los Angeles Review of Books spotlighting Christina MacSweeney. That same day we saw on Twitter that one of our colleagues in the translation field had gotten an illustration from Empty Set tattooed on her body.

Before diving into the event, however, I want to talk briefly about Nathan Scott McNamara’s piece on Christina MacSweeney (which you absolutely have to read if you haven’t yet!). Rarely do we we see such an in-depth article dedicated to a single translator’s oeuvre, and I hope more critics examine translators in this way. Because the fact is that translators are so often tastemakers, just like your favorite small press or indie bookstore, and if you really like a book you should check out other books by that translator. Christina MacSweeney is one of those translators who has an eye for great literature: she has translated Valeria Luiselli, Daniel Saldaña París, Elvira Navarro, Julián Herbert, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, etc.

What McNamara does is treat MacSweeney and her translations with the care often reserved for authors. “The music of MacSweeney’s language is one of the most powerful aspects of her work,” he writes, before examining a passage from Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman. He then concludes: “It is this deft lyricism, this sensory experience fostered by the sound and rhythm of language that especially sets MacSweeney’s translations apart.”

Because of this lyrical quality, it was so lovely to hear Christina MacSweeney and Verónica Gerber Bicecci read this work aloud in San Francisco last month (with a projector displaying the images, of course). It was thrilling to have both author and translator there because right from the start it was clear that this book was the result of a true partnership. Silvia Oviedo López was our moderator for the evening, and she started things off by asking about the ending, “Email Set,” and how it came to be. Listen here!

Here are some highlights:

  • We get the story on how the “Email Set” came to be and the problem of the pronoun I.
  • Verónica on the inspiration behind the book: “To me it is a book that tries to get rid of words and this is why the drawings started to pop up from the text.”
  • Verónica explains how she first became interested in diagrams and set theory. She explains that it was important to her to use drawings as a kind of narrative rather than as illustrations for the text.
  • In order to write the book, Verónica had to move back and forth between laptop and drawing table (apparently Microsoft Word is not conducive to writing a book like this).
  • Christina on the repetition of words and use of mathematics and music in the text.
  • On linguistic code, wordplay, acrostics, and more. Language as a way to escape reality and as a way to hide and expose oneself. Verónica says, “I’m not sure if it is the self that’s hiding or the language.”
  • The challenge of translating the acrostics and other linguistic codes.
  • Verónica on the disappearance of the narrator’s mother: “What I was trying to do is to understand what happens to people many years after exiling from a country and how their body reacts itself to this enormous void that you have to live with…”
  • Verónica distinguishes between two kinds of disappearance and notes that readers interpret the disappearance differently, inserting a story into the void she has left.
  • On the concept of postmemory: the idea that descendants of those who have suffered trauma construct a memory from the stories they hear and this shapes their identity.
  • The structure of the novel is like a boomerang. You think something is coming to an end but it is actually just going in a different direction.
  • Verónica on feeling connected to Chilean literature, including work by Alejandro Zambra and Diego Zúñiga.
  • Christina: “From my point of view translation is a creative response to a text.”
  • Verónica on Christina’s role as translator:
    • “To me it is important to try to say that she wrote the book in English; she didn’t translate it, this is how I feel it…I encouraged her every time I could to appropriate the text as much as she needs and wants…”
    • “With Empty Set I feel I have shared custody and so I’m just half…and the other half is Christina…”
  • They are working on new “very crazy” projects together! Christina says, “It almost felt when we finished everything, you know, that we had our own Empty Set and we suddenly needed to fill it again with something else.”

Now listen to their conversation!