Literary Hub

The Queering of Boundaries in Cristina Rivera Garza’s Fiction

“Our bones are our ultimate testimony,” writes the Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza. “Will we be betrayed by our bones?”

Bones are the most immutable part of our body: they are our foundation, the framework for adulthood that is formed from the mix of genes, hormones, and nutrition that we experience throughout adolescence. Because they are inescapable, we must make peace with them, or else try to grind them down with cosmetic surgeries. Being the irreducible proof of our existence that will survive the flesh that they carry, their unflinching testament always possesses the power to betray us. And I believe that in her probing, palpitating books, Rivera Gazra wants to say: no, even our bones are constantly in flux.

In her two recently translated novels, The Iliac Crest and The Taiga Syndrome, Rivera Garza is writing about the bones we carry—be them of our bodies, our culture, our memories, or our ideas. She works to reveal them so that we might make them grow in new directions. Whether they are genres, archetypes, symbols, binaries, histories, people, or accepted knowledge about the nature of narrative, she wants us to know that they are in flux, and that they can be different.

Rivera Garza’s books do not feel like other books. She explores her characters through methods that are wholly different from what almost all other authors use on theirs. Her stories take place in imagined landscapes that are at once palpable and familiar in their elemental fevers and chills—but are also diffuse nowheres that confound our desire to place them. Reading her books can feel like that moment when, waking from a sleep, we are still muttering syllables of lost words from some lingering dream that we can almost remember.

In The Taiga Syndrome, released this fall from Dorothy, one character observes that the taiga can induce insanity and panic, but it’s impossible to escape when “you’re surrounded by the same terrain for five thousand miles.” This is the conundrum about culture, language, and identity that Rivera Garza explores: when everything we use to make sense of the world surrounds us like a limitless, dense, frigid forest, how do we even begin to map it and find our place? How do you find a point of judgment, comprehension, or simple observation when you are hopelessly engulfed by the means of perception?

I feel called by Rivera Garza’s books because this sense of disorientation, though at times frightening, is also seen by her texts as liberating. In The Iliac Crest the narrator is convinced he is a man—he even checks his genitals at one point to prove it—but the characters around him repeatedly insist he is a woman. Aware that the borders we draw are perpetually in flux and that the seemingly clean lines that organize meaning in fact always hide infinite complications, Rivera Garza (to quote her narrator) “stop[s] asking what really happened in order to explore the foundation of reality itself.” So it becomes evident that it isn’t really important whether the narrator is a man or a woman but rather how we know that people are men or women, and why we care so much about it. In Rivera Garza’s hands, these journeys through the forbidding taiga can become places where boundaries of time, identity, and language are broken down, offering us the possibility of redefining our world and asserting some kind of agency.

It would be wrong to take anything that happens in a Rivera Garza novel too literally. Even though The Iliac Crest deals with a male narrator who may really be a woman, I do not see it as a book that consciously addresses transgender questions so much as one that seeks to complicate a simplistic binary (one among many it dissolves). I don’t believe she is out to make a point about any given subject but rather about the nature of knowledge itself.

In an interview I conducted with the author last year, she told me, “I am less interested in writing about the body and more about working with language to produce the effect of presence and irruption. Rather than merely depicting reality, writing produces reality.” If critics have found in Rivera Garza’s novels aspects that promote the liberation of oppressed ethnicities, sexualities, and genders, I would ascribe those less to any particular feminist or intersectional agenda, and more to the fact that anyone who so successfully upsets dogmatic and questionable boundaries is by definition threatening to the wealthy, powerful, and so-called normal. Her books lack any agenda, and they do not propose to carry an argument; rather, they are acids we can use to clean the unwanted build-ups in our minds, offering the potential for new, healthier growth.

Certainly not just anyone could do this sort of writing. In my interview with her, Rivera Garza also told me she has “lived a good chunk of my life in between San Diego and Tijuana—one of the most dynamic borders of our contemporary world.” Moreover, for generations her family has lived a migratory, out of place existence. A nomad to the core, she rejects fixed definitions for herself, telling one interviewer, “I am . . . a certain attitude toward language. . . . I am me and my keyboard.” Although she has won her nation’s major literary awards and been lionized by its great writers, she is notably distant from Mexico City, the nation’s megacity capital and ostensible literary center. As she once told an interviewer: “I will always be on the side of imprudent novels, which do not need to behave well in order to justify their existence.”

“In the world there is an excess of light,” says Rivera Garza, “an excess of clarity, an excess of communication, an excess of received ideas.” So it is that although The Taiga Syndrome and The Iliac Crest work to open alternative spaces, once those spaces become too intelligible, she begins subverting them as well. She asks in The Taiga Syndrome, “When is it time to abandon a hallucination?” answering, “Without a doubt when we start to act as if it is real or possible.”

All of this may make Rivera Garza’s books sound like interchangeable linguistic constructs lacking any distinct themes or aspirations, but this is not the case at all. Just as we can easily identify the strangeness, characters, and peculiar rhythms that make a David Lynch film instantly recognizable, we can also say that Eraserhead speaks from a very different place than Blue Velvet, which itself tells a far different story than Mulholland Drive. If in each book Rivera Garza sets out to “imagine what can’t be described,” what she ends up imagining feels and speaks very differently every time. I would venture that, for me, The Taiga Syndrome is about what our identities and cultures become permeable to when we let go of one medium of communication, or myth, or relationship, and how it feels as that space inevitably fills with something new. It is about the impossibility of preventing this vacuum from filling—a kind of law of conservation of communication. And it is about what traces remain from this process, what we do with them.

But that’s the great thing about a book like Taiga: the next time I look at it, I may have a very different interpretation, and you will probably read it very differently from me. Creating objects that at once have a formidable presence while remaining unfixable, Rivera Garza belongs to the tradition of iconoclastic writers who question why our world has to be the way it is. This is the sort of powerful inquiry that often brings art to its most immersive, rewarding, and generative place. Read her books and explore your own taiga.

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