Valeria Luiselli, a new faculty member in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, was recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for her second novel, The Story of My Teeth. She is the first author of Mexican heritage to receive that accolade for a work of fiction. However, Luiselli has been on the radar of the world’s literary community for some time now. In 2014 she was the recipient of the National Book Foundation “5 under 35” award and a Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for her novel Faces in the Crowd.
After the publication of The Story of My Teeth, The New York Times praised her as “an exciting writer to watch, not only for this book, but also for the fresh approach she brings to fiction, one that invites participation and reaction, even skepticism — a living, breathing map.”
The Story of My Teeth follows the adventures of Highway, a legendary auctioneer, whose most precious possessions are the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Published last fall, Luiselli’s novel was praised as one of the best books of 2015, not only by the Times, but also by NPR, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
When asked about her inspirations, Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and raised in South Africa, says, “Every novel I write, every book I write is a completely different adventure. There are some overlapping preoccupations, questions and explorations, but every book I’ve written is an entirely different journey.
“Perhaps a couple of different themes or strings in common would be the question of displacement and how people who are displaced from their original context have to reinvent their identities.” Luiselli, who is fluent in Spanish and English, and able to communicate ably in five languages, adds, “Another one of my obsessions is translation and multilingualism. I write bilingually, and must – at some point in my work – rewrite into just one language. Similarly, I explore characters who are between languages and have to translate in their everyday life – literally and figuratively.
“Another area I am also very interested in is architecture, our relationship to space, and how a sense of place comes about. I’m interested in the history of architecture and ways in which I can bring into it my literature.”
While the NBCC in fiction was awarded last week to Paul Beatty for The Sellout, Luiselli had weeks earlier put the nomination into perspective. In February of this year, she had said that while the recognition was a great honor, “I have learned to put these things to a side and not let them ruin my everyday happiness or distract me from my work.
“Only two other foreign writers [Roberto] Bolaño and [W.G.] Sebald – two of my literary heroes – have won the prize so I think it’s going to be difficult to join them in that constellation. But I think it’s important to note that they won well into the 21st century. The US literary sphere is becoming much more open to what is going on in the world. It is much more integrated, less insular. More books and translations are receiving this kind of attention.”
When her students ask Luiselli for guidance on their own writing, she says, “I am careful because what works for one person may not work for someone else. I prefer to give less prescriptive and intrusive advice.
“The most helpful thing I have heard is to learn how to write with absolute freedom. It’s not that easy to do. You have to be free from the expectations of others, of yourself. You have to free yourself from trying to impress and convince. Free yourself of pretense. Free your writing and then try to create something meaningful.”
In addition to her teaching for Romance Languages and Literatures, Luiselli is also the faculty advisor for the new student club La TIIA (Teen Immigrant Integration Association). Since she began working on Long Island she has volunteered as an interpreter in the court system for children and adolescents. After speaking about her volunteer work with her Hofstra students, La TIAA was formed to help these youths, many of whom live in the Hempstead area, settle into the community, navigate the school systems and begin the college application process.
Watch Professor Luiselli read an excerpt from The Story of My Teeth at a special reading of NBCC finalists at the New School on March 16, 2016. She begins reading at approximately 1:35 hours into the video.
Top photo by Alfredo Pelcastre.