The many tentacles of Carmen Boullosa

Carmen Boullosa answers students' questions at a Q&A session in Dorchester Hall, before the reading. Photo by Colby Smith.

Celebrated author reads at Writer’s Here and Now series, answers student questions

By Molly Morris

Staff Writer

Author, poet, playwright and columnist Carmen Boullosa thinks of herself as an octopus. When using different voices for various genres, she must employ different hands.

“When writing poetry, I use one hand,” Boullosa said. “When writing for the newspaper, I use another, and for a novel, another. I am constantly creating new hands as I experiment with different novels and styles.”

She sat at the front of a basement classroom at a question and answer session with students of the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House on Wednesday night, before a reading with U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. It is clear that Boullosa is an animated woman. She uses her hands when she speaks and looks at the audience with wide eyes.

Boullosa said speaking in English, instead of her native Spanish, makes her uncomfortable, and that when her work is translated into different languages the effect is completely different.

To say that Boullosa possesses deep roots in Mexico is an understatement.

Not only does the vast majority of her work revolve around subjects pertaining to her home country, her entire persona — with her long, dark hair, detailed poncho and thick accent — attests to a woman with a firm embrace of her Mexican heritage.

She explained the inner-workings of her latest endeavor: a fictional novel about Mexico’s loss of Texas to the United States. She has been working on the manuscript for two years, but her job as a columnist for a Mexican newspaper continues to interrupt her progress.

Though known for her novels and editorials, Boullosa admits she would ideally only be a poet.

“I can’t write it everyday,” she said, calling the construction of poetry a miracle.

But Boullosa said she feels the need to write daily. Her break from poetry and learning how to write differently resulted in her first novel.

“At first, I put it away in a drawer for about a year,” she said. “I felt like a poetry prostitute.”

Boullosa found she needed the money that only novel sales can bring.

“Now that’s true prostitution.”

Since this first betrayal of writing, Boullosa has written 13 novels, some of which have been translated into several languages including German, French and English. Her work has been praised by authors like Carlos Fuentes, Alma Guillermoprieto and Elena Poniatowska.

Before the reading in Tawes Hall, Boullosa felt not quite nervous.

“Nervous isn’t the right word,” she said as she shifted in her seat and looked around the room. “The word I’m thinking of is in Spanish. If I had to use it, it would mean ‘delighted.’”

“Anxious,” she said after thinking a moment. “I’m feeling anxious.”

Boullosa described her first experience reading her work aloud.

“I was forced to read some of my poetry in front of a workshop,” she said. “The night before, I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep. At one point, I looked in the mirror and my face was covered in splotches. I thought, I’m never reading poetry again. I hate poetry.”

Though Boullosa admitted she didn’t have a plan for what she was reading, she stood at the podium without a degree of uncertainty on her face.

She read a short story titled, “The Poet’s Ghost.” It’s a story within a story, and as she weaves in and out of Spanish, she tells of opium dreams and phantom-lined streets, with Mexican backdrops and unmistakable Spanish scents.

Her story combines the surreal and the very real. It is set in Brooklyn’s Upper West Side and a mysterious ghost, who answers to Jan Rodriquez, is the focus.

A number of Boullosa’s novels are in historical settings, though she doesn’t like to think of her preparation as research.

“It’s more pleasure than research,” she said. “And pleasure gives you a sense of what life is.”

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