Author Yuri Herrera on 'the American problem that Mexico is suffering'

The literary voice of Mexican author Yuri Herrera transcends his native land and tongue, crosses the U.S. border – so significant in his writing – and forces the wider world to listen. We chat ahead of his date with Edinburgh International Book Festival

Feature by Angus Sutherland | 30 Jul 2015

America isn’t a country that agrees on much, with itself or with anyone else. The state of Louisiana, nestled way down in the South between Texas and Mississippi, is a decent enough example. It’s got two (out of a possible two) solidly conservative Republican Senators – it hasn’t favoured a Democratic presidential candidate for nearly 20 years – and it’s contributing pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage, pro-gun Governor Bobby Jindal to the 2016 presidential campaign (Jindal has steadfastly refused to expand federally-funded healthcare for his state’s poorest residents; by one measure, around one in five of Louisiana’s residents lives below the poverty line). Then there’s New Orleans, the state’s most populous city, nicknamed – with not a shade of understatement – ‘Big Easy’. As well as its food, music and peculiar blend of African, American and Western European cultures, New Orleans is perhaps best known for Mardi Gras, or Carnival, a time when cocktail swilling frat boys throw coloured plastic beads from balconies to (or, perhaps, at) women who duly expose their breasts. It’s a city as permissive as the rest of the state is staid.

It’s from the Big Easy that The Skinny catches up with Yuri Herrera, the Mexican-born novelist who teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the city’s Tulane University. Headphoned, bespectacled, with a few days’ black beard showing – perhaps an off-semester indulgence – Herrera’s face lurches across the screen as we talk. Behind him are stacks of weighty looking books and a pair of cheap tall lamps. Though he’s published three novels to date, and the first way back in 2004, it’s taken till this year for his work to reach the English language press. & Other Stories (his UK publisher) and translator Lisa Dillman have, mercifully, begun the process of translating Herrera’s works, starting with Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, or Signs Preceding the End of the World. The Skinny raved about it earlier in the year, and we weren’t the only ones. Herrera’s remaining works are slated for publication in the next two years.

August in Scotland’s capital is, perhaps, our genteel answer to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, the quietest corner of our city-wide carnival, is welcoming a number of Mexican writers this year. Herrera is one of them. By way of introduction, the festival’s programme describes the country as one of ‘fascinating contradictions. Notorious for the flow of drugs, arms and humans across its long, leaky border with the USA, Mexico is also home to a vibrant and hugely successful cultural scene.’ Asked about this characterisation of his native land, Herrera is keen to debunk some myths. "There is a big problem with a lack of information," he argues, "or lack of interest. And a misconception of where the problems originate and how to deal with the problems."

Herrera needn’t be talking about US/Mexico border issues. America’s major challenges are often met with misinformation, disagreement and impasse. Gun control is a particularly visible example, though the role of government is questioned across the board. On the right, they lament the fetters placed on market forces. Regulation’s no good, they say. On the left, they lament the laxity that hardens inequality. More assertive regulation, they say. On the right, they rail against slack moral standards. Too easy to kill unborn children, to marry someone with the same bits as you’ve got, to use a toilet that’s not meant for people with the bits you’ve got. On the left, they rail against strictures that dictate when you give birth, who you shack up with, where you piss and shit.

But something extraordinary is starting to take shape in American politics. It looks faintly like an agreement – albeit one with fierce opponents – and it’s appeared in a most unlikely area. In next year’s presidential campaign there is every possibility that both candidates, Republican and Democrat, will line up against laws championed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, amongst others. We're refering to drug policy, which many of the candidates, left and right, have coalesced on. Specifically, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, initiated by Nixon in the early 1970s and waged, with gusto, by Republican idol Reagan and Democratic darling Clinton in the proceeding decades.

"We are still following this old, impractical criminal view while the whole debate changes... We have to take some radical steps" – Yuri Herrera discusses the war on drugs

As an ostensibly domestic issue, drug policy in the United States has had enormous cross-border implications. Herrera has taken a professional interest in the fast mutating discourse surrounding the drug war, moving to Tulane to study just that. "It seems," he says, "that it’s pretty absurd to keep talking at this moment in time of a national problem when these huge issues that are transforming our countries are not issues that belong to just one single country. Just to give you a couple of examples, it’s something like more than 250,000 weapons are sent from the United States to Mexico each year by the United States, according to a study by the University of San Diego. Most of the money that goes to the drug war comes from the United States. Most of the drugs that are sent from Mexico are consumed in the United States. So what people call the Mexico problem, as Don Winslow said, is the American problem that Mexico is suffering."

As America begins to tackle its side of the equation, though, Mexico seems bound to repeat the same mistakes. Herrera notes that, though the attitudes north of the border have shifted, "what have not changed are the policies that the United States made other countries adopt. So in Mexico, in Colombia, in Peru, in a lot of places, what we are following are still the same policies initiated by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and all the other people after. I think this is one of the big problems. This is our responsibility. I can’t understand that the Mexican government, for instance, is not changing the whole approach, that they still have a militaristic approach, while in the United States you’re having marijuana being decriminalised. And so we are still following this old, impractical criminal view while the whole debate changes. And I think we just can’t wait any more. We have to take some radical steps, in decriminalising consumption and approaching this problem in different ways, and not just as a police issue."

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Herrera works away at these dated legal institutions and the old-order nationalism that underpins them. Makina, the book’s astonishing roaming protagonist, is confronted, alongside fellow migrants, by an American police officer. She holds a mirror to his prejudice, acknowledging that they are indeed ‘people who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet.' Herrera characterises this sequence as "a sort of ironical lament. Because it was not about being patriotic but about confronting all the prejudices that might come with patriotism. So instead of explaining what should be self-evident, you confront that with a savage version of those prejudices."

Out of that savage resistance, Herrera forges new ways of describing old problems. His ideas are bold and his written voice is compelling. This August, as Edinburgh opens its doors to visitors from across the globe, in Yuri Herrera the city welcomes a writer of international importance.

Yuri Herrera appears at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 19 Aug Signs Preceding the End of the World is out now, published by & Other Stories, RRP £8.99