Questions of Genre and Gender: Talking to Cristina Rivera Garza

How might a precisely pitched pronoun most deftly “force a decision or a position at once aesthetic and political from the reader”? How might the most nomadic of novelistic structures speak to (and for, and from) “the agency of everything around us: the trees, stones, pathways, clouds”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Cristina Rivera Garza. This present conversation (transcribed by Christopher Raguz) focuses on Rivera Garza’s novel The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana). Rivera Garza is the author of six novels, three collections of short stories, five collections of poetry, and three nonfiction books. The recipient of the France-based Roger Caillois Award for Latin American Literature as well as of the Germany-based Anna Seghers Prize, she is also the only author who has won the International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize twice (in 2001 for her novel Nadie me verá llorar, and in 2009 for her novel La muerte me da). Rivera Garza was born in Mexico (Matamoros, Tamaulipas), studied urban sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and received her PhD in Latin American history from the University of Houston, where she is a Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Studies. 


ANDY FITCH: I approached this conversation thinking: Cristina already has had to answer enough questions about borders. But the more I read of The Taiga Syndrome’s elusive investigative “I” encountering walls actually made up of curtains, windows, doors, or investigating in part by dreaming about her subjects, or only becoming this female-gendered “I” relatively deep into the narrative (and then only based on what readers might infer from this “I’s” publisher hiring a female double to impersonate her), the more I thought I should ask you which most abstract, elusive, evanescent, phenomenological or internalized, opaque or almost invisible borders get sketched, traced, traversed here?

CRISTINA RIVERA GARZA: That question makes a lot of sense to me. I do tend to think constantly about borders, in part because I see them wherever I go, whenever I leave a place, with whomever I talk. These sometimes visible, sometimes invisible lines allow us to (or won’t allow us to) cross, depending on the bodies we inhabit. And physical borders for our bodies also create this broader epistemological matrix. Sometimes borders allow me to know the world, to generate certain kinds of knowledge about this world in which I live. And establishing or investigating or crossing borders all can be seen as political tactics. And danger escalates as we approach certain borders, while a sense of ease arrives when we cross certain other borders. So I can’t think of a vaster area of investigation, or of a series of specific questions that come up for me more constantly.

Again borders, and these questions of borders, always somehow have to do with, or to go through, the body. The questions borders raise always bring me back to our embodied experience. So The Taiga Syndrome, for example, constantly explores different forms of mediation, of filters, of conversation that needs to take place before we even can recognize the existence of something. The book often explores these phenomena through forms of indirect speech — which, as you suggested, creates not just a fixed border but a constant triangulation or filter that we have to think about and imagine (for example, as we try to picture the Taiga itself). Ideally, this book always make you wonder: Who, with what purpose, from what distance, just told me that? What are the origins of this piece of information I’ve received or this experience I’ve been invited to undergo? That origin always remains two or three steps away, encouraging the reader to keep thinking about those two or three steps, which is what makes this novel a novel (I think). So also I see these questions of borders crystallized and developed at the level of structure.

Just to give one concrete example of these mediations that borders impose and inscribe, that allow us to be recognized and that displace us at the same time, I think of pronouns. Private “eyes” and private “I’s,” for example, border each other in interesting ways throughout this book. From the very first paragraph, we encounter a description of eyes that perhaps show us more than they themselves can see: “Their eyes, having discreetly moved toward where they were pointing, quickly returned to their original position, gazing straight ahead.” Again even within that single sentence, “they” sometimes refers to people, and sometimes to these people’s eyes. So a supple poetic synecdoche plays out in this seemingly spare descriptive prose. And “they” seems like one of our most loaded, multivalent pronouns (or actually, as I think about it, maybe they all are). Could you talk about pronouns establishing, mapping, crossing, dissolving borders in your work?

First, you’re right. I’ve been thinking about the “we,” for example (the first-person-plural pronoun closely related to “they”), and the ways in which “we” builds communities, the ways in which “we” connects with something bigger than ourselves, the ways in which “we” always remains exiled from these same experiences. All of that seems intrinsic to the use of specific pronouns in specific places at specific times. And since so much of this book describes the slow and blurry approach to this faraway community, I needed to think carefully about how pronouns came up. I didn’t consider that a minor technical issue. I wanted to explore quite deliberately how pronouns imply a charged relationship with those around us — how thinking about “they,” or how a book placing “they” in confusing or problematic ways, might force a decision or a position at once aesthetic and political from the reader. So I don’t think of the orientation pronouns provide as presenting this one true lens through which to see the author’s point of view. I sense instead possibilities for the reader to say “I have decided to try out a certain perspective…”

You also had mentioned the very first paragraph, and when I wrote this novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to present a constant filtering of information and of truth — and the “that” (or in Spanish “que”) as a subordinated conjunction seemed very useful. To open a sentence with “that,” for example, points to the existence of something preceding this sentence (something which usually remains absent in The Taiga Syndrome).

David Markson, by the way, tried something similar in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. He created entire paragraphs out of subordinated clauses, all on their own — as a tactic to incite the reader herself to imagine and to make decisions about what might have preceded a sentence. Throughout The Taiga Syndrome I wanted to create those kinds of spaces in which readers have a lot of leeway, on the one hand, and a lot of responsibility too, a lot of decisions to make.

Well still on thresholds of enunciation, I never know precisely how translators Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (and how your own work with them) might have reshaped the textual surface here, but I love how something like a grammatically questionable caesura opens so many chapters (for instance, for the first two: “That they had lived here, they told me”; “He had heard of my work, that’s what he said”), folding sentences in on themselves. And then, conversely, we sometimes get incantatory phrases seeming to push the speaking of this text further than it otherwise might reach (as with the insistent repeated line: “I told the truth, I said yes”). Could we bring these delicate pressures on the prose likewise back to questions of borders — and to what gets cut off, or unsaid, or what thresholds we might need to cross to force ourselves to say something?

I definitely read a lot of poetry, and I think of poetry as Lyn Hejinian once defined it, as the language with which we investigate language. And whether I write in verse or write in paragraphs (whatever the unit of measure), I always think about my positioning in regards to language, and the ways in which this language will embody certain truths, or certain fields of knowledge within a specific book. I consider it my responsibility as a writer always to keep thinking about the nature of the sentence, always to keep investigating how pronouns, verbs, dependent clauses shape a sentence, and shape the relationship between writer and reader. I tend to think that we as social beings tell stories, but that this is not necessarily the purview of the writer as such. As a writer, my personal responsibility, my job so to speak, is to carefully examine (question, subvert, transform, challenge) each of these tools available to me depending on the various language communities that I share my life with. These are the tools of my trade, the only aspects of my work as a writer over which I have some kind of control. It is my responsibility to know them in as intimate a manner as possible. And you can do that, I believe, from the point of view of the mother tongue (an intimacy yielded by familiarity), or from the perspective of the second language (an intimacy brought about through hypervigilance). Both experiences are fundamental in the writing process, and both depend heavily in my case on translation — the unending, constant, inescapable translation process embedded in everything we do (even if we are officially monolingual).

So for the chapter openings you mentioned, I easily could have started those opening sentences with the “I.” That single choice might have made these whole introductory passages much more legible. But I specifically wanted to foreground indirect speech as a filter, as the filter, this mediating source or connection making knowledge (the deeper knowledge that this novel is after) available to you. So I had to move those opening sentences around a lot. And a similar decision-making process does play out through the repetitions, as you mentioned on “they.” Obviously repetition can make for an interesting sound, an interesting rhythm. But the great Gertrude Stein also tells us that repetition is a refutation — that, on a philosophical level, repetition as such doesn’t really exist. Every time we say something “again,” we say something different, because the context has changed (if nothing else, time has passed).

I wanted the language of this book to give you all of that. I have been an avid reader of Latin American literature, or more generally of books written in the Spanish-speaking world. But over the years I have also followed very closely books and conversations generated by certain American experimental traditions. In some ways, the books I have conceived within an English-speaking environment but that I have written in Spanish are a bridge between (at least) these two traditions. I want to keep developing a dialogue between these two loves of mine. This dialogue does not generate a harmonious fusion or hybridity. Instead it raises a red flag suggesting danger in a slippery field of constant interrogations.

I have eschewed the use of Spanglish, for example, which I admire in some of the books I read, but which would not embody my own exploration. Instead, most of those inflection moments are to be found at the level of sentence structure. Phrases may be written in correct Spanish, but there is always something at their roots that alerts audiences about an inner fracture, a slight deviance. I am interested in that irruption — in the fields that such irruptions may open up for both authors and readers alike. I want to take my reader precisely to those fields, to those places. At the same time, in terms of overall novelistic structure, I might need something a little more familiar, a form that feels a bit safer, and that’s when the form of the detective novel or the plot line of the fairy tale come into play. To cross over to these increasingly inhospitable places (not just physical landscapes, but grammatical landscapes), we sometimes need some help. And if we at least can feel the familiarity and the security of this divine triangle (of reader, narrator, and author), then we may be able to tread together on this journey without actually knowing (without needing to know) where it might take us.

Questions of genre of course do come up here. This “I” possesses personal features that might surprise readers anticipating some hard-nosed detective. This “I” declines to hide how a sense of doubt and failure haunts her. This “I” confesses to perverse, all-consuming weakness for forms of writing no longer in use. This “I” forever shifting between researching, speculating, projecting, over-sharing, gets reprimanded by her genre-patrolling client: “This is not a fairy tale, detective” (though that client then dubiously adds: “This is a story about being in love”). So first, what has your own reading into the detective novel, perhaps what blurber Daniel Borzutzky refers to as the contemporary Latin American detective novel, taught you about the novel’s “I,” about all literary “I’s,” about all of our own “I’s”?

I should start by saying that the types of investigation and the types of writing I do constantly return to questions of genre. I often have pointed out how the Spanish term for “genre” and for “gender” overlaps. And it seems like just a general feature of my brain that I always see both genre and gender as part of the research I do about writing and about life. It particularly interests me to use one genre to investigate the nature of other genres, a process which I have called “escrituras colindantes” (a term you might want to translate as “colliding writing” in English). I try not so much to oppose one genre against another, but to place two or more genres close to each other, in a kind of fluid and incessant juxtaposition.

Life is so complex — you will end up betraying it as a writer if you try to encapsulate it in a box, even if the box has a nice name. If writing is to remain close to experience, to physical matter, to its own material conditions, then writing has to go through as many genre-policed borders as possible. I like to think of my books as ways to complicate and subvert these engrained ideas of genre and gender. I consider this a matter of recognizing the limits, forms, and formulas that we as humans automatically reach for. I always want to take the automatic out of the equation, or out of the experience.

I’ve been specifically using the detective-novel format and the detective figure to see what this form itself can ask and can investigate about questions of genre and gender. The detective novel, at least in the infancy of its Latin American version, stood out as a very male-oriented type of narrative. You didn’t see many female detectives or many detective novels investigating gender as a main issue of contention. So I wanted to expand these possibilities within this detective genre. So by now, The Taiga Syndrome’s protagonist has become an ex-detective, but with the detective role still central to her identity.

I first started writing about an unnamed detective in my novel La muerte me da (which has not been translated into English). When I wrote that earlier novel, I couldn’t stop thinking of the increasing number of femicides in México, and in the world at large. I kept wondering, while reading about the female body as the supposedly natural site for this inscription of social violence: What if we move this around? What if the female body exchanges roles with the male body in this story? So I had my detective investigate a series of castrations happening in a distinctly, yet unnamed, urban area. I wanted to redirect attention to the male body and its place amid all this violence. I could have just written an essay (in fact I did write several), but I wanted to take the realist novel, the realist detective novel being written at the time, and to tell a different tale with it.

Again specifically for The Taiga Syndrome, that might help to explain why my detective openly presents herself as not very good at what she does. She never comes to any clear realizations about these crimes she investigates. She is a failure. As Beckett would have it: she failed once, and then she failed again, even better this time. She might see abstract metaphors in these quite literal crimes, or vice versa. And she and I and hopefully the reader never can fully capture or freeze the continuous dispute between genre and gender. Just as with borders, I want this novel to keep crossing through genres and genders, and I often want those crossings to go undetected.

And here again certain kinds of familiarity can help to disarm the reader. Even if we don’t read fairy tales, for example, we know them by heart. They’ve been inscribed in us by culture. We all as individuals might tell slightly different stories about our origins, and different cultures have developed different kinds of storytelling, but we somehow have absorbed the fairy tales that circulate in whatever world we know. We might not be the authors or the masters of these tales, but as with language itself, we have an embodied familiarity that speaking and living in this world have given us. That’s the kind of companion this novel needed if I wanted it to take the reader to this farthest, coldest, end-of-the-world kind of place.

Along those lines of being taken, the detective, the researcher, the scholar, the writer, the reader, the translator all (in overlapping, yet varying ways) take on the trajectory, the identity, the will of another. And by your chapter 7 (“Tongue to Tongue”), we basically become the male client soliciting this much more multilayered report than we had hoped for (or maybe, in fact, that’s just what we wanted). And amid these complex intersubjective siftings, could you start to bring in more specifically the seemingly concrete, simple, or at least decipherable narratives of Hansel and Gretel, of Little Red Riding Hood, of the Wolfman (perhaps at times Freud’s Wolfman), and maybe even of you yourself living out a long-undiagnosed nearsighted childhood? Could we talk more specifically about parallels that intrigue you between The Taiga Syndrome’s adult investigators and its inherited children’s fables — with so many different characters adopting so many different positions, taking on so many different guises, yet still always peeking through a crack?

I like how you phrased that. I do think that, in many ways, books direct us to complete the desires of others. And when I mentioned earlier a process of filtering, I think for me that connects to this fundamental concern with tracking down material sources. It’s becoming very difficult for me to write in any more unmediated way — like a writing that just seems to give you access inside a writer’s head, without making you think about and question this source (and really any source) of knowledge. And putting such an emphasis on materiality often means placing emphasis on desire as well. So is that materiality, is that desire, intrinsic to identity?

Of course as soon as I say “intrinsic” I think: No, it’s not intrinsic. But those of us who find ourselves in danger more regularly (bodies of color, women’s bodies, migrant bodies) do have to develop our own forms of alertness or curiosity, often as a matter of life and death. A sense of safety my end up stifling curiosity, with life seeming to unfold in predictable fashion. Many of us, however, live lives that require us to be vigilant at all times, very aware of our surroundings (I’d never dare to be distracted when walking at night, for example, on the streets of any large metropolis of the world in this body — constantly imagining different outcomes). A sense of danger and of survival stays very closely tied to a sense of mortal curiosity: by which I mean a willingness to seek further, and to imagine a different world even as one keeps investigating. Those of us who know we might have to exit in a rush at any moment always look for the exit door wherever we go.

The Taiga Syndrome embeds and embodies this perspective by developing a strange sense of claustrophobia (within this vastest open space, which should make you feel so free). This novel keeps focusing on particular places, peeking through walls, speculating on what else might have happened within this community. Again everything we know about this place comes through interpretation and translation — themselves suggesting borders, and staking out a very dangerous territory. And all of that also keeps changing, depending on whose point of view we see through.

So I wasn’t interested in the usual exoticization of the faraway community, and things like that. And no matter how strange this Taiga landscape gets, of course it also operates by rules similar to the ones that govern our real-life cities and towns, at least if we live in the U.S. or in any capitalist society of our times. That spine of international capitalism and natural-resource exploitation somehow holds together all the different forms of violence (strange or not) enveloping this faraway community. These less visible forces still propel many of the major conflicts around hunger, desire, and gender imbalances that structure this novel, and the relationship of this couple and this detective traveling across the Taiga.

Yeah for another mythic presence here, though now taking a step back (to background, in fact) could we bring the Taiga into the discussion? Even just the capital “T” on “Taiga” stands out, particularly when your prose bumps up against the seemingly liminal border “between the Taiga and the tundra.” By comparison, the Taiga seems more personified — though it also often seems no substance, all texture. Before we arrive at the Taiga, for example, when we first meet the man who will send us there, that all happens “in front of images of a forest or many forests. Oil paintings, X-rays. Installations.”

I’ve always admired how the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo gives us great concrete detail about a landscape, without giving away the location. As a reader, you feel like you’ve traveled somewhere (or must have been there before), because the detail feels so tangible and so clearly delineated. But at the same time you never get the contextual information that could summarize this landscape and turn it into a fixed, explicit place. Rulfo’s Comala, for instance, may be located in Jalisco (in fact, Comala is a town in the neighboring state of Colima), but this necrocity is at the heart of our dwelling experience on Earth. If I have learned anything from Rulfo, it’s the relevance of that tension. How can you provide the reader with an unforgettable, highly affective, very concrete detailed experience — one that stays experiential like that? How can you make the reader’s sensation not just intellectual, but also material, corporeal? And how can we enter and access an area or region for which we might harbor many stereotypes, and still make that experience as physical as possible, and all in language?

Again we have these tools, these pronouns and sentences and rhythmic patterns that can affect the body, the perception system of our bodies. Writing a book in many ways means finding the language mechanisms able to revive or to generate memory in a body. Hence the complicity on which all writing (when effective, when lucky) rests. So the Taiga itself has to wait, has to be patient amid the power of detail. I’ll get there, gradually, through the details, by responding to all of this varied stimulus within me, and by provoking the stimuli that I want to approach or touch within yourself. Sometimes that process might irritate or overwhelm a reader, but it might incite curiosity too. The revelation that we are not alone — ah, when that happens! When writing can achieve just that. I know I personally strive to reach that sensation. I read with that hope: the irrational, wild hope that such communion is possible.

Well I mentioned a supposed border between tundra and Taiga, and this narrative often seems to involve simultaneously “crossing” the Taiga, and finding oneself stuck in the Taiga, and having never yet quite arrived at the Taiga. Similarly, The Taiga Syndrome’s “I” tells us that one never really knows when a case begins — and this semi-familiar detective-genre motif brings along some sense of literary déjà vu. Or this “I’s” opening scenes show how unclear it can be when a dance starts or ends, or a flirtation or seduction, or when or why an elbow taken without consent might later elicit a caress in response. Even autumn seems to keep arriving unevenly, with a fringe. So even as you describe reaching across porous boundaries between writer and reader, could you likewise describe how this book traces temporal thresholds, perhaps the porous borderlines of an event?

Around when I wrote The Taiga Syndrome, I was reading Manuel DeLanda’s work on chronologies and time. His philosophical writing on realism and new materialisms is dense but I’d like to rescue just one image for this conversation. Here it is: a mountain. Among the mountains of Colorado, for example. Beautiful and seemingly eternal. Motionless. But then, here is this same mountain from the perspective of a universe in continuous expansion: a radically slow-moving mass of matter in constant transformation. So that possibility of two (and of course potentially more) simultaneous but quite different timeframes stayed with me as I entered the Taiga.

And I know this word might sound problematic, but I do want to highlight here the agency of everything around us: the trees, stones, pathways, clouds. Text does not occur in an inert con/text. When text is effective, con/text is the true plot of text. I want my writing to explore and bring into play how, in terms of space and time, these other perspectives matter too. We as writers cannot ignore these materialities, temporalities, existences, any more than we can ignore the existence of the word. Bringing these different physicalities into a story means taking on different responsibilities and presenting a different set of consequences.

I remember also reading around this time Sergio Villalobos Ruminott’s work on violence in Latin America and Latin American historiography, insistently calling for questions about accumulation. Ever since I have asked my writing these same questions. The question of accumulation is the question about materiality. I don’t know how much of that The Taiga Syndrome achieves, but I hope for my writing to show space and time and material realities as active agents in the flux of the story as such.

Time, in The Taiga Syndrome, also seems to provide constant ambiguous opportunities to escape both from oneself, and to oneself. Here I think, for example, of this border-crossing “I” nonetheless appreciating the privacy, patience, distraction, refuge that a skull provides. And then for an inverted form of vessel, I think of how much both this “I” and your own autobiographical “I” fixate on swimming pools, so much that we even find one in the frigid Taiga. Could you talk, however you want, about how being in a pool, or a forest, or a skull, or a body, gives us a palpable sense of being in time (maybe of being both immersed in and moving through something), and how breathing always arrives here both as a personal grounding and a potential source of stress or trauma (“What mattered, what made me so angry that it distorted my breath — that faint but efficient flow of air through the diaphragm, the bronchial tube, the lungs — was the emotional frustration”), and again how grammatical or narrative syntax (“Once upon a time there was. Or there would have been”) can convey this life that happens in time and in breath?

That’s beautiful. I hadn’t made that connection to breathing as clearly as you just put it. Swimming makes me aware of something very important since the beginning of my writing. We need to breathe just for survival, but breathing also can elevate human experience towards greater awareness, and breathing again always means working with the materials around us. I hope to emphasize both of those experiences, and how we can take these breathing patterns and decisions, which operate as survival tools, and work closely with those patterns to produce new rhythms or new connections to the world. When I write, I tend to read out loud. I try to measure if my lungs can in fact breathe through a sentence. I have a hard time finishing a sentence (even just as a reader) if it leaves me breathless — again like swimming.

And then for skulls, and finding refuge, first I’d say that refuge features prominently in this work about walking to the fringes of the Earth, trying to create connections even as you keep experiencing and approaching something you don’t know and can’t really imagine in advance. Humans create this kind of refuge whenever they create a shared sense of time, space, stories, affect. I think books and writing help us do that. I like to see writing as helping to construct these refuges of commonalities in certain ways, for those of us living alongside each other (and the dead are very much a part of these communities as well). So I think of refuge not as enclosing us and taking us away from the world, but as doing quite the opposite: connecting us in deeper and more meaningful ways to others. I don’t see writing as a solitary practice. I’ve said many times that there is no solitude in writing. Whenever we write, we work with language given to us. We work through all this debt acquired in terms of using languages that belong to entire communities. So taking refuge in literature means we still face a responsibility for our connection to others, and for imagining a world in which that connection can happen.

The idea of escape is definitely structural to The Taiga Syndrome and often to my novels, in part because, as your question suggested, we never really escape from something — but escaping to something might be the original mode of our existence. Becoming sedentary seems secondary. Or a defeat of sorts. Escaping into something feels like an originary trait for human beings. I definitely wanted to explore that type of escape in this novel.

In terms of escaping from and to, or of human escapes and human connections, I also think of The Taiga Syndrome’s musings specifically on fairy tales stemming from hunger, from even a thematics of infanticide, often to ensure a parent’s (often a mother’s) sustenance and survival. And of course this thematics of hunger also can pick up sexual connotations, likewise causing parents at times to exile a child — and causing Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolfman, the detective, the author, the reader all to overlap again as they stare through the cracks in various guises. And in terms of contact, of prospects for touch, mouths maybe offer their own inverted equivalent, with The Taiga Syndrome haunted, for example, by the sound of lips gnawing while talking, while shiny with meat grease. Or this detective’s investigations might lose themselves in tracking how her translator’s words seem to take “years to form in some warm red region of his organs, only to emerge, at full speed, luscious, shaking itself off.” So could we close by considering hunger, mouths, viscera, as some of the vast spaces that these words come from?

You make me think of this beautiful book Things to Do with Your Mouth­, by Divya Victor. The mouth provides this very close relation to the world. This is how we work through language, but at the same time how we ingest the world through food. So the mouth enacts the border par excellence — making the external internal. The sight of mouths actually captivates me, and hunger does seem to have brought about a lot of literary creation through fairy tales historically. But at the same time, I want this imagined precarious community in The Taiga Syndrome, with all of its violence and coercion, to feel very real to us: with its feral child for example, its harsh treatment of those who do not belong, its scarcity of resources even in this place where natural resources seem otherwise unlimited.

All of those contradictions specific to this literary landscape I also see as structural to the world in which we live. Again that helps to show how even this fairy-tale-like story and narrator have a material basis. The Taiga Syndrome’s sources of conflict, imbalance, violence do not only connect to dreamy mental states or geographical extremes, but also remain very much intrinsic to the contemporary capitalism from which and in which we read and write.

In a way, our own world feels like a fairy tale run amok, a tale about capitalism as a system of production: always promising better worlds, but constantly giving us more precarious worlds. I wanted to give that particular narrative a new face, so that we could attach it to these larger global structures that produce forces at work even in this most distant place I call the Taiga. But we all have been to the Taiga, haven’t we? We all have this distance inside, this fringe, this abyss we might as well jump into. So hunger also applies to commodities and trash and the waste we produce far across the world. And hunger also points to our desire for something radically different, something that might provide us with a vastly different sense of why we’re here. Books have given me that sense of possibility. And in a somber and dangerous landscape like our present, igniting our imagination through books actually becomes even more relevant aesthetically, culturally, politically. Critical imaginations may as well lead to critical lives — lives lived in constant interrogation. It might sound like a lot to ask our books to help us imagine a different world. But that’s the very thing that real works of art and language can give us.