Jennifer Clement is an American-Mexican writer and the author of a dizzying array of books. Among her works are the novels Prayers for the Stolen, A True Story Based on Lies, and The Poison That Fascinates; the memoir Widow Basquiat; and the poetry collections The Next Stranger, Newton’s Sailor, Lady of the Broom, and Jennifer Clement: New and Selected Poems. She was president of PEN Mexico from 2009 to 2012 and, this year, became the first female president of PEN International. This spring alone, she read on campus as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series and held a residency at City of Asylum. Over email, she shared her thoughts about language, legacy, and the importance of good coffee.
Hot Metal Bridge: Widow Basquiat was first published in 2001, not long before 9/11, and became a cult classic. It’s now back in print and having a moment. How has it been to revisit that work? What do you recognize of yourself in that writer?
Jennifer Clement: The book came out two days before 9/11. I was in New York City, and the book presentation was on Sunday and 9/11 was on Tuesday. They called all the doctors to the hospitals and of course one of these doctors was Suzanne [Widow Basquiat herself]. I called her and she told me that, even though they were ready to receive the wounded, it was just an act as the doctors knew no one would be coming to the hospitals.
In many ways I think that this is a better time for the memoir. When it first came out, there were still many people who did not know who Basquiat was. Today there is also a strong interest in what life was like in NYC in the late 70s and early 80s. Widow Basquiat is very much a story about that time and it is even a portrait of the city.
As a writer, looking back, I am surprised to see that I was writing about the unprotected even in those days.
HMB: By titling Widow Basquiat a memoir and not a novel, you challenge your readers to approach the book in a different way. By writing Prayers for the Stolen as fiction, although the cartels it describes are very real, you are able to speak certain truths that might endanger you in more traditional journalism. Blurring the lines between genres obviously opens up a great number of artistic possibilities. Could you talk about the problems that arise, too?
JC: I have always written poetry. I could say poetry is my religion. It’s where I find solace and meaning. When I decided to try and write prose, I knew that the only way I could do it was through the door of poetry and this took me to create a fusion of genres.
The problem I faced was also creating strong plots and dialogue. I knew I wanted my dialogue to have the rigor of playwriting and so I studied the great playwrights for this. Regarding plot, I soon realized I had the skill and this may be because I always write what I want to read. I like to be as surprised as the reader. I am also the reader.
HMB: You grew up in Mexico City, studied in New York, and pursued French literature in Paris. How would you characterize your relationship to the languages you speak, particularly English?
JC: In the introduction to my very first book of poetry, W.S. Merwin wrote that I write in English but dream in Spanish. I think he was able to see something that I am only just beginning to understand. I may write in English but, because I am fluent in Spanish, I knew that objects have a gender. I think this affects my English. Life, and the writing, is different if you know a chair is feminine or a car is masculine. It’s like having shadows that surround language at all times.
HMB: At the Q&A on campus while you were visiting, you spoke a bit about writing in the Mexican tradition, rather than the American or European. It was a useful reminder that all of us have a literary genealogy. How do you think a young writer could, or should, best engage with the legacy they’ve been given?
JC: I think tradition is important for many obvious reasons, but it also lets you know who you are fighting with as a writer and who you are loving or talking to. In my case I have both an English and Mexican tradition because of my schooling. Obviously, the Mexican includes much of the Spanish tradition. I had to read American works as an adult as well as literature from around the world. A young writer, and a more mature writer, always needs to read more than write.
HMB: Whose writing guided you when you yourself were a fledgling writer?
JC: I was fortunate to have had a classical British literary education combined with reading all the Spanish classics. Therefore, the voices in me are multicultural and multilingual. This has produced a fusion of English and Spanish in me on many levels. I have Shakespeare and Cervantes in my head as well as Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot.
HMB: Broadly speaking, how do you work? I am interested in your habits and rituals, but also in the way you think through projects before and as you begin writing.
JC: I always work early in the morning, before sunrise, and drink strong coffee. Every book has a different history so I cannot generalize about the creation of a project. It is often an image that sets me off. In Prayers for the Stolen it was the image of the girls being hidden in holes in the ground in cornfields.
HMB: What has been the most instructive writing mistake you’ve made, on the page or off?
JC: It’s important to try and be clear about what tense you’re writing in. Originally I had Widow Basquiat in the past tense, but it seemed so slow. When I moved it into the present tense it worked. Prayers is in the past tense to give the protagonist authority.