The Paris Review

An Interview with Julián Herbert and Christina MacSweeney

Julián Herbert began the book that made him famous while he was sitting in his mothers hospital room. She was dying of leukemia, and as he cared for her, he wrote what became one of the most heralded literary experiments in the Spanish language in decades, Canción de tumba (2014). An English translation of the book, Tomb Song—an exceptional work of metafiction and autofiction—is out this week from Graywolf Press. There is, certainly, no way for a reader to know how to divide fact from fiction. A tender conversation between the narrator and his pregnant wife could be invented; a wild hallucination in Havana could be the truth. Theres no way to know.

Fiction or not, Tomb Song is clearly a work of self-examination. As the narrator describes his itinerant childhood, his mothers work as a prostitute, and the fracturing of his atypical family, he seems to be looking in the mirror. And yet Tomb Song is more like a hall of mirrors, as Herbert said to me. Once you start seeking facts, youll be looking forever.

I came to Tomb Song through its translator, Christina MacSweeney, whose work I began seeking out after I read her translations of another great Mexican experimentalist, Valeria Luiselli. Like Herbert, MacSweeney is devoted to voice. When I spoke with them, both told me how vital it is for them to read their work aloud.

I conducted these interviews over email. Julián Herbert’s answers to me were in Spanish, which I’ve translated into English below.

INTERVIEWER

This is in large

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Paris Review

The Paris Review8 min read
Re-Covered: A Blisteringly Honest Lesbian Suicide Memoir
In her monthly column Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be. Photo: Lucy Scholes In April 1962, after a day of sailing in Dorset, the fifty-year-old English writer and teacher Rosemary Manning got int
The Paris Review3 min read
Redux: In Memoriam, Susannah Hunnewell
Susannah Hunnewell in 2017, at the magazine’s Spring Revel. Courtesy of The Paris Review. The Paris Review is mourning the loss of our publisher and friend, Susannah Hunnewell. Over the course of her long affiliation with the magazine—she began as an
The Paris Review6 min read
Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You
Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood. On the day before Halloween, my son’s teacher tells me, with the seriousness of a funeral director, that Noah has decided he does not want to be Peter Pan after all.