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

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