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If you like Carlos Fuentes's story, you might also like:
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John Irving,
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Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes
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Carlos Fuentes Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Author, Scholar & Diplomat

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  Carlos Fuentes

At the same time that you were writing, presumably every day, you had another career in government, in diplomacy. How did you manage that

Carlos Fuentes: That has been kind of a vacation. Only twice in my life have I been in government.

I was in government as a very young man, in the diplomatic service of Mexico when I was in my early 20s. Then, with the success of my first novel, Where the Air is Clear, in 1958, I left the bureaucracy, and I did not come back until the 1970s, when I was ambassador to France for a couple of years. That's it. I have been offered, by other presidents "nearer-to-us" posts as ambassador, but I have always refused them, because I know from my experience that I am unhappy in diplomatic and governmental posts. I am happy when I am a free agent, writing what I like.

Although I know that it is a service, and I do not look down on it -- on the contrary. My father was a career diplomat, so I respect diplomacy and government service very much. Simply, I'm not happy in it. Why? Because I am away from my writing desk.

When I was ambassador in France, I could not write a single line, because I was constantly on the call for functions, for memoranda, for speeches, for this, for that. There was a time difference with Mexico, so I had to be with the French during the day and then with Mexico from 7:00 p.m. on, because of the time lag. So I never had any time for myself, which was okay. It was interesting. I got to know France well, a fascinating country. So many levels of interest and artistic community, business, ecclesiastical, the army, the political parties -- everything is interesting in France. Gastronomy. So I didn't have time for writing there. I did other things. That was a parenthesis in my life.

Although you were a prominent writer, the son of a diplomat, and a diplomat yourself, in the 1960s you were denied a visa to the United States. Could you tell us about that?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes. I was invited by NBC in 1962, I think, for a debate with Richard Goodwin -- who was then the Under Secretary of State for Latin America at the State Department -- on the Alliance for Progress. I said, "Sure, sure. Let's go. He has the advantage of being in the administration, of speaking English better than I do, and all these things, but I'll be happy to do that." So I was invited. I accepted the invitation.

I went to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and was promptly denied a visa. I asked why, and they said, "We can't tell you why. It's a secret." So I was left stranded and classified forever under the Undesirable Aliens list. I asked once, "Do you ever get out of that list? Can I ever get out?" and they said, "No, no, no." I said, "Even hell has its limits. Even in hell you are promised that one day everybody will go to purgatory or to heaven; hell is not forever. Surely, the denial of a visa is not forever." They said, "No, no, you can come out with a visa." How? "If you demonstrate your allegiance to the cause of anti-Communism." I said, "Well, that is something I will never do just on the principle of it. I am not a Communist, but I will not go to that McCarthyite length."

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Carlos Fuentes Interview Photo
So I was there on that blacklist. I was denied entry into Puerto Rico in 1967. And then Senator Fulbright took the floor and demanded that I be given a special waiver so that I could come to the United States, lecture and be in this country without problems. So I got that waiver, which was very extraordinary, because it meant that I applied for a visa and I was denied the visa on the presence of the Unwanted Persons Act -- the McCarran-Walter Bill it was called. Then I applied again, and I was granted the visa on the strength of the Fulbright Act. So it was very Kafkian -- we're speaking of Kafka today, but this is an actual Kafkian situation.

It wasn't until the Clinton administration that this list became history, and all us who were on the list -- García Márquez, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Foucault, Graham Greene, myself -- it was a very distinguished list. We were very happy to be on the "unwanted persons of the United States" list. Then we were all free from that and now we can come and go as we wish. It was a ridiculous Cold War situation. You know, McCarran and Walter were very, very reactionary senators. Arthur Miller tells in his biography how he was put in the unwanted persons list and was denied a passport to travel from the United States, but he went with Marilyn Monroe to see Senators McCarran and Walter, and on the strength of the presence of Marilyn Monroe, they gave him back his passport.

What is the responsibility of the writer in society, as you see it?

Carlos Fuentes: To write books. To write books as best he can. To write good books. And then all things flow from that. There was a moment when this idea of the political responsibility of the writer -- to proclaim yourself, "I am on the left," and "I am for the people," and you made a declaration and then wrote bad books, but it was pardoned because you were on the right side -- this is over. A lot of bad books were written -- by good people maybe, but bad books. In Latin America, it's clear why this was the case.

Pablo Neruda once said to me, "You know, we Latin American writers, we all travel with the bodies of our countries on our back. We carry our countries on our back. We are responsible to our countries, because our countries don't have political freedom, because illiteracy is in the 80s. For all the reasons you know, it is up to us to give voice to the voiceless." Today that is no longer true. Most Latin American countries are democracies, with regular elections, political parties, liberty for the unions, agrarian co-ops. In general, there is democratic freedom in Latin America. So if you want to be a writer that participates in politics, you do so with the honesty of saying, "I am in politics. I am a writer. Being a writer doesn't give me special privileges. Let me be judged by my political thoughts and actions."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

That is one part of it. But...

There are writers who say, "I will have nothing to do with politics. I stay on the side. I write my books and I am merely a literary figure." But even then, the writer is working with language, with ideas, with memory. And as soon as you are working with language, you are working with a social medium, whether you like it or not. That book you are writing without any political conviction will have the political effect of giving value to language. Language is usually debased by the constant social use, by the rhetoric of politics or religion or whatever you wish. To give back what (Stephane) Mallarmé has said -- "the purity of the language of the tribe." To give the tribe back its language continues to be a mission of the writer, whether he or she likes it or not.

Is a novelist a provocateur by nature?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes, in the sense that you don't say things that people are comfortable with, generally.

To me, the greatest novelistic tradition in the world is the English novel. It's been going on for a long time, producing masterpieces, and all of them are against the grain of the English society. My wife and I live in England part of the year, and we realize how conservative and staid and conformist that society can be. And if, in that society, you get Emily Brontë and D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, you are going to have something that goes against the grain of the society, that confronts the society with a mirror of itself as it is not, as it could be, as it would wish or not wish to be. It is another vision of reality that is presented, the alternatives to reality are presented to a society by the novelist. So naturally, there is always an element of revolt -- of contrariness -- in writing novels. It is very different from writing political speeches.

You have generated controversy. How do you handle it?

Carlos Fuentes: Oh, very, very simply. Very calmly. It doesn't affect me at all. It comes with the turf. It's part of the job. It doesn't alarm you at all to provoke anger, hatred, responses, criticism, envy -- all the things you can provoke as a writer, or even as a public figure. I take it in my stride. It doesn't bother me at all. I never answer an attack. Never. Never. Never.

What are your sources of inspiration when you choose your subjects?

Carlos Fuentes: I think it's part of the dream work, the unfathomable subconscious.

I want to write a novel now about the last day of the life of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican guerrilla leader. The day he was shot, what else happened in the country? It's something I want to write. There you have a subject which is clear-cut. But the way I write it, the style in which I write it, the components, I don't know yet. Apart from the bare bones of the structure, I am not certain how I am going to go about it, because that is going to depend on my memory, on my fears, on my dreams, on my desires, on a million things that are unaccountable this moment when we're talking together here.

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This page last revised on Sep 13, 2006 18:48 EDT
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