Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, also known as Highway, is not only the self-proclaimed best auctioneer in the world, but also the proud owner of a large collection of exquisite memorabilia. Each piece has a story that gives it inestimable value. The most important item never leaves his body – Marilyn Monroe’s teeth adorn his mouth instead of his own. In The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015, translated by Christina MacSweeney), Valeria Luiselli tells Highway’s life story, but that’s not all: She examines the value of art, reflects on storytelling methods, references classic and contemporary philosophy and literature, and combines them into a hilarious assemblage of large and small, fictional and factual, central and ephemeral events.
Stories that gain in translation
As the daughter of a Mexican diplomat, Luiselli has spent a considerable portion of her life abroad; currently she lives and teaches in New York. Her works are written and published in Spanish first, but she often edits them before and during their translation into English. Since she considers them versions instead of word-by-word renderings, it comes as no surprise that The Story of My Teeth features a chapter about the story’s timeline written by the book’s translator, Christina MacSweeney. Luiselli’s books gain in translation, which is one of the reasons behind her current popularity. Another is her feel for pressing issues: Her latest book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press, 2017) relates her experiences as a translator for underage immigrants from Latin America who face deportation from the US.
Transformation through collaborative storytelling
Originally commissioned for an exhibition at Galería Jumex, which is funded by the juice factory of said name, The Story of My Teeth turned into an attempt to combine what is often thought of as two completely disparate worlds, or, as Luiselli puts it, “gallery and factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice.” The Jumex factory is located in Ecatepec de Morelos, a poor municipality north of Mexico City with few points of interest. Luiselli turned it into the setting for her story and collaborated with the factory workers by sending them instalments and receiving feedback from them. While its literary and cultural references might make it seem elitist, the resulting book debunks the myth that people with a lower level of education are incapable of enjoying complex literature.
The Story of My Teeth ends with a passionate plea for the transformative power of storytelling: Nearing the end of his life, Highway takes on Jacobo de Voragine as his disciple. He teaches him how to avoid paying for his meals, how to use public transport for free, and, most importantly, how to become the first tour guide of Ecatepec. Voragine is skeptical that he could convince anyone to visit the area, which he describes as a “physical materialization of nothingness”, but Highway asserts: “They’ll come on their own. The important thing is to tell stories about the neighborhood. As soon as you’ve got those, there’ll be people flocking to hear them. Places and things are made up of stories.” Four years after the book’s publication in Spanish, Ecatepec is still considered a dangerous neighborhood and tourists are discouraged from visiting. But who knows, maybe someone will eventually take up Luiselli’s idea and turn the area into a habitat for fantastic stories that benefit both inhabitants and visitors.