A word with Yuri Herrera
Does studying politics turn you into an optimist or a pessimist?
You can’t be permanently pessimistic or permanently optimistic. Sometimes you find people who’ve had really tough lives but they’re not complaining all the time. They just go ahead and do their thing and think life is worth living and that certain causes are worth fighting for. When you do that, you become moderately optimistic.
What good can literature do?
Books can produce critical citizens, and this is a moment when, even though we have a lot of information, we’re lacking a lot of critical thinking. That’s something books can provide you with: a different sense of thinking, encountering difficult arguments. But nowadays we just want the soundbites.
Your novel Kingdom Cons is seen as an allegory for the drug trade. Why have successive Mexican governments failed to get to grips with the drug-related violence?
With the ‘war on drugs’, from Nixon and then Reagan, the Mexican authorities have had enough evidence to see that the US approach was making drug traffickers more powerful, making people consume more drugs, and was turning drug trafficking into one of the biggest businesses in the world. But the authorities just persisted with the ‘war on drugs’, instead of trying different approaches.
Through the character of The King, your book looks at how power can drive people mad.
Power has this consequence in a lot of individuals: the small-time bureaucrat who has power over your paperwork, the policeman, the drug dealer. How easily you go mad with power depends on how much resistance you have and how many counterweights you have – whether in terms of institutional restraints, criticism or people that ground you. Sometimes you have people without those counterweights. You see this with drug lords, pop stars or politicians who, instead of surrounding themselves with intelligent critical people, surround themselves with people who tell them only what they want to hear.
What you see is an obsession with certain individuals who are really insecure, who have a very fragile masculinity, and the way they compensate for that is to put their name in golden letters everywhere.
Part of that insecurity and fragility is compensated by acting all the time like you’re an alpha male who doesn’t need to ask questions or reflect. All you need to do is follow your testosterone and put your balls on the table, and that will make it right. You see a lot of males like this, whether drug traffickers or someone trying to assert themselves as a statesman, even though they’re not.
Are you making comparisons between power-crazed drug lords and Donald Trump?
Yes. It’s Trump’s rejection of reasoning and dialogue, his obsession with his own name, with being right all the time, without even trying to argue or elaborate. He’s so detached from a sense of how people see him. He cannot accept any criticism, so it turns into paranoia, and that paranoia keeps feeding his behaviour. In terms of the moral corruption, I don’t see a lot of difference between Trump and other men who reject any disagreement as an attack on themselves.
Is it an interesting time to be a Mexican and an immigrant living in the US?
A lot of things are changing but the nightmare didn’t start on 20 January when Trump came to power. For migrants, the Obama years were really horrible. Sometimes people react as if, before Trump, migrants were having a party in the US. What is new is the way in which the President, who should be a moral authority, has encouraged all the racists to be proud of their racism and encouraged institutions to be hateful. The reaction towards all this explicit bigotry might bring interesting changes in the country.
Where do you most feel at home?
I’ve lived in eight different cities in my life. Nowadays, I feel very much at home in New Orleans. I don’t just mean the smells and the rhythms of the city, the friends, the architecture; but all the other things that make you part of a place – even the complex, difficult, tragic things. In that sense, New Orleans is my home.
But Mexico City is my home too. I go back many times a year, with any good reason I can find, and I immediately feel connected to everything: to the people, the streets, the food and even to the complaints and the less pleasant things. You’re at home where you can also find good reasons to complain.
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera is out now (And Other Stories). It was reviewed in the September issue of New Internationalist.
Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer for publications including Wanderlust, National Geographic, The Guardian, The Sunday Times.
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