Guadalupe Nettel’s murky and haunting memoir, “The Body Where I Was Born”, stays with you long after reading. It lingers like the taste of black coffee on your tongue; a bittersweetness that stains the roof of your mouth.
Nettel looks back on her childhood in the form of a kind of soliloquy to her psychoanalyst, recounting memories and pausing sometimes to comment or ask rhetorical questions. These disruptive asides bring us back from Nettel’s childhood into the present day, and emphasise the tension between her ‘younger self’ and the self that’s looking back. The distinction between these identities remains, however, unclear and complex. Past selves tingle and ache like phantom limbs – ghostly extensions that are somehow familiar, and yet so alien at the same time.
Nettel explains in an interview that “if someone calls you something in a certain way, especially your own mother, you end up identifying with that name.” At the age of two her mother gave her the unflattering nickname ‘cucaracha’ – cockroach in Spanish – in reference to her slouching back. “I simply assumed that I was a cockroach”, she recalls, “and so those creatures started to become interesting to me”. This identification unsurprisingly inspired her interest in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, whose isolated, rejected narrator she strongly related to. Animals and insects appear throughout the book as symbols both of comfort, and of trauma. During a particularly nightmarish phase of early adolescence, poisonous insects would mysteriously appear in her room; manifestations that no one else believed, and that caused her to lie awake at night doubting her own sanity. These passages of psychological horror have an almost folkloric quality to them, a kind of gothic sensibility that evokes both Kafka and another one of her literary heroes, Edgar Allan Poe.
Past selves tingle and ache like phantom limbs – ghostly extensions that are somehow familiar, and yet so alien at the same time.
The core of Nettel’s spellbinding and moving novel, is the quiet strangeness of the everyday, and the beauty sometimes hidden in dark or unexpected places. In the first line of the book, Nettel begins, “I was born with a white beauty mark, or what other call a birthmark, covering the cornea of my right eye”. For years she is forced to endure obsessive attempts at ‘correcting’ her imperfection from the adults around her, though she herself never had a problem with it. Nettel’s journey towards self-acceptance manifests through her prose in her embrace of unconventional beauty—her affinity for, rather than repulsion from the ‘ugly’.
Nettel’s story is ultimately not one of anger or regret, but of peace with the past; “There is something healthy and good, as well as maddening, in calling into question the events of a life and the veracity of my own history”. Cockroaches may be seen as repellent vermin, but they are also strong, adaptive creatures with an impressive and enduring reputation for survival. Nettel reminds us that, though the horror of trauma may have the power to shape our lives, it is our resilience, and not our suffering, that truly defines who we are.
Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born was released in 2011, and she paid Copenhagen a visit this August at the Louisiana Literature festival. You can pick up a copy of her work at Ark Books store on Møllegade.