Mexican playwright Sabina Berman’s story of an autistic girl’s affinity for the ocean—an affinity complicated by her family’s fishing tradition—is transporting and delightful. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, Berman’s clear prose pulls the reader into another kind of mind, one capable of diving deep into nature and its many-shaped soul. Here’s Sabina on the origins of her new novel, out this August from Henry Holt.
In the summer of 2009, I wanted to escape from the bubble of words, escape from the constant bla bla bla in which I’d lived since I was a girl. I wanted, before I died, to finally experience the planet.
That’s how I ended up at the sea. In the sea, actually—the high seas of the Pacific Ocean. A space with no cement, no buildings, no crowds, nothing human in sight: 360 degrees of water and sky. And that’s where a sailor, who in the book I call Ricardo, taught me to scuba dive. Diving into the sea, learning to breathe in the sea, that was what finally brought me into contact with the real world. If you’re scuba diving, you’re not thinking. How can you think with your senses totally overwhelmed?
Everything moves slowly beneath the water’s surface. Your body is compressed by the neoprene wetsuit and the weight of the water. Your mouth is busy with the mouthpiece where every breath of air is a gift. Seen through the thick liquid glass of the water, each and every presence becomes incomparably attractive. Sounds are soft, deep, slow whispers.
I wondered: could I learn to live above water, in the air, as if I were scuba diving?
Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World was born of that question. I knew I’d write a book that would take me back, often, to that underwater experience. Better still, one that would teach me to preserve—in air—that slow experience of being wholly attentive to the Real. Better yet, the character who told the story would be someone already there, someone who lives above water as if she were at the bottom of the sea.
After I’d found the early idea for the book, I became acquainted with tuna boats, and with tuna. It was in Mazatlán—where the largest tuna fisheries in the world are located—where the owner of the Dolores tuna fishery introduced me to the captains of his fleet, and where one of his captains invited me go out with them to fish. Eighteen days after setting sail, I witnessed a slaughter of tuna from which I’ll never recover. I describe it in the book. A fight to the death between two species: humans and tuna. And I also describe how the sea looks after the kill: a red sea, a sea of blood kilometers wide, a 360-degree wound.
Close to Mazatlán I met the book’s Karen Nieto, which is not her real name. A zoologist, an atheist, a tall, skinny muscular woman with a blonde crew cut and green eyes; a silent, asexual character who struck me as a virtuoso in the art of living outside of words; she said she was anatomically incapable of thinking for more than a minute straight, and as I began to notice, she was also incapable of lying, and thus of fantasizing, and thus of possessing a philosophy or religion. A being who lived completely in the Real.
Karen—the original Karen—became a zoologist because when she was a teen she read books about autism and killing animals that were written by another exceedingly interesting woman, Temple Grandin. Reading her books, she realized that the distance she felt from other humans could actually become a virtue, rather than a defect, and that her faith in animals could become a profession.
Carmen Aritegui, a very insightful Mexican journalist, interviewed me about Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World. At one point she leaned over, elbows on her knees as if deciding where to aim a torpedo, and said to me, “Let me understand this: you wrote a book of words in order to escape from words?”
I had to laugh. I explained to her, there are two kinds of tales: one kind imprisons you; the other kind bursts the bubble of words and leaves you out in the fresh air. Like Japanese koans do, for example.
So Me, Who Dove… is my attempt to write a three-hundred-page koan. I hope it carries you, through language, to the heart of the world—that place with no words—and there the narration dissolves into thin air.
Sabina Berman is a four-time winner of the Mexican National Theatre Prize for her plays; she also writes film scripts, poetry, and journalism, and has published several novellas. Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is her first novel. She lives in Mexico.