by Keetje Kuipers | Associate Editor
“Sometimes what I find is that there are really old words that are forgotten, and because the world in which they thrived is no longer here. But when you bring them back, they can say something. They can illuminate something about our world in a way that we haven’t been able to say with the words we are using right now.”
The first time I heard Yuri Herrera’s voice patiently explaining the merits of reviving a dead word, I was driving through the desolate nighttime emptiness that is eastern Washington, the terrain around me a gently curving play of one shade of black against another. I was alone with Yuri Herrera’s voice coming through my car’s speakers and I prayed that I would not miss a single word he said, and also that I wouldn’t drive the car off the road trying to catch each brilliant gem.
In part, my enthusiasm was due to the podcast, “Between the Covers,” which is hosted by David Naimon, a first-rate interviewer who never fails to illicit writerly wisdom from his guests. But this conversation with Yuri Herrera, centered around the recent publication of the English translation of his novel Kingdom Cons, seemed particularly freighted with glittering intellect. The plot of Kingdom Cons focuses on a young man known as the Artist, a writer and performer of narco-corridos. If you are unfamiliar with this musical genre, narco-corridos are widely popular contemporary Mexican ballads that describe, and often praise, the world of drug trafficking. Herrera places the Artist at the heart of this violent and unpredictable world—the King’s court—and then asks the question, “How do artists remain original in the face of power?” For Herrera the answer is that “art allows you… to find unsuspected ways of telling the truth… [T]he way we name problems is already a way of imagining solutions. That is the power of literature: when we describe the world in terms that are not the same terms that are provided to us.” So, though Kingdom Cons is a book about the border, immigration, narcotics, and trafficking, Herrera uses none of these words in his novel. Instead, with the kind of sleight of hand that feels unsettlingly like magic, he uses language to transform that landscape while at the same time writing its story more truly and boldly than it has perhaps ever been written before.
When an author is speaking this intently about language, you need to be doing something repetitive and thoughtlessly laborious so that you can listen with all of your brain. Therefore, the second time I listened to this interview, I decided it would be a good idea to make gnocchi. This recipe for Ricotta Cheese and Zucchini Gnocchi couldn’t be simpler, and it produces the lightest, fluffiest gnocchi you will ever taste. It also requires you to hand-shape lots of little balls of dough, and so it is perfectly suited to deep and concentrated podcast-listening. I paired it with this Uncooked Fresh Tomato Sauce, which resulted in a bowl of delicate gnocchi floating in a light, gazpacho-like sauce. Soupy and fresh and just right for the end of summer—don’t forget to top it with freshly grated parmesan!
A few cooking notes: I added the zest of one lemon to the gnocchi in order to complement the lemon juice in the sauce. Also, you will need to double the sauce recipe (or freeze half the cooked gnocchi) depending on how many you’re feeding. This recipe makes enough gnocchi for five adults, but only enough sauce for two or three. Finally, though it’s a no-cook sauce, I did heat it through on the stove, allowing me to scoop the cooked gnocchi from their pot of boiling water and transfer them immediately to a warm and welcoming home.
Also, if, like me, this podcast leaves you hungry not only for gnocchi but also for more information about Herrera’s translator, Lisa Dillman, then don’t miss her essay over at Lit Hub or this interview she did with the Center for the Art of Literary Translation.