“There’s something both daunting and cringe-making about the idea of writing an afterword for a book written by a living author who is fluent in English,” confesses Lisa Dillman on the last page of her recent 2023 English translation of Yuri Herrera’s Ten Planets. While Dillman’s conundrum is many translators’ biggest nightmare (translating for a living author who is fluent enough to overrule their interpretations), Ten Planets brings anglophone readers another successful collaboration of the iconic author-translator duo that is Yuri Herrera-Gutiérrez and Lisa Dillman. As an award-winning translator and professor of Spanish at Emory University, Dillman has translated all of Herrera’s available works into English. Together, they won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World. However, curiously enough, Herrera is fluent in English and teaches creative writing and literature at Tulane University’s Spanish and Portuguese department. Yet, Herrera prefers to write in Spanish and relegate the work of translation to careful professionals like Dillman.
Although Herrera’s decision to write only in Spanish can be an attempt to remain true to his Mexican heritage, it is also a powerful language act that, in Ten Planets, creates a metatextual commentary on the legacy of colonial violence. This calculated language act on the part of Herrera aptly accompanies the thematic content of Ten Planets. Originally written in Spanish and published in 2019 under the genre of science fiction, Ten Planets compiles Herrera’s suspense-filled speculative short stories about extraterrestrial futures and apocalyptic pasts into a fast-paced and provocative collection that questions the power of language, the value of art, and the fallibility of borders, whether they be geographical, temporal, generic, or lexical.
For example, in one story titled “The Conspirators,” Herrera introduces us to two factions, the Ones and the Others. The tale of their origins goes like this: a peaceful sedentary people composed of mostly farmers are laid waste to by the Others, who, although crude, were clever enough to reconstruct their lost technological weaponry and subjugate the Ones. As time went by, the Ones were rewarded for their submission until the Others and the Ones were now citizens with supposedly equal rights. Does this tale sound familiar? Well, it is an almost perfect parallel to the colonial history of America and its afterlife in the United States.
What makes Herrera’s story different, however, is his interpretation of the colonial paradigm and the solution that he extrapolates from it. Delivered through the character of Professor Cardoq (a stand-in for Herrera himself, perhaps?), Herrera writes that the true problem is that “the Others took not just our land but our language, and the world we’d imagined and constructed with that language” (80). For Herrera, language and its loss are crucial to the colonial paradigm since language, as a system of symbols, not only describes society but also actively constructs it by giving voice to people’s ideas.
Therefore, it is a pressing problem that the Others have “made our language theirs, said it was theirs and always had been, and then imposed it on us so we’d forget that it had been ours, turned it into a broad brush to paint us in whatever way they pleased. And we forgot it. We forgot that it had been ours and had to relearn it through them” (81). Language, thus, is a vessel for truth and imagination, yet it can also be conscripted for the upkeep of an unequal society. While the malleability of language renders it vulnerable to power dynamics, it is also imbued with transformative potential. For Herrera, the power of language to alter reality manifests in the form of storytelling. Through imaginative stories, we help unsettle the present and posit better alternative futures. Although we often conceive of storytelling as acts of fiction, Herrera tells us, through Professor Cardoq, that fiction can indeed translate into truth through the power of language:
“But stories create truth, no matter how untrue they may be. Now you can help with that truth”
“Telling your truth?”
“No, troubling the Other’s truth. Making sure they themselves call it into question. If we do it, no one is going to believe us, not even our side.” (81)
What remains for us to do, according to Herrera, is to continue engaging in acts of storytelling, particularly in those that destabilize the “truth” of the dominant order. As speculative fiction, Herrera’s Ten Planets kick starts this work of casting doubt onto universally accepted truths. His otherworldly short stories bring the instability of human life onto the foreground, situating the mundaneness of everyday life as the locus of social dynamics, whether they be ongoing coloniality or extraterrestrial posthuman quandaries. Although some stories barely fill a page while others contain multiple parts, they all share a delicate suspense broken by a plot twist ending—a sudden revelation that alters the story’s overall message. In “The Objects,” for example, we find that, within the hierarchy of beings, it is not the powerful and rich who stand at the top, but literal material objects that rule over humans. In another story, “The Consolidation of Spirits,” a paranormal world of ghosts and spirits is overtaken by a soul-sucking bureaucratic government. Ultimately, one thing is certain: Ten Planets leaves us with a piercing critique of colonial dynamics and charges readers with its remediation. Thankfully, Herrera also bestows us with a plan of action—we must unsettle truths and wield the power of language to imagine fresh possibilities. If speculative fiction is a fertile ground for these imaginative possibilities, then Herrera’s Ten Planets is only the first step towards a better future.