‘Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities’ by Rice’s Heffes is a ‘dazzling postmodern fairytale’

At a time when debates over immigration and refugees are dominating the headlines, a new book by Rice’s Gisela Heffes explores the fragile, fraught interaction between those on the inside and those on the outside.

GISELA HEFFES

Published by Literal Publishing in November in a bilingual edition, “Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities” is a 100-page novella that follows the journey and increasingly troubling experiences of Sophie La Belle, a privileged, Oxford- and Harvard-educated resident of the Continental City who designs intricate miniature cities made out of colored glass, precious stones and other exquisite materials. The grand city is based on Paris, although its name is not revealed. The edition’s first part is in English and the second part is in Spanish. It includes Heffes’ drawings of the miniature cities described in the story.

Heffes, an associate professor of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American studies, began writing the book in 2004 when she was living in Paris for a year with her husband, who is a French historian and needed to do research in France. “We were both graduate students back then, and we were living in a tiny apartment in the beautiful neighborhood of Neuilly-sur-Seine,” said Heffes, who specializes in Latin American literature, film and culture and theories of space and urban imaginaries, among other interests.

“We were the poorest people living in that area,” she said. “Because our apartment didn’t have internet, I used to take breaks from writing my dissertation (which was on imaginary cities as well) and write fiction or go for a walk. To some extent, her (Sophie La Belle’s) journey and mine were similar in the sense that we were both meticulously building cities: Sophie was creating the miniature cities in her studio for her thesis project; I was working on the imaginary cities for my dissertation as well as the miniature cities of her story.”

However, that’s where the similarities end. “Sophie La Belle sees through the lens of the Western world and thus she holds a very Eurocentric perspective,” Heffes said. “She would be fascinated with the so-called ‘underdeveloped world’ but only as an exotic object of consumption. She would not interact with that world, because she didn’t know it, but she would praise it and celebrate it as if she were part of it. However, at the end of the story that same world comes back to get her. It’s almost haunting.”

A wall that separates the ‘undesired’

Heffes said the novel’s main theme is the immigration from poor countries to France, but also to Europe. “That’s why, with the editor, we felt the urgency of publishing the story right now,” she said. “It was written in 2004-2005, and back then I could sense there was something wrong about how immigrants were portrayed in French politics, advertisements and the media. I met some French academics that had a fascination with Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, but they didn’t have a single friend that was an immigrant and was living in Paris. These people were — and are — living in the suburbs, the ‘banlieue,’ and my impression was that there were two separate worlds that almost didn’t come in contact with each other. It is very hypocritical.

“In a way, back then, when I wrote the story, France didn’t want to face the cost of its own past. So in this story, France is united along with other ‘former nations’ in what I called the Continental City. This city is completely exclusive and a wall separates the ‘undesired’ and leaves them outside. This is a disgraceful phenomenon that is emerging everywhere.”

Heffes hopes readers of the book understand that those beautiful and exclusive cities people enjoy — like Paris, New York and London — have a cost.

“If you look at the stunning wood placed in all these the new modern constructions, you need to wonder which forests are being torn down in order to build them,” she said. “The same is for human resources. Who is building the highways, the gorgeous houses? Who is harvesting the delicious fruit you are buying in this ‘organic’ market? Who is making the clothing you are wearing? Under which conditions? Are the people working in conditions of slavery or are they treated in a humane way? Is it normal or reasonable that you pay so little for that? What I mean is that everything has cost, a human cost, a resource cost.”

In the book’s jacket review, New York Times bestselling author Amber Dermont, the Gladys Louise Fox Associate Professor of English at Rice, wrote that in “Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities,” Heffes “has conjured a dazzling postmodern fairytale that delights and inspires as it slowly reveals its tender mysteries. A writer of enormous talent and grace, Gisela Heffes guides her reader on a harrowing journey through a series of extraordinary realms as she dares to question the nature of politics and civilization.”

To view a recent video interview of Heffes discussing the book, go to https://youtu.be/t3vNvNrXHjA.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.