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PEN World Voices Festival: Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction

By Bud Parr

PEN World Voices Festival When you're around a lot of authors it may be easy to forget what a rare and precious thing that is, being a published author. Even more so is being a published author in the United States if you write in a language other than English, being that out of the hundreds of thousands of books published here every year only a few hundred of them are literature in translation. Most of us don't even think about these authors who are doing great work in other countries but aren't a part of the conversation here. To let us know what we're missing, Dalkey Archive just published Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, edited by Álvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, who was the translation editor.

PEN World Voices Festival

Friday's event on Contemporary Mexican Literature at the Instituto Cervantes was a presentation and discussion of that book by Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive, Ms. Sears, Dick Custler a translator of one of the stories and two authors: Daniel Sada and Álvaro Enrigue. While both the authors are well known at home, they are unpublished here, save for the fact that Sada's Casa nunca will reportedly be released by Greywolf Press in 2010 or 2011.

Alternate readings of pieces from the book in Spanish and English (Enrigue read both of his, Sada read his in Spanish - he said it was better in English because in Spanish he wanted to change things - with Sears reading in English afterwards) were followed by a discussion of Mexican literature as it stands today. Riker kicked off the discussion by questioning the panelists about what they thought was exciting right now.

Two issues seem unavoidable when discussing Mexican literature. One, sought to be refuted in the book's introduction by Álvaro Uribe, is that "Mexico is a country of poets," a maxim he attempts to dispel by stating "with equal veracity...that Mexico is a nation of storytellers" holding up such writers as Alfonso Reyes and Rafael F. Muñoz as exemplars who wrote excellent short stories as well as novels.

This argument wasn't helped much by either of the authors here as the both answered that poetry is what they're most excited about in Mexican Literature. Enrigue said that once the shadow of Paz was lifted, Mexican poetry flourished and later said that the ísecond invasion of barbarians from the north" is being íled by Daniel Sadaë (who has published three books of poetry in Spanish).

PEN World Voices Festival

But if selling short stories as representative of a country's literature is problematic it is at least effective as an introduction to a body of authors and that is the book's point - the statement it makes is that here we Mexican writers are, we are of the world, outward looking as well as contemplative, we are damn good writers and we are capable of being serious and funny. Sears, who is a translator of the Italian, made humor a point of stark comparison between the Italian literature she translates and the Mexican she found in this book. She pointed out that the stories aren't exclusively in Mexico, in fact only about a third were, and that they are urban as well. Sears also mentioned that many of the translators of the book were excited to learn about its authors and are eager to translate more of their work, underscoring the idea that these experienced authors are unknown here.

The second seemingly unavoidable issue is not an issue, but a writer; as Álvaro Enrigue bantered, "the person who writes best about Mexico City is a damn Chilean!" Roberto Bolaño, who wrote quite a bit of fiction set in that city, came up two or three times in the short discussion period and also seemed to loom there as both a path to greater recognition for Spanish language writers and also a reference, setting a high bar for other writers. But to my mind, if Enrigue's short piece in the collection is indicative of the rest of his - as yet unpublished in English - work, then he may well be a worthy follower down the road of mainstream recognition in the States.

Also looming and addressed by a questioner in the audience was the situation in Mexico, marked by reports of terrible cartel violence. Sada passionately took a stand that Mexican literature transcends that situation and is on a different trajectory.

PEN World Voices Festival

While the event wasn't hugely attended with around half of the room's hundred or so seats filled (still a respectable number), it seemed that many at the event stayed after and were eager to speak to the authors. The book itself, a bilingual edition that brings together 16 authors born after 1945 and is otherwise not thematically bound, is one-half of a project that saw a mirror image of this book - U.S. writers published in Mexico - and could easily accompany Copper Canyon Press's release of Reversible Monuments an anthology published a few years back of contemporary Mexican poetry, edited by Mónica de la Torres, who was mentioned by Enrigue in the Q&A.

I should also mention that Elise Blackwell gives an excellent account of the event at the PEN World Voices Festival blogs, so be sure to read what she had to say too.

Published May 4, 2009   Copyright 2009 Bud Parr

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