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The City and the Writer: In Mexico City with Carmen Boullosa

By Carmen Boullosa
Translated By Samantha Schnee

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Mexico City as you feel/see it?

Mexico City always wears a mask, alternating between festive and melancholic. But these masks don’t match the city’s mood; they’re often deceptive. The masks are part of the city, which doesn’t know how to behave without one. If the mask even briefly matches the city’s mood, the city erupts—and when we least expect it, as if it had spent days deciding whether to be what it thinks we want it to be or just be itself.

For example, with the coronavirus, the city is wearing a gloomy mask, and it lives in a state of anxiety and frustration. In Mexico, we have different words for the kind of mask you wear to hide your face, as part of a costume, for example, and the kind of mask you wear to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus. When I say the city is wearing a gloomy mask, I mean the former.

There’s something else that affects the spirit and the mood of the city, too: the climate, though mild, is extremely changeable. It can go from bright and sunny to a hailstorm, from hailstorm to total calm, from calm to a gale or a thunderstorm, dark clouds to blue sky, and so on. The mask that Mexico City uses is rigid, expressionless; it can’t change with the weather.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The earthquake of 1985. I was pregnant, soon to give birth. We had a little theater-bar in the Plaza de la Conchita in Coyoacán, where we took refuge. Our friends and colleagues came and went, many covered in tears, returning from digging through the rubble with their hands to try to reach the bodies of those who had been trapped. Each visitor brought news: Rockdrigo (a musician with a huge fanbase) was dead; several of our patrons had died, too; buses were piled full of plastic bags with corpses; the government wasn’t doing anything (besides getting rid of the bodies, which they were eager to hide). All the while I was in the kitchen, making sandwiches that the survivors took back to their makeshift shelters. The actress who starred in the play we were running (a musical comedy I had written, with a lovely score by Alicia Urreta, Aura and the 11,000 Virgins) arrived at dusk. She had miraculously escaped from the building where she lived on the other side of the city, which had crumbled to pieces; she ran through the streets barefoot, determined to arrive in time for the show. She was out of her mind—understandably. Along the way someone had given her a pair of shoes to put on. When she arrived, covered in sweat, confused and exhausted, she couldn’t fully grasp the idea that she had survived the destruction of one of the buildings in Tlatelolco. She was talking about what she had seen as she ran through the city, the damage she had witnessed with her own eyes, and at that moment there was another earthquake, an aftershock. Dozens of people ran past us across the plaza to the church for protection. The city had removed her mask, naked, shameless, frightened, and frustrated . . . I don’t remember what became of that actress, and it’s so painful to remember her face that I can’t even recall her name. Her performances were unique.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of Mexico City?

Our effusive warmth can hide a dagger. It’s related to the masks, and also to our peculiar, seemingly sweet and passive temperament. But the dagger is seldom used. By the way, I’m not referring to the crime that has gripped Mexico in recent years, which has everything to do with the United States—its constant stream of weapons and its thirst for illegal drugs.


What writer(s) from Mexico City should we read?

The Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. I’ve been rereading some of his essays and poems and have been blinded by his genius once more:

                       Ciudad: mi ciudad,
                                         estela afrentada,
                       piedra Deshonrada,

                       City, my city,
                                         scorned stela,
                       dishonored stone

                       ("A la mitad de esta frase," 1976, tr. Eliot Weinberger)

In his book Volver a casa (which won the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes) the poet Alejandro Aura also pays homage to the city:

All that’s good in the city
was built
by those who came before us
and by us.
Like flowers
all these homes
and these streets
and these poetic threads of light
came forth from our hands
And this dense smoke
which made us a city of grief once more.

Our tears sprang forth
when we saw how dirty
the whites of our eyes had become.

Is there any clarity left
for seeing love?

How can I approach
my lover’s
white sheets
filthy and tearful?

I should mention that Alejandro is the father of both my children. We lived together for twenty years but I never married him because I knew marriage would unleash his demons; he had been married five times before I met him, yet ours was his longest, most stable relationship. I keep him deep in my heart.

As for novels about Mexico City, I suggest three: for anyone who hasn’t read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, the first part is a portrait of Mexico City in the seventies (in which Bolaño details his disdain for Paz—that old tale of parricide that men are so often prone to, and some women, too). Two other classics: Where the Air Is Clear by Carlos Fuentes and La tumba (The Tomb), José Agustín's portrait of the city's rock-and-roll counterculture.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Zócalo in the city center. It always moves me and brings back memories, many from my own life and many more of people and characters whom I love and are mine.

The Zócalo has seen it all. The remains of the Templo Mayor of the Mexicas is there, magnificent and majestic; it was still in use when the conquistadors arrived from the other side of the Atlantic. The Cathedral faces it, the religious heart of the Spanish colony, built in part from the carved and painted stones of the Templo Mayor, which was dismantled and covered by newer buildings. Formerly the same height as the cathedral’s towers, the Temple’s ruins are now visible and complemented by a terrific museum next door. The National Palace is beside the Cathedral and it backs up to the College of San Ildefonso, with its murals by post-revolution Mexican painters.

Then there’s the memory of what’s no longer there: the canals and the three lakes of the beautiful valley. We destroyed those, too.

And I can’t resist mentioning the Anahuacali Museum, built by Diego Rivera to house his collection of pre-Hispanic art as well as his New York mural that was rejected by its patron (Nelson Rockefeller). And, of course, my favorite restaurants and bars (the ones that have withstood the passage of time, like Restaurante El Danubio, the San Ángel Inn, Bar La Ópera—once a meeting point after the literary events—and the Boca del Río Marisquería). It’s difficult to see any specific street corner in my mind’s eye because the city has devoured itself over and over again. When I was a little girl, we used to take my grandmother to dine at the San Ángel Inn on her birthday. She would tell us about her life in San Ángel, what it had been like in her day.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Sanborns' tiled facade and atrium once housed the Jockey Club, home to the crème de la crème of Mexico’s twentieth-century literary establishment. At the Bar La Ópera you can still see the bullet holes Pancho Villa made on the ceiling; we young writers used to meet there after lectures by the greats (Borges, Arreola, Cortázar, Paz, and many, many more) and once in a while they would make an appearance, too; it was the place to be. I could put together an anthology of Mexican literature just from the writers I saw there, perhaps even a broader anthology of Hispanic American writers.

Because the past is always present in Mexico City, almost every building has traces of writers who were there; the convent where Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz lived now has a lovely restaurant next door, and the National Palace is the same building where Aztec leaders lived—it has grown and expanded over the years. And, of course, the Café la Habana, not exactly the same as the one Bolaño frequented, but close enough.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you? 

In the jam-packed heart of the city, the San Miguelito market, which is designed as a panopticon, like a prison. One season each year vendors gather in the center, where there are no stalls, to sell one of the most exquisite delicacies of our cuisine: fresh, raw walnuts (we call them nueces verdes) for making chiles en nogada. Surrounding the panopticon there are stalls selling very cheap toys, clothes you can buy for a handful of change, school supplies, everything for people who have very little to spend on their needs. In the center you have these expensive nuts (though they’re not in vitrines, just jute sacks that belie their value), while in nearby stalls you’ll find the cheapest merchandise in town.


Where does passion live here?

First and foremost, at every table and on every plate; in the food and the conversation. Behind the mask there’s passion in absolutely everything about Mexico City. We’re temperamental and rash. It seems to me that the place where there’s the least passion is below the belt—with the exception of the toilets at the Plaza Garibaldi. Only the male toilets, I think.


What is the title of one of your works about Mexico City and what inspired it exactly?

Mexico City plays a major role in one of my most eccentric novels, El complot de los románticos, which won the Café Gijón Prize. A writers’ festival that is notable for gathering only dead authors needs the support of living writers, and the ones in New York, where it most recently convened, refuse the support they need.

One unimpeachable author is invited to help “scout” the best location for their next meeting. The trip from the north (New York) to the south (Mexico City) forms the body of this road novel, which could be subtitled Dante Hits the Road. The story really gets going when they arrive at their destination; that’s where Dante Alighieri (the aforementioned author, who’s thrilled to be alive again) enters a new dimension: Mexico City, a magnetic place, a capital of culture like Rome, Istanbul, or Vienna. When Dante arrives, he is transformed (who wouldn’t be?).

In the novel, we travel with Dante across the city as time moves in reverse, from the year the novel was written (nearly twenty years ago) to the fall of Tenochtitlan.

The craziness of traveling back in time is tempered by the rest of the novel. The narrator, a Mexican author (or authoress, it should be said), lives in New York but hasn’t been able to get used to it. She is from Mexico City, what we refer to locally as a chilanga. Samantha Schnee has translated much of the novel into English.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Mexico City does an outside exist?”

As a child, I knew that “outside my grandmother’s house, an outside exists.” Her world was my parents (and my home)! I spent lots of time at her place (she was no slouch—her business, her intelligence, her house). Though I was accepted indoors, my parents were outsiders. I’ve always lived outside.


Carmen Boullosa, poet, novelist, playwriter, essayist, and artist, was a Cullman Center, a Guggenheim, a DAAD, and a FONCA Fellow. Born in Mexico City in 1954, she lives in Coyoacán, Mexico, and in Brooklyn, New York. She has received the Casa de América de Poesía Americana Prize (Madrid); the Rosalía de Castro Prize, awarded by Galicia’s PEN (Santiago de Compostela); the Anna Seghers Prize (Arts Academy of Berlin); the Liberature Prize, for the German version of the novel La Milagrosa (German translation by Susanne Lange, at Suhrkamp Verlag); the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, for the novel Antes (Before, translated by Peter Bush, Deep Vellum), the poetry collection La salvaja, and Papeles irresponsables; and the Café Gijón de Novela Prize, for El complot de los románticos (published by Siruela in Madrid); and five NY-EMMYs for the show Nueva York at CUNY-TV, among other honors. She ran a theater bar in Coyoacán, prints her own art books, directed some of her plays, served as a chief advisor to a major museum exhibition (Nueva York 1613–1945), and engaged in the writing and production of a feature film, Las paredes hablan. Boullosa has been visiting professor at NYU, Columbia University, City College CUNY, Georgetown, and other institutions, and she teaches at Macaulay Honors College CUNY. More than a dozen books and over ninety dissertations have studied her work.

Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders. Her translation of Carmen Boullosa’s latest novel, The Book of Anna, was published by Coffee House Press in April. Her translation of Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft (Deep Vellum, 2014) was shortlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize. She won the 2015 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation for her work on Boullosa’s El complot de los románticos. She is a trustee of English PEN and currently serves as secretary of the board of the American Literary Translators Association. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, she lives in Houston, Texas.


Related Reading:

From Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee

"Sleepless Homeland" by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee

"A Pre-Columbian Bestiary: Tepeyólotl" by Ilan Stavans

Published Nov 9, 2020   Copyright 2020 Carmen Boullosa

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