Mexico's literary superstars, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, shot to global fame half a century ago. But today, a new crop of Mexican authors is thrilling readers in English and Spanish alike. As the British Council celebrates Mexican literature at the London Book Fair, translator Christina MacSweeney gives an overview.
Mexican literature is experiencing a resurgence
In her debut novel Faces in the Crowd (Granta, 2012), in which a young mother in Mexico City writes about her experience as a translator in New York, Mexican author Valeria Luiselli compares literary recognition to a rumour that 'multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity'. Perhaps the same can be said of the spread of Mexican writing internationally.
The giants of Mexican literature
In the 1950s, the writer Octavio Paz, best known for his poetry and cultural analysis, offered the world a new vision of Mexican identity in his book The Labyrinth of Solitude (first published in 1950). This extended essay was extremely influential in representing Mexican identity as somewhat hermetic: fixed, almost isolated within the 'labyrinth of solitude'. It was a framework that fitted neatly into pre-conceptions to which many younger writers now react – but would, at that time, encourage the Latin American Boom in the '60s and '70s, when a generation of Spanish American writers rose to worldwide fame.
This literary phenomenon took off after the publication, in 1967, of the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mexico was proudly represented by the novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes's work – slightly less magical-realist than Márquez's, and focusing on Mexican history and political issues – was translated into English by the American academic Margaret Sayers Peden, further raising the profile of Mexican literature.
Despite the Latin American Boom, many superb Mexican writers have been forgotten
But what about the other Mexican voices that were not noticeably present? Margaret Sayers Peden’s equally admirable translation of the great classic of 20th century Latin American literature, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a novel about a ghost town, which influenced many other authors including Gabriel García Márquez, never quite achieved 'collective affinity' status in the English-speaking world. Where was Josefina Vicens, whose The Empty Book was Mexico's first meta-literary novel? And even before that, in the '20s and '30s, who was listening to the voices of the Mexican modernist group Los Contemporáneos, including such iconic figures as Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo and Gilberto Owen, all offering, through their prose and poetry, a very particular image of what modernism might mean in Mexico? They seem to have got lost in the labyrinth.
Contemporary Mexican literature is lively and diverse
Today, writing in Mexico is, like that of any other culture, multiform. There is such a wide variety of themes and individual styles, that it is impossible to list them all. However, one theme that comes to mind is an exploration of the boundaries between the self and fiction - this is often termed as auto-fiction, a category in which writers like Guadalupe Nettel and Julián Herbert are often included.
There is also an enthusiasm for a crossover between artistic genres: perhaps because of the importance of the visual arts in Mexico's history, there is a broader dialogue between different cultural producers.
Another interesting area is the re-envisioning of modernism in 20th-century Mexico. In Europe and the United States, this has tended to be seen through the eyes of those who visited Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s (the French poet Antonin Artaud, the Surrealist Leonora Carrington, American photographer Edward Weston, and D. H. Lawrence, to name but a few). But Mexican authors are now turning back that outsider's gaze, re-digesting that vision, regurgitating it and so transforming the way their cultural heritage has been represented by others.
More Mexican authors are being translated into English
If the rumour about Mexico's literary treasures seemed to die down for a few decades, it has most definitely been growing to a crescendo in recent years. Granta’s 2010 'Best of Young Spanish Novelists' contained only one Mexican author: Antonio Ortuño. Yet following a mention in their ‘Best Untranslated Writers’ series, Sergio Pitol has finally been translated into English (The Art of Flight, Deep Vellum, 2015; tr. George Henson). Carmen Boullosa’s latest novel, Texas: The Great Theft (Deep Vellum, 2014) recently won her and translator, Samantha Schnee, the 2014 Typographical Era Translation Award. Guadalupe Nettel is to be published this year in a translation by J.T. Litchenstein (Seven Sisters Press), and Álvaro Enrigue’s stunningly imaginative Muerte Súbita (Sudden Death) will soon appear in English translation. The rights to Daniel Saldaña París’s first novel, En Medio de Extrañas Víctimas (Among Strange Victims), have recently been bought by Coffee House Press.
And, of course, the novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli created her own rumour with her widely acclaimed first books: there is no doubt that her second novel, The Story of My Teeth (Granta/Coffee House Press, 2015; tr. Christina MacSweeney) will equally captivate readers. The list goes on: poetry is flourishing in Mexico now, and such poets as Luis Felipe Fabre and Paula Abramo deserve to have their voices added to the clamour.
Why is Mexican literature flourishing again?
So what has brought about this exit from the labyrinth? There are no doubt numerous reasons, but two come to mind: The first is a strong tradition of cultural and literary criticism, more widely read and taken much more seriously in Mexico than in the UK. The second is the growing number of platforms – print and online literary and cultural magazines, and blogs – where writers can publish their work. The monthly literary magazine Letras Libres offers critical thought and reviews from some of the country’s brightest minds, and a number of exciting, independent publishing houses such as Sexto Piso have sprung up, giving space to the best of new Mexican writing and carrying it beyond the country.
All this, along with the backing of state cultural bodies such as Conaculta, Mexico's National Council for Culture and the Arts (the main body promoting cultural creation in the arts and literature in Mexico, offering grants and funding, and organising exhibitions) forms the solid grounding for creativity to blossom and find its voice.
Translators play an important role in the renaissance of Mexican literature
Mirroring this, translators are encouraging greater diversity. They have become increasingly influential in the decision about what gets translated (rather than the publisher first selecting titles and then asking translators what they think).
This also has to do with the increasing number of online sites (Words Without Borders, Asymptote etc.) that publish reviews, comment and translations of new international writing, before those authors are published in English. These sites are a source for both readers and publishers and offer opportunities for emerging translators to get their work into print. So, often working quietly behind the scenes, translators are reading, writing reports and sample translations, talking to publishers and literary agents, talking to each other, and then, only then, doing what they love: carrying over into English the styles, rhythms, musicality and voices of the authors they admire, adding to the growing chorus of new Mexican voices.
If the rumour has sometimes been more hushed, it has never died out. Mexican writing has continued – sometimes a little more solitary, sometimes booming – to offer readers worldwide, through the work of talented translators, its ideas, opinions, creativity and unique perspectives on that world.
Christina MacSweeney's translations of Valeria Luiselli’s novel, Faces in the Crowd, and collection of essays, Sidewalks, were published by Granta (2012/2013) and Coffee House Press (2014). A second novel by the same author, The Story of My Teeth, is forthcoming in 2015. In 2013, MacSweeney's translation of a collection of essays by the Paraguayan art critic Ticio Escobar (The Invention of Distance) was published in a bilingual edition by the AICA/Fausto.
Join the events of the Mexico Market Focus at the London Book Fair or elsewhere in London.