Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < About C.M. Mayo < Interviews <

Dan Wickett Interviews C.M. Mayo for the
Emerging Writers Network

January 31, 2002

Hello CM, thank you for taking the time from your obviously busy schedule for this.

And thanks to you, Dan. I am really encouraged by what you're doing, using the internet to open up the discussion of books. Thanks for including mine.

I notice that on the lead-in page to Tameme issues,C.M. Mayo is listed as the Editor in Chief, while your real name, Catherine Mansell, is listed below as having some other editorial responsibilities. Is this some sort of a Prince-like division of your various personalities?

It's actually kind of complicated. Catherine Mansell is my legal name, and to be listed as an officer of Tameme, Inc, the nonprofit foundation that publishes the journal, that's the name I need to use. In Mexico, however, my legal name is Catherine Mansell Mayo, because, as in all Spanish-speaking countries, one's maternal family name is added on at the end. I've been a resident of Mexico City since 1986 and so half the things in my wallet, from my drivers license to my credit card say "Catherine Mansell Mayo." Hence, C.M. Mayo.

I chose the pen name C.M. Mayo because, as Catherine Mansell Carstens (to completely confuse things, that name has the American-style addition of my Mexican husband's last name) I had published two books on Mexican finance, as well as an anthology and a passel of articles, and I wanted to avoid confusion. (Ha! But ni modo, no matter.)

Based on your website, it appears that the literary journal, Tameme, is your current passion, even more than writing. Could you explain the objectives behind Tameme?

Which website? I'm surprised you got that impression. I am guessing you looked at Tameme's website, www.tameme.org, because there is also a website I maintain for my own work, (and for my writing students) which is www.cmmayo.com

You are correct, I was looking at the Tameme site when I made that assumption. Your writing site is wonderful as well, and I'll get to that, but could you explain the objectives behind Tameme?

Its objectives are to bring new writing from North American both north and south, and to provide a forum for the art of literary Spanish/ English translation. Everything (except the translators notes) is published side-by-side with its translation, either from the Spanish or from the English, for unblinking comparison with the original. Tameme by the way, is a Nahuatl word for "porter" or "messenger." It is pronounced "ta-meh-meh."

I started Tameme when I began translating Mexican poetry. I was appalled at how little was being translated, and I remain appalled at how little understood and appreciated literary translation is. But rather than complain, I thought, why not make a contribution? My dad had 25 years of experience in the printing and graphics business, and I had some good contacts in both the U.S. and Mexico. So, to make a novel-length story short, we set up Tameme, Inc., put the first issue out, and then got a very generous grant from the Fund for US-Mexico Culture (Rockefeller Foundation and Bancomer) which funded our second issue, "Sun and Moon / Sol y Luna," and is currently funding our third (forthcoming) issue, "Reconquest / Reconquista."

What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of Tameme getting the various cultures aware of each other, or discovering new writers, or perhaps some other aspect?

I hope Tameme has helped introduce writers to new readers across borders, but more than anything I hope Tameme has made Canadian, US and Mexican readers and writers more aware of one another. We share the same subcontinent, and like it or not, we are becoming ever more intertwined economically, financially, and culturally.

Tameme's message is, let's communicate by telling storiez— beautiful stories. I also hope, that in providing a forum for the art of Spanish/ English translation, Tameme is helping to bring a greater awareness of the importance and challenges of literary translation.

Who have been some of the more exciting new writers you are exposing to audiences through Tameme?

Daniel Orozco, Juana Goergen, Jeff Taylor and William Gruben... Julian Anderson, whose story "The Houses of Double Women," appears in Tameme's second issue, has published a wonderful first novel, Empire Under Glass....

Margaret Atwood, the very distinguished Canadian writer, might be considered "new" in Mexico, as most even fairly sophisticated Spanish speaking readers have not yet heard of her (her essay, The Grunge Look" appears in Tameme's first issue).

Similarly, poets Alvaro Mutis and Jaime Sabines and writers Daniel Sada and Juan Villoro are well-known in Mexico, but not in the U.S. or Canada....

Tameme's forthcoming issue, "Reconquest/ Reconquista," will include a story by José Skinner. He just published his superb debut collection, Flight.

In your readings, have you found that the various cultures are writing about similar themes?

Each writer is so unique—that's what stands out to me.

Do you strive to hit a half and half distribution between works written in Spanish and translated and those written in English and translated, or does Tameme not worry about such quotas?

Yes, I do strive for precisely that balance.

Have you found it easier to find great translators going from English to Spanish, or vice versa?

About the same. There are many wonderful translators out there.

You give the translators a great deal of credit in your journal don't you?

They deserve it! Few people, until they attempt it, realize how much work and how much art goes into a literary translation. It is a mystery to me why more credit is not given to translators.

Can you imagine if Yo Yo Ma came to the Kennedy Center to play Beethoven and the program never mentioned his name? There's a hippopotamus of a difference between that particular cellist and say, the kid down the block (and I mean the one that makes you want to run for your ear plugs). Well, ditto with translators and writers.

With Tameme, you give the reader side by side translations of writings. Many works nowadays have added authenticity by having some dialogue in the language of the character, with no translation. Do you feel that it should be up to the reader to have language translation dictionaries or should the author make an effort to include a translation without being wordy?

It's tricky. The writer (or translator) has to make a judgement call— and relevant questions to ask might be, are my intended readers fully bilingual, or readers who don't know a word of Spanish beyond, "taco"?

Also, what am I trying to achieve— a flavor of the milieu, a sense of the music of the language, the simple fact that the characters are speaking Spanish? Or perhaps that one character does not understand what the other is saying? Of course, there are writers who aim their work at an exclusively bilingual readership. For instance, there is some very interesting "Spanglish" poetry and prose, much of it coming out of the border towns like Tijuana and El Paso.

I don't think one needs to take English as this crystal-pure thing— it is, afterall, is a mongrelly mix of Anglo-Saxon, French and all sorts of whatnot. Let's not forget, in the 19th century many Americans sprinkled even their everyday conversations with French. In Mexico City I often hear people using English words, like "fax" and "e-mail". Now you can go to a shopping mall restaurant in Minneapolis and order fajitas and quesadillas. For that matter, the word "taco" is now in Webster's dictionary of American English.

Language is organic, and it can ooze through whatever flimsy barriers we try to erect for it. In my own writing, if I want to indicate that someone is speaking Spanish, I usually throw in a word or phrase in Spanish and then, with a comma, I give the translation. But not always; it depends. I assume my readers do not speak Spanish (though I imagine that in fact, many do). It's been years since I read Paul Bowles' novel In the Spider's House, but I have always remembered that I admired the way he wove in bits of Arabic.

Your personal website has a pretty extensive section which could be used as a workshop. Was the "On Publishing the Literary Short Story" written for a specific event? It is a great, detailed essay on the topic.

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. I wrote it because when I gave writing workshops I found myself answering the same questions about "litmag" publishing over and over. I realized that if I posted an essay on my website, I could save workshop time for other, more important things.

If anyone wants to read it, the link is:

Most authors include the need to continue reading as an important aspect of writing. I notice that nearly half of your suggestions on your website are not just fiction, but books on writing. Why is that?

I have found that reading books on craft is very helpful. There are several more I plan to post, including one I recently read by Ira Wood and Marge Piercy that has an oustanding chapter on dialogue. When I get around to it, however, I am going to post a much more extensive reading list that includes works of fiction (both short stories and novels), and creative nonfiction (travel memoir, literary journalism and personal memoir). The website grows slowly...

I see that you have received fellowships at various writer's conferences. Could you explain what that is exactly?

Going to a writers conference is a wonderful way to learn more about writing— both the craft itself and the business. Before I published my first book, I went to several. All of these offered workshops led by accomplished writers, readings, and panel discussions on everything from publishing in journals to getting an agent. After I'd published Sky Over El Nido, I was awarded fellowships to the Bread Loaf, the Sewanee, and the Wesleyan Writers Conferences. At these three conferences, fellowships are usually awarded to writers and poets with a first book. The fellowship covers your expenses (tuition, room and board) and you give a reading from your book. You might help out with teaching, (depending on the workshop faculty member), and/or you might meet with students, things like that. It is quite an honor to get a fellowship, among many reasons, because the audience for your reading includes so many outstanding writers and some very discerning readers. The people who come to writers conferences genuinely care about literature. I strongly recommend to my students that they consider attending a conference. Many offer scholarships, which cover tuition. I have several links to conferences on my workshop page.

Do you find that teaching at such conferences helps you out with your writing?

Having taught at the Hassayampa Institute's in Prescott, Arizona, I would say yes, definitely. Whenever I listen to what another writer has to say, or go to a panel discussion, I learn something. And I love coming to the readings, discovering new writers— or at least, writers who are new to me. As for students, they keep me thinking, always questioning, why is this good? Or that? How can it be made better?

You had an earlier career as an economist, and teacher of such. Do you feel that this has helped you in your writing career at all?

Yes, very much so. As an economist I had published two books, so I knew what it took to simply sit in the chair and write. l knew how long and lonely the days could be— but also, how much I enjoyed writing. Also, the last book I wrote as an economist was Las finanzas populares en Mexico, (Popular Finance in Mexico: The Rediscovery of a Forgotten Financial System) which examined how low-income Mexicans utilize financial services, so I was out trying to talk to people, looking at how they actually use, say, savings cooperatives or "tandas" or pawnshops.

This turned out to be very helpful when I went to Baja California to write Miraculous Air, because I had already gone through the exercise of trying to really "see" people who were very different from myself, and to get them to open up and talk to me. So, in Baja California, I felt comfortable approaching all sorts of people, from a goat rancher or a street vendor, to say, a highschool teacher, or a surf star or a multi-millionaire resort hotel owner.

I had learned that if I just asked questions and really, truly paid attention, almost anyone would talk to me. They would tell me the most amazing things.

As you mention, you are in the process of completing Miraculous Air: In Baja California, a non-fiction work of essays on traveling. How do you approach non-fiction writing differently than that of fiction writing?

The fiction I had written before Miraculous Air was all cooked up in my own head, so it was a huge change for me to have to stop and read and research and go out and take notes and take photographs and do interviews. In a way it was like going back to writing about finance, though of course, it was much more creative—for instance, I could talk about the clothes people wore, the sounds of their voices, the music that was playing, the smells wafting through a room.

Creative nonfiction is novelistic, but it must adhere to facts, above all, to an accurate rendition of what people actually said—because these are, after all, real people in the book, talking about their lives. So, in short nonfiction is stiffer material to work with, and more research-intensive. Fortunately, I like research.

Do you have any current plans for tackling the form of novel?

I've been working on an historical novel for the last couple of years. It is based on a true story that begins in 19th century Mexico City and ends in Washington DC in 1915, and so it has required long hours in some pretty dusty archives. (In Mexico City I went through a pile of newspapers from 1864 that were so covered with mold, the librarian tried to get me to put on a mask!) I have another couple years to go. It's going to be a brick.

You received the Flannery O' Connor Short Fiction award in 1995 for your short story collection, Sky Over El Nido. Have you read many of the other winning collections, and if so, which have been your favorites to date?

I was awed by T.M. McNally's Low Flying Aircraft; I love its elegance and dark dreaminess. Also, Wendy Brenner's is so funny, I kept laughing out loud. There are so many, Ha Jin, Antonya Nelson, Nancy Zafris; all have written stories I admire.

We're just about finished now. If you were a character in "Fahrenheit 451," what work(s) would you memorize for posterity?

Yay for Ray! Here's my favorite Ray Bradbury quote: "I have never listened to anyone who critized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room." OK, so here I am with my dinosaurs, and one of them is that big grape-purple dude named Barney and, wearing his ziggurat-shaped titanium helmet, he waddles up (his tail dragging down the carpet behind him) and throws his arms wide and he says, "Hi! Would you like a hug?" And I say, "No, Barney! Now that all the books are about to be burned to a crisp, I would like you to put on my head your Special Cranial Instantanously Remember Every Book Ever Written helmet." Barney thumps his tail. He wrinkles his nose, and then he scratches his nose. "Well," Barney sighs and drops his shoulders. "OK."

So, that's my answer. But here's what I've read recently that it would be a Crime Against Humanity to burn:

THIS COLD HEAVEN by Gretel Ehrlich;

Scott Chessman;


SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov,

LIMBO by A. Manette Ansay;

BREAD OF THREE RIVERS by Sara Mansfield Taber;


WALKING THE LAND by Farley Mowat;


As much as I liked Anthony Doerr's response of The Sibley Guide to Birds or Field Guide to Mollusks, I have to say the Barney idea tops it. Thanks again for taking such valuable time out to respond to my questions, and good luck with future writings and issues of Tameme.

Thanks very much to you, and good luck! I look forward to reading your columns.