Editor, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion

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Q & A with the Editor of
Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion,
C.M. Mayo (2006)

Mexico is such a wonderful collection of Mexican literary writing. How exactly is it "a traveler's companion"?

C.M. Mayo:
For Mexico City, you might read Juan Villoro's short story "One-Way Street" about punk rockers set the exclusive Pedregal neighborhood; for the U.S.-Mexico border, you might read Carlos Fuentes' novel excerpt, "Malintzin of the Maquilas" about factory workers in Ciudad Juárez. There's an enormous variety. You can travel in your armchair, too, from Tecate to Oaxaca to Chiapas to Yucatán. Good stories are a different kind of map one that can be much more profound.

So it's a way of deepening one's travels, of getting below the surface of things.

Exactly. Just as the U.S. is more than Disneyland and shopping malls, Mexico is infinitely more than Cancun, Los Cabos, and border towns. I love the quote at the beginning of each of the Traveler's Literary Companion books, the one by Alistair Reed: "Coming newly into Spanish, I lacked two essentials
a childhood in the language, which I could never acquire, and a sense of its literature, which I could."

Did you have a childhood in the language?

I learned Spanish when I got married and moved to Mexico City in 1986. My husband, Agust
ín Carstens, is Mexican. I am fluent, but he catches things for me that only a native speaker could. I like to say he's my "secret weapon."

For example?

In the M
ónica Lavín story, "Day and Night", which is set in a vacation house near Cuernavaca, the children have a supper of "platillos voladores." The literal translation would be "flying saucers" but that didn't make sense. Thanks to my husband (who had, as a child, eaten many a "platillo volador"), that got translated as "the grilled sandwiches they called 'flying saucers.'"

When did you begin translating?

About twelve years ago, when I started reading the Mexico City magazine, Vuelta. I could see that there was an enormous amount of superb writing and poetry in Mexico, and that very little of it was being translated into English. In 1994, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye invited me to send some translations of Mexican poetry for her anthology,
The Tree Is Older Than You Are. Soon afterward I founded Tameme, the bilingual (English/Spanish) literary journal.

How did you get the idea to do this book?

Strangely, the idea to do an anthology of Mexican literary writing popped into my mind while I was walking. I say "strangely" not because it's unusual to get ideas while walking, but because shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from David Peattie of Whereabouts Press, inviting me to do the Mexico book for his "Traveler's Literary Companion" series. I had thought of doing a straightforward anthology, not of this kind, I mean, one that provides not only an introduction to the literary voices of the country, but also a portrait of the country itself. I thought it was a brilliant concept.

How did you go about finding the pieces for Mexico?

There were a few pieces I knew I had to include Juan Villoro's "One-Way Street" (Mexico City) and Agustin Cadena's "Lady of the Seas" (Baja California), for example. I couldn't imagine a Mexico anthology without something by Carlos Fuentes, and for Chiapas, there had to be a piece by Rosario Castellanos. Some of the pieces I can't say I found they just fell into my lap. Right about the time I began reading for this, I received the manuscript of Daniel Reveles' collection of short stories set in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Tecate. His publisher sent it to me, looking for a blurb. I was happy to give him one because it's a fantastic collection, vivid and full of heart. In there was the hilarious short story, "Big Caca's Revenge."

It sounds fairly straightforward.

Not at all! I delved into several months of reading. I read as widely as I could, both in Spanish, for pieces to translate, and in English translation, for work to reprint. I asked all my Mexican friends for advice. And I did something quite different, I think, from what most anthologists of translation usually do. From editing
Tameme, and from friends in the American Literary Translators Association, I knew that there are many outstanding translations that have not yet been published, and many that end up in literary magazines, somewhat obscurely published. So I made up a "call for submissions" and sent it out over the Internet to hundreds of translators and writers. I also took out classified ads in Poets & Writers and AWP Chronicle, and in addition, I snail-mailed a flyer to 650 Spanish and translation Departments in universities throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K. even Australia. I knew it would be important to cast the net wide as wide as possible.

Why was "casting the net wide" so important?

Because the literary scene in Mexico is concentrated in the capital
it flat-out dominates the cultural life of the nation. Mexico City does not have a counterpart in the U.S. You might think of it as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington D.C. all rolled into one. Now, I wanted to have an anthology of the best Mexican literary writing I could find, but at the same time, provide a portrait of Mexico as a whole. So I needed something set in Sinaloa, set in Oaxaca, set in Puebla, and so on. And I also wanted to include first-rate writers from or currently living in places outside the capital. It couldn't be all famous Mexico City writersand it certainly wouldn't make sense to include writing that doesn't have a sense of place or is set in, say, Paris.

So the Internet was a help.

Enormous! Back in the late 90s when I started
Tameme, few Mexican writers had e-mail. It was very hard to track people down; letters and manuscripts got lost in the mail. Nowadays many Mexican writers have their own webpages. Just for instance, Mónica Lavín and Alberto Ruy Sánchez. (See the contributors page for more links.)

Who are some of the writers that your "net" drew in? Were there any writers whom you didn't know about or whose work in some way surprised you?

The biggest surprise was "Tarantula," the story by Raymundo Hernández-Gil. Daryl Hague, a professor of Spanish at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, had translated his story and when he saw my "call for submissions" he mailed it in. Hernández-Gil was born in the state of Veracruz, where the story is set, and had only published his work in Spanish in a
Brigham Young University student journal. I could have asked everyone in Mexico City and not a one would have known about this story.

How is Mexican writing different from U.S. writing?

Individual writers are so different from one another that I find it difficult to make generalizations. But I do have one: in my experience, Mexican writing, more often than American writing, tends toward macabre subjects. I had always shied away from cliches
you know, "Mexicans are obsessed with death" etc. But when I looked at the stories and novel excerpts and essays I'd found, well, for the most part, I had to admit, the subject matter was death-obsessed. There's often a very dark sense of humor, similar to Flannery O'Connor's.

Are there stories set in Texas any "Tejano" stories?

No, though there are two border stories
the one by Carlos Fuentes is set in Ciudad Juárez, and the one I mentioned set in Tecate, just south of the California border, by Daniel Reveles. Everything in this book is set in Mexico. But certainly, another anthologist might have defined "Mexican" differently than I did. The border gets very blurry. I should add that it's not that definitions are so important to me; rather, the publisher gave me a strict limit the number of pages I could include. Such are the economics of publishing... That said, it's a good sized book at 256 pages.

Did many translators respond to your "call for submissions"?

Oh yes, Geoff Hargreaves sent me his translation of Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo's "The Green Bottle" (set in the Northern Desert); Eduardo Jim
énez sent me Bruno Estañol's "Fata Morgana" (set in the state of Tabasco); Amy Schildhouse Greenberg sent Ángeles Mastretta's "Aunt Elena" (state of Puebla); and Philip Garrison sent Raúl Mejía's "Banquets" (set in Morelia, Michoacán) just to give a few examples. I translated six pieces myself, and a few more were commissioned. But I think the number of fantastic pieces sent by translators shows how, in shaping how we view another culture, translators really are leaders.

Leaders? What do you mean?

Imagine you are a Mexican, and imagine that you have never seen a book by Joyce Carol Oates. You have no clue that such writers as Ann Patchett, Amy Tan, Ted Conover, Dave Eggers or Edwidge Danticat exist. Imagine that all you knew about U.S. culture came from watching TV, the movies, and taking a trip or two to Houston to go shopping in an outlet mall by a freeway. We have a thriving literary culture in the United States, and it's not concentrated in one place, but widely dispersed. There are major writers working in New York and Boston, but also in Washington D.C., Iowa, Seattle, Alaska, Houston
you name it. If you knew nothing about our literary culture, it would be easy to come to some unfairly disparaging conclusions about us as a people. You might say, as many Mexicans do, "Americans have no culture." With literary work, not always, but many times, it is the translator who takes the initiative to do the translation, rather than being hired by someone else, a publisher or an editor.

So translation lays a bridge across a gulf of ignorance.

(Laughs). Yes.

Why isn't more Mexican writing being translated?

For the same two reasons that very little literarature in any language is being translated. First, readers have a natural bias toward their own culture; second, cost. Translation can be expensive!

What about grants?

The sources are few. The
National Endowment for Arts, for example, offers a modest program of grants for literary translators, a does PEN. The Mexican government also has a fellowship program for translators. But in all, I think it fair to say that grants are scarce and to get one requires substantial time, effort, and luck.

What do you think should be done about this?

All sorts of things! One model is that of
Whereabouts Press, which publishes this Traveler's Literary Companion Series. It's a way of packaging translations, making them more appealing and accessible to readers. Many people who have bought one title in the Traveler's Literary Companion Series go on to buy another. I've got the Chile, Cuba, Costa Rica, Spain, Vietnam, Greece, and Italy and when Morocco comes out, I'll also get that one, since I plan to travel there. If I do say so myself, all the Traveler's Literary Companions are quite good reading!

Do you think translation should be subsidized?

I can tell you that I myself subsidize it. I'm the founding editor of Tameme, a bilingual literary journal. No literary journal I know of makes a profit. Now Tameme publishes chapbooksshort stories, poetry, and so on, beautiful work, I think, but I don't measure the value of it purely by the numbers of copies I can sell. It's a labor of love, really.

Do you think Mexico will encourage more translation of Mexican writing?

I sincerely hope so. May more readers develop a taste for Mexican writing, and go out and look for the Mexican work that is already out there in translation
and look for the books that will be out there.

Who are some of the Mexican writers you think should be translated?

All of the writers in the anthology have untranslated worktranslators, go to it! In addition to the writers in my anthology, I suggest Juvenal Acosta; José Agustín; Homero Aridjis; Juan José Arreola; Rosa Beltrán; Sabina Berman; Alberto Blanco; Carmen Boullosa; Fabienne Bradu; Federico Campbell; Carlos Chimal; Luis Humberto Crothswaite; Elena Garro; Ana Garcia Bergua; Adolfo Bioy Casares; Guillermo Fadanelli; Sergio Galindo; Margo Glantz; Cristina Gutiérrez Richaud; David Huerta; Francisco Hinojosa; Barbara Jacobs; Jorge Ibargüengoitia; Esther Krauze; Hernán Lara Zavala; Fabio Morábito; Silvia Molina; Carlos Montemayor; Salvador Novo; Jose Emilio Pacheco; Aline Pattersen; Octavio Paz; Ignacio Padilla; Elena Poniatwoska; Sergio Pitol; María Luisa Puga; Luis Arturo Ramos; José Revueltas; Juan Rulfo; Daniel Sada; Guillermo Samperio; Enrique Serna; Ignacio Solares, Paco Ignacio Taibo II; Jorge Volpe; Agustín Yañez; Luis Zapata. And of course, new writers are always cropping up.

That's a very long list.

I am sure it should be longer! There are so many wonderful Mexican writers, readers in English have no idea. And I didn't even get to the Mexican poets!

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to try doing literary translation?

It's a labor of love I think one has to approach it in this spirit. If you want to make a living at it, you'll probably find it very frustrating. Now, if you're doing it as a labor of love, you might as choose what you like, what you think deserves to be translated. So stay away from the obvious, the best-sellers, the works that have already been translated. Look for the unusual, the quirky, what speaks to you. Don't feel you have to be perfectly bilingual before you start. What you really need is to take painstaking care and have an ability to write at the same level as the author in your own language. (Many of the best literary translators are poets.) Finally, if you want to publish it, get permission. There are some excellent websites with information for literary translators. One of the best is the website of the American Literary Translators Association. Be sure to also visit PEN.

What is your favorite place in Mexico?

Right now it's a toss-up between the garden of Las Ma
ñanitas in Cuernavaca and Isla Espíritu Santo, an island off La Paz in the Sea of Cortez. If you'd asked me last week, I might have told you the garden of the Dolores Olmedo museum in Mexico City.

More interviews with C.M. Mayo
Featured on National Public Radio, click to listen in now!

More translations by C.M. Mayo

John Ydstie interviews C.M. Mayo about literary translation and Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. April 1st 2006. National Public Radio "All Things Considered."

An interview (in Spanish) by Dolia Estevez about Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, Miraculous Air, and Tameme. October 2007.
Poder y Negocios.

Mexican writer Luis Felipe Lomelí asks questions in English; C.M. Mayo contesta en español (with English transcript)
December 2018

John Bennett interviews C.M. Mayo about The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire and some of the stories (by Araceli Ardón, Fernando del Paso, Mónica Lavín) in Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. Whereabouts Press Blog.

Editor Margot Shetterley interviews C.M. Mayo on writing about and translating in Mexico. June 2007. Inside Mexico.

Editor Beth Bosworth interviews C.M. Mayo. Summer / Fall 2008.
Saint Ann's Review.

Tonya and Ian Fitzpatrick interview C.M. Mayo about Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, Miraculous Air and Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Mexico City,the forthcoming novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, and more. January 6, 2009.
Travel'n On Radio.

Elizabeth Wadell interviews C.M. Mayo on the Wide World of Mexican Fiction. Summer 2007.
The Quarterly Conversation

Eight Diagrams

Wayne E. Yang, photographer, writer, and litblogger extraordinaire, interviews C.M. Mayo about literary translation and Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. June 30, 2006.
Eight Diagrams

More interviews.
Many of the more recent interviews about later books also discuss Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, Mexico, and translation.