In anticipation of Cinco de Mayo, we’ve been talking about our favorite Mexican and Mexican American authors. Yuri Herrera? Check. Juan Rulfo? Check. Sandra Cisneros, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Laura Esquivel? Check, check, check. But we’ve also got our eyes on some newer writers — members of the upcoming literary generation or those just now being translated into English — whose stylistic audacity and topical themes dazzle us book after book.
Here’s a short list of five such books, new staff favorites by Mexican and Mexican American writers.
Mexican author Valeria Luiselli is a perennial Powell’s staff favorite, and her most recent novel, Lost Children Archive, is no exception. This timely and stylistically ambitious novel documents an unnamed family's journey from New York to Arizona, to reach Apacheria, the region formerly inhabited by the Apache people. Their winding story is told through introspective, journal-like entries that not only detail the characters’ progress towards Apacheria, and their many stops along the way, but also highlight the complex relationships within the family unit. An unfolding news story about refugee children provides another layer of stress and urgency to their travels. Jill O. writes, “One way I've been describing Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive is that it reads like a classic — as though even now, you can tell that this is a novel that will be pored over and taught, and will carry its gravity, grace, and intelligence into the future. But it's also immensely compelling, and the second half is so page-turning I raced through on first read, desperate to find out what happened. The story of this family is both revelatory and intimate, and Lost Children Archive is an extraordinary achievement.”
In her own words, award-winning poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico is a “fronteriza” from the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The border looms large in Scenters-Zapico’s arresting poetry, which frequently relocates the border in its subjects’ violated bodies: “She dreamt her body cut / in half—a perfect border;” “I write my body, as border between / this rock & absence of water.”
Much of Scenters-Zapico’s work explores the violence against women endemic in the borderland; her poems blur the lines between city and citizen, individual and collective, combining political frustration with the speakers’ deeply personal laments for the ways they have suffered from and invited male violence into their lives. One stunning example of the tug between “I” and “we,” self and place, is the poem “The Verging Cities Watch Me,” where the speaker says: “But when I open my body I am alone, / alone only the way these two cities can be / alone, only the way I am alone with him. / When we are naked, we are as pale as flyers / for women gone missing.”
Rife with themes of brutality, machismo, insects, motherhood, lovers, thirst, and drought, Scenters-Zapico’s poetry is grisly and plaintive, evoking the dry wildness of the borderland and decrying the neocolonial violence exercised on that land and the people who live there.
Scenters-Zapico’s sophomore collection, Lima :: Limón comes out later this month.
Chloe Aridjis is an international award-winning Mexican novelist based in London, UK. Sea Monsters takes place in the 1980s in Mexico City and Zipolite, a hippie/expat beach community in Oaxaca. It tracks the surreal adventures of Luisa, an impulsive, slightly emo teen who convinces a boy she hardly knows to accompany her to Zipolite. There she bums around seeking out mysterious people... until her dad comes to get her. Both Luisa and her father encounter fairy tale-like characters and situations, though Luisa’s sense of wonder is countered by her father’s more pragmatic quest to retrieve his wayward daughter. Aridjis’s writing is beautiful, keen-eyed and dreamy, but the real joy of Sea Monsters is how perfectly it captures Luisa’s teenage angst and wanderlust, her wide-eyed naiveté at the beauties and strangeness of the world, and gradual understanding that there is a hard if nebulous line between fantasy and reality.
Mexican writer and Distinguished Professor (University of Houston) Cristina Rivera Garza has a vast portfolio of 17 books spanning fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her recent novel, The Taiga Syndrome, is, to borrow writer Jane Ciabattari's phrase, best described as speculative noir; its protagonist, the anonymous Ex-Detective, is hired to track a couple deep into a snowy, primeval forest brimming with beasts and fairy tale characters. Along the way she encounters not just the nightmares of bloodthirsty witches and skinned wolves, but the possibilities of language to subvert tropes, silence dissenters, and free (or entrap) the individual within repressive social structures. Critic Daniel Borzutsky calls The Taiga Syndrome “Apocalypse Now fused with the worlds of Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges.” Bizarre and glittering, The Taiga Syndrome is an excellent introduction to the heady, poetic oeuvre of Cristina Rivera Garza.
This last recommendation is a bit of a tease, as Monge’s book doesn’t come out until next month. Like all of the authors on this list, Monge’s work is seductive and many-layered, exploring contemporary crises of immigration, national identity, and economics through ferocious storytelling that draws on history, politics, literary allusion, and metaphor to craft recognizable unrealities. In Among the Lost, Monge tells the story of Estela and Epitafio, lovers separated by circumstance who are both victims and perpetrators of human trafficking. Over the course of a single day, Estela and Epitafio strategize ways to reconnect and flee to a place called Paraíso, all while brutalizing the migrants they’re in the process of betraying. It’s a harrowing book, but if you can stomach the astonishing cruelty on display — all the more awful for being true — at its heart is the unpleasant truism that even the worst people are primarily formed by experience, and at their cores possess the same hopes for security and freedom that all people aspire to.