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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

November Newsletter and Best Wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving

My monthly-ish (very "ish") newsletter with updates on my podcasts, videos, articles, book reviews, guest-blogs, interviews, events, workshops and much more and yes, including the writing assistants, pictured left just went out to subscribers via mailchimp.

I welcome you to read my November newsletter and, should you feel so moved, to sign up to receive the next newsletter (probably January-ish) here.

P.S. My thoughts on writers' newsletters (dos and yucky no nos).

> As always, I welcome your comments. Write to me here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Giant Golden Buddha and 364 More Free 5 Minute Writing Exercises

Waaaay back in 2006, as a kind of Ur-blog, for 365 consecutive days I posted a 5 minute writing exercise on my website both for my writing workshop students and for myself for I was then in the midst of a multi-year marathon in writing my epic novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

Five minutes? Well, that was doable.

Anyway, "Giant Golden Buddha" and 364 more free 5 minute writing exercises are still there, right where they have always been, at this link. What prompts me to post about them today is that at the literary translators conference I attended recently a couple of people told me they loved the exercises but thought they were no longer on-line! I suspect that a few pathways got lost in the massive bramble in there when I redesigned the webpage last year. (Now the exercises are parked inside the new "For Creative Writers" pages).

I have reestablished a prominent link to "Giant Golden Buddha" from my website's homepage, and I hope that does the trick of making the 5 minute exercises easier-than-la-de-da to find. By the way, most but not all of the exercises are mine. To boogy things up, I asked several writer and poet friends to contribute an exercise, and many generously did (you will find their names and websites on the relevant pages). 


November 23 "Mpreg Story"
Today's exercise is courtesy of 
Liz Henry, a poet, writer, translator and blogger who lives in Redwood City, California.Pick a pop culture male character, someone you think of as quintessentially masculine, like Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Aragorn, or Kermit the Frog. Write what he writes in his diary when he first realizes he's pregnant. How does he feel? What does he worry about? What does he do about it? Who will he tell? How will it affect his career? Is the (other) father his lover, his friend, or his worst enemy? Or, write a diary entry from a few months later, after the pregnancy starts to show and the baby or babies start to kick. Now you have the core of a strange mpreg story; mpreg, "male pregnancy" is a sub-genre of fan fiction. Whatever your own gender, this exercise will challenge your ideas about narration and gender normativity, and perhaps about canonical "ownership" of fictional characters.

November 24 "Moo-moo Stuffing"
In your novel, a character named Susie has concocted something for Thanksgiving which she calls "Moo-moo stuffing." What are the ingredients? (What are the ingredients according to Susie?) What does it taste like? Does anyone want to eat it? Does anyone eat it? What happens?

November 25 "Turkey Soup"
Apropos of Thanksgiving left-overs, here is an exercise in generating specific sensory detail and also in using interesting verbs: write in scene in which your character makes turkey soup.

November 26 "Interesting Red"
(Note: This is a variation on the exercise for October 10, "Interesting Pink".) There are are endless "browns", e.g., coffee, chocolate, rust-brown, tocacco-spit-brown, umber, amber, cumin, walnut, hazelnut, toast, fawn, cardboard-brown, ditchwater-brown, polluted-sky-brown, auburn, mahogany, liver, chestnut, roan, sepia, goat's-eye-brown, slime-brown, tawny, potato-brown, bronze, slug-brown, russet, caramel, rotting pumpkin, pot-roast, velvety-brown & etc.
So: make a list of reds. Whatever occurs to you. Really dig around in there. (Feel free to check the Thesaurus if you need a jump-start.)

November 27 "Dog"
Using detail that appeals to all your senses, describe one dog. Be sure to also describe the way it moves. And what can you say about its personality?

November 28 "Show Don't Tell: Crowded Shopping Mall"
Using specific, vivid detail that appeals to the senses, how might you show that the shopping mall is crowded? (Do not use the words "shopping mall" or "crowded.")

November 29 "Living Room"
Quickly, without a lot of thought, list at least 8 but no more than 12 pieces of furniture that might go into a fictional living room. Then choose five.
Now, assign each of the 5: a color; a texture: a size; one other attritubute (can be anything). Now, give each of these 5 pieces a position: for example, is the sofa facing the window? Is the coffee table on top of the bearskin rug? Or is the cabinet in the corner next to the potted palm? Bonus exercise (beyond the 5 minutes): in 3- 4 sentences, describe the owner coming into this living room.

November 30 "Funny Expressions"
Whenever it was time to go somewhere, my grandma used to say, "We're off, the captain shouted." I knew someone else who used to say, "it's all gone to hell in a handbasket." And lots of kids say, "Cool." The exercise is this: imagine an older character, and jot down 3 of his or her characteristic expressions. Do the same for a younger character, and then for a middle-aged character. Feel free to use expressions you've actually heard, or to make them up.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Conversation with Sara Mansfield Taber, author of "Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter"

An age ago-- December 2011, to be exact-- I interviewed one of my favorite writers, literary journalist and poet Sara Mansfield Taber for my Conversations with Other Writers occasional podcast series. Well, it may have taken me almost four years, but today's the day the transcript finally went up onto my website. 

Read and/or listen in any time to the interview with Sara Mansfield Taber (and find show notes) >>here<<.

(In case you were wondering whether I was somehow blessed with 48 hours in the day,  the answer is no, ho ho, I use CLK Transcription, which I found via Debra Eckerling's Write Online! newsletter and I do warmly recommend them. It was Jane Friedman-- another warm recommendation-- who urged me to start posting transcripts of my podcasts.)

You'll notice I've only posted one Conversation with Others Writer podcast this year-- an interview with Rose Mary Salum, the Houston, Texas-based Mexican poet, writer and visionary editor. Why not more? It's not for lack of enthusiasm on my part-- I relish talking with other writers-- but this year I've been putting my podcasting time into my "Marfa Mondays" Podcasting Project and the (related) book I'm writing about Far West Texas, World Waiting for a Dream: A Turn in Far West Texas. 

That said, on a recent foray to San Antonio-- en route to visit the rock art of the Lower Pecos-- I did manage to record an interview for my "Conversations with Other Writers" series with Mary Margaret McAllen, a super crujiente one about her splendid book, Maximilian and Carlota: Europe's Last Empire in Mexico. Look for that podcast to be posted after the holidays.

I call my "Conversations with Other Writers" an "occasional series" because well, it's occasional, and it's occasional because podcasting on occasion beats not doing it at all! 

By the way, if you're interested in learning to podcast, while I may not be the world's Podcasting Poobah with a PhD in Sound Engineering, I do turn 'em out of the oven in my writerly fashion, and I'll tell you how in my podcasting workshop for the San Miguel Writers Conference this February. (You can also pick up my ebook based on my one day workshop for the Writer's Center, Podcasting for Writers & Other Creative Entrepreneurs, over in the Kindle store.)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

#1 Sara Mansfield Taber's Born Under an Assumed Name

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Translating Contemporary Latin American Poets and Writers: Embracing, Resisting, Escaping the Magnetic Pull of the Capital

[Yours Truly and Patricia Dubrava
with a chapbook of my translation of a short story
 by Agustín Cadena. We both translate Cadena.]

For the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Conference in Tucson late last month, apart from participating on Mark Weiss's excellent panel "Translating Across the Border," I proposed and chaired a panel that addressed a topic that, in truth, could have been considered for translating poets and writers in any of the populated continents:

Translating Contemporary Latin American Poets and Writers:  
Embracing, Resisting, Escaping the Magnetic Pull of the Capital

The panelists were Yours Truly (transcript of my talk follows), Jeffrey C. Barnett, Patricia Dubrava, and Clare Sullivan. In the audience: several very distinguished literary translators (lotus petals upon y'all). The Q & A was extra crunchy, and in true ALTA fashion, in the sweetest way. (Seriously, literary translators, and especially the crowd that regularly attends ALTA conferences, are angelically generous and encouraging. If any of you reading this have ever thought of trying literary translation and/or attending a literary translator's conference, my recommendation is, YES!) 

Yours Truly, Clare Sullivan, and Patricia Dubrava.]

[Jeffrey C. Barnett, C.M. Mayo, Patricia Dubrava]

Transcript of C.M. Mayo's Remarks 
for the panel on 
Translating Contemporary Latin American Poets and Writers
ALTA, Tucson, Arizona, 
October 31, 2015

I started translating in Mexico City in the early 1990s. Mexico City is Mexico's capital, but it's not analogous to Washington DC or, say, Ottowa, Canada. The megalopolis, "the endless city," as Carlos Monsivaís calls Mexico City, is like Washington DC, New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, all piled into one. In other words, its the political capital, financial capital, publishing capital, cultural capital, and television and movie capital. Oh, and business capital, too. Yes, there are other important cities in Mexico, and they have become more important in many ways, and some of them have some excellent writers and poets. But Mexico City is MEXICO CITY.
Back in the early 1990s, the ruling party, the PRI or Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Institutional Revolutionary Party was in power, about to enter the last decade of its more than 70 yes, 70years in power. How did it last so long? There are many answers to that question but the main one relevant for our topic at hand is that the PRI attempted to bring everyone, whether farmers, campesinos, industrialists or intellectuals, and that would include poets and writers, under its own big tent. It had its ways. Stick and carrot or bone, as Mexicans like to say.
You may be aware that after two consecutive presidential administrations under the PAN or the Partido Acción Nacional, over the past decade, Mexico's Presidency has since returned to the PRI. But it's not exactly a return to the past. Not exactly.
I'm not going to get all political on you, I simply want to underline the fact that back in early 1990s, the Mexican literary establishment, concentrated in Mexico City, was heavily influenced by and subsidized by the PRI government. Just to give you a notion of this: If you were to go into a library and look at some back issues of the leading Mexican literary and intellectual magazine of the time of course that would be Octavio's Paz's Vuelta you would see a large number of advertisements from government-owned entities and Televisa, the party-allied television conglomerate. There were literary gatekeepers, as there are everywhere in this world, but in Mexico City at that time, they were ginormously powerful. Octavio Paz was king.
Though Octavio Paz met his maker some years ago, in some ways things remain the same. Mexico City is where it's at. The government still plays an important, though lesser role. Letras Libres, successor to Vuelta, remains a leading magazine of influence, and in fact it does publish some of the best writing you'll find anywhere.
But since the early 1990s there have been political and economic sea-changes in Mexico. Power is more dispersed. Other political parties have become far more powerful. On the right and the left they rival the PRI and on many an occasion, beat the PRI at the ballot box.
And even more than the political and economic changes, the technological changes have been sea-changes. I'm talking about the rise of digital media, from blogging to YouTube, podcasting, Tweeting, FaceBooking, and publishing and by the way, amazon is now in Mexico with
To find a Mexican writer to translate, you no longer have to travel to Mexico City and get chummy with the powers that be who can make recommendations and, perhaps, invite the anointed to tea. Now, say, from Boston or Hong Kong or Cleveland, you can follow any given Mexican writer's blog, and comment thereupon. Or, say, send her a Tweet!
I would love to tell you the story of how, in the late 1990s, I started my bilingual magazine, Tameme, which published many Mexican writers, and my experiences with putting together the anthology, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion no easy task, since the idea of the TLC series is to provide writing about the whole country and that would include writing from and about Baja California, Yucatan, Chiapas, Chihuahua...
At present I am translating a batch of Mexican writers: Ignacio Solares, a novelist born in Ciudad Juárez, long based in Mexico City; Agustín Cadena, who was born in the state of Hidalgo and is living in Hungary; Araceli Ardón who was born in San Miguel de Allende and lives in Querétaro; and yet another, Rose Mary Salum, who is from Mexico City and now based in Houston, Texas.
But I don't want to take time from my fellow panelists and what I hope will be a rich question and answer session. The main thing I want to emphasize is that, as literary translators, we can play a powerful role in influencing who and who is not read in English. Who to translate? It's good to ask for advice from the powers that be of the literary establishment in, say, Mexico or Cuba or Chile, and maybe even choose to translate one of them. They might be blast-your-wig-to-the-asteroid-belt fabulous! But we also have to recognize that there are power structures in literary communities, some of them entangled with political structures, and we need to acknowledge and examine, in our own minds, and our own hearts, what part we play in that or choose not to play. And why.

#   #   #

We may have been visiting the southwest this year, but ni modo, after the panel we ambled over to Sinbad's for Iraqi tea and babaganoushe. 

Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

(30 second video)

Monday, November 09, 2015

Raymond Caballero on Mexican Revolutionary General Pascual Orozco and Far West Texas

My latest Marfa Mondays podcast, #20, "Raymond Caballero on Mexican Revolutionary General Pascual Orozco and Far West Texas" is now live and with show notes: 

>> Listen in anytime on podomatic or on iTunes here<<

Raymond Caballero is the author of Lynching Pascual Orozco: Mexican Revolutionary Hero and Paradox, the first major biography in over 40 years of one of the most important figures of the Mexican Revolution. Caballero is also the ex-mayor of El Paso, Texas and, in his words "a recovering lawyer"-- a background that no doubt helped him unravel the conspiracy he found revealed in the one hundred year-old records of the Culberson County Courthouse, apparently intended to cover up what really happened to Pascual Orozco and his men in the High Lonesome Mountains south of Van Horn in 1915. Caballero's Lynching Pascual Orozco is an important contribution to the history of not only the Mexican Revolution, but of the state of Chihuahua and of Far West Texas. 

Quote from the interview:

"There were a lot of Mexicans very upset over the killing of Pascual Orozco... it was a huge controversy... In El Paso, in San Antonio, in Mexico City even President Carranza was asking for explanations... they wanted an investigation. So what happened was, 'whoa! We didn't kill some ordinary horse thief, we killed General Pascual Orozco, the biggest military hero of the early part of the Revolution! And what happens if the Mexicans in El Paso are able to pressure officials and they start a grand jury investigation there?' As a result of the concern that they had, the sheriff of Culberson County did something very unusual..."  

-- Raymond Caballero

Listen to the Corrido del General Pascual Orozco sung by Los Tremendos Gavilanes on YouTube:

> Listen in anytime to all the Marfa Mondays Podcasts

Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

On the Trail of the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos: My Guest Blog for Mary S. Black

Mary S. Black is an expert on the Lower Pecos Canyons of Texas and the author of an award-winning historical novel, Peyote Fire. A while back, on her excellent blog, she interviewed me about my Marfa Mondays Podcasting project, my work in-progress about Far West Texas, and some of my previous works. I am very honored that today she is featuring my guest-blog on her blog, "On the Trail of the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos." 

A Guest-Blog for the Mary S. Black Blog

Click here to read this on the Mary S. Black Blog

Remote as they are, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of the US-Mexico border have a strangely magnetic pull. That may sound like a wild assertion, but the evidence comprises over 200 shamanistic rock art sites, many of them thousands of years old, and the fact that dozens of rock art enthusiasts, including myself, find themselves returning again and again. 

It was on a meltingly hot August day in 2014 that I made my first foray into the canyonlands for the Rock Art Foundation’s visit to Meyers Spring. A speck of an oasis tucked into the vast desert just west of the Pecos, Meyers Spring’s limestone overhang is vibrant with petrographs, both ancient, but very faded, and of Plains Indians works including a brave on a galloping horse, an eagle, a sun, and what appears to be a missionary and his church.


Because I am writing a book about Far West Texas and I must travel all the way from Mexico City via San Antonio, I had figured that this visit, plus an interview with the foundation’s executive director, Greg Williams, would suffice for such a little-known corner of my subject. 

I took home the realization that with Meyers Spring I had taken one nibble of the richest of banquets. In addition the rock art of the Plains Indians—Apaches and Comanches— of historic times, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands are filled with prehistoric art, principally Pecos River, Red Linear, and Red Monochrome. Of the three, Pecos River is comparable to the best known Paleolithic rock in the world, the caves of Lascaux in France.

I would have to return to the canyonlands— alas for my book’s time and travel budget!  Not that the Rock Art Foundation charges more than a nominal sum for its tours. The individual tour to Meyers Spring, which lasted four hours, cost a mere 30 dollars. Everyone involved, including the guides, works for the foundation for free.

By December of 2014 I was back for another Rock Art Foundation tour, this one down into Eagle Nest Canyon in Langtry. Apart from rock shelters with their ancient and badly faded petrographs, cooking debris, tools, and even a mummy of a woman who—scientists have determined— died of chagas, Eagle Nest Canyon is the site of Bonfire Shelter, the earliest and the second biggest bison jump, after Canada’s Head Bashed-In, in North America. Some 10,000 years ago hunters drove hundreds of prehistoric bison—larger than today’s bison—over the cliff. And in 800 BC, hunters drove a herd of modern bison over the same cliff, so many animals that the decaying mass of unbutchered and partially butchered carcasses spontaneously combusted. In deeper layers dated to 14,000 years, archaeologists have found bones of camel, horse, and mammoth, among other megafauna of the Pleistocene. 


Then in the spring of this year I visited the Lewis Canyon site on the shore of the Pecos, with its mesmerizing petroglyphs of bear claws, atlatls, and stars, and, behind a morass of boulders, an agate mirror of a tinaja encircled by petrographs. 

MAY 2015

MAY 2015

Not all but most of the Lower Pecos Canyonland rock art sites— and this includes Meyers Spring, Eagle Nest Canyon and Lewis Canyon— are on private property. Furthermore, visits to Meyers Spring, Lewis Canyon, and many other sites require a high clearance vehicle for a tire-whumping, paint-scraping, bone-jarring drive in. So I was beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the privilege it is to visit these sites. At Lewis Canyon, as I stood on the limestone shore of the sparkling Pecos in utter silence but for the crunch of the boots of my fellow tour members, I learned that less than 50 people a year venture to float down its length.

This October I once again traveled to the Lower Pecos, this time for the Rock Art Foundation’s annual three day Rock Art Rendezvous. Offered this year were the three sites I had already visited, plus a delectable menu that included White Shaman, Fate Bell, and—not for those prone to vertigo— Curly Tail Panther.


Just off Highway 90 near its Pecos River crossing, the White Shaman Preserve serves as the headquarters for Rock Art Rendezvous. After a winding drive on dirt road, I parked near the shade structure. From there, the White Shaman rock art site was a brief but rugged hike down one side of cactus-studded canyon, then up the other. I was glad to have brought a hiking pole and leather gloves. No knee surgery on the horizon, either. When I arrived at White Shaman, named after the central luminous figure, the sun was low in the sky, bathing the shelter’s wall and its reddish drawings in gold and turning the Pecos, far below, where an occasional truck droned by, deep silver.

The next morning, at the Rock Art Foundation’s tour of the Shumla Archaeological and Research Center in nearby Comstock, I heard Dr. Carolyn Boyd’s stunning talk about her book, The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, which is forthcoming in 2016 from University of Texas Press. Dr. Boyd, whose work is based on 25 years of archaeological research in the Lower Pecos and a meticulous study of Mexican anthropology, argues that White Shaman, which is many thousands of years old, may represent the oldest known creation story in North America.  (See Mary S. Black’s interview with Dr. Boyd, “Deciphering the Oldest American ‘Book.’”)


From the White Shaman Preserve, Fate Bell is a few minutes down highway 90 in Seminole Canyon State Park. More than any other site, this shelter in the cake-like layers of the limestone walls of a canyon, reminded me of the cave art I had seen in Baja California’s Sierra de San Francisco. Inhabited on and off for some 9,000 years, Fate Bell is the largest site in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. It has various styles of petrograph, including a spectacular group of anthropomorphs with what appear to be antlers and wings. 


Curly Tail Panther is a scoop of a cave about the size of a walk-in closet, but as if for Superman to whoosh in, set dizzyingly high on a cliff-side overlooking the Devils River. The back wall has an array of petrographs: red mountain lion, anthropomorphic figures, and geometric designs. The only access to Curly Tail Panther is by way of a narrow ledge. Drop your hiking pole or your sunglasses from here, and you won’t see them again. You might lose a character, too—in the opening of Mary Black’s novel, Peyote Fire, a shaman stumbles to his death from this very ledge. The Rock Art Foundation’s website made it clear, Curly Tail Panther is not for anyone who has a fear of heights. But who doesn’t? My strategy was to take a deep  breath and, like the running shoes ad says, Just do it. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Translating Across the Border: Transcript of My Talk for the American Literary Translators Association Panel, "Translating the Other Side," Tucson, Arizona

[C.M. Mayo and Wendy Burk at the "Translating Across the Border" panel
American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference,
Tucson, 2015.
Mark Weiss, chair of the panel, is in the back on the right.]

Translating Across the Border
Transcript of a Talk by C.M. Mayo

American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)
Conference 38, Tucson, October 29, 2015
Panel: "Translating the Other Side"
Moderator, Mark Weiss. 

Panelists: Wendy Burk, Catherine Hammond, C.M. Mayo

Muchísimas gracias, Mark Weiss, and thank you also to my fellow panelists, it is an honor to sit on this dias with you. Thank you all for coming. It is especially apt to be talking about translating Mexican writing here, a jog from the Mexican border, in Tucson—or Tuk-son as the Mexicans pronounce it.

I grew up in Northern California and was educated in various places but mainly the University of Chicago. As far as Mexico went, until I was in my mid-twenties, I had absorbed, to use historian John Tutino's term, the “enduring presumptions.” Translation: I had zero interest in Mexico.

You know that old saying, if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans? 

What brought me to translating Mexican poetry and literary prose was that I married a Mexican—my fellow graduate student at University of Chicago— and we moved to his hometown, Mexico City, in 1986. I am happy to say that we are about to celebrate our 30th anniversary. 

For me, as a writer, and as a translator, these decades, mainly spent in Mexico City, have been a grand adventure in learning and exploring the cultures, histories, and geography of Mexico and of course, learning Spanish. I cannot claim that I speak and write Spanish like a native—I started learning Spanish when I was 24 years old. But after three decades in Mexico... well, after three decades of living in any country, if you haven’t learned the language, at least to level of conversation and daily business... I was about to say something unkind.

My husband has his own and very distinguished career as an economist but I call him my Translation Assistant. Although I would say I am fluent in Mexican Spanish, as all of you well know, literary translation can be fluky-tricky. Many a time he has rescued me from what would have been toe-curling embarrassment. May we all have our translation assistants. 

It was back in the early 1990s, when I started writing my own poetry and short fiction, that I had two epiphanies. First epiphany: I could do this! I mean, I knew some Spanish and at the same time, I could write literary fiction and poetry myself. I was beginning to get my own stories and poems published in well-regarded literary journals, such as the Paris Review, The Quarterly, Southwest Review. That gave me a shot of confidence. To this day, I really believe that the best literary translators are not necessarily the most fluent, the most perfectly bilingual, but rather, those who can render the work into the same literary level in the target language.

And the second epiphany was that appallingly little Mexican work was being translated into English.There were some books, mainly from university presses, the occasional anthology, and here and there, a poem in a literary magazine, but I was in Mexico City, in Coyoacán, I could see what was going on, the rich, flourishing literary culture. It was obvious to me that this was not registering in the literary communities north of the border, not the way it should. 

For me, getting to know Mexican poets and writers was not difficult. Back in those days of yore, before the Internet ... well, one important poet, Manuel Ulacia, was my neighbor. We would often see each other out walking our dogs. 

But let me back up for a broader perspective.

Mexico shares a 2,000 mile border with the United States, spanning the southern borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the greater part of Texas. And Mexico has some of the richest literary traditions in the world. 

It starts with the codexes of the Maya and the Aztecs, and others—and as a quick side note, there is a book forthcoming in 2016 from University of Texas Press by archaeologist Dr. Carolyn Boyd, in which she argues that the White Shaman rock site near the U.S.Mexico border in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, which is thousands of years old, is actually a codex— and basing some of her arguments on the work of Mexican anthropologists, Dr. Boyd has decoded it. It tells the story of creation. And so we can think about “White Shaman” as the first known book in North America. North America, of course, includes Mexico. And the Texan side of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands was once part of Mexico. 

And speaking of books, you may recall the hullabaloo about the 14.2 million dollar sale of a copy of the first English language book printed in the New World, The Whole Booke of Psalmes of 1640. Well, that was more than one hundred years after the first Spanish language book was printed in Mexico City. That was Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Christiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana, printed in 1539. And there may have been an even earlier book printed in 1537, Escala Espiritual par Illegar al cielo, but no known copies survive.

In the prologue to my anthology of 24 Mexican writers, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, I write, “Mexican literature—a vast banquet—is one of the greatest achievements if the Americas. And yet we who read in English have gone hungry, for so astonishingly little of it has been published.” 

Mexico: A Literary Traveler’s Companion was published in 2006 and although I know many of you and other members of ALTA, and other translators, have since then published many Mexican works in translation, and anthologies, this scarcity, this appalling scarcity of translations of works from our neighboring country, continues. 

I could go on with names, book titles, and numbers from the publishing industry, but it would be too sad.  To give you the simplest and most concrete sense of how sad this situation is, when the sales team asked for blurbs for Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, I really had a problem. Of course there are many anthologies of English language writing about Mexico. But Mexicans writing about Mexico? I would have to ask a Mexican for a blurb. But what Mexican?

Octavio Paz? Yes, he won the Nobel Prize. But he was dead. 

Carlos Fuentes? He was in the anthology himself, so asking him for a blurb would have been awkward. Anyway, he wasn't answering his email.

Sales reps and bookstore buyers, for the most part, did not recognize the name of any Mexican writer. 

Salma Hayek? I suggested. 

The sales rep answered, “WOW! That would be GREAT!”

(No offense intended to Ms Hayek, an accomplished Mexican actress and producer. But methinks a blurb from her, had I been able to wrangle one, would have carried about as much clout as that of, say-- to scrambled it into Texanese, porquois pas-- a rodeo barrel racing champion opining on the national polo team.)

We ended up using a blurb Isabelle Allende had provided for the Traveler’s Literary Companion series itself—a series from Whereabouts Press that includes many countries, among them, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and as far afield as Australia and Viet Nam.

And I managed to wrangle a blurb from a translator who is a queen among us—I know many of you will recognize her name—Margaret Sayers Peden. She wrote: 

“This delicious volume has lovingly gathered a banquet of pieces that reveal Mexico in all its infinite variety, its spendid geography, its luminous peoples. What a treat!” 

Bless her heart.

Apart from the anthology and various contributions to other anthologies and literary magazines, for a few years I founded and edited Tameme, a bilingual literary journal of new writing from Canada, the US and Mexico. That was a project I did with my dad, Roger Mansell, who had 25 years of experience in the graphic arts and printing business in San Francisco. So if I do say so myself, the three issues of Tameme and two chapbooks were quite beautiful and they should be collector’s items. Unfortunately my dad passed away, and with my own books to write, Tameme was more than I could handle.

But I have continued to translate. A few of the writers and poets I have translated in recent, post-Tameme years include Agustín Cadena for BorderSenses and Chatahoochie Review and various anthologies, most recently, Sarah Cortez’s Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. I also recently published a story by Ignacio Solares in Lampeter Review, and am working on a second story by Solares and another by Araceli Ardón. 

A story by Rose Mary Salum was published in a very fine a new literary magazine edited by Dini Karasik called Origins. And I am also working on translating Rose Mary Salum's forthcoming book, El agua que mece el silencio, as The Water That Stirs the Silence. 

Apart from Tameme, the largest translation project I have undertaken to date is a strange one, and I bring it up because I know that for many of you the question of rights is a concern. A book that is out of copyright, you can grab that, you can translate that. Go to it! 

Last year for ALTA, when the topic was “Politics and Translation,” for two different panels I talked about that book, or rather my book about that book. The title of my book is METAPHYSICAL ODYSSEY INTO THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION: FRANCISCO I. MADERO AND HIS SECRET BOOK, SPIRITIST MANUAL. And it does include the complete first translation of Spiritist Manual. 

Francisco Madero was the leader of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution and President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913, when he was overthrown in a coup d’etat and murdered. Madero was a Spiritist medium, that is, he believed he could communicate with the dead—and so can you! His secret book, Spiritist Manual, written in 1910—the year he launched the Revolution—and published under a pseudonym when was president elect in 1911, is... all about that. And I translated it because nobody else had. 

As I said in my panel talk last year,

I cannot not deny other motives and the millions of other participants in that Revolution of 1910. But its spark, and the way it played out, and, I believe, Madero's murder, become a radically different story once we take into account his Spiritism.

My aim with my book and my translation of Madero's book is to deepen our understanding of Madero, both as an individual and as a political figure; and at the same time, deepen our understanding of the rich esoteric matrix from which his ideas sprang, in other words, not to promote his ideas nor disparage them, but explain them and give them context. 

It is also then my aim to deepen our understanding of the 1910 Revolution and therefore of Mexico itself, and because the histories are intertwined, therefore also deepen our understanding of North America, Latin America, the Pacific Rim, and more— for as long as a book exists, should someone happen to read it, it can catalyze change in understanding (and other changes) that ripple out, endlessly. 

Such is the wonder, the magical embryonic power of a book, any book, whether original or in translation: that, even as it rests on a dusty shelf for a hundred years, or for that matter, an unvisited digital "shelf," if it can be found, if it can be read, it holds such potential.

To conclude: I mainly translate contemporary Mexican short fiction and poetry. It is a labor of love and, as an English language writer who lives in Mexico City, a way for me to engage with Mexico and with my Mexican colleagues. And finally, translating is a way to bring what I can, whether it be a monster on a platter or algún taquito sabroso, to the literary banquet.

To quote myself again from the prologue of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, “Throughout Mexico there are so very many writers whose work has yet to be translated, or, though translated, deserves a far wider readership in English.” 

Any and all of you who have an interest in translating Mexican literature— know that you have my heartfelt good wishes.


Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

***UPDATE: See the post about my other talk for the ALTA Conference, Translating Contemporary Latin American Poets and Writers: Embracing, Resisting, Escaping the Magnetic Pull of the Capital