C.M. Mayo, Editing a Literary Tour of Mexico The new anthology Mexico, A Traveler's Literary Companion takes us deep inside the imagination of a country through its fiction. Many of the stories are translated to English for the first time. Editor and translator C.M. Mayo tells John Ydstie about the book.

C.M. Mayo, Editing a Literary Tour of Mexico

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Unidentified Man: (Reading) The settlement, hidden away in an isolated corner of the immense desert, had lost its population little by little. First to go were the men, those with sturdy legs and strong arms. Years before, they left in a flurry of revolutionary excitement, eager to fight for the right to own land. A happy affair all around, since nobody was fighting to own this stretch land. The dry hilltops bereft of vegetation, the salt bedeviled lowlands scorched by a sun fiercer than toothache.


That's a passage from The Green Bottle, a short story by Mexican historian and novelist Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo. It's the tale of one woman's wait for her son to return, after he goes north to the United States to find work. It's never been translated into English before. But now, you can find the story in the new anthology Mexico, A Traveler's Literary Companion. It takes us deep inside the imagination of that country through its fiction.

The editor C.M. Mayo joins us in our studios.


Ms. C.M. MAYO (Editor and Translator, Mexico, a Traveler's Literary Companion): Wow, delighted.

YDSTIE: This first story is really quite a sad tale. Can you give us a bit of context? Tell us what's happening here?

Ms. MAYO: It's set particularly in this place in Mexico, but it has a sort of epic feeling to it. It could really be almost anywhere, actually. I read this as a story of ultimate poverty. It's really very sad. And one of the words that keeps coming through it, I noticed, I kept noticing the word until.


Ms. MAYO: Until. Until. It's like a drumbeat that goes through the entire story.

YDSTIE: Waiting for something to happened. Waiting for something good to happen, essentially.

Ms. MAYO: And it doesn't happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: It just doesn't happen.

Ms. MAYO: It's sad. Yes, it's very sad, very dark.

YDSTIE: The plot line is really about people leaving. And a woman who has a son has a brother come back from the United States with some wonderful, colorful clothes that have never been seen in this town before. Her son is enticed go along to the United States and gets work. And his mother continues to hope, and hope, and hope for his return. Meanwhile, the town is emptying out and the only folks left behind are the old folks.

Let me read a little bit more of this story. After the son leaves, the town is essentially dying. And finally, the old people are resigned to digging their own graves.

Ms. MAYO: Really is gruesome, yeah.

YDSTIE: It is. And here's a particularly bleak part of it. Once the work of providing their daily sustenance was over, two or three of them use to go together, and determinately break through the hard layers of lime that formed the subsoil of the tiny cemetery in the mournful hillside. Between twisted roots and ashy shrubs, they opened up handful by handful what had once been the epitome of their hopes, and was now to be their tombs.

A damned earth, damned for never having yielded them an ounce of sweetness. A savage land haunted by devils, which repaid every caress by spitting back thistles and lacerating thorns. Cursed. Totally cursed. Roundly cursed, like those noons of torturing fire that enveloped them day after day. Not one of their number had ever known the gift of fresh fruit, or the luxury of plunging into water, and rolling in its transparent waves. It had never crossed their minds that such things existed.

Ms. MAYO: It's an amazing work of imagination. I'm sure there are many stories that are true. Like this particularly, this story, which is set, as I understand it, at the beginning of the 20th century, probably around the time of the revolution...

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAYO: ... would be my guess. But you can hear the poetry in that.

YDSTIE: You can.

Ms. MAYO: It is, just the entire story, it's one of the longest in the collection. It's just one long poem.

YDSTIE: I suppose you could describe The Green Bottle as sort of a gothic strain...

Ms. MAYO: Very gothic, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: ... in Mexican writing. It's not, and a strain I think Americans might be more familiar with than a lot of the other writing, simply because we're so close to that part of Mexico that's depicted there.

How common is this theme of traveling north for work in Mexican literature?

Ms. MAYO: Certainly, it's a big part of Mexico but not all of it.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAYO: I think it's pretty much in the news these days.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAYO: But one of the things that's not in the news, but probably should be, is the first story in the collection, which is it goes the other way.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAYO: You have a lot of Americans immigrating into Mexico.

YDSTIE: Right.

Ms. MAYO: And there's some issues with that, too...

YDSTIE: Right.

Ms. MAYO: ... good and bad on both sides. And that is the opening story, which I don't even know if I can stay the title on the air because it's a bad word in Spanish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYO: It's Big, I'll just leave a blank, X's Revenge.

YDSTIE: Yes, Big X is the border guard, a Mexican border guard.

Ms. MAYO: We'll call him X on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYO: Yeah. He, no, well, he's not a border guard. He's a town policeman in the town of Tecate, which is a beautiful little town right on the border between Baja, California Norte and our state of California, which has a lot of American retirees. And Big X goes to San Diego with his girlfriend and gets arrested by the migra, you know. And so he takes his revenge on the American illegals in Tecate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Now, we shouldn't suggest that all the stories in this anthology are about the crossing.

Ms. MAYO: Yeah. No, not at all.

YDSTIE: There are stories of, there are funny stories, there are stories of coming of age, love stories, even a horror story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

How did you choose what went into this volume?

Ms. MAYO: Well, the idea of the anthology, a Travelers Literary Companion, is to give a portrait of the country in the voices of the finest literary writers we can find of that country and a sense of the complexity, regionally, ethically, sociologically. It's incredibly complex.

I think that one of the things many Americans make a mistake with, with Mexico, is to assume that it's all poverty and everybody's poor. By world standards Mexico is very wealthy, and this is something a lot of people don't know or tend to forget, so I think that the sense of Mexico being complex is really the more the message I would want people to take home from this.

YDSTIE: Can you point to any particular story here that reveals a Mexico that Americans don't often see or know about?

Ms. MAYO: Oh, there are several.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYO: Some of the Mexico City pieces, Guadalupe Loaeza's Opalanco(ph). She's a very well-known columnist in Mexico, and she has a number of novels that have been very popular about her favorite neighborhood in Mexico City, which is really the world of los ninos e las ninas bien(ph), the nice people, the nice stores, the nice restaurants, a very international, very well-off, very sophisticated part of Mexico City, and she writes about it with a lot of carino(ph), a lot of affection and happy memories. It certainly is a part of Mexico a lot of tourists don't know about or don't think to look for.

YDSTIE: Now, I want to leave listeners with one last little nugget. There's a story called The Banquet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Would you read just a bit from the beginning of that on page 144?

Ms. MAYO: This piece, Banquetese(ph) by Raul Mejia who is a writer from Metrican(ph), and the translator of this is Philip Garrison.

(Reading) It was always with a bit of a sneer that people in my neighborhood used the word banquet. We knew that we would never attend the kind of feast we saw in the movies. We used the word banquet for Rosetta's(ph) enchiladas, rich with grease, onions and cheese, or for those gorettas(ph) of Dona Pala(ph). Even now I recall them full of potatoes and dripping with sausage grease or with beans simmered with bacon strips.

That was a banquet, although, of course, the word also had overtones of something extraordinary, maybe a first communion party with hot chocolate and cake with sickly sweet frosting, not especially tasty or nutritious or even exotic, just not ordinary.

A banquet was an event. It didn't even have to be associated with food. Despite the long white tablecloths, it was a chance to cut loose in somebody else's house, always, of course, with some party, I mean, banquet as a pretext.

YDSTIE: Now a lot of you out there might have seen or read Like Water For Chocolate, and that's just say that...

Ms. MAYO: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: ...in this story the food quickly becomes a metaphor for something else...

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: ...as well.

Ms. MAYO: A bit naughtier.


(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: C.M. Mayo, thank you very much.

Ms. MAYO: Well, thank you, muchas gracias.

YDSTIE: C.M. Mayor is the editor of Mexico, a Traveler's Literary Companion. Thanks for coming in and joining us today.

Ms. MAYO: Thank you.

YDSTIE: To read some of the stories from Mexico, a Traveler's Literary Companion, in both English and in Spanish, and to hear about the art of translation, go to our website at npr.org.

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