The Latin American literature world is booming at the moment, as more and more publishing houses are choosing to translate the works published in Spanish into English, bringing their novels to a wider audience. In Mexico, the situation is no different. Known for the famed Mexican writers Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz, Mexico has a plethora of contemporary authors that are still battling for the wider recognition of their forefathers. Here are the top ten must-read texts.
Sandra Cisneros has done a lot for Chicano literature, and her first novel remains one of her best. The House on Mango Street (1984) is a slim, slight text, easily devourable in one sitting, and explores the coming-of-age story of a Latina in Chicago, Esperanza Cordero. Growing up in Chicago, Esperanza’s experiences deftly mirror those of the countless Mexican-Americans growing up in the States, touching vast swathes of readers since its publication, which is obvious from its inclusion in middle-school syllabuses across the country and translation into multiple languages – including Spanish. Often heartbreaking, but often joyous, The House on Mango Street is a classic text in the Chicano literary canon.
Multi-talented Chloe Aridjis’ first novel, Book of Clouds/ El libro de las nubes (2009), was released to critical acclaim and went on to win the French Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. In 2012, it would be released as a graphic novel in French. This excitement over her first publication was matched by Asunder (2012), which met with great critical acclaim in the UK. This novel is deft, attention-capturing fiction which surrealistically explores the tension and relationship between art and life in the life of a London museum guard. At turns weird and extravagant, Asunder follows the ponderings of Marie and her obsession with the cracks in the paintwork of the great masterpieces by which she is surrounded.
Described as one of the brightest literary talents in the entire world right now, and mentored by the fantastic Mario Bellatin, Valeria Luiselli is a Mexico City native and author of three outstanding works. Sidewalks/ Papeles falsos (2013) is a beautifully written, evocative, and at times downright poetic collection of essays. However her first fiction, published prior to this collection, is Faces in the Crowd/ Los ingrávidos (2012), an impressive entry into the literary world which sealed her brilliance as an up-and-coming contemporary Mexican author by winning the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction – an incredible feat for a work in translation. It gracefully sidesteps the rising tide of narcoliterature spilling out from Mexico, instead concerning herself with the transcendentalism of literature. Her latest novel is The Story of my Teeth/ La historia de mis dientes (2015).
Mythical and rich, borderlands novel Signs Preceding The End Of The World/ Señales que precederan al fin del mundo (2015) is a stunning sophomore novel from the up-and-comer Yuri Herrera. Owing much to Juan Rulfo’s seminal text Pedro Páramo, the narrator Makina is on a journey to bring back her brother from across the US border, and in broaching such a topic evokes the ever crashing wave of migration from Mexico to the US. Scattered throughout are references to mythology, which adds to the wondrous depth of this slim volume. The lyrical translation into English by Lisa Dillman is well worth praising too, as she skilfully yet faithfully provides English language readers with excellent versions of Herrera’s frequent neologisms.
Perhaps better known for participating in the ‘Crack Manifesto,’ a group of Mexican writers rejecting the Mexican mainstream’s proclivity for lighthearted writing, Jorge Volpi is both novelist and essayist. Understandably, his work tends to lean away from surrealism, instead leaning towards historical and scientific preoccupations, and have been internationally acclaimed and translated. Thriller In Search of Klingsor/ En busca de Klingsor (2003), the first in a trilogy, is the perfect example of these tendencies and is a structurally complex novel. It is also one of his most acclaimed, translated into 19 languages and has even been broadcast on German radio.
June of 2015 marked the first English translation of one of Guadalupe Nettel’s texts The Body Where I Was Born/ El cuerpo en que nací, and it’s about time. Regularly hailed as one of the best untranslated writers (prior, of course, to this new volume), Nettel was the 2014 winner of the Owen National Literature Prize. The Body Where I Was Born has a rather unusual conceit, one that initially may draw comparisons with Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as her narrator is a cockroach, a character torn between resistance and resignation. Referred to as autobiographical novel, it often feels like a confession, one which explores the often harrowing girlhood of woman.
Xavier Velasco is one of the most fascinating Mexican authors of the moment, with his irreverent style well known in the Spanish speaking world and widely regarded for its furthering of the Mexican narrative. His critically acclaimed novel Diablo Guardián (2003) was the recipient of the Premio Alfaguara in the same year. His distinctive style and love of the colloquial seeps through every page, infusing the reader with the fascination and love for Mexico that Velasco himself clearly has. Following rebellious teen Violetta, as she crosses the border to the US with money stolen from her parents, throwing caution to the wind at every stop along the way. It’s only a shame for English speakers that more of his work isn’t easily available in translation.
Guadalajara native Juan Pablo Villalobos is the author of Down The Rabbit Hole/ Fiesta en la madriguera (2011) and the more recent Quesadillas (2014), both of which are published in translation by And Other Stories, the excellent not-for-profit publishing house which specializes in bringing great literature to an English-speaking audience. Described as a leading representative of so-called narcoliterature, Villalobos in his first novel explores this obscenely luxurious but heavily guarded cartel world as the entirely normal backdrop to the life of the child narrator, Tochtli. The result is intriguing and disturbing all at once, with Villalobos unafraid to question the harsh realities of Mexican corruption. Villalobos’ clever navigation of the reality, and sometimes the underbelly, of Mexico is set off by some excellent characters and dry humor.
The final entry on our list is a rather unusual one as it has not one, but two authors. The result of a collaboration between Paco Ignacio Taibo II, famed for authoring several books which are regularly described as narcoliterature, and Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista revolutionary, The Uncomfortable Dead/ Muertos incómodos (2004) is captivating. Taibo authored the even numbered chapters of this loosely plotted but rich in character thriller, whereas the odd numbered passages were provided by the elusive founder of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation – who never appears in public without a ski mask – Subcomandante Marcos. Both prolific and excellent writers in their own right, their intriguing partnership on this book earns them both a spot on our list.
Broadly dealing with feminist issues in Latin America in her repertoire of eclectic and genre-spanning writings, Carmen Boullosa is an exceptional novelist, poet, and playwright. This stunning and wide ranging amount of quality writing leaves it difficult to pick just one novel, but Leaving Tabasco (2001) is an excellent place to start. A Mexican woman now living in Germany, Delmira Ulloa richly evokes her life 30 years before in a quirky, tiny town in the state of Tabasco. Magic is the stuff of everyday life in this excellent novel, which of course evokes the magical realism so popular in Latin America, something of which the text is evidently self-aware, as Delmira is at one point handed One Hundred Years of Solitude to read on a plane. A fascinating text, Leaving Tabasco is enthralling, wordy, thought-provoking.