Writer / editor C.M. Mayo won the Flannery O’Connor Award for her collection of short stories Sky Over El Nido. She is the founding editor of the bilingual literary journal Tameme and the editor of the anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
Wayne: You once said that you took up translating, because you found that very little Mexican literature was being translated. What kind of impression does the American reader have of Mexican literature?
C.M.: An extremely faint one. Most educated Americans have heard of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes but, alas, that’s the extent of it. More knowledgable readers are aware of a few other names such as Alma Guillermoprieto, Elena Poniatowska, Alberto Ruy Sanchez, Angeles Mastretta, Laura Esquivel, Juan Villoro, Carlos Monsivais, and Ilan Stavans. This is especially dismaying given that Mexico not only has a stunningly rich literary heritage and contemporary literary scene, but it shares with us a nearly 2,000 mile long border.
Wayne: If you were to name a handful of other Mexican writers, which ones do you wish would be more on the tips of tongues of American readers?
C.M.: All the ones in my anthology! Rosario Castellanos, Ines Arrendo, Agustin Cadena, Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, Monica Lavin— I could go on— there are two dozen writers in this collection. And there’s a long list of outstanding contemporary Mexican writers I could not include for one reason or another. Then there are Mexican writers of past centuries— Juan Rulfo, Agustin Yanez and going all the way back to Sor Juana, the nun and poet of the colonial period, for example, and Bernal Diaz, the Spanish soldier whose memoir, The True History of the Conquest is— this is no exaggeration— one of the greatest books ever written. The Mayan, Nahua and many other indigenous peoples of Mexico also have a grand literature of poems, epics, and stories. So my anthology of contemporary Mexican writing that offers a portrait of place is, really, a cookie-cut out from a veritable ocean of Mexican literature.
Wayne: Are there any other book-length translation projects you want to tackle?
C.M.: At the moment I am focusing on in translating shorter works and shepherding them into print relatively quickly and inexpensively, via the Tameme chapbooks/ cuadernos series. The first one is a story by Agustin Cadena.
Wayne: Can you explain why you said that your anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion had to include something by Fuentes?
C.M.: He’s the best-known living Mexican writer, and certainly, his writing is superb.
Wayne: As a writer and editor who traverses between two cultures, what kind of role do you hope to serve in bridging Mexican and American literature?
C.M.: Good literature is an education of the heart. It all goes to that end.
Wayne: When we think of travel literature, we often think of essays. Why, and why did you take a different tact by deciding to take on a Whereabouts Press project that focused instead on “short stories as travel” (particularly since you are so conversant in both the essay and short story forms)?
C.M.: I knew how little Mexican writing had been translated, how very few anthologies there are, and so I knew any anthology would be an important contribution. The thought of doing one had crossed my mind. So, when Whereabouts Press called to invite me to edit this one, it felt exactly right. The Traveler’s Companion Series 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. As for my own essays and fiction, I certainly have not turned away from these. In fact, I’m almost finished with a novel and another short story collection, and I’ve been publishing essays on Mexico in Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. “From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion,” about a visit to the Emperor Maximilian’s castle in Italy, is forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review.
Wayne: What have you learned from your translation work that you have been able to bring to your own fiction?
C.M.: It has helped me enormously to immerse myself in Mexican Spanish, nitpicking over nuances of meaning and rhythms. And of course, it never ceases to deepen my sense of awe at Mexico’s richness and complexity.