Innovation seems impossible when it comes to writing on universal themes like love, family or even loss. And yet, in a world with what translator Sophie Hughes describes as a “stubborn and inexplicable preference for male literary writer superstars,” Mexican women are leaving their own stamps on the literary canon of the latter.
Loss tears through the narrative in some of the below texts, dragging everyone along with it, including (and especially) the reader; in others, it is an uninvited antagonist and a necessary drive. However, in all six of the titles — each one brought masterfully into English with the help of a translator who is taking “nine times out of ten, a pro bono punt on producing a sample to pitch to publishers,” Hughes says — the universal experience of loss and losing becomes a fresh revelation.
Whether they deal with the loss of a homeland, a child or a sense of autonomy, these titles with their nonlinear storytelling, effortlessly incorporated visuals and poetic prose (or even just straight-up poetry) are the new narratives on loss that you need to be reading.
UMAMI BY LAIA JUFRESA
A drawing on the opening pages of the evocatively titled and critically lauded Umami overlays a tongue with a tower block floor plan, adding to the “whimsy” that many have noted the book evokes. In Jufresa’s fiction debut — Hughes considers her a true storyteller — a quiet mystery plays out backward, enveloping just one block of the vast and unruly Mexico City in almost solipsistic grief. A child launches the narrative, while the death of another drives it, at least in part, and although Umami has the potential to be harrowing, it’s instead an understated joy. (Translated by Sophie Hughes)
Dominated by loss, love and exile, this is a novel that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding to unravel, decipher and digest.
ANTÍGONA GONZÁLEZ BY SARA URIBE
Antígona González is political commentary prose about death and a lack of answers that often reads like poetry; it’s a compound text made of translation upon translation, meshed together from seemingly endless sources and voices. That may sound like a recipe for incoherence, and yet the only thing that will leave your head swimming after reading Uribe’s text about disappearances in Mexico — a riff on the classic Sophocles tragedy — is the brutality of loss and tangible pain it communicates. In Tamaulipas, Mexico, everyone is Antígona. (Translated by John Pluecker)
THE GRINGO CHAMPION BY AURA XILONEN
“She’s something else,” Hughes says of Xilonen, who wrote her debut The Gringo Champion (a work that’s ostensibly about a loss of identity and a pervasive feeling of “placelessness”) as a teen. Readers may find themselves at a loss too, because diving into the violent opening pages — which, like the 300 or so that follow, are adeptly and energetically translated — isn’t unlike that first difficult dalliance with the language of A Clockwork Orange. At one point, our protagonist Liborio claims novels are “wormy, airless, disemvoweled” [sic]. Rest assured, The Gringo Champion is the very opposite. (Translated by Andrea Rosenberg)
FOREIGN BODY BY JAZMINA BARRERA VELÁZQUEZ
The quiet, painful and sometimes sudden loss of bodily autonomy seeps through the pages of Barrera’s debut, the award-winning essay collection Foreign Body. A witty, magnificent and almost microscopic look at pain through the lens of her own “foreign body,” Barrera is an essayist who “writes in the vein of Guadalupe Nettel,” according to Hughes. More recently, Barrera’s still-untranslated 2017 essay collection, Cuaderno de Faros — hooked around the real and fictional “lighthouse” — proved she was no one-hit wonder, yet she remains almost criminally overlooked outside her native Mexico. (Translated by Dave Oliphant)
EMPTY SET BY VERÓNICA GERBER BICECCI
An experimental storyteller if ever there was one — her blurb-side bio describes her as “a visual artist who writes” — Bicecci weaves her prose in and around scribbled drawings, mathematical equations and an abundance of Venn diagrams in Empty Set. Dominated by loss, love and exile, this is a novel that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding to unravel, decipher and digest. (Translated by Christina MacSweeney)
HURRICANE SEASON BY FERNANDA MELCHOR
Hurricane Season, like much Latin American literature before it, evokes myth, magic and violence, all set against the vaguely grim backdrop of a small village where redemption seems like a fleeting (im)possibility. Hinging on a crime, the plot traces the suspects as we’re initiated into their lives one chapter at a time. It’s no wonder Hughes recently received a PEN Translation Prize for her work on this story about loss of innocence, life and reason. (Translated by Sophie Hughes; due out in 2019).
MORE MEXICAN WRITERS TO CHECK OUT:
- Luisa Reyes Retana
- Brenda Lozano
- Bibiana Camacho
- Vivian Abenshushan (You can read her work in Spanish for free here.)
- Maritza M. Buendía
- Susana Iglesias
- Artemisa Téllez
- Xitlalitl Rodríguez Mendoza
- Minerva Reynosa