Category Archives: Mexico

Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, Mexico, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, review

The Cartel

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

This book is utterly gripping and irresistibly page-turning, as well as extremely violent. It provides a fascinating contrast to Bolaño’s 2666, which was written pre-Mexican drug war, but is similarly interested in violence, the visual, and the language and structure of thrillers and crime novels.

This book is a highly commendable achievement: a novelization of the Mexican drug war, weaving fact with fiction, bringing news stories to life. I felt like I learned so much from it, that it really “showed” me things that had previously just been headlines or statistics. Talk about proving the power of fiction. The research for this book must have been no joke (I’m definitely going to explore some of the books he lists in the acknowledgements). Most notably, this novel deserves major respect for how it depicts the most troubling of topics: the existence of undeniable, apocalyptic evil. There are some people in this world who are just plain bad. You can try to analyse it: they want power, they want money, they’re messed up in the head from being militarized in the army, violence is all-consuming and soul-killing, etc. But as a co-worker in Nuevo Laredo once said to me, Hay gente muy malo en este mundo. And that’s just the way it is.

Following the news can sometimes feel like plod. On this day, this happened. This guy escaped from prison. This election, this mass grave, this murdered journalist. The advantage that this book has over non-fiction is that of foresight and form. I’ve always loved Bolaño’s quote from this interview about form vs. plot: “Form is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Through linking together individual stories in an intentional way that non-fiction wouldn’t be able to do, The Cartel is able to use the form of fiction to make us notice wider patterns and causes, to learn things that we might otherwise not realize from simply reading the news.

While the “I don’t play by the rules” DEA Agent Art Keller and his obsessive revenge-plot with the head gangster is engaging enough, and certainly serves as a way of driving the plot forward, the book’s real strength for me are its supporting characters. The stories of Chuy the child-sicario, Pablo the journalist, the borderland ranch owner taking a stand against the Zeta’s seizure of his land, and  the solo female police chief will stay with me a long time, and are by far the main reason for reading this book. An interesting parallel to The Cartel would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which similarly try to turn this massive historical event into this very personal, human-level story driven by person-to-person interactions. The Cartel is as deliciously suspenseful as any classic Michael Crichton novel, but what was notable to me were the individual human stories, and how it turned what would otherwise be an atrocity headline into a narrative. 

It’s SO interesting to me that to a certain extent, Bolaño’s 2666 doesn’t do that. The focus in 2666 (at least in the famous Part IV) is on a mass scale, on overwhelming accumulation, as opposed to individual human stories. Bolaño’s fiction is also much more driven by experiences of interruption and suspension rather than narrative satisfaction. There’s a key image at the very end of The Cartel (you’ll know it when you read it–trust me) that emphasizes the “face” of evil being exposed (brutally so). There is undeniably a sense of satisfaction with this ending, despite its terrible violence. It’s the kind of satisfaction that you come to expect (even crave) with thrillers and crime novels–a clear resolution that’s not necessarily happy, but in which major threads are definitely resolved. This is not a clear-cut satisfaction we get from Bolaño, or from authors like Evelio Rosero, whose emphasis is on abrupt disappearances and absences. 

The other strength of the book for me was its analysis of the drug war. I found its discussion of the increasing visualization of violence and atrocities fascinating, in terms of gangs now broadcasting their beheadings and tortures online, and the parallels between Central American narco gangs and ISIS, in terms of online propaganda and recruitment. How it’s not enough to commit a violent act anymore, it has to be publicized and broadcast. I also found it very interesting to read about certain gangs’ movement towards trafficking gasoline and oil (and how this has piqued the interest of the U.S. more than if it were “just” drugs), as well as the emphasis on the trafficking route rather than the product. 

I’ll definitely read The Power of the Dog, the book that was written before this one (The Cartel is apparently its sequel). Overall, this book is an excellent example of fiction’s ability to make the violence we so often skim over in the news digestible and and undeniably memorable, as well as raising important moral questions about the desire for power and how to do what’s “right.” As one narco puts it, “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit. It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” It’s hard to deny that he has a point…

Quotes from this book:

It’s the new face of the narco gang war, isn’t it? They’re becoming media savvy. They used to hide their crimes, now they publicize them. I wonder if they haven’t taken a page from Al Qaeda. What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it? And maybe that’s the lede on my story. “The crimes that used to lurk in the shadows now seek the sunlight,” or is that a little too “pulp”? (309)

It’s not so much that we’ve now defined the narcos as terrorists, Keller thought, but that there’s more of a psychological leak from the war on terror into the war on drugs. The battle against Al Qaeda has redefined what’s thinkable, permissible, and doable. Just as the war on terror has turned the functions of intelligence agencies into military action, the war on drugs has similarly militarized the police… Certainly, Keller thought, my war on drugs has changed over the years. It used to be all about busts and seizures, the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of getting the shit off the street, but now I barely think about the drugs themselves. The actual trafficking is almost irrelevant. I’m not a drug agent anymore, he reflected, I’m a hunter. (392)

Americans take their strength in victories, Mexicans’ strength is in their ability to suffer loss. (403)

“Post-traumatic stress disorder”? There’s nothing “post” about it. Nothing is over, nothing is in the past. We live with this shit every day. And “disorder”? It would be a disorder if we weren’t stressed. (474)

America’s longest war is the war on drugs. Forty years and counting. I was here when it was declared and I’m still here. And drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever. But it’s not about the drugs anymore, anyway, is it? (500)

You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? (511)

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Filed under books, fiction, Mexico, violence

Dealing With the Everyday

My Struggle 2: A Man in Love (Knausgaard)

Here are some things I spend a lot of time doing:

  • The dishes
  • Feeding the cat, washing the cat’s bowls
  • Doing laundry, hanging laundry, putting away laundry
  • Cooking enormous amounts of lentils or soup, putting it in freezer
  • Picking clothes off the floor of my bedroom and putting them on my bed
  • Biking to the library for work and paying £2 for porridge because I left the house too late to have breakfast
  • Spending money online on train tickets, hooks for the wall to hang up the clothes I leave on the floor, yoga class, organic hypoallergenic cat food, meditation course, library fines.
  • Buying food to fuel myself, a never-ending process that often feels like the scene in Titanic where the sweaty dust-smeared Irish men are shoveling coal into the constantly hungry, never full burners.

This is my life (or at least what I’m willing to say about it on the Internet ;p). This is my banal, my everyday, what tends to absorb and take me over. This is mainly the stuff that occupies my mind on a daily basis rather than the BIG QUESTIONS that I’m not even going to write out here because I don’t feel like having a panic attack right now, thank you very much!!! :D

But this everyday stuff is very much the concern of A Man in Love, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. In other words, the book is interested in balance between the mundane and what he calls “the sacred,” which for some people might appear as religion, but for him seems to mostly appear as the act of writing.

What happens in this book? He goes to his daughter’s birthday party. He comments on the difference between the Swedish and Norwegians. There’s extended flashback sequences to when he met and fell in love with his wife, had his first child. He struggles to write a novel about angels. He fights with the crazy Russian neighbor lady who may or may not be a prostitute. He suspects his mother-in-law of secretly drinking out of the alcohol bottles on top of the fridge.

If someone had told me four years ago that I would have found this kind of stuff irresistibly compelling, I would have laughed hysterically. But good god, did I ever. I turned the pages with the frenetic urgency of a Michael Crichton novel. How on earth did the author achieve this? I suspect that it’s partly due to the style: it’s very clearly written, reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, with flashes of black Herzogian humor that (just like with Volume I) I found absolutely hysterical. I suspect another reason that I found it so fascinating and compelling is due to a perverse fascinating of reading things that I found so familiar, yet had rarely seen covered in such intense detail. There are just so few books that actually pay attention to these moments, you know? The rituals of making the morning coffee, the commute, the hangover, the dinner party. And yet this is what life is for so many of us. Every once in a while we have The Moments that novel climaxes are made of. But most of the time I’m wiping spilt coffee off the counter.

Needless to say I can’t wait to read Volumes III-VI (once all the translations have been released, of course! I believe 1-5 have come out in English so far).

There are many, many quotes that I highlighted while reading this book, but here are a select few:

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. What was the problem? … perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out of the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. (67)

…with Dostoevsky there were no heights, no mountains, there was no divine perspective, everything was in this human domain, wreathed in this characteristically Dostoevskian wretched, dirty, sick, almost contaminated mood that was never too far from hysteria. That was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred. But was this the place to go? Was it necessary to go down on bended knee? (72)

I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminised, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside of me. (90)

Life. Getting through it, that was what I was doing. (134)

It is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it. (271)

I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about the book I’ve written, I don’t give a shit if it wins a prize or not, all I want is to write more. (457)

This was my life. This was what my life was. I had to pull myself together. Chin up. (498)

Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not bloody believe you are somebody. Because you are not… You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience. This was the only true bloody thought I’d ever had. (516)

I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that too. I hate every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. (589)

Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)

Talk about a contrast to Knasgaard! There’s no shortage of decidedly less domestic everyday moments in this book: two best female friends run around Manchester, do drugs, flee from dealers, drink a LOT of wine, wake up from a LOT of soul-crushing hangovers, try to write a novel about a priest with a talking pig, and even ponder religion in a few discordantly intriguing passages. Yes, there were definitely moments in this that struck painfully true chords with certain instances in my own 30-something life. In this interview, the author cites the picaresque novel as an influence, and also calls Animals an “anxious” book, both of which I can definitely see. Overall, I enjoyed the raw cathartic energy of this book, the drive and energy of the prose. I’d rather something be interesting and different, rather than poetically perfect and polished. I also liked that the protagonist was still drinking in the end, and that her journey as a character didn’t necessarily equal complete 100% sobriety. The focus is ultimately on the friendship between the two girls (women?), and this was something I very much appreciated. I love books that are unapologetic and unashamed, something this book had in spades.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez)

So you have the everyday reality of Knausgaard and Animals, and then you have this. Holy ***ing shit. This book has been on my to-read list for years, and even though I haven’t finished it yet (still have two chapters to go), boy, does it provide some brutal perspective. Even Bolaño didn’t delve into darkness this apocalyptically bleak. In brave, uncompromisingly stark prose (captured extremely well by the translation), the book delves into subject matter similar to the film Sin Nombre, that of Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. (focusing primarily on “la bestia” of the title, or the freight trains barreling across Mexico, with migrants clinging on).

As said before… this book goes to some dark places. I think the chapter set in a brothel on the Mexican-Guatemalan border was maybe the most difficult for me. So many brutal moments. We touch upon an expression often used by migrants: cuerpomátic, the body as a credit card (most especially the female body), buying you a little safety, a little bit of cash, the potential that your travel buddies won’t get killed, a more comfortable ride on the train. We learn about the myth of the bra tree–a desert tree draped with bras and panties of migrant women raped by bandits, the underwear kept as trophies (Martínez depressingly clarifies that “I refer to it as a myth not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s not one tree but many.”) (164) It’s a world where talking about the narco’s fees is as common as talking about the rise in the price of tortillas.

I’ll be honest… I read books like this one, and on one hand I’m grateful, blown away, amazed by reporters like Martínez doing this kind of work in the world, bringing these kinds of issues to light. Another part of me is like… oh my god. Me and my stupid, silly, little life. How dare I complain about anything, ever? What am I supposed to do in face of this? How am I supposed to live, to act? What can I do to help, what can I do to make a difference, what can I do that matters, whatcanidowhatcanidowhatcanido. And yeah, I’ll say it: there’s a certain amount of bleak hopelessness too. How did things get this bad? Why did this happen? How can there be a turning point, ever? Is this the kind of world we’re going to live in? Is it like Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” are we all eternally damned, is there no turning back?

Rather than hopeless, though, it might be more accurate to say that this book comes off as brutally realistic. This is the way things are. Never-ending violence as everyday. This is the banal, mundane reality that many, many, many people are living in, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that fact. I really, really don’t.

(It’s worth saying Martínez has a new book out, which needless to say I am highly interested in reading.)

We’re walking among the dead. Life’s value seems reduced, continuously dangled like bait on a fishing line. Killing, dying, raping, or getting raped–the dimensions of these horrors are diminished to points of geography. Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill. (37)

The unspoken question becomes evident. How is it possible that the kidnappings are still happening when the local governments, the countries of origin, the media, the Mexican government, and the US government all know exactly what’s going on? … Everybody knows, nobody acts, and the kidnappings continue. (103)



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Filed under books, Mexico, non-fiction, review, women writers

wise words from Francisco Goldman

Original text in Spanish here, poorly attempted translation by me below:

I have never felt compelled to give up fiction. Like you, despite that times like these in Mexico aren’t easy, I remain faithful. I’ve dedicated my life to this fucking art that I love and that is in reality a very marginal trade, as it perhaps should be–I hate the solemnity and pomp of certain kinds of “novelists”–and it’s also what I live on. I don’t think that the novel is in itself something useful, that it has or should have a political use. It is the reader who decides what has value. What is the novel for me? A search for something that can only be expressed through writing a novel, and that something includes the search for its own structure, its style, pattern, rhythm and so on. You follow the whispers of intuition and memory, and many times you have no idea what will happen on the next page. I believe the novel turns out better when it’s like that. Of course in some way or another it’s an encounter with yourself, with your most intimate self. There’s a high risk of embarrassment, of failure. Perhaps breaking the silence is always a danger. Pain is fundamental. But maybe, as speculated as much by W.H. Auden in some essay, the first pronunciation by a human was “Ow!” Some caveman stumbled, his foot struck against a stone, hard and sharp, and yelled “Ow”; later another did the same, and so on. Human language began here, the song of experience. Pain is perhaps the seed or start; others have said it’s death and loss. Finally, the wish or desire to search, to understand, to dramatize the pain of others. That is the art of the novel, and one of the few things that the novel has in common with certain types of journalism.

When I don’t write I feel like a useless weakling, I’m good for nothing. When I do write, I know what I’m doing with all my being, with everything I think or believe: in one way or another, that’s where I’ll be… Then came Ayotzinapa and things changed. I’m still working on a novel that has nothing to do with it, a very intimate novel, which is practically the only thing that’s mine in the world, and I don’t regret it. But I am a citizen too. I admit that now my concentration is fragmented and that I have to discipline myself. I need to go out in search of what is happening. I like to observe, ask, listen. It is a privilege to share what I learn.

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Filed under advice, Mexico, politics, quotes, writing

More names

Faces and names from Woodburn that I want to write about, but haven’t figured out how to yet (the names have all been changed):

– Rosita, the main lady who cooked for us. So cuddly and huge and welcoming. Reminded me of my nanny from Colombia, in the way she frowned at and ordered the kids of the local community around. “Jonathan, no seas tan cocino!” (Jonathan, don’t be such a piggy!) she would scold Gemma’s youngest son, after he threw yet another enormous palm-full of barkchips at me. “Julie you forgot to lock the door!” she would constantly cry out at me, after I came close to leaving yet again without properly closing the community center. She cried after every single group of volunteers left and insisted on hugging each teen one by one. “She’s kind of like everyone’s mom,” one of the teens said, and I had to agree, and not just because of her fabulous cooking. In the little first day introductory ritual, in which the group of brand new volunteers would go around in a circle and say their names and what their dreams were (so reminiscent for me of working for Kiva and asking that unavoidable end of the interview question: “so what are your hopes and dreams?”), Rosita said that her dream was to take ESL and computer classes and get her GED.

— Nine-month pregnant Gemma from Oaxaca. She was still going out into the field to pick up until a week ago. “Gemma es una brava para pescar los blueberries,” Rosita told me; Gemma is a real kick-ass at blueberry picking. In the four hours they worked, Rosita made $10, Gemma picked a whole pint (I can’t remember how much she made). Blueberries are apparently some of the hardest fruits to pick, with strawberries and cucumbers being the worst. She’d lived in Oregon for about three years, two and a half of those in a crowded house with fourteen other people (most of whom used drugs) with an alcoholic husband who beat her. She eventually left with her three kids after hearing an add on the radio about local farmworker housing services. One of her eyes was half-closed all the time–a problem with the lid? “Es una cosa muy linda, lo que estas haciendo,” she told me at the end of one week, and it meant more to me than anything written on the end of the week review sheets. Gemma’s dream was for her kids to have office jobs and “not work in the fields like me, since I want them to have a better life and not suffered like I have, since the work es duro… muy duro.”

— Jonathan, Gemma’s two year old son. Supposedly very shy and a total momma’s boy, followed Gemma EVERYWHERE. Once he got in awful trouble for getting into her bathroom and messing up all her soaps and shampoos and creams and things, pouring them all over the mirror. Whenever Gemma would ask him “Quieres un bebe, Jonathan?”, pointing at her belly, he would shake his head emphatically and bellow “NO!” No was his favorite word. “Jonathan, don’t you want to come live with me in Portland?” I would say. “You can live with me in my house and we can go to the zoo and ride on the Max! Wouldn’t that be fun, Jonathan?” His eyes would gradually growing more confused, then fearful, then finally angry, and then it would come: “NO!”

–Magdalena with her long braid from Oaxaca and her huge family: husband, daughter, daughter’s husband, daughter’s son, teenage son, teenage daughter (who was gorgeous!). They mostly spoke Mixteca with each other. Crazy to imagine having to learn to speak Spanish as a 2nd language, on top of English!! They all used to live in one of the labor camps we visited but finally moved to the affordable housing unit three months ago, as their squalid, cramped living conditions was considered to be the state of an emergency. “Oh, esta bueno,” she would say to anything I ever asked her or commented upon. “Is it okay if we send some volunteers to take showers in your place?” “Man, I really messed up my foot day.” “I ate so much… I’m sooo full!” (the most common). Magdalena’s dream was to get papers for her and her family. They used to be corn farmers but immigrated to the U.S. when they were unable to make enough money to feed themselves there. I asked the husband of her daughter what was the trick to good blueberry picking. After laughing for a bit at the absurdity of the question, he opened and closed his hand like a claw. “Es en los manos,” he said, it’s in the hands.

–Maria, whose job was (in her own words) to “arrange grapes so that they look pretty.” She always dressed real tough, in rubber black boots and dirty pants, maybe because every time I saw her she had just returned from the field. She had three sons, Jesus, one whose name I can’t remember and baby Bryan, who was ALWAYS crying for some reason or the other. Mostly when she took her cellphone away from him, so that he couldn’t watch streaming youtube videos of “Freddy vs. Jason” on the Internet, or when his popsicles would fall on the ground.

— Ernesto and Chui, Rosita’s sons. Chui was chubby and into break-dancing, teaching afternoon classes at the local education center. The kids performed for us several times and were pretty damn bendy–I’m approaching two years of taking yoga classes now and am still nowhere CLOSE to being as flexible as these eight-year-olds (a bit discouraging, to say the least!). Ernesto was stoic and withdrawn but still smiled and make jokes with us every once in a while. He was always helping his mom out in the kitchen, most notably barbecuing the meat for the Saturday night despedida lunch of tacos de carne asada. He was almost deported yesterday when he got stopped by a cop on a motorcyle (Woodburn has increased its police presence this weekend, thanks to the three-day Mexican cultural fiesta it’s hosting) for talking on his cellphone. The car got towed since he was found to owe over $1,200 in ticket fees (from two tickets with accumulated late fees he could never afford to pay) and driving on a suspended licence. The car is basically gone since they obviously don’t have the $640 necesarry to pay to get it back (not to mention the ticket fees). Now he and Rosita can’t go to Astoria to see about a potential job in a cannery on Monday, since they no longer own a car. When Rosita told me this story, I felt upset enough to the point of feeling deeply depressed about the fucked up, ruthless cycle of poverty, but then when I saw how not-as-upset she was, I slowly started to see things from her perspective: all she lost was her car, as opposed to her son, you know?

There’s a couple more. To be continued, maybe, just so that I won’t forget.

In book-reading news, I’ve been reading Ricardo Piglia (finished the short story collection Assumed Name and started the novel The Absent City) and am really enjoying him… especially the Roberto Arlt/Borges fanboy homages!


Filed under Dear Diary, Mexico, perspective, social justice, update


The opening lines of this book are as follows: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”

So what is this crime? No questions in Bolaño’s books ever come with easy answers, but what first comes to mind is the most obvious scenario, the central scene around which the rest of the story rotates: Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s narrator and self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry”, is reading a book of poems in her lap while sitting on the toilet of the fourth floor of a Mexico City University, when the army and the riot police invade campus and start seizing students and professors. Auxilio (whose name translates into the Spanish phrase for “help me!”), an illegal immigrant in Mexico without a real job, spends twelve days hiding out in the woman’s bathroom, eating toilet paper, reading poems, watching the moon move across the tiles and remembering scenes from her bohemian past, as well as dream-like hallucinatory visions of the future.

Bolaño’s narrative voice is very strong throughout this novel… it feels a lot more like the rolling and rollicking Bolaño of The Savage Detectives and 2666, as opposed to, say, By Night in Chile or Nazi Literature of the Americas. The latter two are also good books, but read more like Bolaño learning how to write in the style of what we would now consider “Bolaño-esque” , via the lens of Borges and Cortazar. In Amulet, it really feels like he’s hitting his stride, as though he’s like “I know what my themes are, I know what my style is, and I am gonna show it off and make it shine in yer faces, bee-yatches!” It’s quite glorious, really. I would definitely consider Amulet as the first in a trilogy, followed by The Savage Detectives (which has a chapter that basically tells the same story as Amulet) and concluding with 2666, which is eerily referenced here in a section where the main characters are walking down Avenida Guerrero (every city in Mexico has a street with this name): “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968 or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” (86) Who knows what this passage means, in terms of Bolaño’s future works, and the apparently very personal significance of the numbers 2666? The reference to the “eyelid of a corpse” makes me think of all those bodies, listed one after another, in that Juarez-like section of 2666

I’ve been really fascinated by the poet/artist archetype figure lately. Maybe it comes from having rewatched I’m Not There again recently; still a good movie upon third viewing. This time around I was especially into the Arthur Rimbaud character, who serves as a narrator of sorts throughout the film.

The monologue from this clip is based on passages from this Bob Dylan poem, which has the wonderful title of “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday.”

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking recently about The Poet and Artists As An Archetypal Figure, and lately Rimbaud has been the subject of that interest. When I was in high school I used to jokingly say that while I had crushes on Franz Kafka and Holden Caufield, I would never want to date them, because they would probably make horrible, horrible boyfriends. I don’t know much about Rimbaud, but I have a feeling he would probably fall in the same “do-not-date” category, even without the whole gay thing. Anyway… it’s interesting to me, thinking about Artists and Poets, since my whole New Year’s Resolution this year was to Make More Art. I’ve sort of gotten that off the ground with my weekly Wednesday writing class, which definitely has and will continue to feel like a really big and important step to me. And, of course, Bolaño is always one of *the* authors to read, when thinking about Art and Poetry and Life and Violence and how it all fits together.  For instance: Auxilio spends the entirety of the Tlatelolc massacre hiding in the bathroom, reading poetry: was this cowardly of her? Or was it (considering the circumstances) the only thing she COULD do, the only thing that makes sense? Why not spend a massacre, one that will go down in history as one of the most horrifying events to have happened in Mexico, reading poetry? When I was in Nuevo Laredo, I read Henry James and John Steinbeck, and ate spaghetti with meatballs and vegetarian sopes. My sister spends her job reading all day about crime rates and gang activity in Colombia and the Mexican border, and informed me recently that if she knew then what she knows now about what’s currently going on in Nuevo Laredo, she would have been like “OMG ARE YOU CRAZY.” But you know, I was there for three whole months… I’m not saying I should have gone out to actively fight poverty or crime whatever instead of reading The Wings of the Dove, but that’s what’s interesting to me about reading and writing and literature: it can just seem and feel so DISCONNECTED sometimes what’s going on in the world! People getting killed, raped, murdered, the oil spill, etc. But maybe literature is the only effective filter there is that will help us absorb these horrible experiences. Maybe that’s the point Bolaño was trying to get at with that horrifying section in 2666, mechanically naming dead body after dead body, until I would just put the book down in my lap and stare numbly out the Max train window, the Hillsboro scenery rushing by.

That’s why it’s interesting how in Amulet, the writing style is less like a newspaper reporter, and more like a helicopter or a camera lens, endlessly circling and circling around its central subject (the massacre) without directly naming it (the word “Tlatelolc” appears nowhere within these pages). It’s like what Auxilio says about Arturo Belano (the stand-in Bolaño character who also appears in Detectives) after he returns from his arrest and imprisonment in Chile under Pinochet: “What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people had expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.” (77) I feel like this sentence describes EXACTLY what Bolaño does stylistically in Amulet: he denies us our gratification for “news from the Horror Zone,” and instead delves into a technique that’s a lot more interesting, one that doesn’t refer directly to the horror of which it speaks. It reminds me a lot of Piglia’s approach in Artificial Respiration, which is best summed up by the Wittgenstein quote that is used extensively throughout that novel: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Piglia used this sentence in AR as a way to encapsulate the novel’s approach to history, in the sense that there are some things that are just so horrible, so inexplicable and incomprehensible, that words cannot do them justice. Thus in the same way AR avoided making any references to torture victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship being thrown out of airplanes, Amulet makes no reference of university students being massacred, or of Belano’s experience in prison under Pinochet, or any other violence that is so fundamental and key to Latin American history. It’s an interesting technique, to tell a horror story by not talking about the horror…

There’s definitely plenty of references to the role of violence in Latin American history throughout the book. Even Che Guevara has a walk-in part: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know. Lilian said something I couldn’t hear. What? I said. What? What? Normal, said Lilian, staring at the creased surface of her folder… I admit I would have liked to know what Che Guevara was like in bed. So he was normal, OK, but normal how?” (122-123) At another point Auxilio refers to what she calls “another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it’s not there. That’s just our luck.” (67) She’s specifically referring to being unable to find her knife in her purse while walking the Mexico City streets at night (oh how this reminds me of frantically fumbling for my pepper spray on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, every time a too-dark or looming figure crossed over to my side of the street!), but she could be talking about the role of writing in terms to violence in the novel. Can poetry and writing be a weapon against the horrors of our modern age? Or is it just a salve, a way to numb and distract ourselves, a pretty lie? (“Beautiful bourgeois art,” says the Rodolfo Walsh quote in the sidebar of this blog).

I could say a lot more about Amulet, easily: about Auxilio’s hallucinatory, Phillip K. Dick-like visions of the apocalyptic future (Dick’s influence is insanely prominent through Amulet!). I especially love the passages describing what books and authors will be read, and when, and how: “Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076.” (159) About the crazy section in which Auxilia meets a character called Carlos Coffen Serpas, who spends at least a chapter and a half summarizing the Greek story of  Erigone to her. About the surreal final passage, in which Auxilio has a vision of hundreds of children, marching towards an abyss (another must-have image for Bolaño bing0!) , while singing songs: “And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.” (184) Hmmmmmm.

But instead I’m going to end with two things: 1) a quote about books from Amulet that I really liked, and 2) an excerpt from an exercise written in my Wednesday writing class, written in response to a prompt in which we were asked to envision two characters getting off of a bus together, who have come to give a gift.

(I) Quote

Leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, how right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning… I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it)…  the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life. (5)

(II) Exercise

“Poems. I have a ton of poems for you. Pages and pages of them.” The skinny, Arthur Rimbaud-like young man, in his scruffy woolen suit, the sleeves ending far above his wrists (his bones look like small bumpy sparrow heads), his hair like a tousled bird’s nest, pulls out sheets of typed white paper from a white manilla folder tucked into his armpit. It’s hard for him to do so, due to the small blond girl he’s holding in his other arm. “Stop squirming now,” he says into her ear and ends up with a mouthful of blond hair.

I sigh. It is exceedingly hot on this stretch of the highway and I have to hold my hand over my eyes like the visor of a cap.

“Oh man, I just know I had more of them here somewhere. If you could just–” and he pushes the sheets into my hand, where they crumple lightly in a sound reminiscent of Christmas wrapping paper. “Celia, shake your book up and down.” The little blond girl obliges, shaking the pages of her book violently up and down, just aggressively enough to make me wince a little at seeing a book treated that way. I can’t read the title but it’s a small paperback book with yellowing pages and a picture of a brown terrier dog on the cover.

“Nothing,” the girl, Celia, says. I take a second to admire her blue dress and the white apron thing she’s wearing on top. I envy her rocking Alice in Wonderland look.

“Damn–I mean, darn.” He pulls his black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stands there blinking in the bright sunlight. They both stand there without saying anything, looking expectantly at me.

“Okay–gee, you guys–thanks–” I slowly shuffle through the papers. The paper is very thin-feeling, like the kind of paper a receipt is printed on, and the font is just small enough to make it hard for me to read.

“They’re all for you!” the little girl shouts, and the poet, Arthur, flashes me and embarrassed grin full of crooked teeth with rounded edges.

“Well, sort of. There’s one in there that I really like. It’s called ‘Advice for Margarine on her 23rd Birthday. It’s written list-style, like, and it’s got a whole bunch of surreal images and crazy language in it.” He pauses. “I’m really quite proud of it, actually,” he says, sounding almost surprised. His tone catches me off guard, and makes me wonder when was the last time I said the same thing in the same tone about myself.

“Thanks,” I say again, feeling a little dumb for not being able to think of anything wittier to say. Neither of them say anything for a moment and instead they both just stand there smiling at me. The little girl swings her leg lazily back and forth like a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, Arthur the poet holding her casually with one arm at his hip, and her black buckle shoes accidentally kick into his hip bone.

“Ouch,” he says. “Careful there, girl.”

I start folding the pages, getting ready to put them away somewhere, even if it’s just to stuff them into my sports bra. Too bad I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have any pockets. There won’t be another bus here for hours and hours, probably. It’s just the three of us, standing by the grey concrete highway, desert scrubland all around us, like someone plucked us up and plopped us into the middle of a dramatic photograph of American desert scenery.

“I actually think that might be a line in the poem,” he says, looking up at the sky. “Careful there girl!”

“Good advice,” I say, finally able to think of something. I turn my body slightly more in the direction of the little girl: “Can I see your book?”

Without a word she hands it over to me; I let out a cry of surprise when I read the author’s name. “Oh wow! This guy is one of my favorites! I read him all the time when I was a kid.” I flip through the yellowing pages. It even reminds me of the same copy I myself used to own, with the red splotches from spaghetti sauce (eating at the dinner table was perhaps not the best habit for my siblings and I), pieces of dried food clinging to the pages like petrified insect eggs and holes through which termites had eaten their way through the paper. When I flipped the pages I could see an animated movie of their journey, burrowing through.

“Maybe it is your copy,” the little girl says, and I don’t respond, don’t want to tell her the other reason why this book might represent so much to me: at the age of 7, I wrote the writer a letter, postmarked from Colombia to England, in which I drew a picture of one of his main characters (a Tawny Owl) and wrote “When I grow up I want to be an Arthur like you.” Author, A-R-T-H-U-R.

The writer at age 23

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Filed under apocalypse, Bolaño, books, fiction, Mexico, Rio Plata, writing

A big loan from the girl zone

FOUR more days. Ha! I´ve been having a difficult time learning to live in the moment and enjoy what little time I have left here. I still have some stuff I need to finish up (I´m pretty sure I´m going to spend all day tomorrow editing video). If nothing else, it feels good to acknowledge my eagerness-frustration.

I spent this last week visiting the branch offices in two other border cities on the Texas-Mexican border, Acuña and Piedras Negras. They were both fairly run down and a little depressing, which is to be expected of two places that have been pretty badly hit by the economic recession. Advice to Countries and Governments: DON´T sign trade agreements that will have your country´s economy completely tied up and dependent on the U.S. Bad things will happen.

What was really awesome about the visit, though, was getting to spend time with the all-female staff in both branch office. On top of working the normal 12 hour workday that seems to be standard for microfinace, most of them are single mothers. One of the managers commented that when putting notices in the paper advertising open positions at the office, she´d considered putting ¨single mothers only.¨ ¨When you have no one to depend on but yourself,¨ she said, ¨you know what it is to work hard.¨

I was completely unprepared for how healing and nurturing and lovely and wonderful and other positive adjectives it would be to spend time in an office with only female staff. It really made me feel how microfinance can be an effective way of forming communities. It makes me want to write cheesy, overwrought metaphors, like ¨I felt my heart being enveloped in a healing white ball of light.¨and so on. It was, as Tori Amos once sang, ¨a big loan from the girl zone.¨ The positive energy and sense of solidarity and support in the office was very empowering. Today when I left, one of the loan officers gave me a jacket she´d never worn because it didn´t fit her, and told me that I had an angel looking after me. I went for WEEKS suffering in the rain and the cold of Nuevo Laredo (what can I say, I didn´t pack for the cold weather because I was expecting to be in a desert!) with nothing more than my steadfast green hoodie I´ve owned since summer 2006, way back when I swiped it from a former housemate, the bitchy one who was dating the guy that got fired from Modest Mouse. My green hoodie, while steadfast, wasn´t much for protecting me from the chilly winds, but I stubbornly persisted over the weeks without buying a proper winter coat, much to the surprise and wonder of many people in the office. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that when the time was right, a winter coat would present itself to me, and that I didn´t need to go looking for one, it would find me. And it did.

New jacket, female Piedras Negras staff and FVP director

Just one of the ways in which my visit was a gift, I guess. Another one was this certitude: from now on, when anyone asks me what my political beliefs are, I´m going to say ¨radicaly, hardcore, scary feminism,¨ unequivocally, without heisitation. And let them figure it out from there, if they want.

Some other things:

—-I watched Todd Haynes´ Bob Dylan biopic I´m Not There on Mexican cable last night alone in my big ole hotel room and I really, really loved it, especially the music. Since getting back to Nuevo Laredo today I´ve been listening to Bob Dylan all afternoon. The movie reminded me a lot of the concept behind Tori´s American Doll Posse and some of the things I´ve been preoccupied about this year, the idea of having a firmly-established ¨self¨ or identity that was already completely formed and resting somewhere already inside of me, and that the decisions I make and paths I choose need to act as a form of chipping away the surrounding layers, in an attempt to somehow reach this perfectly formed self, in order to become it. Well… I don´t believe that anymore. I think that we all have wisdom inside of us, yes, but I don´t think we´re ever perfect or completely, wholly put together. I think we all go through life fragmented. But ultimately having a changing, constantly shifting self can be a GOOD thing. Terrifying, yes–but also good! Or as the last lines in the movie (spoken by Richard Gere, of all people) put it:

“People are always talking about freedom, the freedom to live a certain way without being kicked around. ‘Course the more you live a certain way the less it feels like freedom. Me? I can change during the course of a day. When I wake I’m one person, when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It’s like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen.”

(Apparently this line is based on a Dylan interview in Newsweek in which he says, “I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me.¨ Food for thought.)

—-I´ve been daydreaming a lot about Alaska recently. I don´t really know why. I think in the back of my head, I feel like it could be a potential option, to head there for three to six weeks in the summer and work 14 hours a day and make back all the money I´ve spent working for free for Kiva. It probably won´t happen, but it´s one of those potential paths (one of many) that I like to think about. Thinking about paths and options and choices is what keeps me going. As my mother once told me (very wise advice), ¨you gotta create options for yourself!¨ 2010 is gonna be a good year.

—-I almost never read the newsletters that get sent out for the yoga class mailings lists that I´m signed up for, but for whatever reason I read the most recent one I received and it really struck a chord with me, especially when thinking about the winter and changing seasons and what the past two months have been like and the lessons I´ve learned and impermenance:

For me, the last year has been a roller coaster ride of amazing blessings and tremendous challenges. As a result of all the ups and downs, I found myself losing my sense of grounding and connection with my teaching and my own yoga practice (yes it happens to yoga teachers!)—hence my perceived inability to write anything I deemed worthy. As my frustration grew, my inner voice turned toward demands, criticisms, and expectations, driving a deeper wedge between myself, my mat, and most importantly, my inner wisdom and teacher.

Most of you have had this very same experience within your personal practice. Much like the natural world surrounding us we experience waxing and waning, periods of dormancy and activity. Life is fluid, impermanence is the only thing that remains as a constant. The seasons change, the earth moves through its rhythms and cycles of birth and death, from big losses and gains to small, seemingly insignificant ones occurring again and again on a daily basis. We shed emotions and evolve into new spaces and places in our lives. This time of year especially, since it is a time of beginnings and closings, can feel like a heavy burden. We can feel wrenched away from those things in our life that provide stability and safety. So much backward and forward thinking can cause us to lose track of the very moment we exist in and as a result we end up feeling run down, depleted, and out of balance. All we can do in moments like these is be with what is, to let go of any need to change our present experience and instead practice radical loving acceptance of whom we are and where we are this minute, week, month, or year. To do this we must take the time to reassess our needs moment by moment and remind ourselves to nurture the lines of communication between our emotional and physical selves. Sometimes it feels like what we give out is not adequately restored by what we bring in. In these times, pause and have patience to listen to what is being asked for intuitively, because it is only through our own mindfulness that we continue to be effective in our relationships with others and ourselves.

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Filed under Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, quotes

Practicing mindfulness, Henry James-style

I have nine—eight—seven days left here. Is it bad for me to be counting them down? I know I’ll miss Mexico when I’m gone, the same way I miss every place I leave. It’s a bad habit of mine, wanting to be somewhere else so badly that it interferes with my enjoyment of the present moment, of where I am currently. (Man, does that sound like a problem of mankind or what? The inability to appreciate and remain in the present time and place!) I’ll miss the street food, especially the amazing sopes I ate at that random cart with my Uruguayan friend by the park this Sunday. I’ll miss the karaoke bar with the giant hat in front, and the man in the sombrero walking around at 2AM pouring tequila out of a leather flask down the throats of anyone who opened their mouths.

I don’t know what lesson to take away of my time here. I don’t want it to be one of defeat. I wish I were able to say that I learned something, that a moral, a truth I’d always desperately been seeking had been announced loud and clear. It definitely wasn’t WOWZERS!! Microfinance really and truly is the solution to all of the world’s problems, especially global poverty!! (To be fair, I didn’t come here expecting to see this.) I was thinking of something finding something along the lines of, OH! Yes, this kind of work, development work, this is really the kind for me!! Or: WOW! I’ve thought of a really great idea for a future masters thesis, thanks to my field research here! Neither of these two statements are completely true… but I can’t say that they’re total lies, either.

I guess I thought that coming to Mexico again would bring about some kind of closure for me. I have a big thing for retracing my past steps, in the hopes that lessons I missed the first time around will reveal themselves more clearly. I was last here in 2007, during a summer job in Tijuana, and it was really, really, really good experience, to say the least. I healed a broken heart, made amazing friends and learned a ton. I’ve done the same here (minus the broken heart bit—strengthened it, you could say), but it hasn’t felt as intense. I dunno how much that has to do with being 24 as opposed to 21. Mostly, this time around I feel like I’ve had to deal with MYSELF a lot, which is maybe an inevitable consequence of living alone in a country where you really don’t know anyone. I mean, I made friends, I hung out with people—I am going to let myself be proud of myself for the relationships I’ve established in this community, dammit. I came here wanting to be immersed in the feeling that I had come full circle. It didn’t exactly happen that way, of course, because life never happens the way you want it to. It could have been better. But it also could have been a lot worse.

Wow, I sound really ambivalent, don’t I? I guess that’s a result of the counting-down-the-days feeling I’ve been mired in since Corey left. I’ve been left wanting to kill time so bad. I wanted to chop it up with an axe, just have it over, done with, so that I could move on to the next step. I always get this itchy feet feeling whenever the 10-week mark of being in a new place creeps around. It’s not that things are bad here, it’s just that I really, really miss my family, and I’m very, very ready to be in Portland with them (if only for a limited time). I also am very anxious to be with Corey, to really commit to this relationship and to being together, like definitively together in a very grown-up way—I was already pretty sure about this before coming here, and now it’s the one thing I can say I’m DEFINITELY sure about. So, I guess if nothing else, that’s one definitive, horn-blaringly loud truth that I’ve learned. One is better than none, right? I love the idea of him coming with me on my next placement with Kiva (which is no longer in Ecuador, by the way. I’m not at liberty to say where just yet, but trust me: I’m more than pleased. It makes perfect, ridiculous sense for me to be there, in more ways than one).

I guess I’m trying to extract some hard-earned wisdom here at the last minute, during the eve of my last week. Um. What else will I miss about Nuevo Laredo? The street cats I’ve come to recognize from my block (the black one, the calico one, the five kittens, one of whom I found dead on the street a few weeks ago). Estacion Palabra and the shelves full of comforting books I’ve come to memorize, scanning the rows every weekend. The bar decorated with frog images, where you can order six Coronas in a bucket of ice. Mini Super JIT, my local grocery store and local provider of weekly 6-packs of Miller Lite, where I still have an outstanding “cuenta” of 10.50 pesos when I bought a box of Special K cereal and didn’t have enough change with me. The grilled elote (corn) you can buy on any street corner. People’s gardens and the things they grow: cactuses, agave, orange trees, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers (Corey spotted a lot of interesting nut trees while he was here, always fun to walk around the neighborhood with a botanist). The sunflowers that suddenly appeared out of nowhere on an abandoned empty lot near my house, the sight of which nearly brought tears to my eyes when I glimpsed them from a car window (NATURE!!). The mockingbirds that explode into a cacophony of hoots and calls like clockwork every sunset, darkening the sky above the street plazas as they fly from tree to tree. The Christmas lights hanging over the cement walls in front of people’s houses. My $120/month apartment with its two rooms, the toilet that always smells, the floor tile I use to cover the pan when I’m boiling rice, the fruit flies that somehow succeed in thriving in my papayas in the fridge (OK… maybe this not so much).

Relics from Nuevo Laredo: James, pepper spray, Miller Lite, flowers from the street

I wanted to write “these past few weeks have been as hard as reading a Henry James novel” but that’s not really true. Ha. I’ve been reading “Wings of the Dove” and it is, as they say, slow going. I’ll be slogging through a murk and mess of run-on sentences and obscure references with no idea of what’s going on when suddenly a flash of insight and wisdom occurs, in a beautifully written sentence that just makes sense, and it feels so beautiful in contrast to all the murkiness and confusion that come before. Hey, sounds a lot like human consciousness, right? No wonder this novel was referred to with regularity in David Lodge’s Thinks, a great book that deals with the question of consciousness, among other things.

“Consciousness” is one of the most common words in this book. I wonder if it’s used almost as much as “solitude” in “Cien Anos de Soledad” (my high school Spanish teacher claimed that “soledad” appeared at least once on every page of the novel, I’ve never actually confirmed this). It’s… difficult. But rewarding. Henry James is another author who’s difficult to recommend. The director at my MFI (microfinance institution) saw WOTD on my desk, picked it up and asked me if it was good. All I could say was “um…” not wanting to be blamed in case he bought a copy in translation, read a page and then stared into space wondering what possessed him to listen to the advice of the scraggly haired American. (He’s a great guy, by the way, and is a big reader himself—during our first conversation we talked for ages about books and authors and and and oh, it was wonderful!) As an experiment, back in Portland when I had Dove checked out from the library but never got around to reading it (I probably still have a late fine to pay on it, boo!), I had my housemate read a page. I think he probably made it through the first sentence before throwing it on the floor and shouting “WHAT THE BLEEP IS THIS BLEEP.” yeah. I mean, just look at the opening sentences:

“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once—she had tried it—the sense of the slippery and of the sticky.”

The slippery and the sticky. I love it. One of the main characters in David Lodge’s Thinks does a great analysis of this passage, in which she discusses how these opening sentences are a wonderful example of James’ stream of consciousness technique: there’s no omniscient narrator, hovering above and letting us know what is going on in Kate Croy’s mind. Instead, we are in her mind, feeling her anxiety, her restlessness, as she paces about the room. It’s a very interesting technique, but probably hard as hell to write, and it can be damn draining to read. You’re always right there, right in the character’s mind as their thoughts swirl darkly and wildly around as judgments, projections and imaginings take the forefront. Entire chapters take place around four or five lines of dialogue (probably more, but it feels like less). Henry James was a very, very talented man (or as I put it more crudely to Corey, the guy could write like a MF).

I can’t imagine anyone in this day and age being able to write like this (I believe in the 100+ years in which “Dove” was published, no one has). It was an interesting experience to read this novel after reading Portrait of a Lady earlier this year (which I think might very well take the coveted #1 slot on my oh so important favorite books of 2009 list. Ha). Another David Lodge novel, Author Author, is a work of historical fiction dealing with James’ brief foray into the theater. Apparently James abandoned writing altogether for a good decade or so in the 1890’s in order to take a stab at writing plays, in order to produce critically acclaimed theatrical pieces that would bring him popularity, respect and adoration from millions (needless to say it didn’t happen that way—did I mention already that life never happens the way you want it to?). What his theater work did provide him with, though, was the ability to write just from a character’s mind. In a play, there’s no narrator setting the scene or providing omniscient narration. It’s just the dialogue. It’s all about “reading” the scene: the reaction to a sentence, the way a woman looks at a man, or at a younger American woman with money, the way the entire atmosphere of a room can change with the arrival or presence of a certain person. Instead of a light penetration, where the narrator tells you what’s happening in a neutral voice and gives a narrator’s viewpoint on the character’s attitudes and motivations, dipping in and out of character’s minds the way you dip a tortilla chip into salsa, you have a DEEP penetration, in which you never leave the viewpoint as seen through the character’s eyes. It’s intense and involving, and as exhausting as being trapped in your own head, with all the yappings and yippings that go on up there.

My favorite character in this book so far has been Milly Theale, the young doomed American who comes to Europe only to be callously taken advantage of by the old school British. At first I was surprised that James spends so much time inside Milly’s head during the first 200 pages, because in the movie (which is okay; the Portrait of a Lady film is a superior adaptation IMHO) she’s very much treated as a distant, secondary figure to Kate and Denscher, the scheming couple. The part where she leaves the doctor after hearing some bad news (or is it just ambiguous news? You never can tell, with James) and walks quickly through the streets of London with her heart pounding may be one of the best passages that I’ve read all year. Her are some of the excerpts I underlined, the ones that really struck a chord with me:

(171) She literally felt, in this first flush, that her only company must be the human race at large, that her field must be, then and there, the grey immensity of London. Grey immensity had somehow of a sudden become her element; grey immensity was what her distinguished friend [the doctor] had, for the moment, furnished her world with and what the question of ‘living’, as he put it to her, living by option, by volition…

she had been treated—hadn’t she?–as if it were in her power to live; and yet one wasn’t treated so—was one?–unless it came up, quite as much, that one might die… But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might, more responsibly than ever before, take a hand, had been offered her instead.

(173) Here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life? They could live if they would; that is, like herself, they had been told so; she saw them all about her, on seats, digesting the information… the blessed old truth that they would live if they could.

(176) It was perhaps superficially more striking that one could live if one would; but it was more appealing, insinuating, irresistible, in short, that one would live if one could.

Good stuff. Moments like these don’t happen often in James, but when they do, they’re like a flash of lightning. Just like day to day existence: sometimes it feels like you’re going through one murky day after another, and you don’t know what it adds up to, and you don’t know what it means, and then all of a sudden—BAM! Some insight that you didn’t have before hits you clearly, and all of a sudden you seen your life in a different way than you did before. And then just as quickly as it came it’s gone, and you’re back to your nail-chewing ways, spilling lentils on the floor of your apartment, hoping that the toilet isn’t clogged and eating the last of your stale Special K flakes with the last few drops squeezed out of the soy milk carton. It’s a shame that such beautiful, illuminating flashes of insight don’t come around more often. Though I guess if they did, they wouldn’t be that special, would they? Now that sounds like a form of hard-fought wisdom…

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Filed under consciousness, Henry James, Mexico, mindfulness, Nuevo Laredo, wisdom

My Old Friend Onetti

Resting proudly on top of the mess on my desk.


Onetti has unexpectedly entered my life again, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. Onetti is hard to read, dude! Heck, most of November (again, for whatever reason) was pretty hard. I keep thinking about what my Dad said about his time in the Peace Corps, that the first month is always the best, because everything is really new and exciting and you’re just constantly stimulated by all these new sights and sounds and smells and people. But hey, my boyfriend finally came for a long-awaited, much anticipated visit over Thanksgiving weekend, and now I’m feeling as refreshed and as reinvigorated as though I just came back from a long vacation. For better or for worse, I have three weeks (!!) left in Mexico. And then, it’s off to Quito (again! What is it about this strange ecuatorial country that keeps calling me back?) for a second placement with Kiva. And then…? 

I’d brought El astillero with me to Mexico, but Onetti didn’t pop up officially until my first or second week here (how time blurs things together!!). I was eating meat tacos at the taco cart across the street from the office, when this guy asked me where I was from. We started talking and I learned he was from Uruguay. “Oh!” I said. “I wrote my undergraduate thesis in college on an author from Uruguay.” “What was he called?” the man asked. When I uttered Onetti’s name, much excitement on his part ensued, and he turned out to be a huge Onetti fan. All I could manage was what… I travel all the way to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and eat at a wooden taco cart across the street from the office, and I end up talking about Onetti, of all people? 

So that’s how I ended up meeting Diego, who insanely enough shares the same first name as my thesis advisor at college, another coincidence that feels too crazy and bizarre to be real. I feel like I’ve spent most of this year acting like the main character from Arlt’s The Mad Toy, stumbling around in a desperate attempt to find a mentor of any sort at any price, and ending up meeting a bizarre assortment of random characters. 

Anyway, so Diego’s excitement at meeting another Onetti afficionado ended with him scheduling a presentation about Onetti at Estacion Palabra (the local reading/cultural center) on December 4th. We’ve both been working on it together.  The name of the presentation is “Los sueño rebelados,” (“The rebellious dreams”), a cute play-on-words of one of Onetti’s short stories, “Un sueño realizado” (“A realized dream,” or “A dream come true”). We have power point slides with music and everything. 

It should be pretty fun. Diego keeps insisting that there is no intellectual culture in Mexico and the only people who are going to come and friends of his from his government job and people who want “to look good and impress others.” After Bolaño’s scathing indictments of the relationship between Mexican artists and politicians in The Savage Detectives, I’m really not that surprised. I’m not too hung up about it, I feel like I ‘m sort of just coming along for the ride. And of course I’ve enjoyed hanging out with Diego, getting to know him, being introduced to musicians like Laurie Anderson and Mercedes Sosa, borrowing his random intellectual DVDs (Secrets and Lies, Rhaspody in August, all those documentaries from Iran). Meeting him has been yet another random, inexplicable encounter and friendship of mine in a city that seems to be full of them. 

The goal of the presentation is basically to try to convey the importance of the Onetti universe: what it consists of, how it’s constructed. Onetti is a pretty interesting author, but not an easy one to recommend. I wouldn’t really recommend him to a friend looking for “something to read,” you know? My thesis advisor put it best when he said to me once, “You know what? A lot of the time, Onetti is just plain boring, in the sense that nothing ever happens in his books.” And that’s exactly the point. Nothing happens. The most liberating, exciting thing that takes place for Onetti characters is when they indulge in acts of wild creativity. An author in a deadbeat job writes a screenplay that turns into a novel that eventually turns into a world of its own (La Vida Breve/A Brief Life). A doctor writes down the stories invented by various men about a woman’s funeral in an attempt to explain the drooling, gross-looking goat that attended (Para una tumba sin nombre/A grave with no name). A young man enjoys a woman’s fantastical stories about her exotic vacations, love affairs and adventures when he thinks they’re made up, but when he finds an album filled with photos that proves that they’re true, he feels inexplicably, devastatingly disappointed  (the story story “El album”). 

Storytelling is always inevitably linked to lying in Onetti, and in turn lying is linked with freedom and liberation. Usually, the fictitious, created world ends up supplanting the real one, as it does in La Vida Breve, where a novelist named Brausen writes a book about a town called Santa Maria which turns into a real city and ends up being the setting for most of Onetti’s subsequent novels and stories (one of the best scenes in El astillero takes place when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR, Brausen the city founder). Lying, story-telling and creating is often referred to as a game, and most of the joy the characters find comes from playing it. Onetti characters are always seeking to “conocer” or “saber”, to understand or to know, but what they usually end up finding are lies and stories. 

The man himself


The search for knowledge is big theme in El Astillero (The Shipyard), which took me all of November to read. It’s an incredibly well-written book but I also found it difficult to read. It really is a “novel without a plot.” The novel opens with the main character, Larsen, returns to Santa Maria five years after being expelled from the town for running a whorehouse (the plot of another Onetti novel, Juntacadaveras or Bodysnatcher). Shockingly enough El astillero was written BEOFRE Juntacadaveras–I say “shockingly” because so much of the melancholic, elegiac tone of Astillero comes from the feeling that you’re missing the first half of the story. It feels like watching Return of the Jedi without having seen The Empire Strikes Back: you see shots of Luke’s missing hand and you’re like “whoa, what’s up with that? Something really intense must have happened there.” But you’re never told specifically what, you have to figure it out for yourself. It creates a very interesting atmosphere for the story, where everything feels incredibly charged and loaded with the weight of this history you don’t have access to. 

Anyway, so a lot of El astillero feels like the story of Larsen’s fall from grace, even though you never know in full detail what his “grace” was. Basically, the gist of the story is that Larsen returns to Santa Maria and gets a job working in a dilapidated, run-down shipyard, in a somewhat half-hearted attempt at a “comeback,” an attempt to make his life feel meaningful or purposeful. What does he do? He hangs out with his co-workers, Galvez and Kunz. He courts the daughter of his boss, Petrus. One of his co-workers tell him that he has a piece of paper that could incriminate Petrus and send him to jail, and the way Larsen deals with this is maybe the closest thing resembling a traditional plot that this book has. 

An Aimee Mann soundtrack would be pretty excellent for this book. “Going Through the Motions.” “It’s Not.” “I Cannot Get My Head Around It.” There’s a lot of descriptions of winter and cold weather, which fits in with the theme of old age, declining years, the feeling that the best part of one’s life is behind them and that there’s nothing to look forward to (jeez, no wonder I felt so down all November, if this was the main message entering my brain!). 

There were a lot of things I liked about this book. I liked the theme of madness that made me think of Don Quixote and The Savage Detectives. Galvez and Kunz can maybe be seen as acting as a sort of Sancho Panza to Larsen’s Quixote, as Larsen muses: 

“si ellos están locos, es forzoso que yo esté loco. Porque yo podia jugar a mi juego porque lo estaba haciendo en soledad; pero si ellos–Kunz y Galvez–, otros, me acompañan, el juego es lo serio, se transforma en lo real. Aceptarlo asi–yo, que lo jugaba porque era juego–, es aceptar la locura.” (85) 

(sorry I can’t translate the quotes, feel free to plug them into a translator!) This is a very “Onetti” theme, thinking about games and participating in them for the heck of it, in order to “accept madness.” Petrus the boss is definitely portrayed as a crazy King Lear-type patriarch, continuously insisting that any day now the shipyard is going to be back on its feet, raising Larsen’s salary without Larsen having ever received a single paycheck. I say that Larsen is quixotic in the sense that he’s “engaging in foolish impracticality in pursuit of ideals”–but then that begets the question, what ideals? What does Larsen believe in? What does he want? There’s one passage where Larsen ponders about his reasons for working at the shipyard, with “el único propósito de darle un sentido y atribuir este sentido a los años que le quedaban por vivir y, en consecuencia, a la totalidad de su vida.” (72) Larsen starts out with this very strong desire to make his life feel purposeful by taking the job at the shipyard, but it ends up being this crazy, fake game of madness–very appropriately Onettian. 

The descriptions of poverty are also some of the most interesting in the book. All of the parts concerning Galvez’s very pregnatn wife, living in her husband’s squalid, disgusting cabin with a pack of dogs, are pretty gripping. I also like the parts that refer to the “larger” Onetti universe, as when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR. It all feels very symbolic and like excellent material for a dissertation. 

I really, really liked this book. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in it most of the time, and I don’t think it’s just the Spanish. The ending feels VERY Faulknerean, with a very Onetti twist (not to give too much away, but we’re basically provided with two endings of Larsen’s fate, and we get to choose which one we want). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got to do this in real life? Pity… 

I may not know much but I know that I’m definitely going to have to read this again, preferably in English. 

And that there’s still a lot of work left to be done. 




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Filed under books, Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, Onetti

maps and lessons


Am I basking in the Sea of Knowledge? Or lost in the Foothills of Confusion?

Last Saturday in Estacion Palabra I re-read The Phantom Tolbooth and most of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I literally gasped when I saw “Tolbooth” on the shelf. This was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, the rare children’s fantasy world novel that stands alone and isn’t part of a trilogy. I love any book that has a map in the opening pages, period. “Tolbooth” really does a wonderful job of capturing what it feels like to be a kid whose childhood is defined by books. The movie critic in Salon sums up this feeling very nicely in a recent review:

I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience… the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.

“The Phantom Tolbooth” is just so unique is so many ways: how can you not love Subtraction Stew? Or jumping to the Island of Conclusions? When Milo was lost, winding his way through the Doldrums, and managed to escape by thinking hard (i.e. putting his brain to good use) all I could think was God, what a valuable lesson for me at this point in my life. This past week has been a little difficult for me because so much of it has been pure office work. I mean, I managed to get a lot of work done on projects on my workplan, all with fancy, scary sounding titles like “Operational Cost Analysis” and “Interest Rate Calculation/Verification.” Next week I’ll definitely be out in the field meeting clients again (I’ll probably end up missing the office!). But humans were truly not made to be shut up in offices, hunched in front of little computers all day. Thank god I enjoy my co-workers and feel like the work I’m doing is actually important and has a point to it; otherwise, I can see why office jobs could be a slow, droning form of suicide for many people.

It was fun to re-read the Eggers book too, which I hadn’t touched since 2000, the first time I read it. I was in summer camp at CTY at Skidmore College in New York. I remember feeling very impressed that my creative writing teacher knew Dave Eggers. Anyway, I LOVED the book. I was convinced it was completely and utter genius. I carried it around with me everywhere. I read it lying on my stomach in the grass, hanging out with the goth kids as they talked about Smashing Pumpkins and drew things on their shoes with black marker. I think I may have even cursed myself a couple of times and my apparent lack of talent: “why can’t I write like Dave Eggers?!”

Well… I’m really glad now that I *don’t* write like the Dave Eggers in AHWOSG. (I don’t mean this as a diss!) Now that some time has passed, this book stands out in stark contrast to everything he’s written afterwards (“Velocity”, “What is the What,” the Katrina book that looks really interesting). So much of it takes place inside twentysomething-year-old Dave’s head, which can be an intense place at times.

I was really afraid upon picking up the book that I was going to absolutely HATE it, kind of like the people who watch The Graduate thirty years later and realize that Benjamin Braddock is an absolute dud and that Mrs. Robinson is truly the only likeable character. However, my fears were rapidly assuaged once I read the description of how Dave’s younger brother used steak knives to cut open bags of pretzels, or the classic MTV Real World application interview. The “Dave” character is just intensely trapped in his head, painfully so at some points. However, although it can get a little claustrophobic at times, I think it’s wonderful and incredibly honest. It feels extremely 90’s. The 90’s was a very “Me” decade, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted to be introspective and painfully honest, Little Earthquakes-style.All those female-singer songwriters, Kurt Cobain strumming his acoustic guitar and singing about his pain. (My sister writes more about the theme of exposure in AHWOSG here.) What do we have now? A global melting pot, I guess, with M.I.A. and people wanting to get back to their gardens.

There is a ton of death and decay in this book. This is not a fun-hearted, haha, fun and games book with ironic slackers cracking witty comments (though there is some of that). I thought this book was hilarious when I first read it; this time, I found it incredibly sad (maybe this is just a sign of how I’ve gotten older. This book is filled with death and injuries: friends, parents, family members. More than anything else, the main message that stuck with me after re-reading this was how Eggers seems to be saying Life is crazy, and it’s really hard to make it out alive and unscathed.

It was a good reading choice at this point my life, in a week where two girls from my college were hit by a car in Portland, on a street that I myself have biked past many a time, almost every morning in fact from January to May on my way to work at the elementary school. One of them was killed and the other is in a coma and apparently it’s increasingly unlikely she will wake up. I didn’t know either of them, we were nevertheless connected through friends-of-friends the way that everyone is in a small school at Reed. One of them was friends with my older brother; I had a class my senior year with the other girl. She was actually one of the first people I ever talked to at Reed, shortly after some kind of assembly had finished and we were all filing into the cafeteria and I was freaking about not knowing anyone so I just started talking to the girl in line ahead of me about our outdoor wilderness orientation trips. I don’t think we talked ever again after that. And now she’s dead. That… that makes me sad.

Isn’t that crazy how people can just DIE, just disappear completely off the earth?? Think about it: you’re crossing the street to go to Fred Myer, and then in the next ten seconds you no longer exist. The Internet especially makes things weird, because you’re leaving behind an online record of yourself. Your Twitter, facebook, livejournal account will suddenly become like these untouched statues, your last footprint on earth. It’s terrifying, though maybe you could also think of it as reassuring… maybe. I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to end with this. Try to live in the moment, I guess. Or as I said on the phone with my dad, “you gotta enjoy your steak tacos when you have them.”

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Filed under death, Mexico, non-fiction, Nuevo Laredo, Uncategorized