Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mexican stories of the fantastic, a review

by Rudy Ch. Garcia

In our July series, Spic vs spec Chicanos/latinos & sci-fi lit, discussion centered on the U.S. latino participation in speculative literature. Del otro lado de la frontera, our Mexican-national compatriots have been creating this literature as if nothing needed discussion. Thirty-three stories and a poem have been collected and translated into English as Three Messages and A Warning – Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. Edited by Eduardo Jiménez & Chris N. Brown, published 1/2012 by Small Beer Press, $16, 238 pp.

From the introduction by Bruce Sterling: “When one talks to Mexican science fiction writers, the subject of ‘Mexican national content’ commonly comes up. Mexican science fiction writers all know what that is, or they claim to know, anyway. They commonly proclaim that their work needs more national flavor.
.. This book has got that. Plenty. The interesting part is that this ‘Mexican national content’ bears so little resemblance to content that most Americans would consider ‘Mexican.’ ”

From the back cover: "This huge anthology of more than thirty all-original Mexican science fiction and fantasy features ghost stories, supernatural folktales, alien incursions, and apocalyptic narratives, as well as science-based chronicles of highly unusual mental states in which the borders of fantasy and reality reach unprecedented levels of ambiguity. Stereotypes of Mexican identity are explored and transcended by the thoroughly cosmopolitan consciousnesses underlying these works. It is a landmark of contemporary North American fiction that deserves a wide readership."

From this reviewer: If you don't like U.S. sci-fi, you could love this collection. If you've tired of Chicano repetitive la Llorana tales, this one's for you. If you're a monlingual tired of sterotyped takes, pick this one up.

The most significant sensation--I have to call it--I got from this collection was its universality. In reading specific stories--and at the end, my overall impression--was the lack of obvious mexicanidad of the tales. Whereas in U.S. latino literature I would be constantly put into contexts of U.S. oppression of its Spanish-speaking minorities, these stories embedded their latino qualities in the characters' psyches, circumstances and the storytelling of the authors. It was refreshing, something that will appeal to monolinguals, a literature that provides a redefinition of how a gente can write their tales, seemingly at one with their Otherness. Not surprising, since, despite their politically and socially repressive society, these Mexicans are indeed at home in their Mexico and with their mexicandidad, or "mexicanness."

As the introduction explains: "Mexican SF is intensely fantastic, but it's not very sci-fi. It's a New World science fiction without the stabilizing presence of American engineers and American gadget magazines. The structure of publishing in Mexico has always been Mexican; it lacks any middle-class. So there's a popular street level of wild-eyed fanzines, tabloids, and comic books, and an empyrean of Mexican fantastic literateurs who show an impressive awareness of Borges and Kafka. There's no middlebrow. Mexican SF is a science fiction with no popular mechanics, no problem-solving stories, and very little ideational extrapolation. 'Hard SF' never took root in that soil." [my emphases]

Whereas in U.S. women writers are plentiful only in what we call fantasy, and barely evident in what we call sci-fi, HALF of these stories are by women. Given their quality, I have no reason to think the editors or publisher sought some gender equity in the contents. Another very refreshing aspect to the collection. The almost consistent length of 5 to 6 pages is also notable, something that will appeal to E-readers, since there is an E-book version.

Gabriel García Márquez
What's below are only some of my favorites:
1965 by Edmée Pardo, about as deep into what we call sci-fi as the collection gets. No spoiler here, but it recounts a boy's tale of his mamá and flying saucers. Just great.

The apocalyptic zombie-ish tale Photophobia--one of the longer ones--by Mauricio Montiel Figuieras fits more our definition of magic realism and, to me, shows great influence from colombiano Gabriel García Márquez.

Another sci-fi-sh story, Future Perfect by Gerardo Sifuentes, emphasizes what the book's introduction said above about hard sci-fi not taking root in Mexico. Check this passage where an illustrator enters the lab of a university professor:
"In Mr. Dobrunas' project, the plants with altered genes appear to be more the product of a delusional whimsy than the experimental fruit of scientific erudition. At the beginning his annotations described in extravagant detail sprouts of webbed leaves emerging timidly from thousands of test tubes in a greenhouse laboratory. But a few pages later, the flowers, and then vegetables, evolved to form part of a dark, unearthly garden, composed mostly of gigantic carnivorous plants with extravagant bulbs in every color. . . his digressions looked far from being scientific experiments worthy of being taken seriously. The findings focused more on a sort of metaphysics than genetic engineering." [p. 92-93] I won't tell you how it ends.

In fact, I can't tell you how many of the stories end, because, unlike U.S. lit where it is abhorred, Mexican lit still allows for the surprise ending, like Donají Olmedo's The Stone, which I read three times but still can't decide who's the narrator.

Mónica Lavín's Trompe-l'oeil is a magic realist tale about a mother-daughter experience. Bernardo Fernández Lions is a meta-tale of parody on spec lit itself.

Amélie Olaiz's Amalgam begins: "It was said she was a mermaid exiled by Neptune. She appeared on the island on a Sunday, barefoot, wearing a thin dress, with a  plastic bag in one hand and a soda can in the other." Then Olaiz takes you on a short romp of delight.

Others that stay with me: Carmen Rioja's The Nahual Offering, Lucía Abdó's Pachuca Second Street, Guillermo Samperio's Mr. Strogoff embodies a one-sentence story that makes me as envious as I can be about another author's writing. Check it out.

Óscar de la Borbolla's Wittgenstein's Umbrella is definitely a favorite. Nearly every paragraph begins with "Suppose," involves God, heaven, the afterlife, and a girl, and takes the Groundhog Day déjà-experience in a wonderful direction.

René Roquet's The Return of Night is cross-genre, entwining sci-fi with magic realism, and the latter emerging dominant. It begins: "The world was conceived far away from the sun and the stars, inside a black cloak, where it received energy from a warm and generous ancestral womb. It had neither movement nor universe; it had no time because time was useless. It was an unblemished sphere, still in a single night without a morning to count the days. That is how darkness founded its kingdom, and it kept at bay a shadow that was never upset by the light. Everything belonged to it." Ah, to be a mexicano author!

In case you couldn't guess, I could talk with you for hours about these and others, like Pepe Rojo's whimsical The President without Organs, Claudia Guillen's The Drop--vintage The Twilight Zone without the dated staleness; Lilianna V. Blum's Pink Lemonade, a novel eco-terrorist guy-gal tale;
or Bruno Estañol's The Infamous Juan Manuel that gives a unique take on the Devil compact story, again, with a surprise ending.

For any latino/chicano looking to enter the world of spec writing in norteamerica, I'd suggest you first enjoy this collection, study and think about it; then go for it. Our mexicano vecinos have much to teach us, whatever our specific ethnicity. Again, from the introduction:
"The USA is Mexicanizing much faster than Mexico is Americanizing. Ultra-weekly moguls, class divisions, obsessions with weird religious cults, powerful factions who shun scientific fact, an abject reliance on fossil fuels and narcotics--these formerly Mexican characteristics have become USA all the way."

However, better that we should let the 34 authors of Three Messages and A Warning bequeath us something more meaningful: how to write like the gente we inherently are, not the Other that U.S. society wants us to be.

Es todo, hoy,

Rudy Ch. Garcia's debut novel, The Closet of Discarded Dreams, will be published 9/1/12. You can go to the new book website for info on how to win an autographed copy.

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