Mexico City Lit

Interview

Dylan Brennan

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Dylan Brennan recently met up with John Z. Komurki of Mexico City Lit in downtown Mexico City's Café Habana (famously frequented by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Gárcia Márquez, amongst others, and immortalised by Bolaño in The Savage Detectives as Café Quito). Over coffee and machetes (long story) they spoke about contemporary Mexican literature, politics and, chiefly, about the important and exciting work being carried out by Mexico City Lit.

...on Mexico City Lit...

The whole point is that Mexico City, Mexico as a country but, in particular, Mexico City is just an incredible cosmopolitan megalopolis and has been, literally, since day one. Before New York and almost before London, Mexico City and its modern incarnation was incredibly cultural and literary above all. But the point being that in the English speaking world we have almost no access to that. I mean, I always say that a lot of people who read The Savage Detectives in English don't know that the Stridentists, for example, were a real movement. Probably a lot of people who read The Savage Detectives don't even know that Octavio Paz is a real person, you know what I mean. So obviously there's huge, huge disconnect, but let's not talk about Bolaño. The point is that even big names hardly appear in English: Sergio Pitol, famously, was first translated only the other day by George Henson. So if even these established names aren’t being translated, the younger writers don't stand a chance. That's a little bit of what we try to do with Mexico City Lit.

There's a huge interest around the world in contemporary Mexico but the language barrier is, obviously, a barrier, of language, you can quote me on that. And some of what we try to do is bring those young and less young writers to a worldwide audience. Particularly in the US. It’s not immediately obvious, maybe, but there is an overtly political component to this, to translation in general, but in particular to what we do. Part of that is about destabilizing power relations, about redefining cultural discourse. One of Mexico’s salient characteristics, as a culture, is its exquisite and vivid literature, and I feel like a lot of people north of the border don’t know that. And, what’s more, it’s in the bad guys’ interest for people not to know that. Equally Mexico City, now and always, has been a magnet for literary-type people: a lot of different writers from around the world congregate here, so we are able to publish many diverse voices, for example the Persian poet Mohsen Emadi, or the great Juan Gelman. I’d say about 25% of what we publish was originally written in English or another language.

...on the origins of Mexico City Lit...

More than how Mexico City Lit got started, what’s interesting is where it is now, which is broadly speaking a very dynamic group of people, very focused, doing a lot of diverse things centred on a single, umbrella-type brand. So we have the digital review, we publish print and digital books, we are doing an exhibition, some video things, workshops, a conference on ebooks, among other things. 

...on upcoming projects...

Next month we are going to publish a book called Poets for Ayotzinapa, based on a series of articles we did, on the events at Ayotzinapa and their aftermath, for which we brought together pieces on the subject by about 40 writers and artists. We've brought together a lot of young poets writing about that in English. Jack Little is in it, you are in it, of course. Tim MacGabhann's in it, we'll come back to him in a moment. There were two Poets for Ayotzinapa issues and the book will be comprised of the two issues combined plus some more material and the hook really is that it's bilingual which means that it's of interest both here and, for example, in America or in Europe. The book will be bilingual, digital and free, in order to guarantee the most widespread diffusion possible. Another forthcoming book is a showcase of contemporary collage in Mexico, called Collage Mexico. We're going to do an exhibition based on that. A third book we're doing is from a fantastic young Irish poet who I just mentioned called Tim MacGabhann who is based here in Mexico City and also collaborates with Mexico City Lit. A first collection, a sort of chapbook of about 20 pages or so, again, bilingual, so it'll be available here, America and in Ireland, published by Mexico City Lit. We are deeply pumped about this. 

...on working with Tim MacGabhann...

Tim and I started working together about a year ago and our lit bromance just goes from strength to strength. He's a very very talented man, a very talented man, in terms of young writers from the UK and Ireland, he would be in my top… three, maybe? I mean I picked up the Forward Prize book the other day and not many of them grabbed me the way that Tim's writing does. Just wait for his novel. I’m trying to get him to take me on as a sort of prêt-à-porter Gordon Lish. 

...on Mexico City Lit design and branding...

Mexico City Lit is working on a lot of very diverse projects at the moment, which just makes what I insist on calling the brand stronger. Having a team beside you, people working together, maybe not on the same thing but with very much the same broad goal in mind, that gives you a lot of strength, a lot of confidence. You just get things done, you get more ballsy, you think, let's do it, no-one else is doing it. That's a very nice vibe and you find that it attracts people with energy because they recognise the brand and think, well, I can do this here.

...on politics in Mexico...

The team is about 50% people from elsewhere and 50% Mexicans but I certainly would never presume to speak to any issue facing Mexico, I don't think that's the position of an outsider, you can see what people are saying and maybe you can analyse their perspectives with some more objectivity but we don't try to speak to that sort of thing, that's not our role, not our position. As a platform, to a certain degree, we do engage in politics inevitably.

In my less lucid moments I conceive of Mexico City Lit as a sort of panopticon which reflects, it tries to be a reflection more than trying to push a particular perspective. In fact, and it behoves me legally to get this on record, we are explicitly not involved in Mexican politics, any more than an anthropologist, journalist or photographer is. We're a platform, a collective, a very open-ended space. A loose formation of individuals. (You're like Anonymous?) Yeah, we're like Anonymous but with names and faces and Facebook.

...on the health of contemporary Mexican literature...

Mexico City is an incredibly young and dynamic city. There's a lot of talent there's a lot of money and a lot of people doing really amazing stuff. There's a huge wave of energy. It's just beyond belief, beyond belief. To come here from Europe, particularly, where literature is at best a hobby, isn't it, frankly? Very much a specialist interest, where maybe your mum reads Andrew Motion, you know what I mean. The point is that here, the people that read, they live to read and to write and to do this stuff. The written word still has an incredible power and a resonance and you can feel this particularly articulate culture. It's a culture which, like the Irish, puts a great value on the spoken word, on verbal dexterity. There's so much talent here sloshing around, as my friend, the Salvadoran poet, Lauri García Dueñas, who lives here said, this city is very generous to its poets and it's true. It's a city which supports and encourages and promotes and loves books.

This year Mexico City Lit will be working on some things with the British Council in relation to the UK-Mexico Dual Year. I think their famous list of 20 Mexican writers is a coherent one and includes a lot of interesting young names. I find the lunatic fringe of Mexican poetry fascinating, I'm talking about Arrellano, Padilla, Garza Islas, people like this, in fact I am translating a sort of hugely partial, smorgasbord selection called Mexican Poets Go Home, forthcoming from Bongo Books, which contains a lot of my favourite poets. In terms of foreigners, I’ve mentioned Lauri, I have to say that Robyn Myers, the American poet who lives here, is exceptional, very talented. Tim. There’s just too many. In terms of prose, one of the many many people that I think is fantastic is Carlos Velázquez, who's from Torreon in the north. There is no-one writing like him in English today. No-one. I would love to be able to translate one of his books.

In some ways Irish writers are inevitably writing against a huge body of national literature, of which any given Irish writer is really the tip of the iceberg, and the same is true in Mexico. Mexico has a very various, established, profuse, national literature. So, to be a Mexican writer is in a way a double-edged sword, of course, you're always writing to and against a charismatic, very loud national tradition which maybe we don't see as clearly, as outsiders. One example could be the crónica, which is a very specifically Mexican literary form that derives from the writing of the conquistadores. Carlos Velázquez, Poniatowska, Monsiváis, they keep re-inventing the crónica but you have to know when you read them, that it was a form developed precisely by the colonizers—it was the voice of power, which was subverted—so there's a huge, very charged history there behind it.

...on future projects...

So Mexico City Lit plans to go on exploring bilingual publishing. That strikes me as useful cultural and political work. In a certain sense, I want to be able to think of the US and Mexico as one and the same market, people who speak different languages reading the same book, without even thinking of it as a translation, with Mexico City Lit as a sort of cultural semi-permeable membrane in the middle, to use a metaphor from biology. But maybe I should leave it there. I personally am working on a book, a history of foreign writers in Mexico City. It’s a very exciting time to be in the country, and it’s a huge privilege to be here, and, for me, to be able to do this cool stuff with these huge writers. Living the dream, in short.

For more information about Mexico City Lit see www.mexicocitylit.com

Twitter: @MexicoCityLit

Dylan Brennan is the author of Blood Oranges and Atoll.

Blood Oranges is available here.

Atoll is available here.

Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

Image: 'A draft of the design concept for Mexico City Lit, by Berlin-based designer Luca Bendandi.'