The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Holding the Fort for Literature in Matamoros

October 27, 2008
Matamoros, Mexico

"I expected to be nervous tonight, but I didn't expect to be so moved."

That's what popped out of my mouth yesterday from the podium at Casamata, the beautifully restored 19th-century fort here in Matamoros, Mexico. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and the Texas Southmost College have put on what looks to be a world-beating Big Read here of our first Big Read-created book, Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories.

You'll have to take my word for now for the spectacular setting last night, since my camera cable is temporarily AWOL. But across a border all too often fraught with misunderstanding, The Big Read drew inspiration from an old garrison turned museum for a truly idyllic evening. Behind the gates of a redoubt built in 1865, when the U.S. was fighting against itself and, they tell me, Mexico was fighting off the French, peace reigned for two blissful hours.

Times have been tense lately along the border, what with American plans under way to build a fence near what Texans call the Rio Grandy -- along one stretch, right through the UTB campus. Time and time again, though, these are exactly the kind of tensions that a well-run Big Read, like the one spearheaded by UTB's John Hawthorne, excels in defusing.

The dedicated staff of an underfunded but welcoming Matamoros library I visited yesterday kept telling me how much kids loved editor Jorge Hernandez's Sun, Stone, and Shadows for its emphasis on short stories. The librarians had to keep telling me, partly because my conversational Spanish is still anything but conversational, but also because short stories are the perfect form to rope a kid into reading. Mexican textbooks apparently rely on excerpts from Don Quijote and other longer works, which can sometimes put a story-driven young reader off at a critical phase in his intellectual development.

I bow to no one in my love for Cervantes, but even I knew better than to start cold with the Quijote. Here in the Matamoros library, students read Sun, Stone, and Shadows and then encounter a striking display with other, marathon works by each of the writers who are represented in the anthology only with windsprints.

How sobering to find not just library books but proudly displayed photographs of each of these 20 cherished writers ? all, except for Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and maybe Juan Rulfo, pretty much unknown in the United States. After the chambermaid who quoted Pushkin in Russia last week, I'm starting to think that maybe America needs our burgeoning international Big Reads as much as our more domestic ones.

I also got to thinking that publishers ought to make the transition from short fiction to novels easier for young readers. Instead of segregating them into separate volumes, often on different shelves, maybe they ought to consider issuing a short story and a novel apiece by the same great writer in a single book.

If a kid could read Juan Rulfo's "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" and like it ? as they almost always do -- and then graduate to Pedro Paramo as easily as turning a page, think how naturally attention spans might deepen and stretch. In America, if kids could read "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and then turn straight to Tom Sawyer with no effort at all, we might save an otherwise lost reader or two. It's the same principle the old Viking Portables work on, only designed for a still-iffy reader, who's on a smaller allowance.

Quixotic, I suppose, not unlike my old friend Jervey Tervalon, who heard me on the radio from Moscow last week and directly fired off his long-cherished idea about putting Poe stories on cereal boxes -- as if I carry around General Foods' CEO's cell number in my speed-dial. But reading inspires big plans, and if you can't be quixotic in Matamoros, where kids are reading Arreola's glorious "The Switchman" in a handsome anthology that was in proofs on my desk just a few months ago, where can you?