Celebrating Cinco de Mayo, NEA Big Read style
Happy Cinco de Mayo! Whether you’ll be celebrating the holiday by heading to a parade or festival, dancing to Mexican folk music, or whipping up some fresh guacamole, we also think it’s the perfect occasion to put up your feet and delight in a great story by a Mexican writer. Sun, Stone, and Shadows—a title in the NEA Big Read Library—is a collection of some of the best Mexican short stories translated into English, and features writers you might recognize (such as Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz) as well as writers you may not have encountered before. Below are a few interesting facts about the authors you’ll find in the book’s pages.
One might never guess that Juan José Arreola (1918-2001)—the author of sixteen collections of short stories—did not finish elementary school, and in fact taught himself to read. Throughout his life, he worked as a bookbinder’s apprentice; as a reporter; as the head of circulation at a newspaper; as an extra at the Comédie Française in Paris (where he studied theater); and, at the age of 74, as a commentator for the World Cup. The recipient of Mexico’s National Linguistics and Literature Prize as well as the Juan Rulfo Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature, his books translated into English include Confabulario and Other Inventions, a collection of his short stories and sketches. The collection includes his “bestiary,” written portraits of animals such as the bison, the ostrich, the owl, and many others.
The great fiction writer and essayist Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) spent part of his childhood in Washington, D.C., where his father served as a diplomat. At the age of 16, he returned to Mexico. “It was a great discovery,” he once said in an NPR interview, “because I had to contrast what I imagined Mexico to be with what Mexico really was. And in the tension between my imagination and reality, my literary possibilities as a novelist were born.” Fun fact: if you find yourself in the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. (formerly the home of the Embassy of Mexico), you might spot a young Fuentes in a mural there—he has said he was the model for a boy shown in the painting.
Among short story writer Inés Arredondo’s (1928-1989) happiest memories were the childhood summers she spent at Eldorado, the sugarcane plantation her grandfather oversaw. It was a tropical, dreamlike setting that inspired the backdrop for several of her stories. There, she said, there was a sense that life was invented one day at a time. Arredondo’s father, an obstetrician who, according to family legend, had a colorful past stemming from his service in the military (and who briefly served as the governor of the Mexican state of Campeche), often recited poetry to her from memory, which sparked her interest in books. Though she published only three collections of short stories, she is considered a master of the form.
Having lived in cities as far flung as Barcelona, Beijing, Budapest, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Rome, and Warsaw, Sergio Pitol (born 1933) wrote in The Art of Flight, “I am the sum of the books I have read, the paintings I have seen, the music I have heard and forgotten, and the streets I have walked.” Known for blending boundaries between genres, and considered to be a major influence on a new generation of Spanish-language writers, Pitol received the Cervantes Prize in 2005 in recognition of his lifetime of literary contributions. Deep Vellum Publishing recently released Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, which includes the books The Art of Flight; The Journey; and The Magician of Vienna—remarkably, the first of Pitol’s books ever to be available in English.
Fiction writer and playwright Elena Garro (1916-1998) has been called one of Mexico’s most important writers, and her novel Recollections of Things to Come is considered a masterpiece. The theme of time, she has said, was always of interest to her, particularly because her culture reflected both the finite idea of time that came from the ancient Mexican world, and the Western idea of time that was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. For over twenty years, Garro was married to fellow writer Octavio Paz; after their divorce, they are said to have never spoken again.