Visiting writers bring firsthand view of Mexico's literary life
By Eric Quiñones
Princeton NJ -- University students this spring are getting an authentic view of Mexico City's literary culture without leaving their Frist Campus Center seminar room.
Ruben Gallo, an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, is bringing six internationally known Mexican writers to Princeton during the semester to discuss their work and their perspectives on Mexico City's literary scene. The 15 students in Gallo's course, "Contemporary Writers in Mexico City," relish the opportunity to personally engage the subjects of their coursework.
"I really enjoy hearing the writers discuss the writing process. I am not necessarily interested in becoming a writer myself, but it is fascinating to hear about the process that goes into creating a work of fiction and how this attitude and work ethic differs from one author to another," said sophomore Sara Arnold. "It has been interesting to hear the authors themselves discuss the symbols in their writing and share their own interpretations, which have in some cases been similar to my own and in some cases differed."
Gallo, whose research focuses mainly on avant-garde movements in Mexican literature and culture, said he designed the course in an attempt to demystify the study of literature.
"I love literary life and literary culture," said Gallo, whose research often takes him to Mexico City to meet with writers and attend readings. "I've noticed that in some literature courses, literature becomes this very abstract, very remote object of study. I wanted to give this experience to the students so they could see that literature is created by people just like us -- you can talk to them, you can have agreements and disagreements about what it all means."
The group of visiting writers included Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla, founders of a literary movement dubbed the "Crack" group, which aims to promote a more modern, cosmopolitan form of Mexican fiction in which writers explore much more than the traditions and customs of their home country.
Volpi, Padilla and Juan Villoro, a noted novelist, essayist and children's author, met with the Princeton students during the first half of the spring semester. Other prominent writers scheduled to participate in the course are journalists Carlos Monsiváis and Alma Guillermoprieto and poet Homero Aridjis.
Students are assigned to read one or more works by each of the writers prior to their visit. In addition to writing two papers over the course of the semester, every student is required to conduct an interview with one of the writers, which they must edit into a newspaper-style article. All of the course sessions, including the visits, are conducted entirely in Spanish.
Volpi, the first visitor to the class, said he was particularly excited to meet with students at Princeton because the early parts of his recent novel, a World War II-era espionage thriller titled "En Busca de Klingsor" ("In Search of Klingsor"), are set at the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study. Following his visit to Princeton, Volpi said he was impressed with the students' knowledge of Mexican literature and enjoyed speaking with them not only about the structure of his novel, but the worlds of science and politics as well.
"What's fascinating about Volpi is that he has actively tried to break from Mexican literary tradition," said sophomore Brady Walkinshaw. "He has tried to write about broader cosmopolitan themes and not focus on anything that's traditionally viewed as Mexican -- moving away from imposed expectations of writers in Latin America that they should write about localist themes."
Villoro, who unlike Volpi focuses on Mexican characters and culture in his work, emphasized during his talk with the class that writers do not need to employ elements of the more traditional, mystical "magic realism" genre for their works to be considered genuine Mexican literature. For example, Villoro, 47, spoke with the students about the influence American popular culture, particularly rock music and television, has had on Mexicans of his generation and on his work.
"There is a certain label which tends to regard all Latin American literature as a necessary branch of magic real-ism. Not everything has to do with ancient myths and traditions," Villoro said an interview after his visit. "The students were particularly interested in the new visions of Mexican and Latin American literature, which are not as strongly linked with magical and mythical traditions."
Villoro, who was born in Mexico City but now resides in Barcelona, Spain, added, "For me as a Mexican it's impossible not to write as a Mexican writer, but I think it would be very dangerous to try to be 'typical.' For my own literature, this kind of exoticism would be very artificial."
Junior Emily Woodman-Maynard said that, although the works of Volpi and Villoro are very different, their visits to class showed that "in some ways they share a lot in common. They are critical of a lot of the same things, like telling Mexican or Latin American writers that they can only write about Latin American subjects."
Students said that Gallo ties the writers' visits together effectively through readings and class discussions, giving the students perspective on each writer's work and their roles in the vibrant debates over the direction of Mexican literature. "Professor Gallo is able to talk to us about what it's like for an author to publish, what the intellectual community is like in Mexico City, what happens to people who are writing in the same circles, how ideas travel between people and also between countries," Woodman-Maynard said.
Gallo, who came to Princeton in fall 2002 from the University of Toronto, offered the course with funding from the University's Sophomore Initiative, which supports creative efforts to enhance the academic experience of second-year students (most of the students in the course are members of the class of 2006).
"It has been a fantastic experience. I just finished reading some of the in-terviews my students conducted with the writers, and I was amazed at the level of engagement that I've seen. The students not only asked some very smart questions, but they also managed to connect with the writers on a more personal level," Gallo said.
"Literature is about life, and they managed to relate the writers' work to their own lives very ingeniously," he added. "The writers have all been impressed by the level of seriousness and dedication they have seen in the students."