Mexico, Cosmopolitanism and World Literature

March 2015 marks a milestone in the literary career of Sergio Pitol, considered one of Mexico’s greatest living authors. Pitol, born in 1933, has published a dozen short-story collections, three memoirs and five novels, and has been a key figure in translating modernist works into Spanish. In 2005, he was honored for his lifetime achievement with the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish-language world. But until this month, with the release of The Art of Flight (Deep Vellum), his books had never been published in English. How does that happen?

“He’s the kind of writer that an agent in the United States wouldn’t be interested in because he doesn’t represent ‘The Mexican,’” says Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies. “In a way, he’s punished for being cosmopolitan because he’s not someone like Gabriel García Márquez or Roberto Bolaño, who represent an idealized version of Latin America for consumption by non–Latin American audiences.”

Sánchez Prado’s latest research project, undertaken as a Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, aims to define how and why some Mexican authors interact with the canon of world literature — and whether the concept of “world literature” is even valid at all to read Mexican fiction.

Please briefly summarize your project.
It’s part of a larger book I’m completing called “Strategic Occidentalism,” focused on the ways in which Mexican writers relate to western literary tradition. Most global approaches to literature tend to speak with a very Eurocentric understanding of influence. Because of the inequalities in access to readers, depending on where you are located in the world, it is more likely that a Mexican writer will read a British writer than the other way around. However, this inequality tends to be hidden by the idea of having European writers as completely central to world tradition and Latin American writers as people who receive the influence. My book is trying to make a reading as to how Mexican writers read world literature. They do not consider the same things as canonical in British literature that, for example, a British person would. They do not replicate the types of literature that are being promoted from the center. They do not necessarily relate to the stuff that British or U.S. critics would like the world to read about their own traditions.

What is the main argument of the book?
The main argument is that there’s a strategy in the way in which Mexican writers in particular read western literature. You cannot account for that strategy if you only think about influence, for example. It is more important to read the authors that are rare in the canon of the writers. You learn little if you say that Henry James or James Joyce influenced a Mexican writer. They influenced writers everywhere. But if you have a Mexican writer like Sergio Pitol commenting on Ivy Compton-Burnett, an early 20th-century English novelist, or translating a rare gay author like J.R. Ackerley, whom very few people read in their original language — there is something going on in that choice. It’s more important to look at that.

What makes this idea different, or what is the new contribution to your field?
Mexican writers are usually understood in the way they write about “Mexican-ness.” But one of the points is to describe the ways in which the most influential fiction in Mexico works, which is not by talking about Mexico. Many major Mexican writers avoid writing about Mexican national identity — and this has been the case for decades. Many writers that become popular in the U.S. — think Isabel Allende, Roberto Bolaño or García Márquez — elicit exoticist interests in American readers but they do not represent the full spectrum of Latin American fiction.

One of the big discussions in comparative literature today is the concept of how a world literature is created. I generally think the way Latin America is represented in world literature theory is deficient. Most discussions are basically focused around a handful of writers that are actually read in Europe, or the U.S., which implies that a Latin American writer is worthy only if he is evaluated by a foreign reader, which is not true. There’s also a glorification of the value of cosmopolitanism (of the “good” Latin American writer who “resists” nationalism) that I’m not interested in asserting. I want to do something more practical: Talk about how cosmopolitanism happens. Instead, I study things like translations that make certain authors available to certain writers — how do they circulate, where do they get published, what are they translating, where have the writers actually been? I want to suggest that there is no such thing as world literature in general, applicable to every writer. In the work of each cosmopolitan writer, there is a notion of the world that is constructed in very traceable, concrete, material ways. I’m looking at three Mexican writers and a literary movement to explain how it actually works.

Why did you choose the authors you cover?
They are among the most influential fiction writers over the last 40–50 years. Fernando del Paso and Sergio Pitol are the two most important writers living in Mexico today. Cristina Rivera Garza is one of Mexico’s most debated and intelligent writers. Ignacio Padilla, Jorge Volpi and Pedro Ángel Palou were part of a group called the Crack Movement, which really accomplished a lot in their attempt to create a transnational market for Mexican fiction.

What inspired this idea?
It’s something that you notice when you’re a foreign-born literature scholar in the U.S. You know what your English-language colleagues read and like and are interested in and [in contrast] you know what your own country is interested in. The same thing happens with cinema: The movies that people are watching there are not the same ones that circulate in international festivals. Whenever you see Latin American cinema in those festivals, you see a story about an immigrant crossing the border or an indigenous person, someone usually conforming to stereotypes. But what Mexicans like to watch is romantic comedies about the upper class. American and European audiences and scholars do not think of Mexicans as upper class or cosmopolitan. It does not fit their cultural ideology about Mexico. The same thing happens in literature. The few people who read foreign literature don’t care about cosmopolitan writers from Latin America because they do not register as “authentic” enough. They care about something that is different, and usually that “different” is a stereotype.