Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I live in El Paso, where I’m a grad student at UTEP, in Bilingual Education studies. I was accepted to the MFA program here a few years ago, but I chose another path. I figured I could probably be a better poet by not being just another MFA student. Of course, I’ll never know for sure.

I have family here and in Mexico. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in Mexicali, Juárez, and Mexico City. In CDMX I hung out with writers and artists and whatnot, including a few of the younger-generation Infras, not that they’re young any longer. I heard lots of stories about Bolaño and Santiago and the original gang. My first book is coming out in Puebla this year, from a press in that non-official family tree, or at least I’ve been told it’s coming out this year. In the poetry world of Mexico, in whose lost alleyways one can still find the complete skeletons of horses harnessed to 19th century buggies, you never know.

I have followed your columns and I enjoy them. You have other readers in El Paso and across the border, too, in case you didn’t know. I am writing to ask what you think of this American Dirt meltdown/melodrama. I am a bit of two minds on it all, myself. I can certainly see that the book, its author, and its publishing house have plenty to answer for. But I know, too, that the finger-wagging Latinx littérateur contingent (not to mention the campy Mexican one!) can also be self-serving and mean-minded as fuck. Which makes them like all the finger-wagging writer contingents, everywhere, of course.

One writer-friend from Mexico is actually laughing at the whole mess around this Oprah Club page-turner about violent Mexicans and their victims, written by a white photogenic woman with a million-dollar advance and a partly Puerto Rican grandmother. He asked me if we should cease reading Borges for his appropriations of Icelandic culture, the ancient Danes, Jewish mysticism, and Persian poetry. The two years I was in CDMX, I taught the “secular” classes at an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva, believe or not. (I taught English and Literature of the Americas, 10th and 11th grades.) One of the Rabbis, born in the Bronx, would speak to me about literature. He liked some poets like Frost and Darío and Bishop. But he also liked reading Borges. When I asked him about Borges’ knowledge of Maimonides and the Kabbalah, the Rabbi responded, “He knows nothing about them…all the quotes and allusions are narrow, at best, or not understood, but it doesn’t matter. I love his stories!”

I can list some Mexican writers and the very stupid, low-brow stories they write about the States…usually after having lived there for several months, or even less. And on this side of the border, I know of some very political white poet-translators who have their victim poets sign an agreement that no one else can touch or translate their work into English.

I don’t know what to think of this whole enchilada… Everyone is taking care of their little corner. Like, I remember that the formerly hot Junot Diaz was upset that Vargas Llosa wrote a novel about Trujillo…Seems only Dominicans can touch that topic. No one wants their slice of the market taken over.

I had to watch half of that Disney shit-stew, COCO, and I asked myself: in Mexican Quasi Aztec Afterlife, there are no borrachines?  No sicarios?  No polleros?  No corrupt politicos?  No writers, mainly white Mexicans, who lived their lives on CONACULTA and INBA monthly pay-offs, while the rest of the country ate an egg and some chorizo, if they were lucky, for a sturdy meal? Well, my six-year-old daughter loved the movie, anyway.

There ARE a lot of Santa Muerte chapels in Juárez, and I am certain that the ficheras, taxi drivers, cut-throats, street sellers who hawk pirated DVDS and fake IDs are all expecting their loved ones to honor them each Day of the Dead.

Well, the truth: Now Top Ramen is more popular than tortillas in Mexico, because cheaper. More Coca-Cola is given to children than milk, because Coca-Cola is cheaper. Would that be something bad to write about? Would it be better to say that abuelita is making tortillas de harina and everyone loves mariachi?

I don’t know. Nothing is pure, you know? Watch out for left-flag flocks wagging their fingers on Twitter or signing obsequious petitions to Oprah at LitHub, too. There’s usually something hidden at work. Which in some cases is having the secret hots to be an author with a fancy New York firm, just like the American Dirt author. Wag the finger while secretly craving to be all down and dirty in the NYTBR, at play in the big-time American Lit Dirt Box! I mean, it’s sort of a version of wag the dog, when you think about it, no?

Anyway, I am going on way too long and wandering, stream of consciousness style, like some poem by a minor Infra poet of the third generation, pobrecito. So thanks for what you do, Emily. Send us an answer if you can.

–Bemused and Amused in El Paso


Dear Bemused and Amused in El Paso,

You know, this is one of the most dulce de leche letters I’ve gotten in the past four years.

Thank you. And good on you on skipping the MFA trap and taking up something to make an actual difference. Buena fortuna, amorcito, and never regret it. Always remember this one question: How come poetry and fiction were doing just swell in the U.S. for two centuries before the last mostly shitty forty years of the Program Era? How come poetry and fiction meant so much more to the wider culture before the doldrums that we now mainly got, you know? Well, I guess that’s two questions, but they’re related.

OK, so my answer will not be as long or as interesting as your letter. Because I haven’t read the book yet. And judging from the reviews, I shan’t. It sounds downright dreadful. Like some kind of Da Vinci Code-level cash-machine, craftily targeting an audience of guilty white liberals who like to express sentiment for Mexicans so long as they are fictional and not moving into the real neighborhood. I say any book written by a white person with a seven-figure advance about the plight of immigrants that has a five-star hotel gala launch-lunch with barbed wire wrapped around the floral centerpieces is to be avoided like the main meat market in Wuhan. Good luck, compadre, with that last sentence. Not to mention promo copy that has the author heart-tuggingly married to a “formerly undocumented immigrant,” when the hubby in question turns out, upon further investigation, to be a red-haired guy from County Cork, Ireland.

No, not gonna entertain this cynical manufacture of Madison Avenue hustle. Especially when I still haven’t read a word by Clarice Lispector, though don’t tell anyone.

Which is not to say I don’t agree with everything on offer in your letter about the other side of things. That other side of things being, in its complicit logic, just as cynical and poignantly absurd. I mean that so many of those, as you suggest, who pound at the barbed-wired doors of the publishing industry really want a five-star hotel floral centerpiece, too.

Where do you really live, Poets & Writers, as it were?

The U.S. Literary Field of Production is basically owned by the arts institutions of the State, the Official Foundations, Big Capital, and the Academy.

All of which are now intertwined, since ca. end of the Vietnam War, like kudzu in a hothouse.

Just like stuff in Mexico, after Tlatelolco.

The culture-zombie effect, across the rainbow spectrum, is unprecedentedly omnipresent.

The bosses are so pleased it’s like the tops of their freaking heads are about to come off.

I’m going to leave it at that.

–Emily Post-Avant