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To Celebrate the Day of the Dead, Discover Nine Mexican Authors

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firelighter and Olympe Dairaux found this witty
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"The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 
Octavio Paz
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Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead” as in the Codex Borgia

Like many things in Mexico, pre-Hispanic and Hispanic cultures collide on the Dia de los Meurtos (Day of the Dead); a combination of an Aztec ritual honoring Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead”, and the Christian All Saints, or All Souls Day. The Aztecs originally held their celebration during the summer, but when the Spanish were unable to suppress the festival, it was moved to coincide with the Christian holidays on November 1st and 2nd.

Death, for Mexicans, is an integral part of being human, the dead are extensions of the community and these beloved and former family members have their part to play in the celebrations—hence the presence of joyous skeletons and skulls. In general, festivities are most colorful in states where traditional indigenous culture is predominant, such as Michoacan, Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Chiapas and the Yucatan. Ofrendas, or offerings, are made to the dead: keeping the spirits happy ultimately brings good luck and protection to families.

Finding a collective identity has always been a Mexican obsession and the Day of the Dead is symbolic of how two holidays from different cultures were merged. Much writing from Mexico speaks of this identity—weighed down by a history that is often painful and violent. Following is a list of books, by no means exhaustive, by wonderful Mexican authors and poets, starting with a few classics and moving towards contemporary writing, which is rich, varied, dynamic and soul-searching. Two more authors Emiliano Monge, and Antonio Ortuño are yet to be translated into English but can be read in short story form. 

The Labyrinth of Solitude and other writings

Mexico's foremost writer and critic, Octavio Paz, is a classic and a must for those who have never read about Mexico. A poet, diplomat and 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Paz wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude in 1950. It's a long form essay on Mexican identity that explores Mexico's indigenous and Hispanic roots and the country's heavy colonial past, its relationship to death, philosophy, and ultimately, its solitude. 

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Pedro Paramo

First first published in Mexico in 1955, this slim novel at first had a cool critical reception, but later became known as canonical amidst Latin American literature and one of Gabriel García Márquez's most important inspirations. "The work of Juan Rulfo is not only the highest expression which the Mexican novel has attained until now: through Pedro Paramo we can find the thread that leads us to the new Latin American novel," said Carlos Fuentes. Set in post-revolutionary early 20th-century Mexico, in a rural south populated by ghost villages, it is the haunted and tragic tale of Pedro Paramo and his town, in which the dead are all still living.  

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Nostalgia for Death and Heiroglyphs of Desire

Xavier Villaurrutia was one of the very few Latin American writers in the first half of the 20th century who was openly homosexual. He was an important Mexican poet who wrote, essentially, one book, Nostalgia for Death, translated here for the first time by Eliot Weinberger. As 1990 Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz makes clear in his book-length study, Hieroglyphs of Desire (translated by Esther Allen), Villaurrutia is a major poet of desire whose beloved is the death we live each day.

If I keep you imprisoned,

and caress you and hide you;

if I feed you in the depths

of my most intimate wound,

if my death gives you your life

and my frenzy such delights,

what will become of you, Death,

when, when I must leave this world,

untying this tangled knot,

you too will have to leave me?

Excerpt from "Death in Decimas"

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The Guilty

Contemporary Mexico is depicted in this collection of short stories by Juan Villoro, one of the country's best known journalists and authors. Hilarious, about serious subjects, stories run the gamut from the semiotics of pet iguanas to the disillusionment of mariachi singers. These are tales of absurdity and frustration with life in Mexico, but in one story, "Amigos Mexicanos", he also underlines the American perception of Mexico. Villoro knows the US well, and his stories will help readers develop a far wider-ranging view of the country than what is portrayed in the news in the US today. Translated by Kimi Traube.

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Texas

Roberto Bolaño described Carmen Boullosa as "Mexico's greatest woman writer." Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Texas: The Great Theft, is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland, wrested from Mexico in 1848. Boullosa views the border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal of each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dance hall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. Translated by Samantha Schnee.

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Signs Preceding the End of the World

Yuri Herrera's acclaimed novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World, follows Makina, a discreet and street smart young woman, who decides to leave her life in Mexico behind and travel north across the border, to look for her brother who she hasn't seen in several years.  As the translator, Lisa Dillman, writes in her notes, the novel deals with major contemporary issues of “migration, immigration (and two of its stomach-churning corollaries, so-called nativism and profiling), transnationalism, transculturalism, and language hybridity—not to mention, of course, the end of the world.”

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The Body Where I Was Born

In her autobiographical novel, Guadalupe Nettel's starting point is her lazy eye, which sets her apart and allows her to observe and perceive in a particular manner. Growing up in Mexico City and France during the 1970s and 80s Nettel's character examines her baby-boomer parents as they head towards divorce, her own adolescence, Mexican and French society, all with biting humor and intelligence. Translated by J.T. Lichtenstein

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A Zero-Sum Game

Eduardo Rabasa, the successful founding editorial director of the Mexico City-based indie publishing company, Sexto Piso, has written a satirical political fantasy set in the present. Within today's consumer society, citizens face corruption and power, empowerment and helplessness. Translated by Christina MacSweeney

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The Story of My Teeth

Gustavo 'Highway' Sanchez is a man with a mission: he is planning to replace every last one of his unsightly teeth. In his quest for a perfect set of pearly whites, he finds unusual ways to raise the funds, culminating in the sale of the jewels of his collection: the teeth of the 'notorious infamous' : Plato, Petrarch, Chesterton, Virginia Woolf and others. Valeria Luiselli takes us on an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable journey that offers an insightful meditation on value, worth and creation, and the points at which they overlap. Translated by Christina MacSweeney.

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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