Liza Monroy, author of Mexican High, shares her experience returning Mexico City for the first time since high school.March 1, 2008
Revisiting the Past in Mexico City
I lived in Mexico City during high school, between 1994 and 1997, years when I was unconsciously researching my first novel, Mexican High. I wanted the book to accurately reflect this complicated, fascinating mystery of a city, a place where Rodeo Drive—like Avenida Masaryk represents a privileged microcosm within a largely developing nation. For a teenager—and my school more than slightly resembles the fictitious one my main character, Milagro Marquez, attends—Mexico City was a place full of temptations: classmates’ wealthy parents were often out of town, and drivers and bodyguards ensured safety but, as hired help, never refused to take us to nightclubs and bars, which were open all night. A common expression went, “If you’re old enough to see over the bar, you’re old enough to drink.” It was controlled chaos, a unique, surreal world I wanted to tell a story about ever since I moved back to the States.
At twenty-seven, I was revising the first draft of Mexican High and working as a freelance journalist in New York City when I read online that MTV and Frommer’s were collaborating on a guidebook series and seeking writers for the Mexico edition. I hadn’t been back to Mexico City; I was inventing the novel’s plot sitting in cafes in New York. I interviewed and several months later, I was hired.
1994, my first year in Mexico, had been a chaotic one in the country’s history: Zapatista revolutionaries in Chiapas, the peso’s devaluation from three to twelve to the dollar, the assassination of favored presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, and the volcano Popocatépetl’s near-eruption. How different would it be now? I wondered. It was an interesting time to return: the streets in the city center were shut down by protestors who’d flooded into Mexico City from all over the country to protest former mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador’s loss of the presidency to Felipe Calderon. My family was worried about my being down there while the protests were in full swing; news reports had described tear gas and riots in the plaza.
In the morning, I wandered alone through Lagunilla, a crowded outdoor market where vendors sell everything from clothing to art, antiques to puppies (!). As I strolled toward Plaza Garibaldi, even though I’d been warned to take a cab because it was peligroso, I revived some of the old rebellious adolescent spirit by sampling pulque (an ancient alcoholic Aztec beverage made from fermented maguey, an Agave plant) at ten in the morning. As I made my way further to the majestic Zócalo to revisit Casa de los Azulejos, the house of tiles, which now houses a Sanborn’s department store and restaurant, I realized I was coming up on the protest and prepared to run the other way if I needed to. But I encountered something completely different than I’d expected from the news reports—a political protest, Mexican-style. The atmosphere was that of a carnival, with kids’ rides, tents, the smell of outdoor cooking, songs, and music. There was no violence. People were everywhere, but the magnitude of the protests, other than in size, had been exaggerated by the media.
Protestors also shut down Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues. This caused major traffic calamities—getting from one place to another became a baffling challenge for drivers. I walked in the middle of Reforma, taking in scenes from the protest (a soccer match, plentiful beer-drinking in lawn chairs), and was glad I hadn’t rented a car for my time in Mexico City.
I did drive to Valle de Bravo, a verdant lake town three hours outside Mexico City that’s a popular weekend retreat for the city’s elite, as well as adventure-seekers. It’s one of the paragliding capitals of the world. While staying at adventure-sporting eco-lodge Rodavento (www.rodavento.com), I reported on the best paragliding schools (www.flymexico.com), hikes (my favorite leads to Velo de Novia—“Bride’s Veil”—a waterfall), and spas (www.elsantuario.com), but my real mission was to rediscover the points of reference I’d written about in the chapter of the novel set in Valle de Bravo. The restaurants and clubs I’d gone to in high school were still there, repopulated by a new generation of cute young revelers in designer outfits. For the first time, ten years felt like a lifetime ago.
Back in Mexico City, the day before returning to New York, I rode the subway for an hour to UNAM, the largest university in the Americas. In the vast field known in my novel as “Las Islas,” which looked exactly the same as I remembered, I sat under a tree and watched students walking to and from classes, playing soccer, sitting in groups eating lunch and talking, and thought of my own experience attending school in sprawling, wild, often-overwhelming Mexico City, and how it ultimately had come to feel like home. I wrote in my journal of the “smells and sounds of a city no longer mine,” my amazement at revisiting places of my past, years later and far calmer. I found that as much as I had changed, the city that had been my obsession for years really hadn’t.
Saher Alam explains how The Age of Innocence inspired her debut novel, The Groom to Have Been.March 1, 2008
Is it too embarrassing to admit that the inspiration for my novel, The Groom to Have Been, began with a crush on Daniel Day-Lewis? Urbane and self-possessed, with a permanently suppressed smile on his lips, he played Newland Archer to Michelle Pfeiffer’s twinkling and breathless Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Once I managed to get past the crush and return to the novel itself, I found that I identified wholly with Newland’s ambivalence about the demands of his society and even with his cowardly inability to break free and act on his desires.
But all this was years before I embarked on writing a novel myself, before I even considered being a writer. This was in college, when my mother’s anxiety about who I would marry—that is, how she would find me the person I would marry—could be heard in every phone call home. I was twenty, I was twenty-one, I was twenty-two (the age at which she’d settled down), I was unattached, unmoored, and uncooperative. Off campus, in the dark movie theater, I thought: Well, Ammi, if you can find me the Indian Muslim Daniel Day-Lewis, I’ll drop—in a (skipped) heartbeat—all my silly principles about needing to choose the person I want to spend my life with.
Or maybe it didn’t happen quite that way. Maybe inspiration began with the beautiful, twisting, who-will-marry-whom plots of the Austen novels I’d read before then and loved? Or perhaps it began with the inexorably doomed marital arrangements in George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Being the child of immigrants who’d imported the custom of arranged marriage (along with a strong sense of the kind of people they had once been), I found the central problems of all these classic novels—should a person marry for love or for the myriad compelling reasons having to do with loyalty to the people one comes from?—strangely contemporary and urgent. But maybe the nature of inspiration is such that it’s hard to pin down.
Even so, about three years into the writing of my novel I heard the echoes between the story I was hoping to tell and Wharton’s classic tale: A man of the world, who is rather smugly engaged to the best candidate among his mother’s list of potential brides, encounters a woman who makes him realize that he’s made a mistake. In both Newland Archer’s and my main character, Nasr’s, cases, the mistake is almost a joke on himself, on his own pretensions of being a person who, while belonging to a privileged social set, has long cultivated a disdain for the narrow-mindedness of its members.
In much of her work, Wharton portrays the shifting social and private relations in the New York society of the late 1800s, and, taken together, her novels capture a moment in the evolution of intimacy that was in such flux that the difference between one’s parents’ marriage prospects and one’s own felt like the difference between epochs.
My novel began as an investigation of a similarly transitional period in which arranged marriages and love marriages are both available to my generation. I assumed that the norm of our adopted culture would eventually win out among my peers, but arranged marriage continues to be a viable, rational, and even attractive option to many people I know. So my central question was: Why would a person who’s grown up in the West, who’s taken pride in the seamlessness of his own assimilation and is free to marry for love, consent to an arranged marriage? What possible allure could such a tradition hold for him? To complicate matters, the story is set in the fall and winter of 2001, when the attacks of September 11th came to signal that we (here the larger we, of Americans and Muslims) had entered another sort of age—had shed an innocence that had previously defined our actions.
I hope to write one day a novel as exacting and astute as The Age of Innocence. In the meantime, I’m thankful to have spent some time in its long, inspiring shadow.
Spiegel & Grau’s Tina Pohlman chooses her favorite opening lines and tests our literary prowess.March 1, 2008
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.*
April is the cruellest month.†
April, come she will.‡
It’s April! Month of great opening lines. See if you can correctly match the first line with the book below . . .
2. “It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne.”
3. “At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes.”
4. “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.”
5. “For a long time, I went to bed early.”
6. “He’d cut His throat with the knife.”
7. “To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.”
8. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
9. “When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl’s satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name.”
10. “I exaggerate.”