“María, you must remove the ‘Mexicanisms’ from your book; otherwise here in Spain no one will want to publish it.” These were the instructions in the email that arrived from my literary agent, a young woman in Barcelona whose job at the time was to find an editor for my second novel, Beyond Justice (Más allá de la justicia).
It was five o’clock in the morning, and I was just sitting down to enjoy my first cup of coffee and write. At this ungodly hour of the day, my comadre, the muse, usually comes to visit. My sunrises have always belonged to her. That day, I woke up inspired and anxious to tackle the next chapter of my third novel—a love story between a Zapotec woman and an Irish man, set in Oaxaca, Mexico in the mid-1800’s. The last thing I wanted was to have to think about that other novel, the one already birthed, the one I had buried in the holy burial ground of oblivion as soon as I gave it to my agent. And now, there she was, this young woman, resurrecting the manuscript with that perplexing letter. What was she really saying? She wanted me to do what?
I took off my glasses, wiped them with my bathrobe sleeve, and reread that peculiar word: “Mexicanisms.” Suddenly my coffee tasted bitter. Was she talking about my protagonist Sofía, the Mexican lawyer, and the use of obscenities in her speech? Could that be it? But she cannot speak any other way, I thought defensively. After all, the woman is from Boca del Rio, a fishing village where swearing is the seasoning of the language. To edit out these words would be like cooking black beans without epazote. Or—so she could get the point—like making a Spanish tortilla without potatoes. But perhaps this was not what she was asking me to do. Maybe the problem was my use of “ranchero sayings” (dichos rancheros), which I had intentionally sprinkled throughout the dialogue to emphasize my orator’s point and, especially, to honor my native county. Let’s say… a matter of style. This is something famous authors are entitled to do, regardless of where they come from: whether it be China, Colombia, or some other country. But clearly I am not famous and here was the proof. No one in the Motherland would take a chance on my manuscript unless I removed the so-called “Mexicanisms.” So said my agent.
“The Indian in me took over.” (Se me subió el indio.) In other words, I got mad. No one had ever made such a comment about my writing before, not my readers, nor the numerous editors and reviewers who have read my work. Besides, if my agent was correct, and the “Mexicanisms” posed such a problem, how was it that this very same book had been awarded third place at the Premio Planeta Book Awards? More than five hundred manuscripts had been entered in the second most endowed literary competition after the Noble prize. The novels had come from all over the world, many from Latin America: 25 from Argentina, 18 from Peru, 16 from Mexico, 12 from Chile, 9 from Venezuela, 8 from Colombia, 5 from Bolivia, 4 from Costa Rica, 3 from Uruguay, 2 from Cuba, 2 from Puerto Rico, 2 from Ecuador, 1 from Paraguay, and 1 from Guatemala. The rest came from Spain. In the end, first and second place went to two Spanish authors, but right behind them, in third place, was my book. “Mexicanisms” and all.
I stood up, went to the kitchen, and poured more sugar in my coffee. I walked out on my deck and I talked to the Moon. Always serene, she never fails to soothe me. There was no reason I should wrap myself up in my Mexican flag and relive the pains of the conquest, I reasoned. This was no time to be feeling patriotic, especially when the advice was coming from my agent, who, no doubt, had the best intentions. Her goal was also my goal: to bring the story to readers. I decided to ignore the email and do nothing. I had a chapter to write.
I went back to my desk, lit a couple of candles, put on quiet, romantic music, and sat down to caress the keyboard trying to seduce the Muse. But, no. It was impossible to travel back to 1847 Oaxaca, to the setting of the story. The word “Mexicanisms” bounced around between the sentences, mischieviously irritating my comadre, until she had enough and she left, abruptly, to find a writer from else-where in the world. From Bolivia, perhaps. Or maybe, just to spite me, from Barcelona.
I wrote to my agent. I asked her to explain her re-quest and, to my surprise, she answered immediately: The novel should not sound so Mexican, María, you know what I mean? You must choose a neutral Spanish…the story is what it is, but the issue of language is VERY important…any Spanish reader should be able to read the novel and not know your place of origin when they read it. Later, when they read your biography they can figure it out…I realize that I am asking you to undertake a job of titanic proportions, and maybe it would be best if you hire a philologist to assist you in replacing your vocabulary with terms that are standard in most Spanish-speaking countries... You may want to read Daína Chaviano; she is Cuban, but her language here was not a cause for bewilderment.
I must confess, the one that was totally and completely “bewildered” was I. This time around there was no Moon that could appease my inner Indian. Poor Daína! I could just see here dutifully erasing the “Cubanims” from her manuscript, just to please her editor. The result: the girl who used to be a bacalao (thin fish) is now a flaca (skinny) and the boy who used to montar guaguas (ride the bus) now anda en autobus (goes by bus). Such tragedy! The novel that I wanted to read, and that I still want to read, is the first version, the delicious narrative that brings me closer to the author and at the same time enhances my own language. Yes. That language is also mine and, depending on the tongue that relishes it, it knows how to dance the danzón, cumbia, merengue, salsa and not just flamenco. It must be that our poor Danía is also not a famous writer, for if she were, like Borges, or like Gabriel García Márquez, the editor surely would have had to eat a platter full of “Argentinisims” and a snack of “Colombianisms” with his corto de café (coffee shot).
Especially if we are talking about “Gabo,” Gabriel García Márquez.
This is what Eloi Jáuregui had to say about it in the article he wrote for Crónica Viva:
When Gabriel García Márquez wrote the second edition of his novel La Mala Hora in 1967, the prologue contained the following author’s remarks: ‘The first time this book was pubished, in 1962, the proofreader gave himself permission to replace certain terms, and starch the style, justifying his editing in the name of the purity of the language. On this occasion, I, the author, have permitted myself to restore my idiomatic errors and stylistic atrocities, in the name of my own sovereign arbitrary will.
In other words, to hell with all conventionalisms.
Oh how I would love to discuss the subject with my favorite author! What a delight it would be to discuss the so-called “disciplinary language instructions” which, as Jáuregui points out later in the article, “are considered by García Márquez as a locking mold which tries to imprison and stigmatize certain cultural manifestations that have been rejected by the ‘bourgeois establishment’ currently in power for the sake of “good taste”—thus attempting to defend patterns of prevailing society…”
Sadly, that morning, there was no opportunity to chat with “Gabo.” My only counselor was the Moon. And there, wrapped in her warm, silvery quilt, I had to decide if I could afford to send my agent to hell, along with her “Iberianisms.”
I will not share with you, dear readers, what I ultimately decided to do. You will know, soon enough, if you read the novel!