Books in Conversation / Emily Hind and Paloma Erandine S. Cuevas Ramos

A conversation between Emily Hind, author of Dude Lit: Mexican Men Writing and Performing Competence, 1955–2012 (University of Arizona Press, 2019), and Paloma Erandine S. Cuevas Ramos, the book’s Spanish translator

Paloma Erandine S. Cuevas Ramos (PCR): Could you please explain “the engineering of machos”?

Emily Hind (EH): Yes, Part I is titled “The Civil Engineering of Machos.” I wrote civil because a macho does not need to be in the military to exercise sanctioned violence— or merely threaten it. After the Mexican Revolution, it was important that people stop carrying guns in public, that they become civilians again. As men reconstructed civilian life, they built a postrevolutionary system by way of “civil engineering,” and they would open jobs for each other, quote each other’s ideas, and recommend each other for prizes. They wrote books applauded by one another that became the canon, and even when they debated the merit of those books, negative critique from other men helped to prove the importance of the author or text in question. But you know, nothing women wrote could compare to what the machos were doing, according to the latter.

PCR: It sounds like an intellectual mob.

EH: Critics tend to subdivide this “mob” into groups, and detractors of a given group sometimes actually labeled it as a mafia. I resist that move. I think we fall into a trap when we decide that one group of Mexican men cannot be compared with another. Critics sometimes lump all Mexican women into one group, in part because women did not tend to create rigid schools of aesthetics or belong to powerful informal clubs. But if you imitate that generic gesture used with the women and equate two Mexican men writers, let’s say even from the same time period, who were in different literary groups, then the hackles come up on the critics because that sort of apples-and-oranges comparison is seen as lacking rigor. In Dude Lit I put all the men in same basket, whether in one aesthetic group or another, or one circumstance or another. Gay or straight, from Mexico City or a smaller city or the countryside, for the purposes of Dude Lit the men are all in the same category. They are all colluding.

PCR: Do you think there is a possibility of evolution from them?

EH: Absolutely. I interviewed men writers for the book, and on a personal level I like them. I gave one writer a lot of trouble in the book: Guillermo Fadanelli, and the other day I was feeling terrible about this. Fadanelli made a reputation off bad boy misogyny, and I really like at least one of his novels, Mis mujeres muertas. I think it is great. It is interesting. But in Dude Lit I show why I consider his work to be misogynist. He quotes almost exclusively men thinkers, and speaks disparagingly about women writers, that kind of thing. I am absolutely interested in continuing to read his works, especially the autobiographically influenced ones. I am very sympathetic to the theme of ageism that runs throughout his work. I know that he is troubled by the idea of ageing. It is tough to be an aging bad boy: because they are bad boys and not bad men, right? I think Mick Jagger can do it, or William Burroughs, but I do not know about Mexican writers. I do not want to silence anyone, and I absolutely think there’s room for change.

PCR: Yeah. You just need some level of awareness. What was it I said this morning? Once I have an awareness that I have a blind spot, at least there is something I can do, and I think we all do.

EH: It is not like there is anyone who is not complicit.

PCR: Yeah. Yeah, it is hard. It is like a fish trying to see water, right? So, what is a macho?

EH: Being a macho means you have a network of men helping you out—and even the people most immediately disadvantaged by that network will help you. Women will review your books, support your magazines and journals and presses, and work hard for you. But the key to retaining macho power is to accord the greatest respect to other men. Even when a man talks negatively about other machos, that will still make him look like a competent intellectual. In the book I discuss a “barbarian/civilized loop,” which sounds really old fashioned, but as I watch Donald Trump, I can see that it works brilliantly to this day. If you think about the phrase from the 2016 US presidential campaign, “Lock her up,” you can see that to this day we follow an old discourse. If you are a macho, the implication is that you do not actually have to violate laws or rules. You can just use the macho reputation to imply that you might violate the rules, and that earns you more respect because rule-breaking confirms the importance of the rules. Women cannot slide easily from one group to another, which means in general that they cannot make a move back to power once they fall from grace. Again, I think of Hilary Clinton and the “Lock her up” chant. For most women in Mexico and the US, there is almost no chance of coming back from a criminal label, because it connotes ineptitude for them, whereas for men in the “macho mob,” it connotes intelligence.

The macho and his network is really important, and the fact that women participate in that network is part of what makes it work.

PCR: Can you explain those two terms to me, civilizado and bárbaro?

EH: A civilizado makes the law and policy, and a bárbaro uses explicit violence or otherwise breaks rules or violates norms to get his way. An artist from Argentina, Alejandro Almaraz, made composite portraits of all the Mexican presidents from 1867 through 2008, and in writing for The New York Times one art critic points out that the composite photograph gives the impression that power is collective and not individual. When you layer on all the presidents’ faces simultaneously, they form one blurry but recognizable type of man, and in the background of Almaraz’s composite image of Mexican presidential power, there is a vague image of books on a bookshelf. Something about the intellectual role of those who make the laws and can read and write, benefits the image of power, which is also here the ability to abuse power and exercise it violently and flaunt reading.

 PCR: Well, I like your example with the Hillary Clinton and “Lock her up.” It is a witch hunt. It does not have to be true, it has to be loud.

EH: That’s it. So these male writers do not actually have to kill anyone to be able to take advantage of that threat of force that makes both poles of the loop, bárbaro and civilizado, worthy of respect, and I think that’s really key to understanding that image of illicit drugs, which supports a lot of the bad boy privilege and for that reason alone will be very difficult to change. I cannot name a single Mexican female writer who acknowledges using illicit drugs aside from marijuana—and even in that case, off the top of my head I can only think of two women whose autobiographically influenced characters have smoked it: Guadalupe Nettel and Valeria Luiselli. And yet with men, illicit drug use and very hard drinking seem to be a tactic to claim bárbaro status, perhaps earned at the cost of imagining that women do not resort to this behavior or cannot handle it. From the US tradition, if you look at someone like William Burroughs, his whole artistic reputation is staked on that, in addition to killing his wife, while in Mexico City, no less—a death for which he was not convicted. So, in an artistic way that drug use reinforces their intellectual bonafides. Competent intellectual women just do not have access to that kind of round-trip flight between the civilizado who writes the books and the bárbaro who breaks the law.

PCR: What can you tell us about the Mexican literary canon?

EH: It is very stable. It did not change much from the mid-20th century until more or less now. It was largely written by a group of men whose careers rose in the mid-20th century and who continue to be the first Mexican writers that the audience—especially foreigners—tend to think of if they’re remembering someone not absolutely contemporary. Octavio Paz won the Nobel; Carlos Fuentes was very famous; and like those two, others worked at US universities, such as José Emilio Pacheco. A notable exception to norm of spending time abroad is Juan Rulfo, but most of the superstar Mexican men writers traveled internationally early on and even resided abroad. What is important to remember here is that if you’re going to tell me the names of Mexican women you think have risen to equal status because now they have a bookstore in Mexico City named after them (Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro), or because they won the MacArthur Genius price (Valeria Luiselli, Cristina Rivera Garza), or because they work as academics in the US (Carmen Boullosa, Cristina Rivera Garza again), or because a group of important critics now studies them, I will quote Carmen Boullosa’s explanation to me of the ongoing predicament of Mexican female writers and the macho canon: “They’re currents, not waves.” Currents can change directions, and waves wash up successively in the same direction. When Boullosa says we’re caught in “currents,” she refers to her personal experience of writing in the late 1970s through now and finding that whenever there are fewer women who are prominent in the writing circles, the men graciously accept these minority women. And once women step out of the category of “minority,” and start outselling the men—as was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Ángeles Mastretta and Laura Esquivel—or once women start winning the major prizes and attention—as might be imagined to be the case now, with Luiselli, Rivera Garza, and, say, someone like Guadalupe Nettel or Boullosa herself— then there’s kind of—if not a backlash—then a chilling of camaraderie, and the women’s writing goes back to being suspicious. Any Mexican female writer who occurs to you as an example of a woman having broken into the canon, erased the binary, and proved a solution to the problem in a permanent way, might be more of a current than a wave. I would urge you to look back at all the previous decades of this century and the one before, in which each of those decades we could also point out women who supposedly had broken through, possibly even the same names you are proposing. And yet, they are still the exception that proves the rule, and they have a hard time staying at the top because it continues to be a patriarchal system. And furthermore, the things people say about some of those successful women writers quietly, in certain circles, is a poison that foreigners have a hard time comprehending exists, because it is often understood, but not published.

PCR: What are some of the ways in which Mexican men perform the role of writer, to convince others of their artistic and intellectual competence?

EH: One of the ways is that men know how to dress as an intellectual. They make small choices: Do I wear a tie, or do I not wear a tie? Once in a while a Mexican writer will have longer hair, but not very often. And even if you tell me that someone like Guillermo Fadanelli has definitely gone through several cycles of fashion, from wearing only black to wearing Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps to wearing fedoras, I will say to you that his range is miniscule compared to the choices that women have to make and the shifts in fashion that they can experience. Or if you mention someone like Salvador Novo’s touches of eccentricity with his rings and toupees, or Juan José Arreola’s cape, or Fernando del Paso’s colorful shirts and ties, I will still say that this range of eccentricity is much, much smaller than the breadth of clothing options that women have. I cannot tell you, if you’re asking me for a self-help recommendation, how to dress as a person who’s performing a woman intellectual role because the options are comparatively infinite and there’s no clear winner.

Men somehow use that conformity to make us think that, as writers, they are quite different from one another. It is a trick that helps the audience focus on the writing and not the performance, I think. And I think we are coached to ignore what men look like because they’re not judged as harshly for looks in the way that the women perpetually are: because even as women have such a wide range of performance choices, ageism hits them earlier than men, and they need to look not only fashionable and just the right amount of self-aware, but young. With men, they just get a pass. A woman who seems too aware of her own fashion is branded as vain, and in the book I point out that actually men writers are the vain ones, circulating photographs of themselves and curating their portraits, and collecting stamps of men writers as a childhood hobby in the twentieth century. (As children, both Huberto Batis and Juan Rulfo kept author albums.) In the twenty-first century they switch to publishing coffee table books of photos of each other; there are books of portraits with no literary analysis, just images in each volume dedicated to a single male author, with no women in the subsidized series I name. And the audience is supposed to think more about what the men are saying, and supposedly not how they look, despite the existence of entire books of photographs of them, which is how the machos try to make us think that they’re much more individualistic than they are. They focus on staking out territory in largely imaginary difference.

If you go to the wax museum in Mexico City, you can find a few Mexican intellectuals in there, mostly men. The painter Frida Kahlo and the poet-nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz are there, but seated. Someone else represented in the same room with the writer Carlos Monsiváis is Steve Jobs, and he is wearing a trademark black turtleneck. I would argue that at least until now, it was been nearly impossible for women to wear the same clothes every day and become iconic intellectual workers because their performance would have been judged too boring.

 PCR: Well, that’s really interesting. The only relevant woman I can think of is Rachel Maddow, who is not Mexican, but who wears exact same clothes on purpose every day. She says that she wants you to pay attention to her words and not her outfit.

EH: Oh, that’s fascinating, because she’s on TV. I didn’t know that was possible.

 PCR: Yeah. She doesn’t vary anything. I don’t think she even varies the jewelry. Nothing.

EH: Well, that is amazing.

 PCR: But it’s interesting that these men have kind of the non-uniform uniform.

EH: Yes, exactly. Part II is called “Rebellion as Conformity,” because if you look at those pictures of machos, they all look very similar.

PCR: How does sexism alter authors’ trajectory?

EH: I believe that women win prizes and grants later in life than men do. I’m not a mathematician, and I don’t have a complete set of data, but from what I can see, Mexican women receive grants, at least in the 20th century, later in life. And that may be because they were having children earlier than woman do today, if they were going to have them. And so there was a kind of a dual but not always neatly simultaneous career track, the mommy track and the author track, for women that didn’t weigh the men down. In practice, married men like Carlos Fuentes even got more money during one iteration of the grants offered by the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, whereas I don’t know of any married woman receiving that kind of bread-winner bonus.

And then oddly, although we like to think of history as a legible line of progress, things actually got trickier in the twenty-first century in terms of grants and pregnancy. The main writerly institution that I study of this book, the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, rescinded a grant in 2004 to someone who, when she came to get her funds for the first time, was visibly pregnant. The justification was that once the baby came, the writer wouldn’t be able to do the work of attending the writing workshops and completing her manuscript. But if you look in the archive for that same institution, you can see that the poet Elsa Cross kept her grant in 1972, although she had a baby in the middle of it. She wrote a letter, a very short one, informing the administration that she’d be out while she had a baby, and then she’d be back. She wasn’t asking permission; she was just informing them. So for her, motherhood wasn’t actually a problem, and she won a second writing grant from 1979-1980.

PCR: Why did you decide to use the title Dude Lit for your book?

EH: My first book was called Boob Lit, as a reference to how impossible it is for women to win at the game. It doesn’t allow them a long-term winning hand, as intellectuals, but you cannot not play which makes you a loser, or in terms of female anatomy used to name dumb people, a boob. (It works in Spanish too, as the insult teto/a.) I actually thought quite a bit about calling the new book Dick Lit. I think that’s the more accurate title because it rhymes with chick lit. However, at some point in the project, an editor did not think that would be a good idea. And I didn’t even query the eventual final editor because I decided to use dude, which is less offensive and rhymes with boob. And also, I was interested in the term cuate, which is a Mexican term for buddy, like dude, but from an indigenous word for twin. The idea of twins suggests exactly that all these men are quite similar in the sense of being conformist, even if they have a reputation of being bad boys or pioneers and path breakers. As the term cuate suggests, they’re all pretty similar.

PCR: They didn’t have any problem with Boob Lit, though, did they? Why do you think female writers cannot go back and forth playing with the roles of civilizado and bárbaro?

EH: That is a really good question. I do not know why it is still difficult for women to cross that line back and forth.

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Paloma Cuevas R. studied Philosophy with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and English Pedagogy with the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México. She is the Public Relations Coordinator for the Directorate of Culture of Toluca and works tirelessly as a cultural promoter from her home base of the last 20 years in the state of Mexico. She is an advisor to the Citizen Council of Mexiquense Culture, History, and Identity and an international public relations coordinator for the World Festival of Poetry. Currently she collaborates with media outlets DigitalMéx, Impulso, Ser Noticias for El Universal de Morelos, Revista Perro Negro in London, and Global Voices. She belongs to the National Map of Contemporary Mexican Women Writers and has published the poetry collection De Amputaciones Necesarias (Comuna Girondo). Her publications in anthologized books include Nosotros también nos acordamos (Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México) and Hacerle al Cuento (Amarillo Editores). She is currently preparing the children’s book ¿Me lo cuentas otra vez?, the book of poetry Ometéotl, and a Spanish-language translation of Dude Lit.