Tom Miller has served up a boatload of appetizers in his new border anthology, Writing on the Edge.
Drawing from literary and genre fiction, memoir, essay, history, poetry, corrido and other song lyrics, it includes writers as varied as Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Maya Angelou and a slew of other folks this reader just got introduced to. He offers up this rich, difficult, celebration with straight shots, and it's pretty guaranteed to make the border vigilantes dyspeptic.
Widely published Tucson writer Miller applied specific selection criteria for this collection: The writing must relate to the 20 miles by 2,000 of the U.S.-Mexican border; it must include the border in its storyline; and it must ignite the "literary sparks that flash from America's third rail."
After a thoughtful, irreverent introduction (both examining the nature of border literature and imagining a new maquiladora program of shipping words across the line to be assembled into marketable short stories), Miller sets to work. He divides his 80 entries into eight categories. He moves from seduction into the region through generational movement, attraction to the other side, examination of the history, complications, stereotypes, raw edges that the area slices, and the discomforts of the cultural symbiosis.
The "seduction" section--with pieces that "tax all five senses"--are impressionistic, undulating; the best are hard-edged lyrical. In "Guerrero Viejo," Mexican essayist Elena Poniatowska describes a village destroyed by a bi-national water project: "Guerrero Viejo is a stone in the sun, a hard, implacable sun. ... Stone, the men's heads, and stone, their bones, scattered there. ... Stone the memory, stone the hunger, stone the destiny, and stone the end."
Sandra Cisneros and Victor Villaseñor appear in Part Two, Villaseñor with a surprisingly candid account of how one of his ancestors was induced to naively sacrifice body and freedom to help his mother. Cisneros' terrific, short piece, "Mericans," nails character, setting, gender, church and stupid Gringos through her sassy child narrator. (While "the awful grandmother" mumbles interminable prayers for Uncle Fat-Face in the Mexican church smelling of the "inside of an ear," where the "big miracle" is the Virgin of Guadalupe on the main altar, and the little miracle is the crooked cross on the side altar, she and her American brothers let an American couple mistake them for local color and trade gum for photos.)
The collection is replete with this sort of knowing, unequal negotiation, complicated and exacerbated by the undefinable nature of the border itself. Geographic, personal, social and political themes recur. The settings are the inhospitable desert or cliffs between the countries; the tempting, treacherous Rio Grande/R'o Bravo; the sordid streets of the border cities.
Representative of the personal reminiscences is the excerpt from Mexican educator José Vasconcelos' A Mexican Ulysses, in which a Mexican-born child who aspires to be a philosopher has to prove himself to his American schoolmates by taking a razor to the schoolyard. The reminders of the fundamental inequalities of the very poor being neighbors to the very rich are inescapable.
A challenging undertaking, the greatest strength of this collection is also its greatest weakness: sheer numbers. So many writers, so little space. The result is breadth rather than depth. With prose entries averaging about four pages in length, they're often too short to present a rounded character, examined theme, balanced work or sufficient context to appreciate them.
Having said that, this teacher/critic can't help reading anthologies like the schoolmarm she was. While grousing a bit about brevity and superficiality, I'd recommend it both for personal libraries and for the classroom. It speaks what was long unspoken or conveniently ignored. It introduces writers we might not have known, and Miller has provided an informative contributors section. It's a study in composition and rhetorical styles, and it tells some memorable tales. As a table of literary appetizers, it whets the appetite for more.
Buy it just for Miller's own entertaining account of searching for Al Capone's bar, or for Maya Angelou's memoir piece on accompanying her father on a sin-jaunt to Baja, or for Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano's spare, muscular, powerful historical piece involving slave-owner Vice-President Calhoun and slave-free Mexico.
And if they wouldn't retaliate by shooting up water stations, send it to our loyal border militia to read Charles Bowden's unforgettable, sobering description of trekking the desert route behind migrants headed north.