Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Fall for the Book: David Heath interviews C.M. Mayo about The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, the Empress Carlota's Madness & More)

From the 2009 Fall for the Book homepage (including additional Q & A about the Empress Carlota's madness):

As part of Fall for the Book’s close ties to George Mason University, we’re proud to present the first in a series of features written by graduate students in Mason’s MFA program in creative writing. Here, David Heath, an MFA fiction candidate, interviews 2009 FFTB participant C.M. Mayo:

Novelist C.M. Mayo
C. M. Mayo, author, translator, founding editor of the bilingual (Spanish and English) chapbook press Tameme, and creative writing instructor, is the author most recently of the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books, 2009). Compellingly told and encyclopedic in scope, the novel captures the time of the ill-fated Second Mexican Empire under Maximilian I (1864–1867), weaving it around the heretofore neglected story of the young half-American boy whom the emperor named his heir. Mayo is also the author of a travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja, California, the Other Mexico, and is editor of the anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. Her collection of short stories, Sky Over El Nido, won the 1995 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She divides her time between Mexico City and Washington, DC, and is currently at work on two novels.

David Heath: What kind of disparity do you see between the Mexico you know and the Mexico we hear about in the United States—what are some the biggest things we’re missing?

C.M. Mayo: Mexico’s rich history, its regional diversity and its mindboggling social, ethnic, and cultural complexity. The differences between a Zapotec campesino in Oaxaca and a Lebanese restaurant owner in Mexico City are as wide as, say, an Irishman potato farmer and a Hawaiian plastic surgeon. Mexico City is as different from Mérida as, say, New York from New Orleans. More so, now that I think about it. Why are so many even very well-educated and well-traveled Americans blind to this? To quote from the epilogue,

In part this is because we are lulled into an illusion that we already “know” Mexico. Our media drench us with ready-made images: the wetback; the bandido and the bullfighter and the mariachi; the narco-trafficker; the corrupt official with his Rolex, his yacht, his weekends in Vegas; the pobres in their sombreros and huaraches; the ubiquitous unibrowed Frida….

And of course travelers tend to congregate in the places that, well, other travelers congregate, very atypical environments such as San Miguel de Allende, Cancun, and Los Cabos. As for our travel writers, though there are remarkable exceptions, many of even the best of them, lovely though their English prose may be, could not hold up their end of a conversation in Spanish. Alas. Another one of the biggest things we’re missing about Mexico is its wealth. Most Americans associate Mexico with poverty and by comparison to the U.S., of course, Mexico has its challenges, but by world standards, Mexico is well off and with a substantial and growing middle class that is far more important to the U.S. economy than most people realize. Mexico also supplies a large portion of our fresh fruits and vegetables.

D.H.: You also describe in the epilogue your first encounter with the novel’s title character, the prince of Mexico—in a painting in a friend’s house in Mexico City—and your surprise in not knowing more about him. When did you realize that telling his story would haul a fair bit of Mexico’s complex identity along with it?

C.M.M.:Immediately. I had already been living in Mexico, married to a Mexican, but you don’t have to have spent much time in Mexico before you realize there’s a strongly defined national narrative, this story or rather braids of stories about what it means to be Mexican. These have been told by leading Mexican intellectuals, the State, artists, foreign academics and travelers and journalists, and before long you realize they’re all sort of echoing each other. You read one thing in a guidebook, the same thing in a textbook, then see something along the same lines in a TV show, and so on. Certain stories become gospel, unquestioned.

But are they all true? Of course, as in any country, many things are not convenient to point out. Or, to put it bluntly, he who pays the army controls the narrative. The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is the story—a more objective story, perhaps, as I’m not Mexican, and I’m living in the 21st century—of the demise of what Mexico’s national narrative might have been. Indeed, that narrative would have been radically different. But then, neither Iturbide nor Maximilian could pay their armies.

D.H.: Unquestioned stories? like Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, which is, well, probably very close to what he said?

C.M.M.: Every country, every period has so many of these… like George Washington chopping down that cherry tree…. I can best approach this with a quote from the introduction to my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. It’s a bit lengthy, but bear with me, it explains a lot:

“Mexico” means the land of the Mexica, that tribe of destiny better known as the Aztecs. At the time of the Conquest in the early sixteenth century, the Mexica were the dominant, though certainly not the only indigenous people within the territory that is today the Republic of Mexico. Later, during colonial times, people took to identifying themselves by their province or region—New Spain or New Galicia or California, for example—or by their ethnic group. There were, as there are today, Creoles (those of purely Spanish ancestry), as well as Tarascans living on the mirror-like lakes of Michoacán, Tzotzils in Chiapas, and Triquis in the highlands of Oaxaca, to give only a few of innumerable examples. The national myth propagated by the state in the wake of the early twentieth-century revolution is that to be Mexican is to belong to la raza cósmica, the Cosmic Race of the mestizo, born of the Spanish father and Indian mother. True, the overwhelming majority of modern Mexicans are mestizos; however, this overlooks not only Mexico’s many indigenous peoples but also the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans descended from Africans, Basques, Chinese, Lebanese, Jews, Germans, French, Italians, Irish, English, and others.

I think of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire as a story about what it means or might have meant to be Mexican, for the half-American Prince Agustin de Iturbide y Green was, however briefly, the living symbol of the future of the empire. In that empire, of course, Mexicans would have been subjects. But it turned out that the Republicans claimed victory; Mexicans are citizens. A subject obeys, a citizen participates: two incandescently different concepts. Imagine if Mexicans had ended up with that prince as their emperor, who, on his mother’s side was descended from Virginia and Maryland aristocracy, and on his father’s, from the Basque nobility. And, further, what if Maximilian’s schemes for bringing in large numbers of European and ex-Confederate immigrants had succeeded? No doubt the national narrative would have been substantially different. What it would mean to be Mexican would also be very different. That said, as I noted in the quote above, Mexico is far more diverse and complex than even many Mexicans themselves recognize. We can be blinded by myths constructed for political purposes. So if we want to see, we need to really look, carefully, and beyond the boundaries of what we are shown, and then to question what we see.

Regarding unquestioned stories: Just to give one more example along the same lines, in my travel memoir of Baja California, Miraculous Air, I took on the myth that the “padres” were all Spanish. It turns out that the leading missionaries were in fact Italian and among them were Germans, a Czech, a Frenchman and a Scotsman. And the indigenous peoples of the peninsula were hardly this nebulous mass of “primitives” awaiting salvation, but rather a variety of distinct groups with unique languages and dramatically different traditions who at times reacted violently to the missionaries’ attempts, which were often less than what we might think of as Christian, to control them. It’s a fascinating, though very sad story.

D.H.: Well, your novel certainly has a diverse cast. One scene has five officials from three countries jammed together in a carriage to the Yucatán, switching from French to Spanish—and always leaving someone out of the conversation. I think you have seven languages represented in the book (eight, if we count Frau von Kuhacsevich’s made-up Spanish)? Did you have a lot of experience with languages other than Spanish and English when you set out to write it?

C.M.M.: Yes, I speak Spanish fluently and studied French and German in school. I also happen to have a handy Italian phrase book! One of the reasons this period in Mexico is so little understood is that it was, truly, a transnational episode—the French invading Mexico, with the blessings of the Vatican, the alliance with the Belgians and the Austrians, Spain and England going along for the ride (or at least recognizing Maximilian’s Empire), the first passive and then active opposition of the United States—it’s just so complex. Not to mention the Hungarians . . . Of course language (and cultural) barriers were the cause of many tragic misunderstandings swirling around Mexico at the time—a point I make throughout the novel.

D.H.: As Ambassador Bigelow’s wife says, “no matter how you pour it, there are always two sides to a pancake.” That’s it, isn’t it? There are so many different perspectives we can’t help but come to this conclusion. Did the story tell itself this way, or did you consciously decide at some point you weren’t going to get at what you term “an emotional truth” any other way?

C.M.M.: It’s about an emotional truth. John Bigelow, a key character in the novel, then U.S. Minister in France, was a deeply spiritual man. I read through his diaries at the New York Public Library. He really did struggle with trying not to judge people and I brought that into the novel as a sort of drum-beat throughout: don’t judge. Some of the characters do, of course, as Mathilde the wardrobe maid judges Maximilian, or Frau von Kuhacsevich judges the Mexicans or Carlota the Iturbides, or Alice judges Madame Almonte—and cruelly. All of them have their reasons for doing what they do; they act out of various motives, fear, greed, ignorance, trying to do good, patriotism. Everyone is human. I don’t ask the reader to approve, but simply to remain open to understanding, to recognizing the humanity in each character and in so doing, understand not only how this little boy became a prince, but how the empire itself came into being, and how it fell. ♦

C.M.Mayo will join fellow novelist Pam Jenoff, author of Almost Home, for a joint reading on the closing day of Fall for the Book, Saturday, September 26, at 3 p.m. at Patrick Henry Library, 101 Maple Ave E, Vienna, VA.

More than 130 authors will be appearing at the 2009 Fall for the Book, with events at George Mason University’s Fairfax, Virginia Campus and at select locations throughout Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. All events are free and open to the public. For a complete list of programs, visit our Events page.


David Heath: History forms a definite frame for the story, but between the conflicting accounts and gossip, much is left for the reader to decide. How mad was Empress Carlota, for example? After all, someone really was drugging her coffee, and Maximilian’s thoughts about how to help her made me think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

C.M. Mayo: Yes, he said, she said, they said . . . there are many different “realities” floating around in there. To give one example, according to the memoirs and other documents I’ve seen, the party close to the Emperor Maximilian insisted that General Bazaine, head of the French forces in Mexico, was a corrupt brute, while the people close to General Bazaine held him in high esteem as a valiant soldier and capable administrator and they considered Maximilian lost in the clouds. Needless to say, Maximilian and Bazaine were at loggerheads.

As for Carlota, I think she was what we could call bipolar, and in the fall of 1866, she suffered a severe psychotic breakdown. According to her biographers, including one of her own family members, Prince Michael Greece, who had access to the family archives, she experienced psychotic episodes throughout her life, some quite violent, until she died in Belgium at the age of 86.

The bit about someone drugging her: according to an 1866 letter from Joaquin Vazquez de Leon, Maximilian’s acting consul in Rome, her doctor, Bohuslavek, alarmed by her severe anxiety (hysteria, they would have called it then), was dosing her coffee with a sedative. Well, if you were already stressed, under terrific pressure—at this time she was in Europe, desperately seeking help for the collapsing Mexican Empire—and you drank coffee but then felt oddly sleepy, wouldn’t that reinforce your paranoia?

One of the things few people realize about her is that, as the daughter of the King of the Belgians, first cousin of Queen Victoria and, most importantly, granddaughter of King Louis-Philippe of France (who abdicated after the insurrection of 1848), Carlota would have been acutely aware of the unfortunate history of the Empress Josephine. Empress Josephine, as you will recall, was considered an enemy of the State by many people, including some close to her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, because she was too old to produce an heir. Josephine was terrified that she would be poisoned. In the end, no one killed her; Napoleon divorced her to marry an Austrian Archduchess who was, by the way, one of Maximilian’s aunts. (Yes, these royal genealogies are a tangle!)

So, Carlota’s paranoia about being poisoned was not unfounded. Furthermore, by this time there had been a number of attempts to assassinate Maximilian—and, by the way, Queen Victoria and Louis Napoleon and Maximilian’s older brother, Kaiser Franz Joseph. No doubt there were people who would have been glad to kill Carlota, though I doubt they would have bothered at this late stage (1866). Add to that the terrific stress she was under, both politically and personally. The family members closest to her, her father and her grandmother, had recently died; she was an orphan, in her mid-20s, and terribly isolated. And she was always supremely conscious of the need to maintain imperial prestige—which meant an elaborate etiquette, including the strict rule that no one could touch her, nor speak to her without her first speaking to them. No doubt this added to her sense of personal isolation.

How mad was Carlota? In the early 1880s, Alice de Iturbide, mother of the prince, openly said to Bigelow (I found that in his diaries also) that Carlota was not so mad as they made out. Well, let’s remember, Alice did not see Carlota after 1866. That said, someone who is bipolar can behave quite normally at times. And Alice was quite right that Carlota’s brother, King Leopold, famously avaricious, would have wanted control over her substantial personal fortune. But I don’t think it’s all that big a mystery. It’s just tremendously sad. Carlota was a person who had a splendid education, many talents, and an enormous capacity for hard work. She was dedicated heart and soul but, alas, to a project that shouldn’t have been launched in the first place. What I wonder is whether her mental health would have remained stable had she refused the call to Mexico. Perhaps so. We’ll never know.

D.H.: Carlota’s awareness of Empress Josephine’s fate echoes other examples of the connectedness of time, which seems to be an important theme throughout the novel?

C.M.M.: Yes, and interconnectedness through time interests me very much. One thing I often think of is that the prince’s widow, Louise Kearney de Iturbide, died a very old lady in Arlington, Virginia in the late 1960s; so though I never met her, her life overlapped mine. (And: the name of her nephew, an American officer, is inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial—I rode my bike over there one day and looked it up.) Most people of my generation, when young, had elderly relatives who had known people who were alive in the 1860s, the time of the novel. Of course, my parents’ generation actually did know people who had lived through the Civil War—in fact, I recently found out (that’s a story in itself) that my great grandmother, whom I remember well, grew up in the house of her aunt and uncle, the uncle being William Wirt Calkins, author of the renowned Civil War memoir, History of the 104th Illinois. So, exotic as that world of horses and “at home days” and crinolines and slave-holding may seem, we’re closer to it than we often realize.

D.H.: What’s next for you? I think I read you are working on another book?

C.M.M.: There are two novels in progress, one set in early 20th century Washington DC about the later years of Agustin de Iturbide y Green (tentative title: Mr. Iturbide), and another, more contemporary novel, The Museum on the Parque Juárez, set in a fictional arts colony in Mexico, an amalgam of San Miguel de Allende, 1960s-eras Cuernavaca, Ajijic, a splash of Peggy Guggenheim’s Venice, and Antigua.