Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Making of an Anthology: Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence has been an anthology long in the making, and I want to share the back story of its creation. I am gratified that our anthology—which I co-edited with Sarah Cortez—has received some wonderful early reviews.

Publishers Weekly called it "an eye-opening collection of essays." Kirkus Reviews said, "Nightly shootings, kidnappings, robberies and the discovery of mass graves—all these and more have put an end to a once-thriving tourist industry and a rich cultural exchange between those living on either side of the boundary. Where there were once bridges, there are now high walls."

The Monitor from McAllen, Texas said, "Two of the more impactful essays were by the editors themselves. Sarah Cortez, a former law-enforcement officer, powerfully proclaims herself part of a group of individuals 'who stand against the wholesale execution of decent human beings by thugs for illegal gain, sanctioned by a government too weak or too dirty to act.' Sergio Troncoso closes the collection with a poignant sentiment: 'It was a better life than what we have today, and we understand that fact mostly in retrospect, as we often do, when we lose what we value before we had a chance to appreciate what it meant.'"

But what readers may not appreciate is the story behind this anthology: the cooperative efforts between two editors different in many ways, the vision and struggle to carry it out with writers across the country and internationally, the unexpected headaches, and the last-minute dramas. The creation of every book has a story behind it, often unseen, with good lessons for any writer, and the opportunity for the reader to glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, where writers toil, argue, plan, adapt, and with a little luck, find solutions to create the work published.

In April of 2010—I checked my old emails!—I was on a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Denver. Sarah Cortez had included a story of mine in an anthology she had co-edited for Arte Público Press, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery. Later that June, she would accept another story of mine for another Arte Público anthology she was working on, You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.

The AWP panel was for the writers of Hit List, and when we got together for lunch I told Sarah that her next anthology should be on how the bi-national, bi-cultural life along the border had been so drastically changed by the drug violence. I told Sarah how I had spent so much time in "el otro lado" as a high school student in El Paso, how my parents had stopped crossing to Juárez, their hometown, because of the bloody orgy. A unique way of life, between two worlds, had been severed.

After accepting my story for You Don’t Have a Clue, Sarah proposed in June of 2010 that we work together on this new border anthology, which at that time we were thinking of calling ‘Border Cities Lost.’ I had never edited an anthology before, and I did not have a direct relationship with Arte Público yet, so I thought this was a great idea. We worked out the details of the book proposal that summer, and Sarah presented it to Arte Público in Houston late that year.

In the middle of the summer of 2010, I was also emboldened to contact directly Arte Público about a book of essays I had ready. This book became Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, which Arte Público published in September of 2011. I have had an excellent experience with Arte Público, and I think their staff has been consistently helpful, thoughtful, and even inspiring to me.

Sarah and I spent months conceiving this anthology, sending notices to ask for contributions from writers, reading the many personal essays we received for Our Lost Border, and then editing the accepted essays. It’s a long process, and you get to know your co-editor very well. We are at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Sarah is first a poet, and I am first a novelist. She lives in Houston; I am in New York City.

Despite these differences, we got along well, and I have only the deepest respect for her. We decided early on to check our egos at the door and to focus on the work on the page. That’s the way it should be, but I know from experience that it often doesn’t unfold that way. Emblematic of our working together was our editing of the final 300-page manuscript: after we had each separately edited the manuscript, and sent each other our respective edits, about ninety percent of our edits were identical! Instead of going mano-a-mano on the other ten percent, we talked about each issue practically, and easily resolved the matter. We get along, and that’s the mystery of chemistry when you put two (albeit different) editors together.

I was able to use my contacts in the Mexican literary scene to get Diego Osorno, Lolita Bosch, and Liliana Blum to contribute essential essays for Our Lost Border. In 2011, I had already appeared in an anthology edited by Lolita, Nuestra Aparente Rendición. Arte Público’s Nicolás Kanellos graciously translated Osorno’s and Blum’s essays into English, and we included all the essays from the Mexican authors in the original Spanish, as well as in the translated English.

I wanted Cecilia Balli to contribute an essay, but she had a work conflict and suggested an ex-student of hers, Maria Cristina Cigarroa. Later Cecilia would introduce Sarah and me at the debut of Our Lost Border at the Texas Book Festival in San Antonio on April 13, 2013. It was one of the most thoughtful introductions I have ever received. Good friends, and exceptional writers of the border, also contributed work: José Skinner contributed a marvelous piece of black humor, and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith the incisive introduction. Luis Rodríguez introduced me to José Antonio Rodríguez at another AWP conference (the serendipitous meetings are always as important as the panels), and I asked José Antonio to contribute an essay after we re-connected at an annual meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters.

A week before the final manuscript was due in 2012, we discovered that we had overlooked the translation of Lolita Bosch’s essay! That day my wife had returned from the hospital after a surgery, but I agreed to translate the essay. I took care of Laura during the day, and I translated Lolita’s important essay at night. And I finished on time. In fact, I had enough time to send Lolita the translated essay electronically to Barcelona, for her approval. I was exhausted, but I wanted this anthology done. I was determined to do anything, and everything, to get the final manuscript to Arte Público. Sometimes being a bit maniacal about your work helps.

What lessons did I learn from working on Our Lost Border? Many people help you to create a book, from the publisher to friends and many others you have never met. Work well with them, if they are trying to help you. Another lesson: a real and practical team working toward the same goal can be created from disparate characters. But you won’t know that until you try to work together and solve problems together. It could work, or it could flop, but don’t prejudge the possibility of a team because the potential members look like an odd mixture. One more lesson: never give up, and you can do more than you imagine. Just punch through the difficulties, focus on getting the work done, and you will get there. Final lesson: knowing Excel is invaluable when you put together eight separate glossaries of Spanish words into one mega-glossary. Hint: use the alphabetical ‘Sort’ feature, and keep your list columns aligned.

That’s the odyssey behind Our Lost Border, which brings to light how the drug violence has impacted cities along the border and beyond, families in Mexico and in the United States. This anthology gives voice to those asking why and how this has happened, and what we might do to change in a direction away from the violence, despair, corruption, and fear. For me, this anthology is an example of why I write: not necessarily or primarily to entertain, but to open minds, to offer a perspective beyond the superficial, and to cause thinking that might lead to good action. I hope you will read Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, and recommend it to your friends.