In Nicholas Mainieri’s new novel, The Infinite, teens Luz and Jonah fall in love. They meet in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but are soon separated when Luz—who is undocumented and pregnant—is sent to live with her grandmother in Mexico. Here, author Nicholas Mainieri writes about five great books that take on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Borders are antithetical to human nature. We have always wandered, delivering ourselves to each other. We share our stories and borrow others’. We write a new story out of these and move on again. There is a spiritual quality to the journey, and it transcends our memories. It is older. Still, because our memories are so short, we draw arbitrary lines in the sand, we build walls, and we claim they are geopolitically necessary—which is to say that we tell ourselves that divisions are right and true and, sometimes, even divinely inspired. In doing so, we deny our own humanity, and this is unsustainable. One must only consider the shared fate of history’s most famous walls to see this.
Yet, we have the world we have, and so literature must contend with it. National borders are a fact. Literature that involves physical borders pulls double duty, for books themselves are inventions intended to bridge the gulfs that exist between each of us. A reader’s mind collides with thoughts leaping from the page, and this act reminds us of our fundamentally human impulse to cross borders. It also reminds us of the beauty found in such a journey.
Below are five novels I like, concerning the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
This is one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in the last few years. An incredible artistic feat allows it to be both a propulsive read (only slightly longer than 100 pages!) and infinitely layered. This intelligent story, muscled with allusion, fable, and wordplay, follows the young and tough Makina as she journeys northward, crossing the border in search of her brother and descending farther into the underworld as she goes. Yuri Herrera is North America’s answer to Dante. Everybody should read his work. And Lisa Dillman’s award-winning translation (the novel is originally titled Señales que precederán al fin del mundo) does a wonderful job of communicating the poetry of Herrera’s voice.
This novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction when it was published in 1997. I only discovered the novel sometime in the last several years. It is a spectacular epic about brothers who end up on opposite sides of the Mexican-American War, one of the most egregious wars in American history as well as the method for establishing the border’s location. In the Rogue Blood is a literary action-adventure of the first order. Beautifully written, violent, ruminative—this novel expertly blends fiction and fact, including several actual historical figures.
Cristina Henríquez’s novel is gorgeous and crushing. The story follows the Riveras, a family from Michoacán, who’ve come to Delaware for the sake of their daughter, who has sustained a traumatic brain injury and requires special assistance in school. My favorite aspect of The Book of Unknown Americans is its stunning chorus of voices, vignettes narrated by the Mexican and Central American immigrants who live in the Riveras’ apartment complex. The novel demonstrates the very real ways our society forces people to bring borders with them, regardless of how geographically distant those borders actually are. This novel should be required reading in America as an antidote to our political climate.
A lot of my favorite books that feature the U.S.-Mexico border are active subversions of the Western and its conventions. Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel is the Magnificent Seven retold, following the extraordinary Nayeli and her friends, as they depart Sinaloa for El Norte in order to recruit men to return to their dying hometown. All the while, a mythical land known as “KANKAKEE, ILLINOIS,” where Nayeli’s father has gone, glimmers beyond the horizon. This is an incredible novel about the stories we hold in our hearts and bring with us, wherever our destinations may be. It is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching.
Though not expressly about the U.S.-Mexico border, Emma Pérez’s novel spans the bloody Texan preamble to the war that would eventually establish the divide on the map. It is also about other perceived divides, those between racial or sexual identities for instance. Beginning in 1836, the story turns the Remember-the-Alamo myth on its head. Micaela, a gay, mixed-race cattle rancher of the Texas frontier, narrates her travels after her father’s death. Half revenge story, half love story, the novel is grimly violent as well as beautiful. The characters are each the product of mingling cultures—and among its many achievements, Forgetting the Alamo demonstrates how one can only believe in the manufactured sanctity of a border if he or she erases the memory of a people’s varied and wondrous origins.