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El Paso 120
CLASSICS BY EL PASO AUTHORS and ABOUT EL PASO
TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2016
El Paso is a literary destination where borders, parameters, and limits are superfluous as residents, readers, and writers cross the boundaries seamlessly between two states, two countries, and two languages. Differences like genre and written versus spoken word seem easily surmountable as well.
Perhaps the first book to capture the absence of convention for border locales like El Paso was Texas author and critic Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) a semi-autobiographical work that treated the invisible “borders” that exist between Latinas/os and non-Latinas/os, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and numerous other opposing groups.
This Texas tradition of groundbreaking literature continues today, widely supported in individual literary pursuits and group gatherings at the University of Texas El Paso. UTEP brings an international celebration of language and the book arts routinely to its campus with gatherings such as the XXI Undécimo Congreso de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea, the recent 2016 Contemporary Mexican Literature Conference, organized by the UTEP Department of Languages and Linguistics.
UTEP faculty include such literary luminaries as Benjamín Alire Sáenz, the first Latino writer ever to win the PEN/Faulkner award, and Tim Z. Hernandez, a poet, novelist, and performance artist whose collections of poetry Skin Tax (2005) and Natural Takeover of Small Things (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and novels Breathing, In Dust (Texas Tech University Press, 2009) and Mañana Means Heaven (University of Arizona Press, 2013) have garnered numerous international awards.
Sáenz’s short-story collection that garnered the PEN/Faulkner (as well as a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Fiction category), Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, was published in 2012 by El Paso’s own Cinco Puntos Press. Novelist and publisher Lee Merrill Byrd founded the publishing house in 1985, with her husband, poet Bobby Byrd, and named the enterprise after their El Paso neighborhood.
Former El Pasoan Pat Mora is an award-winning poet and author of books for adults, teens, and children. Her awards include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Golden Kite Award, and multiple American Library Association Notable Book awards, and honorary doctorates. A former teacher and university administrator, she is the founder of the family literacy initiative El día de los niños / El día de los libros, Children's Day / Book Day (Día). The year-long commitment to linking all children to books, languages, and cultures, and of sharing what Mora calls “bookjoy,” culminates in celebrations across the country in April. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When writers and authors host a reading or signing in the El Paso area, they are just as apt to cross the border into New Mexico to Casa Camino Real in Las Cruces, the bookstore and gallery owned by Denise Chavez, a performance writer, novelist, and teacher who lives and works on the U.S.–Mexico border corridor in southern New Mexico. Her highly acclaimed books include, most recently, The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).
Poetry and the spoken word are vital currents in the El Paso scene. BorderSenses, a nonprofit literary organization, is devoted to promoting art and literature on both sides of the border through events like the Barbed Wire Open Mic series, which features performances in poetry, music, comedy, fiction, nonfiction, monologues, dance routines, and more. The Tumblewords Project and the El Paso Poetry Project also support poetry workshops and spoken-word performance workshops.
El Paso might seem an unlikely outpost of fine printing and book arts, but for decades during the long and varied career of Carl Hertzog, the “Printer at the Pass,” it was the source of Texas’s most prized and beautiful books. The papers of the designer-typographer-printer who taught at UTEP and founded the Texas Western Press are housed in the university’s library. A lectureship named for Hertzog continues today via the Friends of the Library.
In addition to the fine work turned out in El Paso by Cinco Puntos, El Paso–based Mouthfeel Press publishes and promotes poetry by new and established poets in the borderlands through an annual chapbook competition, anthologies, and community poetry readings.
Another independent press joined El Paso’s literary scene in 2015. Veliz Books seeks quality and original literature from authors writing in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, and is also committed to publishing translations into English because they believe in cultivating artistic and literary connections that transcend geographical, cultural, and political borders. Their current catalog, at www.velizbooks.com, shows three authors.
Dramatic and desert landscapes have always defined El Paso. During most of the twentieth century the figure who best captured those landscapes, as well as scenes around the globe, was El Pasoan Tom Lea, also writer and illustrator of the bestselling novels The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country and numerous nonfiction works. Lea’s extraordinary productions, from paintings to post office murals to stained glass to military cartoons, can be appreciated throughout the city. The El Paso Public Library Building is itself a mini-museum of contributions from renowned El Paso artists. One of the best vistas overlooking the cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, is from Tom Lea Park, which you can reach by driving up East Schuster Avenue above El Paso High School.
In a more contemporary view of the region, photographer Mark Paulda’s El Paso 120 (TCU Press, 2014) goes beyond showcasing the scenery to make a powerful statement: “El Paso is not at the edge but instead at the very center of some remarkably amazing landscape.” Paulda takes his audience on journeys to striking destinations within a 120-mile radius of the border city.
National Book Award winner and Rhode Island native Cormac McCarthy came to El Paso in the 1970s to write in “one of the last real cities left in America” and achieved both international renown a following intensely devoted to his distinctive prose But here he’s always remembered as the writer who moved to the border and retreated from the limelight, eschewing signings, interviews, and lectures. The author of Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and Cities on the Plain (1999) bought a one-story adobe home on Coffin Avenue in suburban El Paso that later inspired author, painter, photographer, and actor-director Peter Josyph to pose provocative, unexpected questions in Cormac McCarthy’s House about McCarthy’s work, how it is achieved, and how it is interpreted. Sixty-five of Josyph’s paintings of the house were exhibited in 1998 at the Centennial Museum in El Paso. Though McCarthy departed for New Mexico some years back, his legend thrives here.
El Paso supports two Barnes & Noble stores and is home to the El Paso Writers League and a chapter of Sisters in Crime.
For an excellent selection of works by regional writers, drive down to the Bookery on the Mission Trail in Soccoro. It’s worth the trip along the scenic route, but you just might be rewarded with the discovery of a book by Sergio Troncoso, Sarah McCoy, Dagoberto Gilb, Rigoberto González, Leon Claire Metz, Estela Portillo Trambley, or Daniel Chacon that will open the door to a new appreciation of El Paso.
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Above: The distinctive monogram colophon of Carl Hertzog graced many of Texas's finest books.
Below: El Paso'sMouthfeel Press publishes bilingual poetry and other titles from its El Paso offices. In their future office in the historic San Elizario Art District, 12600 Glorieta, they plan to share space with Green Bee Business Cafe--a perfect spot for books and coffee, surrounded by art galleries.
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