Portrait by Santiago Ruiseñor
Diego Rabasa founded Sexto Piso – a lively independent publishing house amid the sea of conglomerates – with his brother Eduardo and his friends Felipe Rosete and Santiago Tobón in 2002, and they have punched above their weight ever since. He tells Tank why Mexico may be sunk but its young writers are poised for domination.
Lidija Haas How did you start?
Diego RabasaWe were very young; we were students. We didn’t know anything about the publishing industry, which was kind of helpful because we didn’t know what we were getting into. How the market functioned here, how narrow it was, how hard it was. We just went for it. We went to the Frankfurt Book Fair when the company was just a year old; we went to the London Book Fair: we realised that the Mexican publishing industry had fallen behind for two decades compared to other places. Mexico was the biggest publishing industry in the Spanish-speaking world until Franco fell. Before the democratic transition in Spain, eight out of 10 books published in Spanish would come from Mexico, one from Argentina, one from Spain. Afterwards, the Spanish put loads of money into bringing their industry up and they reversed the ratio – now, out of 10 books published, seven come from Spain, one from Mexico.
LH Spanish publishers like Anagrama seem quite dominant here, too.
DR They’re everywhere. And that’s had a big impact on the local industry because the market in Spain is so big compared to Latin America – the Spanish imprints can get rights for all the books. It’s hard to compete. But Spanish books here are very expensive, so it destroyed the market completely. The literary market became a very narrow circuit: 85 percent of the country’s bookshops are in Mexico City. And if you see where those bookshops are mainly placed, it’s Condesa, Roma, Coyoacán: middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods. When we started we weren’t aware of all of this; we didn’t know anything about this job. The first books we published were manuals of anti-editing: the translations were terrible, the covers were blurry, the pages would fall out. But the books were good. We had some money that my brother and I inherited from my father – it very quickly went away, but it went away exactly at a point where the books began to be able to pay for themselves, four or five years in. There was a big gap in publishing. There were a few important houses, but they had this approach – they would rely entirely on government grants, turn their backs on the commercial circuit. You’d rarely see a book by these imprints in the shops. And we did it the other way around. Mostly because we didn’t know these government grants existed! Mexico is the Spanish-speaking country that invests more money in books than anywhere else, even Spain, but as always, with anything government-related, it’s really tricky to get into those networks. I’m not saying it necessarily involves corruption. Right now, the people running the culture ministry are very smart, honest writers and thinkers, but it’s not always been like that. So, we came up with things. We had the warehouse in our garage and we would do everything: go to the printers, go to the bookshops, collect payments, talk to the press. Then in 2006, we opened up in Madrid – we realised we couldn’t compete with Spanish imprints if we didn’t function locally in Spain. Seventy or 80 percent of our catalogue consists of translations; we have very few Spanish-speaking writers. But we do have four young Mexican writers who have been very successful, all under 35. And we’re very happy with them because to work with a writer who gives you his manuscript is entirely different from working with a translation that’s already had some sort of support in its country of origin. It’s more demanding and much more rewarding to work with a young writer, because you can get involved in the process of editing while the book is being written.
LH Who are your local writers? How would you describe the literary scene here now?
DRCarlos Velázquez, from Torreón – this is a guy who didn’t finish high school and he has an absurd amount of talent. Most of the roads towards the Mexico-US border – to Texas, California or Arizona – go through Torreón, so it’s a strategic point for drug dealers. All the drugs that come through the Mexican airport, which is a lot, then travel by land, and they have to go through Torreón. So it’s a very violent place. There’s a strange phenomenon in Mexico. After the generation that was contemporary to Octavio Paz, there was a certain gap, because that generation was so successful and powerful and in control of all of the networks. Then there was this generation of Mexico City writers, like Juan Villoro, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Fabio Morábito, Mario Bellatín and Guillermo Fadanelli and some others. But these writers were a bit more isolated, and nowadays there is a wide variety of genres and writers are translated more often. Because the violence in the north has been going on for quite a while, for about 10 years the writers in the northern part of the country were by far the best writers. They were first to react to the violent atmosphere, the impunity, the corruption. First they started doing it as a theme; they would write about drug dealers as the heroes of their novels. Then they got over that and the whole violence thing became like a setting. It wasn’t something to denounce, because it was so widely known. So these writers from the north had total control over Mexican literature from, I would say, the late 1990s until the last few years of the last decade. And then, in the last five or six years writers from other parts of the country, especially Mexico City, have come up strongly. Valeria Luiselli, Daniel Saldaña… Mexican literature is going through one of its best moments in maybe forever. Right now, many prizes in the Spanish-speaking world are going to Mexican writers. I’ve heard this from colleagues in Argentina or Chile or Spain: we all agree there is a powerful thing going on in Mexico.
LH And how are things going for you?
DRWe’ve been growing steadily every year until this year – a horrible year for everyone. Mexico just plummeted and it’s completely sunk. One thing this government does very well is manipulate the messages that go through the media. Because it’s a country with very low levels of education, a lot of people’s opinions rely on the TV networks, and they’re completely partnered up with the government. So nobody actually dares to speak about a financial crisis, but Mexico’s GDP is growing at 1.5 percent and inflation is growing at 3 or 4 percent, so it’s technically a recession. Since NAFTA, many of the local industries completely vanished because we couldn’t compete against a stronger American industry. So the Mexican economy is very dependent on investment from the government, and this year, it’s been almost completely stopped. [President Enrique] Peña Nieto’s main man is [Luis] Videgaray, finance minister; he was with him when Peña Nieto was governor of Mexico State. This is a rumour, not a fact, but many people say they are managing the country’s finances exactly as they did in Mexico State: they would not invest much for the first few years, then they’d promote a lot of constitutional reforms, and then once the reforms are approved, the cash starts flowing, and they say, “Aha, it was the reforms, you know, we really needed to do the reforms!” This country is going through a very critical stage. I don’t think other countries can see the real dimensions of the problem; it’s much worse than they say. There are many places where 70 or 80 percent of the municipality is controlled by drug dealers, so that’s pretty much all of the country. It’s a problem of distribution of wealth, education, weakness of institutions that are completely infiltrated by drug lords. I’m not sure where we’re going to end up. I’m not very optimistic.
LH Where do you see your place in the broader cultural life of the city?
DRMexico City has changed a lot. Now on every corner you can find a new gallery, a new place with some sort of tangential cultural connection. But it’s a bubble of people who are well off and consume their own goods and circulate in these very narrow circles. There are indie jewellery designers, coffee houses, record labels, but all of them are aimed at a certain class. And we don’t do that. There are other young independent publishing houses that are combative and have a strong social commitment, so we’re not alone, but I believe we are rare. We have, if not a militant, definitely a left-wing inclination. We opened up this narrative nonfiction collection to contribute to discussions that are important to us: books against the Tea Party, against Wall Street. Like Carlos Velázquez and his El Karma de Vivir al Norte, karma that comes with living in the North. He speaks bluntly, very openly about not only corruption, but also murder cases that involve high-ranking government officials. But our best-selling book, which has sold 10,000 copies, is an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland! Politically oriented books sell less.
I had a conversation with a Brazilian novelist, Luiz Ruffato. He comes from a poor family, all his stories are about the working class in Brazil, and they have very similar realities to the working class here in Mexico City: exploitation, lack of medical services, lack of education. And I asked him, “How do you think your books contribute to something?” He said, “They don’t. Because nobody gives a shit about books in Brazil.” Same in Mexico. The literacy rates are very low and it’s a small industry; it has influence within a tiny social context – but it’s what we do.