Interview: Michael Mejia

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I  first encountered Michael Mejia’s short story “Coyote Takes Us Home” last year, while reading Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. As a story based on Mexican folktales that addresses the U.S.-Mexico border, it stands out in an anthology that–while excellent–mostly draws upon European lore. Mejia carved out time in his busy schedule (he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah, is the Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review, the co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and the author of the novel Forgetfulness) to talk to me about “Coyote Takes Us Home,” the fraught landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the trips he took south of the border in an effort to learn about his Mexican heritage.

I live near the U.S.-Mexican border–in Tucson, Arizona–and I encountered your story, “Coyote Takes Us Home,” while writing about borderland fairy tales and folklore for the Fairy Tale Review blog. Why did you decide to write a newfangled fairy tale about crossing the border?

As with any good fairy tale, there are three knocks required to open this question.

The first reveals an answer you may already know. In my note following “Coyote Takes Us Home,” I mention having half-heard, some years ago, a news report about unaccompanied minors stowed in cars crossing the border, in a way we might expect with shipments of drugs. It’s fantastic, of course, and dangerous, and absurd, and real. Parents leave their children with relatives, come to the U.S., work to pay for the kids’ care, eventually putting aside enough to have them sent north, through a network of strangers, and smuggled across the border. Sometimes the parents will be forced to pay thousands of dollars more, a ransom, to have the kids delivered as much as 2000 miles away, to North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Washington or Chicago. Or the kids might get caught along the way and repatriated to a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. A phone call or a fax from their parents, a promise to send them home, to not to try again, can be enough to get them released, and that night they’ll be back in the Arizona desert.

The story got even more desperate in 2014, when more than 40,000 kids from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (far more than from Mexico) were fleeing gang violence and recruitment as well as poverty. They came walking, riding buses, and riding the tops of trains across multiple borders on their way north, with no family at all in the US.  Aside from finding these stories terrifying and sad—though if…when…the kids do make it across, I think we know there’s a real chance at something like a happy ending—I wanted to consider the issues of abandoning your home place, the socio-economic pressures that would make that place unlivable, the unexpected uprooting that occurs on that morning word comes that you’re to get in the car, on the bus, and the loss of cultural knowledge this journey represents. Which brings me to the second knock.

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A Ditmarsh Comedy

by E.C. Messer

Beset by the desire to identify and explain the effects of Poetry—his word for drama—upon his sensibilities, Aristotle explains the difference between tragedy and comedy this way: tragedy begins in order and ends in chaos; comedy begins in chaos and ends in order. The tragic fable of Hamlet, for example, shows the disintegration of the State; the comedic fable of Tartuffe the reinstatement of the nuclear family.

In the traditional fables and fairy stories of Western literature, there are no tragedies: the wicked are punished, the good rewarded. Benefits gained by the former and hardships suffered by the latter, in the interim, are of no consequence to the story’s driving force, its resolution. There are, however, many Aristotelian comedies to be found among these fabulist ranks.

A Tall Tale From Ditmarsh, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is an ideal tiny, bizarre encapsulation of the impulse toward order. Its opening, “I want to tell you something,” implies monologue, from which dialogue originally emerged. At first it appears to be all chaos—neither comedy nor tragedy but farce, or, in modern terms, absurdism. Absurdism can be funny, funnier even than certain comedies, but it is not itself comedy. It’s laughing while Rome burns, sometimes laughing because Rome is burning.

Ditmarsh, instead, is the kind of controlled madness that reinforces order: to consider the anvil and the millstone swimming across the Rhine acknowledges the existence of anvils, millstones, rivers that can be swum. More than that, it insinuates the whole domestic, quotidian world of tools to be hammered into useful shapes, grain to be ground into bread, and human mouths to consume it for sustenance.

The open-ended nature of pseudo-absurdism allows for infinite variation. Local household objects and native fauna may be substituted as the storyteller desires. In London the Thames might replace the Rhine, in Japan an usu for pounding mochi replaces the millstone, here in San Francisco a bicycle across the bay replaces sails across fields. Folk tales are fundamentally artisanal, but the result is the same: a Brechtian estrangement without which we would be unable to understand the most ordinary objects and behaviors.

And there’s even a catharsis, for those who require a catharsis: “Open the window so the lies can fly out.” Literally a release, a banishment, a moral exorcism that leaves the listener (reader) with truth—the ultimate order—restored. Unless the window won’t open.


E.C. Messer lives in the sunniest part of San Francisco with her husband and four cats. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ecmesser. She would like very much to know you.

Editor’s Note: What Goes Up Does Not Come Down

nundaSo it flew up higher still—so high that the earth shone like one of the other stars.
‘How much of you will be left if you fall from here?’ asked the bird.
‘If I die, I die,’ said the boy, ‘but I will not leave you.’

The Swahili fairy tale, “The Nunda, Eater of People,” is the story of a boy and figs, and a sultan, and a bird. It also contains, perhaps, the most extreme of what Max Lüthi, preeminent fairy-tale scholar and critic, would call a “blind motif”: an element not made use of, narratively, once it is introduced. An element whose purpose is only disappear. Think of a protagonist and their two older brothers, who are never referred to after their introduction, and yet are not removed by the author—the blind motif is the anti-Chekhov’s gun, a red herring gone amok. In “The Nunda,” our protagonist holds onto the bird until it relents and offers one of its feathers; in an emergency, the boy can burn the feather, and the bird will rescue him.

At the moment of transaction, the story is only halfway done: the latter half revolves around a murderous cat and our protagonist’s mission to kill it, with no more mention of the feather. The story seems to laugh in the face of expectations, the call and response. The idea of what goes up must come down. We enter the realm of the dreaded vague: For all we know, the feather has fallen out of the youngest’s pocket, been blown by the wind into some forgotten corner of his abode. For all we know, the feather has been pickpocketed by a neighboring child and put beneath a pillow to be forgotten. For all we know, the feather is kept until the boy becomes an old man who has never saw reason to flee anything.

That we do not dwell on how this bird carries the boy into space is beautiful. That in the quote above the bird asks not about dying in the fall, but having only a remainder of a body, is beautiful. That none of this is explained is beautiful. Can we truly not accept a gun that does not fire by the curtain’s fall? Are we really that against the motif that blinds, or refuses to be congruous? The sultan was mentioned in the first sentence here and never did return. Was he missed, or was his being forgotten something better?

“The Nunda,” as with all stories, could have offered us an answer as to the boy and his feather, but isn’t it better that we can leave ourselves with just one of a thousand better visions? For all we know, the boy burns his feather a decade after killing the Nunda, and only because he feels like taking a wing-borne joyride over Nalubaale and all its freshwater, the source of the thing many others call the Nile.


This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Prose and Managing Editor and Tiny Donkey Editor Joel Hans.