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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