Between working as an esteemed Hispanic Studies professor and serving as the director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, it’s safe to say there’s little newly named MacArthur Genius Grant winner Cristina Rivera Garza doesn’t do. Add her award-winning collection of novels, short stories, and poetry books (which have been published globally in over six languages, by the way) on top of that, and, well, you’re just beginning to get an idea of the impact she’s had on the Bayou City and communities across the world.
You might wonder what it is about Rivera Garza’s work that’s led to her astonishing amount of recognition and praise, including the genius grant and its accompanying $625,000, which were announced last week. Well, instead of just telling you about her extraordinary experimentation with language, genre, and art, we’ll do you one better.
Here are four of Rivera Garza’s most celebrated, intriguing pieces that illustrate her ability to push boundaries, explore complex ideas, and make us think in ways we never have before.
No One Will See Me Cry (Nadie me verá llorar)
Called one of the last great books of the 20th century by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rivera Garza’s second novel follows the complex relationship of a morphine-addicted photographer and a prostitute who meet at a mental institution near Mexico City in the 1920s. Nadie me verá llorar inspects aspects of Mexico’s past that many authors wouldn’t dare to, while exploring themes of morality, sanity, and identity that force us to question aspects of classism and economic inequality that are rarely discussed out loud.
The Taiga Syndrome (El mal de la taiga)
Rivera Garza’s most radical work of experimental fiction weaves together a missing-persons investigation and folklore like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, separating the world of fiction and non-fiction with the most delicate of lines in a shockingly seamless way. Even as she mixes poetry into her prose, Rivera Garza never reveals a clear geographical setting of her tale, making it easy to feel lost in an adventure that is equal parts eerie, mystical, and insightful. On top of a compelling story, the novel also takes you on a multi-sensory journey, complete with a suggested soundtrack to listen to while reading (hint: look in the last chapter), and Carlos Maiques’s breathtaking illustrations from the original Spanish version. The combination is sure to send your imagination soaring as you look at an old story in a completely new, revolutionary way.
Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country
This unique collection of journalistic and personal essays refuses to fit into any standard genre as it depicts violence in Mexico with a blunt vulnerability that’s utterly heartbreaking. “This collection should be read slowly in parts or sections and not devoured in one sitting,” Yvonne C. Garrett wrote for of Brooklyn Rail. “It is not just that the language, the images, the power of the narrative is overwhelming at times, it is that the stories she tells are often simply too painful to read.” Though it’s difficult to see the hope in messages that are so intrinsically harrowing, Rivera Garza finds a way to depict violence, government corruption, and the loss of innocent life in a way that will light a fire under readers to use their voices in the fight against corruption.
Third World (The Terzo)
If you have yet to see Rivera Garza’s wondrous way with words in action, this piece of poetry is a crucial read. As poet Lynn Emanuel put it when she introduced the poem in the Boston Review in 2003, “one cannot help but feel that a major literary presence has moved into our line of sight, an original and what will undoubtedly be influential voice has suddenly been made audible to our ears.” Marrying her love of language with a complex analysis of the people, culture, and social issues of Mexican society, Rivera Garza's willingness to scrutinize her birthplace with introspective intricacy reveals a fearless spirit that sets her apart from other writers. And the vivid imagery she uses while describing an array of images—some vulgar and painful, others powerful and inspiring—will paint pictures in your head from start to finish.