New Mexican Books to Read While Self-Isolated

19 Mar

As part of my job as Community Schools Coordinator at Peñasco ISD in Northern New Mexico, I recently attended an Equity Council workshop hosted by the New Mexico Public Education Department.  One of the big discussions was on changing the narrative in our schools, which can mean a lot of things and be applied differently in every school. But, one thing it almost certainly requires is giving our students, teachers, parents, and communities the opportunity to tell their own story rather than having it told to them by others. As both a writer and teacher of both writing and literature, I’m a firm believer in the power of books to shape our narratives of who we are and the nature of the world we live in. So, since we’re all self-isolating, I thought I’d offer a list of recent books that are either set in New Mexico or by New Mexican authors (or, in some cases, with a close, New Mexico-adjacent focus). All of these books were published within the past few years, reflect the people who call New Mexico home, and are excellent reading and great for teaching. The list includes picture books, middle grade, young adult, horror, mysteries, fantasy, poetry, and nonfiction.

I’ve listed the books in alphabetical order by author. All links are to Albuquerque’s BookWorks, which is offering free shipping during the month of March. I’ve surely left off some great books, so please respond with suggestions for titles in the comments!

 

Fiction

Vincent Ventura and the Mystery of the Chupacabras / Vincent Ventura Y El Misterio del Chupacabras by Xavier Garza

El Paso native Garza writes the sort of kids books that you still remember as an adult, a comic mixture of folklore, mystery, and The Twilight Zone. His latest series features the boy detective Vincent Ventura encountering the legends of border tales. These books, written in both Spanish and English, have at their center the essential goal for all books: to provide pleasure. Learning is fun, and so are these novels.

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Missing by Carrie Fountain

Las Cruces native Fountain is perhaps best known as a poet (this outstanding poem has been making the rounds on social media), but her debut young adult novel reveals the breadth of her talent. During her senior year, Miranda Black’s best friend, Syd, runs away—suddenly and inexplicably, leaving behind nothing but a pink leopard print cell phone with a text message from the mysterious HIM.

 

 

 

 

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Jones is Blackfeet, from Texas and Colorado, and one of the pre-eminent masters of horror in the United States. His latest novel, out in May, follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way

If that’s too bloody for you, try his novella, Mapping the Interiora tender (seriously) story of a boy who suspects his trailer is haunted by the ghost of his father.

 

 

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

This novel retells one of the foundational narratives of the Americas, the travels of the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca through what is now Florida, Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico. Only four members of the expedition survived, one of whom was Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. This novel, mixing adventure tale and social commentary, tells the story of the expedition from his point of view. The book is one of the most exciting, most enjoyable I’ve read in the past decade—but it also has some scenes that feel uncomfortably relevant.

 

 

 

Lowriders in Space by Raúl the Third

This graphic novel tells the story of three friends who enter a contest that will take their lowrider into space. El Paso/Juarez native Raul the Third’s illustrations resemble ballpoint-pen-and-Sharpie desk-drawn doodles, and the story is sketched with Spanish, inked with science facts, and colored with true friendship. For younger readers, Raúl the Third wrote and illustrated ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the MarketHis books will remind you of your friend back in the day whose drawings cracked everyone up and could have made a career out of them—Raúl the Third actually did it!

 

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Few authors have exploded onto the literary scene quite like northern New Mexico’s Roanhorse. She’s written an urban fantasy series set on a post-apocalyptic Dinétah (Roanhorse is indigenous and married into a Navajo family), a Star Wars novel, and the middle grade novel Race to the Sun, about a 7th-grade Diné monster hunter (published by Rick Riordan presents, of Percy Jackson fame). Her story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” available online, won pretty much every award possible in science fiction/fantasy.

A note: Some Dinè writers have taken issue with Roanhorse’s use of Diné narratives. You can read their objections here in Indian Country Today. And you can read a response by Northern Cheyenne Two-Spirit Journalist Adrian L. Jawort here in the LA Review of Books.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been winning awards for decades, and this young adult novel is as beautiful a book as you’re likely to find. Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime.

 

 

 

Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos

This debut novel takes the political intrigue and suspense that we’re used to finding in Washington D.C. and transplants it to the land battles of New Mexico. A skeleton unearthed at a Santa Fe construction site sets off an exploration of innocence and guilt, power and wealth, and the search for love and happiness. The novel is published by Arte Público, the press that first published Sandra Cisneros and remains the oldest and largest Latinx-publishing house in the United States. This novel is so good—so intrinsically tied to the people and politics of New Mexico—and for that reason, perhaps, it never struck a nerve with big New York publishing houses. But, trust me (ha ha), it’s excellent.

 

 

The Tombstone Race by José Skinner

Set in places as diverse as Fort Sumner, Taos, Chimayó, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Clovis, the fourteen stories in The Tombstone Race explore the surprising connections and disjunctions between rich and poor, urban and rural, old and new, ugly and beautiful. Based in part on the author’s experiences as a Spanish/English interpreter in the criminal courts of New Mexico, Skinner’s stories navigate the state’s changing cultures with humor and heart. These are stories that have no interest in the tourist’s view of New Mexico but dig into the complex experience of living the many lives that exist outside the tourist spots.

 

 

Retablos by Octavio Solis

El Paso’s Solis is a famous playwright, but he turns to fiction and memoir in this collection. The New York Times directs readers to Retablos if you want to know “what’s life really like on the Mexican border. Solis grew up just a mile from the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, and he tells stories about his childhood and coming of age, including his parents migration to the United States from Mexico, his first encounter with racism and finding a Mexican migrant girl hiding in the cotton fields.” If you’re a teacher and love Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, this is the book you should be teaching with it.

 

 

All Who Enter Here by Erika Wurth

This novel offers a contemporary, New Mexican version of the famous novel The Outsiders. Matthew escapes a life of misery in Farmington only to find himself initiated into one of Albuquerque’s gangs. His new friend decides that their little Native American gang deserves to be as big as the Mexican gangs in Albuquerque, bringing in new business from deep inside Indigenous communities in Mexico. This is a tough novel but also one of beauty and compassion.

 

 

 

Poetry

Cuicacalli / House of Song by ire’ne lara silva

Texas poet ire’ne lara silva grew up in a family of migrant workers who traveled back and forth between Texas and New Mexico. I feel fortunate to call her a friend; she’s one of the most generous and wise writers I’ve ever met. Part song, part grito, part wail, part lullaby, and part hymn, her latest collection Cuicacalli / House of Song is a multi-vocal exploration of time, place, and history. Song lives within and without the poet’s physical and spiritual experience of body, of desire, of art, of loss, and of grief on an individual and communal level. The poetry sings survival, sings indigeneity, sings some part of the tattered world back together.

 

 

A Poetry of Remembrance by Levi Romero

Romero is the 2020 New Mexico Poet Laureate. In his most famous collection, he takes readers through familiar details–leaking faucets and lowriders, chicharrones and chicken coops–and remembers familia, comunidad, and tradiciones from his upbringing in northern New Mexico’s Embudo Valley. Alongside his training and jobs in the building trades and the architectural profession, and now a teacher, his writing has maintained and nurtured his connection to the unique people and land he knows so well and that have seldom been represented in American poetry. The book’s a decade old, but since Romero is the state’s first poet laureate, it remains an absolutely current read.

 

Whereas: Poems by Layli Long Soldier

Oglala Lakota citizen and Arizona native Long Soldier has deservedly received a lot of attention for this book of poetry. Whereas confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators. Through a virtuosic array of short lyrics, prose poems, longer narrative sequences, resolutions, and disclaimers, she creates a brilliantly innovative text to examine histories, landscapes, her own writing, and her predicament inside national affiliations.

 

Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers: Poems by Jake Skeets

Diné poet Jake Skeets’s collection is an unflinching portrait of the actual west and a fierce reclamation of a living place―full of beauty as well as brutality, whose shadows are equally capable of protecting encounters between boys learning to become, and to love, men. Its landscapes are ravaged, but they are also startlingly lush with cacti, yarrow, larkspur, sagebrush. And even their scars are made newly tender when mapped onto the lover’s body.

 

 

 

Nonfiction

The Book of Archives and Other Stories From the Mora Valley, New Mexico by A. Gabriel Meléndez

A native of Mora with el don de la palabra, Meléndez mines historical sources and his own imagination to reconstruct the valley’s story, first in English and then in Spanish. He strings together humorous, tragic, and quotidian vignettes about historical events and unlikely occurrences, creating a vivid portrait of Mora, both in cultural memory and present reality. More than a century ago, villagers collected scraps of paper documenting the valley’s history and their identity–military records, travelers’ diaries, newspaper articles, poetry, and more–and bound them into a leather portfolio known as “The Book of Archives.” When a bomb blast during the Mexican-American War scatters the book’s contents to the wind, the memory of the accounts lives on instead in the minds of Mora residents


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxane Dunbar Ortiz

Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Now, for the first time, acclaimed historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire. For younger readers, Jean Mendoza and Nambé Pueblo citizen Dr. Debbie Reese have co-written an adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People.

 

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

The received idea of Native American history—as promulgated by books like Dee Brown’s mega-bestselling 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—has been that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry, the sense was, but Native civilization did as well. As anyone living in New Mexico surely knows, this is nonsense. In this book (a finalist for the National Book Award) Treuer, Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, blends memoir, history, and reporting to tell the story of struggle and thriving success of tribes and their citizens across the country. An entire section is focused on the Pueblo tribes.

 

A teacher at the Equity Council workshop told a small group that no state in the U.S. can match New Mexico’s rich and textured history. The books on the list reflect a great many aspects of that history and the ways that it’s reflected in the lives all around us. Read these books, share them with others, and discuss them with friends, family, and students. Then, if you feel so moved, start writing or telling your own story!

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: