Alberto Ruy-Sánchez is a Mexican writer, poet, essayist and editor. He was an editor of Octavio Paz’s Vuelta, and is the chief editor and founding publisher of the influential arts magazine, Artes de Mexico. He is the recipient of numerous international awards, including the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Artes de Mexico was founded in 1953, where it became the leading magazine, but had shut down in 1980. In 1987, Ruy-Sánchez took over. Aside from the magazine, which he has described as an “encyclopaedia in instalments”, the writer is known for a quintet of books that he has produced over two decades.
These novels – collectively called the Mogador quintet – explore the nature of desire, and are set in Mogador, the ancient name of the Moroccan city of Essaouira. In response to questions about why a writer from Mexico should be interested in Morocco, Ruy-Sánchez has crafted a writer’s statement, which is a manifesto of sorts, challenging these questions.
In it, he says, “The origin of this question stems from implicit biases against what I have been writing over the years. A narrow way of regarding a writer’s place in the world, especially one who comes from another third world country. A very simplistic attitude toward the very complex reality that defines our identities.” Excerpts from a conversation held during Ruy-Sánchez’s visit to India:
On reviving Artes de Mexico
It has been a marvellous experience. When I got the opportunity, it was a chance to make a cultural project, more than a commercial enterprise. So we became like a centre of research – not just academic research, but also research of photography, graphic design, of the public. Each issue is a magazine, it is also a book.
It makes money, but it is also not for profit because we decided it will function as a foundation. We are very invested in producing rigorous work, so we put in a lot of work per issue. Also, we get to dive deeply into one subject every issue, because the magazine is thematic.
We want to create works that can remain as references, and this is something that has been happening for the last twenty-seven years – we are referenced, we are quoted. Every time we publish something, and it is discussed by people, we resolve to go farther, and this gives sense to our lives.
On how artisans affect his work
In all my writing work, I am learning from artisans’ techniques. People assume that the work artisans do is very simple, but it’s the opposite. Both Mexico and India have long traditions of weaving, and very few know how very complex weaving can be, no matter where it is done.
For example, on the cover of one of my books, there are these tiles that are in Alhambra, and you can see the way they’ve combined the different tiles into nine different shapes, and with variations become eighty-one. They invented a kind of invisible net to combine these different shapes, that allow people to put things together, and make of it their own composition. For me, that is a key idea – composition.
On the working conditions of artisans
The tragedy of the modern world is that our elites and the people who govern us believe that you need to exterminate anything that is traditional. They do this without paying attention to the fact that tradition is something you reinvent.
Artisans have to invent – it is very important to their work. The challenge for us is to change the idea of the artisan as someone who belongs to the past to someone who has a craft. It is a profession, practised by someone who knows how to create something of great quality.
The world would be different if instead of seeking to educate artisans, we could educate our governors. They need to pay close attention to all the different dimensions of our countries. Mexico and India are very similar in many ways, and have similar challenges: in the rush to grow economically, the things that are of the highest value in this world could be lost.
On his Writer’s Statement, including the ironic term “Horizontal Orientalism”
I forged that as a challenge to very Europe-centric sociologists, especially Edward Said, who wrote Orientalism. My response to them is, you’re not talking about the West and the East, you’re actually talking about the North and the South. The domination you’re talking about is North-South. And I firmly belong to the South.
When a Moroccan visits Mexico, and feels wonder by it, it is different – and my wonder at Morocco is of the same nature. I proposed the idea of “horizontal Orientalism” and last October, there was a conference in Rabat dedicated to my concept. It hosted a lot of writers working on Orientalism, and this became a subject of discussion.
I pose my statement as a manifesto, and I pose it as a challenge to some sociologists, who only think of things on one level.
On the relationship between Hispanic and Arabic cultures
I think that Spain is a very Arabic country, and that they’re ashamed of this. The problem is very old, and even manifests itself in language. The first grammar of Spanish and its first dictionary were made in the same year that the Moors were expelled from Granada, and the same year America was discovered. So it was part of an effort to forge the language of Empire. Before this, Spanish wasn’t considered an important language – Latin was. Arabic was seven centuries older.
In the forging of the language of the Spanish Empire, they began taking out of the dictionary all the words of Arabic origin. They expelled every word they could substitute with a Latin term. Even then, they couldn’t take out 4,000 words – imagine!
But in Mexico, we use those words. We have a lot of Arabic origin words that they tried to erase in Spain.
There is an Arabic link with many things we are: we are a plurality. Hispanic cultures in America were already mixing with people for many centuries. We weren’t paying attention to skin colour in the way they were in the Protestant world. For us, the mixing is very alive.
On how his work has been received
There are still critics who say that I’m writing a fantasy, as if I am repeating One Thousand and One Nights. The other day, someone said that I am making an orientalist fable. They don’t pay attention to the fact that I am talking about a reality that exists within Mexican culture. And this is not just linked to Arabic culture. Men don’t listen to the violence faced by women.
The importance of paying attention – listening – is present in my books. My books are documentary books, told in a poetic way, not in a sociological way. It is not because I try to embellish, it is because poetry has the tools to get into human dimensions deeply, in a way that not economics, not psychoanalysis, no other kind of speech can get.
People who see the power of literature as another orientalist fable are in the minority. Critics and writers of an older generation – especially men – tended to read it that way. But a lot of reasons, especially women and young men, began to read it with a passion, finding something in the books that they didn’t find otherwise. It is not something I can qualify. It doesn’t depend on me, and I deserve no credit for it. It is involuntary.
My first book has had twenty-nine editions; the others are following that path. My work is not best-selling, but long-selling, which for me is best. All my books are alive in Spanish, unfortunately not so much in other languages.
On what he’s working on now
I’m always obsessed with something or the other, usually something I haven’t done before. At the moment, I am researching for a book on desire and evil. I just finished a book about the experience of waking up together. For more than three years, I took notes about this experience, and every week I wrote a poem. At the end, I chose the poems I wanted, so now I have a book with sixty one-page poems, one overture, and one coda.