Writing Lessons

Literature as Lucha Libre

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By Paul Salopek


 

Comics and fists launched my writing career.

I grew up at the buzz-saw interface of countryside and city in unruly 1970s Mexico. My family emigrated from California to Colonia Seattle, a failed pre-revolutionary real estate project on the outskirts of Guadalajara that had attracted rich Americans until the early 1900s. That’s when Villistas rode through and spoiled the help. We arrived in 1968. I was six. Dad was a gringo refugee, a disillusioned Catholic-Kennedyite-turned-anarchist who presumed to support his family on a Navy pension of $256 per month. Our neighborhood was still mostly cornfields. In the faraway colonial downtown, leftists and rightists were setting off bombs in shoe stores. My friends were ornery farm boys who tortured stray cats and felt up the girls on ramshackle buses. (For the record: I did not torture cats.)

To avoid getting beat up at school—I was the only American, and recesses were serial reenactments of the Alamo—I acquired a quick tongue. I fended off blows with storytelling. I plagiarized everything I could lay my hands on. After cribbing Jules Verne’s entire mediocre oeuvre, I turned to far superior Mexican comics. Soon I was drawing my own. My cartoons featured schizoid child geniuses who lived on desert islands and a race of woolly mammoths who lived underground. I rented out my comics, thus discovering editing and royalties. Kids in huaraches paid me 20 centavos to sit on the dirt sidewalk outside my house, page through stacks of my crude narratives, and offer mostly negative textual analyses.

My greatest literary inspiration at this time was a comic book called Kalimán. Kalimán was a vaguely Sikh superhero in white tights who spoke Spanish. His boy-sidekick was named Solín. Solín’s job was to ask a lot of obvious questions. Their stock adventures introduced the notions of cliffhangers and the second act. Kalimán was always going into trances, slowing his metabolism down into deathlike comas. Even then, as a child, this struck me as the perfect Mexican super power, a defense against one billion years of fatalism.

Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is walking around the world as part of a narrative project called the Out of Eden Walk. His work can be found at www.outofedenwalk.com.

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