By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Carmen Boullosa is one of the most prolific and thought-provoking Mexican writers of our times. Her award-winning works include 19 novels, several collections of short stories and poems, four plays and a screen play. The many historical subjects on which she focuses range from Cleopatra to Montezuma to 17th-century pirates of the Caribbean to children in contemporary Mexico. Currently, she has two homes – one in the Coyoacán district in Mexico City and one in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to her prodigious output of books and scripts she also writes a regular column for El Universal, a major newspaper in Mexico.
Boullosa was born in Mexico City on September 4, 1954. She was educated in a Catholic girls’ school there, where she became inspired to later write about themes that were forbidden or at least suppressed by her teachers, such as sensuality and feminism. She went on to study for four years (1972-76) at the far more liberal Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). There was essentially no hiatus between her academic studies and her publications, beginning an impressive stream of literary works.
After her marriage to author Alejandro Aura, domestic life seemed to stimulate Boullosa’s artistic productivity rather than hamper it. Her second novel, Antes (Before), a coming-of-age story, was published in 1989; Antes was the novel for which Boullosa was awarded Mexico’s highly prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Award. In an interview with one of her translators, Samantha Schnee, Boullosa described a rather idyllic life as a young mother writing novels: “My earlier novels all have young girls as the main characters; in the late eighties I once said in an interview that I could never even create a male character. Back then I had two small children, lived in a beautiful house with a garden that had trees growing figs, pomegranates, and bananas … I had lots of friends and no economic problems (we owned a successful theater-bar).”
She obviously inculcated a love for theater in her children Maria and Juan. Juan is a film producer perhaps best known for his production of Rent. Maria has had roles in over a dozen films, almost a dozen plays, and numerous TV productions. However, the idyll ended when her marriage to Aura, who had been married three times before he met Boullosa, also ended in divorce.
The divorce seems to have freed her to pursue an independent academic life as well as continuing her authorship of novels and other works. In 2001 she held the Andrés Bello Chair in Latin American Cultures and Civilizations at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University. She has also been a visiting professor at Georgetown University and San Diego State University, writer in residence for the city of Berlin, and held the Alfonso Reyes Chair at the Sorbonne in fall 2001. She was a Visiting Professor at Columbia in 2003-04 and then a Distinguished Lecturer at City College, CUNY, until 2011. Between 2004 and 2005 she received awards for the best book of poems in Mexico and the best novel in Mexico. Boullosa has traveled widely as a sought-after university lecturer who challenges students to think beyond the ordinary and normative.
Although she is perhaps best known for her depiction of women in her fiction, Boullosa has not confined herself to that genre. In 2004, she married historian and author Michael Wallace, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of New York City. Together in 2015, they coauthored A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War”, a controversial treatise on the roots of the drug wars in Mexico and the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. Boullosa is also known for her art, which has been displayed in museums in New York City and Mexico City.
It is not surprising that this exceptional mundivagant woman should write about other exceptional women … both actual historical figures and fictional characters. But Boullosa’s imagination is so fertile that she can bend time and circumstance so that her women characters overcome situations that were barriers in their lives, real or fictional. Cleopatra and Anna Karenina are seen through different eyes and times. In her latest novel (El Libro de Eva, 2020, to be published in English in March 2023), she recreates the biblical book of Genesis, with its heavy overlay of masculinity, in ten chapters written from the perspective of Eve. Boullosa’s entire cast of novel characters is so engaging that from the opening lines of her books one willingly enters her worlds. Some readers are charmed, others incensed by Boullosa’s flamboyant feminism. But no one is bored.
In addition to her own work, she has fostered the work (and lives) of others. Along with Salman Rushdie, Boullasa founded the Mexico City refuge for persecuted writers. She is reportedly exploring the possibility of opening another facility for persecuted writers in New York City.
If you want to know more about Carmen Boullosa, check out the libraries at major universities for her writings in Spanish or English or the scores of essays and Ph.D. dissertations of which she is the subject. Experience the richness of this most notable Mexican author’s creativity.