On Sunday, May 17, I had the good fortune to hear C.M. Mayo read from her new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Mayo is the author of the short story collection Sky Over El Nido, which won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award, and the travel-memoir Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, but her novel takes her into uncharted territory — not only because it’s her first foray into novel-length fiction but also because of the subject matter. As she pointed out in the remarks preceding her reading, “Who knew that Mexico once had a half-American prince?” and the preceded to detail a scandal that, in fact, once rocked both Mexico and the U.S., with accusations in the New York Times that Emperor Maximilian had kidnapped an American child. Despite the outcry, it’s a story that’s not much discussed today (perhaps because the U.S. had other things on its mind at the time? like a Civil War?).
The novel not only delves into Mexican history but also explores the conflict between two versions of what it meant to be Mexican during the Second Empire: whether a subject of a monarchy or a citizen of a Republic, as Mayo put it. But understanding the story required the author to begin in D.C., where the young prince’s mother lived on a country estate in what would today be Cleveland Park. Mayo’s reading therefore featured two excerpts set in D.C., the novel’s opening pages detailing both the geographical and the social setting and then a second scene where the young woman attends a party at the White House and is introduced to a Mexican diplomat, a meeting which sets the whole story in motion.
Those who missed Mayo yesterday can take heart: Her book tour is far from over, and complete information on future events can be found at her website.
Sunday’s event also included a reading of poetry from a soon-to-be published collection by Argentine poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio. Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems includes both Ambroggio’s works and translations by Yvette Neisser Moreno and others, and poet and translator made a winning pair behind the podium, with guest readings by Mayo and by Raquel Dunning, each of whom contributed translations to the collection. A selection of Ambroggio’s poetry can be found here, and a short essay by Moreno is here.
I had a great time at the reading, and I can tell you that Mayo’s book is intricate and wonderful. She has a real gift.