Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Alec Dempster

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Alec Dempster

The Huasteca region, an area in Eastern Mexico known for its heterogeneous cultural traditions, is the subject of both visual and literary art in Alec Dempster's Lotería Huasteca (Porcupine's Quill). Alec's series of woodblock prints and complementary texts bring to life the history and flair of Huasteca and the people who live there.

The second part of the book's title will be more familiar to many — lotería is a popular, bingo-like game that features beautifully illustrated cards. Alec borrows from lotería as a structure, bringing the iconic household game into a celebration of the region.

Today Alec speaks to Open Book about his personal connections to Mexico, the iconography of lotería and the process of creating his powerful woodblock images.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Lotería Huasteca.

Alec Dempster:

One of my aims with this book is that the images and words inform each other to help evoke a part of Mexico I am enchanted with and fascinated by. While each of the fifty-four woodblock prints illustrates a salient component of the cultural landscape, the texts elaborate on the images to create a larger picture. Imagination, research and my own observation go hand in hand to scratch the surface of a complex cultural fabric.

The writing was an opportunity to revisit the series of 54 woodblock prints I produced ten years ago and to deepen my understanding of multiple topics ranging from sacred mountains to improvised poetry. Five years ago, Tim Inkster from The Porcupine’s Quill expressed interest in publishing the prints and suggested that I write something to help put them in context for someone unfamiliar with the area. I welcomed the opportunity to continue my exploration of Mexican culture. Hopefully people acquainted with the Huasteca will also find useful information in the book.

OB:

What drew you to writing about the Huasteca region? And how would you describe the area's character to someone unfamiliar with it?

AD:

Initially I knew of the place through music. Over ten years ago I started attending regional Huasteca music festivals in northern Veracruz where the warm reception made me feel part of a community of people sharing an appreciation for the area’s vibrant culture. Unlike my last book, Lotería Jarocha, an explanation of 60 folk songs from Veracruz, I only touch on music here. The emphasis is on the Huasteca’s rich mosaic of indigenous cultures. Regarding the place, it is difficult to define the Huasteca succinctly because of its diversity and proximity to other cultural regions where precise borders are not traceable. This book is as much about tangible cultural aspects of the culture as it is about mythology and ancient beliefs. Prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Aztec rulers referred to the inhabitants of the region along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico as Huastecos. Now, the descendants of these people call themselves Teenek. Other indigenous groups that live in the Huasteca are the Otomis, Nahuas and Pames.

OB:

You turn the game of lotería into an artistic structure in this book. What inspired you to return to lotería as inspiration? And how would you describe the game's role in Mexican culture?

AD:

The traditional lotería game as an object is inherently artistic as the images printed on the standard game boards, found all over the country, have become part of Mexico’s graphic iconography. Although the mass distribution of the game has favoured a standard version familiar to most Mexicans there are still rare vintage hand painted game boards that I find particularly inspiring. My contribution was to create new images exploring a specific theme and which bear little resemblance to the familiar lotería. When it came to writing about my own images I realized how much deeper I needed to dig in order to explain the significance of each print. To create the prints I was guided by my own intuition and the advice of several experts.

OB:

Tell us about how the woodblock prints in this book were created. What is the process like in creating a woodblock or linoleum-block print?

AD:

I made several trips to one of the big lumber yards in Xalapa where I chose planks made from different types of wood. After deciding on a standard size to work with, I cut the planks into blocks that I painstakingly sanded to ensure a smooth and flat surface. Having a few Japanese woodcarving tools enabled me to work with soft and hard woods. Basically, all the white lines are created by cutting into the surface. When ink is rolled onto the wood a piece of paper is applied with pressure to transfer the image from the block.

OB:

Who are some of your favourite writers whose work has engaged with Mexican culture or themes in a way you find interesting?

AD:

Although I was born in Mexico, I grew up in Toronto and began to reconnect with Mexican culture through music and visual art. Books came later as my Spanish improved. Works written by historian Antonio Garcia de Leon and anthropologist Román Güemes have helped me to understand the Veracruz region I have concentrated on. The fact that both of them are musicians and poets reveals itself in their academic writing. Luis Alberto Urrea is a novelist and essayist I admire whose work is focuses on northern Mexico and the border with the U.S.A. Beyond the written word, I am very interested in the art of improvised poetry set to music that is cultivated in specific parts of Mexico. The best example is Guillermo Velazquez, an astonishing bard from Xichú, Guanajuato.

OB:

What are you working on now?

AD:

Besides getting used to being in Toronto again after four months in Mexico I’m illustrating a book of interviews with Heraclio Alvarado, an admired son huasteco violinist better known as Don Laco. He talks about his life and experience playing music for special occasions such as rain invocation, carnival, wakes, dances and agricultural rituals. As part of the grant I received from the Canada Council for the Arts to study music and dance in the Huasteca, I am working with local musicians and a Mexican dance group to prepare a number of performances. Making masks with the children in the dance group has been an unexpected part of the project.


Alec Dempster

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