Kurt Hollander discusses his book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City.
Kurt Hollander, a native New Yorker who was well known for publishing the Portable Lower East Side (PLES) magazine from 1983-1993, arrived in Mexico more than 20 years ago just to learn Spanish and to have a good time. He got married, had children, owned a billiard room and a bar, published the art magazine Poliester, directed the movie Carambola, then when everything seemed to be going great, became very ill and watched as his business empire crumbled. An ugly case of salmonella and the ensuing severe chronic ulcerative colitis turned his life around and made him think seriously about his own mortality. That led him to write Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City. We met at a coffee house on First Avenue where he only drank a tiny bottle of Italian apricot juice. He seemed tired, but once he started talking about his book, his energy level rose.
Naief Yehya What influenced you to embark on such a vast and strange piece of literature?
Kurt Hollander The book started as a series of articles I wrote for the London Guardian. One was about a trip to Tepito [the center for pirated goods and a criminal stronghold of the city] where I found my film for sale months before it was released, another was on speed bumps, or topes, in the streets of Mexico City, and another on the demise of the old city morgue. But then I realized that I was really writing about death and that there was much more to write about. The first chapters I wrote were “Air” and “Water,” and then I added “Food” and “Alcohol.” I tried to do a very serious study of how these elements were involved in death in Mexico City, how the toxic substances and parasites within them were the major contributing factors to death in the city. I told the history of these elements since before Aztec times through the conquistadores up until the modern age.
NY Air, water, food and alcohol are body invaders.
KH The main causes of death in Mexico City are heart, liver and circulatory diseases, and cancer. The major contributing factors to all those diseases are the air, water, food, and alcohol in the city—the toxic substances and microorganisms they contain. What I basically found as I was writing the book is that it’s actually the city that kills people because it concentrates huge amounts of toxic substances and parasites and exposes people to them. When I moved to Mexico City in 1989, the city had one of the most polluted environments on earth. Decades ago the city became so overpopulated that the environment couldn’t absorb all the waste materials from industry, cars, and human activity, and toxic substances became an integral part of the city and part of the people in it. Because we are all permeable, the environment invades people’s bodies. The way people die historically is from parasites and diarrhea, but today the city itself turns out to be the leading cause of death in Mexico City. To understand how people die today, I really had to go back to the roots. I wrote a historical guide to death in Mexico City to introduce the larger issues of death within the culture (disasters, conquest, the Inquisition, etcetera), but then focused on the particulars.