Paul Theroux discussed his new book, poverty in America’s rural regions, China, and more with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Theroux is the author of dozens of highly acclaimed travel books, novels, and short story collections, including his latest, On the Plain of Snakes. He is a 2015 recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Patron’s Medal and a past winner of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for literature. Theroux lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.
Your new book, On the Plain of Snakes, documents your travels along the U.S.-Mexico border and in our southern neighbor’s interior. The border symbolizes America’s political divide on immigration. What does the media overlook in its reporting on this polarizing topic?
In the course of my travels for my book, I crossed the border by car and on foot more than 50 times, all the way from the Pacific to the mouth of the Rio Grande, beyond Brownsville. I was dazzled by its differences, from place to place. The border on the Mexican side is pretty much owned by the cartels. And it is immensely more complex than the press has reported, because news reports are limited by space. It takes a book to delineate the border. Mexicans are seen as the problem, but Mexican migrants are the least of it, and I found that most Mexicans cross the border to work—in roofing, harvesting, meat processing—because they are poor, and they need to send money back to the village. They also need to work to pay off the coyote or cartel that helped them cross. The migrants from Central America are fleeing violence and looking for refuge. Then there are the Indians, Pakistanis, Congolese, Angolans, Nigerians, Afghans, and others who have paid serious money to get to Mexico and are hoping to vanish into America. Lastly, wealthy Chinese pay tens of thousands to cartels to get squired through tunnels. The only way the border can be secure and humane is with Mexico’s cooperation. A wall is not the answer.
You describe Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city, as “surprising for its wealth, its boomtown bustle, and its intensive building.” What can poorer U.S. cities and towns learn from Monterrey’s success?
In a word, education. Monterrey is a success largely because Tec Monterrey—which now has many campuses—turns out well-educated and willing graduates, who work in the flourishing industries. In my last book, Deep South, I noted that Alabama’s government was defunding education—and by the way, Michelle Obama was recently in Vietnam, “empowering girls and women.” There are plenty of girls and women in the Delta, from Natchez to Memphis who need empowering, but they are overlooked. I noted that, too. Monterrey attracts foreign investment, and that makes a big difference. But the Mexican work ethic is also a big factor.
Your 2015 book, Deep South, revealed the consequences of what Charles Dickens phrased “telescopic philanthropy,” or in the case of America, one’s concern about poverty abroad while ignoring problems in regions like the Mississippi Delta. As we enter the 2020 presidential election cycle, what can America’s political elite learn from reading about your travels in the South?
The Deep South is generally overlooked, and the rural areas are in a dire state of stagnation and poverty. “Telescopic philanthropy” is the bustling Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House peering a long way off at the huts on the River Niger and ignoring her many children. I often think that the poorer parts of America, and there are many, are just not colorful or sexy enough to attract philanthropists—not like Vietnam, Morocco, Kenya, or Malawi (where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s). May I make another point? During the Nazi era, companies like Bayer and IG Farben used slave labor in the death camps to make their products and helped the Nazi war effort. I have begun to think that companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others are doing much the same in China—helping China to become the most successful totalitarian state the world has known, way beyond Orwell’s imaginings in terms of torture, surveillance, control of the press, political persecution, and much else. By the way, they also use child labor to mine cobalt in the Congo, essential to their products. It’s a wicked world, which inspires me to travel and look closely at such infernalities.
Has social media diminished the wonders of travel?
Not for me. I don’t engage personally in social media. Travel needs to be experienced at first hand. All genuine knowledge is gained through direct experience, as someone once said—Chairman Mao, actually.
What are you reading?
I recently finished Carl Rollyson’s biography of Rebecca West, one of the great, but overlooked, writers of the twentieth century. As a consequence, I am reading some of her books, The New Meaning of Treason at the moment. Her travel book, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, is one of the best ever written but is 400,000 words long, so a certain commitment is necessary. I seldom read new fiction unless it is written by a friend.
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