October 3, 2013
Lucha libre: literary wrestling in Peru
by Michael Elmets
Literary history is replete with stories of struggling writers forced to take on menial jobs and carry out humiliating tasks in order to finance their art, but until recently there was probably no record of any having been forced to don wrestling masks in order to jumpstart their writing careers. A recent article from Public Radio International indicates that we have now crossed that barrier as well, as one new Peruvian literary competition calls on writers to do just that.
The Peruvian competition, the Lucha Libro, is described as “A twist on Lucha Libre, [which is] Mexico’s version of pro wrestling.” Whereas in Mexico’s Lucha Libre, “Competitors put on masks and pseudonyms to duke it out in a ring,” in the Peruvian adaptation, physical violence is replaced by structural violence, as those who wish to don linguistic masks for a living are compelled by a publishing industry decimated by “military government in the 70s, the civil war in the 80s, and […] the collapse of the economy” to wear literal masks and to “Head onto a stage where they’re given three random words, a laptop hooked up to a gigantic screen, and five minutes to write a short story.” After the outcome of the match is announced, the loser removes his or her mask and the winner progresses to the next round, where he or she will continue to compete for Lucha Libro’s grand prize—a book contract from Peru’s Solar editorial house.
To be fair, the organizers of Lucha Libro see the competition as being about more than just finding new ways to humiliate writers. For writer Christopher Vazques, one of the competition’s founders, “It’s also about changing the idea that literature is boring […] because it’s not just the opportunity for a young person to become a writer […] It’s also about having a place for young people to hang out—and to read.”
Still, if contests like the Lucha Libro make literature “fun,” they also do damage to it by promoting conformity and reducing literature to an order of competition that perhaps only art had ever proven capable of resisting. As poet Craig Dworkin pointed out in a speech given at the London Art Book Fair in 2011, even a prize as reputable as the Man Booker can have a way of promoting conformity.
One can hardly see how putting struggling writers on a stage and asking them to wear ridiculous masks while they struggle to produce a short-story in five-minutes could do anything but intensify the effect.
Michael Elmets is a former Melville House intern.