Who Is Neill James?
Shortly after arriving in Ajijic in May 2017, I began hearing stories about an early expat named Neill James. The first simple story I heard around town was that she was a wealthy woman who founded the Lake Chapala Society (“LCS”) and spread her money around the village. This story is at least partially based on an anonymous account published in 2011 in a compilation of essays about the early days of Ajijic, called “Ajijic-500 Years of Adventures“, compiled by A. Bateman and N. Bollenbach, 2011, published by Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR. My first impression was that this sounded like a nice, but not particularly interesting story.
Dust on My Heart
Enthralled with my new life in Mexico and the many fascinating sights and sounds, I left Neill James gathering the dust of history. Fast forward to August 2018 when for some obscure reason I decided to check the LCS library for her book on Mexico, “Dust On My Heart“, first published in 1946. I opened the book and fell in, devouring one chapter after another. This woman did not sound like the nice, but eccentric woman I had heard about. The woman who sprang forth from the pages of ‘Dust’ was a fearless adventurer and entrepreneur, a lesbian who was as flamboyant as you could be in the 1940s, a woman who survived and thrived in what was still completely a man’s world.
Julie & Julia
‘Dust’ is primarily a journey through Mexico’s central cordillera from south of Mexico City all the way to Guatemala with stops in remote indigenous pueblos all along the way. This brought to mind the “Julie & Julia” blog/book/film from a few years ago where Julie Powell cooked her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Why couldn’t we do the same and travel our way through every city and village in Mexico that Neill visited and compare our impressions and adventures with hers?
Before I had even finished ‘Dust’ it was clear that the project unfolding in front of me was much bigger than any one person could accomplish effectively, so I turned to my friend and fellow blogger/digital artist/writer, Joyce Wycoff, author of the Mexico Stories blog, who eagerly agreed to jump into my insanity, and we began putting together a multi-year project plan.
Finished with Dust, I turned to a recent work of fiction about the life of Neill James, “Kokio_A Novel Based on the Life of Neill James,” by Stephen Preston Banks, Tellectual Press, 2016, which presents a very different version, emphasizing her life as a spy and the controversy surrounding her activities.
While the book is clearly billed as fiction, there is a certain condescending, dare I say patronizing, tone that is confusing particularly in light of Mr. Bank’s statement about his purpose in writing the book:
“Yet I could not let her just go into the dustbin of history. Something about the available remnants of her life and the critical missing parts insisted that I construct a plausible life for her, as if she were part of my own heritage. It might have been the passion of her elderly admirers in Ajijic that drew me on and demanded a mediating story, equally it might have been the haughty way her critics, some of whom clearly weren’t old enough to have known her, dismissed her.” (Kokio, pg. 238)
Mr. Bank’s statement about the quality of Neill James’ writing is also somewhat puzzling:
“While she could write a well constructed and lively sentence, she had no real talent for anything more challenging than advertising copy or the personal letter.” (Kokio, pg. 224).
While Neill James’ published books vary in quality and they are certainly not Pulitzer Prize material, they are for the most part respectably well written and readable tomes, and certainly the product of someone who was capable of writing more than just a ‘well constructed sentence.’ Her keen powers of observation are evident in both “Dust” and her earlier book on the Ainu, “Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land: Up and Down Eastern Asia“, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942.
In Kokio, Mr. Banks pointed out that Neill “insisted” on having a full-time housekeeper, cook and gardener, while not mentioning or possibly not understanding that this was common practice at the time in Mexico and most of Latin America.
Kokio also states that Neill James left few pictures and no journals documenting her life. It turns that there is a vast store of pictures, diaries and memorabilia stored at LCS that is largely unsorted and uncategorized. (While this material is not currently available to the public, LCS is hoping to create a permanent database of Neill’s pictures and documents).
It’s my opinion that Kokio contains some erroneous and overly simplified conclusions based on lack of understanding of Mexican culture, the fact that the author did not speak Spanish, and his lack of access to the above referenced materials. Many locals have been impacted by Neill James’ life in one way or another and they have stories to tell, but as far as we know very few interviews of Mexicans who knew Neill James were conducted. We hope to interview as many people as possible, both expat and Mexican to unravel more of this fascinating story.
So Who Was Neill James?
- Was she a saint as some proclaim or a bitch as others maintain?
- Did she exploit Mexicans for her own benefit, as Kokio suggests?
- How do Neill James’ students, employees and caretakers feel about her?
- What is Neill James’ legacy and why do we care?
If you would like to join us on this journey, start by reading “Dust on My Heart” and “Kokio” available at LCS. We will regularly post interviews, updates and new material as we follow Neill’s life and travels throughout Mexico. What will you discover about Neill James, her Mexico life, legacy and yourself?