Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. In this edition, I'm discussing representation issues in fiction with a passage from my short story "D is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies," which was published in the D is for Dinosaur anthology.
An Excerpt from "D is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies"
* Please Note: The excerpt below depicts the ritual sacrifice of a person.
Jaguar knights bring a simple, untainted breakfast she cannot stomach and escort her by shuttle to the heart of the city-state. Draped across the tiny planet like a vault of the underworld, New Tenochtitlan is proud in its temples, industrious in its streets, quiet in its flowery gardens. As with its predecessor, it is divided into quarters that evoke Quetzalcoatl's house of worship; the Gold Abode of the East and its shining stairs, the Turquoise Abode of the West and its spacetime gate, the Silver Abode of the South and its verdant miles of farmland, the Red Shell Abode of the North, where the Keeper makes men and women into warrior chimeras. At the center of it all rises the Great Temple, where heartless bodies are cast from the summit day and night, so many the stones are forever stained with their blood.
At the top of that temple, four priests in feather headdress pin the limbs of a Gaean warrior to a rough-hewn altar. He is naked, and his poisonous vines have been pruned. The wounds ooze chlorophyl. He is screaming when Alejandra arrives; eyes bulging, chest open as a cave. New Tenochtitlan's Speaker towers above him; green heart beating in one hand, thick obsidian knife in the other. The scream fades. The heart stops. The warrior's body is hauled forward and cast down the stairs.
Alejandra clutches the buttons of her blue cotton frock and watches him tumble, lifts her gaze to the Speaker's hands.
He comes to her sweating from exertion, animated as if he has just received some necessary drug. A priest hurries to his side with a broad bowl in both arms, heavy with green hearts. The Speaker lays the last of them atop the others.
"They travel with Huitzilopochtli now." He faces the midday sun, turns a shoulder into the light. His hummingbird cloak shimmers with color.
The four priests on the temple summit stretch their lips into savage smiles.
Alejandra sees this, frowns, pokes him in the side with her cane. "You don't believe that any more than I do. It's just a folktale, and you're just a pomposo fraud with too many machines. If they all disappeared, would you fall over dead? I think so."
The Speaker bares his teeth, exhales in a slow release of sudden fury. "Myth has power, and ritual is a performance art." Dead-eyed calm falls over his face. "Let us agree upon terms, Little Dinosaur."
"My name is Señora Yaotl."
"Just so, but to the rest of the human species, your people are dinosaurs in need of a mass extinction event."
Alejandra thinks of her grandson and the pretty, brown-eyed girl he wants to marry. "That's what you're going to do, isn't it? When the past is so empty the present starts to shift like a pile of salt, you're going to come after my home, my family. Well, not while I'm breathing. Not while I can stand and spit in your face."
The Speaker tilts to one side, wipes chlorophyl over blood in the trophy of his hair. Sunlight gleams on the gold plugs in his earlobes. "You're dying of a disease my people will never contract but call me evil. You've abandoned your ancestral heritage but rebuke me for claiming it. You know nothing about my knights but accuse me of 'making sociopaths'. You've never been through the spacetime gate but criticize what I do beyond it." A priest arrives with a steaming towel. The Speaker finishes cleaning his arms. "Very well. I will debate with you the merits of civilized violence over the colonized peace of your fatuous condemnation. Let the Keeper itself decide whose logic is better" (MacCath 2017, 40-41).
The Folklore Behind the Fiction
"D is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies" takes place in a far future when capricious masters of bioengineering and technology have proclaimed themselves demigods, ruling over genetically and technologically engineered worshippers of various kinds. One of these demigods is a sociopathic master of time travel who has built an Aztec-inspired city-state called New Tenochtitlan and whose jaguar and eagle knights travel to the past in search of human sacrificial victims. This Speaker of New Tenochtitlan has announced to the known universe that any person who can best him in single combat will sacrifice him to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli and take his place as Speaker of the city. An elderly Luddite woman named Alejandra Maria Yaotl, who is dying of colorectal cancer, challenges him to a logical duel because she wants him dead and the city-state abandoned. The Speaker accepts, and the story progresses through three rounds of verbal battle and their consequences.
By way of preparatory research, I read David Carrasco's City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization and supplemented with David Bowles' Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, which is a translation of pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican literature. The first is a grim read that straightforwardly discusses the place of sacrifice in Aztec cosmology. The second is a glittering jewel of a book that illuminates the beauty Aztec and Mayan people found in all things, including ritualized violence. After completing my research with various pieces of online and textual reading about the contemporary indigenous people of Mexico, the Nahua, I came to two conclusions. First, any story rooted in this material would need to be violent and exquisite in equal measure. Second, I would need to relate my villain and my protagonist to historical Aztec civilization and its fictional, far-future counterpart knowing there are living people between those temporal extremes.
In my view, this meant the Speaker needed to be a person who had appropriated knowledge about the Aztecs by shaping it to fulfill his own selfish interests. By contrast, Alejandra needed to be a woman with an ancestral connection to both Nahua and Latin culture. I had a strong conceptualization of the Speaker from the inception of the story, but I needed to know Alejandra better. So I phoned my husband's Ecuadoran colleague and asked him about grandmothers; specifically, his own grandmother and the relationships his mother and mother-in-law have with his children. We had a great conversation, and I built my protagonist with the information he gave me. In the end, I had a sociopathic appropriator of historical culture who meets with resistance from a descendant of that culture committed to protecting her family.
Because I was working from ancient history to create a far-future science fiction short story, I think the amount of research I conducted and the shaping of it were good efforts at representation. However, these would not be sufficient for a short story about contemporary Nahua people or their recent past, which I wouldn't feel comfortable writing anyway. I would add that while the Carrasco book is based on many different kinds of historical writing and scholarship, there is a more recent book by Camilla Townsend entitled Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, which is based entirely on texts written in the years following the Spanish conquest by "'indigenous intellectuals' eager to record their experiences in their own tongue for their own people, to preserve their history before it faded from collective memory" (Ehrenreich 2020).
David Carrasco is an important Mesoamericanist scholar, and I trust his work is carefully researched. But I would have been better served by first reading Camilla Townsend's discussion of histories written by indigenous people right after the conquest. Folklore scholar Sarah Gordon writes of indigenous Dené narratives that "A story never exists in isolation. In all cases, there are people who tell the story, people who listen, and people who remember; all of these people do the work of contextualizing that story within the framework of the relationships surrounding it, the history that precedes it, and the future that flows forward from it" (Gordon 2015, 60). These narrative relationships also exist between cultures; conquerors have big voices, while the voices of the conquered are often small or forgotten altogether. Centuries later, it's easy to believe we understand an ancient people, when what we really understand is what a conquering or colonizing civilization had to say about them along with our interpretations of the material culture they left behind. Whose voices are those? Who is telling the story? Who is listening? Who is remembering? What impact will those voices have on our understanding of the history that preceded them and the future that flows forward from them? This is an important reason why representation matters in fiction-writing, and it's why I wish Townsend's book had been available when I was researching "D is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies."
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of material culture.
- Bowles, David. 2013. Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry. Beaumont: Lamar University Press.
- Carrasco, David. 2000. City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Ehrenreich, Ben. 2020. ‘Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend Review – a Revolutionary History of the Aztecs’. The Guardian, 13 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/13/fifth-sun-camilla-townsend-history-aztecs-review.
- Gordon, Sarah. 2015. ‘Narratives Unearthed, or, How an Abandoned Mine Doesn’t Really Abandon You’. In Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
- MacCath, C.S. 2017. ‘D Is for Duel/One Who Dies as a God Dies’. In D Is for Dinosaur, edited by Rhonda Parrish. Edmonton: Poise and Pen Publishing.
- Townsend, Camilla. 2019. Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. New York: Oxford University Press.