Friday, March 25, 2011

What am I doing here, anyway?

I´m writing this post for my friend Pamela, who said that she felt reading the blog she came in in the middle of the story. So here is some backstory. What the hell am I doing in a litte Chuj Mayan village in the middle of Guatemala?

For those that don´t know, I am writing a book based on the story of the Quiche Mayan creation epic the Popul Vuh, but set in New York. The characters are Guatemalan Mayan immigrants to New York City, and the monsters of the Popul Vuh are coming to New York: the crocodile demon Zipacna, his father Vucub Caquix the evil macaw who pretends to be the son, his brother the giant Cabracan who makes earthquakes, and worst of all the Lords of Xibalba, the land of the dead. I am actually writing it as a trilogy, with the first part being the defeat of Zipacna, Vucub Caquix and Cabracan, and the second two books being the defeat of the Lords of Death, first in a ballgame and then in battle.

I began writing the book because it´s such an engaging and fascinating epic. The heroes are the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque (in Mayan the ´x´ is pronounced as a ´sh´ sound). My goal was something not too different from the Percy Jackson books, just with a more unique mythology. But I researched as I wrote, and the more I learned the more I realized that this wasn´t the same as basing a story on the Greek gods.

The Greek gods are history to everyone, and at this point they are pretty much universal intellectual property, no longer attached to any particular culture. As far as I know, not a single Greek person still worships Zeus or Poseidon even in a syncretic indirect form. The Greek gods today have more in common with Superman and Spiderman than they do with any religious tradition. Kids like me grow up reading D´Aulaire´s and other mythological books much like comic books and see the gods and heroes of the myths as something like superheroes. The Norse and Egyptian myths would fall into the same category. Essentially, they are just pages out of D&D´s Dieties & Demigods book, another book I grew up reading.

But the Mayan myths are different, in that to some degree some people still believe in them. Don´t get me wrong: almost all Mayans today are either Catholic or some Evangelical faith, such as Pentecostal, Mormon or 7th day Adventist. But as best as I can understand, many of the ones that are Catholic practice a form of syncretist faith that combines belief in Jesus and the Christian god with belief in the older dieties and spirits.

There is nothing unusual about this, as it is what has happened in every single ¨polytheistic¨(1) culture that´s been converted to Christianity, from Rome to Ireland to Northern Europe and no doubt Asian and African cultures as well. But in some places it´s further along than others, and here the ¨old ways¨ are a lot closer to the surface than they are in others.

Not that it´s obvious. I´d be a fool to expect anyone to talk about it much. Angela knew a little, but even she didn´t know much, and she´s married to a Mayan man. There are lots of good reasons for being secretive about it. For one thing, I understand the Evangelicals are quite hostile to the old beliefs. For another it´s simply none of an outsider´s business what a family or a person believes.

But the old ruins are filled with crosses that people pray to, and as I said I have evidence that people pray at the old ruins in places where there are no crosses.

What all this means is that you just can´t treat traditional Mayan beliefs as you would ancient Greek legends. But I still think it´s a great story, and something worth telling. So what I want to do, most of all, is to do it in a way that honors a culture rather than appropriates it. I hope I succeed.

In order to do it, the first thing I realized was that the characters needed to be Mayans. That´s not a stretch, there are immigrants to New York from everywhere, including here. But in order to do that I needed to represent their culture and beliefs as authentically as an outsider could. And what I needed to write about was not ancient Mayans, which I can learn as much as anyone else could from a book. I needed to write about Mayans as they live now.

I would be afraid to do this, and would almost back down. But I am taking my inspiration from Nisi Shawl who wrote Writing the Other, a book about how to respectfully include characters, cultures and traditions from a background not your own. Nisi gave some great workshops at Clarion West about this topic, and I learned a lot. But one thing I know more than anything else is there is no substitute for research.

And so that´s what I am doing here. I am trying to write about a people and a place I knew only from books. Now, at least, I have a bit of firsthand experience. I don´t expect to come out of this an expert on Mayan culture. At best I hope to know enough to write about the story of their people respectfully. And I can only hope that my book will get people interested enough to go and learn more about the true stories Mayans, both in mythological history and today.

I use the term cautiously as I´m suspicious of the clarity of the poly/mono breakdown people so casually fall back on.


eden said...

Jim -- the book sounds awesome, as does your approach to travel and research. Really looking forward to hearing/reading more...

Pamela said...

Yay! Thanks. The whole thing sounds really cool. I love all the posts.

Jim Stewart said...

Thanks guys, glad you are enjoying it!

Effrenata said...

Hi! I just found your blog. I'm looking forward to seeing your books too. PV fiction is awesome & so is Latin America. :)

I'm doing a PV-based project of my own called "Seven Macaw: a Mythic Narrative", Check it out & feel free to comment.

Looks like you're a Twins fan, whereas I've got the parrot on my shoulder... lol. =)