Sleepwalking

giant

Today on their website, the art-rich and beautifully designed short fiction zine Middle Planet, made by Julia Gootzeit and (LCRW 33 contributor!) Eric Gregory, features my story “Asleep in the Traces”, about a sleepwalking giant that steps on a girl’s hometown, then sucks her up onto its back to live with the refugees, which Julia has generously interpreted with the deliriously surreal artwork above. Please support and patronize them, should you feel inclined! There will be new pieces coming live on the website from the second issue once a week through June, and ebook and print versions eventually. And they have a Patreon.

I’ve gotten in the habit of coming up with something rambly to say about a story of mine when it comes out. I’ve tried to make it something not so much about the story as tangential to it, because I hope the stories speak for themselves. I think it’s a good habit, or I’d break it. But this one I’m having a little trouble with.

“Asleep in the Traces” is a story about how you can never go home again. It’s a story about finding out what you took for granted. I wrote it from my tower of isolation, the year after I moved from my home city of Boston to north suburban blight Detroit. As such, it’s of a piece with “Virtual Goods”, which was in Ideomancer a few years ago, and “Cloud Mountains”, which is forthcoming in Strangelet sometime soonish. They’re all three rather desolate stories, concerned with loss and alienation, though ultimately, I hope, redemptive. And I love all three of them, don’t get me wrong. Particularly this one. Because figuring out how to move on from loss is a pretty essential human skill, and Marie has it harder than most, and I think she manages beautifully. But the place I wrote those stories from–it’s a hard place to want to go back to. I mean, I wrote them to try to get out. Into my head, since I couldn’t actually get away the way the people in these stories do. Look back in this blog and you’ll find posts that pretty clearly illustrate my mindset in that period, should the stories themselves prove too obscure.

When I first found out I’d be moving away, a few well-meaning friends reminded me of a stereotype familiar to writers, that of the artist expat. Maybe, they were saying in not so many words, you’ll find out you need to get away from a place before you really understand it. At the time, I hated this advice. It was insufficient comfort, offered at no cost to themselves from people who didn’t have to leave.

They were right. The longer I’m away, the truer it becomes, the more deeply I understand the place I come from, and through it, myself. But being away from home doesn’t just help me understand it. The phenomenon being observed is altered by the act of observing it. The more clearly I understand it, the further removed it becomes from the place I remember. I can’t go back.

On the other hand, I am suddenly able to understand and empathize with a whole category of narratives in ways I haven’t before. The immigrant experience, for example. Also certain traditional laments.

Is it a fair tradeoff? I don’t guess anyone has much of a choice but to make it worth their while, whether in fiction or otherwise. Like Marie, I’ll keep trying.

Me and the Thunderbird


Thunderbird, on a 19th-century Cheyenne drumhead, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The co-opting of Native American culture makes me sad. For years I thought a thunderbird was a car driven by greasers and meatheads and Pontiac not a doomed, desperate tragic hero of the Ottawa but a disreputable manufacturer of cars. If it weren’t for the automotive industry, though, would I ever have even heard these names? I guess we owe them for keeping the memory alive, in however twisted a form.

And there are instances of co-opting that make me unashamedly happy. There’s a really nice Mexican lager called Bohemia brewed by cervezeria Motecuzoma Cuauhtemoc in Monterrey which I would never have tried if it weren’t for the portrait of Motecuzoma they use for their logo. I could do without Mel Gibson, but he put native Yucatec Maya speakers in a big-budget film. When I heard Johnny Depp was playing Tonto in an inexplicable remake of The Lone Ranger, I was as annoyed as everybody else until I remembered Dead Man… that long, wordless opening scene, a bespectacled, comically pale-faced young Depp staring out the window of the train at the landscape of the West as the grim faces of passengers shift and fade around him, visions of his own death in the wilderness pass before his eyes, and that brutal Neil Young noise riff gnashes over all. Just thinking about it makes me want to go watch that movie right now….ahh, but I have shit to do. Anyhow–however trumped up Depp’s one-sixteenth Cherokee blood, I give him credit for caring about Native American culture, to the point that I’ll probably see The Lone Ranger.

And so on and so forth, with mixed feelings of reverence and liberal guilt. I am not really supposed to talk about it, being as how I am a white male.

Which brings me to the point of this. I have co-opted Native American culture. Part one of my novella “Death and the Thunderbird”, featuring those lovable, culture-raping centaurs; a locomotive powered by sorcery; and yes, a thunderbird, is live today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97, opposite the excellent Tina Connolly. I labored long and hard over it and am proud. If you’re a fan of the centaurs, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I doubt it will win any awards for cultural sensitivity despite my best intentions. By way of beginning to atone for this, I share below a brief bibliography of American culture-rape. As usual, I would almost rather you read the source material than my story. But read the story too, if you have time.

Ok. Must stop myself. Enjoy! Be edified.

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Only tenuously related to the Yes album of the same name, widely considered the most navel-gazingly pretentious prog rock album ever recorded. (No, I will not attempt to relate the Shastric scriptures to Mayan prophecy. Maybe another time.) The Roger Dean cover, however, is awesome:

See the Castillo over there on the horizon above the Nazca monkey?

The other week I was back in Yucatan. It’s been six years. Not much has changed. A lone wind turbine has sprouted over Quintana Roo Highway 308 south of Cancún, and a dozen new all-inclusive resorts have elbowed out another few hundred thousand acres of coastal swamp, though you’d hardly know it from the road except for the twenty-foot white concrete faux-Mayan monoliths marking the entrances surrounded by landscaped agave and coconut palm. The real ruins are all still there, the big ones a little more harried maybe what with the approaching end of the world, the less impressive sharing the sun-baked empty stretches between hotels with more recent ruins, failed tourist traps abandoned a year or a decade ago, their pale dirt parking lots filling with trash like alluvial silt from the underground rivers.

The coastal reef, second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t recovered–it’s still all bleached and apocalyptic, like the ash-caked girders of a collapsed skyscraper a hundred miles long, an aqua-tinted desert broken only by occasional tiny, mind-blowingly colorful fish flitting in and out of gray-blue darknesses. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Still, the apocalypse feels just as far away (and just as close) as anywhere else I’ve been. Even Detroit. Even though the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so low-lying and flat it will likely be underwater as soon as Micronesia and Manhattan, and it’ll look even more like the Yes cover than it already does.

By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a recently discovered Mayan mural at the Xultún site in northern Guatemala includes explicit references to dates after December 21, 2012. So the world isn’t ending. Which means we’re going to have to live with what we do to it.

But I’m not here to preach about the end. I’ve done that enough. I’m here to share a bit of the beauty before it’s gone.

These are not the pictures I would have taken of Tulum in 2006. Maybe the difference says something about the person I’ve become in the years between. Because the place hasn’t changed. Salt wind and time have done what they can, at least for now. And all of Antarctica would have to melt before the Gulf will make it up those cliffs. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why they built it here.

One of three offeratory altars on the cliff below the Templo del Viento–not unlike another shrine I found years ago, ten miles to the north. The coastal Maya had a lot to thank the sea god for, not least the reef, which made a natural breakwater for hundreds of miles along the shore, allowing easy trade between cities.

Masked face, Templo de las Pinturas, southwest corner. One of the last Mayan structures built before the conquest and the best preserved at Tulum. This is the building with the seven-fingered red handprints I so lamented not having photographed last time. But you’ve seen those.

I’d love to know who this mask depicts—Itzamna? Don’t have the research at hand, unfortunately.

East face of the Castillo, the large central pyramid, the side that faces the cliffs. The architectural style at Tulum is unique…of course that’s true of every Maya site, and Tulum benefited from trade with both the Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Toltec-influenced Maya of Chíchen Itzá…but the skewed lines of the temples here are different from either. There are no right angles anywhere, hardly even any straight lines. It’s like something out of…Dr. Seuss, crossed with Lovecraft. It’s awesome. The first time I was here I didn’t appreciate it—after the mathematical, acoustical perfection of the Castillo at Chíchen Itzá, it seemed sloppy, a sign of a civilization in decline. This time, after gawking at those beautiful masks for awhile, then at the Templo del Dios Descendente,
I realized it could be something else: a sign of a civilization passing its peak, developing into decadence, developing a higher (wierder) aesthetics. This curve…it echoes the sea, obviously. All of Tulum is about the sea, really: the location atop the cliffs like a lighthouse, the protected beach below, the temples to the morning star. The sea was their livelihood, their garden, their connection to the outside world.

The curve of the Castillo wall distills that to one calligraphic gesture, a sweep of a brush.

God I Hope the End Is Near

How many jokes/invocations/questionably ironic references/panicked remonstrances will I hear this year about the coming end of the world? When they’re talking about it on The View and the Nightly News with Brian Williams, it’s time to give up counting. How much more mainstream can a nutso newage conspiracy theory get? Consider Y2K. That apocalypse was about Jesus and Revelations; its poor conclusions and minimal research were drawn from the mythology of (one of) the world’s most popular religion(s). This apocalypse is about obscure blood-drinking deities last best personified by Hernán Cortés and a religion legitimately practiced by far less than 0.01% of humanity. Yet already the 2012 hype seems to have far outstripped the 2000 hype. Blame the internet, I guess. It was a far tamer place 12 years ago than it is now, that’s for sure. For the title of last bastion for shamanistic folkloric mythmaking on earth, the competition is hot between the internet and one tiny uncontacted village in the Amazon.

I’ve already done all the debunking of the Mayan apocalypse I’m going to do on this blog, at great length and with much windbaggery, in posts such as Circular Time and No Apocalypse. I also have a little sidebar essay about it (as applied fancifully to the plight of the working writer) in A Working Writer’s Daily Planner 2012, available from Small Beer Press in print-on-demand and ebook form.

Instead I want to talk about how great it would be if there actually was an apocalypse.

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Loving (A Setting) Too Much


Dancing rain god figure, Altar O, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

The first days of my second trip to Guatemala, everything felt weirdly comfortable, familiar. The sight of the one-legged guy nimbly navigating the steep steps of a chicken bus to ply his scarred palm and sad story no longer blows my mind. Likewise the spiderweb cracks cris-crossing the impenetrable blackness of every car windshield in the city. I have learned the appropriate words to apologize politely for being two feet taller than everybody else on the bus and my backpack clumsily wonking them all in the face. The dudes with tin shotguns on street corners and in tienda doorways no longer fill me with fear. In fact they almost make me feel safer—which may even be their actual purpose.

All of which was satisfying in a way. I felt less helpless, better able to actively participate in my surroundings. But I started to worry I was just on vacation here—that if I wanted the intensity and awe and revelation of my previous experience, I should have traveled someplace else.

I’m always looking for new setting details—unique tidbits of color or scent, idiosyncracies of human interaction that will make an otherwise mundane story leap off the page. I’m also looking for entirely new settings into which I can expand my spotty experience, the range of subjects and places about which I can “write what I know”. This isn’t the only reason I travel, but when I do travel, there’s a strong chance it’s what I’m doing at any given moment: soaking it all up like a sponge. I talked about this once before, including some caveats, in Expatriates and Homebodies.

There’s a danger, though, that I’ve run into repeatedly: falling too hard for a particular setting, loving it so much that it starts to feel wrong, disrespectful, to try to assimilate it into my fiction. I’m afraid to take liberties for fear of screwing up the truth that made me love it so much in the first place. This has happened to me most often and most painfully with respect to precolombian cultures. The Anasazi (more accurately the ancestral Hopi) have had a strong influence on my wild west centaurs setting, but all the stuff that actually includes them is in a trunk never to see the light of day. The Aztecs (more accurately the Mixtecs) I am afraid to even touch. With the Maya, it’s even worse. In the past I have been unable to stop myself writing slavish, Castaneda-influenced historical fiction about how the Mayans possess the spiritual Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything and we white people with all our rationalism don’t have the ghost of a hope. Which I loved, and even managed to sell, but which now fills me with uncomfortable embarrassment. I have endlessly blogged about them. And very recently, tenatively, I’ve been thinking about how I might dip my toe back into writing about them—though in a very different way than before.

I owe this new approach to this second visit to Guatemala.

That initial, superficial sense of familiarity never went away. But it was very quickly superseded by a whole new set of questions. I saw gradations, depth, in what had seemed uniform, and when I looked a little closer, I saw even more. I found myself thinking more and more about individuals—about character. What’s the difference, in terms of circumstance, upbringing, past experience, between the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks in circles to confuse them then tries to charge triple, the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks past his mom’s house to show them off to his nieces and nephews, asks the minimum fare without even haggling, and comes back to get them at a scheduled time at no extra charge, and the tuktuk driver who butters them up with disingenuous chatter, then veers into a blind alley and pulls a gun? (A tuktuk is a three-wheeled golf cart shaped like a giant red egg, powered by a lawnmower engine and blazoned with Jesus slogans, used as a car-for-hire for local transportation.) How do the Catholics and the Protestants get along with the Mayan traditionalists? How do the Mayan traditionalists get along with a more secular, idealistic younger generation? How does Guatemala look to somebody who moves to South Dakota to start a family, then has to come back and spend years away from them trying to secure a visa? And how does any of it develop into an integrated, educated, well-informed indigenous population, still in possession of its cultural identity, yet capable of joining forces to foster positive change, say, to effect a representative government under an indigenous president, like in Bolivia, or take advantage of digital media to foster political change, like in Egypt and Morocco?

The picture I have isn’t full enough, not nearly. I need to go back again, and again after that.

And the answer I have come upon for how to write fiction about a place and a culture I love too much to disrespect? Complexity.

Writing fiction about anything is an exercise in simplification. Words are never enough to encompass anything, the confines of narrative, of storytelling, even less so. The only way to honest about it, with yourself and with your readers, is to admit you don’t have the answers, and to try, to the best of your ability, to demonstrate why. I think the fiction that best succeeds at this (no coincidence, the kind of fiction I love most), is the kind that leaves things open. Borges, Asturias.


A king in the jaws of a jaguar-crocodile, North face of Zoomorph P, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala