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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reflections of a Conquistador, Afterward...

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Hey all,

So, you may or may not know that during grad school in anthropology, I had an unusual research assistantship... I deciphered 500-year-old letters and journal entries written by Spanish conquistadores and missionaries about their misadventures in what is now the American Southwest.  After I transcribed their scrawl on the computer, I translated it to English.  

My main impression of these guys was, I must say, pretty bad.  They behaved like drunken, horny, constipated frat boys much of the time (um, sorry to any devoted frat boy readers of mine out there).  And in these guys' more "mature" moments, they elicited a shout of "You gotta be kidding me!" from me.  I'm too lazy to find an exact quote at the moment, but they wrote stuff along the lines of, "We don't understand why these Savages don't want to embrace God's love..."  and a few lines later, "We request permission to increase the Savages' punishment from 50 to 100 lashes for their disobedience."  (Their disobedience included such diabolical atrocities as spiritual healing rituals and dances.)  "Duh!" I'd shout at the ancient texts.  "And you wonder why they don't want to be your best friend?!"

My overall opinion of most of these guys is low, although there were a few I liked, who showed evidence of deep thought, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and a bigger-picture understanding of what was happening.  Here's something that Casteneda wrote in 1565, many years after his participation in an expedition in the Southwest.  The quote's always struck me as so poignant that I have it taped in my writing area.  The "they" that he refers to are the other guys who'd also come back from the expedition years earlier:

"Now, when they understand the situation they were in-- and see that they cannot enjoy it or re-live it-- now, when it is too late, they enjoy telling about what they saw, telling even about what they have lost.... especially those who are now as poor as when they went there.... I say this because I know several who have returned, who amuse themselves now by talking about what it would be like to go back and try to recover what has been lost..... while others try to find the reason why it was discovered at all. -- Casteneda, 1565, Spain

That feels so profound and multi-layered to me, especially that last part.  I mean, we're talking about the conquest of the Americas... and it's just so human that those who participated would wistfully wonder, in their relatively old age, about the significance of the monumental event in their own lives and in the history of the world.  There's this sadness and sense of regret that permeates all those layers, personal and historical...

Anyway, I thought I'd share that with you, since it's a quote I look at almost daily.  And I've been noticing it even more lately since the new book I'm writing has some scenes in pre-Hispanic Mayan times... lately I've been taking out these dusty books I have on ancient Mayan cultures for research.

I won't tell you any more about the book for now... sorry to be mysterious, but it's at such an early stage, still taking form.  I have about a hundred very rough pages written, and I'm LOVING this process.  I'm at the blissful in-love stage, where the story feels exquisitely magical and I'm not ready to share it yet.... 

Thanks for reading!

*And Fort Collins friends, hope to see you at the party with Maria Virginia, coming up soon... Sept 8!  See my events page for details.*


Laura   (P.S.  You might get the idea that this new book is historical fiction, but actually, that's just a tiny piece of it.  It's mostly contemporary, and there's more magical/paranormal/supernatural/fantastical/speculative-fiction (whatever you want to call it) in this book that any of my other books. Okay, that's all for now! Bye!)

*photo credits: wikipedia

Monday, August 15, 2011

Deleted Scenes from THE QUEEN OF WATER...

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Hi dear readers,

Like many writers of my generation (such as fellow Fort Collinite Becca Fitzpatrick), my early impression of creating a novel came from the movie Romancing the Stone.  The first scene of the movie involves Kathleen Turner as a romance novelist, typing THE END on her manuscript and bawling at the catharsis.

If I remember correctly, the next scene is basically her meeting with her editor about the manuscript-- implying that she (Joan Wilder) wrote the book beginning to end with no revising, cutting, adding, trimming.... and then, voila, THE END.

That is SO not my process (although, in all fairness, the "research" phases of my novel-writing have involved such adventures as potentially deadly bus wrecks on winding, muddy, cloud-forest roads in Latin America.)

My process, especially with The Queen of Water, involves writing two or three times as many scenes as actually end up in the novel.  I think we (Maria Virginia Farinango and I) had over 1000 pages written for Queen over the years, which we ruthlessly had to chop chop chop (as if with machetes in the South American jungle....)

I thought you might be interested in seeing but one of the many, many pieces of manuscript that ended up being cut form the final version.  This will be most meaningful to you if you've already read Queen.  It was included in one of the first original chapters of an early draft, beginning when Virginia is still living with her parents.  Note that it's rough, and never got revised or polished much, so the prose isn't anything special.... but it will give you an idea of the kinds of decision-making we had to do-- which parts of her life to keep and which to cut.... not easy!

     . . . There were people who drizzled me with words like cusaco, sweetie, honey:  Uncle Gregorio and Aunt Virginia.  Every time we visited, Uncle Gregorio would sit me on his lap and feed me cheese.  “Here, cusaco, especially for you.”  And Aunt Virginia always gave me foam on the milk, the best piece of meat, a bowl of shiny blackberries. 
     Uncle Gregorio and Aunt Virginia couldn’t have children of their own.  They had love inside them and no children to give it to, so they gave it to me.  Of all the nieces and nephews, they chose me.  Even though their house was smaller and poorer than ours—just one tiny room of earth and straw-- and even though it was higher in the mountains where cold winds blew, their house had a warm, peaceful feeling.  I always felt filled up when I visited, my belly full of good food, my heart full of love. 
     Uncle Gregorio didn’t have his own crops like my family did, just some onion patches near the house.  He’d owned fields before, but the mestizos tricked him with their papers and took away his land.  So he traveled to the hot coast and worked at sugar cane plantations for months at a time, and he always brought back the sugar sap for me to drink, because I was his favorite.
     I remembered one time when he’d brought a drink called guarapo.  The grownups had  all been drinking it, and although no one had offered it to me, I’d poured some in my cup.  It was sweet and strong and made my mouth tingle all the way down my throat to my chest.  Delicious, I thought, just like honey, and I drank the whole cup.
     I felt glowing and happy at first, and then, suddenly dizzy, and the world began to spin.  Next thing I knew, I’d fallen over, my face splat onto the dirt floor.
     The grownups stopped talking and stared. 
     Uncle Gregorio looked puzzled for a moment and then a smile came over his face.  “Virinia, cusaco, did you drink this guarapo?
     I pushed myself up and wobbled my head.
     “You drank this?  Why, you’re drunk, cusaco, aren’t you!”  And he laughed, and then all the grownups laughed and I laughed too, because it seemed very, very funny.  Uncle Gregorio had me drink two cups of water, and then he put me on his lap and patted my back and said, “You’re my treasure, Virginia.”  And I felt like a treasure, shiny as gold.
     So the night after Mamita told me she’d be happy if I left forever, I decided to leave forever.  I would run away to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio, people who wanted me.  As I drifted off, Mamita’s hurtful words faded a little, and instead, I heard, my daughter, she can do it. 
     I can do it, I said to myself.  I can leave forever.
     Early the next morning, when the first rooster crowed, I got up and prepared for my journey.  In the blue light of dawn, I wrapped my other anaco and blouse in a scrap of fabric, and headed to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio’s house.  I remembered the road because it was the route to fields we sometimes worked, high in the mountains.  I walked for a long time as the sun rose and started making its arc across the sky.  Whenever I heard the rumble of a car, my stomach jumped and I hid in bushes at the roadside until it passed in a cloud of dust.  I didn’t want anyone stealing me.  I’d heard that sometimes people did that, mishos  They stole children. 
     The farther into the mountains I walked, the fewer houses I passed.  Quinoa fields replaced cornfields; in these parts, it was too cold for corn to grow.  The wind grew stronger, tearing at my clothes and burning my eyes.  I stayed warm enough, though, because the uphill walking made my heart beat fast and my blood rush.  Once the sun moved to the top of the sky and started sinking toward the mountains, I started feeling very hungry and wondered if I’d get there before dark.  I picked up my pace and sang my favorite song, The Little Radish, over and over again.  Finally, late in the afternoon, I rounded the curve and there was Aunt Virginia’s and Uncle Gregorio’s hut. 
     I walked inside and stood there as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
     “Virginia!” my aunt cried.  “Cusaco!  What are you doing here?  Who did you come with?”
     Slowly her figure came into focus.  She was crouched by the cooking fire, a half-peeled potato in one hand, and a knife in the other.  Her eyes were wide circles of surprise.
     “No one,” I said.  “I came alone.”
     “My mother told me to leave the house.” And here my voice started wavering and the tears leaked out.  “She said they didn’t want me anymore.”
     “What!”  Aunt Virginia’s face turned red as a radish.  “Your mother’s lucky to have a little girl like you.  She should love you and care for you.”
     I sniffed and wiped my nose with the back of my hand.
     “Come here, cusaco.  Sit down and drink some milk.” 
     I knelt by the cooking fire, on the woven mat.  Aunt Virginia ladled me a cup of milk with plenty of foam on top.  I gulped it down in one long swig and she ladled another cup.  After the soup was ready-- potato and cheese—she served me the biggest potatoes and watched me eat.  The milk and cheese came straight from their cows, and it was delicious and silky-creamy.   
     Soon Uncle Gregorio came home, and when he saw me, his mouth dropped open.  “Virginia, cusaco, what are you doing here?”
     I started crying all over again when I told him Mamita’s words.
     He patted my shoulder.  “Cusaco, your parents are probably worried and looking for you.”
     “No, they aren’t,” I hiccupped between sobs.  “They don’t want me.”
     Uncle Gregorio looked at Aunt Virginia.  Her lip quivered like water about to boil.
     Then Uncle Gregorio put me on his lap and said, “All right, cusaco, you can stay with us.”

     Every day, I worked in the potato fields with Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio.  I ate lots of cheese and drank lots of milk topped with foam.  No one insulted me or yelled at me or called me a brat.  I did not miss Mamita or Papito.  In the evenings, when it was cold and my feet felt chilled and numb, Uncle Gregorio held my feet in his rough hands until my feet warmed up.  When he asked me if my feet felt warm yet, I said, “Not yet, Uncle,” because I wanted his hands to stay wrapped around my feet.
     One day, as Uncle Gregorio and I were pulling weeds in the potato field, the owner of the field, a mestizo, swaggered up to us, in that special way mestizos swagger, as though they own everything, not only the land beneath their feet, but the people on the land, too.  He lived in a big white hacienda nearby, and he often stopped by and spoke to me.  “You’re a smart little girl,” he would tell me, and ask me some questions, and I would answer, and he would chuckle, and then continue on his way. 
     But this day, after he told me I was smart, he turned to my uncle and said, “Could you give her to me?”
     My skin grew cold with sudden fear.  No! I screamed inside.  Don’t give me to that misho!  If I went with the misho, I might disappear.  And I didn’t want to disappear, especially now that I was with people who loved me and called me cusaco.  I looked to Uncle Gregorio and held my breath.
    Uncle Gregorio smiled and shook his head.  “Sorry, Patroncito, but Virginia is our treasure.”
    That evening by the light of the kerosene lamp, I said, “Uncle Gregorio, I’m glad you didn’t give me away to that misho.”
      Uncle Gregorio set me on his lap and said, in a soft voice, “Oh, Virginia, cusaco, how could you think I’d give you away?  You’re going to stay with us.”  His voice trembled.  “You’re our daughter now.”
     One day, after weeks of bliss, I was outside playing, when I saw Mamita walking up the path toward the house.  Fear split my insides like a machete through wood.  I ran inside the house and hid, curled up in the corner by the guinea pigs.  Soon I heard Mamita’s voice, just outside, talking with Aunt Virginia, who was feeding the chickens.  I prayed Aunt Virginia would tell Mamita that I was her daughter now and send Mamita away.  But no, they were talking and laughing.  I stayed quiet, wishing I could melt into the shadows, or maybe turn into a guinea pig until Mamita left.
     Aunt Virginia came in the house, and Mamita followed.  My muscles clenched.
     Mamita spoke to me in a flat voice.  “Why did you leave without telling us?”
     I didn’t answer.
     “You’re a disobedient brat who does whatever she wants.”
     Aunt Virginia said, “If she gives you so much trouble, why not let us keep her?  You know how much we want a child.”
     Mamita laughed. “Sure,  I’d love you to take her off my hands.  You’d be doing me a favor.”
     “I’m serious.  We love her.”  Aunt Virginia’s eyes shone like deep mountain lakes.  “Virginia’s smart and obedient and we’ll treat her as our daughter.”
     Something washed over Mamita’s face, the understanding that my aunt really wanted to keep me.  Mamita’s smile straightened into a thin, hard line.  “How could you think I’d give up my daughter?  There’s enough food in our house for all my children.  How could I give her up?  She’s my daughter.”
     And at that moment you could almost believe that my mother really truly wanted me.
     Aunt Virginia was quiet for a moment, and then she said in nearly a whisper, “You have other children, and I’ve noticed you don’t treat Virginia as well as them.”
     Mamita turned her face away so all I could see was the whites of her eyes.  She was angry.
     “Sister-in-law,” Aunt Virginia said.  “God hasn’t given us children.  Do you know how much…”  Her face seemed to crack open like an egg.  “Please.”  Tears filled her eyes.  “We’ll bring Virginia to visit you often.”
     Mamita spoke to me.  “We’re leaving.  Let’s go, Virginia.”
     In a kind of daze, I wrapped my extra anaco and blouse in my scrap of fabric and said goodbye to Aunt Virginia.  She dropped to her knees on the floor and watched me follow Mamita out of the house.  On the long walk back, I tried not to cry.  I tried to tell myself it was better this way, because after all, I had missed my brother and sister a little.  And Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio were very poor and it might have been hard for them to feed an extra mouth.  And I did eat a lot.  Their cow could barely keep up with all the milk and cheese I devoured.
     My time with Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio gave me a dose of love that would help me through the months and years that followed.  Not long after I left, Aunt Virginia and Uncle Gregorio would adopt a little girl, Josefina, who reminded them of me.  Josefina would marry at age fourteen, like most girls in their village, and start having babies a year later.  Her husband would beat her ruthlessly, and when she couldn’t bear it any longer, she would abandon him and her children.  Would that have been my fate if I’d stayed?
     Sometimes I wonder if that small life with my aunt and uncle was simply not my destiny.  I wonder if the bad things that blocked my path forced me to find another path—a path that would lead to a better place around the bend.  A path that was rocky and steep, but lined with hidden berries and cool springs and treasures waiting to be discovered. 
     A path that allowed me to choose which words to listen to.  My daughter, she can do it.  Yes, I can do it.  Yes, anything is possible if I want it enough.  These were the words I would stubbornly choose.  These were the words that would save me.

Hi-- me again!  Hope that was interesting for you.  I was attached to that chapter because my husband and I were unable to have a baby, and I could really empathize with Virginia's aunt and uncle, who longed for a child so desperately, but were unable to have one.... and meanwhile, they had to see this girl they loved being abused and neglected so terribly... really tragic.  But ultimately, we decided to cut this scene because it didn't really give much new information about the dynamic of Virginia's immediate family, it introduced characters who would never come back into the story, and it didn't make the story feel more urgent.  

In early drafts, there were several chapters (maybe a hundred pages or so) that occurred before Virginia even left her village to leave with the mestizos.  We felt there wasn't enough narrative tension in these chapters to draw readers in.... so we condensed many of these chapters to very short flashbacks and incorporated them as memories woven into the action after Virginia goes to live with the mestizos.

Enough for now-- this post is long enough! Thanks for reading....


Monday, August 8, 2011

Interview with Maria Virginia-- the Queen of Water (20 years later)!

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Maria Virginia Farinango (aka the Queen of Water)

 Hello dear readers!

You may not realize that I sneakily add stuff to my website all the time... sometime it's buried deep in pages within pages... and getting to it is kind of like spelunking.  Here's one such item:  an interview with Maria Virginia Farinango, my good friend and co-author of The Queen of Water.

How has Ecuadorian society changed since your childhood?

MV: There have been many positive changes. Today in Ecuador, in general, indigenous people are able to get an education. Otavaleno (Quichua) indigenous people have become more famous in the world. Through playing music and selling crafts, they have become very successful, financially speaking. There are even indigenous doctors and lawyers now, too. There are still some indigenous girl servants, but far fewer, and they are paid better and treated better now. They are considered more human.

Maria's husband, Tino (in checked shirt)-- amazing musician.  In their front yard.

What changes still need to be made in Ecuadorian society?

MV: There should be better educational opportunities and a wider, more open-minded perspective. I'm able to get a different perspective during my travels in Colorado. Sometimes, when I meet people who learn that I'm indigenous, they say something like, "Me too, I'm indigenous! My great-great grandmother was Native American!" I see that they greatly value being indigenous. Through education and travel, we open our minds and learn to value other people, especially indigenous people.

 Maria Virginia and her Colorado friends

What messages do you hope people will take from your story?

MV: The idea that you have your life or situation because you decided to be there-- you can decide: Today is a new day, yesterday has passed. Today I'll begin anew. God gave us the power to choose, good or bad, and to overcome obstacles.

What happened after the story ends?

MV: I became involved in social and academic activities, and community development work in my village. I won more competitions similar to the Queen competition in the book, and I was voted class president. I also competed in running events, and did public speaking on topics like education. I dabbled in TV and radio programs, too. Then I got married to my husband Tino, who is also indigenous-- he's an Andean musician. I began college, then had a baby and devoted time to my family and craft shows. Now, after the long break, I'm completing my degree in psychology.

Maria Virginia  at her high school graduation

 Tell us about your life now, 20 years after the book ends.

MV: I feel very happy! I have a wonderful life. Although I don't have many material possessions, I have the love of my husband, my child, and God. We have a good relationship, which is a treasure to me. I love traveling and learning. I'm grateful that I've had many successes in my life. I live in Otavalo now, where I study and work, and I try to come to Colorado every fall. (NOTE: YOU CAN MEET MARIA THIS SEPTEMBER 2011 IN FT COLLINS AND LOVELAND.  SEE HERE FOR DETAILS!)

Maria and her husband Tino (checked shirt)  dancing at a party in their yard in Otavalo

Tell us about your experiences being a mother. How did your childhood experiences affect your relationship with your son and husband?

MV: Being a mother and wife is wonderful. I feel I can say thank you after all the difficult things I've experienced that make me appreciate my life now. I was unhappy during the hard times, but that was how I learned to appreciate what I have now.

feeding chickens with her son at his paternal grandparents' house

You can read the rest of the interview here!

Thanks for reading!  I hope that you northern Colorado folks can come meet Maria in person this fall!!