What was the seed for this story?
I had a terrible toothache and didn’t have the money to go to the dentist. I began imagining ways I could barter with a dentist for fixing my tooth and soon, like always, my imagination ran off with the idea.
As I began writing this story, my uncle was dying. My father’s family is from Mexico and sometimes they practice interesting ancestral medicine. One of the treatments for cancer and leprosy involves boiling a vulture, bones and all, down to a thick stew and making the sick person eat it. A tía from Mexico somehow caught a vulture, killed it, and fed vulture stew to my dying uncle. I was trying to explain to a bewildered friend the reasoning behind making my dying uncle eat vulture: In the wild, vultures eat what is dead and decaying, therefore by ingesting vulture medicine, it will eat the death within the sick person. In my head, I anthropomorphized the vulture into a person and El Buitre was born, a dentist who extracts decay and death from living bodies. Sadly, the vulture did not save my uncle and he joined our ancestors. I did end up bartering with a dentist to fix my tooth. I painted his front gate and let him read an early draft of this story.
I loved the plumber lords and everything that said about the social structure and post-apocalyptic survival. How did you build out the world and the characters? Did one shape the other?
This world is one I’ve been working in for multiple short stories, one wherein the United States of America collapses because of an inept, racist dictator and his ruinous border wall. Ahem. In this world, Mexico becomes a haven for refugees who are escaping the cruel world ushered in by the collapse. Years ago, I read a book called Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization. The author wrote about how post-nuclear disaster, plumbers would be heroes. That stuck with me, so I made them the lords of the encampments in this piece. I eventually want to write plumbers their own love story one day, as they are essential to our society but not really respected because they deal in so much literal human waste. We should throw them parades; water is life and they bring it forth. I make it a point when I interact with plumbers, to acknowledge how vital they are to the world and how much I respect the work they do. Forget getting an MFA, go apprentice to a plumber; you’ll always have well-paying work and great fodder for your writing. Plumbers know the strangest stories you’ll ever hear.
Sometimes the words bruja-lit or bruja-myth come up in discussions of your work—what is a bruja story? Are there certain textures or feelings that evoke that space, relative to other kinds of magical realism? Have you seen other writers capture that essence?
In my mythic fiction, women come into their ancestral powers, powers that were hidden during the forced erasure of the divine feminine. This not only happened in the post-contact Americas, but in almost every culture where patriarchal monotheism violently swooped in and tried to stomp out the power of women and practices aligned with natural cycles of the living Earth. For me, bruja-lit is one where a woman comes into the powers her ancestors hid away in her DNA. It shows up in intuitions, in Dreaming, in divine coincidence and listening. Tananarive Due explores those powers in The Good House. Her protagonist Angela Toussaint is not only dealing with a broken lineage of her ancestral powers, but the curses borne of that broken lineage. The Dreamoir Bruja by Wendy Ortiz captures that awakening in the chronicling of her dreams. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés really dives into the divine feminine, how to realign with what our bodies and spirits intuitively know but have lost along the way.
El Buitre and Flaquis seem to represent two opposing paradigms of how to treat the environment. What does Fai choose in the end? What did you want readers to take away from this story?
More than the treatment of the environment, El Buitre and Fai represent opposing aspects of how to live in and listen to the natural world. El Buitre comes from a patriarchal culture that collapses because it has taken without replenishing, it dishonored the living Earth and her children. The world El Buitre left had its gifts as well; Fai is able to live because of the skills El Buitre learned in that world. Flaquis is an aspect of the folk saint, La Santa Muerte, divine death. In Death’s eyes, we are all equal, we will all be delivered into her embrace one day. Death is a vital part of creation (and creative) cycles. Fai as fisherwoman has come to live in a world of natural cycles and has fallen in love with Death. El Buitre, in falling in love with Fai, is falling in love with the cycles and voices of the natural, living world. I wanted the reader to come away with a sense of possibility. We live in a world that hates being broken, when the breaking of what we’ve known is a gift to greater possibilities. Live alongside your inevitable death, accept the offered gifts.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I’m finishing the last round of edits on the first book in a YA high fantasy trilogy that takes place in a world informed by pre-contact Mesoamerican mythology and landscapes. The fantasy book I needed when I was growing up, with badass women living in a sacred world that is based on my ancestral homelands. Instead of castles and faerie, I have jungle pyramids and jaguar women, sacred Dreamers, elemental powers that are dying, or being put into hibernation for survival. It’s the same world all my fiction takes place in, the same world as “Mouths,” just a couple thousand years in the past. The book is (currently) called The Lost Dreamer.
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