Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of Signal to Noise, named one of the best books of the year by BookRiot, Tor.com, BuzzFeed, io9, and other publications; Certain Dark Things, one of NPR’s best books of the year, a Publishers Weekly top ten, and a VOYA “Perfect Ten”; the fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones; and the science fiction novella Prime Meridian. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (aka Cthulhu’s Daughters). She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In Gods of Jade and Shadow, young Casiopea Tun embarks on a journey to help Hun-Kamé, spirit of the Maya god of death, recover his throne from his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, in Xibalba, the Maya underworld. Tell us how the premise came together for you.
A long time ago, maybe ten years ago or so, I had an idea about a woman who opens a chest and out of it jumps a skeleton that assembles itself. I figured it would be a quest story but I was thinking contemporary. It didn’t gel. I dropped it.
Years later, I was working on something else, set in the 1920s. That didn’t gel either. Which, really, is not uncommon. I have a lot of half-finished things and false starts. But when I looked at the 1920s notes and the work I’d done, even though it was garbage, the time period was right. My great-grandmother had been a young woman in the 1920s, and I realized that what the story needed was to be set in the Jazz Age.
What drew you to the Jazz Age?
This is the post-revolutionary period, and Mexico is embarking on a nation-building project. So there’s a whole country trying to figure out what it is, forging an identity—with values clashing as a result of this—and here you have a protagonist who is doing the same.
What kind of research went into bringing Mexican folklore to life during the 1920s? And what were some of the historical details you wanted to make sure you included in the story?
To me, that feels like asking at what point of your fetal development did you sprout toes. I can’t tell you. I sprouted them; that’s all. So what kind of research did I do? A lot. There’s not one specific detail I can point to that I desperately wanted to include. I did enjoy looking at all the Mayan Revival architecture of the time. There are many gorgeous buildings of that era.
Jade is a recurring image throughout the novel. It’s in the title. We see it inlaid in boxes, in necklaces. You even describe Hun-Kamé’s voice as young and jade-green. What significance and symbolism does jade have in Mexican folklore?
While European nations valued diamonds and gold as precious objects, the ancient Mayan had a great interest in jade. It’s found in many tombs. It was used ceremonially and was worn by nobles, and aside from looking pretty, it was associated with the afterlife. Some corpses even had a jade bead placed in the mouth. Green is life, the color of plants, and life is tied to death.
Reading through the glossary at the end of the book, I did a double take where you point out that the book, while it weaves elements of Mexican folklore into the story, is not an anthropological text. I mean, that should be obvious, right? We’re reading a novel here. It’s as if you had to write, “Spoiler alert: this is a work of fiction.”
I was talking to Rebecca Roanhorse online and we discussed about how this can be a problem. For example, some people seriously think that the magic in books by people of color is “real” magic in a way they don’t think Harry Potter has “real” magic.
If you are an American or a Brit reading a modern novel about King Arthur, and you’ve never read all the stories about King Arthur, you still have some cultural knowledge about him. You know that, for example, if King Arthur suddenly transforms into a dragon and roasts his enemies to death, that is a big divergence from the original tales. But if you’re dealing with unfamiliar folklore or myths—and this is likely an unfamiliar culture to most English-language readers—you don’t know the point of divergence. The most important thing is I don’t want people to think, “Ah, this is fact. It is the one and only take on Pre-Hispanic culture, and if anyone does something different, it’s inauthentic!” Because that’s not the case.
Let’s talk about your protagonist. I love the fact that Casiopea tells Hun-Kamé that he didn’t rescue her. She says, “I wasn’t a princess in a tower. I knew I’d get away one way or another, and I was not waiting for a god to liberate me. That would have been both silly and unlikely.” Although she’s with him, she’s in control of her story. How did you come up with her character?
My great-grandmother was a maid from the countryside. When she was around Casiopea’s age, in the 1920s, she went to live and work in Mexico City. She was illiterate. She had an illegitimate daughter, and to support her, she spent years cleaning houses until she married the man who became my grandmother’s stepfather. At that point she stopped working, becoming a housewife. When he passed away, my great-grandmother went to live with her daughter and kept on cleaning and cooking for the family. Eventually, she went to live with my mother and my great-grandmother helped raise me.
I don’t think many people realize what it’s like to be a maid, what it’s like to be poor, and to literally have zero opportunities in life. My great-grandmother was always depending on family taking her in. When she was depressed, she referred to herself as an “arrimada,” which is hard to translate but it’s almost like saying a parasite. She thought she was nothing, a parasite.
My great-grandmother’s favorite movie character was La India María, who was this comedic maid character. Because she was a bit like her, you see? She was a maid, she was humble, and she got to have zany adventures.
So I wrote a character who she could identify with and who she would have liked.
Her mortal/immortal dynamic with Hun-Kamé adds great tension to their chemistry. They make a charming pair in what could also be read as a travelogue or road novel. Tell us a little about your approach to developing their relationship.
I was looking at pictures and snippets of movies of silent film stars, especially Ramón Novarro, and the one thing you quickly realize is that the poses are always very dramatic: the way they hold their head, the way they open their eyes, everything. So I thought Hun-Kamé would be a bit like an old film star. Everything would be very dramatic with him and with his twin brother. And also a bit unreal and unnatural, because actors don’t look naturalistic in those films.
And if you are curious about what the Lord of Xibalba is supposed to look like, there’s a dancer and model called Fredrik Quiñones whose photos I looked at while writing this (bit.ly/31Z9HE6). I think he looks a bit like that.
Anyway, their relationship is like a reel in a silent black and white film. They’re dancing with each other, there’s no dialogue—it’s just the music and the movement. It’s supposed to be something beautiful. It’s the choreography of first love and, yes, it’s a bit like a fairy tale, the meeting with the handsome prince.
As powerful as Hun-Kamé is, I was surprised to read that “fate is more powerful than gods.” Why is that? I was under the impression that, in fairy tales and myths, gods were in control of fate.
No, they’re not necessarily. You see it in many old myths. If you want to go the Greek route, Cronos tries to eat all his children so they won’t dethrone him, but he’s dethroned by his son anyway. The Lords of Xibalba decapitate the Hero Twins, but they are avenged by their sons. Gods and supernatural creatures are powerful, but they always have their limits.
There’s meta-commentary about fairy tales and folktales that comes up several times in the novel. During her journey, Casiopea muses on how these stories should and should not go. It’s almost like she’s aware she’s in a story. I was wondering if this has anything to do with the fact that you wanted the feeling of telling in your novel. Because you mentioned on Twitter that your great-grandmother told you stories and that the Popol Vuh, which inspired some of the mythology in the novel, is also a spoken story.
Yeah, it’s important for the book to have a feeling of telling. Telling is a component of many cultures and it’s certainly present in many classics of Latin American literature. Modern American literature doesn’t seem to value telling as much as it once did or as much as other cultures still do. It’s seen as a sign of gracelessness. But of course, folklore is spoken, and there are benefits of telling rather than showing. I wanted that feeling of something that is somehow being spoken, being constructed, even as it happens. The snippet of the audio version I listened to was very good, by the way. It captures the intent. In the end, if Casiopea has one super power, it’s that she simply is aware she is on a hero’s journey because she listened to stories.
And what upcoming stories of yours are on the horizon?
My next novel with Del Rey is called Mexican Gothic and that should be out sometime in 2020. It’s another historical novel and it’s exactly what the title says. Next year should also see the publication of my first non-speculative novel, a noir coming out through Polis/Agora that’s entitled (at this point, these things sometimes change) Untamed Shore. It’s set in 1970s Baja California in a shark-fishing village.
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