Author Tags: Fiction, Haida Gwaii
Amanda Hale received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Concordia University in 1976. She worked in theatre and visual arts in Toronto during the 1980s. Her first novel, Sounding the Blood, is about a whaling station at Rose Harbour in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1915. Including a distraught wife and an opium addict, it's the story of five people living on the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was optioned for a feature film and included on some reading lists for Canlit courses.
In her novel The Reddening Path (Thistledown, 2007), Pamela, a Guatemalan adoptee raised in Toronto, returns to Guatemala to search for her Mayan birth mother. The Spanish conquest weaves throughout the narrative, colouring the lives of everyone Pamela encounters in her birthland. In particular, Hale re-imagines the love affair between the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes and his translator, Malinche, a woman often unfairly maligned as a traitor to her people. Christened Marina by the Spaniards, she learned Spanish, became his mistress and bore him a son. To this day, the derogatory word malinchista is applied to a Mexican who apes the language and customs of another country, but Hale re-examines Malinche's bi-culturalism as a distant mirror for the complex bi-cultural path that Pamela is required to walk.
Described as both scientific and spiritual, Amanda Hale's My Sweet Curiosity (Thistledown $19.95) is another bold, cross-continental attempt from the Hornby Islander to connect individuals from different centuries. Hale combines the life and times of 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius with the amniotic memories of University of Toronto medical student Natalya Kulikovsky. In this brave novel that is literally about soul-searching, Kulikovsky simultaneously falls in love with a talented cellist named Dai Ling Xiang. The modern-day protagonist was born only after her mother had five miscarriages and was diagnosed with a hostile womb. Kulikovsky was flushed from the womb three days after fertilization and plopped into a test tube. 978-1-897235-61-4
CITY/TOWN: Hornby Island, BC
DATE OF BIRTH: August 9/44
PLACE OF BIRTH: England
ARRIVAL IN CANADA: 1968
ARRIVAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: 1989
EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Visual Artist, Teacher
AWARDS: Finalist in BC Relit Awards, Top Ten for 2001 - NOW Magazine, Toronto
Sounding the Blood (Raincoast Books, 2001)
The Reddening Path (Thistledown, 2007)
My Sweet Curioristy (Thistledown Press, 2009)
In the Embrace of the Alligator (Thistledown Press, 2011)
[Gayelle Johnson photo, 2001]
[BCBW 2011] "Fiction" "QCI" "Cuba"
The Reddening Path
Publisher's Promo (2007)
The Reddening Path is the story of Paméla’s journey home. Adopted as an infant by Hannah & Fern, a Toronto lesbian couple, 21 year old Paméla returns to her native Guatemala to search for her birth mother. Her quest turns into a multi-layered journey and uncovers a tangle of political and romantic intrigue as Paméla, a student of Latin American history, discovers her Mayan heritage and learns about the complexities of life in Guatemala. The history of the Spanish conquest weaves throughout the narrative, coloring the lives of everyone she encounters in her birth land; Guadalupe and María-Teresa, the nuns who help her; Ernesto, the General, and Fabiana, his mistress; Chavela, a weaver, and Antonio, her wounded husband, home after twenty years as refugees. The love affair between Hernando Cortés and his translator, Malinche, parents of the first significant mestizo, Martin Cortés, becomes a poignant counterpoint to the bond between Fabiana and the General, whose army was responsible for the destruction of her village. In going home Paméla discovers the spiritual and emotional complexities facing those of mixed blood as she reaches back to the first imprinting of European culture and Catholicism on the indigenous life of Meso-America. And their daughter’s questing forever changes her mothers
The Reddening Path (Thistledown $18.95)
The Spanish conquest of the New World casts shadows on the lives of all the contemporary characters in Amanda Hale’s The Reddening Path (Thistledown, $18.95), the story of a Guatemalan adoptee, raised in Toronto, who returns to Guatemala to search for her Mayan birth mother.
In particular, Hale has re-imagined the love affair between the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortéz and his indigenous translator and concubine, Malinche. Although she has been working on her novel for years, Hale was beaten to the punch—in Spanish—with the release of a novel called Malinche by Laura Esquivel, the Mexican author of Like Water for Chocolate.
The resourceful Malinche learned Spanish, became Cortéz’s mistress, enabled him to overcome Montezuma and bore him a son named Martin. To this day, the derogatory word malinchista is used by Mexicans to describe someone who unduly apes the language and customs of another country.
Simultaneously Isabel Allende has released a similar novel, Inés of My Soul, to appreciatively recall the life of a Spanish seamstress who became the lover of conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. After helping him slaughter the indigenous tribes of Chile and Peru, she founded the city of Santiago, built hospitals and fed the poor.
There’s got to be a Penelope Cruz movie in here somewhere…
To appreciate the life story of Malinche, it’s necessary to revisit the year 1511 when Diego Velázquez was sent from Hispaniola to conquer and explore Cuba. He brought along an ambitious young secretary, Hernan Cortéz, who became the first mayor of Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island.
Charming and well-educated, Cortéz was also untrustworthy. At age 34, having jilted a Spanish noblewoman and upset Governor Velázquez, he hurriedly sailed from eastern Cuba for the Mexican mainland in 1519, eager for riches. With 508 soldiers, plus about 100 sailors, Cortéz easily overcame some coastal Indians at Tabasco. They had never seen horses before and initially thought a man on a horse was a single beast.
A truce was arranged on March 27, 1519. Defeated chiefs in the Tabasco area brought Cortéz gold, food and 20 female slaves. Among these ‘cooks’ was a 16-year-old woman who spoke the local dialect, as well as the Nahuatl language of the much-despised Aztecs who occupied the interior of Mexico. Evidently high-born by virtue of her intelligence and bearing, she was christened Doña Marina.
It wouldn’t do to have sex with an infidel.
Cortéz initially gave this unusual woman to his close friend, Alonzo Hernández Puertocarrero, but when it soon became apparent Marina could be extremely useful for his expedition—and she was beautiful in the bargain—Cortéz conveniently sent Puertocarrero to deliver an update on his success to King Carlos V in Spain, thereby making it easy for him to keep Marina for his own purposes.
Also in Cortéz’s entourage was a previously shipwrecked Spanish priest named Aguilar who could translate between Spanish and the local dialect.
With the help of the Spanish priest, Marina’s background became clear. She was the daughter of a Nahuatal nobleman or cacique, meaning chieftain. She had been sold into slavery by her mother after her father’s death. Marina’s mother had wanted to ensure her son from a second marriage would gain ascendancy.
A foot soldier with Cortéz, Bernal Díaz, described Marina as “good looking and intelligent and without embarrassment.”
She was “a cacica with towns and vassals” and she learned Spanish quickly. Doña Marina soon became indispensable to Cortéz as his translator and constant companion. Without her, a contingent of 1,300 Spaniards and Indians could never have defeated the Aztec empire.
To her own people, Marina would forever be known as La Malinche, meaning betrayer.
The Man Who Would Be Quetzalcoatl
Continuing further west, Cortéz established a settlement called Vera Cruz, not far from present-day Veracruz, where he learned of an enormous inland city, Tenochtitlán, on the site of present-day Mexico City.
At Vera Cruz, Cortéz also first learned about the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, who was represented by Teudilli of Quintaluor. When the explorer learned about Montezuma’s magnificent inland city of Tenochtitlán (Cortéz called it Temixtitlan—now it’s Mexico City), he burned some of his own ships to prevent his men from turning back and informing Cuba’s Governor Velázquez of his plans.
The Aztecs were a nomadic civilization that had migrated from western Mexico to the valley of Mexico during the 14th century, supplanting the Toltecs. As luck had it for Cortéz, the Aztecs were anticipating the return of their ancient Feathered Serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, from the east. Bringing gifts of gold to Vera Cruz, the Aztec delegations wanted to know if the strange and powerful visitors were gods or mortals.
With essential assistance from Marina, Cortéz was able to take advantage of the situation and pretend to represent their prodigal god. Quetzalcoatl was from the city of Tula, north of Tenochtitlán, formerly the seat of power for the Toltecs who had dominated Mesoamerica from 850 A.D. to 1200 A.D.
When the Aztecs, or Mexicas, replaced the Toltecs in the Valley of Mexico, Aztec rulers had taken the name of Quetzalcoatl. The god had deserted the people and became known as Kukulcan among the Maya.
When the emissaries for Montezuma asked if this strange, helmeted man with the floating houses could be Quetzalcoatl, Hernan Cortéz—much like Sean Connery in the movie The Man Who Would Be King—wasn’t about to disappoint. With the help of Marina, he did little to disabuse them of this notion. To this end, Cortéz encouraged Indian suspicions that his men were immortal by burying his dead quickly. He also pretended to talk to his horse, as if his horses were rational creatures, like men.
Whereas the Aztecs had only seen Chihuahuas, the Spanish had ferocious attack dogs. Armed with crossbows and arquebuses (Spanish muskets), escorted by a dozen cavalry, the Spaniards overwhelmed and formed an alliance with the fearsome Tlaxcalan Indians near the coast, enemies of the Aztecs.
While on the coast, Marina infiltrated the local people and learned from an elderly woman that the Aztecs were planning a surprise attack. The woman’s husband was a Tlaxcalan captain who had received gifts from Montezuma II to encourage the ambush. Cortéz was able to launch a pre-emptive attack in Cholula, close to present day Puebla, killing 3,000 Cholulans and sending the Aztecs fleeing back to Montezuma.
The foot soldier Díaz praised Marina for helping to spare them from the Axtec priests who were known to cut open captives’ chests, sawing through the breastbone with an obsidian knife, then ripping out still-beating hearts.
According to Díaz, Marina “possessed such manly valour that, although she had heard every day how the Indians were going to kill us and eat our flesh with chilli, and had seen us surrounded in the late battles, and knew that all of us were wounded and sick, yet [she] never allowed us to see any sign of fear in her, only a courage passing that of a woman.”
The Tlaxcalans marched with Cortéz into the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (‘the place where men become gods’) on November 8, 1519. They crossed Lake Texcoco on a “broad causeway running straight and level.”
Cortéz and his men were overwhelmed by the size and richness of the Aztec capital with its 250-foot Pyramid of the Sun. Tenochtitlán had been developed over centuries by various peoples from approximately 150 B.C. to 750 A.D. Some five hundred years after its builders had disappeared from the site, the Aztecs arrived to possess it. By 250 A.D. it had spread to include nine square miles; by 450 A.D. it was possibly the largest city in the world. It has been estimated the city had a population of 300,000 in 60,000 dwellings amid floating gardens.
Presents were exchanged but tensions grew after two Spanish envoys were killed. Surrounded by thousands of Aztecs, Cortéz famously seized Montezuma II as his hostage. It was an impasse worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Montezuma II offered bribes to Marina if she would forfeit her allegiance to Cortéz. Marina wasn’t dissuaded. Montezuma II was ninth in a succession of powerful Aztec caciques; he had been in power for 18 years—longer than Marina had been alive—but Marina somehow managed the negotiations between the two powerful men.
The Aztecs numbered 20,000 but by seizing their leader, Cortéz dealt them a psychological blow. Cortéz’s distant relation, Francisco Pizarro, would adopt the same manoeuvre when he treacherously took the Inca leader Atahualpa hostage in 1532, defeating thousands of Incas with only 168 Spaniards.
Back in Cuba, Velázquez was determined to bring Cortéz to trial. When Cortéz learned that Velázquez was sending an 18-ship expedition with 900 soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to capture him, he decided to leave his lieutenant Alvarado and only 140 men, setting off to surprise the Spaniards with only 260 men of his own, taking Malinche with him to serve as his translator.
The surprise attack worked. Cortéz co-opted much of the Spanish forces and hastened back to Tenochtitlán where the Aztecs had rebelled against Alvarado. Back at Tenochtitlán, Cortéz asked Montezuma II to quell growing unrest among the Aztecs. As in The Man Who Would Be King, Cortéz never understood that a tribal council of Aztec priests actually held sway, guided by oracles. When Cortéz ordered Montezuma II to appear in public, the crowd hurled stones. One rock hit the emperor. Montezuma died three days later.
The Aztecs drove the Spanish out of the city on June 30, 1520. Aztecs attacked from canoes on both sides of the causeway as the Spanish fled. Cortéz was almost captured in the confusion. At the ensuing Battle of Otumba, he lost 860 men. He lost 72 more men at Tustepec while retreating to his allied city of Tlaxcala. Once again he was fortunate. An outbreak of smallpox, brought by his men, decimated the Aztec population. Cortéz reorganized that summer, incorporating equipment and reinforcements from Vera Cruz, and laid siege to the Aztec capital once more.
On August 13, 1521, the new emperor named Cuauhtemoc was captured. Entering the city Cortéz found it in ruins “like some huge churchyard with the corpses disinterred, and the tombstones scattered about.” Famine and smallpox had been more lethal than guns. Cortéz began building the Aztec capital that would become the world’s most populated city. This marked the onset of Mexico’s 300-year colonial history, ending in 1821.
One too many Martins
In 1522, Cortéz’s his first wife arrived unbidden from Cuba. She died almost overnight, inexplicably. This didn’t help Cortéz’s already notorious reputation. Velázquez was conspiring against the disobedient and ungrateful Cortéz in court, charging Cortéz with failure to remit the quito, one-fifth of the booty required for the king. Cortéz returned to face these charges in Madrid and was exonerated. Cortéz was named governor, captain-general and chief justice of New Spain by King Carlos V in 1523.
During the conquest, Marina bore Cortéz a son named Martín. After Cortéz’s second Spanish wife also bore him a son named Martín, the Mestizo (mixed blood) Martín became like a servant for his fully Spanish half-brother. When they were both arrested for plotting against the Spanish crown, the younger Martín was spared; the Mestizo Martín was tortured.
In 1524, having conquered Mexico, Hernan Cortéz learned Cristobal de Olid had proclaimed the independence of Spanish Honduras. To remove this upstart official, Cortéz began a gruelling, fantastical overland trek towards Spanish Honduras that ranks with Hannibal’s journey over the Alps. Departing from Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast, he marched in a straight line towards Trujillo on the east coast of Central America, torturing and hanging Cuauhtemoc along the way, having become obsessed with the notion that somehow Cuauhtemoc was planning a revolt.
This entrada of about 140 soldiers and several thousand Indians had to traverse high mountains and dense jungles. While slashing his way through uncharted territory, Hernan Cortéz would have passed through the southwest corner of Belize, making them the first Europeans to set eyes on Belize from the east. Order was easily restored in Honduras in 1525. (Cortéz once said it was more difficult contending with his own countrymen than fighting against the Aztecs.)
Several attempts by Cortéz to return to Mexico by sea ended in shipwrecks. Becoming despondent, Cortéz began dressing in the black robes of a Dominican monk, issuing morose premonitions of his own death. He returned by sea to Mexico, via Cuba, thereby encircling Belize. In 1526 he was relieved of his command in Mexico City by Ponce de León, who died of fever after only twenty days in office. His successor died after two months. Once more, sudden deaths did little to enhance Cortéz’s reputation.
While remaining in control of Mexico from 1530 to 1541, he argued with Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, about who had the right to explore and annex California. Cortéz consolidated and expanded his domain by exploring Guatemala, Honduras, Baja California and the Pacific Coast, but like Columbus he would ultimately feel inadequately rewarded.
Cortéz was given the royal run-around for three years when he was debt-ridden and needed to make a claim on the royal treasury. His authority gradually eroded and his reputation especially waned after his participation in the unsuccessful 1541 Spanish expedition against Algiers. He became known as a chronic complainant. Accused of murdering his first wife (he strangled her but the Spanish government opted not to declare him innocent or guilty), Cortéz was also long suspected of murdering a Spanish envoy in 1526.
While attempting to return to Mexico, Cortéz was stricken with dysentery in Seville and died there on December 2, 1547. His remains were brought back to Mexico City and interred within the walls of a chapel behind the Hospital de Jesús, one of the many hospitals he founded.
As for Marina, the translator, she traveled with Cortéz on his trek into Honduras, via Belize, to Trujillo, during which she re-united with her mother and half-brother, supposedly forgiving them. It’s possible Marina was originally from the Belize/Honduras area, a Mayan descendent, but most researchers suggest she was from Paynala, the Gulf region of Coatzacoalcos, near the Tehuantepec isthmus, in which case her native tongue was Popoluca.
Having married Spanish soldier Juan Jaramillo, she settled in the province of Nogales. Cortéz gave the couple an estate 50 miles north of Mexico City, and also gave her land on the Gulf, in her homeland, so that she might return there to die. Although Cortéz has long been vilified by Latin historians and artists, it’s clear he was not merely a brutal character.
Marina had at least one other child, Fernando Gómez de Orosco y Figueroa, born in Tlzapan, who died nine years later. In Amanda Hale’s novel, Marina gives birth to a daughter. It is believed Marina died at a relatively young age, around 1530, but where and when remains unknown.
In his letters to King Carlos V, Cortéz mentions Marina only twice, he refers to her as “my interpreter, who is an Indian woman” in the second and mentions her name in the fifth.
In The Reddening Path, Hale has sympathetically re-examined Malinche’s life as a distant mirror for the complex bi-cultural path that her heroine Pamela is required to walk. In the process, she recasts Malinche as easily one of most remarkable and influential women in the course of North American history.
- by Alan Twigg
GUATEMALA UPDATE – a reality check by Amanda Hale, Sept. 20, 2007
In August I travelled to Guatemala to visit with Mayan friends in their village, to meet with political activists and receive an update on Canadian gold and nickel mining in Guatemala, and to revisit some people and places who had become integral to my recently published novel, The Reddening Path. Following is a photo-journal of this journey:
[Background: Guatemala was invaded and colonised by the Spanish early in the 16th Century. The country proclaimed its independence in 1821, but real reform was not achieved until 1944 when a civilian was elected president. However, the reformist government was overthrown by a CIA backed coup in June 1954. An outbreak of protests against the new military-aligned government in March and April of 1962 marked the beginning of a 34-year civil war between leftist guerrilla groups and the government for control of the country. The Mayan people were caught in the middle and suffered the brunt of the violence and killings. The 1996 Peace Accord officially ended the civil war, but Guatemalans continue to suffer with an average of 16 murders daily, as well as disappearances, particularly of children, kidnapped for adoption, prostitution, or organ donation.]
“Anything vividly imagined becomes inseparable from reality” – Wilder Penfield
My first stop in Guatemala City, August 9, 2007, was at the FAMDEGUA office (Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Guatemala). Before leaving Canada I’d read on the internet about Wendy Mendez, a young woman who has become a militant leader, daughter of one of the many striving for social justice who disappeared during the 70’s and 80’s. My last visit to Guatemala had been four and a half years ago, researching for a novel about a Guatemalan adoptee returning to her birthland to search for her mother. In 1988 I had been there to paint a mural for the Grupo de Apoyo Mútuo, a human rights group assisting families of the detained and disappeared. I’d lived in the house of Don Herlindo and Doňa Ana and slept in the room of Irma Marilú, their daughter who had disappeared two years previously. Now, as I sat in the FAMDEGUA office, Irma’s face smiled down at me from a wall of familiar faces, a community of the disappeared, kept alive by the tireless work of people like Aura Elena.
We have now completed 70 exhumations, she said. She travels all over Guatemala, from El Petén in the north, to Quiché, Huehuetenango, Rabinál, Cobán – areas where the Mayan people were massacred during the civil war, and continue to be killed, their names ticked off on blacklists of community leaders, but in lesser numbers and with no media coverage since the peace accord of 1996, which nominally returned Guatemala to a state of democracy. But in some places nothing changes, especially in Guatemala where 80% of the population is indigenous, where people live in harmony with the earth in a culture of subsistence farming; corn, beans and coffee growing on their doorsteps and as far as their patches of land extend before reaching the huge foreign-owned fincas (coffee plantations).
This time I noticed, for the first time, the face of Luz Haydée Mendez, leaping out from all the familiar faces. Luz was very beautiful, as is Wendy whose photograph I have seen in a Rights Action bulletin, passionate with intent, confronting the Guatemalan army on June 30th at the Day of the Army celebration. As a small child she’d witnessed the torture of her mother before she was finally taken – disappeared. A new generation has grown in Guatemala and now seeks justice for criminal acts against their families. In Guatemala when people fight back, el mano dura, a firm hand, the campaign slogan of the Patriot Party for the Sept 9 elections, can be expected to lash out, not for justice, but for silence – the ultimate silence of genocide. Indigenous people are problematic; they do not wish, as the CEO of one of the foreign mining companies operating in Guatemala suggested, to move beyond subsistence farming into a profit-motivated lifestyle. They wish to protect and conserve their land against the destruction wrought by mining methods which pulverize the earth and release heavy metals into their water.
These thoughts race through my mind as I sit there, surrounded, feeling afraid for Wendy Mendez. This is only the first day. Two weeks later, on my last night in Guatemala, an American woman who works with a human rights organization in the Capital tells me, We’re always afraid, every day. Everyone who lives in Guatemala is afraid. Then she tells me about the murder, days ago, of the son of a prominent activist. I remember Béatriz Marroquin who was kidnapped and murdered on December 10, 1985, the eve of her departure to Canada to join her refugee husband, her machete-scored body dumped at the roadside, her hands cut off.
I am here to thank the women who helped me with research for my book, The Reddening Path, recently published and now awaiting a Spanish translation. Adoption is a hot topic in Guatemala. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, an international legal document created in May 1993 through the Hague Conference on Private International Law, is scheduled to go into force in late 2007, countering the many illegal adoptions of stolen children who sell for $30-40,000 US. Regulation of international adoption varies hugely from country to country and in many of the poorer ones it is so ineffectual that criminals have infiltrated the system. Gangs provide children to alleged "would-be parents", who actually deal in organs, paedophilia, prostitution or child labour.
When you live the virtual life of the writer, living through your imagination, lacing it with factual information, by the end of the process you begin to doubt your own knowledge. I had to revisit these people, hear them tell the terrible stories once again. I had to stand in Parque Central and stare at the Palacio Nacional where my heroine Paméla’s mother lives eternally with her General in a secret apartment.
I had to walk into La Catedral Metropolitana and find the Virgen del Socorro, a two foot wooden statue sequestered in a side chapel, a figure that accompanied Diego Velasquez, first Governor of Cuba, to the new world, was passed to Hernando Cortés to bless his route to Mexico and assist him in the conquest of the Aztec nation, and found her way to Guatemala in the hands of Pedro Alvarado. As I stare at the banal blonde figure I can barely believe in her journey, in the power invested in her.
When I was a child and “imagined” something I was either laughed at or punished for “trying to get attention.” As I travel, verifying the experience embedded in my second novel, I track my doubts back to childhood where we still have no sense of boundaries, where the magical world of the imagination is not separate from the “real” world. The doubts, the feeling of being “bad” or “wrong” – (what if the radio interviewer asks me to verify something and I can only cite my intuition; what if I can’t remember where I got it but only that’s it more real to me than what I ate for breakfast?) – must plague every writer, I think. We create from our inner worlds, and then we must go out into the world to verify, to compare, to walk the frontier between what are supposedly two separate countries, but in reality is one continuous flow of earth joined by rivers and geological strata descending miles into the earth, to a core of molten lava on which we float, the sky stretching billions of miles above to a place where time stops.
I walked to Casa Central, the orphanage where Paméla spent the first 9 months of her life. It is a convent which takes up a city block.
I look for the brass hand knocker with the ring on the 3rd finger. It’s not there. I must have imagined it, to signal the status of convent without stating it. (Show, don’t tell, the writer’s dictum; trust your reader’s intelligence). I enter the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal where María-Teresa, the Mother Superior, was found slumped on the steps leading to the altar after a long night’s vigil. The Chapel is filled with light, a service in progress, nuns filling the pews. I take photos so that I know it is real.
In the park across from Casa Central the armless statue of 4 years ago has grown arms. The walkways are being dug up by men with shovels, exposing the dry red earth. I remember the exhumations.
In a cool flagstoned office in Zona 2, a young woman confirms everything I’ve read in my own house in Canada in the Rights Action bulletins. They say the genders learn differently – males intellectually, females sensually. I think of this as I watch Marta’s facial expression, her gestures, as I smell the dusty office, feel the patch of warmth on my wrist from a shaft of light, as I hear her Spanish words and believe them finally.
After, drinking a Gallo in the Salon Reál of the Pan American hotel, hand-woven huipíles (blouses) from all the different areas of Guatemala hanging from the balcony, the Mayan staff in traditional dress, I think of how the Government uses the indigenous people to promote tourism; the same people against whom they wage a war of genocide. The government is made up of Guatemalans backed by the CIA. At a certain point “backed” becomes “controlled”. Interference is the thin end of the wedge, a wedge that enters the heart of the people and infects it. The Guatemalan army recruits Mayan boys and trains them to kill their own people. At root, violence is circumstancial. It can be internalized. We can all be reduced to an ultimate craving for survival for which no price is too high. The soul’s attachment to the body is fierce. In a country where decades of genocidal massacre has taken place with impunity, a pattern is set, seeds are sown like the deathly corn seeds depicted on posters dotting the countryside, warning people against Monsanto’s genetically modified corn-seed which will sterilize their own seed. In the poster skulls emerge from the corn-cob. In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, the creation story tells how the first people were made from corn.
I sip my cold beer, slippery under my fingers, and Marta’s words echo in her understated tone. The effects of the mining are poisoning the land. The animals are dying, birth defects are beginning to occur in both animals and humans, it is impossible to grow corn, beans. All the money from the mining is going to the US and Canadian mining companies. They mine for gold, for nickel, they have petroleum and hydro-electric projects on our land. All the petroleum is exported. In Guatemala there is a terrible shortage of gasoline, and it is very expensive.
I have learned from the Rights Action bulletins that in 2005, Canadian mining company Glamis Gold (now Goldcorp) prepared to begin operations at an open pit gold mine in the isolated communities of Sipakapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán in San Marcos, Guatemala. San Marcos Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini raised the concerns of the Mam-speaking residents over a mine using a water-based sodium cyanide solution to leach gold from tonnes of pulverized rock, and 250,000 litres of water an hour in a community already experiencing water shortages. They worried that pools of toxic water and over 25 million tonnes of waste rock left behind by the mine would continue to release heavy metals into the soil and water for centuries. An independent study confirmed the risks involved; risks the mining company repeatedly denied. Cyanide is a deadly toxin. Environmental experts report that the use of water-based sodium cyanide solution not only consumes huge amounts of fresh water, but also generates highly toxic by-products, including heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Local protests have left two people dead and many injured.
In June of 2005, the Canadian parliament's standing committee on foreign
affairs and international trade concluded that, "Canada does not have laws to
ensure that the activities of Canadian mining companies in developing
countries conform to human rights standards, including the rights of workers
and indigenous peoples." The Canadian government rejected the committee's
recommendation to pass legislation to hold mining companies legally
accountable in Canada for human rights and environmental harm caused by
their operations across the globe.
In 2006 Goldcorp paid its former Chairman, Ian Telfer, $23,000,000. The Canadian mining company has open-pit, cyanide leeching gold mines in Guatemala and
Honduras that Rights Action grassroots partner groups are opposing. Documented harms and violations associated with the mines include water depletion and contamination, deforestation, forced evictions, repression (including killings) against community leaders protesting these violations.
The indigenous Q'eqchi' community of Barrio Revolucion, near Lake Izabal in north-eastern Guatemala, was among six groups evicted during three rounds of forced evictions in November 2006 and January 2007. Vancouver-based Skye Resources, which acquired the controversial property rights granted in the 1960s by a repressive military dictatorship to International Nickel Company (INCO), sought the evictions.
Skye Resources employees dismantled, destroyed and/or burned the homes of
hundreds of indigenous Q'eqchi' families in five communities. Accused of “squatting,” the Mayan people said, “We are not invading the land. We are recuperating the land that belongs to us." They are concerned about the threat that the mine poses to the environment and their land rights. The UN-sponsored Truth Commission - part of the 1996 Peace Accord that officially ended Guatemala's civil war - demanded that indigenous communities with historical claims to land have the right to determine how it is used.
While there are also US and European mining companies operating throughout Latin America, Canada operates approximately 60% of world mining companies, and generates $40 billion annually. The Canada Pension Plan is a major investor in Goldcorp, and has invested in Skye Resources to the tune of approximately $8 million, making all recipients of CPP monies complicit in the environmental and human rights abuse consequences of this enterprise. For the most part, we do not even know that our money comes from a source that requires the eviction of people from their ancestral lands, the burning of their homes, the murder of their community leaders, the ruination of their breathtaking land, much photographed by eager tourists. We are shielded in our ignorance from outrage against this injustice.
My glass is empty, only a circle of condensation remains around the base. Marta had spoken of the growing militance of the Mayan people in the past 20 years, and how this is both a blessing and a sentence because it will draw a violent reaction. The Mayan people have traditionally been a peaceful people, like the Tibetans. It is a miracle that they have survived and continue to dominate by their presence in Guatemala. The indigenous populations of most Central American countries have been almost wiped out, often by a simple denial of their existence.
Before I left the Capital I visited Don Herlindo and Doňa Ana in Zona 14. Their grandsons are bigger and stronger than four and a half years ago, Rony the eldest a year away from qualifying as a lawyer. He was 4 years old when I lived in Herlindo’s house. But Don Herlindo is frail, defeated, an old man suddenly at 72. On my last visit he’d been still vigorous and full of life, even though he’d wept as he’d spoken of Irma Marilú. Now he shows me the plaque that was awarded to Irma, all these years later, in recognition of her courage and of the unspeakable suffering of her disappearance, and a book honoring his daughter and her compaňeros, with a piece he’s written about her disappearance. It was a Monday – he’d come home to find Doňa Ana crying because Irma hadn’t come home the previous night. They’d thought she was asleep in her room, but I was to be the next one to sleep there, two years later, in the bed of a woman whose face I already knew from the gallery of disappeared posted in Toronto, but who I was never to know directly, only through her beloved father.
I will always remember Don Herlindo as he was 4 years ago, standing in the sunlight as we waved goodbye at the bus-stop, his broad Mayan face smiling and handsome, gilded with the grief of his daughter’s absence. This time I left Zona 14 feeling sad, feeling that I would never see him again.
Next day I’m up at dawn to take Linea Dorado, a Mexican bus line bound for La Frontera in the northwest corner of Guatemala – the Highlands of Huehuetenango. Eight hours later we cross the Rio Selegua and I know we’re close. This is the river where the tortured bodies of the local villagers were dumped by the army. Zoila told me how she’d gone to the shore of that river every day, looking for the body of her husband who’d been taken by the army. Miraculously Alejandro was released after 60 days of torture, and survived to escape to Mexico and, eventually, Canada, with his family. I get off at El Boqueron, 7 kilometers from the tiny village of Huixoc. The Mayan family I have known for 17 years, who live as refugees in Vancouver, are visiting their village. Zoila and her nephew Alfredo are waiting for me with a Toyota truck filled with villagers. All the vehicles in Guatemala are Toyotas, mostly pick-up trucks, and typically people travel standing shoulder to shoulder in the back. We pile in and laugh about the traffic in Vancouver where each vehicle holds a single occupant. I ride in front with Zoila and Alfredo, who is getting married at the weekend. He invites me to his wedding and asks if I will operate the video camera. He worked in Tennessee for four years with his uncle, he said, then came back and bought his Toyota supercab.
That night, as we sit in the smoke-blackened kitchen over tortillas and coffee, Francisco comes to visit. He introduces himself as Hernando Cortés and I am quick to introduce myself as Malinche. Everyone laughs. He shakes my hand when I say that I have known Ti-jax, Zoila’s youngest son, since he was one year old. Ti-jax gives marimba lessons in the mornings to the children from the school across the road. Born in Canada, he’s come home to learn about his culture, to meet his uncles and aunts and his many cousins. Almost everyone in the village is somehow related, by blood or marriage. Francisco is a master of the marimba. When he was a young man the army came and forced him to destroy his family marimba, the instrument he’d been playing since he was 5 years old. He is recently widowed, his wife and two sons dead in a road accident. Later, when Francisco has gone, walking down the muddy road into the darkness, Zoila tells me there have been 3 recent kidnappings of children in this area, that their bodies have been found decapitated. Everyone is afraid. She says if I need to go to the bathroom in the night I must wake someone to accompany me. We must all stay together, especially in the night. There are people in Guatemala who trade in human organs. The bodies of children are frequently found with their heart and lungs missing, liver, kidneys. We can’t understand the decapitations – perhaps for the eyes, or for intimidation. Zoila says that when a woman gives birth now her family must move in and stay with her for many months because there are people who will steal newborns. Children disappear in Canada too, I think, for different reasons, different perversions.
I am a foreigner and thus safer here than the locals; I unravel and relax in the pure mountain air. We live in the clouds, breathing thin air, teetering on a ledge which plunges into the valley where a foreign-owned coffee finca carpets the land.
I visit the kindergarteners in the school across from us. They are enchanted with me, and I with them. They are learning Spanish and Mam, geometry. They teach me the names in Mam for circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, like the Guatemalan landscape, a patchwork of squares and rectangles dotted with waving corn, like the women’s skirts, handwoven, moving with their bodies, patterned with language and earthforms. The older students are in another classroom learning to type, chewing gum and flirting with each other. I talk with the teacher, make arrangements with him to read a short section from my book the following week. Clara Luz, a teacher at the Huixoc school, is unable to work. Since the murder of her father she has been having seizures. She is the oldest of 6 children; her mother had to go to Mexico to find work. Four years ago she was a laughing teenager, now she has the gaunt haunted face of so many of the adults. Everyone is afraid. There is more news. A 16 year old boy was kidnapped from La Democracia, 15 kilometers away. A ransom was demanded but his family has no money. A finger was cut off and sent to his parents. Miraculously the boy has escaped and found his way home, but now the family has to go into hiding. They will flee to the city.
The place is a hive of activity – Zoila is in the kitchen talking with the teachers who are eating their midday meal, Natividad and Filiberto are tending their little store, selling chips, nuts, cola; Ti-jax is giving a marimba lesson to 4 teenagers, a woman is roasting coffee beans over a small fire on the concrete terrace where the land slopes upwards, thickly planted with coffee, beans, chile, towering over the tiny two-room house. Ti-jax has warned me about the spiky green caterpillars which stick to your skin and raise angry welts there. He shows me the thickly webbed hole in our bedroom wall where a tarantula lives.
A man from La Democracia is speaking to a group of women with babies and small children. He warns them against U.S. donations of broken corn kernels which they use to make atol, a thick sweet custard-like drink which everyone loves, especially the children. Cuban doctors working in Guatemala made an analysis of this corn and found it to be laced with birth control drugs. Don’t use it, the man says, don’t even give it to the chickens. Dig a hole and bury it. Protect your land. Grow your own food. Colectívo Madre Selva, a Guatemalan citizens’ group, also examined a sample of seed sent as food aid and found three varieties of engineered corn banned by the EU as unfit for human consumption – Liberty Link produced by Aventis, and Monsanto’s BtXtra and RoundUp Ready.
I return to the kitchen and sit with the teachers who are finishing their lunch. I ask Ana Elizabeth for her opinion on the upcoming election. Does Rigoberta Menchú stand a chance? Or is it really a contest between Colom and Molina? It doesn’t matter who is President of Guatemala, she says, her eyes cold and clear, because the system corrupts everyone. Molina is a retired general, candidate for the Patriot Party, whose logo is mano dura, the hard fist approach to public security. He wants the already heavy army presence increased to clamp down on crime. The more moderate Colom, a businessman, is running for UNE, National Unity of Hope.
Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiche Mayan woman whose entire family was tortured and murdered during the civil war, is renowned for speaking out for justice. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992; even that hasn’t silenced her. But I had seen no propaganda billboards for her party in the Capital. Only as my bus travelled into the countryside, a couple of hours from the Capital, had I seen a billboard with the faces of Rigoberta and her running mate, Nineth Montenegro, a founding member of the GAM.
We all sleep together in a small room with an earthen floor, the marimba running the length of the wall. Sometimes there are only 3 of us, sometimes as many as 9. People come and go; Ana Elizabeth, Zoila’s sister Julietta with her 3 daughters, Noelli, Haydée and Johana, Zoila’s mother Marcelina from La Democracia, 13 year old Víctor, a cousin, who I call “the Cuban” because he talks so fast. There is comfort in our proximity, our shared dreams, our breath warming the cold night air. Generally a solitary person, I adapt quickly and sleep deeply. I am reading slowly, savoring Catherine Bush’s The Rules of Engagement, the only english language book I have brought with me. It is perfect; the story of a woman who studies contemporary war and specializes in issues of military intervention. Studying violence, she holds herself apart from involvement until she is propelled forward by her own heart into the thick of it. But there is little time to read. On Sunday night, as we lie in our beds, Ti-jax tells me about a local man who habitually drank and beat his wife. Finally she got drunk herself and cut off his arm with a machete. Machetes are in every household in Guatemala, essential for work on the land. They divorced and he married her sister. The ex-wife came in the night as the man lay with her sister and killed her ex-husband with a machete. Their son came up behind her in the dark, trying to protect his father, and accidentally killed her with a blow to her back. There is a way to twist the machete, says Ti-jax, so that it delivers a flat blow, but he didn’t twist it at the last minute so it sliced into her body. The boy was 15. He had a breakdown and his aunt looked after him. He recovered and later became a lawyer. He prosecuted a criminal in court and was killed by the man’s friends. As his story ended we heard screams and crying outside – Julietta’s voice, Zoila’s quiet response. Immediately I thought of the 3 girls. Had one of them been kidnapped? It was a long sleepless night with Julietta crying in our room. An argument with her boyfriend. It wasn’t the first time. The next day we took her and the girls with us for a trip to the Capital to pick up Alex, another of Zoila’s sons, travelling from Canada. Angel, our driver, and his 17 year old son-in-law Nery, came with a red minivan and we had a 3 day road trip, taking turns sitting up front, the romantic music that Angel loves blaring in our ears.
Zoila is a Mayan spiritual leader; on the last day of our journey we drove to a remote spot where she led a ceremony for us all, high up in the middle of the milpa, (corn field), under a grandfather tree. A stoic ancestor, the tree stood majestic, supporting an abundance of parasitic life despite its own fragility. They have tried to cut down this tree many times, Zoila said, but it will not die. Under this ground where we sit there is a Mayan temple, long buried but still powerful. We had bought incense, herbs, candles, copal, and bright liquids for the ceremony in the market in Chimaltenango. We’d brought kindling wood thickly veined with sap to start the fire. We knelt and lay, then stood under a dramatic and constantly changing sky. All through our journey silent electrical storms had illuminated the night sky. We were travelling under a new moon, bright and sharp as a sickle. Sap-soaked wood fed the fire and the flames leapt for freedom, flashes of orange and blue, separating from the body of the fire, then leaping back to reunite with it. The wind kept coming up, soughing through the corn leaves, but the rain held off despite the threatening darkness of the heavy clouds, blue-gray like bruises.
On the way back to Huixoc Angel stopped near El Boqueron at the house of Angel senior and Consuelito, his mom. All the family greeted us – sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. Coffee and sweet bread were brought on a tray and we stood around the rectangular courtyard, looking up at the balcony that ran around the second-floor, plants sprouting from the white-washed walls, springing from the earth all around us. Two pixie-like creatures with eyes round and dark as feral night creatures stared up at me – gimelas, girl-twins, Angel’s nieces, their father recently dead in a road accident. The roads are dangerous in Guatemala and there’s a lot of drinking; there are bandits, there’s rubble from avalanches, there are steep drops from roads that curve like great serpents up and down the green-skinned mountains. As in many Guatemalan houses there are caged birds – chickens, doves, bright green parrots. I talked about the parrot Angel had bought at the roadside for his mother four years ago. They all looked at me blankly. Se murió, I said, it died, and they all began to laugh. I laughed too; we couldn’t stop; something had broken and the laughter spilled. There is so much laughter in Guatemala, over very small things; it is always there hovering, ready to spill. Zoila has explained this laughter to me, how it comes without reason, is accepted without question, like poetry.
The next day we go to Huehuetenango with Angel and his wife Paty, to buy supplies for their tienda. Many people have small shops in their houses. Their two youngest sons come with us.
Angel accompanies Zoila and I to the bank. It is a long wait while the teller tries to sell her life insurance. It doesn’t matter that you live in Canada, she says. When you die the insurance will pay for your body to be brought back to Guatemala. I am shocked when the guard hands a pistol to Angel as we leave. He shoves it into the waist of his pants and when we get back to his truck he throws it in the glove compartment. I hadn’t seen him hand it over as we entered the bank. For a moment I had thought the guard was going to shoot him.
Saturday Zoila and I are up at 5 to go to the market in Colotenango with Angel and young Víctor to buy turkeys for our birthday fiesta – Zoila, Marcelina, Alex and I are all Leos. Angel lifts the turkeys by their wings to test their weight. He can tell if they’ve been corn-fed, Zoila says. The big birds blink their eyes; jowly wattles shimmer red and irridescent blue from their throats, snoods of red flesh hanging over their beaks. Each bird is tied with a piece of twine around one leg. The chickens try to get away and are jerked back by the short twine, but the turkeys are stoic. As Angel drops a bird after testing its weight it stumbles and rights itself. Angel and Zoila keep walking. This part of the market is a huge open area, filled with livestock, all for sale, all being hefted and prodded. They finally agree on 2 birds and I pay, then young Víctor comes with his sack and secures them. He is a beautiful boy with almond-shaped eyes and smooth brown skin – El Cubano, the fast talker. I think of Martín, the bastard son of Hernando Cortés and Malinche, his Aztec translator – the historical sub-plot of my novel – how Martín is taken from his mother as a very small boy, sent to Spain to be raised as a gentleman, the Indian trained out of him. When he returns to his birthplace as a man he sees himself reflected for the first time in his own people. He becomes involved in a plot against the Spanish governors, led by his legitimate half-brother, Cortés’ heir. Martín is tortured, then banned from his country forever. He dies in battle, fighting for Spain.
Angel and Zoila are talking to some people. I walk away, up the steps to the main street, lined with stalls. There are displays of weaving, pottery, jewellery, plastic kitchenware, cooking pots, electrical gadgets – a myriad of blurred color. I sit on the warm stones of a low wall and photograph the market below.
I see Víctor standing on the edge, the heaving sack nestled against his boots. Later we buy bags of vegetables and fruits for all the family – tomatoes, onions, cilantro, zapote, bananas, apples, 5 bags of rice . . . and the journey home to Huixoc, up the mountain. The turkeys scratch in the dirt in front of the house for a few hours before they are slaughtered. Everyone teases me about my gringa sentimentality, and I laugh and explain our distance from nature in my culture, how we buy our meat in sterile plastic packages from the supermarket. But I still feel like a traitor, complicit. I could have refused to buy the turkeys, but of course I could not, and anyway someone else would have killed them and eaten them. The old arguments. I am getting very close to the end of Catherine Bush’s book, The Rules of Engagement, her heroine entangled in a web of personal and ethical conflict. I am with her, thinking of her, a secret life within me, waiting for a moment to finish the journey with her, not wanting it to end. This is what I remember of my relationship to books as a child – they were a refuge, a secret place all my own. I hope my books give refuge. Sometimes a direct conflict with the self is just too harsh. We need books in which to wage our personal battles, characters for us to live through and forgive.
Marcelina has been up since 4 a.m. making tamales for the wedding. The roof of Alfredo’s family house has been transformed with white balloons, paper plates and ribbons.
Above the entrance is a large silver bell, like a piňata, filled with confetti releasing slowly as it swings gently in the wind. Marcelina takes my hand and marches me and Johana to the back where we settle ourselves with our gifts – I’ve bought a large cooking pot for the couple – and wait for the ceremonies to commence.
Above us a series of tarps flap in the wind, filling with air and gusting upwards as though they would carry the entire house with all the guests across the valley. They start to come loose and the men scrabble to tighten the flimsy ropes. It does indeed rain at intervals and the tarps leak. But first we troop down the road to the bride’s house, next to the church. Alfredo and Johana, his fiancée, are Catholic – no Mayan ceremonies here. When we return to the roof-top 3 men, accompanied by a synthesizer keyboard, sing dreary Christian songs. It is a solemn affair, and still no marriage ceremony. First we must eat, says an enthusiastic MC. We troop downstairs, all the women wearing their trajes, traditional Mayan clothing, the men in dashing sombreros and cowboy boots. There is a huge vat of chicken in tomato sauce, great mounds of rice, piles of tortillas and a thick, sweet, rice-milk drink. Natividad is in the kitchen moving slowly back and forth, loading paper plates, graceful as like a dancer, while Marcelina darts around serving everyone with the heaped plates. Both wear aprons over their beautiful dresses, gifts from Canada brought by Zoila. You have to take your aprons off today, I’d said, for the wedding. But they’d shaken their heads and wagged their fingers at me. Finally, after 3 relays of food, the wedding ceremony took place, then there was a receiving line for us to kiss the bride and groom and present our gifts. There were tears for the death of Alfredo’s father, and the bride tried to smother her yawns. It had indeed been an exhausting day, then Ti-jax and I went home with Angel and his family to the village of Isnul across the valley, where we watched The War of the Worlds and fell asleep in the middle of a very bad Mexican movie.
Sunday was our birthday fiesta. When we arrived back at Huixoc in the afternoon the turkeys had been transformed into a large pot of meat floating in a rich sauce. They fed the family and all the neighbours who came for the fiesta, including Francisco who came with two marimberos.
You don’t need to invite people to a party in Guatemala. When they hear the music they come, clusters of women approaching shyly – buenas tardes, buenas tardes – accepting drinks of cola in recycled votary candle glasses; groups of men striding up the steps, accepting a Gallo with a nod. The dogs lay around still recovering from their feast of chicken bones from the wedding, distended bellies rumbling and gurgling; Tarzán wouldn’t even raise his head at the offer of a tortilla. Zoila took my hand and led me in a slow swaying dance to the hypnotic marimba music. Soon everyone was dancing – old Filiberto, despite protestations about his knees, his back, his feet; Marcelina swaying in her apron, dancing with her grandsons.
Even shy Fedelino, emboldened by the beer, began to dance, stopping frequently to mop his sweating brow. Elvira came with Clara Luz and 2 more of her daughters. Alex and Ti-jax went up on the roof with their cousins to set off the fireworks. The music continued late into the night, even after the rain started and we’d hauled the marimba inside. Then we heard tires spinning, a revving engine, and finally, gunshots, which at first we thought were more fireworks, but it was Angel shooting at the stars after too many beers.
Next day I returned to the Capital. I was flying out on the 22nd. Everyone piled into Angel’s truck to see me off and we headed for El Boqueron to pick up the bus. Marcelina rode up front with mel, cradling the chicken Zoila had bought for her.
On the night of the 21st I tried to phone Don Herlindo a couple of times but there was no answer. Strange, I thought, they’re always home. Here in my house in Canada, on September 3rd I received an e-mail from Rony telling me that Don Herlindo had passed away on August 22nd.
Less decisive were the election results of September 9th, Colom receiving 28% of the votes, Molina 23%, (and Rigoberta Menchú only 3%), requiring a runoff on November 4. There have been 50 deaths so far during the campaigning as the drug barons try to force their candidates into office. “The worst political violence since the end of the civil war,” Reuters reports, “The country is awash with guns and police are widely viewed as inept.”
My Sweet Curiosity
My Sweet Curiosity by Amanda Hale (Thistledown $19.95)
Described as both scientific and spiritual, Amanda Hale’s My Sweet Curiosity is another bold, cross-continental attempt from the Hornby Islander to connect individuals from different centuries. Hale combines the life and times of 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius with the amniotic memories of University of Toronto medical student Natalya Kulikovsky. In this brave novel that is literally about soul-searching, Kulikovsky simultaneously falls in love with a talented cellist named Dai Ling Xiang. The modern-day protagonist was born only after her mother had five miscarriages and was diagnosed with a hostile womb. She was flushed from the womb three days after fertilization and dropped into a test tube.
My Sweet Curiosity
from Brad Zembic
“There is something missing in all of us,” claims Dai Ling, one of the heroines in Hornby Island writer Amanda Hale´s new novel, My Sweet Curiosity. And the reason we are here is “to find the missing pieces.” Hale has established herself as one of Canada’s leading writers of philosophical fiction with this follow-up to The Reddening Path. Her story of how people strive for wholeness investigates the very nature of being.
In My Sweet Curiosity, the missing pieces are found as characters scramble their way through personal strife. Talya, a third-year medical student in Toronto, falls in love with Dai Ling, a young virtuoso cellist whose father is haunted by painful memories of China’s Cultural Revolution. Both women are faced with a formidable challenge—Talya to overcome an existential crisis and Dai Ling to keep her family intact over her romance with a member of her own sex. Surrounding them is a jigsaw puzzle of characters immersed in their own reconstruction. Talya´s father attempts to rebuild his life after losing his wife to cancer; Dai Ling´s parents battle to reconcile their daughter’s lesbianism with their conservative values and traditions. Behind the scenes is a purposeful universe nudging them all toward harmony.
According to Hale’s omniscient narrator, our lives are connected by “a web of impossible intricacy,” one that reaches beyond time. Woven into Talya and Dai Ling´s story is a partly fictional account of Andreas Vesalius, the Flemish physician whose study of anatomy in the mid-1500s helped fuel Renaissance thinking. In Hale´s version Vesalius´s mapping of the body leads to an obsession with locating the human soul, a goal that alienates his family and nearly destroys him. Though separated by centuries, Vesalius's and Talya’s lives meet in a dreamlike set of events that results in both their salvations.
Hale writes with one eye on the everyday and the other on the eternal. Her language glides from mundane to sublime as she examines the natures of reality and dream, truth and fiction, and science and the arts, to discover that their distinctions are often blurred. One thing clear is that if Hale´s surreal but happy ending is anything to go by, our quest for completeness is not in vain. All we have to do is find the missing pieces.
In the Embrace of the Alligator (Thistledown $18.95)
from Erinna Gilkison
Amanda Hale’s In the Embrace of the Alligator primarily describes the love affair between a Canadian woman and a Cuban man, revealing the complications of a romance between people of different backgrounds.
The title is derived from the fact that Cuba is often perceived geographically, on a map, as resembling the shape of an alligator.
Embrace also outlines the shape of a love affair between a foreigner and Cuba itself. Whether readers have been to Cuba or not, they will be fascinated to discover the personalities, beliefs, customs and everyday struggles of life in Cuba through this collection of short fiction.
Recovering from the death of her brother, Karina, an artist from Toronto, initially goes to Cuba to create and display art in Havana. In the first story, “First Steps, Last Steps,” Hale describes music, sickness, tourism, slavery, broken bodies, dance, filth, warmth, politics, romance and hunger.
After her exhibition opening, on a side trip to Baracoa—the second oldest European settlement in the Americas, located on the eastern end of Cuba—Karina meets Onaldo. They dance, drink, eat, and rapidly fall in love.
Karina soon discovers that differences in laws, cultures and finances can make relationships a challenge. Cuba’s economy depends on tourists, and there are laws that prohibit local people from becoming romantically involved with foreigners—to protect the tourists.
Cubans are granted fewer freedoms than visitors, and they face restrictions on travel and staying in tourist accommodations. Relationships happen anyway, often to the detriment of one party or the other; but equally often mutually advantageous. Many blind eyes are turned in this country, readers are told.
When it comes to romance in Cuba, the lines between genuine feelings and adventures for personal gain can be blurred. Cubans know what a romance with a foreigner can mean for both themselves and their extended family. This collection consequently features many uncomfortable conversations about money. Such talk inevitably arises in the face of financial disparity.
Needs and desires can turn to greed in cross-cultural relationships. In “Creative Non-Fiction,” Onaldo concocts a tale to tell Karina about the money she has given to him for travel, and how it was ostensibly stolen. He knows that she will take pity on him and give him more.
Meanwhile, Onaldo’s ex-wife dismisses Onaldo’s relationship with Karina as “yet another affair.” Onaldo continues to use Karina’s money to improve the home of his ex-wife, with whom he is also living. To a point, Karina understands that she is being taken advantage of, but feels guilty after she confronts Onaldo. She cannot resist him even after she learns how he’s spending her money.
Rosamund, a German visitor, faces a similar situation. That’s not to say that everyone takes advantage of their foreign friends and their wealth, but sexual exploitation is a lurking threat in many such relationships portrayed in this collection.
The advantage-taking can go either way. In one memorable story, “Her New Red Dress,” Linancia, a Cuban woman, gets involved with an Italian man who has a wife and children at home. Luigi treats Linancia terribly, but in the end she is forced to come back to him. We later learn she has given up her job in order to be available to him whenever he’s in Cuba. Having gained the freedom to quit a job she hated, she entered into a new kind of servitude.
Karina learns that many things that are simple to do in Canada—such as booking a hotel room, buying lettuce, or leaving the country—are governed by strict rules and double standards in Cuba. A Cuban who has purchased an airline ticket can be bumped off the flight in favour of a foreigner right up until the moment the flight takes off.
In “El Caballo de Rosamund,” Rosamund loves the Revolution and everything else about Cuba until she learns that she is not allowed to buy the horse of her dreams.
Fear is a rampant force for both subservience and subterfuge in Cuba. In one story, an arrest sends the rest of the town of Baracoa into hiding. “Baracoa became a warren of creatures running scared, disappearing into their burrows…”
Disconnections between foreigners and Cubans abound, in language, politics, and attitudes. Part of it is simply the difference between a person on vacation and a person living their regular life. Much of it runs deeper. In “Senora Amable Ponce,” a story named for the hostess of a place Karina and Onaldo stay during a romantic rendezvous, Karina feels in the air “a kind of energetic laziness soaked in eroticism.”
These feelings are in sharp contrast to their hosts’ urgencies, and their tiredness. Their hostess Senora Amable is “a wounded woman struggling to maintain her dignity.” Several times in this story staff try to urgently communicate something, but Karina never figures out what it is. Karina struggles to understand the senora’s Spanish; and the senora does not try to help her understand. A fellow guest who does not speak Spanish is described as being on his own island. The story ends with a literal disconnect: the senora’s phone line goes dead.
In a haunting, lovely story, Mirian Zelda lives next door to the funeral parlour in Baracoa, very much in tune with the comings and goings. At night, when she sleeps, she is visited by the recently deceased, and her role is to guide them home to their final resting place.
The gentle character of Mirian, the prevalence of spirituality and religion, the mystery of a vanished Czech visitor, and the fact that the gore of the funeral parlour is not disguised, and death is not hidden and sterile as in our society, are all factors in making this story memorable.
Amanda Hale has clearly spent a lot of time in Cuba. One assumes or feels that she has experienced versions of many of these stories first-hand. She has come to know and understand aspects of Cuban society that tourists in resorts don’t always see, and has used her experiences to create a rewarding collection. Her writing is strong and sensuous. We are given some intimacy with the heart of complex Cuban life. 978-1-897235-87-4
Other notable books about Cuba by B.C. authors include Maurice Halperin’s Return to Havana (Vanderbilt University Press, 1994), Adolf Hungry Wolf’s Trains of Cuba (Good Medicine, 1997), Rosa Jordan’s Cycling Cuba (Lonely Planet, 2002), Cornelia Hoogland’s Cuba Journal (Black Moss 2003), Linda Rogers’ Friday Water (Cormorant, 2003) and Rosamund Norbury’s Notes at the End: Cuba on the Verge (Arsenal Pulp, 2005).