David Bowles is an author, poet, scholar and folklorist who lives in south Texas. His book Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translation. His short fiction has recently been featured in Apex Magazine and Strange Horizons.
GeekaChicas: Greetings to author, scholar and folklorist David Bowles. We’re very excited to talk with you today.
David Bowles: Thanks for having me.
GC: Let’s talk about your most recent novel The Smoking Mirror, the first in The Garza Twins YA series. Tell us a bit about it.
DB: In south Texas there are a pair of twins: Juan Angel, who is nicknamed Johnny, and his sister Carolina, called Carol. Their father is a history professor at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. Their mother is a sculptor. When the book opens the mother has been missing for six months. She disappeared one night and didn’t take any clothes with her, didn’t take any of her artistic tools or her makeup, and the family has been kind of falling to pieces ever since. So you’ve got these twins who were very, very close and have kind of been pulled apart. Their father is spiraling into alcoholism and depression because he thinks his wife left him, and the twins start to experience strange things. The opening scene is Carol waking up in the back yard with a dead hare in her hands and her nighty kind of torn up, and the brother Johnny experiences rage issues at school. Bit by bit they realize that something is not quite right. Their father decides to withdraw them early from school and send them to Mexico to be with their relatives in Monterrey where their mother is from, so he can get psychological help. They are a little shocked at this. Right now going to Monterrey is an iffy proposition because there is a lot of drug violence in that part of northern Mexico.
During the three-hour journey between my house and the city of Monterrey, you can get stopped by cartel members and have your car stolen or maybe be kidnapped, so it’s kind of a perilous thing. But they go, and in Mexico they discover their mother’s journal and learn that she’s a shape-shifter, nagual, and that they have inherited her abilities. Because they are twins they can not only shape-shift into their animal forms, but they can basically take on the form of any animal that they have DNA for. They learn that their mother has been abducted by Tezcatlipoca, an Aztec god whose name means “the Smoking Mirror,” one of the reasons for the title. They have got to travel into the afterlife and go through the nine levels of Mictlan (the Aztec Underworld) so they can rescue their mother, but the whole point of her capture is to manipulate them into doing something really horrible.
The book—the whole series–is about how power is never enough, and they end up having to rely on their relationships with each other and their love for their mother in order to get out of the situation. Because if they went up against one of the creator gods of the earth with just magic, then they would lose. So their journey in these five books is about understanding that your relationship with and caring for other people is what makes you powerful. There’s plenty of cool magic and mythology and so forth, but I’m also trying to say something about heroes versus teams of people collaboratively getting something done. The trope of the chosen one is really old and threadbare and many writers are trying to move on from that. Hopefully I can accomplish something along those lines.
GC: This first novel in the Garza Twins series was an exciting read, and it wasn’t territory that has been gone over 100 million times by everybody else. It wasn’t a book with the same old vampires in it. No disrespect to vampires, but…
GC: As a folklorist, weren’t you interviewed on a television show about monsters?
DB: Yeah, there’s a program—Monsters & Mysteries in America—that comes out on Discovery, Animal Planet, Destination America—stations that the Discovery channel owns. And they were doing a show on winged humanoids, and I had written a retelling of a local legend called the Big Bird, that is often called “Batsquatch.” They got hold of it and called me up to ask whether I’d mind being interviewed as a talking head and having a dramatic recreation of the story. Clearly, I said yes. It was a big thing to have them come interview me and do a dramatization of the story. It was a lot of fun, a really rewarding experience.
GC: Do people recognize you from it?
DB: You’d be surprised. They repeat this episode over and over again, so now I sometimes just walk into stores and people will know me. They don’t know anything I’ve written, but they know me from the TV show. I take a little clip of it when I do school visits as an author, when talking to middle and high school students. They like to hear about monsters and are interested in the stories, but then I show them that clip and suddenly I have real street cred. They’re like, “Oh VIDEO? Not just printed word?” That’s what appeals to a lot of them.
GC: You’ve written several books of fiction as well as translated Aztec and Mayan poetry.
DB: That’s right. I’ve also done some work with folklore and legends from Mexico and south Texas, so I kind of have three different tracks, to use the train metaphor. I have the scholarly track which is the study of Mexican indigenous languages, and have had a couple publications there. Flower Song Dance is the book of translated Aztec and Mayan poetry. I also have local folklore interests. I’m the resident folklorist in my neck of the woods. People come to me whenever they want to know about local legends and so forth, and I’ve got a couple books about that. Mexican Bestiary is an encyclopedia of legendary creatures from Mexico and Border Lore is folk tales and legends of south Texas. The third track is speculative fiction. I’ve written a couple of science fiction novels and published a few stories and now I’ve got this YA fantasy series, The Garza Twins, for which the pitch is “The Latino Percy Jackson.” I really get into exploring multivolume fantasy series that I love to death, that my own children love, and that the children that I work with as an educator love. But each is invariably an epic featuring Anglo children facing off against European gods and monsters. I thought it would be nice to have Mexican-American children facing off against Aztec and Mayan gods for a change.
GC: Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start this series. I know that we only have the one book so far, but you’re working on the second one.
DB: Yes I am. As to the inspiration, it came from frustration that we’re not seeing enough Latino characters in YA. It’s one thing point out that fact, and it’s another to come up with a story idea. Basically, a lot of stories come to me in chunks that then combine to become a rich idea. The first chunk came when I walked outside one morning. We live on a half-acre lot outside of the city and tons of wild animals run around in it–everything from chickens to coyotes. That morning there was a hare laying in the middle of the yard. It was a pretty big one with its limbs spread out, and I got an image of a young girl laying in the grass with her hands around this hare, waking up. My curiosity started asking “Why would this girl wake up with a dead jackrabbit in her hands?” After thinking about it for a while I realized that if she were a shapeshifter, called a nagual in Spanish, she might have shifted into an animal and killed this poor rabbit. The second piece was the relationship between my son and daughter. I have three children: two are in college (my two oldest are daughters) and my son is in middle school. My middle daughter and my son, even though four years separate them, are really close. For a long time they were about the same size, and a lot of people thought they were twins. Their relationship, the quirky way they talked to each other and stuck to each other like glue, was really the genesis of the relationship between the Garza twins. That connected to the girl that I pictured with the dead hare in her hands. Once that started going, things just fell into place. I knew I wanted to do something about the Aztec underworld. In Aztec and Mayan theology in general, there are four different paradises if you will, and I really wanted to use that. Everything just started clicking, and I wrote The Smoking Mirror pretty quickly—in just a couple of months. Then, as you can imagine, shopping it around was a lot of fun. It got rejected by several agents who didn’t see it as very marketable. There’s not a single Anglo character in the entire book. Most of it happens either on the border with Mexico, in Mexico, or in the Aztec underworld. Now I’m sure I could have probably shopped it around for a couple years and would have eventually found an agent who would have repped it, but luckily I found another way. IFWG Publishing picked up the entire series.
GC: Many people with Mexican-American heritage live across borders, because of family ties. It’s not something that you see a lot in books for young adults. It seems like there’s a lot of homogeny in what’s published.
DB: Yes, and I guess I wouldn’t say I was worried about that, but I knew it was going to be a bit of a struggle. Even though I tried to use the tropes of YA and have the students and teens be very American in the way that they talk to each other, with a bit of snarkiness, I wanted them also to be portrayed as middle class Mexican-Americans who have ties to Mexico. My family is like that–I’m a quarter Mexican-American, my wife is from Mexico and my children grew up going back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, because of relatives and ties there, friends. That sort of life I don’t think is depicted enough. You see plenty of realistic fiction detailing the life of Chicanos in the U.S. and the struggles they have. I think that’s an important body of literature, but there really isn’t enough dealing with this in-between relationship that exists along the borderland– switching back and forth across borders. It seemed to me important to explore that. I grew up among border folk and so have my children, so I wanted to make it intelligible to people who are not in that situation. That was a challenge. A lot of people have lived their entire lives in the United States, and some people–a lot of the big publishers–might suggest that it’s a hard sell to get your average American teen to want to read about kids who are spending time in country they know nothing about. I believe in them more than that. I believe that teens are capable and interested in many more things than marketing might tell us.
GC: I think you run into that a lot in publishing, when a story bucks the tropes. But readers—some readers, anyway—respond to things that are a little different than the usual. I can totally see it happening with these books. The first one is really good, and it’s not well-traveled lore in books. It’s pretty new in a lot of ways.
DB: Sometimes it means going with a smaller press, but if you really believe in a project you’re doing, you have to stick with it and make a stand.
One of the things that concerned me a little bit was the use of Spanish. I think I struck a good balance. You’ll have to tell me. I’m assuming that you’re not a Spanish speaker. You might have taken Spanish in high school. I used Spanish spoken in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, and more of the middle-class Spanish you hear in Mexico. It was really important to me, so I added a glossary. Kids like my children grew up with both languages, even though they feel more at home with English because it is the language of their peers and the media that they devour. Regardless, Spanish is still a major part of them. The music they listen to sometimes is in Spanish and conversations they have with older people in our community are in Spanish. That is another major stumbling block for certain agents and publishers. You know they’re afraid of any sprinkling of foreign language in a YA text. They think it’s not going to work with the kids, but I was a teacher for 14 years, mostly on the high-school level. I think kids are better than that. When I was studying Japanese in the late nighties, the kids always wanted to know how to say stuff in Japanese. I’d teach them “hello” and stuff like that. I can’t imagine that they would have a problem with a few Spanish words or phrases.
GC: Where is the best place to buy The Smoking Mirror?
DB: It’s distributed through any bookstore anywhere. The easiest place to get it online is Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Even though it may not be on the shelf of your bookstore, they will be able to order it. IFWG Publishing is a small publishing firm out of Australia, but they are breaking into the US market. They are still working out the kinks but they have set up distribution here in the states.
My first professional short story sale! I have published stories in other magazines, but this is my first one in a major magazine that people in recognize as a big one in science fiction or fantasy. It’s set in the same region [as the Garza Twins series], but about a century ago. It’s called “Wildcat” but it’s basically it explores what you do if a baby is born shapeshifted and has never been human. The protagonist is Donna Hooks, a woman who has learned Igbo magic, and she has to use it to try to coax these transformed shapeshifters into human form. The story charts their journey together and explores a very difficult decision Donna has to make. It’s one of those stories that I had shopped around and got some really good feedback from Charlie Finlay when I sent it off to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He told me that I needed to push the story further, into a different place. I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling: someone tells you to tweak something, and you say they’re totally wrong. I dug my heels in for a while, and then I revisited the story after a few months. I realized that he was right. It needed to go somewhere else. And the present ending of the story came together at that point. Now whenever he gives me feedback on something I send him I think to myself, “OH YEAH.” It comes from having written by myself for so long. I live in an area where there are not a lot of other speculative writers, and although I have exchanged stories long distance with people like Joe Iriarte, I don’t have a writers’ group per se. I’ve kind of been on my own just trying to figure things out. It’s always rewarding to break through. You go along step by step by step, working at your craft, polishing it and you get things out there in dribbles and eventually your effort builds up to something respectable. (Note: David’s story “Winds That Stir Vermilion Sands” is featured in the June 29th number of Strange Horizons.)
GC: In the teapot that is speculative fiction, there are recurrent tempests. One of them recently is about the Hugos, and I wondered if you had any thoughts on the different factions. The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies– that one fellow who doesn’t think women should vote blames the collapse of America on Aztec and African cultures, and the more moderate group that doesn’t say that kind of thing, but also doesn’t seem to disagree much.
DB: Recently I joined a circle of Latino speculative fiction writers and we’ve been having conversations about this. People like Lisa Bradley , Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Sabrina Vourvoulias. The Rabid Puppies’ position is just untenable. It’s a simply ridiculous notion that inclusiveness and diversity is somehow going to tear down the opportunity for conservative white men to write the kind of stories that they want to write… It’s a disproven notion. This is the same sort of idiocy that you see in the workplace when you have men kind of bristling at the idea that women are given the same positions that they are and paid the same amount of money, because they see their opportunities for advancement curtailed when it’s really specious. The pie simply gets wider as the breadth of speculative fiction grows and we add these nooks and crannies. There’s no reason that they can’t tell the stories that they are telling. They will continue to have a readership. If you’re a white conservative male and you like stories about white conservative male stuff, you’re not going to abandon it because here’s this Latina writing about crazy stuff that she likes. It’s a bit like homophobia, like ethnophobia in spec fic and horror, progressive phobia. It’s just really, really sad. In a similar way to the idea that somehow allowing gay individuals to get married is going to undercut traditional heterosexual marriage. Heterosexuals are still the vast overwhelming majority, and they are going to continue falling in love and getting married. It’s ridiculous to think that there’s going to be a sea change and it’s going to be like Forever War and we’re going to all be gay thousands of years from now. It’s just a really ignorant, prehistoric kind of mindset.
What they’ve done to the Hugos is despicable and reprehensible. The people who pulled out, I applaud their bravery. Sometimes you have to fight a battle; sometimes there’s going to be collateral damage. If we’re left with the wreckage of the Hugos where the rocket ship is battered and tossed about, well, so be it. You’ve got to take a stand for something that is right. It’s really silly that they would oppose the exploration of new territory, you know? I imagine someone saying, “Oh, no! The Smoking Mirror? We can’t have an English-language YA fantasy novel in which there are no Anglo characters at all! Poor Anglo teenagers– what kind of worldview is this going to give them? Just all Hispanics?” It’s a dangerous way of thinking. In the Rio Grande valley, 95% of the population is Hispanic, so there are not going to be a lot of Anglos, and in Mexico there’s even a smaller percentage of Anglo immigrants. So to take that kind of attitude and want to shut down the voices of these people? It’s really cruel. I get what they’re trying to say. They feel they are trying to capture some Golden Age. But the Golden Age never existed. It’s a fantasy. From its inception, speculative fiction has been a very progressive–you’ve had your Joseph Campbells and so forth, but the majority of writers have been very forward-thinking, one step ahead of social change, technological change. It’s really depressing that anybody would pretend that this is not the case and want to go back to some kind of weird Hitleresque perspective for speculative fiction.
GC: To tie it back in with the YA and what you’re talking about, is just the expansion of the genre to include–Oh my goodness! Hispanics and women, and black and people or transgender or queer people and oh my GOD.
I think that’s a hang up that adults have more than children. My sons growing up had no difficulty at all reading books with girl protagonists. They really enjoyed The Hunger Games and the films of Miyazaki, which usually have girl protagonists. I think that’s not a thing that kids worry about unless they are told they need to worry about it.
DB: I agree. I raised my son very differently than my brothers raised their sons. He is just such an open, gentle, huge giant boy who is really into reading literature that is feminist or about queer identity or different gender identities. He’s well-liked and popular at school because he wrote three children’s books a few years ago, and so he kind of takes advantage of his popularity and the fact that people expect him to be an advocate. Some guy will be dismissive of what his female classmates have to say or something, and he shuts them down and takes a stand. That’s the sort of thing–that courageous interaction with society–that I think men have to do. In much the same way that we take a stand to protect and advocate as allies of women in our families and our communities, the speculative community has done the same thing for its authors who are not Anglo-American. There are tons of fantastic writers of color, and it’s important that we not only welcome them but that we be courageous and aggressive in our reading and promotion of those authors. It’s one of the reasons that in my review column TOP SHELF I’ve been looking at books by speculative writers of color, because I think people need to know more about Daniel Jose Older, Rudy Garcia, Carmen Machado, Joe Iriarte, people of color who are writing about people of color in speculative fiction and trying to widen the horizons. Like, you know, I’m drawing a blank on her name but the woman who recently suggested that people try going a year or six months without reading white male writers.
GC: K.Tempest Bradford?
DB: Yes! The world reacted really horribly to that suggestion. I can’t understand why. Those male Anglo writers are going to be waiting for you after you’ve tried something new. Like you can go try some Thai, try some Mexican, go over the Brazilian restaurant and have some steak. Expand your horizons. I never understand those who like this homogenized view of the world and what they were raised with is all that there is forever and ever amen. It’s really depressing.
GC: It was so violent, the reaction to that. “Try this for a year” You know? It wasn’t like it’s mandatory, that everybody has to read this and only this. It was “Try it and see what happens to your perspective.”
DB: It was a suggestion. I know it was pretty amazing. I remember when I was a teenager going through my stages when I was only reading Russian and German novels and fiction from the late 1800s. You go through these stages, and I never understood people who don’t do that. You get into something, explore every nook and cranny and devour a bunch of literature written by people so that you can understand them and their culture. Then you can begin to understand the principles and characteristics that join us together. So you can see the Other as part of the gestalt, as part of humanity. It’s invaluable. People taking that attitude sadden me. I think that they are poorer for their attitude, their reticence to engage with people who think differently than they do.
GC: When you think about it, when we were children, probably most of the books that were available to us were about white male protagonists. I didn’t have any trouble reading Treasure Island or Ivanhoe or whatever as a girl. But it’s nice now that you have so many great additions to children’s and young adult fiction, especially in genre fiction. There was realistic children’s fiction with girl protags when I was younger, but for a girl into science fiction and fantasy there wasn’t a lot. I had Madeleine L’Engle, but there weren’t many genre stories with female protagonists, or protagonists of color.
I think there’s just a lot more now, and I think it’s great that young people have the opportunity to read about people who are like them and people who are different from them at the same time.
DB: That’s a really important point. Inclusive literature—and I really prefer the word inclusive to diverse, though it’s the same thing—is not just for the marginalized cultures that are included. It’s for the members of the culture of power as well, so that they have perspective and humility and begin to do the things that can be done to heal and close the gaps between the culture of power and marginalized cultures. I think that rather than oppose it and have a hissy fit about the fact that so many of them are winning awards, people like the Rabid Puppies need to pull the stick out of their asses and embrace the future.
GC: The history of science fiction going way back, is pretty inclusive. A lot of the writers writing now grew up with Star Trek, for example. Like, look, here we have a Japanese person and a black person and a Russian person and they’re all working together as part of a team and still have their unique cultural identity. But that was the whole point, I think.
DB: The very first, very optimistic show. People who are looking back with nostalgia at the past are forgetting that that inclusivity and embracing of diversity is really part of that. It’s part of the Golden Era that they are nostalgic about. But we have never stopped having a Golden Era. It has the potential to be brighter and more glittery if we stop tarnishing it with all this bullshit.
GC: Imagine the world you want to live in.
DB: And then make it, yeah. Start with making your stories and preach it from the rooftops. I think that, like you said, the whole tempest in a teapot notion–we’re going to weather the storm. They are going to recede into the woodwork and we’ll have other setbacks along the way, but there are enough of us that change is inevitable. Society has taken steps that cannot be easily turned back. Barring some kind of insane civil war—and of course I hope nothing like that happens.
GC: It was ever so. We tend to look at the past and think, “Oh, you know that was so great.” There was always struggle.
DB: I actually take the view of scientists like Steven Pinker–that we’re actually slipping towards a better place. That we are better off than we ever have been. There’s less violence than there ever was, there’s less discrimination. It doesn’t seem that way because of the way the media is, but we live much better in terms of our lives than we have in the 100,000 years that we’ve walked the planet. I’m very optimistic. Speculative fiction writers I think have… we’re like the gatekeepers of that optimism. We’re the prophets of that positive outlook, and we need to continue preaching that message and making people optimistic even when times seem on the surface to be really dark.
GC: Yes. It’s just growing pains. They’re always going to be there hopefully because in speculative fiction hopefully we’re always growing, looking at the next thing, and responding to the next pressure or the next idea.
DB: “There’s a Cuban protest singer named Silvio Rodriguez who sang–I’ll translate the lyric into English–“this age is giving birth to a heart: it can barely stand the pain, and we must come running, for the future is falling upon us.” That idea of you know something beautiful is being born out of the trials and tribulations—humanity—is something that I’ve believed for a long time. I’m not a religious person, but I believe in the ability of humanity–if it chooses–to go beyond itself and become something greater. To be a gentle master of the solar system, the galaxy, the universe at some point. I think that kind of optimism is important. Looking forward and thinking is so much better than digging our heels in and looking at the past, being static and driven by tradition and prejudice rather than optimism and hope for the future.
GC: I couldn’t agree more. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your work.
DB: Thank you for having me.