It is an enormous pleasure to have Cristina Jurado again at Sense of Wonder. She was one of the first collaborators of this blog and she is, without a doubt, one of the most illustrious. Today, she reviews Certain Dark Things while she interviews her author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (you can also read this post in Spanish). Hope you enjoy it!
Certain Dark Things:
Vampires and drug trafficking in an alternative Mexico
I discovered Certain Dark Things in the most unusual way. I was talking to Lavie Tidhar when he mentioned the project he was working on, The Jewish Mexican Literary Review, the magazine he publishes with Mexican-Canadian Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions, which I’m going to share with you in this review. When I inquired about the magazine, she replied: “I call it an avant-garde zine. It’s something I run together with Lavie Tidhar. I believe he called it… maybe he said it was a punk or underground zine? It’s just something we do for fun, a compilation of prose, poetry, interviews with artists. If we were in the 90s it’s the kind of thing we would have photocopied and stapled together and given away at grungy little venues. It speaks to the rebellious little shitheads in both of us. Anyway, check it out. It’s free.”
The first thing that caught my attention from this Canadian author was the fact that she writes exclusively in English. She told me that, for the time being, writing in Spanish was not an option. “No. For two reasons. By the time I started writing seriously I had already moved to Canada. I was very far away from Mexico. It didn’t seem convenient (especially at the time, it was 2006 and many magazines were still reading manuscripts and stories that came by mail). So it only made sense to write in the local language. Plus, I really enjoy English and the challenge of handling it because it was not, it’s not my first language. I want to improve my French at some point and get it up to the same level. Anyway, so there was that. Then there is the reality that there is no one interested in my work in a Spanish speaking country. There are no speculative fiction publishers or important magazines in Mexico. I have had two stories translated into Spanish, both for anthologies edited by Federico Shaffler called Teknochtitlán. This last one can be downloaded for free online and the Arts and Culture ministry of the state of Tamaulipas sponsored it. And that’s the way it goes. There is no commercial publishing of speculative fiction. It seems to be the same in other parts of Latin America, and even in Spain. Books are translated from English to Spanish but there is very little local talent being fostered. So then the few people writing in Spanish have to turn to one of the few, small publishers or have to self-publish, which is a big commitment because if you self-publish you are having to run a small business.
I’ve had no queries from publishers to translate my novels into Spanish, so I also don’t know there’s much interest in my work. In general, I think editorials want a sure thing in translation and whatever cool cache I’ve accumulated because my novels have had some critical acclaim (NPR best of the year list, Locus finalist, British Fantasy finalist, etc.) I don’t think that’s nearly enough to make people terribly interested in me. It is what it is, I’m lucky to have sold a few novels in any language. I have translated several stories for projects I have edited (yes, I’m an editor, too) and toyed with the idea of a magazine that translates fiction in Spanish to English, or some sort of bilingual compendium, but this would be an enormous expense. I couldn’t undertake it. Maybe one day.”
I was curious about this writer’s writings and so I read Signal to Noise, a fantasy novel about ancient magic, music, teenage years and the awakening of love. I was surprised by its rhythm and good prose. Lavie already had talked to me about Silvia’s next thing, Certain Dark Things. So, when he mentioned the word “Narcovampires” I did not stop until reading it.
I was very curious about the genesis of this story: “The trouble with me is I don’t keep organized notes”, explains Moreno-Garcia. “Since I work a full-time job I’m often working on fiction at weird moments. So I’ll be eating a hamburger during lunch and scribble something on a napkin. There are several instances where I got home and I couldn’t read a word because it had ketchup on it. And my notes are pretty frantic, too. So I don’t recall the exact genesis of many things. Certain Dark Things grew out of a short story I sold to a vampire anthology called Evolve 2. I’ve done a bunch of vampire stories with different approaches (“Stories with Happy Endings” has a Mexican reporter interviewing a vampire, “A Handful of Earth” is about Dracula’s brides, etc.). I was born in the border zone in Mexico, right next to the US, and that’s where there’s been a lot of narco crime in the past few years so I think it grew out of that. I think it was just a way to channel my anxieties about my birth country. Vampires are a lot less menacing than criminals, than poverty, than drug addiction. But as for was there a particular moment when I said “there are gangs,” it’s just blurry. The story really began for me when Domingo sees Atl in the subway, just an image, and then come all the questions. Who are they? Where are they going? What are they thinking? Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes it’s a line, it’s the hook that gets you going.”
The way Moreno-Garcia fits fantasy into every day life in a natural and credible manner is fascinating. About this, the author says, “I write in a variety of genres, not just fantasy. It just happened that my first few novels could be called fantasy, although they tend to overlap with other categories (Certain Dark Things has been called a cyberpunkish novel). It’s more evident in my short fiction that I don’t just use one ‘language’ because I go from horror to science fiction to anything in between. I’m actually moving away from speculative fiction right now and into crime writing in the next few years. I feel an affinity for fantasy due to my childhood and my exposure to folklore and oral storytelling but it’s not my sole focus. On the other hand, I like realist fiction very much. I like character studies. I like magic realism, which blurs boundaries. And all of this means I have an interest in the mundane and the strange things you find in the mundane. Which are multiple and many.”
The author introduces the novel through the character of Domingo, a drifting youngster surviving in the streets of Mexico City. His terrible personal story has not stripped him of certain innocence, and of the capacity to perceive the positive around him. His encounter with Atl, member of the Tlähuihpochtin, a matriarchal clan of Aztec females vampires, will change his life, making him discover from within the world of vampire families that control part of the drug trafficking.
Moreno-Garcia sets the story in an alternative present in which vampires are known to the world, and in which some countries have chosen to close their borders to them. In this context vampires are a different species than humans, and while humankind considers them very dangerous because of their enhanced mental and physical capacities, vampires despise humans because of their weaknesses. I think the novel reflects about xenophobia in a bidirectional way. “I’m in general more interested in intra-community conflict and issues of class and poverty. There are some scattered thoughts about colonialism in the book, but I don’t think it’s my Big Xenophobia Book. I have a Master’s degree in Science and Technology Studies and the focus of my research was eugenic science in the early 20th century. It’s been interesting watching the rhetoric in the US these days because a lot of that is an exact reproduction of dialogue and thoughts about racial groups, which were in vogue in the early 20th century. I could copy and paste words from famous eugenicists of the time and you would have a hard time knowing if Trump said it or it was someone one hundred years ago. The same fears are certainly there, the same ways of wording them persist. So at some point I feel I will write a novel, which focuses on that. I have a title for it (Villautopia) and a blurry outline. There was a novel in 1919 by a Mexican writer called Eugenia, which had eugenicist themes and in that book everyone lives in Villautopia. That would be the big Xenophobia Book. But I don’t know when I would work on it. But because of my research and my general interests it is very likely that some of the stuff I was exploring and had to do with eugenics slipped into the vampire book. So you may just be seeing my subconscious more clearly than I am right now.”
The author reinvents the vampire myth, enriching it with Aztec, Mexican and other cultural traditions’ references. “I don’t like writing series. I get bored writing in the same genre, never mind the same universe. The novel was bought as a stand-alone and I doubt the publisher might be interested in a sequel, I’ve certainly heard nothing of that sort. My next few books deal with other stuff so a sequel is not in the near future. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t write another book in that world, but right now it’s not my priority and even if I did it wouldn’t be a series. There are too many topics that interest me for me to lock myself into one. I’ve written stories which reference Prehispanic cultures before. In this case, it seemed a natural fit. Aztec thought was concerned with notions of sacrifice, blood, life, battle and renewal. I thought it made a good background element for the character of Atl.”
Each vampire family displays different abilities: some are shape-shifters, others can alter the will of those around them, there are even some who can have food or can expose themselves to sunlight, etc. In a certain way, I believe the author is able to built a more updated and less idealized version of the myth, much less romantic than some modern takes, but far more interesting. The relationship of mutual dependency between Domingo and Atl help us understand the power struggles among vampire clans, the inaction of corrupt police, and the self-interested intervention of drug cartels. This novel is an interesting canvas of the organized crime scene in big cities. Apart from having a notorious world building, this story it is an urban fantasy full of adventures and local culture references. The end seemed to me especially well chosen, the only one that could offer a closure without falling into a predictable solution.
This novel could be interpreted as a YA book (the main characters are young, it is the story of the becoming of an age, secondary characters serve as guides or helpers…). Nevertheless, the violence and the uncompromised language makes this book, in my opinion, an adult one.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia also shared her future plans: “My novel The Beautiful Ones is out October 2017. I call it a novel of manners with a fantasy element. My agent has my next novel on his desk. It’s called Lords of Xibalba and deals with Mayan gods in 1920s Mexico. I’m hoping he can sell that. And right now I’m one third of the way through a science fiction novella called Prime Meridian. Which I also hope to sell. And after that I’m taking a year off to do some research and reading for my next novel, which is going to be a crime book with no fantastic elements set in the 1990s.”