Meet David Bowles, author of 'The Smoking Mirror'
David Bowles, an award winning translator of Aztec and Mayan poetry, has written the first of a series of Young Adult fantasy novels starring 12-year-old Mexican-American twins, Carol and Johnny Garza.
"The Smoking Mirror" tells the tale of the adolescents, "whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother's unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them."
The book was released March 20 by IFWG Publishing, and AL DÍA had a chance to ask Bowles some questions about the book and his writing shortly after the release.
AL DÍA: What was the prompt for this novel? Why YA? Why fantasy?
Bowles: I was a middle- and high-school English and Spanish teacher for 14 years, so teens — especially struggling Latino readers--have a special place in my heart. In the late 90s it was still pretty hard to find age-appropriate, high-interest books for them, and I understood pretty quickly that I wanted to help broaden that pool of literature. One of the things I used to do was take the legends my grandmother Marie Garza had told me as a child and rewrite them into magical realist/fantasy short stories to use with my students (encouraging them to do the same with their family's traditional tales). Those efforts eventually evolved into my short-story collection The Seed: Stories from the River's Edge (written in collaboration with my wife Angélica).
Now, something that those kids (and the ones I continue to work with at school visits and so forth) have in common with me is a love for scary stories and sprawling fantasy series. But it's really disheartening to open book after book meant for teens and see another group of white kids battling the same old European gods and monsters. "For once, I'd like to turn the first page and find a Mexican-American girl from south Texas faced with Aztec deities," I repeatedly complained to my writer friends. "Sounds like a story you need to write," they told me. So I did.
How significant was the inclusion of Mesoamerican mythology? Do you think it'll be something completely new to your readers, or do you anticipate it will be familiar to some?
To me, the chance to popularize Mesoamerican mythology was one of the primary motivations for undertaking the project. Since my undergraduate studies, I've been obsessed with the religion and philosophy of the Nahua peoples. Then, in researching the illustrated encyclopedia of legendary creatures Mexican Bestiary, I delved deeply into enough pre-Colombian primary source texts that I began studying the Nahuatl language in earnest, and that led to my Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry. Reading those codices drove home how maddeningly unfair it is that our kids learn about Greek, Roman and other European myths when in school, but are rarely exposed to the sacred tales of the Maya, Nahuas, Purépecha, etc.
I can imagine that my readers will have a passing acquaintance with Quetzalcoatl and Mictecacihuatl (though they won't know the Lady of Death by that name)--beyond that, I expect this will be pretty new territory for most. I'm excited to be their guide through Mictlan, heh.
What was your greatest challenge in writing the book? Your greatest triumph?
You might think that narrating the travels of Latino teens through the nine layers of the Mesoamerican Underworld would be tough, but what was most complex was the relationship between the protagonists, Juan Ángel "Johnny" and Carolina "Carol" Garza, fraternal twins who discover they are naguales (shapeshifters) and have to use that unfamiliar gift to save their mother from a god bent on apocalypse. I didn't want them to be stereotypical heroes or sparring siblings. I didn't want them to be abandoned to their fate by absent parents. I wanted family, culture and understanding to be at the core of their victory against dark forces. I wanted them to be best friends. I wanted their trials to deepen the family's love.
I personally think I pulled it off.
Have you written other books, other stories? Where can people read them online? Are there thematic links or concerns underpinning all your stories, books?
Yes. I've written several books, including the upcoming Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas, The Seed, Mexican Bestiary, Shattering and Bricolage, and Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry (which won the Texas Institute of Letters' translation award last year). These books can be found or ordered just about anywhere: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. I have many stories and poems published in various venues, and links to most of them can be found on my website.
There are definitely subject-matter links among these works (the legends and myths of Mexico, primarily), but thematically they are interwoven by examinations of the inability of individuals to face the horrors and challenges of life alone, our ultimate dependence on others (friends, family, community) for survival, success and happiness.
We hear the stereotype that Latinos are neither readers nor writers a lot, even, regrettably, from Latinos. Do you think there is any truth to that? Do you come from a family of readers? A family of writers?
I think that to the extent that US Latinos read and write less on average than other groups, this disparity is due to socioeconomic issues like access, education, and marginalization. Many of the kids I've worked with in public education simply didn't see themselves as readers/writers because their parents were working two-three jobs and had no time/money for what often seems a luxury. Once I exposed them to Latino literature and they began to realize that a good chunk of their community does write, does read, does engage in conversations around literary story-telling, they blossomed.
On the Mexican-American side of my family, my grandparents encouraged my dad to read, and even though he didn't go to college, there were always books in our home. He dabbled in writing as well, and encouraged me to do the same. Oral storytelling blended with bed-time stories read from my favorite books. It was a lovely mix that informs my work to this day.
How important do you think it is to see ourselves represented as characters in books? To see ourselves represented as writers on library shelves and bookstore displays?
It's definitely crucial, especially for children. I am the director of bilingual education in a border school district, and I see every day how kids are transformed by the understanding that literature is being written ABOUT them, by people LIKE them. If the root of so many societal ills can be traced to socioeconomic disparities, the only way to begin to move past that is through literacy, and the way to literacy is through relevant literature. Beyond that, pride in culture and heritage and language can't just be something "acá entre nosotros:" it needs to be monumentalized, normalized, displayed proudly and shared.
If you could say just one thing to the reader of your book, what would it be?
To readers of The Smoking Mirror I'd say hold on tight to mind and heart: it's a dizzy ride through myth and adventure, and when it's done you will be genuinely moved.