Knowing I Don’t Know

A few weeks ago, I got a rejection from a magazine for my short story “Upshot.” Rejections are part of a writer’s life, but this one was unusual in that along with the “sorry” came some helpful insight. The main character is a Mayan native living in isolation in the cloud forest region of Guatemala, and I foolishly put Spanish words in her mouth. Michael, the editor, informed me that many isolated Maya speak little—if any—Spanish. Though he didn’t say so specifically, his comment implied that I might want to research which exact indigenous language she might use instead.

Duh. I should have caught that. Several of the friends who helped me with the story also said they should have caught it (one helped me with Spanish, another helped with the local flavor of the story), but ultimately it’s on me. I didn’t do a thorough job of researching my topic. Lesson learned…though I daresay it’s one I’ll have to learn again.

Research is actually part of why I love to write. I’ve learned all kinds of interesting things along the way, everything from gambling and edgy sexual terminology to exactly how humans might make years-long space journeys to details about various wars and the associated atrocities humans commit against one another. That latter subject is often difficult for me to read; I usually reach a point where I have to stop and walk away.

In this particular case, Michael suggested a book I might find helpful: The Adventures of Mr. Puttison Among the Maya, by Victor D. Montejo, a “historical and satirical novel.” I bought it right away and finished reading it this morning. The writing style is simplistic, more so than I usually see in popular novels written in/by/for Americans, which made it an easy read. My friend Laura, whose heart was given to Guatemala and its people years ago, also loaned me several additional books to read, one of which is written in this same style. Perhaps it’s a common feature in Guatemalan stories, or it could be related to translation; many concepts translate poorly if at all, since language is so deeply connected to its native cultures. (More research is required to know for sure.)

The biggest issue in “Upshot” was my use of Spanish. I decided to find maps of indigenous languages still spoken among the Maya and overlay them with maps of environmental regions to select an appropriate language for the story’s setting, and eventually decided on Ixil ( Now I just need to find some way to translate English or Spanish into that native tongue and use the words in such a context that they will be comprehensible to the reader. Meanwhile, all the Spanish will come out. While Mamá would probably understand it, she would not speak it to her girls at home.

But Michael’s suggestion didn’t just help me fix the language problem. Reading Mr. Puttison’s adventure also gave me some great tips about how the indigenous people preserve their food, which led me to read about their most important staple (corn) and how they use it in drinks served both at home and in the market (both helpful for my story). Mr. Puttison’s Maya “friends” showed me how traditional beliefs get combined with the Catholicism imposed on them by the Spanish such that, for example, they pray to the Catholic God for protection from “evil” nature spirits. This, too, could add flavor to “Upshot.” Other ingrained ideas not connected to their Catholic faith also linger. In the Mr. Puttison story, the characters are reluctant to have their photos taken. Laura tells me this is still the case among the Maya in her experience though now that more and more people have cell phones with cameras, that will likely change. This tidbit won’t come into play for “Upshot,” but it could be useful for some future tale.

These little helpful gems are fun to dig up, and definitely a boon for creating authenticity in my stories. Sometimes, though, the treasure hunts open my eyes in unexpected ways. Researching Guatemala in the mid- to late-twentieth century (the most appropriate time-frame for my story) led me to read about that country’s civil war, how outsiders (primarily the U.S.) interfered with the Guatemalan government back in the 1950s to install their own hand-picked military dictator. I’m not going to get into the politics here, but I will say I find the results appalling. The entire nation of Guatemala has been disrupted ever since. Struggling peasants were forced into what amounted to slave labor at the cost of their own family’s subsistence. People’s homes, lands, animals, belongings were seized and burned. At the mere hint of any resistance (or even if the regime wanted to make an example), whole villages were razed, every inhabitant, including children, killed. An estimated 200,000 people were exterminated by military squads (many bodies were never found; those individuals were just “disappeared” forever). It sickened me. And while details of that history would be misplaced in “Upshot,” those life-altering events would certainly color the main character’s actions, even explain why she is where she is, why she does what she does.

Having never been to Guatemala myself, I can only imagine its cities and villages based on what I read and what friends like Laura have shared. I have, however, been to Nicaragua. I don’t know enough about that country to speak on its behalf, but I do know how it felt to talk to the people (we stayed with locals the whole time), to see them in their daily routines, to listen to their stories of their own encounter with war and nationwide upheaval and how they coped. They, and research like I’m doing now, are my teachers, guiding me toward greater compassion and respect for others and for ways that differ from my own. And that can only be a good thing, because the more I as a writer can feel the emotion of the story, the richer the experience will be for my readers.

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An Aside: It’s worth noting that in searching for help with translations, I’ve learned that many of the 26 non-Spanish languages in Guatemala are endangered. They are not the only ones. Disappearing languages is a global issue. Whole organizations have formed to try and keep them alive. Ditto cultural heritage and traditions. No contemporary nation can block the relentless press of technology and modernity, but it would be a terrible loss to all of us if progress deprives us entirely of our connections to the past, to the very history which has brought us to where we are now.

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A few organizations working to save languages and cultures:

Cultural Survival —

The Endangered Languages Project —

Linguistic Society of America —

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Culture and language loss in the news:

CBC Radio-Canada —

Smithsonian Magazine —

Straits Times —

University of Oxford —

(These are only a few. Dozens of other articles can be found with a simple Google search. The problem is legion, and it’s not a new thing. Educate yourself.)