Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Happens All The Time

“Happens all the time,” says Coyote.
“That’s what myths do. They happen all the time.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World

"Caan sees a ruined city, empty of human souls.
Many of the temples and palaces are crumbling and
half-consumed by the encroaching, low-lying jungle.
Some have been reduced to piles of rubble as serpentine
vines tug and pull at loose boulders and stones."
(Photo from Uxmal, quote from Mayan Interface.)
Researching a novel rooted in Maya culture, we attended a workshop on glyphs, visited the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, and read every authoritative book we could get our hands on. We also studied Mayan storytelling. Especially fascinating was Allan F. Burns’s 1983 collection, An Epoch of Miracles: Oral Literature of the Yucatec Maya. The stories that Burns brings together are a crazy quilt collage of old and new, traditional and contemporary, fictional and true. Incongruity reigns as Christianity collides with Mayan myth and religion, and as worldly personae mingle with the mythic and the holy—for example, Jesucristo, “Beautiful Woman Honored María,” and “Wonderful True God” turn up in the same tale as Richard Nixon.

In Burns’s book, we noticed that a Yucatec tale never seems to take place in time at all. One notably haunting story tells of a Mayan hunter who slays a magical deer belonging to the Master of the Deer. The hunter perishes because of his hubris, and at the end of the tale the storyteller emphatically says,
We almost get the feeling of having glimpsed that funeral going by.

Maybe we did …

… or do …

… or shall.

Verb tenses in a Mayan story float freely between past and present. Perhaps all stories actually happen in the times of their telling, verb tense notwithstanding. After all, myths happen all the time. And strictly speaking, myths aren’t really told at all, but shared. Burns writes,
In Yucatec Mayan, it is not possible to say “tell me a story.” Instead, the only way to bring a story into verbal expression is to ask someone to “converse” a story with you.
In his introduction to Burns’s book, Dennis Tedlock explains further:
For the Yucatec Maya, even an asymmetrical genre such as narrative formally requires performance not only by “the person who knows the stories” but by “the person who knows how to answer,” the latter being much more than a mere member of an audience.
Or as the protagonist of our novel, Lydia Rosenstrom, puts it,
All speech is dialogue to the Maya.
A timely concept when so much visual art and theatre (to say nothing of subatomic waves and particles, and cats in Schrödinger’s boxes) require the participation of the viewer. And if Harold Bloom regards something as comparatively tame as poetry slams “the death of art,” what on earth will he say if Maya-style storytelling finds its way into our bars and cafes?

We took up this conversational concept of storytelling in our book, modeling whole chapters on the Mayan oral tradition. And we hope the conversation continues after the book has been read, passing on to other people. In every story we write, we’re not interested in imparting truths so much as in prompting questions, getting dialogues going, and generally stirring the hot, tasty, and variegated stew of evolutionary possibilities.

Mayan Interface is a genre story, a thriller that plunges into reality-shifting mythology and the consciousness-shifting theories of Julian Jaynes. Here’s the beginning of a chapter in which current-day Mayans and a Mexican guest converse a story. You can read the entire chapter as it was reprinted in SOL: English Writing in Mexicohere.
The three people all understood their parts perfectly. As the principal storyteller, Nacho would do most of the talking. As his designated respondent, César knew the story, too, and would prod the narrative along with questions and comments. As for Julio, he knew better than to commit the unspeakable rudeness of keeping utterly silent during Nacho’s tale. He, too, would make his voice heard in small but crucial ways as the story unfolded …

NACHO: We’re going to converse right now
of a story of very long ago,
of a time before time,
of a time before the Epoch of Miracles, even.
We’re going to converse of two Spirits:
The Spirit of San Juan Bautista,
and the Spirit of Mr. Savior Jesucristo.

CÉSAR: But before they came among us.

NACHO: Right, before they joined the human race,
before the Word became Flesh,
back in the time when they were just Spirits,
twin Spirits, Holy Ghosts, haunting the unborn world.
Mr. Savior Jesucristo hadn’t been born as God just yet,
and not as a man, either.
Because there are no people yet, you see?
This is a time before time,
a time before the Epoch of Miracles, even,
so people are just some idea in the mind
of Wonderful Rey de Dios Padre,
who didn’t yet know how to give birth to them.


NACHO: So they aren’t gods or people, but spirits, these twins,
the Spirits of San Juan Bautista and Mr. Savior Jesucristo,
before they even had the names we know them by today.
this story is of the time before time,
before the sun rose for the first time ever,
and of a very dark world awaiting any kind of light,
including stars and the moon.
And the only light there was came from the feathers,
from the bright red plumage of a bird.

CÉSAR: The macaw.…

Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin write books together. They are the authors of The Jamais Vu Papers, an experimental novel that has maintained a following for over two decades. They also wrote the popular thriller Terminal Games, which was discussed by literary critic Kate Hayles in How We Became Posthuman and taught in courses about literature and contemporary culture at several leading universities. Their articles and essays have appeared in various publications, including the Reality Club anthologies Speculations and Creativity.  Pat and Wim met and married in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago. They have lived in several other U.S. cities and in the beautiful historic town of San Miguel de Allende, Gto., Mexico. These days they’re in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Visit them at

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]

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