"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Monday, July 11, 2011

Artists and Revolutionaries

It was with great sadness that I learned of the tragic and violent death of Facundo Cabral this weekend. A visionary and a man of peace, the musician was gunned down by professional assassins on his way to the airport in Guatemala. 

Why?  No one is quite sure.  Some believe the target of the assassination was not Cabral but the publicist who managed his visit to Guatemala.  But there are others who suspect he was killed for the ideals expressed in his songs, folk music that has inspired generations of Latin Americans to demand justice and peace from often oppressive governments.  Whatever the motivation behind his death -- indeed, if there was a clear motivation at all -- this is a sobering moment for all of us.  Men and women of peace continue to die in this world, and they continue to die violent and senseless deaths.

Word came to me of Cabral's death on Saturday night, while I was attending the Campbell Conference, hosted by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  The loss of Facundo Cabral reminded me of the recent deaths of musician Mercedes Sosa and poet Mario Benedetti -- both perished of natural causes, but their loss was nonetheless deeply felt. 

It is my perception, after residing for ten years in Costa Rica, that artists and poets occupy a somewhat different place in Latin American society than they do in the United States.  In the U.S., we look to our artists for entertainment and escape.  In Latin America, artists are often the revolutionaries, the voice of protest, the leaders in the demand for change.  Instead of trying to distract their public from social reality, they make social reality -- and particularly social justice -- the focus of their work.  (As an interesting and perhaps extreme example, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia was assassinated in the 1950s by the Nicaraguan poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez.) 

All of this was running through my head Sunday morning, when I sat down with authors and teachers of science fiction for the last round table discussion of the Campbell Conference.  It was an informal discussion that began with comments by Sturgeon Award winner Geoffrey Landis and Campbell Award winner Ian McDonald sharing some of what inspired their award-winning stories.  (Landis received the Sturgeon this year for his short story 'The Sultan of the Clouds', published in the September 2010 issue of Asimov, and McDonald received the Campbell for his novel The Dervish House from Prometheus Books.) 

I suppose one could talk endlessly about what inspires a story, particularly a novel, where the influences can be numerous, diverse and complex.  Every so often on this blog, I've come back to the topic of what inspired Eolyn, and while listening to Landis and McDonald, I remembered one of the important books that influenced my own novel: the non-fiction work by Giocanda Belli, The Country Beneath My Skin. 

This might come as a surprise to a lot of people.  After all, how could Belli's memoir of her experiences as a Nicaraguan revolutionary in the 1970s and 80s have anything to do with the story of a young maga living in a medieval society?  But there are certain aspects of the human experience that are timeless, and Belli's story gave me many ideas to work with. 

For example, it was through her testimony that I realized the central importance of poets and artists to the revolution in Nicaragua. As a result, in Eolyn's world the revolutionaries are also musicians and artists.  I also learned a lot from Belli's memoir about the logistics of organizing major social change in an environment where any voice of protest is quickly silenced by imprisonment, torture and death.  Perhaps most importantly, I found food for thought in Belli's experiences as a woman seeking equality while engaged in a military movement that -- for all its revolutionary nature -- was still immersed in a patriarchal society and mindset. 

I wish I could say revolutions can have happy endings, and that people who advocate for peace often die peaceful deaths.  But history keeps testing my optimism, among the latest examples being the fate of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, and this past weekend the terrible murder of Facundo Cabral. I suppose this awareness also influenced the writing of Eolyn, which -- while it does not have an unhappy ending -- certainly has an ending where many of the gains are counterbalanced by important losses.

I'll have to stop there, so as not to spoil the story.

Thank you, Facundo Cabral, Mercedes Sosa, Mario Benedetti, Giocanda Belli, artists and revolutionaries of Latin America, for inspiring by your example.  May your work and your message live on in our hearts and imaginations.