Diversity in SFF – Why Aztec?

Why Aztecs?Yesterday on Twitter, the hashtag #DiversityInSFF was trending and lots of people were saying a ton of really good things about the issue of diversity in SF/F, whether it be in books or publishing as an establishment. I did a lot of retweeting but not a whole lot of talking; other people were saying the things I might say much better than I ever could. Last year, at MileHiCon, someone asked me why I write about Aztecs, something I’d never been asked before, and I really struggled to give an answer; I felt the need to give a really compelling answer because the question was posed by a Chicano, but I managed only to mumble something completely stupid because I’d never really thought about why. I’m sure my flustered response probably left him considering that I was just another white person robbing his culture for the “oohs” and “aahs”. I can’t begrudge him the curiosity about my motivations though. And with my first novel coming out soon (which has zero white people in it), perhaps it’s time to really address that question in a serious, thoughtful way.

Why do I write specifically Aztec science fiction, fantasy and romance?

Well, I can’t imagine writing anything else; even if I never published again, the urge to write these stories would not go away. Hell, I left my agent because I thought that, to continue down the traditional publishing path, I would have to give up writing Aztec-influenced stories, and quite frankly, I would rather have no traditional publishing career than do that (and I think she knew this and so gave me no answer when I flat out asked her if that’s what I needed to do). I have no way of describing it other than “It’s where my heart lies.” When I try to think of anything else in my life that I’ve ever felt this passionate about, there is nothing. The only thing that kept me from pursuing a higher degree in Mesoamerican studies was my lack of Spanish-speaking skills (oh, if only I could go back to high school and insist on taking Spanish rather than French….)

Growing up, I had very narrow ideas about the Aztecs; all I knew was the human sacrifice stuff, and cities of gold. We never studied them in high school; there were far more important things to study, like European history and literature, because in American academics, that is the center of the world. No one talked about things like plague blankets or the Trail of Tears, or how disease massively depopulated Central America in the decade following the Spanish Conquest. Mexico was this mysterious, colorful place full of maracas and sombreros and burritos, filled with people my stepfather called all kinds of terrible names for no apparent reason I could ascertain.

Then, in college, I took an introductory history class on Native Americans, which covered the North American tribes, but also the Inca, Maya, and the Aztecs. My professor was Chicano, and he spent a great deal of time talking about Aztec culture, with a lot of passion, and he stripped away all of my childhood misconceptions and provided a glimpse of things I never knew, had never heard of. I was already quite interested in mythology in general by that time, so learning the basics about Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli lit a fire in me; I’d never heard of them, and I’d never read anything about them, in either fiction nor nonfiction. But I wanted to. This was back in the days before Amazon, so finding such work was no easy task; in fact, I never did find anything like that back then.

The following year, I got into Clarion West and they encouraged us to try new things with our writing; strive for greatness and not be afraid of failing while reaching for it. So I decided to write what I couldn’t find, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I took still more classes in Mesoamerican studies as part of my degree, and learned still more and more interesting things about the complexity of Aztec culture. There was so much to tell, so much that everyday people were mistaken about Aztec culture and religion, and this fact is really at the crux of why I write what I write.

I’ll pretty much try reading anything I can find that has to do with either Aztecs or the Maya, because there’s so little out there, and while there is some really good stuff–stuff that shows care and passion for the culture–there’s also a great deal of simplistic focus on the more “sensationalist” aspects, like blood sacrifice; and overwhelmingly, that focus is negative. The default setting for Aztecs in fantasy is as the bad guys, using human sacrifice and blood magic to do evil things, and this focus serves to demonize not just the Aztec culture, but Mexican culture by proxy. And not just in literature, but in real life; probably the most disturbing example I’ve seen was an article in an American police publication calling for Mexicans to forsake their native heritage and the Nahuatl language as evil because Mexican drug gangs embrace it–and implied that only criminals would embrace it. There’s a long tradition in Western culture of demonizing Mesoamerican culture, starting all the way back with the Spanish conquistadors and their exaggerations and outright lies to justify the wholesale slaughter of the native peoples, and it’s time we said enough–particularly white people.

Stop with the evil Aztec blood magic already!

It’s fucking lazy at best, but mostly complete ignorant bullshit. There is a ton more to Aztec culture and history than just human sacrifice (and our modern, Christanized view of it), and it’s all as important and worthy of attention and understanding as western history and literature. Everyone knows who King Arthur was, but how many of us know about Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl? How about why human sacrifice was practiced at all? How many people know what the Triple Alliance was, and about the politics of the Valley at the time Cortes landed? Anyone who claims that Mesoamerican culture contributed nothing noteworthy to western civilization is just stupid (and yes, I’ve seen this said in discussions of why Mesoamerican history is not taught with the same depth as European history in primary school). There are countless stories worth telling, history worth knowing, and that’s why I write what I write.

And as this is not my culture, I know I will get things wrong; it’s inevitable that my upbringing in white western culture will cloud my view and influence the way I tell stories, but that’s no excuse to not try. It’s no excuse to not keep learning and trying to do better with the next story/novel. It will be uncomfortable–sometimes even painful and embarrassing–facing my mistakes, but I will become a better writer–and human being–for doing so.

Authors to read:

Ernest Hogan

Sabrina Vourvoulias

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Aliette de Bodard

Zoe Saadia

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