Posts Tagged ‘Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’

Misogyny in SF/F – Some Thoughts

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This last weekend I attended the local MALcon just a few minutes down the road from my house. I only went on Saturday, to see if it was something I’d like to participate in in the future, and with departure for Loncon just days away, I didn’t want to spend too much time away from home. On the whole it was rather enjoyable; quite small, but there was a good variety of panels on writing and topics of interest to me.

DCF 1.0I was particularly interested in the panels on powder keg topics and misogyny in SF/F. The latter one had only two men scheduled to be on the panel, so I was invited to join them up front, but I declined because I’m not good talking about political topics, even the ones I’m passionate about. They did find a really well-spoken woman from the audience (I’m pretty sure she was a scientist) to join them in the discussion. My one disappointment though was that the topic got so derailed onto gender differences being cultural vs genetic that we seemed to spend very little time actually discussing misogyny and bigotry in the SF/F field. Near the end, the discussion turned finally to the problems women and minority writers face in the field, but mostly to talk about how boys won’t read female narratives and how women writers can get boys to engage with their SF/F. It was suggested that writers could start out with male characters then ease them into female characters.

While I’m in favor of trying to get boys to read more female narratives, my personal feeling is that this method is just more of the status quo: female characters must be propped up by male characters. And what about adult fiction? Must we hand-hold men lest they scoff and close the book? Should I have made the Bone Flower Trilogy a mixed narrative of both Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin’s POV, even though Topiltzin’s story has been told over and over again, in hundreds of years of myths and even in modern books such as K. Michael Wright’s Tolteca or Kenneth Morris’s The Chalchiuhite Dragon? Maybe I should have, then I wouldn’t have been told by a big publishing house that my story was “too feminist” for their predominately male epic fantasy audience. Despite all this, I have no regrets about making Bone Flower Quetzalpetlatl’s story rather than Topiltzin’s; her voice was one lost to time and reduced to little more than a tool for the amusement and ambitions of male gods. This method of couching female narratives through the filter of men and their experiences feels an awful lot like telling stories about native cultures through the eyes of their white colonizers, so the perceived predominately-white audience has someone to grab onto and relate to without having to do any work on a personal and cultural level (and man did discussion of this particular literary device cause a yelling match on a panel at WorldCon in Reno a few years back! I thought one panelist’s head was going to explode when a female panelist said that was a crappy way to write about alien cultures, or other human cultures, for that matter).

Because of the direction of the panel for most of the hour, we didn’t get into much discussion about the negatives of this approach, or what other options are available to writers, which is a pity. These are important discussions to have. From my own experience, there’s multiple points where blockades are put up against women/minorities and their stories; most are cultural and will be extremely difficult to overcome, but some are inherent to the capitalistic nature of publishing and are perhaps a bit more easily changed. Readers can only read what is available to them, and if publishers are not publishing women/minority writers/stories, then readers aren’t going to see them. The chance for exposure and change is being cut off at the source in favor of narratives that are “safe money-makers”. I often hear people defend the status quo by telling those complaining, “Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you go write the stories you want to read then?” Newsflash: lots of writers do this, but those stories aren’t being published because they aren’t the safe, time-tested product that publishers know they can rely on to sell. Thank goodness for self-publishing and small presses these days, or else truly deserving and compelling narratives–like Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink–would never see the light of day. I’m torn on the whole publisher part of this equation; I understand their need to turn a profit so they can publish more books and not go under, but at the same time that very factor is contributing to the silencing of important narratives and stalling the expansion of the art form, based mostly on an inkling of what does and doesn’t sell (not to mention that often when they do take a chance on a non-status quo book, they don’t put the necessary push behind it to help it succeed in the competitive marketplace because of fear of investing too much money and losing it all).

file4501243625430Culturally speaking though, we need to teach boys from a young, young age that women’s/girls’ stories are worthwhile, and provide them with a multitude of narratives throughout their early lives, and get away from the whole “this is for boys, this is for girls” BS. Girls are already being taught from early on that men’s narratives are as worthwhile as women’s narratives (sometimes even more so than women’s), so we should be doing the same with boys. To me, it comes down to parenting, and is supplemented by teachers at the elementary school level. The more we expose children to a multitude of view points, the more open-minded they will be as adults.

One of the panel members mentioned a comic he saw on Facebook where two skeletons were sitting at a table holding beers and the caption said something like “what happens when men sit down to try to understand women”, and pretty much every woman in the room agreed that it was stupidest thing they’d ever heard, but also not surprising. Boys are taught from a very early age that they should only immerse themselves in things considered male while avoiding things perceived as female lest it taint their masculinity, so no wonder they grow to view women as mysterious. Quite honestly, if men want to understand women better, they can start by reading women characters and writers, and reading those genres supposedly geared towards women. Read a romance, read an epic fantasy that follows the lives of female characters rather than male characters, read mysteries with female sleuths–like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books–and read literary fiction centered around female characters. And even better, seek out books from minority female writers about the female experience. One will soon find out that women are not inscrutable and mysterious, but are in fact human beings, and in turn their relationships with their mothers, their sisters, their girlfriends, their wives, their daughters, and their female friends will greatly improve. This doesn’t mean giving up reading the comfortable male narratives they enjoy, just expanding their reading horizons to include more challenges to one’s view of the world. Let us teach our sons that not only is Harry Potter’s story awesome and meaningful to their lives, but so is Katniss Everdeen’s; Superman and Batman are awesome, but Buffy kicks ass too. If we do this, then there will be more demand for Katnisses and Buffys, and then maybe publishing will take more chances on female narratives in epic fantasy, comics, and hard science fiction (places where androcentrism is currently at its strongest).

Men, stop living your whole literary life in safe comfort and the selfishness culture has taught you, because your comfortable reading habits are making things more difficult for those of us who don’t have the privilege of being white male cis. Be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. And women and minority authors, continue writing your narratives and trying to get them heard, no matter what publishing or the broader culture tries to tell you about their worth. Keep fighting the good fight, for your stories deserve to be told and heard.

Bone Flower Throne on Scalzi’s The Big Idea

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the-bone-flower-throne-displayI got the opportunity to talk about my new novel The Bone Flower Throne over at John Scalzi’s blog, so if you’re curious about what inspired the story and why it took me four years to get it finished, hop on over there and give it a read. Here’s a little sample:

I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.

Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: Three Tellings (Mythology)

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The Bone Flower Throne takes place in the mythical-historical world of 10th century Mexico, at the beginning of the Toltec Period. In the south, the mighty Maya Empire was in sharp decline, and the major civic and religious center in the Valley of Mexico–Teotihuacan–had been abandoned for at least a hundred years, leaving a handful of small city-states around the valley to vying for supremacy. Eventually, the city of Tollan (Tula) would emerge as the powerhouse, lead by her priest-king ruler named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl; a man shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Who was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl?

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

Legendary Priest-King Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

England had King Arthur, Mesoamerica had Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. He was a legendary ruler who united all the city-states under his rule in Tollan and infuriated the gods when he outlawed human sacrifice. There are numerous stories about his life, where he came from, and how he died (or in some cases became the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl), each one as different as the next, but his importance as a cultural hero is irrefutable; the Mexica emperors of Tenochtitlan claimed to be his blood descendents, holding his throne in anticipation of his promised return, and some sources even claim (erroneously) that the Emperor Moctezuma thought Cortes and his men were Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and his followers returning from exile.

Not much is known–historically-speaking–about the Toltecs and their famous king, for much of what we know was passed down orally by the Mexica, and like many before them, they likely twisted and changed the tellings to benefit their own interests. Tollan is an actual place though, with magnificient ruins that include Atlantean  warrior statues and numerous temples decorated with reliefs of eagles and coyotes. The word “Toltec” means “artisan” in Nahuatl, and all the archeological evidence found in pottery and sculpture supports that attribute. It’s unknown if Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was ever a real, historical figure but the Mexica and many other tribes treated him as such.

My favorite source for the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is the book Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs by H. B. Nicholson. It is the single most comprehensive collection of the stories about the legendary priest-king, drawn straight from the original Nahuatl sources. If you have an interest in Topiltzin, I highly recommend it, to get you started. Below are some of the myths that informed my own vision of the world portrayed in The Bone Flower Throne.

Juan Caños Relaciones

This source is a mixture of two known sources which were thought to derive from a third unknown source of some antiquity. It takes its name for Juan Cano, who petitioned a Franciscan monk to prepare the account, in an attempt to trace the true lineage of Doña Isabel, or Lady Tecuichpo, daughter of Emperor Moctezuma. Below are the parts that relate to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

After the gods created mankind at Teotihuacan, the Chichimeca group moved to a town called Teocolhuacan and elected their first ever leader, Lord Totepeuh, who has a son he named Topiltzin. Totepeuh though is soon after assassinated by his brother-in-law, who steals Teocolhuacan’s throne for himself.

To properly honor his departed father, Topiltzin buries his father’s bones and builds a temple atop them. This move angers his uncle, but when the man comes to kill him, Topiltzin shoves him down the temple steps, killing him. With his father avenged, Topiltzin takes back the throne of Teocolhuacan and rules there for a number of years.

Inspired by the gods, eventually Topiltzin gathers his followers and takes them on a fourteen year journey that ends when they finally reach Tollan, which is only then a small Chichimec settlement. Topiltzin and his men build it into a grand city, and he rules prosperously for twelve years.

But trouble is brewing; during those twelve years, he’s forbidden anyone to perform human sacrifices in Tollan, and the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca have taken note of this blasphemy. They demand he start offering human sacrifices again, or get out. Mysteriously, instead of dealing with them as he did with his uncle, he decides to abandon Tollan without any kind of fight. He goes to Tlapala and within two years, he’s dead and everyone mourns for him. Except Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, who are still angry and so don’t allow anyone to rule Tollan for almost a hundred years. Eventually, they permit a blood relative of Topiltzin, a man named Huemac, to take the throne, but his reign ends in disaster when a monster attacks and drives most people from the city.

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

The Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl

Histoyre du Mechique

This is a french copy of a famous lost manuscript once written by Fray Andrés de Olmos.

Topiltzin is born under the name Quetzalcoatl, to the god Camaxtli and the goddess Chimalma, but as the gods are prone to do, Chimalma dies giving birth and so Quetzalcoatl is raised by his grandparents. When he’s reunited with his father and brothers, the latter–in a fit of jealousy–plot to kill him, first by trying to set him on fire, then shooting arrows at him.

He escapes both murder attempts but refuses to burden his father with the knowledge that his own brothers are trying to kill him. However, when their father confronts the brothers about it, they kill him, and this time, Quetzalcoatl gathers his friends and together they kill his treacherous brothers. To celebrate their victory, they get intoxicated drinking liquor from cups made from his brothers’ skulls.

Once they recover from their revelry, they head for Tollan. Once there, Quetzalcoatl becomes a celibate priest and instructs them in the proper methods of ritual sacrifice, and, in turn, they worship him as a god for the next 160 years.

But then the god Tezcatlipoca arrives to liven things up. He can’t stand Quetzalcoatl (whom he’s adamant isn’t a god at all), so he steals Quetzalcoatl’s rain-making mirror and vandalizes the temple. He then torments the people by transforming into various monsters, showing off how much more powerful he is than Quetzalcoatl. But after he beats up the temple attendants, Quetzalcoatl flees Tollan.Tezcatlipoca follows him though, taunting and attacking him everywhere he tries to settle.

Eventually, Quetzalcoatl can’t take it anymore. He flees into the desert and commits suicide by shooting himself with an arrow. Beside themselves with grief, his followers cremate him, and the smoke gathers in the sky to create the planet Venus.

Tollan

Atlantean warriors in Tollan.

Anales de Cuauhtitlan

This is a complication of various stories from different sources within the Basin of Mexico and Pueblo, with the details often conflicting with each other. Below are the aspects of these tellings that influenced the story in The Bone Flower throne.

The woman Chimalman becomes pregnant with Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl after swallowing a turquoise or jade stone. His uncle Ihuitimal rules Tollan while Topiltzin is young, but once he dies, Topiltzin takes the throne. He grew up a very religious young man and carries this over into his rule, building all kinds of temples and penance houses, and offering only sacrifices of butterflies, snakes, and birds. He keeps himself out of the public eye during his reign, remaining sequestered away to live the proper life of a celibate priest.

Angry about the lack of human sacrifices going on, Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl and Toltecatl plot to drive him from Tollan. Tezcatlipoca sneaks past the guards into Topiltzin’s private sanctuary and shows him his own reflection in an obsidian mirror. Topiltzin is shocked to see how old and ugly he’s become with the years. Claiming to help him feel better about himself, the gods dress him in feathers, to make him beautiful again, and they prepare a magnificent feast. After much effort, they convince him to sample the octli (pulque) and he finds it so delicious that he puts away four cups and insists all his attendants try it as well. With everyone drunk and having a good time, Topiltzin calls for his “sister”, the priestess Quetzalpetatl, and takes her away from her ritual fasting so she too can try the octli. They spend the night neglecting their religious duties, drinking and making merry (and possibly doing other things he’d sworn off as a celibate priest….).

Once dawn comes though, Topiltzin is beside himself with guilt and, having failed at his religious duties, he decides he can’t be ruler of Tollan anymore. Taking his attendants with him, he leaves, but he fails to find anywhere that gives him the joy and love he felt in Tollan. Grieving all he’s lost, he dresses himself in his finest clothes and jewelry, then he sets himself on fire. His burnt heart rises into the heavens as the Morning Star.

Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more of the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and the various gods.

Want to win a digital ARC of The Bone Flower Throne? Click here for details. Contest ends Tuesday September 3rd.