Dwell in the Wondrous: The Millions Interviews Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Of the more than 50 novels H.G. Wells wrote in his lifetime, The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896, is one of his most intriguing—and frightening. This seminal science-fiction narrative tells the story of Edward Prendick, who finds himself shipwrecked on the island home of Doctor Moreau, where Moreau has created human hybrid beings via vivisection, or surgical experimentation on live animals. A compelling page-turner, the novel also confronts major philosophical themes about human identity, our responsibility to animals and other people, and our penchant for playing god.
The Island of Doctor Moreau ignited the imagination of bestselling novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose latest book The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, plumbs even deeper into its predecessor’s philosophical themes by exploring cultural, political, and sociological issues that arise from colonialism, colorism, classism, and sexism. In yet another twist on Wells’s narrative, Moreno-Garcia sets her novel in Mexico and centers much of it on Moreau’s hybrid beings.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a thrilling, complex, and ingeniously crafted novel that explores not only what it means to be human, but also society’s often cruel and devious attempts to dehumanize those who are categorized as “other.” Moreover, Moreno-Garcia is an expert storyteller who populates her exhilarating tale with complex characters. I talked with Moreno-Garcia about the evolution of science fiction, the surrealism of history, and writing one of the must-read novels of 2022.
Daniel A. Olivas: Your novel is loosely inspired by the H. G. Wells science fiction classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau, first published in 1896. What was it about the Wells novel that inspired you to create your own vision of Moreau’s medical experiments of creating human-animal hybrids?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I’d been interested in doing something with this for a while, but I just couldn’t find a way to ground it. It wasn’t until I decided to set it in the Yucatán in the late nineteenth century that I was able to get a true feeling for the structure of the story. One of the things that interested me about Wells is that he is one of the progenitors of modern science fiction. He helped the genre take shape, but the genre is still very malleable. He wrote what were then called “scientific romances”—the term “science fiction” hasn’t been coined yet. And a lot of the tropes and the forms of the genre that we’ve come to rely on, they’re still in the future. Because of this, I think nineteenth-century literature can transcend boundaries. It can get messy.
The other thing is that I was not just looking at Wells—I was also very interested in the work of Ignacio Manuel Altamirano and his 1869 novel Clemencia. This is what might have been termed a “sentimental” novel, a mix between historical and romance. Altamirano wanted to create a new type of national literature, one that was in some sense free of foreign influence. Ironically, Clemencia is very much influenced by Dickens, Scott, and French literature—the book even opens with epigraphs by E.T.A  Hoffmann. Still, Altamirano and other Latin American writers were trying to create a different kind of book at this time, something that blends European Romanticism with Latin American specificities. I was looking back at Altamirano as much as I was looking at Wells when I was considering how to build this book. That’s why Clemencia is also mentioned in the novel.
DAO: The Wells novel is told in the first person through the voice of a man who is shipwrecked on the island of Doctor Moreau. However, you constructed your narrative in alternating third-person chapters that focus on several key characters including Carlota, your novel’s titular daughter, who is the central figure of your tale. Could you talk a little about your creative decision to depart from the Wells novel in this and in many other ways?
SMG: Wells basically tells his story in epistolary form. You have someone narrating what happened to him via a manuscript years after the fact. Conversely, I have two points of view. One is Carlota, Moreau’s 20-year-old daughter, and the other is Montgomery Laughton, the doctor’s right-hand man. They provide a contrast. Carlota has grown up isolated in the middle of the jungle, exposed to the outside only via her father’s teachings and books. She is young, naïve, hopeful, and has not seen enough of the world. Montgomery is an alcoholic who works with Moreau because he hit rock bottom. He is 35, cynical, bitter, and has seen perhaps too much of the world. These radically different characters balance each other and serve to complicate the story.
DAO: By setting your novel in Yucatán in the late 1800s and giving agency to Carlota and the other hybrid characters, one could read your novel on two levels. On the one hand, your narrative can be enjoyed as a thrilling science fiction and horror story that keeps the reader turning each page to find out what happens next. On the other hand, your novel may be read as social commentary on colonialism and society’s treatment—and exploitation—of “the other.” Could you share with us your process of developing the key elements of your narrative, and did you have this dual goal in mind?
SMG: I like grounding my work in historical fact because the truth can be surreal. You can’t quite believe the things you find in footnotes. Colonization is an especially interesting subject in Latin America. Did you know, for example, that there were Mormon colonies in nineteenth-century Mexico? That after the American Civil War, ex-confederate soldiers went to Brazil to establish settlements there? Or that there was a bloody conflict between the Indigenous Maya of the Yucatán and the Mexican population of mixed and European descent? This last event, known as the Guerra de Castas, is what I use as the backdrop in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. It’s a time when Great Britain is supporting the Maya rebels because it benefits their interests in British Honduras and the peninsula is essentially divided in two. This is also a time of great scientific discoveries, and great quandaries. You have the rise of eugenics, you have vivisection, happening at the same time people who are figuring out ways to save lives and stop the spread of diseases. These different forces coming together and how they clash, I think they’re very interesting. You can approach all of this in a completely realist manner by building a historical novel with no speculative elements. Or you can dwell in the wondrous, almost unbelievable nature of it all.

Alive and Fighting: The Millions Interviews Edgar Gomez

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Edgar Gomez is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Their debut book, High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir, has received universal praise—and let me add my voice to this choir of accolades. Rich in detail, intelligence, and emotion, High-Risk Homosexual is a literary joy and a vital addition to coming-of-age memoirs. Gomez does not shy away from the difficult truths of growing up Latinx and gay in a world that is too often cruel and unaccepting. But with grace and humor, they have served up a remarkable, inspiring, and poignant book that belongs in every library and on every high school and college reading list.

Gomez graduated from the University of California, Riverside’s MFA program, and their words have appeared in many publications including Poets & Writers, Narratively, Catapult, Lit Hub, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Plus Magazine, and elsewhere online and in print. I spoke with them about the possibilities of memoir, the utility of labels, and High-Risk Homosexual.

DANIEL A. OLIVAS: High-Risk Homosexual is your first book. How did you decide to introduce yourself to the literary world with a memoir rather than a novel or short-story collection?

EDGAR GOMEZ: When I first started writing as a kid, I was all about fiction. I’d sit down and start inventing things and for some reason I didn’t understand, up through college, that pretty much all of my characters were straight, white, usually rich people. This wasn’t intentional. It just never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be. Those were the kinds of people that were written about in the books I grew up with and so those were the kinds of people I wrote about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing in the tradition of queer and other marginalized folks throughout history who weren’t able to speak openly about their lives and so used other, more “palatable” characters to tell the stories they wanted to tell. 

It wasn’t until I started taking classes in college with professors who asked me to write nonfiction that my stories—for obvious reasons—began to have people who looked and spoke like me, came from the same places. In retrospect, even when I was writing for fun and wasn’t thinking about being a Writer with a capital W, I didn’t believe someone like me could be the main character. Even then I’d internalized the demands of a publishing industry that is often racist/homophobic/et cetera and puts certain voices on a pedestal and accuses others of not being “marketable,” which we know isn’t true. Those demands are still there in nonfiction, but there’s something nice about not being able to change the facts of my life. Even if I wanted to be more marketable, there’s a limit to what I can do to make that happen. I love being limited in that way, because I sometimes worry that if I wrote fiction I’d go back to being that student who was afraid to center themselves. 

DAO: Writing is hard, lonely work, though for many, including me, it can be incredibly fun and exhilarating especially when readers start to react to your efforts. How would you describe your process of writing your memoir including the difficulties as well as joys in writing it?

EG: At this point in my life, I’ve probably had over 60 jobs, from selling bootlegs CDs at the flea market as a kid, to cocktail serving at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen. And to be honest, writing might be the easiest job I’ve ever had. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but I’m constantly grateful that I get to do work where my creativity is valued and I’m not breaking my back, though writing does require you to hunch over for hours. 

My process is straightforward. The majority of the time, I already have one big memory that I know I want to write about. I may not know what the story is, but I know there is a story hidden in there somewhere. I open a word doc or the notes app on my phone, vomit out as many details I can remember about that memory, and after about a month of doing that, I have what amounts to a bunch of puzzle pieces. I use those to figure out what picture to make. That’s the hardest part, because there’s so many different directions that you can go, and also because I want to make sure that the picture is interesting and useful to other people, not just me. There’s no guaranteeing that it’ll happen, but when someone does tell me my story helped them, it feels like magic every single time. 

DAO: Labels play a key role in your memoir: Latino/a or Latinx. Gay or straight. High-risk or low-risk. In your view, what are the dangers of labels? Can labels play a positive role in life?

EG: I don’t believe labels are always the worst thing. I want to know what kind of milk I’m buying. I want to know if I’m going to a gay bar and if it’ll be Latin night and they’ll be playing salsa or reggaeton. It’s when we apply strict, fixed labels like that to human beings, who at our best are always growing and adapting, that things get trickier. I’m a Pisces (does this count as another label?)—I’m always changing my mind. 

The most off-putting thing to me about labels isn’t the labels themselves, but who is doing the labeling, because they’re often used to continue harmful agendas. “High-risk homosexual,” for one, is not something I would have called myself when I applied to be on Truvada, a once-a-day pill that reduces your risk of contracting HIV, but the medical system in the U.S. did. I see a direct link from that label to the misconception that only queer people contract HIV, which leads to violence against the LGBTQ+ community as well as to members of the heterosexual community who think HIV is just a gay disease. Like everything else, labels can be good in moderation. And let people decide who we are for ourselves. 

DAO: In your acknowledgements, you thank many loved ones and mentors. But you also say that you “want to hold space for the queer people who lost their lives at Pulse. I will think of you and thank you my entire life.” You then offer “rest in peace” before listing them by name, the vast majority of whom were Latinx. It is a very moving manner to conclude your debut book. Could you talk about why you’re grateful, and what such a loss tells us about our society?

EG: The shooting at Pulse was more than a headline for me. The people who died were people I danced with on Saturday nights, who bought me drinks, who stood next to me at drag shows and cracked jokes with me in line for the bathroom and offered me community when I was at my most lost. They were people who, at a time when the world tried to convince me that being who I was would only lead to pain and suffering, showed me joy. 

Losing them is another reminder that this world has a lot of healing to do. The shooter was someone who had a lot of internalized hate, racism, and homophobia ingrained in him. I think of the lives he took whenever I feel like my work on this earth is done, and whenever people outside my community claim there is no danger to our human rights. Remembering them makes me acutely aware of how lucky I am to be alive and fighting.

He Is All of Us: The Millions Interviews David Bowles

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Many readers may know David Bowles from his Twitter feed, where he schools us on Mexican and Latin-American cultural touchstones and indigenous languages. And he has the academic and literary chops to back up his tweets.

Bowles—who self-identifies as half Chicano from South Texas—is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the author of 14 books. He was inducted in 2017 into the Texas Institute of Letters in recognition of his literary accomplishments and is the recipient of many awards, including from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press. Bowles’s books include the Pura Belpré Award-winning The Smoking Mirror, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, which was one of Kirkus Reviews’s Best YA Books of 2018.

This year, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Lee & Low Books will release Clockwork Curandera, a graphic novel illustrated by Raúl the Third. Additionally, Bowles’s Nahuatl translations of the late Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry will appear in the 25th-anniversary edition of Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation, which will be published by the University of Arizona Press.

In September, Cinco Puntos Press published Bowles’s most recent book, They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems, which was selected as a School Library Journal Best Book of 2018, a Shelf Awareness 2018 Best Books of the Year, and NCTE 2019 Notable Verse Novel.

This latest effort is filled with Bowles’s trademark humor and bilingualism (not to worry if you struggle with Spanish: there is a handy glossary at the end of the book). And in this time of heightened anti-immigrant political rhetoric emanating from the White House, such a book is a welcome balm for what ails us as a nation. Indeed, They Call Me Güero should be in every classroom across this country because it does what literature does best: it humanizes “the other”—while also letting border kids know that they are not alone, while celebrating their multicultural community. Bowles kindly agreed to sit down with The Millions and answer a few questions about his latest book.

The Millions: Why did you choose to write a novel-in-poems rather than a traditional novel?

David Bowles: Actually, the question you might ask is “why a novel-in-poems rather than a collection of poetry,” because that was my original intention.

The book’s genesis was the poem “Border Kid,” commissioned by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong for their anthology Here We Go, put together in response to the anxiousness kids of color were feeling at Trump’s election. The speaker of the piece is a Chicano kid living on the border who goes with his dad to the little town on the Mexican side. When they’re driving back, the border fence makes the boy sad, but his dad reassures him that it cannot stop his heritage “from flowing forever, like the Río Grande itself.”

That poem got reprinted in the Journal of Children’s Literature, and when I was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in April of 2017, it was one of the pieces I read before the members of TIL. Afterward, Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press approached me and said, “If you can write another 50 poems in this kid’s voice, I want to publish that book.”

So I did. At first, however, there were multiple sections, only one of them telling the story of the unnamed protagonist/speaker and his seventh-grade year. Other sections were about celebrations, traditions, music, poetic forms, etc.

It was Bobby Byrd, working as editor of the book, who realized it wanted to be a novel-in-poems. When he pointed this out to me, I pouted for a bit, then re-read it all. He was right. There was a story that wanted telling. Manos a la obra.

TM: Though the action takes place in the present, there appear to be many autobiographical elements to the poems. Is “Güero”—the pale-skinned boy who is at the center of these poems—based on you and your experiences?

DB: I certainly dug into my own experiences as a half-Chicano child in deep South Texas in the 1970s and ’80s. But I filtered that through the lens of my son’s life and the struggles of other kids we know, like the undocumented girls and boys in our community who now fear for themselves and their families. Perhaps 30 percent of it is fictionalized versions of things that happened to me. Another 30 percent I lifted from the lives of my son and other kids. The remainder is fictional, though informed by what we see daily in our community.

After a few poems, it all blended together in just the right balance, like a good pico de gallo. I could hear the boy just as clear as a bell. He didn’t need a name. He’s the güero, the light-skinned kid in his extended family, a 12-year-old with one foot in mainstream America and the other in his family’s Mexican American traditions. A Gen-Z gamer who goes to Spanish-language mass, a dreaming reader who runs through the monte—the brush—with his dog.

In that sense, sure, he’s me. No, that’s not quite right. He is all of us traviesos, que no? Mischievous and big-hearted, maybe softer than the men in his family might want, but ready to stand up for what he believes in.

TM: How did you approach developing the narrative arc for this collection?

DB: Once we decided that the collection was going to be a short novel instead, Bobby Byrd asked me to restructure the poems, putting everything in chronological order. Then we took stock, pulling out what didn’t fit the sort of loose plot and making note of the gaps in the narrative. At the end of the day, we realized that—in wanting to appeal to boys ages nine to 13, a group notorious for not liking poetry—we needed narrative poetry, action, overarching plot, etc.

With that in mind, I then set myself to creating more poetical vignettes to fill in the gaps and address those needs. Before long, the book took on the basic shape it has now.

Lo raro es … I’m usually a huge plotter. Like 5,000-word outlines and so on. But this project just grew organically. My mental Güero composed the poems he needed and wanted to compose, and in doing so, he traced his journey through this very difficult year of 2018. All raza who have lived through its ups and downs as well will probably feel themselves reflected in his own lucha y celebración.

Hopefully, as the new year begins, we can also hear poetry in the ebb and flow of the world around us, just like Güero learns to do.