Stephen Henighan is a novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and academic based out of Guelph. Recent works of his non-fiction include: The Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (2013); and Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal & Sergio Ramirez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (2014). He regularly writes a column for Geist Magazine called The Afterlife of Culture found here.
Brad de Roo had a far-ranging chat with him about and around his new novel The Path of Jaguar, which will be available on Oct 1 via Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press. More close to home, Stephen will be releasing the book at the Bookshelf on Tuesday October 18th at 7pm.
Brad deRoo: If you had to sell your novel in a small plaza stall or bookstore, how would you quickly describe it to a somewhat touristic reader?
Stephen Henighan: A novel about the complicated relationships between people—and it happens to be set in post-Civil War Guatemala, among people torn between different cultures.
BdR: Guatemala is almost a character in The Path of the Jaguar. Are you personally acquainted with the place?
SH: By the time I first went to Guatemala for my doctoral research in late 1994 and early 1995, I had been reading about the country for almost fifteen years. I’ve been going back ever since. I wrote a book about Guatemala’s greatest writer, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, I reported from Guatemala for Canadian newspapers, coordinated a semester abroad there for Canadian students, travelled all over, studied a Mayan language. In November 2014, I co-organized a conference on Guatemala in downtown Guelph. No country in the Americas packs so much cultural, historical and geographical variety into such a small area. No other country is quite as oppressive or disturbing, and nowhere else is the survival of the local culture so miraculous.
BdR: Is a personal acquaintance with a place essential to fictionalizing it?
SH: Absolutely essential. Which is one of the reasons historical fiction rarely succeeds. You can't visit 19th century London or ancient Egypt.
BdR: Do you note many attempts at superficial literary tourism?
SH: This does happen, but what perturbs me more is writers who choose a subject as the result of a marketing meeting and then go off to “research their novel.” Fiction comes from the imagination, but it has to originate in some aspect of life in which the author has a strong emotional stake.
BdR: Your acknowledgements thank a number of contributors to what you call your "eternally unfinished apprenticeship in the country’s culture." Presumably, you had some academic and colloquial assistance in researching the country’s complex character? What sorts of questions did you ask these people?
SH: My academic research in Guatemala was very different from the formal interviews I did as a journalist, or the background-type questions I asked people when leading students on field trips. None of these were ever intended to produce a novel. This novel, like most fiction, emerged from unofficial conversations, from acquaintances and friends talking and me listening and their voices getting snagged in my head.
BdR: Are all investigations of a country’s culture in a sense "eternally unfinished apprenticeships"? Is the idea of mastering a culture or a language an inherently flawed (perhaps, even colonist) idea?
SH: The most flawed and colonialist idea is to go around the world imagining you can understand other places by speaking only in English. To learn another language, they say, is to possess a second soul. You can only begin to approach other people’s souls if you relinquish your sense of mastery by stepping out of English and approaching them in their own languages. Guatemala has a cultural continuity that goes back 2000 years. In that sort of environment one can only ever be an apprentice. But a studious apprentice can still internalize quite a lot of knowledge and feeling.
BdR: In Latin America, this would mean stepping out of the shoes of the gringo? What besides English do these shoes tread into the mix?
SH:You can never escape being a gringo, but plenty of gringos have achieved some sort of semi-integration that affords an understanding of the culture that approaches the intuitive level. Since different Latin American cultures are very different from one another, what you have to let go of will vary from country to country. In Guatemala, relaxing your grip on Western rationalism can be useful in some contexts. Almost everywhere, shedding the enforced informality of North American mores and adopting a more formal, polite register will help.
BdR: By the end of the novel, an increasing number of characters are forced by economic pressures to illegally enter the US via ‘coyotes’. This portion of the book struck me as horribly contemporary, in light of Trump’s inflammatory views on immigration. How do you think the US election results will affect Guatemala? Would a Clinton administration spur any real change in the region?
SH: Guatemala’s worst problems come from its racist oligarchy which actively despises the majority of the country’s population, and its corrupt and unresponsive legislative and judicial institutions. Until society becomes more democratic–and there is a youthful minority that is campaigning to reform the country’s institutions—there won’t be significant change. As Secretary of State, Clinton supported the trials of Guatemalan generals who committed vast human rights abuses in the 1980s, but she also supported the 2006 military coup in Honduras. Trump would be a global disaster, but no obvious good will flow to Central America from the election of Clinton. My sense is that for most Central Americans, who becomes president of the United States matters far less than it did in the days of Ronald Reagan.
BdR: Canadians are received with mixed feelings by the Guatemalans in The Path of the Jaguar, whether at the city language school or in your lead Amparo’s village. What has Canada’s role been in the region? Is it declining? Neutralizing? Improving?
SH: In the novel, the highly religious Guatemalans find Canadians odd because most of them are relatively secular. The Path of the Jaguar ends in 2005. Unfortunately, if you were setting a novel in Central America today, Canadian characters would get a much harsher reception. Since 2004, Canadian mining companies have destroyed large tracts of Guatemala and Honduras with open-pit mines. Canadian companies have poisoned rivers and farmland, demolished villages and deceived local people about their intentions. The private security firms hired by Canadian mining companies have been implicated in the murder of protesters and the rape of Mayan women. The Globe and Mail won’t report any of this, even though one of the rape cases is due to be tried in an Ontario court room. The New York Times does report it. These days Canucks backpacking through Latin America remove the maple leafs from their packs when they reach Guatemala to avoid getting a hostile reception. I would argue that, with the possible exception of our involvement in Saudi Arabia, Canada’s mining activities in Guatemala and Honduras are the worst thing we are doing in the world right now. Canada never had a high profile in Central America, though we used to have a neutral-to-positive image in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In Guatemala, at least, that’s finished and we have a negative image.
BdR:Your novel intricately weaves together dialogues and thoughts in English, Spanish, and Cakchiquel. Did any unexpected challenges arise in this weaving?
SH: Nothing that lends itself to being formulated in any kind of theoretical way. Basically it was just hard work: going over it again and again and again until it sounded plausible and uncluttered.
BdR: What has the study of Cakchiquel taught you about the world? Has it changed the way you think in any surprising ways?
SH: I never became highly fluent in Cakchiquel, but I did learn a lot of words and expressions and how to conjugate verbs in the past and the past, and hold a basic conversation. I’ve written about my discoveries in trying to learn Cakchiquel.
I wanted the language to be “audible” in the novel in order to confront the reader with indigenous cultural difference.
BdR: Likely, the weaving of languages offers some room for allegorical play as well? Your lead Amparo, for example, has a name with distinct meanings in Spanish…
SH: Yes, the name means “shelter.” And of course Amparo is seeking the right sort of “home” to construct for herself in a world that straddles Cakchiquel, Hispanic and globalized realities. I didn’t think about that very much when I was writing the book. I was more interested in the sound of her name, Amparo Ajuix: the way the alliteration drew the two words together, while the contrast between the Spanish first name and the Mayan surname pried them apart.
BdR: The Jaguar is a potent symbol in the novel and in Mayan culture in general. The novel links the animal to Mayan divinity and origins. What should a reader not informed in the finer points of Mayan cosmology know about the significance of jaguars in this culture?
SH: I don’t think it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge. Amparo’s identification with the jaguar, and where that comes from, is made clear in the course of the narration. It’s true that Mayan rulers in the Classical Period (250AD-800AD) often chose the name “Jaguar” because it suggested strength. But, aside from the possibly provocative idea of a woman identifying with this traditional symbol of male prowess, no anthropological insights are required.
BdR: The traditional roles of women are actively called into question by many of your strong female characters - such as Amparo, Raquel, and, eventually, Sandra. What are the depictions of women like in most Guatemalan literature? Are there many women authors? Is there an artistic movement to better represent them?
SH: In the work of Miguel Ángel Asturias, women tend to be earth-mother figures. Representations in contemporary literature run the gamut, but there are relatively few women writers. Ana María Rodas pioneered a sexually frank, feminist poetry from a rather left-wing, upper-class perspective in the 1970s. Today there is a well-known young Mayan poet named Rosa Chávez who mingles Spanish with Quiché-Maya, and written texts with performance pieces. There’s also a 21-year-old Mayan folksinger, Sara Curruchich, who has become wildly popular in the last two years and is inspiring younger women to revise stereotypes about both race and gender.
BdR:You dramatize the importance of higher educational opportunities, the innovation of microcredit, and the transmission of traditional skills (like weaving) as some of the valuable yet fraught means by which women take greater power. What needs to happen to make these means more effective? How do you decide to engage with social issues like these via fiction, rather than by essay or article?
SH: I suppose I wasn’t really conscious of “engaging with social issues.” It’s simply that in the course of telling Amparo’s story, I stumbled into Guatemalan social realities. This, remember, is a country where the government pays for only six years of primary school. Unless your parents have some money, that’s all the education you’re going to get. Recently, I have been involved in a project, with some other profs, to produce a non-fiction book on contemporary Guatemala. The references to microcredit and traditional skills are important here, but above all they're part of a work of fiction. Before writing this novel, I had written journalism and literary criticism about Guatemala. But in The Path of the Jaguar I wanted to tell a story.
BdR: What’s next for your literary travels?
SH:It’s hard to know the answer. I travel for all sorts of reasons; the writing comes later, often much later, and is almost always a surprise. I’ve been to Mexico many times, have strong personal connections with the country and teach Mexican history and literature. Yet I’ve never written a short story or novel set in Mexico. On the other hand, I once went to Bolivia for eleven days and wrote three short stories set there. In Europe, Hungary and France are countries where I’ve spent a long time on multiple visits without ever writing about them. Yet three visits to former Yugoslavia have produced two novellas and a long section of a new novel. Writing is irrational and unpredictable, which is why it’s worth doing.