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Shell, jade, obsidian and other stones left in an offering to a dead king. Traces of cinnabar remain on some of the times. From Nakum, Guatemala. Late Classic period.

Tell It How It Is

This essay first appeared in SFX magazine. 

There is a well-known nugget of advice for writers: show, don’t tell. This is an incomplete notion: show, don’t tell… unless telling is better.

Of course, no advice or how-to-manual is supposed to provide iron-clad pronouncements, yet sometimes people behave as though this was the case and sadly telling is considered the mark of a bad writer, at least amongst English-language readers.

Telling, of course, still has a more prominent and honorable role in other cultures. It’s certainly more common in what we consider some of the great Latin American classics, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I like telling. Spoken stories were formative for me. My latest novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, is set in the 1920s and follows a young woman on a quest to help regain the throne of the Mayan God of Death. I wanted the book to have a sense of telling, of a folk tale, of something spoken at nights as a bedtime story.

I wanted this subtle feeling of telling for two reasons. First of all, Gods of Jade and Shadow was written in honor of my great-grandmother, an illiterate maid who told me stories about her youth, sprinkling the fantastic into the everyday. Without knowing it, she was a magic realist storyteller even if she could not have typed a single sentence.

The second source of my inspiration was the Popol Vuh, which recounts the mythology and history of the K?iche? people, one of the Mayan peoples. The Popol Vuh is made of a series of stories which were originally preserved through oral tradition and then transcribed and translated by a Spanish priest.

I read three different translations of the Popol Vuh while writing this book. The differences were interesting and translation is probably worthy of an entirely different article, but overall I was left with the feeling that I must evoke the telling, that it was an important and crucial element.

When we think of “diverse” books, we often think about elements such as clothing or food to denote a certain culture. But there are more subtleties that place the reader in a certain time and place. The practices of telling and showing are one of these subtleties.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is the first novel where the producers of the audio version of the book obtained a Latin American narrator for me and asked how the words should be pronounced. I listened to a sample of the audio book and was incredibly happy to hear the book, to have the words take shape in someone’s lips and emerge the way I intended.

In Aztec culture, a ruler was called a tlatoani, which means “he who speaks,” and Late Classic Maya vessels scenes often show “speech scrolls.” Sometimes speech is compared to a flower, for it was a precious thing to Prehispanic cultures.

When my great-grandmother died she was penniless and left behind nothing except the stories she told me. It was a great and most generous gift.