The Smoking Mirror

Aztec god Tezcatlipoca’s name roughly translates to “smoking mirror,” which refers to the mirrors made in obsidian that were used for rituals. This summer, I read two books that offer very different versions of this deity: David Bowles’s middle grade fantasy novel The Smoking Mirror (2015) and Ernest Hogan’s science fiction novel The Smoking Mirror Blues (2001), which I will post a review of soon. Even those who are not very familiar with Mesoamerican mythologies would have heard of the rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and his brother, Quetzalcoatl. While compiling a list of Latinx speculative fiction, it was interesting to see how the antihero, Tezcatlipoca, captures people’s imagination more than the hero, Quetzalcoatl, though it is certainly not a very surprising discovery.

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Bowles is a writer, poet, professor, translator, and an active advocate for other Latinx writers with a strong online presence. This May, he also published a retelling of Mesoamerican mythologies, Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico (2018), through Cinco Puntos Press. As he writes in the introduction to this collection, much of pre-Colombian Mexican myths have been lost through colonialism and its reverberating effects. So, where there is gap, Bowles fills with his artistic imagination. In the Asian American context, Ellen Oh, Elsie Chapman, and Melissa de la Cruz have co-edited a retelling of folklore and mythology of East and South Asia, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (2018), which also just came out this May. In this case, their goal is to create an ongoing tradition that actively acknowledges the diasporic contexts. Since a significant portion of the fiction I am reading for current research project is YA / middle grade, I got back on Twitter and started following those writers. It is amazing how strong the sense of community is among POC writers who write for the younger audience as well as adults. Whenever I open my news feed, there are so many fascinating conversations going on that it takes me a while to scroll through them. In an interview conducted by Frederick Luis Aldama, Benjamin Alire Sáenz also emphasizes the importance of these writerly communities.

Now back to the book itself! The Smoking Mirror is the first of the Garza Twins series and it has won the Pura Belpré Honor Award. Carol (Carolina) and Johnny (Juan Angel) Garza are twelve year old fraternal twins who live near the border in Donna, Texas. When their mother mysteriously disappears, rumors about what might have happened to Veronica Quintero de Garza make life difficult for the family that is already struggling to stay together. To get back on his feet, the twins’ father, Oscar, decides to send them across the border to visit their maternal aunt Andrea and cousin Stefani. Carol and Johnny are at first reluctant to leave before school ends. However, they soon realize that this might be the chance to figure out the strange transformations they have been going through at night. They witness each other transform respectively into a jaguar and a wolf and record that process on their phones. Like sleepwalking, they don’t remember what happened overnight. Yet, they have no choice but to accept that something supernatural is happening to them.

As I have mentioned before, they too find out about their heritage through their abuela, which seems to be a recurring pattern. Through her, they find out that they are naguales, or shapeshifters. Usually, only one nagual is born in each generation. And the secret is is only passed onto him or her. With Veronica gone, abuela Helga gathers up her last remaining energy to send the twins to Garcia caves to be instructed by the tzapame or Little People. From their bilingual guide Pingo, they learn that their mother has been kidnapped by an evil force that covets the power that only the rarely born twin naguales have called xoxal. In order to save her, the twins must go through chay abah, the obsidian mirror, to the underworld called Mictlan that has a structure similar to Dante’s Inferno.

Yet, the metatextual commentary in the novel takes note of how most of the cultural references we have for fantastical elements has been Anglo thus far. The tzapame insists that they are not elves and that Mictlan is not Hell. Another interesting dynamic occurs between the twins because Carol is interested in history like her father who is a professor while Johnny prefers art and pop culture. On top of their supernatural powers, they draw on their knowledge in order to pass nine deserts and reach the center of Mictlan. Thus, the two thirds of the book is devoted to this quest which is very much action packed. I had the same thought while reading Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters but these kids really do suffer physical and psychological trauma. These writers are definitely hardcore in that department. Xolotl, a giant hell hound and the presumed tonal or animal spirit of Quetzalcoatl becomes a sort of a guardian figure for the twins. However, twins must overcome most of the obstacles by themselves as this quest is supposed to test their wit and mettle.

As Bowles’ other publications show, he is an excavator of Aztec and Mayan mythologies. So, I enjoyed discovering unique landscapes and population of each desert. I won’t spoil the details here as they are the best part of the novel. To just give a small hint, one of the memorable deserts was populated by rival races: Balamija, a huge pack of were-cats ruled by a giant were-jaguar Tukumbalam, and kamasotzob that could be described as giant owls. However, I do have a small critique, which is related to the construction of Mictlan and its layers. While it is indicated that the deserts become gradually more perilous as they near the center of Mictlan, I felt like I wanted more explanation about the internal logic of this particular underworld. For instance, why are were-jaguars and the kamasotzob fighting each other? Why were they assigned to the same desert in the first place? There might be some clues in the originating mythologies. Yet, I feel like there was an opportunity to create more suspense and tension that was missed.

My library recently purchased Aldama’s Chicano/a Children’s and YA Writers on the Art of Storytelling (2018) that is comprised of short essays by scholar-activists and interviews of Latinx YA & Children’s literature writers and illustrators. One of the frameworks discussed in that volume that I found helpful was one about code-switching — not only between Spanish and English, but also pre-Colombian languages like Nahuatl. The Smoking Mirror also tells the story in this mode. The blend of Spanish, English, and Nahuatl not only approximates the lived experience of the bi- or polylingual children, but also gives the narrative a rhythm that also creates meanings of its own. For the Latinx youths, this novel will give them a reading experience that mirrors their everyday lives, and for non-Latinx youths it will provide them an opportunity to look at the shapes, sounds and textures of the languages that they hear but cannot understand. Also, I found out that Bowles’s daughter created the cover art for The Smoking Mirror, which perfectly shows the parent-child or alternate intergenerational bonding that can happen over moments of reading together.

Here’s the link to the post on Latinxs in Kids Lit blog.

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