|Let Me Explain Certain Things|
|an article by George Foy|
|courtesy of Bantam Spectra Science Fiction and Fantasy|
How was The Memory of Fire born? With a woman named Soledad. Well, maybe
that's not quite accurate. When I dig deep enough into how a book started I
invariably find at its very root a mood, a sense impression. This mood
surrounded a woman, fine -- a woman living in a strange city dreaming about the
place she had fled. Her home city was someplace tropical, and it was being
shelled by the army, and it was burning fiercely. That's almost the first
line of the novel... How this image came to her and to me was thus quite
literally a memory of fire, but most powerfully it was a dream of music and
the destruction of music, because Soledad is a musician and her city, Bamaca,
was a place that used tunes -- different types of South American music, cumbia,
vallenatos, lanto -- as its deepest form of expression. So the flames were
The music I was listening to at the time was a combination of Colombian Vall enatos, and Afro-Peruvian tunes, particularly Mario Lando; I was also listening to samba, and the lilting, minor-key Portuguese ballads called Fado, which are a feature of the novel I am writing now.
At the heart of Soledad's dreams was an understanding that her dreams were more than that. They were excursions into what had actually happened to Bamaca and to her lover, Jorge, a poet who had been at the heart of the anarchistic, black-market free port they lived in. She was burning with a sense that what would happen to her hometown would happen in the future, to the place where she had ended up, the disused Oakland Navy Yard now operating as a similar free port.
At this point I was building into the novel themes that had been started but not fully developed in books like Contraband and The Shift, in particular the "smuggling philosophy" of the reprobate Hawkley, which posits two main ideas: 1) that the world has been taken over by huge business and governmental organizations that are actual, living, breathing life-forms; and 2) that the only way to escape becoming slaves to these life-forms is to construct a web of "nodes," black-market communities that espouse no official rules but aim to achieve a barter economy independent of the "Megorg" dominating most of the rest of the world.
It's no coincidence that both Bamaca and Oakland are seaports. I was born and live within a stone's throw of the Atlantic and seaports are in my blood. My father worked on ocean liners and I was a ship's officer for a while. I once talked to a lawyer from Shanghai who explained why that city's outlook was always more liberal than Beijing's. "Because it's a seaport," he said, "we see people and ideas from the whole world." It makes sense to me that port cities should be where "nodes" crop up first -- as I believe they will, because the smuggling philosophy, to me, is absolutely real and viable. Jesse Helms, take note.
Jorge I based partly on Pablo Neruda, whose poems have marked me as much as anyone's writing has. One poem in particular, "Explico algunas cosas," with its fiery rage against what Franco's troops had done to Neruda's Madrid, left its mark on MOF. "And one morning, everything was burning," his poem goes, and ends with the question, "You ask why I don't write of rivers and volcanoes of... my native land? Come and see the blood in the streets... come and see the blood in the streets!" Of course, Neruda's native land, Chile, was to be the scene of repression as bloody as Franco's. I drew on pictures of Neruda's house on the South Atlantic, full of ships in bottles, figureheads, and massive tables -- a place where you could drink wine and discuss poetry forever, had not Pinochet locked it up -- to furnish Jorge's rooftop aerie in Bamaca.
One final note: Bamaca's main language is a lingua franca mostly based on French, with Spanish, Portuguese, and even some English and Hebrew thrown in. There is a town in Brazil called Macapa, a seaport on the Amazon delta, that was built by gold prospectors from French Guyana. I stole their language; I also stole their "national" dish, a strange tapioca-like paste that includes river shrimp. I am grateful for these things, and I feel no guilt for the theft. My novels are castles built of stolen objects.
This essay originally appeared in the Bantam Spectra e-mail newsletter.
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