“I don’t always know where I’ve been when I write.” – Jack Remick
Blood is the story of ex-mercenary Hank Mitchell who is in prison for stealing women’s underwear. The real reason for being in jail though is because he wants out of the guerilla wars financed by his brother-in-law’s corporation and waged against indigenous Central and South Americans defending the resources of their native lands.
Gabriela and the Widow is the coming of age story of a young Mexican girl running away from the massacre of her people caught in the middle of the drug wars. One of the things Gabriela learns from La Viuda is how to exact revenge for the destruction of her village.
Part I of this interview is here.
In Blood, Mitch mentions three books: Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame de Fleurs), Marquis de Sade’s The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom (Les Cent-vingt Journées de Sodome), and Albert Camus’s The Stranger (L’Étranger). Why did you pick those three books, all by French authors?
Those books are extremely important. They are representative of the whole history of books written in prison or about prison. Other books I considered for Blood were In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison by Jack Henry Abbott and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. But Mitch’s story has multiple indexes to French history.
Prison is a very funny thing. When you write books in prison, you’re really doing something that’s very deep and has a historical component to it. At one point Mitch says, “I don’t want to go back out there in the river of blood.” He’s happy in prison. He writes a four thousand-page book called The Patron Saint of Blood. He writes history. Notre Dame de Fleurs is about Jean Genet’s hellish time in prison because his guards would take away his writing material and he had to rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it. That’s also Mitch’s story in Blood: Mitch starts writing with semen on a wall, blood on toilet paper, and he moves to paper and all the way up to computers. He becomes a snitch in order to write. So what I’m doing is linking all those past writers who had written in prison to a contemporary story that’s saying that people will sell their souls to be able to write.
Your stories are full of known and sometimes little-known history. But even as there is history in everything you write, it’s always subordinate to the characters and the story you write. For instance, in Gabriela and the Widow you write about Çatal Huyuk, Troy, Agamemnon, Maximilian I of Mexico, The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Moscow. How did you pick the historical points to include in La Viuda’s life story? How do they relate to the thin/thick spine of your book?
I’m not aware of making all those choices, but one thing suggests another.
The history that I was aiming for in that book—after a certain point—is the history of womanhood that La Viuda wants to teach Gabriela. The mythology of womanhood. For that, La Viuda goes back to the origins, walks through time with Gabriela, showing her the old cities, the coins, the Greek coin, the Agamemnon coin, bringing it up to modern times. I also used the juxtaposition of mud (thin) and stone (thick) to get to the notion of permanence. Gabriela is looking for something permanent, and she finds permanence in two places: she finds permanence in metal and she finds permanence in stone. And if you look at the history of the human race, we first start building in mud, we start building in stone, then the world changes once we figure out how to make bronze. La Viuda is giving Gabriela a history lesson not only in an individual culture and the events in it, but also in human culture. In a strange way Gabriela becomes the history of the world and of the women in it, while also being emblematic of every person that has ever migrated north.
My favorite part in the novel is the poem from La Viuda’s funeral. Gabriela honors the two ancestries she now possesses: one from her mother, the other from La Viuda. One Mixtec, the other universal.
Gabriela let the sob rise in her chest. She leaned over the casket and she spoke to two dead women at once. She said,
“You were mothers to me.
The flesh and blood I am.
You were light to me
And the night I slept in.
You were the guides who led me
Into death and out again.
You were mothers to me
And I will miss you.”
– Gabriela and the Widow (p. 236)
What about the historical aspects in Blood?
In Blood, all historical aspects have to do with personal ascension.
Such as the history of Cathars? In Blood, you have repeated references to the Cathars and the Montségur Massacre (1244 CE) under Louis IX. Why did you pick the Cathars for the purpose your book?
The story of the Cathars is an important history lesson regarding the foundations of Western religion as it came out of the post-Roman era. The name of the Cathars shows up in Mitch’s sister’s name, Catharin. His mother was a history aficionado obsessed with the Cathars. Mitch goes back to Toulouse, home of Raymond VII who supported the Cathars.
The Cathars, also known as the Albiegensians, were a very democratic and non-sexist Christian organization. There were no priests. Everybody was a priest, the women, the men. Meanwhile, the Church of Rome became a hierarchical male-dominated culture and they needed to wipe out the heresy of the Albiegensians who were defying the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Once the king of France decided that he was going to align himself with Rome, he ordered the siege of Montségur and eventually the slaughter of all the Cathars.
The story of the Cathar religion is that the minority, the heretical view, always gets slaughtered. That links directly to all the wars of colonization throughout history. Mitch’s personal link to history is that his great grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather fought in WWII, his father fought in Vietnam, and here’s Mitch fighting his war in the jungle for his corporate brother-in-law over the resources of indigenous Central and South American populations. Mitch’s big enlightenment is when he realizes that he was killing the wrong people.
Mitch cannot escape where he came from. The history of blood shedding, the river of blood. We can’t escape where we came from either. In one of the interviews I did while promoting Gabriela I was asked if there was anything that I would do differently if I lived all over again, and I had to say, no, I’m the sum of all of my mistakes. Without my mistakes I would not be who I am. What we have to do as a culture is to learn that our mistakes have made us who we are, and to try not to make them again.
Tepeñiptlahuaca appears in Blood and Tepeñixtlahuaca in Gabriela and the Widow. What is the connection between the drug wars in Gabriela and the guerilla harassment of native people by corporations coveting their lands in Blood? Is there a theme connecting these two books?
Disguising ourselves as night, we infiltrated, killed, and before light left corpses splayed like mysterious crucifixions, throats cut using the corte corbata—a lovely cutting that severs the throat, lets you pull the tongue from the cavity to hang on the chest like a necktie—the necktie cut—a technique I learned from Suki who learned it from the Colombians during La Violencia when the rebels there stopped entire busloads of people to slaughter them all except one—the Chosen One—they left to tell the tale and to spread the terror. We were hidden in the thickets outside a tiny village called Tepeñiptlahuaca.
Blood (Kindle Locations 403-408). Kindle Edition.
The theme connecting these two stories is the devastation of this continent. Some of the most devastating interactions of Americans were especially in Central, but also in South America. We overthrow governments, we kill people, we sanction the murder of thousands of people, all for bananas or coffee or gold or whatever else there is. We fight wars for the control of the resource base. Mitch becomes a representative of all the corporations with killing power, corporations that have been trying to manipulate the world’s resource base from 1800s on. The names that appear in my books are emblematic places, full of resources, recognized by many: Tepeñiptlahuaca, La Oroya.
I chose La Oroya for a very specific reason: it happens to be one of the richest deposits of metal ore in the world. Copper and tin and gold and everything else are in that mountain range in the Andes. There, as the result of mining, the land is so toxic that nothing grows there. The animals’ food and the people’s food are toxic. And the rape continues, day by day.
In Blood, I used the name The Cerro Corporation. The real name, up until 1974 when it was nationalized, was The American Cerro de Pasco Corporation. It represents the rape of the earth. Mitch talks about going into the jungle to kill the Indians who were keeping the oil explorers out. In Blood especially I wanted to write about how the corporations have basically alienated the United States as a nation from all the people we could be doing good things with.
If you look at the way it works in Gabriela, El Senor is the representative of corporations. He’s mining the earth. That carries over, so thematically the books are linked in that way. Etymologically the books are related in the use of the names that represent certain focuses of activity.
The big thing in the Mixtec/Mesoamerican myth base I was working off in Gabriela is the descent into the underworld. At some point La Viuda talks about the Lords of Xibalba. That’s a polarity of the male death and the female life-giving force, so you get to life and death and resurrection. The ultimate death in the novel, of course, is when El Señor dies in the belly of the earth, the earth goddess engulfs him, and that’s another aspect of the descent into the underworld. With his mining company, he raped her and he did all these bad things to her, so the goddess punishes him.
How did you become interested in those wars? Have you been to those war zones?
I have been there. Central America was a trip of less than a year. The South American stay was three years. My Mexican stay was more than a summer long, maybe six months.
If you were to look at pictures of La Oroya, Peru online, you’d think it’s hell. A Dantesque hell. I’ve been there. I’ve driven through there. I lived there. I carried those images with me all my life from the time I was a boy. When I lived in Peru the first time, my father was working on a water project, dam and tunnels, for the Cerro de Pasco Corporation. A project to generate electricity. The ore they were pulling out of the mountains in La Oroya was miles away, and the destruction stretched for miles and miles too. I had no idea then, but it was one of those projects specifically designed to foment and further the exploitation of the mining resources. And with it, it brought a certain amount of death.
Now we move to cocaine: when I was in Colombia, I had quite a run-in with the criminal underground – not the cartels – and that’s when I learned all about the cocaine and what goes on there. I have witnessed the growth and exploitation of the cocaine trade of Colombia. I have witnessed the oil and mining rape of the earth in Peru and Ecuador. And I have watched the destruction of areas for marijuana in Central America, from the Southern Mexican coast to Guatemala. Rio Verde in Blood and Gabriela is a real river, one of the few rivers in South America/Central America where dysentery is indigenous and you cannot drink its water.
There’s a lot going on there that I experienced as a tourist and as a person who lived there. When I travel to a foreign country, I don’t take a lot of stuff with me, just the minimum amount to get to my destination. Then I buy clothes there, I try to live the way the people who are there live. I was so successful at blending in that, when I lived in Ecuador, people didn’t know I was an American. They thought I was an Ecuadorian-born German. I dressed the way they did, I smoked the same cigarettes, I didn’t ask for any American things, I used Ecuadorian toothpaste. That’s how you immerse yourself in a culture, not by standing out, but by being a part of it. And that’s what Mitch does in Blood. That’s what Gabriela learns to do with the help of La Viuda.
Thank you Jack for taking the time to talk to me about your novels and your writing process.
Part I of this interview is here.
Find more about Jack Remick and his books at www.jackremick.com.