Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Prologue to Two Dancing on the Red Earth (Novel Fragment)

(Note: What follows is the prologue of my Master's dissertation, an historical fiction novel titled Two Dancing on the Red Earth. I wrote the very first draft of this prologue during one particularly tedious afternoon, during my Science, Fiction and Fantasy class at the University of Cambridge. With it came the idea of writing a novel loosely [very loosely!] based on some of the stories I'd heard growing up from my family. I created two entirely fictional main character: Jesús Saavedra and Libertad Monte, and had them act out the stories I grew up with while, at the same time, experiencing first hand the history of Puerto Rico. The plan was for the novel to span a whole century: from 1898 to 1998, telling the story of the island as seen by normal people going about their daily lives. 

While still in Cambridge, I wrote the first draft of the first chapter. And then left it on the side for some time.

Years later, as a graduate student, I met a professor who gave this novel new life. Dr. Richard Weinraub, one of the most amazing teachers I've had the pleasure to be a student of [and I've met more than my fair share of remarkable teachers] became convinced that I had solid talent as a writer. He was the one who proposed presenting a work of fiction as a dissertation. And he was also the one who fought the hardest to make that happen, along with my graduate adviser Dr. Sharon Rowley, against an English Department that, unlike the one I had experienced during my undergraduate years, was unyielding and traditional.

Once the idea was accepted, I had the incredible fortune of having Dr. Loretta Collins as my dissertation director. She had profound influence in my writing, and pushed me hard to finish what I'd started. I have never been able to truly thank her, and everybody else that fought for me, for what they all did. I was an insufferable, immature idiot back then and I wasn't exactly grateful. I am truly ashamed of that. In many ways, in my professional life, as a teacher, journalist and professor, I've strived to never go back to that person I was again. I hope to make them all proud of me some day.

For this dissertation, I had an outstanding committee of  incredible people I truly did not deserve. Besides Dr. Collins and Dr. Weinraub, the always amazing Dr. Dannabang Kuwabong was one of my readers. His final comments on my finished novel made me more proud as a writer than anything I'd experienced until then.

This is the final draft of the prologue that was turned in and approved by my committee. [Although I have to admit I did some very minor editing as I posted it.] I did not finish my original intent of narrating one hundred years of Puerto Rican history, since I was advised by Dr. Collins that it would have been too long for a dissertation. I instead divided the story into two "Books" and finished the love story of the first generation of the family ending "Book I" right at 1952 with the creation of the Puerto Rico Commonwealth. The rest of the story, "Book II" remains to be told.

It is truly a strange feeling to read this text again after so many years. This prologue still is one of the pieces I am most proud of. I remember that, as I wrote it, I had a clear concise voice narrating it in my head. It's also very startling how much influence Neil Gaiman had in my writing, even back then. The prologue is "written" by D.S., who is a character within the novel. The whole narrative is written from his perspective, as he is telling the story of the family to one of his descendants.)


by D. S.

            Some people say that the day the Old General of the Army of the United States of America set his powerfully built, glorious booted foot on the sands of the tiny bay of the village of Guánica —gallantly spearheading the invasion of the Island— was a sunny day.  Not a single cloud in an ethereal, unreal sky.
            Other people say that the day the Old General savagely came ashore opening fire into a town of horrified, bleeding, dying people galloping for miles, was indeed a cloudy, dark, dastardly day. 
            Still some other people (people who are said to know much and know perhaps with blind devotion or perhaps with just plain silliness) angrily preach that the forgotten Old General did not come to shore at all.  The war‑ignorant, trusting people of the Island invited the Americans as a nice person invites a guest to a quinceañero.
            Bring me a present, I shall give you cake.
            But don’t listen to these people.
           A month later this lovely “rural walk,” so called because of the weak resistance the war‑minded invaders faced in this nurturing tropical island, ended.  An island where desert fades into green and where straw pavas are only worn as folk dancing costumes.  An island which they never did conquer by the force of their murdering bayonets but by the stroke of a eagle’s feather pen when a piece of paper was signed thousands of miles away, across the Ocean Sea, in a city of brightness, soon descending into metal,  and past glories, never forgotten, never mentioned but by old men murmuring into the night about the lost emperor who would never again place his  poisoned, posing hand on his chest and who died  closer to home than his empire ever was.
            The Great Spanish Empire had fallen.  With it came tumbling down four centuries of indoctrination, conquest and violence.  Of culture, colonization and amalgamation.  (They say you can still hear the unearthly footsteps of dead Taínos, always running, always escaping, across the river beds in the dead of night.)  
             And today, after five centuries, the picture in the children’s textbooks is always of three smiling races, with perfect teeth.  A native Taíno with his golden skin, a Spaniard with glistening armor and an African with his hands locked by a broken chain.  All male.  Races cheerfully holding hands singing Christian spirituals, with a glint of the future in their cheerful eyes, making people of the Island like happy little bunnies. 
How fast we forget. 
That day, a dead Empire had been swallowed by the rising Northern child.
 It was Imperialism bumping Mercantilism.
There were no goodbye gunshots. 
No grieving widows. 
Only silence.
            And some coquís clamoring in the night.
            And as  the wife of a Spanish general offered a coughing U.S. General some cookies and tea for his throat, her husband signed the surrender and handed his garrison over without a bead of sweat or blood in an old, majestic house now inhabited by a lonesome poet surrounded by books, verses and old memories that were never his.
            Keep reading.
            Some people say that the brave boys of the Army, coming from such strange, distant places as Illinois and Massachusetts, came as liberators.   Like Prometheus, bearer of fire.  Other people speak of traición and locura; of sumision and imperialismo.  They speak of horrible acts in powerfully scary words like esclavización, invasor, bastardos, gringo, el yanki quiere fuego, Americano cabrón.
            Still others claim that no such thing ever happened.  That the Island was carefully and lovingly wrapped in the soft boiled leaves of plantains like a yucca pastel, a bit bitter to the taste but perfectly balanced with the pig’s meat inside, and presented to the might of the powerful Americans, like a decent, civilized host would do in the late hours of a Nochebuena when cheerful people come to give a parranda.
             They say that to believe otherwise would be plain idiocy.
            Who is the fool? 
            It is for you to find out.  This is not my story.
            We have much more interesting things to discuss.
            It was in that sunny, cloudy, fearful, festive, gray, white, black, unreal day, that two things happened.  One man saw the Sun for the last time.  Another saw it for the first time.
            Same fate. 
            Only in reverse.
            And around them the Sea.
            And that newborn man, although perhaps unimportant and meaningless to history, is important to us.
            ‘Why?’ you ask? 
You shall see Destiny writing in his big book, the one Book that is chained to his arm, through his eyes. . .her eyes. . .our eyes. . .their eyes.
Don’t worry, you’ll eventually understand. 
            That day happened.  If the sun shone or the rain fell in that small village as it witnessed history, we don’t know.  We may never want to know.  We do know two (maybe three or four?) things about this particular date.
            Never forget these.
            In those twenty-four hours an old, weary Andaluz war horse was finally put down with the swift, icy metal might of a cold American .45.
On that day, a hickory stick, wielded by three men carrying a flute, a flag and a drum, pierced the white sands of Buyé, Boquerón, Mar Chiquita, el Tuque, Joyuda, Condado. . . and a new line, digging incessantly into the grains, was drawn, erasing the old one into the sea.
            And a man died, leaving his wife and unborn child to be carried aimlessly by the whims of life.
            Whims?  Aimlessly?
            A child was born without a father but not fatherless, into the uncertainties of a world that had changed beyond recognition.    
                On a rock in the lonely, tiny bay of Guánica there is a date preserved for eternity by glory seeking widows for their war‑weary men.  They soon forgot about it and left it to rot.
            That is the date of the beginning of our story. 
            It is also the date on which it ends.
            Contrary to what fools say, chance has nothing to do with life.
            Rain or sunlight doesn’t matter to us.
Or do they?
If you ever go to the town of Guánica, do visit that rock.  Any local would be glad to show you where it is. 
With a smile . . . with a frown?  Maybe an alcapurria or a Medalla afterwards, right across the street.
 If you stand in front of that rock you will surely see a decaying dark plaque, right above an engraving, encrusted with the passage of time, salt and gleeful eyes.  Below all the useless words of old war hawks (and bored bureaucrats), it simply reads:

July 25, 1898.


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