Mayan Storytelling

Mayan-72“Happens all the time,” says Coyote. “That’s what myths do. They happen all the time.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World

Pat and I like this quote so much that we put it at the beginning of our new novel, Mayan Interface. It sums up a lot of our thinking about Story (with a capital S).

Mayan Interface is set in two different times. One is during the fall of the (fictional) Mayan kingdom of Pakabtun during the Terminal Classic period, around A.D. 900. The other is the present day—or last year, to be precise—when a breach between past and present occurs in cyberspace, and primal shamanism and today’s information technology become pretty much one and the same thing.

As we researched the book, Pat and I studied Mayan storytelling. We were especially fascinated by Allan F. Burns’s 1983 collection, An Epoch of Miracles: Oral Literature of the Yucatec Maya. The stories that Burns brings together are a crazy quilt collage of old and new, traditional and contemporary, fictional and true. Incongruity reigns as Christianity collides with Mayan myth and religion, and as worldly personae mingle with the mythic and the holy—for example, Jesucristo, “Beautiful Woman Honored María,” and “Wonderful True God” turn up in the same story as Richard Nixon.

Regarding the oral performances he took part in while gathering his tales, Burns writes,

In Yucatec Mayan, it is not possible to say “tell me a story.” Instead, the only way to bring a story into verbal expression is to ask someone to “converse” a story with you.

Or as our protagonist, Lydia Rosenstrom, puts it,

All speech is dialogue to the Maya.

We incorporated this idea into our novel, modeling whole chapters on the Mayan oral tradition. Here we set the scene for a Yucatec storytelling session:

The three people all understood their parts perfectly. As the principal storyteller, Nacho would do most of the talking. As his designated respondent, César knew the story, too, and would prod the narrative along with questions and comments. As for Julio, he knew better than to commit the unspeakable rudeness of keeping utterly silent during Nacho’s tale. He, too, would make his voice heard in small but crucial ways as the story unfolded …

Pat and I hope that we put this philosophy to use in our novel as a whole, and that Mayan Interface is as much a conversation with the reader as it is a fixed narrative. And we hope the conversation continues after the book has been read, passing on to other people. In all of our stories, we’re not interested in imparting truths so much as we are in prompting questions, getting dialogues going, and generally stirring the hot, tasty, and variegated stew of evolutionary possibilities.

That sort of open-endedness is a part of the Mayan tradition. In Burns’s book, we noticed that a Yucatec tale never seems to take place in time at all. One notably haunting story tells of a Mayan hunter who slays a magical deer belonging to the Master of the Deer. The hunter perishes because of his hubris, and at the end of the tale the storyteller emphatically says,

“WHEN I PASSED BY, HIS FUNERAL WAS IN PROGRESS.”

When I read that story, I felt almost as though I glimpsed his funeral as well.

Maybe all of us did …

… or do …

… or shall.

Like all myths, it happens all the time.

And everywhere.

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One comment on “Mayan Storytelling

  1. […] wisdom at all? There are certainly aspects of indigenous culture that Pat and I extol. In my post of February 13, I wrote about our fascination with Mayan storytelling techniques. A related excerpt written in […]

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