Why I will never write a Mayan apocalypse novel

On December 21st — or December 23rd, depending on who you ask — 2012, the world will come to an end.

Or not.

On that date, the Long Count, one aspect of the fantastically complicated Mayan calendar system, will read 13.0.0.0.0. That’s the “end” of the calendar: we’ll have completed 13 baktuns, bringing us back around to the Long Count date for August 9th, 3114 B.C., which the Maya may or may not have considered the beginning of time.

Of course, the situation is more complicated than that. For example, there are inscriptions giving Long Count dates with more than five units, suggesting the calendar just keeps on ticking upward, rather than starting over. Also, there’s no particular reason to believe the Maya thought there would be any apocalypse. Most people who talk about “the Mayan apocalypse” are crossing it with Mesoamerican myths about previous “suns” or worlds, and the Aztec notion that this is the Fifth Sun (and therefore, within a certain cosmological framework, necessarily the last one). It’s all pretty tangled.

But we’re spec-fic writers, right? Even if no Maya ever believed the world would end in 2012, it’s enough for us to play “what if.” And Mesoamerica is one of my personal interests — that article I linked above isn’t the only one I’ve written on the region — so it seems logical that I should think about writing a Mayan apocalypse novel.

I’m never going to do it. And the other day, I realized why.

My train of thought went something like this: I would probably want a protagonist who knows something about Mesoamerica and the indigenous cultures there. Say an anthropologist, or an archaeologist. But now that I think about it, I’d feel pretty lame if I didn’t include some indigenous characters in the book; after all, contrary to unfortunately wide-spread belief, the Maya didn’t vanish. They moved out of their cities, sure, but there are still Maya in Guatemala and Mexico, still following the same sacred calendar they used in the past. I couldn’t leave them out of a novel like this. So I’d have to read a bunch of ethnographies, and make a research trip to –

No.

No, to do this right, I would not have to “make a research trip.” I would have to go down to Guatemala and do a year of anthropological fieldwork, living with some K’iche’ Maya community, apprenticing myself as a daykeeper, learning about them and their beliefs firsthand. I’m a novelist, but I’m also an anthropologist. And I could not, in good conscience, try to represent one of the K’iche’ (or any other Mayan group) as a protagonist without knowing them better.

The counter-arguments to this are obvious. I just wrote a whole book about Elizabethans, and I didn’t spend a year living in Elizabethan England, now did I? Nor even trying to live like an Elizabethan. I write about faeries and assassins and all kinds of other people I’ve never studied ethnographically, and I borrow from real-world cultures all the time in creating my settings. Why is this different?

It’s different because the Maya — the K’iche’, the Tzotzil, the Kaq’chik’el, and all the other groups — are not just real people, and not just real people who are still around. They’re real people, still around, who got invaded and conquered and slaughtered and marginalized and a whole host of other things I need to be aware of, as an extremely white American with marginal functionality in Spanish and maybe two dozen words of any Mayan language. Now I want to play with an idea that has only dubious validity in their culture, write a character who’s “one of them,” and mine their sacred traditions for a story concept that’s rather sensational to begin with?

See my post last month, about respecting history. That goes quabillion-duple when I’m talking about people out there in the world today.

Could I still do it? Certainly; they’re unlikely to have any way to stop me. Could I still do it respectfully? Probably. In fact, I’ve kind of done it before, writing a story about an anthropologist doing fieldwork among the Nahua in Veracruz; that character is one-quarter Nahua, three-quarters Latina, interacting with a real-world indigenous group.

I read a 480-page ethnography and e-mailed about six different researchers in the course of writing that 8300-word story.

Now let’s scale that upward for a novel.

I could do it. But I wouldn’t feel right. Call me crazy — I probably am — but I would not feel okay writing a Mayan apocalypse novel without doing my anthropological homework first, and given the topic, that really would mean learning to be a daykeeper. (It’s been done before; the Tedlocks, whom I cite extensively in that article above, have both been initiated. Though not for the purposes of a novel.) And that, I immediately realized, is more work than I really want to do.

I don’t want to write a Mayan apocalypse novel badly enough to do it right.

And I refuse to do it wrong.

So that, apparently, is my break point. The question of how to represent other cultures respectfully is a complicated one that needs to be weighed on a case-by-case basis, and each person’s mileage (writers and readers alike) will vary. For the first time, I’ve found where I stop. How about you all? Have you ever looked at an idea and decided you can’t (or won’t) do enough work to do it right? I’m very curious to know if other people have backed away from story ideas because of concerns about representation.

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  1. 1. Vol

    Dear Marie, sorry if I took to much freedom to call you dear, but I’ve got feelings of your inspiring soul and that is just great to see people so great about what they are doing in life. I get into study about Mayans almost a year and among all the information about calendars of Maya I came across of work of Swedish Doctor of microbiology Carl Callmen. Probably you know his work but just in case you did not. I found his information very professionally structured and decent as he took a really scientific approach to the information of Maya. I put below his website where you can read his articles for example, especially in regards to the beginning of Long Count. I keep tracking days and already amased how changes of day energies reflected in my personal life and around. For instance today, when I came across your information I had look at Tzolking interpretation of today’s:
    Manic/Deer – key meaning fellowship, freedom and independence. Here you go – this is yours. Action, Accomplishment, Doing, Following instinct. That’s all you need for your work…
    May be you’ll find Callmen’s work useful but please do not kill you dream to write about Mayans as you seems to be in love with this subject and there is nothing in the world could be better…

    Sorry if I make you feel strange but that’s the way I feel….

    Vol…

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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