Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Guest Blogger Elizabeth Zelvin: Recreating A Vanished Culture

Elizabeth Zelvin has visited us before.  I asked her back to celebrate her new novel, Voyage of Strangers, about what really happened when Columbus discovered America. She is the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series. Her stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award and for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story. Liz is a psychotherapist who lives in New York City and is a valued colleague in the New York mystery writing community.

Annamaria Alfieri

Voyage of Strangers is not a mystery, though it's the sequel to a mystery short story that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It is, however, crime fiction. The protagonist and his adventures are fictional. The crimes--rape, murder, auto da fe,  and genocide, among others--really took place. Voyage of Strangers is set in cultures that no longer exist: Spain and Hispaniola from 1493 to 1495. While life in fifteenth-century Spain is well documented, from the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to the horrors of the Inquisition, the Taino culture that Columbus and his men discovered and destroyed is gone. Only in recent years have Dominicans and Puerto Ricans carrying Taino DNA begun a painstaking reconstruction of the Taino language and culture from the fragments that remain.  

So how does a novelist write about it? Given the limited primary sources, my method was much like that of today's self-identified Taino: fragments and imagination. Part of the creative process consisted of transposing my own experiences to the characters and settings in my story. While this is true for any writer of fiction, I found that I could take some risks, some imaginative leaps, in interpreting what I read about one traditional culture in the Caribbean because I had some familiarity with traditional cultures in West Africa, where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s.

As I discovered when I started researching Columbus's second voyage, there really is remarkably little primary source material. A lot of the "facts" we take for granted are interpretations, stated with enough authority and repeated often enough that eventually they are no longer questioned even by historians. For example, take the Carib tribe called the Canibale. Yes, that's where we got the word "cannibal." Did they really eat human flesh? Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, says even the possibility was mentioned only twice in contemporary accounts of all four voyages: when a Spaniard reported "the neck of a man was found cooking in a pot," and on another occasion, "a human arm ready for roasting on a spit."

Sale says "it is hard to think that European seamen would be able to distinguish a disembodied neck or arm as distinctly human, and not from a monkey, say, or a dog, and in any case there is no evidence that they were to be eaten...Both seem to be simple examples of people who, when primed with dark presuppositions, find what they expect to find. That is all there is. There is no further support for the legend of Carib cannibalism in any of the firsthand accounts of the Caribs over the next century".

I chose to believe Sale. I also found convincing his statement that "whenever the people of an island were submissive or at least nonhostile, the Spanish declared that they were the Tainos, or good Indians, and whenever they were deemed to be hostile or at least defensive, they were said to be the warlike Caribs, the bad Indians." Remember that the Spaniards made no attempt to learn the Taino language, but relied on captive "interpreters" who knew no Spanish. Remember, too, that when Columbus first sailed, he expected to find the Indies--Japan or China--and prepared to communicate with the Great Khan by bringing along a scholar of ancient Hebrew. He never lost his belief that these rich and civilized lands were just a little farther on and that he had explored "the Indies," not a New World.

Having made my sailor protagonist, Diego, an outsider--a marrano, a secret Jew--I was able to express my skepticism about some of Columbus's beliefs and my horror at some of the Spaniards' actions, through him. I allowed his Taino friend Hutia to explain to him that when the Taino talked about cannibalism, they were just kidding. I based this interpretation on something I experienced myself when I lived in Côte d'Ivoire in Africa. Two of my Ivoirien friends, who were educated city dwellers one generation removed from traditional villages, came from different tribes. "Your grandfather ate people!" was a common joking insult between them.

Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if the Taino told these invaders with their terrifying horses and metal weapons whatever they thought they wanted to hear. They certainly did that about the presence of gold on Hispaniola. The island had a relatively small amount of alluvial gold washed down from the mountains. This convinced Columbus that there must be a mine--the legendary Cibao--and he didn't want to hear that belief contradicted. Many Taino were killed or enslaved for their inability to provide an abundance of gold that simply did not exist.



  1. Thanks for having me on the blog, Annamaria!

  2. I too share the sense of adventure in taking " imaginative leaps". Thelma Straw

  3. Thanks, Kate and Thelma. Writing VOYAGE was a risk for me, but Diego was very insistent that I tell his story. :)