TMW: What factor/s compelled you to write about the culture and lifestyle of the Mayas?
Jean: The Earth does not belong to man, it is man who belongs to the Earth. – Amerindian proverb
In fact, the cosmological and spiritual vision of the indigenous people is most inspiring.
According to it, nature and the universe are benevolent and alive and provide teachings to humans, who can draw great lessons of wisdom from them.
I had already been fascinated by the saga of the Conquest of the West told by the author AB Guthrie and the series of The Teachings of a Yaki Indian by Carlos Castaneda, but one of my favorite novels that I have read and reread is Aztec by Gary Jennings considered as the great novel of a disappeared civilization, in which an old Aztec merchant explorer tells the story of the Mesoamerican civilizations during an interrogation by Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, the first inquisitor of Mexico. I had also read quite a bit about the Mayan civilization (National Geographic, Autrement) mainly known for its advances in writing, art, architecture, agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy.
I must also say that my years of study in a classical college run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart greatly influenced me in portraying the priests and lay persons working as missionaries. I know that religious people get a bad press these days, but my personal experience with them has been nothing but good. At the time I never heard of any abuse from them, and I admired the community aspect of it and the great erudition of my teachers.
So, when a journalist friend of mine approached me after seeing my film Sadhana-Back to the Source in a movie theater, to talk about missionaries’ involvement in the Latin American civil wars in the late 70’s, thinking it might interest me because it involved the descendants of the ancient Mayas, and the fact that during the short period covered by the novel, nine Catholic priests were brutally murdered, twenty-five received death threats, and forty-two were forced to leave the country, it lit me up.
I began researching and traced an article that appeared in a magazine published by the Foreign Missions Society, which recounts the experience of a Catholic priest in a Guatemalan village, when the military raided the village. Then I traced and interviewed an aid worker who had worked with a colleague who returned to Guatemala after the missionaries were repatriated. The latter died in an operation in the capital, which was the basis for the last chapters of the novel. The process to the book was underway.
I ended up submitting a development project to the Canada Council for the Arts which offered me a field research grant. It helped me to go to Guatemala and Mexico Chiapas, were I made interviews with Mayan people, conduct research in the country’s national library where I found the minutes of the operation that led to the death of aid worker, and visit the country to find places to set my story. Other than that, I have read inspiring books like “I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala”.
TMW: Given the dark peek into the lives of these native people in the 1970s, what values did you intend to express towards your readers as they progress through the narrative?
Jean: How ignorance, fear of difference, a way of life in which people see themselves as separate from nature can lead societies to justify the worst acts of barbarism and destruction of the environment.
I think that what compelled me to write about the culture and way of life of today’s Mayas was the fact that descendants of the great Maya civilization had preserved much of the culture of the ancients, always seeking harmony with the surrounding nature. One can sense their underlying natural and spiritual strength and high level of resilience that seem to have protected their authenticity and integrity throughout the centuries since the Spanish Conquest. It is important to note that although the civilization had reached its peak around the 250s A.D. and its decline extended into the 900s A.D., the Maya conquest was long and bitter, and the Maya kingdoms resisted integration into the Spanish Empire for nearly two centuries. What would have happened if the diseases imported by the Europeans had not decimated the indigenous population so much.
In 1520 and 1521, an epidemic of smallpox affected the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and was one of the main factors in the fall of the city during the siege. It is estimated that between 10 and 50% of the city’s population died from this disease in two weeks. Two other epidemics affected the Valley of Mexico: smallpox in 1545-1548 and typhus in 1576-1581.
In 1617-1619, an epidemic of bubonic plague ravaged New England. The exact toll of these epidemics is difficult to give. Sources are non-existent and historians do not agree on estimates. Some suggest 10 million Amerindians for the entire continent; others think more like 90 million, 10 of which were for North America. The entire American continent (from Alaska to Cape Horn) would have been home to about 50 million inhabitants in 1492. The figures for the territory of the United States today are between 7 and 12 million inhabitants. Approximately 500,000 Amerindians populated the east coast of this area. By the beginning of the 18th century, only 100,000 were left. In the Spanish Empire, the mortality of the Amerindians was such that it was one of the reasons for the slave trade, which allowed the importation of labor for the mines and plantations in the “New World.”
TMW: Despite being historical fiction, is the narrative of your book based on a real-life story? Who inspired you in creating the character, Paul Desilets? Is he you or some other person, metaphorically?
Jean: Much of the narrative of my novel is based on the experiences of religious and lay missionaries in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Guatemala and other parts of Latin America. When, during my field research, I read in an article in the El Grafico journal an account of the operation that led to the death of eight guerrilla members, including a Spanish missionary priest, a North American lay missionary, and some Guatemalans, three of which were women, who had gathered in a house in Guatemala City, my story began to take shape.
After reading the newspaper account, I tried to find out more about that lay missionary who was killed in the operation, I managed to track down a fellow missionary who had worked with him before they were all repatriated. He told me about some of the moments he had spent with the deceased before the repatriation and concluded that he had probably returned to Guatemala clandestinely. He had not heard from him again until he learned that he had been killed there. Though his testimony helped me to physically describe the main character, the psychology, thoughts, words, actions, and interactions of Desilets with other characters are largely a figment of my imagination and a reflection of my personality and that of others I know. The name Paul Desilets and most of the characters’ names are winks to friends.
TMW: The book holds a heartbreaking ending, yet one might think it suggests that there is more to it. Do you plan on writing a sequel in the near future?
Jean: At the moment, I don’t think I’ll write a sequel. I have other projects, among them the travel account of my journey to India during the filming of Sadhana-Back to the Source, and the collection of short stories dealing with reality in dreams and the illusion of reality in waking time. I would have to be funded to write a sequel. I think it would take me at least three years to do the research and complete the writing.
TMW: The title of your book is quite alluring to the avid reader. What can you tell us of this title’s making and its relevance to the narrative?
Jean: I must say that while writing the novel, I often had in mind the image of a life-size grotesque mannequin, representing Christ with blood on his face and dressed in a long purple tunic, which stood behind the glass façade of a large wooden box, that I had seen in the church of Chimaltenango. Maybe the idea for the title was also influenced by the sight of a copy of the newspaper Justicia y Paz with the title printed in red and the account of atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary groups.
Blood for Freedom by J.P. Piche is an astounding piece of historical fiction set in Guatemala, moving to the events of the new guerilla war in Central America of the late 1970s. Aiming to help the youth, Paul finds himself in challenging and even traumatic experiences that compel him to become more involved with the Mayans’ cause.
Through this book, the author has allowed me to experience the enlightenment on the Mayan culture and their dark political issues that transpired years ago, which may be evident until now. The story talks about the fight for justice and freedom of the oppressed. Compendiously written with exquisite details, the book is a must-read for all ages! The story is easy enough for everyone to understand, although the main focus of the tale is an unfamiliar culture. It lends a feel to the story when the author arranges the flow of the narrative to reflect its structure which makes it easier to read. With every intense chapter comes, an even more captivating chapter follows, making it harder to stop reading.
The book highlights a bible verse quoting, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). With Paul finding himself in a dumbfounding journey between life and death, is putting his life at risk for the people dear to him who are suffering under the hands of powerful men his true calling?
Enjoy this journey through the Guatemalan highlands and the Peten jungle and find out what the future ultimately holds for Paul.
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