Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Tuesday, May 18, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Velvet Was the Night

Del Rey Books: Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey Books: Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey Books: Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey Books: Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Velvet Was the Night

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Mexican Gothic) opens Velvet Was the Night with an epigraph quoting a June 1971 U.S. Department of State telegram about the Hawks, a murderous Mexican government-trained "shock group" supported by the CIA. She ends with this final sentence in her afterword: "My novel is noir, pulp fiction, but it's based on a real horror story." Against the violent backdrop that provoked a brutal massacre in Mexico City, bestselling author Moreno-Garcia--born in Mexico and now living in Canada--crafts a mesmerizing mystery revealed in the alternating voices of two strangers, both in search of a missing young woman.

"He didn't like beating people," El Elvis admits. The irony of being a peace-leaning thug who prefers to learn a new word a day from his beloved Illustrated Larousse dictionary is not lost on him: "Often life doesn't make sense, and if Elvis had a motto it was that: life's a mess." Although he's only just turned 21, he's already had a live-in romance with "an American lady who they said had a thing for youngsters." She replaced him soon enough, but not before he absconded with some of her precious vinyl records. Between words and music, someday he hopes to become "an accomplished man," like his boss El Mago, but for now, he diligently follows orders. Even after two years in service to El Mago, he knows that as the youngest of the gang he has to assert himself or risk being sidelined. He's proud to be a Hawk; they're mostly still young because they need to pass as students in order to "inform on the activities of the annoying reds infesting the universities."

And then there's Maite, who's turning 30, her hair already graying: "Her body betrayed her," she's convinced. She's a disgruntled secretary in a legal office but refuses to look for another job. She's been in love once, with an older man who lured her with ice cream and movies, which quickly progressed to cheap hotels for quick sex; then he dumped her for being boring. In the decade since, most of her acquaintances have married and had kids, leaving her plenty of time to feed her obsession: the passion and betrayal she's addicted to in Secret Romance, a serial magazine she reads--usually with music playing to keep her company--with zealous devotion. Her social life is limited to uncomfortable visits with her mother and sister, both relentlessly judgmental about Maite being an old maid. And yet she daydreams about having stories of wild trysts to share with the secretary pool come Mondays.

The most excitement Maite's had recently is meeting Leonora, the art student in the apartment across the hall. Maite "knew her type: modern, free, young, the member of a new generation who didn't have to pay their respect to their fussy mothers and their irritating sisters, instead happily drinking, smoking, living it up." Late Friday night, Leonora knocks on Maite's door, asking Maite to feed her cat while she's away: "I'll be back by... well, Sunday night. Monday morning, tops," she promises. Maite might have hesitated initially, but she's already contemplating what she would steal from Leonora. Maite's neighbors regularly trust her with their animals, unaware that in every home she enters, "she took great care in choosing her loot. It was never anything extravagant, anything people would notice, but it was always something interesting."

But by Tuesday, Leonora still hasn't returned. She eventually calls, promising Maite double the money to watch kitty just a bit longer. That could be enough to pay for her car repairs, but Maite remains annoyed because now she's supposed to deliver the cat across town. Leonora, though, never shows. Meanwhile, El Mago has a new assignment for Elvis: find art student Leonora Trejo--and her camera with important photos. "And no harming her," El Mago warns. "It is strictly find-and-retrieve."

Here, finally, Elvis and Maite's narratives are poised to connect and overlap. Up until then, Moreno-Garcia showcases an enviable writerly superpower--the ability to create intimate lives with seemingly inconsequential details, all the while weaving an elaborate web riddled with holes, yes, but shrewdly poised to catch readers unawares. Her clever clues are openly strewn, but so easily overlooked as to merit re-reading to fully appreciate her intricate construction. That she also succeeds in exposing a horrific real-life event too few know about--while deftly humanizing its aftermath--is perhaps an even more substantial achievement.

Moreno-Garcia begins her narrative on June 10, 1971, both a holy day--the feast of Corpus Christi (lapsed Catholic Elvis wonders if he should go to communion after finishing El Mago's dirty work)--and what will be christened the Corpus Christi Massacre, which left hundreds of student protestors injured and dead at the hands of the Mexican and U.S. government-supported, paramilitary-trained, anti-communist Hawks. That is the horrific history onto which Moreno-Garcia layers her skillful fiction--complete with a carefully curated, inspiring playlist appended at book's end--as she imagines the days that follow. The tragic reverberations cause inevitable betrayal, decimate alliances, shatter hopes, accelerate the body count--but also, even, suggest the possibility of finding... well... maybe, love. --Terry Hong

Del Rey, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9780593356821, August 17, 2021

Del Rey Books: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: On Publishing, Racism and a "Real Horror Story"

(photo: Martin Dee)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a literary chameleon, successfully writing across genres, including speculative short fiction (This Strange Way of Dying), historical fantasy (The Beautiful Ones), magical realism (Gods of Jade and Snow) and horror (Mexican Gothic). She's also edited several anthologies, is the publisher of micro-indie Innsmouth Free Press and is a Washington Post columnist. In her seventh novel, Velvet Was the Night (Del Rey, August 17, 2021), the bestselling author writes a riveting he said/she-said mystery about a missing woman, set against Mexico City's June 1971 student massacre.

The brutal tragedy of the Corpus Christi Massacre that inspired Velvet Was the Night is clearly not taught in a Eurocentric curriculum. How did you learn this history? How did you decide what parts of the "real horror story" you would keep in your fiction?

Dos de octubre no se olvida. The 1968 Tlatelolco massacre is still vividly remembered [in Mexico]. The [1971] Corpus Christi Massacre was less talked about, and I learned about it later. The thing is, there are a lot of things you are not told that you have to infer, or that at least I had to infer, growing up. My parents didn't sit me down and say "the government murdered activists and nobody was ever punished," but there were all these truths embedded in the silence.

I love how you did that in your answer--untranslated Spanish--which you also do in your novels. While I'm eternally grateful to translators, I also feel it's on me when I can't understand another language. Might you share your thoughts on writing untranslated Spanish in your titles?

I try not to use a lot of Spanish words in my books because I attempt to translate the bulk of expressions and words and give you a sense of rhythm rather than use a Spanish word for everything from "bread" to "table," which can sound very unnatural and unnecessary. In the case of my books, I'm not Mexican American, where Spanglish might be peppered in that sub-culture. You might begin a sentence in English and end it in Spanish if your characters are from New York. My characters are Mexicans walking around Mexico City, so of course they're saying "that damn pig, he's always trying to bust my balls." Not, "ese puerco, he's always trying to bust my balls." 

In Velvet Was the Night, I try to differentiate the speaking patterns of Elvis, who is a lower-class character, from El Mago by allowing Elvis to speak informally and use contractions. El Mago never uses contractions, you're supposed to sense that he doesn't tutea, which is the more informal way of speaking in Spanish. Even if you've never heard of tutear, you should be able to feel that El Mago and Elvis speak differently.

There are two issues with books that come from cultures people are not so familiar with, and both reflect racism but in different ways. One side demands certain markers of "authenticity." So if a novel with Mexican characters is not littered with untranslated Spanish words rendered in italics, they don't think it's "Mexican." But when you read Madame Bovary, there's not a translated French word in every sentence. It doesn't mean that if Emma Bovary doesn't have a croissant for her petit déjeuner while sitting by the fenêtre, we're not in France.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the people who cannot abide an untranslated word if it comes from certain cultures, though we all use untranslated words all the time. It's just that they come from certain cultures. We use Latin in the sciences, we speak of a soufflé without having a heart attack. But if the word is Spanish, suddenly there's a big barrier to entry. I had people tell me my character names are too weird or hard to pronounce and for that reason they disliked the book. I don't think Maite is very difficult when you compare it to Daenerys Targaryen [from Game of Thrones]. We are simply willing to accept a level of displacement when it comes to certain cultures and not when it comes to others.

Noir, speculative fiction/sci-fi, gothic horror, even a micro-press imprint devoted to "weird fiction"--these aren't genres inundated with POC writers. Do you consider yourself a pioneer? Or better, a rebel?

When I published my first short stories some 15 years ago, I could count with one hand the science fiction and fantasy writers of color in bookstores. A lot has changed quickly, but it's still not a situation of equal footing, plus there are many categories where writers of color are severely underrepresented. So you might have a number of visible YA writers of color, but almost none in horror. Do people still tell me I should change my name to make it more Anglo? No. Does that mean publishing is a welcoming, entirely inclusive industry? Nope.

With such literary breadth, how do you decide on your projects?

I've done pretty much whatever I feel like at the time, which is not always a good strategy. In the fantasy and science fiction field, there is still a great love for series, which I don't write. And, in general, publishers are not too thrilled when you bounce around genres. I know this can make it more difficult for readers, who may fall in love with one style of writing or one set of characters, and then discover my next work is different. But both due to chance and my own taste, I've found myself unable to remain in one single space.

You're Mexican by birth and upbringing; you emigrated to Canada in your 20s. You currently publish only in English. Did you ever consider writing in Spanish?

I occupy a very odd position, a liminal space, because I am a Latin American woman who emigrated to another country as an adult. Spanish is my first language. But I'm not in Mexico City, I can't go to make the rounds with publishers and participate in the local literary scene there. What most people don't understand is that the publishing industry in other countries is vastly different. There are basically no SFF imprints in Mexico; I couldn't publish in Mexico because nobody was putting out that sort of work. You don't have a local, large, homegrown SFF literary scene like the one you have in countries like the USA.

There are many more issues. When Mexican Gothic was acquired by a Spanish-language publisher, I learned that they wanted to release it in Iberian Spanish, not Mexican Spanish. I asked that they release the book in Mexican Spanish and they agreed. However, if this had happened 10 years ago, I probably wouldn't have been able to ask for that, and if I had written the manuscript in Spanish in the first place they might have asked for many changes. Perhaps they wouldn't have even looked at a manuscript set in Mexico, preferring something in Spain instead.

I'm going to guess you're not resting on your laurels... what can audiences expect next? 

I am going back to science fiction and fantasy next year with The Daughter of Dr. Moreau. I hope I can write more noirs after that or try something new. --Terry Hong

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