In 1528, the real-life conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked in the New World where he lived as a slave, trader, and shaman. In this lyrical weaving of history and myth, the adventurer takes his young daughter Teresa from her home in Texas to travel to outposts in New Spain.
In 1528, the real-life conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked in the New World where he lived as a slave, trader, and shaman. In this lyrical weaving of history and myth, the adventurer takes his young daughter Teresa from her home in Texas to travel to outposts in New Spain. Once there, Teresa is left behind as a servant in a Spanish household. But when an epidemic of measles devastates the area, the teenager must set off on a new journey, listening again to the voices of the desert, befriending a war-horse and were-jaguar, sinking into the earth to swim through fossil and stone, reclaiming her power to outwit the cunning figure of Plague. A story of apocalypse and hope, Teresa of the New World takes you into the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest.
I am the author now of Teresa of the New World (Yucca Publishing, 2015) about the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest, and The Last Matriarch (University of New Mexico Press, 2000), about the Paleolithic world of the Southwest eleven thousand years ago. Some people might ask how I can write from the viewpoint of a Native American when I am not Native American. How can I speak in the voice of a human being who is another race, another culture, another time?
A false response would be that my great-great-grandmother was Cherokee and so I have bits of genetic material and a blood tie. I had ancestors in the New World at the time my characters also lived in the New World. They and I likely have common ancestry from the first people who crossed into this country from the north. We might share a common multiple-great-grandmother. That’s fun to know and think about. But it is not, really, for me, very meaningful.
The real answer is that writing and reading is all about transcendence. I don’t want to be just who I am. I want to be a sea gull, too. And a black man. And a red leaf in the wind. I want to be everything and everyone. I want to be another age and another sex and another race and another time. In science, we know that this is how the universe actually works. We all dissolve and our molecules exchange electrons with other molecules and we become parts of each other, just as the stars in the universe exploded long ago and become part of us. In our stories about each other, we also dissolve and become parts of each other. Our stories are about this stretching of the self. This kind of transformation.
Transcendence is not something that’s easy to do, as most mystics are the first to say. And writing stories about being another age or sex or race or species is not easy to do, either. You have to do an extraordinary amount of research. You have to read and read and dissolve and dissolve and research and research. You have to doubt yourself. You have to struggle with what you don’t know and what you don’t even know you don’t know. You have to accept your blind spots—and then try to see around them.
Writing about who you are not is risky. You expose yourself to irritation and anger. “Who are you to pretend to be me?” someone might well ask. Moreover, you might fail horribly. I mean—really horribly. Catastrophically. Your character may be nothing like a black man or a white woman or a sea gull or a red leaf in the wind. “Nothing at all,” you murmur to yourself because you are your worst critic. Because the same doubt that makes you push harder, work harder, also makes you tired and unhappy.
In my experience, writing in general involves more failure than success. Sometimes I don’t know why I try. Then the very next day I find myself trying again.
Transcendence. Transformation. Let me fly.
About the author:
Sharman Apt Russell has lived in the beauty and magic of Southwestern deserts almost all her life and continues to be amazed by that. She has published over a dozen books translated into a dozen languages, including fiction and nonfiction. Teresa of the New World is her third middle-grade and young adult novel. Sharman teaches graduate writing classes at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico and Antioch University in Los Angeles, California and has thrice served as the PEN West judge for their annual children’s literature award. Her awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Henry Joseph Jackson Award. Her work has been widely anthologized, with numerous starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The San Francisco Chronicle has said “Russell’s writing is luminous” and Kirkus Reviews wrote, “A deep reverence for nature shines throughout Russell’s rich, enjoyable text.” The Seattle Times described her An Obsession with Butterflies as a “masterpiece of story-telling” and the San Diego Union Tribune called it “A singular work of art, with its smooth, ethereal prose and series after cascading series of astonishing lore.” The New York Times and Discover Magazine both described her book on hunger as “elegant.” Of her Anatomy of a Rose, the Sunday Times (London) said, “Every page holds a revelation.”