The Big Idea: Leopoldo Gout
Posted on March 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
A beloved part of childhood celebrations has a darker past than most people realize — and for author Leopoldo Gout, this is only one secret that the past holds, which came to be part and parcel of how his novel Piñata came to be.
Piñatas can be seen as a symbol of hiding joy in plain sight. As kids we sang the piñata song and banged those colorful objects in anger and violence to access that joy. To have that rush of joy in that moment that the candy cascades and everyone jumps to grab it like a bizarre wrestling match. How can this object of pure adrenaline and joy have such a dark history?
That is the origin for the big idea behind Piñata. I literally peeled things about its history of where the piñata tradition comes from and how the rituals became what they are today. In this research the truth came far more horrifying than I could ever imagine…
Let me first frame a little about my personal journey. Years ago, I was around ten years old on a trip to Chiapas in the south of Mexico, to visit a banged up old hacienda where my father had been born. This broken-down old property in the mountains of Chiapas was being swallowed by the surrounding tropical forests of the area. They crept in from the property lines, inching forward to retake the land. But even on the crumbling walls there were the memories of rage left by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Bullets peppered the walls from the battles which tore Chiapas apart. This abandoned hacienda was near to some of the most ancient pyramids in Mexico. All these abandoned buildings dancing through a give and take with nature. Again, echoing this rage and love. When I started Piñata I went to these memories of Chiapas and where I grew up: Mexico City.
I was always aware of the history under the city built on top of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. As a kid I often went on visits to ancient ruins under the main square. I thought of the Aztec sculptures trying to break through the pavement of Mexico City to escape their tombs. The city of the underground crying to swallow that above, to free itself from a tortured history. Some of the buildings of modern-day Mexico City are now quite literally sinking back into the earth as the massive metropolis reacts to an ancient forgotten lake where it was built.
But that Chiapas trip was a truly stunning moment because who we had really gone to see in Tuxtla Gutierrez was my great-aunt, Hellen Gout. As a kid I thought she must be 115 years old. In her house, smelling like leather tacky with old honey and dusty bottles of rum, old Hellen showed us a document which changed my perception of myself and my family.
All my life, my father’s family talked about their “French ancestry,” but what great-aunt Hellen showed us was an illustrated genealogical history, our whole family tree with every ancestor drawn and painted. Following the line up from my father with his French ancestry, straight up from his place on the tree, we saw her: an indigenous Zapotec woman. It was incredible. To this day I refuse to take any of those DNA tests because I don’t want to have any chance that its wrong.
According to that document, I have Zapotec blood, the blood of one of the great architect and sculptor indigenous nations. There is a line between myself and all of those ruins and art I adored.
I was struck. My curiosity for pre-invasion Mexico grew as I visited every temple and museum I could and never stopped. The indigenous art of Mexico has always had a deep impact on my work in all mediums. My first novel, Ghost Radio, was directly inspired by that connection as my first attempt to call on those memories to tell a story. Those stories and ideas have matured and evolved through my other projects and into Piñata. I have countless more stories about my lifelong search for further connection with the original ways of Mexico.
I was lucky enough that my late mother, Andrea Valeria, was an avid supporter and great friend to many indigenous artists and families. Every year they would come to our house, bringing with them intricate and beautiful masks they had carved. One of the greatest and most fascinating differences between our cultures that I gleaned from those days was the attribution of value. We might appraise the value of a mask by the intricacy of its design, how much labor it would have taken, the vibrance and skillful application of paint, or the simple beauty of them. They, however attributed value to each mask only by how “danced” they were, quite literally how much one had been worn during the act of dancing determined its value. It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation, how much life the empty eyes of the mask had seen.
These are just some glimpses into my upbringing which fostered a deep connection with and curiosity for ancient Mexico. These were some of the memories and feelings which drive the pistons in Piñata’s engine. The real crystalized big idea for which came when, during my research, I found that Catholic friars introduced piñatas to Mexico. The Aztecs had something mildly similar, but they had different purposes which is explained in the book. But, what these Spanish friars would do is paint them with images of indigenous gods, what they deemed idolatry, and fill them with food. Then the children, taken from their culture and hungry, would be forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.
I use all my senses in my work, both as visual artist and writer, and my scent and sensory memory really drive the cathartic horror in Piñata as it focuses so heavily on the memory of the indigenous people of Mexico both past and present. I sought to express the rage inherent in that tortured history, to explore it like the ruins of that old Chiapas hacienda. At the same time though, while trying to dive into that historical anger, I had a young talented daughter growing before my eyes. I ended up in my daily life balancing that immense love and promise of the future with a rage I conjured from the past.
That clash led to the story that is Piñata. It focuses on a family but takes place in a country inextricably linked to a violent past and facing a violent present. It is personal and political, external and internal. It was my attempt to pull these binary oppositions into something cathartic for myself and hopefully for everyone who reads it. So my big idea that catapulted me into Piñata is inside that space between rage and love.
Piñata: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells
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“It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation…”
Interesting concept. Many a maker or other user of tools etc. will place a lot of ‘sentimental value’ on something that has served them well. I still have a very old fishing rod that took some fine trout back in the day. I own ‘better’ gear but that one still sits in a place of honor.
Very looking forward to this!