In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first four of the eleven meanings for “passion” (n.) derive from the root words meaning pain, or suffering. Definition number five is: “the fact or condition of being acted upon or affected by external agency.” The sixth meaning is the one used most commonly today: “any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion; in psychology and art, any mode in which the mind is affected or acted upon…” Using any of these definitions, it is reasonable to conclude that Miguel Santana’s writing is suffused with passion.
The Marien Revelation opens with the first definition of passion. A somewhat ambiguous prologue evokes the Passion of Christ. Yet, if one is fortunate enough, as I was, to speak with Miguel, his passion for his writing and subject matter manifests itself immediately. In this passion, all definitions are apparent – most overtly, it is obvious that his art commands vehement emotion, yet one begins to sense that his writing is acted upon or affected by external agencies, and yes, I suspect that there may be some pain, as well.
Miguel was generous enough to share with me his thoughts on the process of writing his second novel, The Marien Revelation, his literary background and influences, and his beliefs on religion and humanity. Despite what many will see as the controversial nature of The Marien Revelation, Miguel Santana’s passion clearly lies in stimulating conversation and questions rather than conflict.
Note: This interview with Miguel Santana was conducted by both e-mail and telephone. I have included Miguel’s e-mail responses below each question (questions are in bold type). The italicized passages that follow Miguel’s written quotes derive from my notes of our conversation.
The Marien Revelation has a dreamlike, almost visionary quality to it. Can you give us some background on your inspiration for this story?
The inspiration comes from my reading of The Man Jesus Loved by Theodore W. Jennings. I was preparing for my doctoral exams and in my reading list there was a book by Miguel de Unamuno. His novel is about a priest, San Manuel Bueno Martir, his work as a man of God and his own doubts regarding faith. I identified with the novel and it sparked a parallel search while I was completing the required readings for my Ph.D. This search explored the foundations of Christianity. That was the inspiration. The actual creative process may have also influenced this “dreamlike” description of the novel.
In our conversation, Miguel went on to add that he often writes from dreams, and that the ritual sacrifice scene in one of Mary’s early chapters had been inspired by a dream.
Along the same lines, you incorporate a tremendous number of ancient texts and historical detail into Mary’s story. Your Ph.D. is in Spanish literature; have you also studied history or theology? Can you discuss your research process for this book?
A formal degree in theology or history would be something I would have enjoyed. When I began my studies I felt the need to learn more about my traditions and my lineage as a writer if I hoped to emerge as one. The research skills one acquires during the process of obtaining a Ph.D. are similar whether the Ph.D. is in literature, theology, or some other area. Certainly my research and studies are reflected though the creation of Marién. Though the book by Dr. Jennings inspired me, the teachings of Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke in Jesus and the Lost Goddess, and The Jesus Mysteries provided the catapult to my own vision of early Christianity. The rest came from the actual gospels, both hegemonic and apocryphal.
On your blog, you write in defense of your choice to write The Marien Revelation simultaneously in both Spanish and English. This seems like such a natural decision for a bilingual author; have you really received criticism for it? Also, and probably more importantly, can you describe the writing process – did you write the entirety in one language and then translate to the other, or did you work on it section by section in both languages?
I didn’t speak English until I came, at the age of 18, to the U.S. to study. The fact is that my native language is Spanish and I feel vulnerable in English. As a result, I may be more sensitive when that question is presented to me. With this novel I have discovered that English offers me restraint, it allows me economy of language. As an example, my chapters are not long; they are more like movie scenes.
Speaking to the process of writing The Marien Revelation, Miguel said that he would outline a chapter in English, then fill in the body in Spanish, or on occasion vice versa. “If the skeleton of the chapter was in Spanish, the flesh would be in English.” He commented that he found “the chapters of Marien easier to write in English. The chapters with Mary were started in Spanish, but the scriptural quotes were in English.” Miguel said that for the English translation of his first novel, When Alligators Sing, he “tried to make the English fit the Spanish.” However, “after this process [the writing of The Marien Revelation] – there is no other way to do it.”
The language of The Marien Revelation is quite scriptural in its rhythm, syntax, and word choices. Did you set out to write the story in a biblical voice, or did the language flow from the incorporation of the ancient texts?
Growing up Mormon, we studied scripture every Sunday and that probably helped me with the tone. I did want the narrative voice to fit, to reflect the mood of the novel. Incorporating the language from the Bible also helped to reinforce this tone.
During our conversation, Miguel further discussed his selection of the scriptural quotes used in the chapters revolving around Mary. “The verses in Mary’s story were very random [in their selection]. I would initiate work with an invocation…asking the universe to allow me to tap into the voices [of the characters.]” He said that he often felt that it is “all connected – something greater is telling us as humans what we need to derive from the universe.”
In the selection of Biblical texts, Miguel found that the chapter he was happiest with is the one in which “Mary realizes that she loves her husband. The verses used there are in a different context from the Bible. It came from being in tune with what the universe was telling me at the time.”
Regarding language and rhythm, given the flow of The Marien Revelation, I was not at all surprised to read that you are also a poet. Sections of the book do appear to be narrative poems. How similar is your poetic voice to your narrative voice?
Very similar, though, I do flirt with rhyme in most of my poetry. I am pleased you point out this characteristic of the novel. I would characterize the Prologue as an example of the narrative poems incorporated as well as some of Marién’s introspections.
Discussion of his poetic voice brought a chuckle from Miguel. “I know it’s not used much — it’s outdated in the United States, but I play with rhyme in my poems.” He said that while he does tend to use narrative poems in his novels, his stand-alone poems are “shorter, more metaphorical… influenced by Spanish Golden Age theatre” which was written in verse at the time. “I’m a Renaissance man.”
The description of your first novel, When Alligators Sing made me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Once Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, The Marien Revelation has some of the same quality of a vivid dream. Who are your literary influences?
In most of my previous work I would agree that the greater writers of Latin American literature, like García Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel, heavily influenced me. I adore the Spanish novelist and playwright Valle-Inclán as well. But in The Marién Revelation I think I have found my own voice.
The chronology and points of view in The Marien Revelation are very non-linear. I guess the best way I can think of to describe them is fractured or mosaic. I can’t quite put my finger on the pattern, but it seems very deliberate, almost as though you are saying that our constructs of time are arbitrary. I’m not sure how to phrase this, but it does seem as though you are hinting at a greater universality in the way you weave the stories of the two women together. Can you give me some insight on this?
That is a wonderful interpretation and I hope you don’t mind if I appropriate it. Yes, I believe we are all connected in some way. The order of the chapters is how I visualized this story being told if I were directing it as a movie. There were certain characteristics about each woman that I wanted to highlight before others. You may be right about the “universality”, I wanted to focus first on those characteristics that would make any woman, or reader, accept them as real characters from the beginning.
Miguel went on to state that since his academic background focused on theatre he tended to visualize the novel as a movie, first outlining, then filling in scenes as he would if directing a film. He did comment that he had interspersed visual cues to indicate chronology – something that is picked up on close reading.
We tend to think of mythologies and religions as discrete entities, existing in neatly bounded societies. We package these concepts with labels: Egyptian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, etc. forgetting the influence that each has upon the other. I was fascinated to see that you incorporate many of the mythologies of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East into Mary’s story, and that your epilogue involves Mayan religion. How do you view the similarities of these stories, particularly the prevalence of resurrection stories throughout multiple cultures?
I think you hit the nail on the head regarding this one in your review of The Marién Revelation. We tend to forget that at this time beliefs were fluid and that in cities like Alexandria and Jerusalem people of different backgrounds coexisted, even if it was not always harmoniously. Once I opened my mind to see the Ancient World in this manner, it wasn’t hard for me to accept that Mary could have been the woman that I describe her to be. The Epilogue has to do with Prehispanic mythology. I think I may owe this interpretation to my Mormon upbringing, as Christ in America is the main premise of The Book of Mormon.
Expanding upon this theme of universality during our talk, Miguel said that he felt that the epilogue helps to show that “at the end of the day we are all one,” that “there is something missing in the universal history that we haven’t been able to prove [a reason for] the similarities [across the various faiths and mythologies].”
The scenes and anger of the prologue evoked for me the lines from the Gospel, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In my first reading of the book, I assumed the point of view character of the prologue to be Jesus. However, when I went back, I noticed a decided obscurity. The narrator of the prologue is never given a name, nor – on closer reading – a gender. Similarly, the conclusion of Marien’s story leaves a great deal open to interpretation. The last line of your acknowledgments reads: “Welcome to the conversation.” Are the questions the most important part of the conversation for you?
YES! That’s all I want from this book. I don’t want others to believe as I do. My beliefs apply to me because of my background. Each individual is responsible for his or her own search. In a recent blog I talk about the two commandments Christ left us. I believe that failure to scrutinize your faith contradicts the commandment to “love God with all of your mind”. Any institution that does not motivate, inspire and encourage its members to learn, read, and cultivate themselves in all areas is sinning against God.
Miguel did state that while the initial assumptions regarding the prologue are correct, that he did play with the ambiguity a bit deliberately. “It can be shocking to many people – the story is so much more. I wanted to give an exit to the reader … so as not to be turned off…I don’t want to impose my views on anybody.” “Nobody ever holds the whole truth.”
In Marien’s story, and on your website, you criticize fairly harshly the Mormon church and to a lesser extent the Catholic church. Yet, The Marien Revelation has a deeply reverent feel. In our current polarized climate, criticism of established religion tends to be equated with atheism. However, I don’t get that sense from your writings (both in the novel and on the internet). Would you be willing to discuss your beliefs?
Yes, I’m very spiritual. If Christianity weren’t polluted by today’s concept of what being a Christian means, I would call myself a Christian. Being that the extremists and radicals of the religious right wing define this word more and more, I avoid it. I believe in a Christ that is totally different from the one they present. I believe in a Christ that is full of love, one who promotes enlightenment.
Christianity is widely acknowledged to be a patriarchal theology. Yet, the primary voices of The Marien Revelation are women. On your blog and Facebook page, you are a strong advocate for gay rights. Do you see yourself as a voice for those whom mainstream Christianity has marginalized?
In a way I do. As an artist, as much as you want to deny it, your work often reflects your ideology. My preference for strong woman characters, not only in this novel but also in my previous work, is owed to my upbringing by this type of women. Understanding their struggles and sacrifices has allowed me to develop those voices. In addition, being a gay Mexican writer in the United States, I cannot speak from any other position.
In our conversation, Miguel discussed the ways in which artists have adapted interpretations of Jesus and of Mary to reflect themselves. We talked about the tendency of European artists to depict fair -haired, blue-eyed versions of the Holy Family, and of Latin American artists to show Mary with Hispanic features particularly in renditions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
His interpretation, then, of Jesus with a male lover, flows naturally from a desire to identify. “Being on the margins myself … you want to find a way to identify with the majority.” He also acknowledged that “there is 2000 years of difference between what we consider gay today and having a male lover back then. A relationship between two males – why does it inspire the hate that it does?”
On the subject of controversy, Miguel was very clear that it is not his desire to provoke conflict; however, he said,“my own journey has taken me to the place where I feel very strong to take on whatever comes…to defend my place in society.” “People ask, ‘are you afraid?’ I cannot live in fear. I cannot allow fear as an artist to stop me from birthing this story. I’m at a point where I’m ready to discuss it – to stand behind this.”
Your writing appears to be an appeal for rational discourse, for a middle ground in this polarized world. One area in which American society in particular has become incredibly extreme is sexuality. As a society, our views of sex seem to be either prudish or pornographic with little room for an embrace of the physical. Yet, in The Marien Revelation you incorporate the full range of both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, from the sacred to the profane in both. The language used evokes the lush physicality of older translations of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Can you expand upon this a bit?
This goes back to the question on tone. Yes, I wanted to use language that is often thought of as sacred in scenes that would seem mundane, or even sacrilegious. Expressing sexuality in this manner has been done before in mystical poetry. I borrow from this aesthetic to reinforce the world of the characters with which I’m working. I don’t think I could have described their passions in any other way.
Finally, what would you like readers to take away from your work?
I want to stimulate conversation. I believe this book will appeal primarily to an open-minded, intellectual reader. I want them to be entertained but at the same time to be left with a seed of curiosity. To ask themselves if they have ever questioned why they believe certain things. Perhaps at the end of the day we may realize that how things happen is irrelevant. The most important thing is the message of love and tolerance we encounter as we read the gospels without the prejudices of a biased preconception.
In our conversation, Miguel reiterated the importance of intellectual curiosity. “Anything that leads you to not using your mind, I consider a sin. I want to inspire people to explore, to read, to find out why they believe what they believe.”
The best, and most personal summation of The Marien Revelation comes from Miguel Santana himself: “This novel brings together everything that I am.”