Bestselling author John Vaillant's road to "The Jaguar's Children"

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“I’ve always had an awareness of how ephemeral everything is," he said. "That’s something that has always sort of moved and disturbed me and I really wanted to see those (poles) before they disappeared.” 

He got an assignment for Outside Magazine to go paddling and found the story for what would become his second New Yorker article and his first book The Golden Spruce.

“It was clear to me that I wanted to write a book that had wings to get over the Rockies and over the border," he said. "The literary output and history of this place is so deep but a lot of it’s really local. My ambitions were different.”

The Golden Spruce, a non-fiction book, had those wings. It was a bestseller.

He then began his second non-fiction book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. While writing it, he and his family moved to Oaxaca, Mexico. Once that book became a bestseller, Vaillant was looking for his next project. 

He then heard Hector call out to him: “Sorry to bother you, but I need some assistance.” 

Vaillant came to the rescue and started to tell Hector’s story. Hector is a character who Vaillant says is much like him.

Vaillant’s family history, from both sides, conjoins with Mexico. His grandfather on his father’s side of the family was an archeologist who wrote the first major book about the Aztec. Vaillant never knew him — he committed suicide in 1945 – but the stuff of his life, Mexican objects, furniture, and art, filled the family homes. 

His grandmother’s father lived in Mexico City, where he was a successful banker. His daughter (Vaillant’s grandmother) met the archeologist in Mexico, and they married. Over the years, she recounted many stories about his grandfather, but because painful memories of the suicide were connected to Old Mexico, no one in the family traveled there until 2009 when Vaillant and his wife took their children. 

At once familiar and foreign, Old Mexico was inspiring.

“It was a little bit like being in India,” Vaillant said. “It’s just really raw, really colourful, really complicated.” 

Few passages express this vividness as well as his grandfather’s encounter with a jaguar while bathing in a lake and his grandmother’s firework dance for the town’s Virgin Saint, Juquila. 

“She will make her own light now,” says Hector. “When the rockets go off, they fly from her head in all directions, exploding over the street, the church, the band – everywhere sparks and fire and bits of burning this and that coming down like falling stars, reflecting in the church glass, in the shining bell of the tuba, maybe burning a hole in your jacket or in Abuela’s huipil.”

Dramatic stories recalled throughout the book reveal the complex politics of Mexico. For instance, there is a poignant scene where the corrupt governor enters a café, and is ignored by everyone because they are too afraid to address him.

In another, Hector encounters Cesar, who knows the secrets about a multinational seed company's genetically modified corn seed, called the suicide seed. It is designed to kill corn seeds cultivated over centuries and create a dependency on the modified version. Corn is sacred and primal for the culture, the mother of the people. 

“Those terminator seeds have been made,” Vaillant said in the interview. “Right now, the question of whether GMOs are permissible has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s a major battle ground." 

The battleground is also a classroom. Vaillant believes the people in Oaxaca and Indigenous peoples everywhere have much to teach. 

“We are all at risk of losing this knowledge right now. We’re not connected to the land," he said. "In Oaxaca, you see the betrayals for what they are and you see what the survivors of these betrayals are left with.”

“Our mobility and this illusion of freedom that we have has a price, a lack of depth and connection. When the land is personal, when the land and the things that come out of it are your mother, then you are going to look at it differently. You are going to fight on its behalf with a greater vigour. “

The Jaguar's Children has received many positive reviews in the US, but not taken off there as well as it has in Canada.

Vaillant speculates that it has to do with a sort of subject fatigue about Mexican immigrants in the U.S. At its most fundamental, the book is an immigration story, one of innocence and hope.

Acceptance by Latino readers of Hector’s voice is very important to Vaillant. When interviewed by a Mexican reporter for a Latino news outlet, he said the interviewer was understandably skeptical when he saw his book jacket cover photograph. But after the interview, the reporter told him: 

“You know, between you and me, for a white guy you really understand the Mexican psyche.” Vaillant breathed a sigh of relief.

“But,” he said, “that’s what I expect from myself….that’s how you show respect for your subjects and for your audience…is getting it right. That’s a professional obligation. Especially something as serious and desperate as this. It isn’t right to take liberties with it. Or be sloppy or careless, that’s really unconscionable.”

Vaillant claims he writes to entertain, and The Jaguar’s Children is definitely a page turner, but it is more than that. When pushed, he admitted he hopes to “have someone who has no investment in the subject, who couldn’t care less about it, come away caring and being invested.”

The Jaguar's Children artfully weaves the three-strand braid of powerful storytelling, making it easy to feel Hector’s pain and the desire for a better future.

The book was published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada and released this past January.

 

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