Issue 040 Author Interview: Isabel Cañas and “The Kingdom of the Butterflies”

Dear readers! We’re pleased as punch to share with you another chat we recently had with one of our Issue 040 authors. Please enjoy Isabel Cañas’s insight into her short story “The Kingdom of the Butterflies” today!

LSQ: Your story carries with it beautiful images of Latin American mythology. Is your particular story about Rosa and Elvira a retelling of a known myth, your own creation, or a mix of both?

Isabel: It’s a mongrel of myth and my own creation! Whenever I am short on ideas or inspiration, I often turn to fairy tales or myths that are familiar to Western/Anglo-American readers, break them apart, and stitch them back together with fabric woven from my own background, my doctoral research, and dreams.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice echoes of Greek myth in “The Kingdom of the Butterflies”: the seed of the story sprang from a desire to retell the myth of Arachne, in which a boastful mortal weaver challenges the Greek goddess Athena to a contest. TL;DR, she loses, of course, and is turned into a spider as punishment for her hubris. I also drew on Aztec mythology. Mayahuel, Tezcatlipoca, et al., are familiar faces from the post-Classical Aztec pantheon.

Then, I spun many of the aspects of Elvira and Rosa’s half-afterlife from my own imagination. For example, the weaving of souls and the casting of aguamiel (“honey water,” a liquid from the maguey agave plant that was fermented into alcoholic pulque in Mexico from pre-Columbian times through the nineteenth century) in the role of ambrosia, are my invention.

LSQ: Although sisters, there are strong differences between Rosa and Elvira. Does Rosa’s bitterness only come from her recollection of their past, or is there more to it than that? Why won’t she enjoy the beauty of the monarchs with Elvira?

Isabel: Elvira and Rosa’s different reactions to their surroundings and their predicament is based on the way my older sister and I have different experiences recalling episodes from our childhood. My older sister is very much a Rosa, and I an Elvira. For example, when we remember visiting La Reserva de la Biósfera Santuario Mariposa Monarca in Michoacán, México, as children, she has grim memories of looking at the dead monarcas on the forest floor and thinking about mortality, whereas my memories are dominated by a sense of wonder, of looking up at the thousands of butterflies that covered the trees and thickened the air.

LSQ: Tell us more about the symbolism of monarchs in this culture.

Isabel: Their presence in the story primarily draws on my childhood memories of visiting a monarch butterfly sanctuary!

LSQ: What was the most challenging part of this story to write and why? What is your favorite part about it? What made you want to write this story?

Isabel: Frankly, the whole thing was challenging to write. First, it was the first #ownvoices short story I had ever written (and my first ever published!). Second, it was the first story I wrote while at Clarion West, and I had little idea of what kind of feedback to expect from the 17 other writers in the summer workshop.

Third, it was late June 2018, and the news was dominated by heartbreaking reports of Latin American refugees and asylum-seekers in detention centers on the border. To make a very long and emotionally-fraught story short, I felt—and often still feel—helpless against the rising tides of White nationalism in this country. I chose to write this story, and I will continue to write stories like it, because I believe that embracing and celebrating Latinx culture in today’s political atmosphere is an act of resistance.

LSQ: Are you working on any other writing projects right now? If so, can you tell us a bit about any of them?

Isabel: I have another #ownvoices short story forthcoming from Pseudopod that plays with the legend of la Llorona. It’s called “Silver as the Devil’s Necklace,” and is due to be published in fall 2020.

Though I adore short stories, I am primarily a fledgling YA novelist. My current project is an homage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House set in rural México in the aftermath of the War of Independence. Think very haunted haciendas, stubborn heroines, and witches where you least expect them… it’s been a joy to write!