Curva Peligrosa

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Let me tell you how much I love Curva Peligrosa, a new book by Lily Iona MacKenzie. Curva Peligrosa is by far my favorite fiction book I've read this year. It's at once magical, inspirational, educational, and supernatural.  

Curva Peligrosa - an author interview with Lily Iona MacKenzie

A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken, founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees, one in Creative Writing and the other in the Humanities. Her reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir have appeared in over 155 American and Canadian venues. Fling! was published in 2015 (here's our review!). Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. 

Why must you read Curva Peligrosa? It's a story of the living - and dead. It is an inspiration to live life fully, and well. It's an education into history, travel, and indigenous people. it's a story of people, and change, and written with a very strong sense of place. It's full of characters you will love. And, it's a book you won't be able to put down. I loved Curva Peligrosa, and tell everyone I know about it (including you, dear readers). Highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to chat with Lily about Curva Peligrosa, inspiration, the power of the feminine, Mexico, writing, a sense of place, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Curva Peligrosa - an author interview with Lily Iona MacKenzie

Please tell us about your new book, Curva Peligrosa…
Here's a glimpse into the book:

According to Steven Bauer, the professional editor who gave valuable feedback on the manuscript and author of The Strange and Wonderful Tale of Robert McDoodle and A Cat of a Different Color, "Curva Peligrosa is a wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths; it’s a book which attempts to say serious and important things about language, story-telling, mortality, indigenous cultures, love, and sex."

At its center is a big woman—Curva Peligrosa. Over six feet tall, she is possessed of magical powers, adventurous, amorous, sexual, and fecund. She’s got the greenest of thumbs, creating a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she has a wicked trigger finger.

When she rides into the town of Weed, Alberta, she’s like a vision out of a surrealistic western, with her exotic entourage—two dogs, Dios and Diosa, and two parrots, Manuel and Pedro—and her glittering gold tooth, her turquoise rings, her serape and flat-brimmed hat, her rifle and six-shooters. After twenty-year-long trek up the Old North Trail from Mexico, she’s ready to settle down a bit. Her larger-than-life presence more or less overturns the town of Weed, whose inhabitants have never seen anything like her. She’s a curiosity and a marvel, a source of light and heat, a magnet.

In fact, she’s the physical embodiment of the tornado that will hit Weed two years after her arrival, a storm that turns the place upside down and unearths a trove of bones of those who had lived on the land before the Weedites: Native Americans and prehistoric animals. While the tornado damages Weed and disrupts the lives of its white inhabitants, it provides an opportunity for the relatively feckless (at that point) Billie One-Eye, the putative chief of the local Blackfoot tribe. As he protects the bones and dreams of preserving them, he turns into a true chief when he creates a museum that will honor them.

Curva and Billie share the book with a raft of colorful characters. Borrowing from the literary tradition of South American magic realism, Curva Peligrosa begins with a sentence of commentary on the work of Jorge Luis Borges, and then sets out to illustrate it. As in Borges’s fiction, in Curva Peligrosa, “time is an endless repetition [and] fact and fiction [are] easily confused.” The book hopes to show the reader “that the text one [is] reading [is] no more or less real than the life the reader [is] living.” As Kadeem, one of the characters, says to Curva near the end of the novel, “Nothing is what it seems. Carpets fly. Plants give birth to animals. Characters escape from novels. All this is normal.

The novel is life affirming in the best sense. It celebrates the natural world in all its majesty, splendor, and surprise, and is filled with vivid descriptions of clouds and rivers, sunsets and moonrises, of the turnings and re-turnings of the seasons, of transformation and transfiguration. Curva exults in that world and distills it in her Garden of Eden, a greenhouse with an ever-burbling fountain where birds and butterflies live amid lush greenery.

It is also both frank and casual about human sexuality. The novel treats it as a great gift and a great opportunity, and it suffuses the book as a human activity, one to celebrate, not to be ashamed of. Curva loves sex, as do most of the novel’s characters; in fact, one of Curva’s functions in the book is to liberate the previously uptight and inhibited inhabitants of Weed.

The novel also celebrates female power. Curva exudes a potent aura of sexuality that draws men near and conquers them, but her abilities and capabilities transcend the categories often seen as gender-specific. She can ride broncos, shoot guns, build houses, survive in the wilderness like a man, and cook, sew, make love, and nurture like a woman. After the death of her fraternal twin brother Xavier, Curva writes him a letter from the trail in which she tells him that she has taken on his identity as a charro. In some respects, Curva, though “all woman,” exhibits the best qualities of both genders.

Eventually, Curva’s idealism, her desire to keep Weed pure, clashes with reality when an American drops out of the sky in his two-seater airplane and begins to buy up mineral rights, threatening Curva’s attempts at creating her own Eden. He isn’t the only stranger that visits. Characters from Luis Cardona’s novel Paraíso also appear, as does Xavier, Curva’s dead brother.

And though this is a novel with a positive message and vibe, it is also shot through with sorrow—Curva’s loss of Xavier; the racism of the Weedites toward the Blackfoot; the gradual loss of the native ways of living on the earth; the agricultural heritage of the Canadian plains giving way to the lust for money and the quest for oil.

Curva Peligrosa attempts to bridge North and South America, Natives and whites, Americans and Canadians, urban and country, nature and technology. It pushes the limits of reality, showing how novel reality is and how real a novel can be in how both depict the everyday.

Transformations take place in the midst of the ordinary. Characters in novels have their own existence. The dead aren’t really dead after all. Ancient bones have the power to speak and give birth. Semen seeps into the soil and surfaces much later in mysterious ways. Indian skeletons and prehistoric dinosaur bones offer their own view on what’s happening through “Bone Songs.”

A love story, Curva Peligrosa reminds us that life is a mystery, inscrutable, as is art, one reflected in the other, an attempt to articulate what is eternally present and true.

What inspired you to write this book? How did Curva come into your life?
I wrote about this question in a recent blog post. 

For me, Curva Peligrosa first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00, thought I didn’t actually start writing the novel until 2003:
Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it’s an image I can imagine using to start a book/story. There’s something in it for me, the way it gathers up so much in one swoop and then sets everything down in a new place, reconfigured. This is what interests me, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, but it has a compelling quality for me. It’s gripped my imagination. It’s odd how these things happen. The force they have. Novelists/writers are like tornados themselves in how they rearrange lives, facts, places.

I know that tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters that we shouldn’t take lightly. Yet they also have a symbolic resonance, and that’s what I was connecting with. I needed to imagine my way into this narrative by picturing what might happen in a fictional Alberta town that experienced such an upheaval. I wasn’t interested in focusing on the negative aspects of such a storm. I was more entranced with the storytelling possibilities of such an event. And then, in the novel’s opening, "a completely intact purple outhouse dropped into the center of town, a crescent-shaped moon carved into its door. It landed right next to the Odd Fellows Hall and behind the schoolhouse. Most people thought the privy had been spared because its owner—Curva Peligrosa, a mystery since her arrival two years earlier—had been using it at the time.” And she took off in my imagination from there!

There's a lot in Curva Peligrosa about the power of the feminine, and not just in Curva's name. Dangerous Curves is appropriate for someone like her, but there's a lot more about her healing capacity, her sexuality, her openness, and the shattering of the norms in Weed. She seems like the perfect mold-breaker. How did that character development come about? 
It’s difficult to dissect how a character develops and how far back in my own life I need to reach in order to understand Curva’s origins. As a girl, my heroines were Annie Oakley, Wonder Woman, and Nancy Drew. They had abilities that gave me hope for my own future.

When I was in my early 20s, I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, as well as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. These works opened many doors for me in my own consciousness-raising period, my recognition that women had and continued to be constrained.

I was a high-school dropout, and at that time I didn’t have much of a future. But I’ve always had a strong sense of social justice and believe in equality for all.

I wasn’t interested in creating a character molded after myself necessarily, and, in fact, very little in this novel has an autobiographical base. I just knew I wanted to create a female who was amoral, who tried to set her own boundaries, and who had an oversize lust for life. Using that phrase reminds me of when I first arrived in California in 1963 by train from Canada. I was reading a biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh entitled Lust for Life. Curva isn’t an artist per se, but she certainly approaches like with a similar intensity as did Van Gogh and other artists.

Fling! and Curva Peligrosa are somehow connected with Mexico. Why?
It’s true that Fling! and Curva Peligrosa have a strong Mexican presence. Fling!’s story is somewhat based on my maternal grandmother, who was born in Scotland’s Isle of Skye and ended up in Western Canada in the early 1920s. From there, she took off with her lover to Mexico City and never returned. Writing the novel was my quest to resurrect this woman. In the process, I invented a world for her in Mexico, a country I’ve visited now several times. For me, Mexico has multiple cultural levels that appeal to me, from the pre-Columbian Olmecs to the Toltecs and Aztecs that form Mexico’s cultural foundation, to the Spanish and Mestizos. The 20th Century Mexican revolution challenged European rule and gave, at least, official recognition of indigenous people. But none of this captures what for me is Mexico’s spirit, something I find hard to articulate except in the magical realist narratives I seem to create that features Mexican characters and locales. There is something about Mexico’s location south of the border that symbolizes for me the unconscious and all of its marvelous qualities. It also seems to be more of a matriarchal culture, and that appeals to me and has helped to shape Curva Peligrosa.

You are incredible at writing a sense of place. How, in your writing process, do you do this? Have you been to a town similar to Weed? 
The novel's beginning immediately let me know that the land was going to be an important component and that this work would be permeated by magical realism. When I did additional research on that genre, I came across the following (Magical Realism, Zamora & Ferris, 1995): “In the New World, where the climate is often less temperate and the landscapes more dramatic than in Britain, magic realism does indeed often display a deep connectedness between character and place.…The interpenetration of the magic and the real is no longer metaphorical but literal; the landscape is no longer passive but active—invading, trapping, dragging away….”

This explanation made me realize how important the landscape would be (and is) in Curva. It became a character in itself. That idea was confirmed when I read Michael Ondaatje’s notes in an afterward to Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John. Ondaatje points out that in this and other prairie novels, “the landscape…is not a landscape that just sits back and damns the characters with droughts. It is quicksilver, changeable, human—and we are no longer part of the realistic novel, and no longer part of the European tradition.” These observations gave me the permission I needed to follow a similar path, and I wrote the following in my journal: “I want to build on this and use the tornado to start a novel.” And that’s how Curva was born.

Weed is loosely based on towns I knew from my childhood. I spent several years on a farm outside of Calgary, and that time is permanently etched in my brain. So when it came time to invent Weed, it wasn’t difficult to conjure up images from my treasury of memory. 

One of the things I love most about your books is that I always learn something new. In this one, there were so many things, but one that stood out to me was about the indigenous people and change, and poverty, and bones, and history, and teaching about culture. What kind of research did you do, to incorporate this important aspect into Curva’s story?
As I’ve mentioned, I spent a few years on a farm before moving to Calgary, and I was familiar with the nearby Indian reservations. I even visited one once, and some Blackfoot used to camp on a field next to our farm every summer on their way to participate in the Calgary Stampede, arriving in their rickety wagons pulled by horses (I write about this experience in another novel of mine that will be coming out in 2019, I believe: Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training). I interacted with the kids, and the women did their laundry in our wringer washing machine. 

I’ve always had a strong social conscience, so I noticed from early on just how unjustly the indigenous people were treated. I also have a niece (someone I only met a few years ago) that identifies strongly with her Native heritage. She’s the daughter of my half-sister who married a Native man, and she advised me on some of the language I used in the book. She said, "When Shirley says "Indian" it makes sense and even at times when Billie and his people say it of themselves, but it's a bit more derogatory of a term. I'd suggest picking one and sticking with it for Billie's character or when you're telling different parts of the story. You use aboriginal, indian, native interchangeably though personally I feel they are quite distinct. I say I am Kwakwaka'wakw or Indigenous, I don't like the term aboriginal, I say Indian when I'm teasing my cousins or family, and I say Native a lot though some people don't like the term anymore either. I think finding a term that works and sticking with it will strengthen Billie’s character and others around him.”

I also did extensive reading both online and as I mention in the acknowledgement page in Curva, I read Walter McClintock’s The Old North Trail: Life, Legends & Religion of the Blackfeet Indians. This work was indispensable. In 1886, Chief Mad Dog, “The high Priest of the Sun Dance,” adopted McClintock, a member of a U.S. Forest Service expedition, and he spent four years living on the Blackfoot reservation. His personal account of this period gave me essential knowledge of the Blackfoot legends and religious rituals. It also gave me info on The Old North Trail, an important part of Curva’s journey north from Mexico. 

How can we find a bit of Curva-inspiration in our lives? 
Slow down! Smell the flowers! Live more fully in each moment! Create meaningful communities to interact with! Pay more attention to your dreams (we spend 33% of our lives sleeping)! Read more books like Curva Peligrosa!

What’s up next for you?
I’ve signed a three-book contract with Pen-L Publishing, the company that produced Fling! It will be a series featuring Tillie Bloom, a wacky installation artist. The first book in the series, Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. In subsequent years, the other two books will be released of Tillie in her early years (Freefall focuses on Tillie and her three former friends celebrating their 60th birthdays together in Venice). Freefall is pretty much ready for publication except for the final copyedits all books go through. Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training is almost there. The third one is still in embryo, so I have lots to keep me busy, in addition to marketing what I have published.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
It’s a privilege to interact with great readers like you, Jessie, who give me angles on my books that I wouldn’t have thought of. That’s why it’s so much fun for me to visit book clubs, either in person or by Skype/Facetime. I’m happy that Regal House Publishing included discussion questions at the end of Curva Peligrosa that readers can adapt for their groups if they want to.