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ASU novelist looks at cultural encounters in 18th century Latin America

portrait of ASU College of Letters and Sciences instructor Lori Eshleman
March 25, 2015

Arizona State University instructor Lori Eshleman has always been drawn to those spaces in time where cultural and religious traditions have encountered each other, from the European Middle Ages to colonial Latin America to the American West.

Her new book of historical fiction, “Pachacuti: World Overturned,” explores the overlap of complex issues of race, gender, politics and religion through characters whose lives become entwined during an uprising in the Andean kingdom of Quito in the 1700s.

Eshleman will discuss the book’s major characters – an indigenous ranch manager, a Jesuit priest and a young colonial Spanish woman – at a discussion and book signing event at 7 p.m., March 25 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe. Her talk, “Shamans, Jesuits, and Rebels: Encounters in the New World,” is sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which published the novel in its Bagwyn Books imprint.

Eshleman’s sources for this novel include historical chronicles, travel narratives, works of anthropology and religious studies, and folklore and folksongs. She also drew on participation in religious festivals and rituals, and on her knowledge of shamanic traditions in Ecuador.

“Watching the San Juan festival was very inspiring to me, and it plays a central role in the novel,” she said. “The music, costumes, dancing, and harvest and battle rituals affirmed that old traditions are still very much alive. Religious beliefs and practices also blend Incan traditions and Catholicism – strong medicine traditions and the power of saints, the Virgin Mary, mountain spirits and spirits of waterfalls co-exist.

“The character of the restless young Spanish girl who longs for a life different from the choices of marriage and motherhood or the convent was partly inspired by Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico,” Eshleman notes, “a scholar, musician and poet who was educated and wrote under the patronage of the wife of the viceroy of New Spain for a time, until her independence was repressed.”

Some of the other sources Eshleman drew on included a 19th century travel narrative written by the ambassador to Ecuador under Abraham Lincoln and a 1789 history of Quito written from the point of view of Juan de Velasco, a Jesuit. Works of anthropology, like “Sacha Runa” by Norman Whitten, helped shape her interpretation of indigenous communities and medicine people.

Reviewer James Thomas Stevens said of her novel, “Deftly weaving history with strong characters in conflict with both class and race, Eshleman returns the human elements, both inhuman and humane, that are so often stripped away from history.”

Eshelman said her longstanding interest in Latin American culture dates back to her childhood in Sterling, Illinois, which boasts a large Mexican-American community whose ancestors came through much of the 20th century to work in the town’s steel mill.

“Growing up in Sterling, Mexican-American culture was part of daily life,” she explains. “There were Mexican restaurants, a Latin American Social Club, Spanish-language movies at the local cinema and the annual Fiesta Days every September, a weekend celebration of Mexican Independence and the city’s cultural roots.”

Eshleman went on to earn a doctorate in art history from the University of Minnesota and spent summers in Ecuador over a period of years.

Trained as an Early Medieval art historian, Eshleman said she started writing this novel after she finished her dissertation (on Viking art), but she set the work aside for more than a decade.

“About two years ago, feeling that the book resonated with so many of the cultural conflicts, inequities and political uprisings we see in the modern world, I revised the text, rethinking it through the lens of all that I’d learned and taught about in the intervening years.”

At ASU Eshleman teaches courses in English, interdisciplinary studies and liberal studies in the College of Letters and Sciences, based at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, and has also taught Mexican art, art of the Americas and Medieval art.