William Vlach


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Review from the Historical Novel Society for Hunahpu by Charlotte Kirsch

The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu: A Novel of the Spanish Attack on the Maya

The Spanish conquest of the Mayan civilization in the 16th Century forms the dramatic climax of William Vlach’s sweeping novel The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu, but the narrative is much more generous than that of simple military fiction; through a fascinating cast of disparate characters, Vlach dramatizes what he refers to as a “sixteenth-century American holocaust.” We see the doomed valor of Mayan prince Belehe Qat as he struggles to fight the invading Spanish (the savagery of that invasion is exceptionally well portrayed in these pages – so much so that there are stretches that make for very disturbing reading). We see the violently-widening world view of the Spanish noblewoman Beatriz (by a good measure the book’s most interesting character) as she follows her conquistador husband to his new assignment and is quickly forced to re-assess both him and herself.

Most entertaining of all (albeit in a very darkly sardonic way), we see the battered idealism of a monk named Domingo, whose personal story intersects with key historical events in ways that keep the story unpredictable. A host of secondary characters are equally well fleshed-out, and the lost world of the Maya is painted in all its sometimes contradictory colors. The book is barely three-hundred pages long but feels as satisfying as an epic three times that length. Recommended.

Facing the Pacific

He stands in the sand
flings the pole forward.
Weight hook bait line
fly overhead into the surf.

He wonders what will come
from the ocean:
debris, a silver fish, ideas.
His boots are planted in the sand.

A white line of surf
moves up to his feet.
He does not move, for his
footing is solid.

It’s not.

Je Suis Hija

Some of the earliest nasty satire is from Medieval Islamic Arabia. Hija is an Arabic form of satire. It is restricted to poetry, but is not exactly satire in the Western sense in that it is more closely resembles straight out invective. Another word for hija is dhamm, or blame. According to the Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature it lacks some of the sparkle of western satire and is generally more of a polemic. It is insulting, abusive, and highly critical. Hija has been called the abuse poetry of the Umayyads, the Muslim dynasty that ruled Moorish Spain for 700 years. The poetry is extremely course and inflammatory. These hijas, abusive and course poems, were usually aimed at rival tribes. These poems were thought to be fatal, and at times the poet led his people into battle, hurling his verses as he would hurl a spear.

Here’s a fine title for a book: The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Toward Invective Poetry (Hija). The book finds that only rarely were poets punished for hija, though the poet Jarir was flogged by al-Walid’s (caliph of Damascus, 668-715 AD) minions. But the typical leader’s attitude was that of Al-Ma’mun’s: “It is not my habit to have someone killed, even if his sin is grave: so should I then do it in the case of a poet?” The reason these abusive invective poets were generally not punished is that the punishments were not seen as effective and would probably incite further invective.


I imagine the ancient hija was like the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

A famous hija from Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (AD 915-965) who attacked the former slave and now ruler of Egypt wrote “…this black man with his pierced camel lips,” who is “pot bellied” and “a woman-like slave.” In a further poetic attack, this target, Kafour, is so unworthy that not even death will bother to take him away, “unless his hand has a trace of its stink. With loosened belt, the flabby belly breaks wind;/ neither counted among men nor yet among women.”

Satire, a long and good tradition in the West and in Islamic cultures.


I was fresh out of high school when Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were killed.

My elementary and middle school years were filled with white kids whose fathers worked at the factory or were ranch hands, Black kids who demanded a quarter to walk up to the gym or sat quietly in the back of class with pretty ironed hair, Latino kids who outran everybody on the field or invited me to their quinceanera. We moved to the white Sacramento suburbs after my father died. Ninth grade began with a school counselor who placed me in bonehead English.

Fuck you, Mrs. Cartensen.

The suburbs were a mix of doctor’s daughters and meat packer’s sons. The school was 100% white, except for the blind Vietnamese exchange student.

The summer I graduated three three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were shot, their bodies were covered with a bull dozer. They had been registering voters in Mississippi. This was the segregationist Jim Crow American South. 17,000 black residents of Mississippi attempted to register to vote that summer, only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by local registrars. Nothing subtle about that voter suppression.

Crowds gathered in front of the State Capital in Sacramento. I worked three blocks from the building in my uncle’s insurance company– opening mail, filing, looking out the window.

It was a different era, easy access to our political leaders. At the end of the demonstration I walked over to the governor, Edmund G. Brown, and asked for his autograph. I liked him. He was a bit jowly and made me think of my uncles. I was pleased he signed the back of a paper which had the words to ‘We Shall Overcome’ on the other side.

I wanted to get there, to the South, to be a part of the struggle against segregation. No way. I had just got my driver’s license. Never been out of the state.

I saw the governor again, a year later. Back then the governor’s house was an old white Victorian building in downtown Sacramento. My friend Scott and I walked along ‘H’ Street, and there he was, watering the roses. We walked over to the black iron waist high fence and called out to him. A different era indeed.

It was almost exactly a year after the three civil rights workers were killed: August, 1965. Watts had exploded. 34 deaths. Over a thousand injured. Millions of dollars of property damage.

“Hello, Mr. Governor,” I probably said. Not sure. But I know I asked him about Watts. I know because I clearly remember him holding a green hose with his right hand and saying to us, “It’s like a prison riot. It has to be put down.” His free left arm pushed the air down to the lawn.

Watts had begun with an incident with the white California Highway Patrol officers and 21 year old African-American Marquette Frye.

The governor hadn’t made the connection between the two events.

Fifty years later it is obvious.

Wouldn’t you think…

And do you know what a man says when a klansman’s gun is stuck into his ribs?

“Sir, I know just how you feel.” That was Michael Schwerner seconds before he was shot to death.

Their deaths resonate fifty years later. His impossible empathy resonates fifty years later.

Is empathy the light that can get us through this mess this time?


Media, press, blogs and all that make me anxious.  I get nervous at the idea of participating.  Working with Tanya on setting this blog up, she asked me why.  I tried to explain.  She said, “Write it.”

The first time I was quoted in the paper, I was misquoted.  Could have been a big deal, but that time it was met with a quizzical smile.  The next time the response was violent.

Over 40 years ago:  both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died from overdoses.  This was the time when a judge had his head blown off in Marin County as prisoners tried to escape.  This was the time when writer George Jackson was killed in San Quentin.

I was a psychology student at San Francisco State.  I guess I spent some time in class.  But truth be told, I preferred working in, what we called then, “The Community.”  A local community organizer, the nearby community mental health center, several local young adults, and I set up a drug abuse program upstairs in a run down old building.  It sat on the border between a largely African-American project and a largely working class white area.  The idea was simple.  Drugs were ravaging both sides.  This would be a way bring both sides together to attack the problem.  Little did I know.

Word somehow got out to the San Francisco Examiner.  A reporter interviewed us.  The paper quoted me as a white student who said he wanted to “help those less fortunate.”  Shit, I didn’t say that.  I wouldn’t have said that.  I didn’t see it that way. “Those less fortunate” was patronizing, condescending.

Raymond, the African-American co-director, looked at the quote, looked at me, shook his head, and smiled.  I don’t remember what I said.  40 plus years later, I think I said, “I was misquoted.”  Or, “Fucking newspapers.”  Probably not that last one.  Maybe I didn’t say anything.  If I tried too hard to defend myself, I’d look like I was hiding that I really did believe that.  Could easily be I broke a sweat and didn’t say a thing.

Song lyrics went though my mind.  Please Lord, don’t let me be misunderstood.

The drug abuse program was going pretty well.  The local community health center volunteered a nurse; community mental health offered a psychiatrist; black and white paraprofessionals co-led the groups.  I recruited several of my friends in the Psychology Department to help out.  They put together a grant proposal.  I think this was part of a class project.

Then the student newspaper printed the grant proposal.  Printed it to show the good work of students at State.  At first I was flattered.  My name was in there along with my friends who had written the proposal.  I grabbed a couple of copies of the paper, cut out the article, and sent it to my mom in Sacramento.  I was proud.  Quick trip to the Isle of Hubris.

One of the community leaders called a meeting at the drug abuse program.  I thought they were going to congratulate us, me, on the article.  I encouraged my psychology friends to attend.

We sat upstairs in the rickety chairs.  I noticed that Raymond wasn’t there.  His co-worker, Shorty was.  Shorty was a young muscular Black bus driver.   I had wondered if he was selling drugs out of our fledging drug abuse program.  No proof.  No evidence.  Just an occasional  rumor.  Unsubstantiated.  He made me nervous.  Sometimes he would stand up in the group, place his back to the wall and furtively look around as if something dangerous was going to happen.

The student newspaper writer was there for the meeting.  I think he also expected congratulations.  We all talked for a bit about how the program was going.  Shorty stood up and said, “So what does ‘culturally disadvantaged’ mean.  The student reporter nervously said, “I was just quoting the grant proposal.”  I remember him as on the thin side, sensitive, and now he was scared.  He wore a blue cap.

I had been blinded by my name in the paper  I looked at the article.  It said this Black community was culturally disadvantaged.  I didn’t see it that way.  They were economically disadvantaged.  In fact, I was taken with the Black culture there- camaraderie, humor, music, idealism coupled with bad housing, poverty, drugs and violence.

Shorty looked at my psychology friends.  “What does it mean?  Culturally disadvantaged?”

Bob, the goateed Vietnam vet, the one who had argued in class for philosophical pragmatism, stammered, “That was the language that could get us the grant.”  Five young men came out from an adjacent room.  Each carried a bat.  Shorty hit the reporter hard in the face.  He flew off his chair to the floor.  The young men with bats held them up to us, motioning us not to move.  Shorty kicked the reporter on the floor, then pulled him up and dragged him over to the stair as he was pleading for Shorty to stop.  Shorty pushed him down the stairs.  We heard the falling sounds.  I looked out the side window of the building to see the reporter running up the street.

One of the young men pulled me up out of my chair and told me to stand in the hall.  There he held his baseball bat up, threatening me.  “Don’t move,” he said.

Through the open door I saw my friends being beaten and kicked.

“You didn’t get it because you’ve been here a long time,” Shorty said as he left.  The others left also.

I did the best I could to pick up my friends.  One said he just wanted to go home. His face didn’t look good.  Bob had been hit pretty hard.  I tried to clean off the blood.  “Get me out of here,” he said.

“Can I take you to the hospital?” I asked.

“No,” he practically yelled at me.

I drove him to a nearby gas station bathroom.  I tried to clean him up with water and paper towels.  He began crying.  “Its like in Vietnam.”  I didn’t know the concept of PTSD and flashbacks then.

I never went back to that “community.”  After a couple of weeks, Shorty showed up at State when I was in class.  He opened the door to the seminar and motioned me out.  I was afraid I’d get clobbered right there.  As I walked to the hall I wondered if I would fight back or run.

“Bill,” he said.  “You should come back to the program.”

“No,” I said.

“It wasn’t about you.”

“I can’t,” I said.

I never went to the police.  I figured if I had there would be even more violence.  Or maybe I was just afraid.  Don’t know.

I wondered what would have happened had I stood in front of the bats and yelled “Stop.”  Was I a coward for not stepping up?  Smart for keeping quiet?

I don’t know.

Then the unresolved issues of the country about race, violence, drugs, and prisons were not oblique.

But what I do know now is that I don’t trust the press.  I respect the ability of ‘media’ to twist words, to create havoc without a clue, to create damage.

A necessary evil in a democracy, I figure.

I am nervous about blogging, twitting, face booking, newspapers, and all of that.

So here goes.


Kind words about The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu from poet David Watts

Imagine how ambitious a task it would be to write an historical novel set 500 years ago, written in three distinct first person voices, demanding a convincing demonstration of cultural authenticity in more than one culture and then to weave a compelling narrative through it all. Vlach has done it and managed in the process to provide us strong characters, conflict, love, self-doubt, psychological understanding and a rare quality of mysticism that melds itself seamlessly with the reality of life in the most difficult of times. A compelling read. Well done! David Watts, author of Bedside Manners and The Orange Wire Problem

Husband gets Kathi Kamen Goldmark’s novel out to the world

@TanyaVlach and I met with Sam a couple of months ago. He heads up Book Passage’s Path to Publishing program. He told us this story. Good guy: humor, compassion toward the writer in the rough and tumble world publishing.


The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu

The Golden Chalice of Hunahpu will be published this Fall by Full Court Press.
Here’s what one reviewer had to say:

5.0 out of 5 stars Historical Fiction Page-Turner
By Gonian Male
The Golden Chalice of the Hunahpu, by William Vlach, is a delightful and sophisticated work of art. The years of the Spanish conquest of the Maya (Southeast Mexico & Central America) are brought to life in the first-person narratives of three powerfully rendered characters: a high-caste Mayan boy who grows to manhood during the era; a female Spanish aristocrat who marries a conquistador and follows him to the New World, eventually becoming a despot in her own right; and a fairly decent Spanish monk who provides a window into the dark soul of the Spanish Inquisition… which, sadly, arrived in the New World like a ship-borne pack of stowaway rats.

Those of us who were skeptical of the so-called “history” portrayed in the Euro-propagandistic schoolbooks of the Fifties and Sixties have yearned for such a book as Vlach’s. His research, both historic and linguistic, sets a strikingly realistic stage for this poetic and insightful novel. If Vlach tends to favor one party over the other, I suppose his sympathies lie with the Maya… but mostly because their story needed to be told. Other than that, the book is quite even-handed. Vlach doesn’t blink at portraying the stubborn superstitions and cruelties of either culture, nor does he shy away from the profound courage, on both sides, that powered this cataclysmic series of events.

Five stars: both for adding several layers of truth to history, and for creating such a riveting tale.


Why Write?

I wrote “The Golden Chalice of Hunahpú” because of love and rage. I fell in love with Norita. Her mother’s family was from Guatemala. For our premarital honeymoon, we drove there from San Francisco in her blue convertible VW. She looked for, and found, her Guatemalan family. I was in love with her, then I fell in love with Guatemala- the Maya, the Ladinos, the mountains, Lake Atitlán, and the brutal history of the place.
I don’t think you can write unless you are in love. With someone, something.
Rage, too. Guatemala, Central America, and much of Latin America is a caste society, much like India. Odd that both regions are romanticized for their misty origins and spirituality. Maybe Carlos Fuentes is right. Maybe the geographic border between the U.S. and Latin America is also a metaphorical border within each individual on both sides.
The trips to Central America over the years brought up rage at how the Mayans were getting trashed. Again. On a trip to Xalapa, Mexico, in 1981, to visit Norita’s family who had fled the violence, some strange transformation happened. Her cousin, the artist Emanuel Paniagua, took us to an art show. Here were contemporary drawings of Mayan children. Villages burnt, helicopters floated in the air raining fire down on running families, rifles shot mothers. This current war attacked children. I took pictures. By focusing into each child’s colorful drawing, my ability to distance my self was destroyed. With that intense focus, the experience became palatable. And kids don’t lie when they draw.
Back in the States I read. I found Mayan writings of the time of the arrival of the Spanish. I fell love again. The writing style was poetic. The language was nonlinear. Phrases repeated and folded back on themselves creating a lyrical world of mythology and war. And, I fell in rage again. This time at the clash of civilizations that destroyed one. Or at least tried to destroy one– the Maya. Didn’t. But did substantial damage.
I had an image that seemed to come from nowhere. A Mayan on horseback. Who was he? How did he get the horse? Where did he come from? What happened to him?
The novel tried to answer.

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