It was the insects that got to her first. Sylvia Sellers-García says family legend has it that even as a baby in Central America, the bugs made quite an impact on her. “They are very different from insects here,” says Sellers-García, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at Berkeley. “They are un-ignorable.” She remembers the skin-crawling horror of coming home after dark when the light had been left on. That scene finds its way into her debut novel set in Guatemala, When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep:
It carpeted the ceiling around the bulb so thickly that I could make out no single insect; they formed an undulating mass of legs, wings, and glittering eyes that emitted a dull murmur.
Sellers-García draws on her personal experiences for more than insects in her novel. Some of the characters come out of oral histories she collected there over the summer of 1999. For years, Guatemala was where Sellers-García went on family vacations. It was the place where her American father went as a college student and where he met her mother. She knew about the country’s troubled history, but as she grew older, she realized her own family was caught up in it. Her mother’s brother was part of the Jacobo Arbenz government overthrown in a 1954 CIA-backed coup that triggered almost four decades of armed conflict. Her uncle went into exile and then returned, only to be killed in 1972. “My mother didn’t mince words about his politics,” says Sellers-García. “He was a Communist. But she idealized him as well.”
This tangled skein of family loyalties and political strife is at the core of her novel as well. When her narrator, Nítido Amín, returns to the rural town of Río Roto from America to look for his roots after his father’s death, he is mistaken for the new priest. As the townspeople come to confession, bearing long lists of dead loved ones, he begins to comprehend how the war lives on, often in silence, in towns where everyone had been implicated on one side or the other. As Amín uncovers his own family’s role he realizes that in Guatemala, memory is a minefield. “One of the costs of armed conflict is the way it looms,” says Sellers-García. “In places where things cannot be named, it becomes everything un-nameable.”
But speaking out, as she found out, is itself problematic. Much of the testimony at UN-led truth commissions had come from oral histories. “I realized that the people collecting—and I use that word deliberately—the oral histories were changing the nature of oral history,” says Sellers-García. “People were directing their oral history to a foreign, academic audience. It’s not that it wasn’t true, but it was becoming finessed.”
So she focused on those who didn’t see themselves “as appropriate sources,” perhaps because they had only witnessed the horrors second-hand or were not “subaltern voices.” One of them was a priest who told her the people in his town never admitted to their role in massacres but instead repeatedly confessed illnesses to him. Another source was a doctor. Sellers-García says he was one of the funniest people she had met; his sense of humor was his way of dealing with everything he had seen. But his laughter failed him the day he told her how the people in his town used to be terrified of an unused well. He couldn’t understand why until he discovered that a military officer had used it as a repository for the head of someone he had killed. “When he visited the town he would pull the head out and play soccer with it in the town center,” explains Sellers-García.
In her novel no one plays soccer with decapitated heads, but the silence of horrors past hangs thickly over Río Roto. Sellers-García, a Marshall Scholar, remembers how she would be in tears in the library at Oxford just reading about Guatemala. She realized that writing a thesis was not enough. “I didn’t want to just do something that would be read by my three professors,” she says. “I wanted to create something with emotional weight. This is not an activist book. But it’s a way to pass the word on, to name things.”