Fiction set in the past can be tricky. Readers—and authors—love to learn things we didn’t know, but all that research can smother the life out of a piece of fiction. Done well, however, this kind of fiction can give us a special vantage point on both the past and the present. Andrea Barrett, a notable writer of novels set in the past, observed of The Voyage of the Narwhal: “for me there was no point in doing a novel that simply replicated the shape of an [arctic] expedition. What seemed really interesting was that other half of the story. I wanted to tell a story that contained both the journey and the critique of the journey, the journey and the shadow side of the journey….” A. Muia, in her linked stories set in Baja California during the waning days of the Spanish colonial missions, proves to be a master of keeping both the story and its shadow side, the events and the critique of the events, in focus at the same time. Her stories are carefully researched and full of fascinating detail, but the historical information is beautifully managed so that it always serves the story—there’s no sense of the author who needs to show off everything she’s learned, nor any invitation to feel superior to people who lived in the past. In the end, what stands out about Muia’s writing is not so much the setting but the graceful lyricism of the prose and the emotional weight of the stories. Muia paints a chapter of our continent’s history that is tragic and disturbing, but does so with a sense of nuance and generosity that finds the beauty and humanity even in the most brutal events.
A. Muia is the founder and co-director of New Earth Recovery, a ministry to those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. She serves as a chaplain to inmates at the Skagit County Jail, directs two recovery homes, and presents bridge-building seminars for the mainstream church on how addiction works, along with her husband and co-director, Alan. “The Vermilion Saint,” published in Image issue 83, is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress set in Baja California, Mexico.
I’m fascinated with the desert. In Scripture, it’s always a place of God-encounter, of God showing up in the dry landscape and the human heart, a voice calling us by name and allowing us to name God in return.
In personality quizzes I’m always the melancholy one, the artist and the Eeyore, never happy unless I’m slightly blue and eating thistles. But there’s something about bleakness that requires an excavation of my faith, something about desolate landscapes that struggle yet persist, looking dead at first glance but suddenly surprising with tiny, exquisite signs of life for one who is willing to get down on her hands and knees and look closer. The mystery of how the kingdom breaks into this dry, sad world is worthy of all the angst and love I have inside me.
Good news stands out more in desert places. I search continually; I wrestle with Scripture like Jacob wrestled with the angel—I won’t let it go until it blesses me. In some of the Biblical accounts this can take quite a while, like gazing at hard, parched ground. One morning there’s a little flower that wasn’t there before.
The addicts we work with have their street-theology version of this search for good news: “Everything happens for a reason.” I was raped, I overdosed and had to be revived with Narcan, my friend was murdered in a drive-by. But “everything happens for a reason,” they say. As humans we want to know that our darkest stories have meaning, that our grief isn’t without reason. We’d rather name a god that presets our destinies of suffering than face the terror that our sorrow is somehow meaningless. I humbly submit that this is fate, not redemption. I’m not interested in fate. I’m interested in where God is incarnate, where God enters the scene of our anguish, suffers with us, and brings a word that wasn’t there before.
Although my current project isn’t about ministry with addicts and inmates, somehow they—and I—have worked our way into the pages of my progressing novel-in-stories, set in 19th century Baja California. It’s the era of the ruined Catholic missions, a world of priests and pearl-divers, grave-diggers and gatherers of flotsam along the wind-swept Pacific, an ex-soldier falling for an ex-nun and a saint-maker who punishes the saints, a prison with open doors and a gold-hungry 49er and a diffident, freckled herpetologist. It’s a land of rocky, beautiful landscapes and hearts to match. I’ve spent the last few years poring over dusty old books and traveling to remote desert sites in Baja to visit the crumbling mission ruins. In the exploration of this colorful and tragic era, I wrestle with these emerging stories, looking for good news in a land of incomparable beauty that bears the legacy of well-intentioned genocide, where the gospel was carried with death in its robes and the inhospitable peninsula is finally abandoned even by its priests. I’m looking for God to show up. For me and the tattooed and the religious and the lonely and the jubilant and the unsuspecting and all of us who dwell in the desert.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.