A Conversation with Sarah Walker

Today’s guest is Sarah Walker. Sarah is a professor of Anthropology at California State University at San Marcos. In addition she makes beautiful glass art and is a fiction writer. Her short horror story, “The Snake Beneath My Skin,” appears in Test Patterns, from Planet X Publications, edited by Duane Pesice. It takes place in Mexico and involves an American who makes his living transporting illegal drugs. He finds out, too late, that there are even worse fates than the terrible punishments meted out to those who cheat the cartels.

Sarah’s most recent literary project was co-editing the folk horror anthology,  A Walk in A Darker Wood, along with Duane Pesice and Gordon B. White. If you enjoyed Midsommar and The Wicker Man you’ll find it worth reading. It’s available from Amazon.

And now for the questions!

Q. In the introduction to A Walk in A Darker Wood you say your childhood home was a former silver mill in the middle of a forest in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. How did that come about?

A. My father and mother moved to Colorado in the late 1960s or early 1970s when my dad took a professorship in cultural anthropology at CU in Boulder. They were looking for a place outside of town and stumbled upon this old silver mill with some land around it. Back then, no one wanted to live that far up in the mountains. We used to get snowed in on occasion and were unable to get to town. One time there was a blizzard and we ran out of dog food and had to feed our dogs rice. Now everyone wants to live up there, but when I was a kid we were in the middle of nowhere.

Q. As a graduate teaching fellow in the Anthropology department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, you took part in a project that used Geographic Information Science or GIS, to research trade routes in an area called Jalieza in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. From what I understand GIS is like a window into the past in that it uses geospatial technology to examine physical details of a landscape in order to draw conclusions about what life in ancient settlements was like. Is that correct? Would you care to elaborate on what you learned about Zapotec society during the Late Classic period?

A. Sure! What I learned more than anything is that the Americas were just as complex politically and as “advanced” as any European society was. The people I studied, the Zapotec, had a state-level society at Monte Alban (modern day Oaxaca City) in 500 B.C. They had elites fighting over political and economic power, systems of taxation, temple complexes, apartments and more. Jalieza was a big Late Classic center, with population of about 10,000. It was theorized to be in competition with the main site, Monte Alban, which is on top of a flattened mountaintop and full of pyramids and ceremonial areas like ball courts.

Through my research using GIS and archaeometry, I determined that Jalieza could have been its own polity without the elites of Monte Alban seeing, as a mountain essentially blocked them from view. The other major Late Classic sites could have been doing all kinds of business with Jalieza without Monte Alban knowing! It desperately needs more research.

It also opened my eyes to the fact that people of Mexican descent are the Aztecs, the Maya, the Mixtec, the Zapotec. Just because they were colonized, and had genocide committed against them doesn’t mean those cultures just vanished. That is an old mischaracterization of the people of the Americas who were disenfranchised and robbed of their cultures and their homes.

Mexicans and their ancestors are the ones who built these amazing civilizations! They deserve respect and credit for it. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital where modern day Mexico City sits, was the product of brilliant engineering on a par with the Romans. The conquistadores called Tenochtitlan “The Venice of the New World” as the Aztec had made islands when the original island grew too small for their growing population.

There are many things in Mexican culture that stem directly from Aztec traditions and they should be celebrated for this. How cool is it to know that the Quinceanera is actually Aztec in origin? This is a Mexican and Mexican American tradition for young women when they turn fifteen. They have a big party and are presented to the world as a woman from that day onward.

Q. I’m a fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s novels, especially those featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast. In their most recent, The Scorpion’s Tail, archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly complains that people think archeology consists of grabbing a shovel and digging things up. Have you found that to be true? Is archaeology more complicated than most of us realize?

A. Oh, yes. Archaeology is far more complex than that. What you are talking about is being a “shovel bum” as we call it and yes, there are archaeologists who do just that. They are mostly people with BAs or BSs who travel around and work on digs, although some with Master’s and PhDs do this too. The thing people forget is, there is a ton of work after that, a lot of lab work and analysis. It requires a tremendous eye for detail, an understanding of cultures different than the one you were brought up with, historical knowledge, scientific knowledge, and the ability to look at information with an unbiased eye.

I am extremely interested in understanding the perspective of ancient peoples as in the past much of archaeology and anthropology was only concerned with characterizing the creators of these amazing sites as unconnected to their modern-day descendants. This happens in the Americas quite a bit. Also, there is a lot of politics within archaeology and there is a desperate need for anthropologists and archaeologists to help protect the cultural resources that are being researched. There is so much behind-the-scenes work in archaeology. Many of us work on a computer or in a laboratory solely.

Q. What made you choose to study anthropology?

A. My father is a cultural anthropologist by the name of Deward Walker, Jr. I grew up going to the reservations with him, attending ceremonies, pow-wows, etc. It gave me a very different perspective of the world than if I had been, say, the child of a lawyer. It made me understand how powerful culture is and how much of what we think of as immutable is actually simply perspective.

My father spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. It has had a deep effect on all of us in the family. My sister, Alice Walker, is a Native American Rights attorney and works for tribes like the Hopi and the Navajo. My little brother, Joe Ben Walker, is a tribal archaeologist with the Cowlitz tribe. My other sister, Mary Walker, is an organic farmer but got her doctorate in ethnomusicology studying Mexican American folk music. I have two more siblings, Dan and Ed, who do their own thing, but they too have a deep interest in this stuff.  So, yeah, we are a bunch of crazy anthropology folks.

Q. Tell us about your glass art. I tried glassblowing once, at the Heritage Glass Museum in Glassboro, NJ. The heat from the furnace was so intense that I thought I was going to pass out. I never wanted to try it again. How did you get started? What kind of pieces do you make?

A. Glass is physically hard, no joke. I worked in production glass making pipes and production pieces at a big glassblowing place called Cornerstone in Eugene, Oregon. It got so hot in there in the summer we would all walk around in our underwear. It was just too hot!

My partner actually got me into glassblowing after I graduated from school with my first BA in sociology. I had no clue what I wanted to do in life. I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy at that time and felt I could never do academics again. I was a bit lost. However, he knew that because I was already an artist (a painter and a writer), he could get me to blow glass if he used the right push.

It is not easy to blow glass. You get burnt, cut, cooked by the heat, and it is physically hard to hold things up and spin them for hours on end. But because it wasn’t easy, and he kept teasing me that girls couldn’t blow glass and he wouldn’t blame me for not trying, I made myself do it. Now I use it to keep my head on straight. You have to relax to be able to make glass work for you. It won’t work if you don’t let it flow. If you want to make something, well, you’d better chill out and focus on just the glass. It is very Zen.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I am working on various sculptures and a novella as well as a few short stories. We are hoping to do a volume two of A Walk in a Darker Wood and I have some other projects up my sleeve. I am also teaching and may be going on a dig in Central America, but with the pandemic, things will have to wait, unfortunately.

Q. You were part of the West Coast punk scene in the 1980s. What was that like? Do you miss those days?

A. I would be lying if I said I didn’t. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I am still an old punk, but one gets older, one gets mellower. On top of that, I am so busy with my art, writing and teaching, I couldn’t do what used to do if I wanted to (go to shows, hang out with friends and make music, go to more shows, etc.)

The punk scene was very different back then. There were so few of us and if you saw someone dressed punk, you would know they were like you. They listened to the same music you did, held the same political views, and you knew that they knew what it was like to be different and not fit in. It was about music, alienation, and politics. Now it has become so popular that it has kind of ruined the whole point. But I do see new bands and young punks and it always makes me smile and gives me hope.

Without people questioning authority, our society would be doomed. We must be vigilant and remember that we humans are all in this together. Everyone is equal- white, black, gay, straight, brown, bi, cis, no-gendered, whatever. The punk scene was about that before it was cool. Back then people would try to run us down, arrest us, etc. just for being who we were. Not all my friends made it. That to me says more about our society than it does about them. They were not “weak” or “unable to cope.” A whole generation of kids like me grew up under the threat of nuclear destruction. We saw what is happening now starting. That existential knowledge destroyed many of us. Being 14 and realized how fucked up human society can be is not easy. We really believed we had no future. Maybe we were right.

Q. What draws you to folk horror, as opposed to other forms of horror?

A. Horror is a platform by which difficult subjects can be addressed. We can talk about racism, sexism, and humanity’s cruelty to humanity. We can pull the scab off and expose the rotten, diseased parts underneath. By doing this, we can heal. Humanity, specifically Western society, has divorced itself from nature for far too long. We are seeing the effect of this all over the world. When people become disconnected from the beauty that is all around us, bad stuff happens. They lose that knowledge that we are part of a greater whole that has no end or beginning.

I think that is why I am mostly drawn to folk horror. More than that, I love anything about folklore. I grew up listening to my dad tell me Coyote tales and other folklore. My mother told me Viking folklore and read me The Hobbit. Folklore serves a very important function in human society: it allows us to bring the subconscious into the light.

Q. Is there anything you’d like to add?

A. Support your local artists and writers! If you want to do art or write, now is time to do it! I am very much about the DIY aspect of the punk scene. You will never know what you could become unless you try to do it! Go write! Make a painting! No one else has your unique perspective. No one else can see with your eyes unless you help them.


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