In the spirit of continuing on from Robert’s post last week, I’d like to contribute here some observations from a book I’m currently reading, a YA novel called Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-García (2019). The book interests me because of its setting in 1920s Mexico and for its engagement with various elements of Mesoamerican mythology. I’m only four chapters in, but I can say it’s definitely well-written, and besides, in Chapter 2, I happened across the passage that I think complements Robert’s post very nicely.
The main character, Casiopea Tun, is an adolescent girl forced to work as a servant to her grandfather. In the second chapter, she accidentally unlocks a box of bones and reconstitutes, so to speak, the ancient Mayan god of death. The author makes no attempt to pretend that this deity would come to life, taking shape before our eyes, with clothes on:
“In the blink of an eye all the bones clicked into place, like pieces in a puzzle. In another instant the bones became muscle, grew sinews. In a third blink of the eye they were covered in smooth skin. Faster than Casiopea could take a breath or a step back, there stood a tall, naked man before her. His hair was the blue-black of a sleek bird, reaching his shoulders, his skin bronzed, the nose prominent, the face proud. He seemed a warrior-king, the sort of man who could exist only in myth” (pp. 21-22).
The god, Hun-Kamé, needs to go on a quest and he needs the proud Casiopea to help him. He is indeed aware of his nudity, because one of the first things he does is request that she bring him clothes. And yet, during their conversation, when Casiopea asks something he cannot request, “The god shook his head majestically. You’d have thought he was decked in malachite and gold, not naked in the middle of the room” (24). In other words, although he requests clothing to go out into the world, he is imperturbable standing nude before the young woman.
When she does fetch him some clothes, she reflects on having had to dress a man–her grandfather–before: “The god knew how to dress himself, thankfully. She’d had no idea if he had any experience with such garments. It would have been even more mortifying to have to button up the shirt of a god than it already was to watch him get dressed. She’s seen naked men in mythology books, but even Greek heroes had the sense to wear a scrap of cloth upon their private parts” (25).
This passage is fascinating for what it implies: Hun-Kamé, a god after all, doesn’t mind his nudity but she does, having been raised in a typically conservative Catholic upbringing. That her knowledge of male nudity comes from “mythology books” is telling; all the more so, the fact that the books are about Greek, and not Mesoamerican, mythology. And going one step further, it is of interest that the mythology books would represent Greek heroes discreetly, with a “scrap of cloth,” when we know that they wore no such thing. Such is the power of censorship and market demographics working in tandem.
In the end, this is an overall positive depiction of nudity in a recent YA novel distributed by a major mainstream publisher (Random House, Del Rey imprint). The description is sensuous (hair, skin) without being erotic. The subject of shame is mentioned (“mortifying”) but quickly overcome. I’m motivated to bring forward this example in order to widen the range of reference for nudity in fiction, for us as writers and readers of naturist fiction.