Tomes of Terror: Beyond Grimm — Interview on La Siguanaba

Director Joye Thaller’s interview with playwright Liz Salazar about her play “La Siguanaba”, performed as part of Tomes of Terror: Beyond Grimm

Q: What was your inspiration to write “La Siguanaba”?

A: When I set out to find a Latin American tale to tell, I found more than a few predatory or vengeful women—la Llorona, la Patasola, la Muelona… It was apparently a theme brought over by the Spanish, and as it happens I’ve always had a sort of bemused interest in the monstrous women of European mythology. What settled me on la Siguanaba was simple access—for the first time, I could research my topic by going directly to the relatives who’d grown up hearing the folktale on the Caribbean coast. As for the setting inspiration, well… I think I needed a way to explore the chain of history that has led right up to the migration crisis today. It’s been cathartic to put a spotlight on that history, and on what actions my own native country has taken in my ancestral one.

Q: Growing up, did you ever hear stories of la Siguanaba from any family members? If so, to what extent were they a source for the material in “La Siguanaba” and how much was outside research?

A: Actually, I hadn’t often gotten to hear about folk stories from Central America! Working on this script helped me find a new way to connect with both my Honduran and Salvadoran relatives. Asking about la Siguanaba launched some exciting conversations as everyone sifted through all the legends they knew and compared the different versions—which inspired one moment in particular in this play. Also, some of the characters are named after my relatives.

Q: This play takes place on a plantation, which is visited by an American fruit company. How much of the play is based on real historic events and how much is pure fiction?

A: The United Fruit Company was, and still is, quite real—it was arguably the most impactful force of American colonialism in Latin America. It had enough influence with the US government that our army staged coups in one Central American country after another to destabilize the region, and in doing so gain more American control over banana and other agricultural industries and exports. It transformed Central America, and those countries still feel United Fruit’s influence today. You would know the company today as Chiquita.

Q: Ceiba trees are a major thematic element in this play. What was your reason for incorporating the ceiba?

A: The ceiba represents the World Tree in Maya culture, the axis of the world and gateway between the material and spiritual realms. It’s sacred in other Caribbean cultures as well: there’s a famous ceiba in Puerto Rico, for example, that became a symbol of hope for the island when it finally started blooming again after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The characters in this story are trying to live their lives as their world is upturned and exploited by an uncaring superpower, a reflection of the pain that many Latin Americans are feeling right now. The hope that I myself cling to each day is in the unsinkable spirit I’ve always known among Central Americans, and the ceiba seemed a perfect metaphor for that spirit, with its sacred roots reaching all the way back to our ancestors.

Q: What were the challenges in writing this for a radio format versus a traditional play format? Are there any ways in which you think this format is more ideal?

A: The challenge and the fun of radio writing is always in deconstructing and reframing the visual lens through which we tend to tell our stories. In this case the main challenge was that in folklore, la Siguanaba is mainly characterized by her monstrous appearance; luckily, though, the folktales also tend to put her around water, which gives us some great opportunities for creepy Foley effects. And besides that, the audio format really frees the story up technically—if I were writing a fully-staged play, I really wouldn’t be able to set it outdoors in a tropical forest. While it’s always possible to stage that kind of setting, it would be pretty difficult to make it look good without a big budget. As a radio play, I can leave the stage design to the listener’s imagination, and all that’s left to worry about is making sure I can get you to the Caribbean in your head.