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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Brazilian Transplant Christopher Kastensmidt on His ELEPHANT AND MACAW BANNER Cultural Fantasy Series

When Christopher Kastensmidt was born in Houston, Texas, it is reported that the doctor on duty said: “Houston, we have a problem!” And he meant it.

Christopher spent a most of his childhood getting into trouble, and by his teen years, adults and the economy decided he should harness that energy into a long list of tedious jobs: lawn care, telemarketing, a car wash, a grocery store, and an arcade. It all made him very tired. He decided to try a career in something a bit more cerebral and entered Rice University. He had a hard time deciding between History and Computer Engineering, but eventually opted for the latter. Christopher worked as a programmer at IBM and a microprocessor architect at AMD and Intel. When life became too easy, he swapped a high-paying job in California for a penniless startup in southern Brazil called Southlogic Studios. He also traded a nice house for sleeping on a friend’s living room floor. Most people think he may have gone a bit too far.

Nevertheless, it all worked out in the end. A decade later, Christopher became Creative Director and Studio Coordinator of Ubisoft Brazil. Christopher worked on thirty published video games before trading the corporate life for writing and academics. He currently teaches Game Design, Scriptwriting, Digital Literacy and other subjects at UniRitter university. Along the way, Christopher met his beautiful wife Fernanda and they had a smiling boy named Lynx. Christopher has been inventing stories since before he could write, but his work was first published in 2005. Since then, he has published stories and poems in twelve countries and had the honor of being a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2011 and the Argos Prize in 2014.

Carl Slaughter had the chance to interview Christopher about multi-cultural fantasy…

Carl Slaughter: The 2 main characters in your series come from drastically different cultural and geographic backgrounds. How do you develop a friendship and teammate relationship with them?

Christopher Kastensmidt: First off, I’d like to thank Carl and SF Signal for this opportunity. I’m a big fan of the website and podcast, especially the work you’ve been doing to promote worldwide SF. It’s an honor to participate in this interview.

That’s a great question, because it gets right to the heart of these stories. Gerard is a Dutch Protestant (not the most welcome figure in a sixteenth-century Catholic colony) and Oludara a slave from Ketu (part of modern-day Benin). What unites the two is their inherent generosity. Their cultural differences cause conflict, but in the end, they always find a way to understand one another. I think the origin of most of our conflicts today are cultural, where people simply refuse to take the time to understand each other’s point-of-view.

On the outside, these stories are about the duo overcoming legendary dangers through friendship, intelligence and courage, but on the inside, they’re about bridging cultural chasms through those same virtues.

CS: Why did you choose a European and an African farmer as main characters? Why not Brazilian characters, since the stories are set in Brazil? Why not Spanish characters, since Spain was the prevailing colonial power at the time?

CK: They are at the same time outsiders, newly arrived, but also representative of what Brazil would one day become. Forget all you know about the rest of Latin America, Brazil is one-half the land mass of South America and one-half the population, but couldn’t be more different from the rest.

It begins with the Portuguese colonization. Portugal, the other great naval power of the time, gained control of Brazil when Pope Alexander VI divided the non-European world between them and Spain. During the next four centuries, more than four million African slaves arrived in Brazil. Many natives were enslaved, killed, or died of disease, but many others integrated themselves into the colony. The typical Brazilian today has a mixture of European, African and indigenous DNA.

This process began in the 16th century, the time of these stories. Even though I write fiction, I feel like it’s my duty to represent the period as faithfully as possible.

CS: Why did you choose 16th century Brazil as the setting?

CK: When I first started learning Portuguese (in the late 90s), I read a lot of Brazilian history. The country’s history is rich and, honestly, quite alien for someone who grew up in the U.S. I chose the 16th century because of the cultural convergence that occurred during that period. The indigenous nations came into contact with European explorers, colonists, Jesuits and the African slaves they brought with them. Cultural convergence is always a source of conflict, which is the fuel of good fiction.

Also, I’m a fantasy author who grew up on adventure tales from Fritz Leiber, Alexandre Dumas, Robert E. Howard and others. A sixteenth-century setting of “muskets and magic”, as I like to call it, seemed the perfect fit.

CS: “Brazil’s body lies in America but its soul resides in Africa.” – Antonio Vieira What does this mean?

CK: The hallmarks of Brazilian culture today—samba, capoeira and candomble, to name a few—descended from African culture. Even things like Carnival, based on European traditions, have taken on radically different forms in Brazil, because of the African influence. This is nothing new: Antonio Vieira wrote that phrase in the seventeenth century!

CS: Do you use European, African, Brazilian, or traditional fantasy creatures, or some combination?

CK: The folklore is all “Brazilian”, because it has been passed down for hundreds of years, but the original sources include all those you mention above. For example, the witch Cuca (or “Kooka”, in my Anglicized version), one of the country’s best-known myths, was brought over from Portugal.

Curupira (“Curooper”), a demon with backwards-turned feet, was originally an indigenous myth. His appearance, however, has evolved over the centuries, owing to European influence. Quibungo is a legendary monster brought over from Africa. This mixture of folklore, from three different continents, is one example of the “amazingly rich” culture I mention above.

CS: Is the Amazonian ecosystem part of the canon?

CK: These first stories focus on the eastern coastal areas of Brazil that had settlements at the time, from roughly Olinda in the north to São Paulo in the south. This area was covered by a million-square kilometer wilderness called the Atlantic Forest (now reduced to 10% of its original size). So the characters have to deal with a tropical wilderness of massive scale, much like the Amazon.

That being said, the Amazon isalso out there with all its unexplored territory and civilizations, and I have long-term plans for some stories set there.

CS: Does romance play a part in the series?

CK: In the second story, A Parlous Battle, Oludara meets a Tupinambá native named Arany (thus completing my representation of the European-African-indigenous culture of modern Brazil). This is no Hollywood romance, that would be culturally misleading in any case, but my focus with these stories is adventure and friendship. Their relationship, however, plays an important role in the series.

CS: The European is the one who longs for adventure. The African agrees to help the European on the condition that he return home after five years. How do you set up this character to return for the sequel?

CK: A lot can change in five years, and they have many dangers to overcome first. After that… Well, I know what happens far into their future, but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover as we go along.

CS: Who would play the main and supporting characters in a screen adaptation?

CK: I don’t have anyone specific today. If a movie ever did occur, I’d love to see some up-and-coming actors take on those roles and make them unique. That being said, a young Ron Perlman would have made a great Gerard van Oost. He has the hair, body shape, and just the right amount of sarcasm. For Oludara, a young Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje would have been perfect: he has the height, imposing presence, and the same Yoruban accent.

CS: Where did you find that awesome cover art?

CK: That wonderful art is by Ursula “SulaMoon” Dorada, an exceptionally talented artist who I met back in my days at Ubisoft. The paintings were actually made for a board game based on the series, which should be out in Brazil sometime later this year. Estudio Chaleira adapted them for me as covers.

CS: How did you hook up with Starship Sofa? What was Tony’s reaction to the story?

CK: I met the late Larry Santoro, a close friend and collaborator of Tony’s, back at Worldcon 2010. We became online friends and at one point, talked about doing something at StarShip Sofa with one of my stories. He pitched “The Fortuitous Meeting” to Tony, who accepted it immediately. A month later, it was live. It all happened very quickly. Tony had great things to say about it.

Larry was a wonderful, kind person, and left us much too early.

CS: How long will the series continue?

CK: In one form or another, indefinitely. Since the beginning, I’ve seen The Elephant and Macaw Banner more as a universe for telling stories than a closed tale (like Conan, for example). The novelettes I’m publishing are only part of this world; I’m also using other media to tell stories. In 2014,I published a graphic novel adaptation in Brazil (illustrated by Carolina Mylius), which has been very successful in schools down here. I have the board game coming out this year. I’m also working with an animation company and video game company on adaptations to those media, if we can get the funding.

English-speaking audiences will have to settle for the novelette series for the time being, at least until I find a good publishing partner for those other media. Fortunately, there are plenty more novelettes on the way; those stories won’t run out any time soon.

CS: Will there be novels?

CK: As long as I’m self-publishing, I think I’ll stick to the novelette format I’m using now. It allows me to get out content faster, and many readers enjoy the short format, especially for digital reading.

CS: Any plans for stories outside the Elephant and Macaw universe?

CK: I’ve published quite a bit outside of the universe, but most of that production has gone to magazines, anthologies or video game publishers. What I’m most excited about right now are some projects I have in the works for children’s books. I’m becoming pretty well-known in the schools down here. Last year I spoke to 5,000 students in three states, so I’m looking to build upon that relationship and create more stories for kids.

Once again, thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been a pleasure!

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

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