When Sylvia Torti '92 arrived in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, she thought she was going to gather data for a doctoral dissertation related to bird migration. Instead, though she didn't realize it at the time, she had stumbled upon the idea for a novel.
Torti's arrival in Mexico coincided with the Zapatista Rebellion. Soon after she and the other scientists in her group arrived at their research site, they found armed rebel fighters with bandanas over their faces. Torti says she and her colleagues initially assumed tensions would fade, but Mexican soldiers advanced into the area, leading to several days of fighting. It soon became clear that Chiapas was temporarily unsafe for science.
She ended up researching tropical forests in Panama, Trinidad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) with the support of a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship en route to a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Her experiences in Chiapas stuck in her mind, however, and led to The Scorpion's Tail. The book won the 2005 Miguel Marmol Prize for the best debut novel in English by a Latino or Latina author from Curbstone Press, which published it last year.
"When I was in Zaire, I had no electricity, I didn't speak French or Kiswahili, and pretty soon I had read all the books I had brought with me. My husband suggested that I try writing to fill the time and entertain myself. At first, I thought it was a ridiculous idea, but once I got started, I really enjoyed writing," Torti recalls.
So there in the solitude of the Ituri Forest, Torti began writing short stories, including one based on her experiences in Chiapas. She continued working on the project on and off for years, helped along by a residency in 2000 at Hedgebrook, a center for women writers on Whidbey Island, Washington, where the story began to grow into a novel. In 2003, she completed the manuscript during a six-week stint in Brazil sponsored by the Sacatar Foundation.
The Scorpion's Tail is told from the point-of-view of four separate characters: a insurgent woman guerrilla, an enlisted man in the Mexican army, a male ornithologist from an upper class Mexican background, and a female entomologist from the United States. Torti says that by sharing the narrative among four characters, she tries to capture the complexities of Chiapas situation.
"All these characters have their stereotypes of one another that are both true and not true, and by putting four characters at the center of the book, the picture is more complete" she explains. Torti, whose father was born in Argentina, recalls that she arrived in Chiapas thinking that she understood Latin America pretty well. Her Spanish was not bad, and she had already spent time in the region, including a research trip to Costa Rica with her Earlham mentor, Professor of Biology Bill Buskirk. After witnessing the armed conflict in southern Mexico and taking time to think about that experience while writing her novel, she realized that she had a lot to learn. So it is for her characters. "In a sense, all four come of age in the book," she says.
Back at Earlham for a few days as a visiting writer/scientist, Torti took a break from a busy schedule of class visits, public presentations and informal meetings with faculty and students to relax in a lounge in Stanley Hall and reflect on her time at Earlham and two careers. Torti reports that even though she didn't take any creative writing classes as an Earlham student, encountering students and faculty members who refused to limit themselves to a single interest or intellectual pursuit helped inspire her to pursue scientific inquiry and creative writing.
"I don't think I would have thought of writing a novel without a liberal arts background," says Torti. "But I find that science and fiction are two complimentary ways of looking at the world."
Torti is committed to following her dual passions, a path that she is quick to say is made much easier by the fact that her husband, Don Feener, has a tenured position at the University of Utah and is extremely supportive of her work. She holds a part-time research position at the University and is writing another novel. The couple has a seven-year-old son, Adrian.
"In my fiction, I want to explore how the work of doing science defines a character," she says. "I think that the things that [scientist characters] are studying could almost be characters in a story. I am also interested in writing non-fiction that interprets science for people who don't know a lot about science. I want to open up the world of science for readers."