In this Author Spotlight, we asked author An Owomoyela to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “All That Touches the Air.”
Typically, for the stories I come up with, the idea seeds don’t at all resemble the final product. Bear with me for a moment.
See, it started out with sexual politics.
Specifically, it started when I got to thinking about the politics of exposure: Life in a society where women especially are encouraged to present themselves as sexually attractive, and then told that by complying with that social meme, they have only themselves to blame for any untoward advances. To see a lot of cultural dialogue, it seems like the act of exposing skin makes a person into a kind of public property; that runs the gamut from rapes being excused because the victim “dressed provocatively” to the kind of explosive harassment you see in cases like Hope Witsell, where a private erotic act became virulently public. At some point the thought “It’s like anything allowed to touch air belongs to anyone who can see it” crossed my mind, and I liked the phrase so much that I started playing with the implications and wondering how a world like that would work. Eventually, I came up with something that could colonize anything it touched, literally taking ownership of it. And I kept working with the idea because I find correlating exposure to offering really creepy, and I love working with ideas that creep me out.
This is actually how a lot of my story ideas progress: I’ll start off thinking about Betelgeuse and wind up in metaphorical Novgorod.
I don’t really expect anyone to read “All That Touches the Air” as a parable for sexual politics—not without reading this first, anyway. But I tend to listen to what my stories want to do, and if straying from the topic lets them grow up into viable tales, that’s the way things are. I’m intrigued by sexual and gender politics and I’ll certainly write more on the topic anyway, so I don’t feel that this straying is any big loss.
Why do you think Endria encourages the narrator so much to turn towards specifically studying the Vosth?
Endria was a homage to Connie Willis—specifically to characters like Maisie in Passage, and Molly and Bets from Spice Pogrom. Kids who know exactly what they want out of life and are still young enough to assume that not only are they right, and not only have they found the One True Most Important Thing In the Universe, but that everyone else should be totally on board with their interests, and if they’re not, it’s just because they haven’t cottoned on yet. At least, that’s how they come across to me.
I have to admit, I’ve been that kid at points in my life.
The fact that Endria wants to become a governor helps, too. Even in the early stages of worldbuilding I got the impression that the governors on this world think everyone in the colony is there to be a resource for them and their work. So all of Endria’s role models are these imperialistic folk who say “Jump!” and you jump, and she knows she can get something out of the narrator. Poor bastard.
Our narrator goes from fear of Vosth-Menley to a worried intrigue, and subconsciously seeking him out. Then he tries to reason with Vosth-Menley. Is Endria’s urging getting through to him, or do you think it’s his own fearful fascination that’s changing?
I think it’s a combination of factors. There’s the fact that the narrator’s way of life is really pretty miserable, there’s the fact that Endria and the governors and apparently Vosth-Menley are all out to dismantle the constructed comfort zone this miserable way of life provides, and then there’s the fact that the tension over the Vosth has been lingering for years, and sooner or later you have to act to break tension or you’ll wind up in a nervous breakdown.
The narrator has no idea what to do, but clearly something has to change, because the old way isn’t working any more. And the more information comes to light about how the Vosth behave and why, the less it makes sense, and the more questions there are demanding to be answered. And it’s hard to resist the call of an unanswered question, especially when you’re ensnared in the topic.
Because of their environment, the Vosth are going extinct. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them, especially considering the fact that they were on this planet first. Did you intend this from the beginning—a complicated, killer species to elicit mixed reactions in the reader?
I love shades of grey and questions with non-binary moral values, so, yes, it was intended. One of the things I strive for is a touch of the xenofiction, of creating really alien aliens, who have their own rules which make sense in their own environment. The Vosth are creepy and threaten the human colonists with initially little or no concern for their lives or their rights, but there are reasons for that, and understanding those reasons would ultimately be more valuable than just writing them off as evil or predatory.
We never do get to the point of understanding those reasons in the story, and I feel like it would be difficult to do justice in a short-story format, but I think there’s some fuzzy understanding that is reached, which does allow for that basic negotiation to take place. And I think that while understanding is a good thing to strive for, it might not always be possible.
Is the governor’s request what inspires the narrator to relinquish his fears and take his helmet off?
The governor’s request made it impossible for the narrator not to make a choice. Going back to the habitat without the Vosth and without a good excuse would put the people who control the colony in a bad mood, and Menley himself got thrown to the Vosth for, basically, annoying the Powers That Be too much. But to bring Menley back would be to become an active participant in conquest, war, or even genocide, and the narrator wasn’t prepared to take that step. Taking off the helmet was a way of looking for a third option or forcing another choice: If the Vosth had taken advantage of the exposure, self-preservation would have dictated the next logical action.
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