Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Kat Howard

I love the imagery in this story and the way grief that is made visible is then pressured to become invisible and performative. How do you think contemporary society would cope with grief if it were this visceral and embodied?

That’s such an interesting question to me, because of course societies have their rituals for grief. We have wakes and we have funerals and we have our lists of expected—and acceptable—behaviors. We have unofficial rituals as well—when someone famous dies, we go back and we read their stories or watch their movies or listen to their music. Grief is a big thing. And because it is, because we as a society know what is expected, it also means when someone reacts differently, that stands out. We comment on it, or we make apologies for it—“I didn’t know losing her would affect me like this.”

So I think if we did live in a society where grief was more visceral, where it was physically embodied, the change wouldn’t actually be that great. We would still know what was expected of us, and what we expected of others. The only moments we would notice would be where someone deviated from that.

What inspired this story?

Two things. One was my beloved dog, Sam I Am, died. He was fifteen and a half, and I had known him since the day he was born. And I was such a fucking mess about it, I literally couldn’t even leave my apartment, but I felt like I would break if I didn’t do something. I’m a writer. I wrote.

But the less visceral inspiration came from a discussion with Ellen Kushner. I can’t remember why, but we were talking about mourning customs. And she made the point that while we often consider them restrictive—you have to wear black until a certain time has passed, you can’t leave the house, you can’t dance in public—they also gave space for people to work through their grief.

That space is something that I think has been lost. It feels like things move so fast, and we expect people to be over things right away. We no longer have those obvious cues, like the color of their clothing, to know what they might be dealing with. And certainly enforced mourning could be difficult, but it could also be a blessing. So I wanted to try to explore that idea.

I wanted to ask you what the name of Sibila’s actual grief was, but it seems to me this story is more about the complexity of grief and the parts of it that escape naming (and in this world become embodied instead). I love the line “Grief is never solely about the person gone. It would not need to fly, if it were.” Can you expand on that?

Thank you. For me—and just because I wrote it, doesn’t mean I’m right—this line is about the idea that when we mourn someone, we aren’t just mourning that person, but we’re mourning our relationship with them as well. We’re mourning the chance to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” We’re mourning all of the things that will now never happen, and that’s part of what makes grief heavy, which makes it something we must bear. In the world of this story, ideally what happens is your grief flies once you are able to bear it, once you have healed. Ideally.

Earlier this year you wrote, “I look at these pieces of paper that represent the broken pieces of a story, and I am afraid of what it means to fix them, because to do that, I need to put myself back into that story, and that has the side effect of meaning that I am looking back at that time, at that past self, and it hurts, and I don’t know what the physical therapy exercises are for this.” Did you ever figure out the exercises for this? This seems like such an important and valuable challenge to face, even if it’s just articulating the challenge and pushing on!

It turned out that—for me, for that project—there wasn’t a series of emotional physical therapy exercises. Getting back into it was basically the emotional equivalent of jumping naked into ice water. At the beginning, it wasn’t fun. But the thing was, the project meant enough to me that I knew I had to try, and eventually, I remembered why I loved it, and so working on it became bittersweet, and then became something I was proud of.

But I also think it’s important to say that setting it aside—for longer, forever even—would have also been a valid choice. Our art shouldn’t be a weapon that we turn against ourselves.

You provide professional critiquing and mentoring services. How does that influence your own creative process?

It makes me think about stories in much more technical ways, which is something that affects me more as I am revising than when I’m drafting. For me, drafting is all about getting something—anything!—down on paper. But once I have that, then I look at the story with a more critical eye, and make sure that the arcs are there, that the emotional beats are right, that the voices are consistent. And not that I didn’t do those things before, but spending time with my hands in other writers’ stories makes me much more aware of the act of doing them in my own.

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Liz Argall

Liz Argall (photo credit Right Stage Photography)

Liz Argall’s short stories can be found in places like Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death. She creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs and writes love songs to inanimate objects. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists’ model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, farm girl, and extensive work in the not–for–profit sector.