I recently read “Asymmetry” in addition to “Octopus vs. Bear,” and I love the way your characters find (and lose) themselves in the role of the “other.” Could you talk a little about your process?
Exploring otherness is, I think, the essential work of the fiction writer. We develop our skills by sitting on the outside edges and observing; we create people on the page who are not (to the extent that we can help it) ourselves. The better we are at creating not-us on the page, the better people think we are at writing fiction. This is all very lovely and twisty, because of course, we can’t write anything but ourselves. I mean: We can make our character profiles all day, and we can dream up Beatrice, a ninety-two-year-old Italian immigrant in New Haven with a polio limp and a knack for boredom-inspired arson, but we are still, no matter what we do, writing Beatrice as we would write her. You cannot escape your own head, even if you get very, very close to being very, very good at it. And so, in a way, the art of fiction is the art of losing oneself in an other that is not an other at all, but just some previously unexplored facet of ourselves.
All this to say: I think otherness is a natural state (also a lonely one) for a fiction writer, and one that we are endlessly finding and losing ourselves in: It’s no wonder I constantly subject my poor characters to the same! Ah, well. At least they sometimes get to be mermaids (an arguably fair price to pay for embodying absent-minded existential crisis).
What would have been different about the story if the assumed body had been an eight? Or a three?
It’s important to note, before diving into this luscious question, that this story operates almost entirely on a surface sexual plane. Except for Laura, who’s rightfully baffled and outraged that her sister is (uncharacteristically, we assume) flaking out on their dying grandmother, we never see the narrator interact with anyone who knows and loves her, or sees her as anything but what she is at the most surface level: a body. (And which is exacerbated, of course, by the narrator’s enacting a reductive and sexualized performance of Being A Woman.) All this to say, this is a story; this is not real life; don’t @ me.
All that out of the way: It’s tempting to pursue the what-ifs of being an eight or a three. But to be honest, the narrative course might not run very differently if the narrator’s borrowed body were an eight, as opposed to the six that he (extremely reliably and not at all judgmentally) deems it to be. Conventionally beautiful women arguably wield more power than conventionally unattractive women, but it’s a power explicitly derived from, and therefore operational within, the patriarchal bargain. As a beautiful woman, you have more power (to attract men for sex); people are more inclined to pay attention to you (because you are sexually appealing), and so on. It’s like, you get more Chuck E. Cheese tokens, but they’re still only good at Chuck E. Cheese.
I do think, sadly, that the story would have gone about the same if the woman were a three, but with a key difference, which is that she would have been shamed more for expressing herself sexually. We talk a lot about the virgin/whore dichotomy—both of these are losing hands, but the ugly woman risks falling into a third category: desperate. Pathetic. Trying too hard. The same society that demands that women be sexually attractive while punishing them for being sexual is terribly cruel to women who don’t conform to conventional (thin, white, able-bodied, etc.) beauty standards.
None of this is to say that this story represents the Objective Female Experience: This narrator could easily have gone to work (where this body’s owner may be respected, or not); or met up with Laura, with whom she has a lifetime of memories and inside jokes and the intimate understanding of hopes/dreams/failings/etc.; or gone to the library and downloaded viruses onto all of the computers and cackled like a sea witch as security escorted her from the building. But this complex and treacherous relationship with female beauty and sexuality is woven indelibly into our society at every level; in the sphere of sex and strangers, it’s only compounded.
How much of this story is about power, and how much is about empathy? And what about this story surprised you while you were working on it?
I write about the things that trouble me, and in doing so, attempt to take power over them. This was the first story I wrote at Clarion, and elements of it had been bouncing around in my head for a while—the strange, sticky trap of the patriarchal bargain that makes being female-bodied in public a dual pleasure and liability; frustrating conversations with well-meaning but misunderstanding male friends; a growing fatigue with rape culture and street harassment—problems that I wanted to solve, and in doing so, rid them of their ability to trouble me.
In the process, I came to have a surprising amount of sympathy for the focalizer. Even as he’s doing monstrous things (justified, as are so many monstrous things, by the sense that he is owed something), culminating in the rape of a stranger, I found him and his situation to be terribly sad. It is terrible to be prey, yes, but it is also terribly lonely to be a predator.
Writing this story did not untrouble me.
I will say: I came away from the writing of this story with a crushing dismay about the overall Cthulhu-ness of the patriarchy (which is the real and uncrushable and omnipresent villain), and also an immense love and respect for the male friends in my life: those who have been steeped in unconscious power since birth and have made an incredible effort to wrench the power from their hands and examine it and demand “What the fuck?” and tread extremely carefully. To make room for women’s voices when they’ve never been taught to, and when it’s easier not to: to be intentionally, persistently human in a cruel and dehumanizing social system. And for all of my women, of course, for continuing against unspeakable odds to rise.
Ultimately, I believe empathy is our way out, and as fiction writers, we wield enormously powerful tools to create empathy. I want to be clear: Understanding that the focalizer of this story is lonely does not forgive him his trespasses. But. When we understand this person, when we see that he is lonely, we feel a small pang. Reverberating at the center of that pang are the words: I also know what it is to be lonely. Which creates a space for understanding. Which means we can begin to have conversations. Which means we can begin to heal.
The great Cthulhu patriarchy depends upon us not seeing one another as people (worthy of kindness, of speaking without interruption, of access to health care, of not being raped). The more we understand where the other is coming from, the less we other each other. The less we other each other, the less we Women-Are-From-Venus-Men-Are-Only-After-One-Thing, the weaker the patriarchy becomes. It’s a system that depends upon dehumanization, which means that it crumbles in the face of empathy. And so perhaps this is the greatest thing that surprised me in writing this story: that writers, as those who allow readers to find and lose themselves in characters, are such enormous creators of empathy. Let us use this power for good.
What’s next from you?
I have a few stories heading the world’s way this June (including “Asymmetry” on PodCastle), which I’m throwing down as my gauntlet in my unceasing quest to vanquish my literary nemesis, Jenn Grunigen (who appeared in April’s issue of Nightmare and was brilliant, damn her). My first novel, a magical realist book for young adults about bodies and otherness called Hole in the Middle, debuts on July 6, 2017 from Little, Brown, a fact about which I am proportionately (that is to say, astronomically!) excited. And currently, I’m head-down in a draft of a novel about sex that’s guaranteed to cause trouble, so keep an eye out.
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