This piece, for me, really touches on a sense of social groups imposing conformity/structure on an individual’s physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual being. There is an underlying concept here that assumptions about “basic human nature” are derived from cultural context (an idea which really resonates with me). Can you talk a little bit about this?
Absolutely! I’m a psycholinguist who’s also a first language speaker of a language (Hungarian) that often defies received wisdom about “language universals.” A lot of “facts which are true of all languages” simply do not hold for Hungarian. I am less of an expert about emotions, but my knowledge of languages has in general made me skeptical of claims of cognitive universals.
All the research that I mention in the story is real. I like to provide citations not only in my research, but also in my fiction—alas, sometimes bonus notes or supplementary material can’t really fit in a fiction magazine. So I developed tactics to incorporate at least partial citations into the main text itself.
Also, fidgeting while having electrodes on really does produce motion artifacts!
I like this idea of communicating through emotions, even though it’s a relatively messy and inexact method. Can one argue that humans could potentially communicate with each other through more basic emotional contexts? By that, I mean using emotion as a point of contact and a place to relate to each other, despite other differences?
I’m honestly not sure about that, and the protagonist is also skeptical of emotional universals. I think there are at least two major issues here: one, the fact that emotions might be culturally dependent to an extent, and two, the fact that people’s neurology also varies, and some people documentedly have different emotions than others (or do not have those emotions!). I would not pathologize this; it’s a part of everyday human diversity.
In the story, there is an emotional calibration process to try to deal with these differences . . . or not. This is similar to many other calibration processes—I used to work with eye tracking and the “n-point calibration” term actually comes from there. Many eye trackers need to be calibrated to a specific person, and this is achieved by the person looking at a number of preset points.
As for how well the emotional calibration worked, that is actually for the reader to decide! Did the message get across? Maybe the message that got across was completely different from what I’d intended, and there might be no way of knowing . . . There might just be a distinct cosmic horror aspect to this.
In the story, the central character feels out of place pretty much everywhere—“home country” is really “country of origin,” despite that certain aspects of identity were easier there—to the point that there is a (beautiful) sense of empathic relationship with plants and a clear desire for the sense of possibility that comes with the “new,” in this case represented by aliens. “Happiness is change and aliens are change . . .” It feels . . . very personal, introspective. Is this autobiographical in some ways? If so—what are the challenges for you in writing so close to the heart—or is this the space that your writing often occupies? Also—have you found pockets of “alien cultures” that are more comfortable, those spaces and groups of people that feel more like “home”?
A lot of this story is autobiographical, to the extent of people trying to run me over in the grocery store parking lot. There are some details which are different. For example, I haven’t spent two decades in the US and I’m not naturalized, which changes the entire timeline—I did spend my undergraduate years in Hungary, and also some of my graduate years. I’m still a resident alien.
I generally write what I know, but what I know is quite different from what many other people know! Also, I like to write about aliens and magic, but everything comes from my own perspective. In general I’m a big proponent of letting marginalized writers write about whatever they (we) want, and sometimes I want to write more autobiographical work, sometimes less. Sometimes I want to write about insectoid aliens.
I have been uncomfortable calling Hungary my “home country” for many years now—as a Jewish trans person, many people have made it very clear that they don’t consider me to be a proper Hungarian, and most of the rest of the country silently endorses those government-backed sentiments. Of course, other minority people should absolutely claim it as their home if they want to do so. But for me it hasn’t been easy.
I have found a lot more acceptance in English-language SFF, specifically among other marginalized writers from all over the world. I also review books, and I very much appreciate the community that has arisen around the #DiverseBookBloggers hashtag on Twitter. Hungarian SFF was very hostile to me, and I’m very glad I made the leap to start writing and blogging in English—several years before I moved to the US. It was a bit sad to see that in a big discussion about the state of Hungarian SFF last year, several people bemoaned “the lack of LGBT writers.” We exist, but we are actively driven away.
What I really enjoy about this piece is that the ending isn’t just positive, it actually transforms personal struggle into a thing that helps everyone. It becomes larger than just the individual in the story, while gratifying the main character, not just through the possibility of newness, but also, I think, through being part of something productive and important. Do you have the same feeling about the ending? Was this always the direction the story wanted to go, or were there other ideas you had for the ending?
I generally like to end stories on a hopeful note. I try to always think about hopeful aspects even in desperate situations. One key point that I like to emphasize is solidarity between different marginalized groups—because this has been so important in my life. I read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind about a decade ago and it really made me consciously aware of this. It made me understand so much that I’d previously been trying to do without an explicit consciousness of it. Though I do write mostly in English, so I do not follow all the points in the book, but those discussions of solidarity had a huge impact on me.
I also had a story in Clarkesworld recently that had this theme, titled “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus.” There the marginalized groups are entirely fictional, but the preexistent awful situation and hopeful tone are shared.
Another writer who also works with these themes very deliberately is RoAnna Sylver. I just reprinted some of their work in Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction 2016. I loved editing this anthology and hope to do it again in the future.
What are you working on now that your new fans can look forward to?
I have an ongoing webserial, Iwunen Interstellar Investigations, that can be read for free online, or one episode ahead with a $1/month Patreon subscription. It features a queer, trans autistic couple who solve magical crimes in the space future . . . and often find that solving a crime is just the beginning of the trouble.
I’m also working on episodes for another webserial, The Song of Spores, edited by Scott Gable for Broken Eye Press. I’m just about to finish edits on the first part. This one has a QUILTBAG ensemble cast of counterintelligence operatives, and also space fungus.
I have a variety of forthcoming stories, but the one that probably got the most buzz is my novelette in Dracula: Rise of the Beast edited by David Thomas Moore for Abaddon, coming in March 2018. This story involves Renaissance-era Jewish characters investigating bloodthirsty vampires in the Hungarian royal court.
After many years of only writing short fiction, I’m now also trying to write a science fiction YA novel. You are all very welcome to find me on Twitter @bogiperson and cheer me on!
Spread the word!