I was shook by this story! There are so many potentially heavy themes addressed, power, privilege, oppression, family obligation, to name a few. Your skill at your craft ensures “Homecoming” comes across thoughtfully, like a classic, refined (yet dark) fairy tale. As a spa-goer who has always shied away from the “guppy-sized-fish”-aided exfoliation pedicures, I have to ask what inspired the spa concept in this story?
Thank you so much!
Well, you hit upon one of the initial inspirations for this story. I have always found the dynamics in nail salons and spas to be as fascinating as they are uncomfortable: There is this strange intimacy, this literal erasure of distance, that contrasts so sharply with the transactional nature of the service being performed, and with the socioeconomic gap that often exists between customer and worker. When I first heard about fish pedicures, I thought they were weird and funny but essentially harmless. Then I read an article about how the Garra rufa fish don’t naturally eat dead skin; they are induced to do so through starvation. The image of those starving, nibbling fish stayed with me because it seemed to so vividly encapsulate the wider exploitation in the beauty industry. I wanted to use this intimate setting—intimacy which can, of course, tip so easily into claustrophobia—to explore distance between mother and daughter, as well as Marlo’s own implication in the military-industrial complex, in the form of the alien who has been put to work servicing her.
The astrobiological implications are swirling around in my mind. How did you decide what the squicks look like, their physiology, and their skill set?
The squicks’ physiology sprang from the fact that I wanted to pair their skin-eating ability with the lurking threat of violence (their needle-like teeth). They needed to be small and nonthreatening. I knew that we would probably assume that these creatures, whose intelligence we hadn’t bothered to fully ascertain, would only use their teeth to produce a drug-like effect, and not to defend themselves or fight. (As a side note, when I was trying to find the original article about the starvation of Garra rufa fish, I came across multiple news stories about people who had gotten nasty infections and even lost toes as a result of fish pedicures . . . so maybe the fish are getting their revenge after all!)
I love a good ritual. A reminder to have respect for rituals outside of one’s own is one of the things I’m carrying away from your story. Did any particular rituals (real or fictional) influence the description of the squicks’ mourning process?
That’s an interesting question. I love science fiction or fantasy that hints at some aspect of culture but allows my imagination to fill in the gaps. In this story, I wanted to do something similar: presenting a glimpse of a much larger landscape of ritual and culture that these intelligent creatures have created (and that Marlo and her comrades have destroyed), and letting the reader fill in the rest.
After reading the story several times, the remorse Marlo feels at the end leaves me with a different interpretation each time. Was this your intention, or is there something specific you’d like the reader to know about Marlo by the end?
I think it’s great when readers come away with different interpretations! I love stories that resist an easy ending, and I wanted to do the same here. I have my own thoughts about oppressive structures and their dehumanizing effects on those who are bound up in them, but ultimately I wanted to avoid any simple answers. As in life, there are times when none of us escape, when no one is absolved.
Spread the word!