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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Tessa Mellas

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Tessa Mellas to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Bibi From Jupiter.”

Tessa MellasEven though Bibi is an alien, so much of what she and Angela experience are more or less typical roommate dilemmas. How much of “Bibi From Jupiter” is inspired by your own college experiences?

The seed of this story actually had more to do with my experiences as a teacher than as a college student. Of course, my knowledge of college culture is mined directly from my undergraduate experience. There was even a self-named Skippy on the floor of my freshman dorm. But what first inspired this story was the voice of my students. I taught high school for two years at a boarding school and was teaching freshman composition at a university while writing this story as an MFA student. Angela’s voice is an amalgamation of voices, none of which I could even identify individually. The whininess in her voice, her impatience, her unfamiliarity with and intolerance for difference, her desperation for popularity and bafflement at not being the center of attention, her sense of entitlement combined with a general desire not to work terribly hard for the rewards that Bibi is endowed with, all seemed very familiar to me.

I am not trying to imply that this voice is characteristic of all American students or even the majority of them. I think it is an exaggerated voice, but there is a lot of truth in it. The qualities reflected in Angela’s voice seem to me to be a sign of our cultural confusion of belonging to a society that values educational degrees but not learning, that touts the importance of multiculturalism but maintains segregation to a degree that young people don’t know how to cope with cultural difference. It’s a voice from a culture that proudly labels itself a “melting pot” and clings to patriotism and symbols like the Statue of Liberty, but also wants to erect huge walls on the border to keep immigrants out, labels our president a Muslim foreigner, and expresses bitterness that immigrants are employed in menial jobs that most Americans feel are below them. In that way, Bibi is certainly a metaphor for the kind of culture shock that many students go through in college and how that shock is negotiated and hopefully overcome.

In the story, Europans can’t procreate without sacrificing themselves in the process. Europa is, in Angela’s words, “a whole planet full of orphans.” Yet, once pregnant, Bibi seems ecstatic about dying. Where did you come up with the idea for this sort of alien procreation, and for Bibi’s race in general?

This was one of the easiest stories I’ve ever written. I feel guilty admitting that. But the voice really carried me through the story and made it fun to write. The voice felt bold and ridiculous, and I think the absurdity of Bibi’s anatomy and of the Jupiterian dilemma regarding procreation spun out of that voice. I also needed there to be a reason why Bibi had come to an American university; she needed a problem that Jupiterians couldn’t solve on their own. Tying the problem to sex and birth and tragedy also allowed me to explore really complex issues that women deal with: The pressure to have sex, the violence of sex, the violence of childbirth, the fact that the status of young women is both improved and demeaned by their being sexually active. I also imagine that a college student contemplating childbirth—if this should cross her mind—would be so disgusted by the prospect of it that she would imagine the baby eating through the mother to get out, in essence destroying the mother in order to enter the world as its own person. And perhaps this fear isn’t unwarranted. Pregnancy seems like such an amazing and surreal thing to have happen to a person’s body.

Angela is jealous of all the attention that Bibi gets—from her family, from boys, and even from the school. She seems to blame Bibi for all of her own shortcomings. Yet, we can’t help but empathize with her, despite how cruel she can be. How did you come up with her character? And why make her the narrator of this story?

I think I answered this question prematurely. Angela’s character did spin out of a voice I had in my head. And while this voice is unattractive in so many ways, I am glad that she is an empathetic character. I think the ugly aspects of her personality do stem from feelings of invisibility and muteness, and we can sympathize with that. Angela also feels generic. She can’t compete with Bibi’s exoticism in a culture that pits girls against one another. Also, I think readers understand that Angela has inherited her prejudices from her culture, that her cruelty is more a coping mechanism than a true reflection of her personality, and that her cruelty ultimately comes out of a place of pain.

Angela seems to be the only one who really cares that Bibi is an alien. Except for the boys who want to have sex with Bibi, everyone else seems to ignore the fact that Bibi is from space and treats her normally. Why is Angela so hung up on Bibi’s race?

I think because she sees her race as the thing that attracts other people to Bibi. People seem intrigued by the fact that Bibi is an alien, and that she is different, exotic, freakish, even. Associating with Bibi and having intercourse with her seem like attempts to have her uniqueness rub off on them and to endow them with their own specialness. Angela can’t be different in the way Bibi is and therefore sees no way to attract her peers; she can’t or won’t connect with Bibi sexually the way the boys do since that doesn’t fit into her worldview. Since Bibi isn’t profitable for Angela, she sees her as an obstacle to all the things she wants and thinks she deserves. Her fixation on Bibi’s race reflects her sense that this is the source of her problems.

In your mind, what happens to Bibi at the end of the story? Where does she go?

I think I’d like readers to be able to imagine Bibi’s ultimate destiny any way they want or in a multitude of ways. I wonder, though, if Bibi’s disappearance could even be figurative. I think differences that often seem so prominent at first sometimes melt away on their own.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like us to know about?

I am working on a short story collection that includes “Bibi from Jupiter.” The collection explores Western notions of femininity through magical realism, the surrealism of each premise showing how the female condition is one of both beauty and grotesqueness. In my most recent stories, I have been experimenting more with language, writing in lyrical modes, sometimes in fragmented prose. I hope to finish a draft of the collection by the end of the summer.

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Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg is an editorial assistant at Penguin Books for Young Readers. She enjoys reading, writing, and cooking. You can follow her (very infrequent) tweets via @stacabird.