Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. They are a graduate of the Clarion Writing Workshop and the University of Kansas’s MFA program. Their award-winning debut fiction collection, Homesick, came out from Dzanc Books in 2019, and their novella Finna will be published by Tor.com in the spring of 2020. Nino has also written plays, poetry, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer. One time, an angry person on the internet called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty funny. You can talk to Nino on Facebook or Twitter @ninocipri, or on their website, ninocipri.com.

In your novella Finna, your protagonists Ada and Jules work at a big-box furniture store and have to rescue a customer’s grandmother who gets lost after slipping through a portal to another dimension. All this for minimum wage and all the while nursing the wounds from breaking up with each other. How did the premise come together for you?

I made a couple of trips to IKEA with my older sibling when they moved a couple years ago. It’s a super-disorienting place—I get lost easily—and the sales floor really is laid out like a labyrinth. So the logical conclusion was that big-box furniture stores are places where reality is thinner and apt to tear. Later, I posed the question to a group of writers, “Where would a wormhole in IKEA lead to?” And Lara Elena Donnelly had the perfect answer, which was: “To more IKEAs.”

The big-box furniture store where Ava and Jules work, a hilarious spoof of IKEA, is called LitenVärld. How did you pick this name?

I liked the idea of calling something “Little World,” because it worked as a metaphor on multiple levels. It’s cutesy and redolent of the Disney “Small World” ride. The showplace apartments are sanitized, consumable versions of small worlds. And LitenVärld’s MO seems to be about taking something large and chaotic and beautiful, and reducing it into something controlled and marketable. After that, I plugged it into Google translate, asked a Swedish friend (thanks, Karin Tidbeck!) if it made sense, and called it good.

The grandmother they have to save from the store’s multiverse is named Ursula. Ursula Le Guin is one of your main influences. Did you name the grandmother after her?

Yes. I met her at a reading she gave in 2007 or 2008. She looked a lot like my own grandmother, and they were from the same generation. This is a story that’s at least partly about that relationship, and it felt like a very small way of honoring her.

Wow! What are some of Le Guin’s most influential works of for you?

Her short fiction collections, definitely. When I was trying to teach myself how to write short stories, she was literally the first author I turned to. I have a signed copy of Birthday of the World that’s one of my prized worldly possessions. Her stories are where I first encountered a writer seriously thinking about relationships, sexuality, gender, and community, and the ways that all of those things inform each other. The book Changing Planes was particularly influential on this book. It’s a collection of travelogues from a nameless narrator who realizes she can shift into other planes while at airports, thanks to the magical combination of stress, discomfort, and indigestion that’s endemic to waiting for a flight. It was the first book of Le Guin’s that I encountered.

Reading your novella, I was thinking of the famous quote from her 2014 National Book Awards speech: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted by human beings.” Since Finna is an anti-capitalist romp, what does her quote mean to you?

In 2014, I was stuck in a terrible job where I experienced regular sexual harassment, was underpaid and denied full-time work, and didn’t feel like I could be out as trans. I felt like I’d never escape the terrible post-recession grind of low-paying work. That speech came two weeks after a coworker and I filed a petition to have a union vote and in the midst of a nasty union-busting campaign from my employers. I’m pretty sure I watched her speech and just . . . cried. Change feels impossible sometimes. People talk about “the market” or “the economy” like they’re universal laws instead of human-made systems. And I can’t change them, not by myself; change doesn’t happen through individual action, but through collective action. But her words were, then and now, a really necessary bit of perspective. Capitalism is not an omnipotent system or natural law; it’s a flawed human one, and we can change it.

There’s lots of absurdist humor in Finna: a cheesy, poorly dubbed, and obnoxiously heterosexual instructional VHS tape about wormholes; carnivorous furniture; spot-on snarky showplace apartment names like The Nihilist Bachelor and Pan-Asian Appropriating White Yoga Instructor. I was wondering if you could say more about your approach of using humor to comment on the horrors of capitalism.

Late-stage capitalism seems to be trying to become an affable old uncle that wants consumers to think it knows how to laugh at itself. I see that in a lot of branding and advertising now: the official Twitter of a potato chips company making jokes about fisting, or the KFC dating sim where you can seduce a swole Colonel Sanders. Companies want consumers to laugh at them, as long as they’re in on the joke. Compare that to the ways that companies treat their employees. Your employers want you to treat your job (and them) with the utmost seriousness. Like working is a sacred duty instead of a transactional relationship. Being laughed at implies an equal relationship, or at least a different kind of relationship to authority. I’ve never worked a job where real subversiveness was accepted, and good humor is always at least a little subversive.

I just read a long Twitter thread about why conservative humor—both “anti-PC” humor that the conservatives employ to be edgy, and the kind of humor that takes little risks, like Garfield comics—generally fails: at its heart, it’s either authoritarian, or it does nothing that authorities wouldn’t approve of. It works as agitprop, but not as humor, which is at its most delicious when it feels both risky and illicit; when it basically yanks down the pants of authority, shows its pasty, pimpled ass, and then runs like hell.

I was trying to get that kind of humor into the story. Ava and Jules are snarky, but they’re also the straight men—should you pardon the phrase?—in this story, naming the hollowness at this company’s center for what it is, and letting us see how laughable it really is.

The old, cheesy instructional video on wormholes cracked me up! It reminded of the Don and Wendy video from Being John Malkovich. And the fact that LitenVärld has wormholes reminded me of the portal to Malkovich’s head. Was that film an influence on the novella?

Maybe subconsciously? I haven’t seen it in ten or more years, but that and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were some of my favorite films when I was younger. I definitely imprinted on Charlie Kaufman’s writing style when I was trying to develop my own.

That video talks about quantum entanglement and the many worlds theory. Yet Jules says, “It’s a creepy Scandinavian Narnia” in reference to the first wormhole they and Ava come across in the store. Would you consider Finna to be an example of portal fantasy as well as SF?

Definitely! This is much closer to science fantasy than hard SF; the technology and physics of this probably don’t pass muster, and I’m fine with that. (I also liked the idea that the company itself doesn’t understand the phenomenon but decided to capitalize on it rather than try.) I love portal fantasies, at least partly because they’re such an apt metaphor for fiction itself. Books can be portals to new worlds and new ways of thinking.

While there’s humor, your main characters are dealing with some heavy personal issues, too. You write very frankly about Ava’s depression and anxiety and Jules’s constantly being misgendered at the job by superiors and customers. On top of that, they have to come to terms with their shortcomings, which led to their breakup. How did these characters come together for you?

I wanted to write about queer breakups, and the kind of breakups that happen because people are intrinsically unsuited to being romantically involved, rather than because one person did something wrong. Pairing that with an adventure/mission plot gave it a lot more depth than the average buddy cop story, because no matter how amicable a breakup is, so much is left unresolved. I’ve been dumped plenty of times, and done my own share of it, so I drew a little bit on past experiences, a little bit on friends’ experiences, and then had to tweak Ava and Jules’ characterizations so that their interactions felt grounded and messy, but not overly antagonistic.

There’s a line about one of their running jokes that goes, “Much as ‘Ugh, capitalism’ was a running joke between them, their system was too big to do anything but joke about it. It’s not like they had a plethora of options waiting for them out there.” Do you feel this way or have you felt this way, too, especially since you helped unionize one of your previous jobs?

So I just ranted about humor as an anti-authoritarian tool of subversion, but . . . the opposite is true as well. Laughing is a coping mechanism when everything is terrible and it feels like it’ll never change. This was an attitude that I butted up against constantly with union work at Divvy Bikes and later with grad students at the University of Kansas. Fighting back in those circumstances—getting a reputation as someone who rocks the boat or is hard to work with—can be very fraught. As an example: My teaching assistants union called a meeting to issue some demands to a provost at KU during his open office hours, and the man literally called in the campus cops to be on standby. Because we were going to talk to him in a very stern voice! He made $34,000 a month while most of the TAs on campus had to live on $16,000 a year. But we posed enough of a threat to him that he called the cops. It’s fucking ridiculous.

So you turn it into a joke, because joking minimizes both your own feelings of powerlessness and the overwhelming nature of what is harming you. If you can’t risk your job—and most of us can’t, since having a job is the only way we can get health care, food, shelter—laughter seems like the only recourse we have. Laughter and crying in the bathroom at work.

I was interested in writing a story about a couple of people who are pushed right up to the edge of that. Laughing and crying is a good place to start, because you know something is wrong, something is ridiculous, that the situation is fucked and you cannot go on like this. So what comes next? You have to start imagining a way out, or at least a way forward. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Finna originally started as a screenplay. Tell us a little bit about what that looked like compared to the completed novella. How much of what’s in the book came from the script?

The screenplay was the bones of the novella, almost like an extensive outline with dialogue, plot beats, and visuals. The bulk of the work came in filling out the characters’ interiority and worldbuilding. On screen, you can trust that the actors and production design will visually translate a lot of information: how the characters are feeling, what emotional weight is being carried in dialogue, what the store looks like, whether an alien orchard full of plant furniture is safe or strange. With fiction, the prose has to do all that work.

What made you decide to rework the story from screenplay to prose?

I had no idea what to do with the screenplay itself. It was too short for a feature, too long for a short film or a pilot, plus it would have needed a budget for effects that seemed unrealistic to risk on a first-time screenwriter. When I reread it, I realized that it was the perfect length for a novella. There were also a couple open submission periods for novellas coming up, so I decided to rewrite it as prose and see if I could get it out into the world that way.

You’ve said that writing is a collaborative and community-oriented process. Did you come upon this realization about your own during your time at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop?

No, I came to it a little earlier than that. Most of my early writing classes were in play and screenplay writing, which is, by necessity, a much more collaborative process than writing prose. The final product doesn’t rest with the writer, but with an entire company of other artists. When I did start writing prose, it was mostly nonfiction where I received training in gathering info from primary sources, oral histories, or others’ research—or in fanfiction, which was hugely community-oriented. Clarion, though, is where I found my SF/F community. It changed a lot for me.

You had a book published before this one, your short story collection, Homesick, which won the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. What was it like for you to win this prize?

It was wild. I was in shock. I sent a screenshot of the email from Michelle Dotter, Dzanc’s publisher, to my partner and was like, UMMM???? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN????, and then we both yelled for a little while. I submitted the manuscript with zero expectation that it would actually win—maybe get an honorable mention, which I could put on a CV while trying to find a job. It didn’t feel real for a long time, probably because the announcement came when I was horribly busy: thesis year at my MFA, teaching, union work, and about six weeks from top surgery. But it’s slowly sunk in how big of a deal it is. It led directly to getting an agent, DongWon Song, who helped me maneuver Finna into Tor.com’s hands. Dzanc has also been really delightful to work with. So yeah: It was huge.

Congratulations! Now that you have a short story collection and a novella out in the world, what future projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?

I’m in the final stages of revising a YA horror novel that’s loosely based on my story “Which Super Little Dead GirlTM Are You?” and a short story in an upcoming anthology. I’m writing up a bunch of different outlines for possible projects after that.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Finna?

Don’t wait until you’re forced to venture into another universe to push back against exploitative labor practices! You don’t have to be in a labor union to organize with your coworkers; it just helps a lot. But you gotta start somewhere.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.