“A wonderful way to tell yourself a story” – Interview with Chana Porter, Part 1

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

Trina Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, is the book’s protagonist. An artist who retrains as a doctor after the invasion, she cherishes “the casual overthrow of everything that had felt codified but broken for so long“ — until her partner Deeba decides to use the Seep’s power to be reborn as a baby, moving on to a new life. The book follows Trina along her spiral of grief as she begins a strange quest in a transformed world.

Our conversation touched not just on the novel, but also Porter’s plays and her work as an education activist. She is a founder of the Octavia Project which brings together young women and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary teens to create speculative fictions offering “new futures and greater possibilities for our world”, blending creative writing, art, science, and technology.

Part 1 of the interview is below, or you can read the whole thing right now as a PDF transcript.

I began by asking Chana about her first glimpse of the idea that became The Seep.

C: There’s a secret book that probably no-one will ever see, written from the point of view of a teenager in my hometown. 

I was really intrigued by this concept of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien takeover, without it being a cut-and-dried thing of “This is good, this is bad.” This is also the feeling I have when I watch the 1978 Body Snatchers movie; it feels so brutal because we don’t really understand what these beings are feeling or what they care about, but the more that we understand as a scientific community about how trees communicate with each other, and protist communications, the more we question: what is alive? What is a life? What is social? What is a community?

When you use the lens of a horror film to reflect on these issues, when you consider the destruction we have wrought on the planet, it prompts you to ask: what if it’s not bad? 

So that body-horror-teenager-in-the-suburbs novel was like the first under-painting of The Seep. I needed to write that messy book a few times, of this teenager and her point of view. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to it, but I needed to go through all of that to figure out the mechanics of what this being might be and how it might relate to animals and plants.

I’m very good at destroying things, or just putting them in a drawer; I’m really not precious. I had put The Seep into a drawer, too — I think that’s the best thing to do when you’re stuck. That was The Seep’s first kernel, even though you could trace it further back to me at nineteen, reading Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, and thinking about change, how God is change, and how community is being changed by these alien beings. As I was writing The Seep, that was when the drums of “Make America Great Again” were sounding, sending us back to The Parable of the Sower, and seeing that Octavia Butler had predicted that. 

It’s this idea that humanity is static, that there is a greatness that was achieved in the past, and it was achieved through heteronormativity and whiteness and the nuclear family, and that we’re always trying to return to that, instead of allowing these systems to break down or to change. 

Now, in the United States, we’re having this conversation finally about defunding the police, and it makes some people’s heads explode just saying those words. This idea that you’d give money to the things that you want to see more of, such as mental health services, affordable housing, teaching art, all of those things, sits at odds with the militarisation and weaponization of people who have never really been there to serve and protect everyone. 

The joy and the beauty of a systems breakdown is hard for people who are afraid to imagine something new. All of the things that I do, writing and teaching, both harbour this question of what happens and what it means when the systems break down.

M: The novel does a great job of showing the ambivalence of experiencing this kind of breakdown. Your protagonist, Trina, sits somewhat at odds with the society which the Seep has brought about and even bristles at the well-meaning attempts of her community to intervene as she suffers in her grief. This is a world which comes after our own, with different values and different frustrations as well as different pleasures and rewards.

Steven King said he felt gleeful at tearing down our current society in his apocalyptic novel The Stand; what did it feel like for you to write this story?

C: I relate to Trina, my protagonist, very much. I think anyone who has worked in community organising or any kind of activism has had this exasperated feeling: do we really need to have another talk? More processing? There’s a reason why I’m a writer, and why I do a lot of things by myself; it’s tough to be in community with other people! 

I think the ongoing conversation about libertarian values in American culture is key to our national identity, but if you follow the logic all the way through, you see that how you treat your land impacts everyone and all the beings around you. If we’re really talking about being free, that means free not to take on harm from any other places. Those conversations are really slippery, and I had to cut out from earlier drafts of The Seep lots of material that I thought was really funny around co-op and community meetings, debates about the legitimate uses of a carrot – “I could use that carrot as a dildo, Bradley, and you wouldn’t be able to say a thing about it!”

Really we’re talking about the rejection of current social mores; the yellow-meeks in the book, who have renounced all social ties right down to their names, exemplify this. I’m standing on the shoulders of so many writers in doing this, particularly Samuel Delany. I love his Trouble on Triton so much, with this wild playwright who doses her unsuspecting audiences with three-minute hallucinogenic drug trips during her performances, and all of this exciting gender stuff. 

It’s about holding all at once the concepts of being free and being an individual – something that’s very important to me personally – alongside the notion of being in community, and the idea that no-one is ever truly standing alone and doing it by themselves. I mean, you didn’t pave that road alone, you didn’t collect your own trash, you’re dependent on all this infrastructure and the activities of others to live your free and individual life.

The conversations we’re having now about understanding ourselves as part of a great organism, with a part to play in the health of a total body – I wanted to tease them out in The Seep, including the ways in which I personally chafe at some aspects of those collective spaces.

I read something online in which someone claimed that my book was a takedown of leftist culture, but I don’t agree! I’m very lovingly poking fun at things I’m very entrenched in.

M: It reminded me of the very loving satire in Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog, where all the women in the world are turning into animals and the animals are turning into women. She offers this gently teasing depiction of some of the feminist discussion groups she was deeply involved in, and clearly cared about very much.

I did wonder if Pina, the bear in The Seep, who has human cognitive abilities and a very dry sense of humour, had come out of Carmen Dog.

C: The bear was Rachel Pollack’s idea! She was my mentor and I just remember, in a much earlier draft, Deeba turned into a dolphin instead of a baby. I had to lose all this stuff about Trina hanging out with her wife on a pier all the time, realising she can’t cope with being married to a dolphin any more – but then Rachel asked me why the point of view had to be so human-centric in this novel; what if a bear turned into a person through the Seep?

M: You’ve made it really clear that The Seep was nurtured and brought into being by a communal effort, with a great deal of support from the people around you. How does that tension play out, between working alone on your own thing and being part of a creative community? Is it different when you’re working as a novelist versus your work in the theatre?

C: Yes! There was a time in my life when I was trying to preserve all of my energy for myself, partly because I knew that what I wanted to do was very tough – and it’s still very tough. There was a real loneliness to it, and I didn’t like that every second of my day was either thinking about the work that I made or the jobs I was doing to pay my bills. 

So, in the middle of trying to become a published writer, I cofounded the Octavia Project. It made the journey to becoming a published writer take longer, but I met so many incredible people through it, and it just really drilled home for me why stories are important, and why it matters who gets to tell them. It might sound cheesy and aphoristic, but the journey really was what made the final destination. I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I hadn’t had these weird jobs in my 20s; it really shapes my point of view, and how I feel now about labour, and about time.

I moved out to L.A. because I fell in love with someone who has two young children, so my life has changed enormously, and especially with the pandemic too; I’m homeschooling these children for half my time! It changes the quality of my writing time, too, I’m still very glad that I don’t have full-time children, and I feel for my colleagues that do, especially as we’ve had so little support in our country during the pandemic, but my days are different, and the way that I relate to people is different, in terms of going in and out of spaces where there are other people, and then getting to cocoon in my own mind, which I feel very very grateful for. 

Theatre is a similar kind of shape: you write the play by yourself, and then with all the productions I’ve had, I’ve been there the entire time, partially because my plays aren’t kitchen-sink plays; they tend to be of an absurdist bent, or more poetic. I wrote a play about a woman who turns into an elephant – another reason I need to read Carmen Dog!

There came a time where I got burned out on that kind of collaboration too, and I wanted to retreat into writing novels. The processes are so different. The novel gets written at a glacial place, then it goes to your agent – and my agent is a very good editor, so then there’s a lot of back-and-forth between us about the meat of the book. Selling the book is a much smaller part of her job, at least for me. There are also a couple of people who I trust to look at my work, and in the COVID times I’ve joined a writing group, which has helped me to be a little less insular – but the novel is something where you really have to love to explore your own mind. Not every writer will do this in the way that I do it, with so many drafts; some people can write a really marvellous book in a couple of drafts, but I feel like I have to write it and then think about it, write in and then think about it, going through that process a lot of times.

What I love about that, when you’re in communion with your subconscious mind, is that you find things – I still do this in The Seep now – where I didn’t fully understand a symbol, or a connection that was being subconsciously made, and I can still read and get new things from it now. It’s a wonderful way to tell yourself a story.

There’ll be more from Chana in part 2 of this interview, soon. You can also find more about Chana Porter and her work at her website, or read the full interview as a PDF here.

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