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.”
You can read the first part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about her practice as a writer and its connection to her experience as a person who stutters, and reflects on questions of point-of-view, identity, and appropriation raised by The Seep.
M: I was reading about your play Leap and the Net Will Appear. You talk about the play coming to you after a silent retreat. I wondered about what the balance between writing-as-inspiration and writing-as-carpentry was for you?
C: I think you have to know what stage of the process you’re in, and then to know that it’s not a linear thing. I like to think: “This is the generative time” and “This is the editorial time”, and to know that I can’t be wearing my really rigorous, critical, editorial hat when I’m trying to generate, or I’ll cut myself off. I think this is something a lot of writers do, and they call it writer’s block. You’re thinking about the product when you don’t yet know what your story wants. I like to think of it as going spelunking into a cave: there’s going to be worms and dirt and stuff, and there’s going to be jewels, but I can’t sort the dirt clods from the jewels until I bring it out up into the sun.
First and foremost, I write a lot. For me, it’s an amazing recipe to stave off depression and anxiety. I’m in a constant dialogue with my creative mind, and most of what I put down will not see the light of day; those things that do see the light of day will be very changed.
Here’s an example: the scene of the full moon party where Deeba first says she wants to become a baby? That whole thing was just a line or two that I glossed over as I wrote a draft: a party with everyone sitting on the floor, everyone toasting each other, all their old friends there, and when Deeba said that, Trina thought that it was a joke. And then, when I’m looking back at my draft, I see that, and recognise that it’s a scene, it’s not just a couple of lines, and it ends up becoming a lynchpin, a moment that Trina goes back to in time.
I think that tension of knowing when you’re being generative and knowing when you need to be very critical, and not mixing the two, is really the key.
M: It speaks to that tension between going into yourself and sharing a text with an audience. You seem to have a really strong and long-standing sense of your identity as a writer; was there a point where you first moved from creating for yourself to sharing those creations with others?
C: As a person who stutters, my relationship with speech was very fraught, especially as a teen. But it was also this amazing super-strength, because at some point when I was very small, I realised I was never going to be “normal”. If I never talked, maybe – but then if I become the girl who never talks, that’s not a normal thing either. This thing that for many people is very simple was never going to be simple for me. That really gave me something: if you’re not going to be normal, then what are you going to be? All the kids are trying to fit in, and you can’t! I experimented quite heavily, shaving my head at fourteen, wearing my father’s clothes or my mother’s 1970s dresses, really playing with my persona – and some of this was a defensive stance, that others couldn’t call me strange, because I was going to deliberately be stranger than they thought.
Looking back, people were actually very nice! But I would give these elaborate speeches in class, singing them, because we had all these oral presentations to give throughout high school – they felt like the bulk of my life – and what I discovered was that I could stand at the front of class with my little note cards trying to talk about something I cared about, stuttering through the whole thing, and feel so blocked and so stuck that I couldn’t express, feeling very mad that I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, when I felt I had good things to put out there – but I wasn’t going to stop having to give these presentations, so I found my own way to do them: as a puppet show, as a rhythmic spoken word poetry thing, which is a much easier way for me to talk, and I think that it was so out that people didn’t really know what to expect or how to react.
That was when I realised standing out is really great, and I think I really like reading and singing the things that I have made. I would call them poems and would say they were for different people to take different parts; and now I see, that’s literally a play, that’s what plays are! I had seen zero experimental theatre at that point in time, so I thought that to have a play you needed a boy and a girl going to a place and falling in love, maybe a song, that kind of thing.
When I went to college, I’d planned to study a lot of different things, but I kept coming back to theatre, because what I found was that I’d go to a science class and find that I could use some of that to write a really really cool monologue. I would take a dance class, or a Russian literature class, or a sculpture class, and all of that would make it into the play somehow. As someone with a lot of wide curiosities, writing was this amazing container for me to live.
Recently I’ve been on this big nonfiction tear, partly because I’m trying to finish another novel, but also because I don’t know where my next idea is going to come from, so the breadth of that kind of reading really appeals to me.
M: Even in The Seep, you feel other genres pushing at the novel: aphorisms, koan-like sentences that break out and enrich the narrative without entirely being a part of it. Like your early “poems for different voices”, you talk about the novel originally having been this sprawling, polyphonic thing, where now we just have Trina’s voice, and the voice of a second character, Aki, in the accompanying story And the World Was New.
What was that journey, from the original teen-girl body horror, to the many voices of the intermediate draft, and then narrowing it down to the focus of the finished text?
C: That was where having other people around me really came through. I was starting to work on another novel, but I realised that The Seep was so dear to me, and I really wanted it to find its way. All of the people who had more power in the publishing world told me time and time again that I really had something with the story of Trina and her grief, and everything else I wanted to explore, beautiful as they were, fascinating as the images were, digressions like Aki’s parents following him into the world, and this girl who had a crush on him doing the same too?
We had all five of them’s point of view, and Horizon Line’s point of view. I had to keep paring it down until it was just Trina and Aki, alternating chapters from each point of view, but my agent had to get me to focus even more, and when in my stubbornness I finally relented, and let it just be Trina, emotionally I felt like it really did work on me on a different level, in terms of being a book about grief. I still have hope; I’d love to make it into a TV show or a miniseries at some point in time, because there are so many narrative possibilities in that world. You could pick anyone from a crowd in The Seep, zoom in and follow them, and you’d find a boundless world of people who have lost a lot and gained a lot. It’s a fascinating thing to explore, but the engine of the book, it became clear, was really Trina.
M: I wanted to ask about writing from the point of view of Trina in a way that’s respectful, taking on the voice of this trans Indigenous woman. You have the character of Horizon Line in the novel, an artist who transforms their appearance using the Seep in a way which offers a kind of cautionary tale about ventriloquising and appropriation. As you settled into making this a story focussed on the voice and character of Trina, how did you address those issues?
C: I was lucky enough to be working on the book with Rachel Pollack, who was about 70 at the time and is trans; she served as a guide for me on that point of view. We spoke a lot about Trina, and the creation of a trans narrative that wasn’t a coming-out story, or a story of trauma. I wanted to center Trina’s pain precisely because her life has been so great; she’s had this really successful marriage and career, family and friendships, so her loss is felt so deeply because the pleasure is so strong.
I feel so lucky to be alive now, when we’re thinking and relating about genre in a very nuanced way, and it’s helped me parse through my own identity. It’s also why the TERF dialogue makes me so sad; I think they’re coming from trauma, which is really important to acknowledge, but they’re also coming from this scarcity mentality of: “You’re taking my woman identity”, engaging in this pain Olympics, “I’ve had more trauma than you have!”
The ways in which my trans friends enrich my life and help me think more expressively, more nuanced, and more playfully about gender, help us in so many ways. They help us with our conversations with our kids about gender; it feels like a natural decomposition of patriarchal structures. But systems and binaries are very hard to untangle! I think what a lot of TERFs are saying, when you really strip it down, is: “Let me have my pain.”
Well, you have your pain – everything that has happened to you in terms of male violence, and growing up in rape culture, it’s all true. But it doesn’t mean that you can harm other people and make other people less safe because of the way that your trauma and your pain gives you visions. We’ve just had this wild thing happen here in the States where this woman sat before Congress and talked about all the things she was scared of about trans people in bathrooms, and yet there’s absolutely no documentation of trans people doing this in bathrooms, so what she’s doing is essentially presenting dark violent fantasies of abuse in a government setting! Just reeling off a list of all the things you’re scared of in this way, it might be right in the context of a therapy session — but a legislature, a political context?
I think we have to honour and acknowledge the fear and the trauma behind these decisions and then make it clear that no-one is seeking to take your freedom away, to take your identity away, to take your pain away.
As for Trina’s race and ethnicity, I made her Jewish and Native American because I wanted to underline the idea of the Seep aliens solving all problems as a kind of science-fictional white washing. Half of Trina’s family is of Jewish diaspora –longing for a place that no longer exists. As a Jewish person, this was very comfortable for me. Historically, Indigenous people have already experienced apocalypse, invasion. But one thing I wish I had done in writing The Seep is name Trina’s tribe, which I had decided was the Mohegan from the Connecticut area. I’d done my research, and had constructed my reasoning, but I didn’t name her tribe in the book. That specificity would have been a good thing, I realise now. There is always growth to be had when writing outside of your own identity.
M: I love the conversation between Trina and Bart in the novel. Bart is a character who switches back and forth between genders using the power of the Seep, which to Trina seems like an awful lot of work, but she tells herself, it makes Bart happy, so why pass judgment? I thought that was immensely valuable, the number of different ways The Seep dismantles assumptions about genders and genres.
Join us next time for the third and final instalment of the conversation with Chana Porter, or read the whole text as a PDF download here. You can find out more about Chana and her work at her website.
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