“Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 3

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 and second part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about loss, change, her goals as a writer, and the histories of secret writing in her own family.

M: The book is so steeped in grief, and it’s a theme we see elsewhere in your writing; the play Phantasmagoria has this question, for example, “Do the dead truly leave us?”

How did grief come to the forefront in this particular novel?

C: Don’t you think that ageing is a kind of grief? We betray our younger selves, our ideas of who we were or what we wanted, as we move on in time. I’ve lost some dear people who are close to me, people who died suddenly and young, so I have a little more of that shock of grief than some — but I think that in any kind of long-term relationship, what people don’t tell you about marriage is that there is a slow betrayal of whoever you were on your wedding day. I think that if there’s not, you’re doing it wrong! 

You need to become another person when you make this commitment, and you’re very lucky if you can change alongside your partner in a way that you get to rediscover one another. I don’t really know how we manage to promise anyone else anything, except to be clear, and true, and kind.

M: If The Seep was written from Deeba’s perspective, it would be a different tale. She tells Trina, we can’t just hang out and watch old movies and Deep Space Nine forever, you might pretend you’ll be happy doing that for another thirty years, but you won’t…

Is it also about where we draw the strength to keep changing from? Does the work you do as a teacher, both with the Octavia Project and elsewhere, nourish you in that way? I think of Toni Morrison’s comment: “All my work has to do with books. I teach books, write books, edit books, or talk about books. It is all one thing.” 

C: I think if you bring your presence and your consciousness to whatever you do, it’s going to feed and impact it. If I was a bus driver, it would really impact and feed me as a writer! 

There’s this amazing beautiful story of Philip Glass in the 70s or 80s going into someone’s house when their sink broke, because he was a plumber for a long time, and someone recognised him from the Met. “Are you that composer?” “Yes, and that’s $100 please, because I’m gonna fix your sink now.” 

This idea that “important” and “unimportant” work can be divided has to be challenged. It’s the fight we’ve been having in the US over dignified work and the minimum wage, but also the notion of the essential and non-essential worker during the pandemic.

I think when you’re a writer and you’re really attending to your craft, of course teaching that craft is going to be a boon, particularly teaching it to people who don’t have the same sort of expectations. I like to work with teens and even with younger kids on playwriting and art projects. 

Seventh grade is an amazing time, because at that age they’re not bringing any baggage around what’s a play — you just get things that are much more weirdly juxtaposed and interesting than at college age, which I find a little bit tougher. That’s when I really throw my entire pedagogy at the students, throwing so many things at them while they’re writing that they cannot stick to the story they’ve already planned in their heads. It makes them mad, they tell me that they already know what their work is going to be, to which my response is, “Well, why would you want to write such a thing, if you’ve already solved it?”

As I live now with these two young kids, I see that children are so strange. I love being around these little people that don’t have any assumptions, or that do have assumptions which are clearly, fascinatingly wrong: like when I’m told, “You know that watermelon contains more water than water does?”

We just looked at one another and I said, “Just say that again. Say it a few times”, and then he saw that it didn’t make any sense. 

M: It makes me think about The Seep again, too. You say, “Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?” and one of the great things about The Seep is that it puts all of these questions in play without being didactic, or seeking to resolve them with a take-home message.

How do you know, writing so many drafts, when a work is finished? How do you know when to lay aside your pen and send the novel out?

C: I think I’m getting better at that! Knowing when things are done is very tough. I wanted to bring readers through an emotional journey with Trina. My main goal was to have this emotional response, and pose these philosophical questions about the meaning and the preciousness of having a temporary life, but I don’t really know: I would like there to be some sort of bell that rang in my own bdy to let me know the novel is done! 

You have to give drafts to people you trust, which is also why we can’t be afraid of critique. I’m a big fan of subtlety – I want there to be things that people have to think about – but I’m in this process with my next novel now, where I can give it to three very smart trusted people, and I see what they get and what they don’t. If these three aren’t getting the things I’m trying to explore, then I know I’m not doing my job. 

A lot of people aren’t going to pick up what I’m putting down, and that’s okay – a life in the theatre has really prepared me for that! I’m happy to get reviewed at all, so I don’t get indignant about my critical reception. If people read what I’ve written, and candidly write about their response for other people, then that’s really the best that I can hope for.

Maybe this goes back to my stutter, too, and my realisation that I can’t be for everyone, so why would I aim to write something that everyone loves? Are you making vanilla ice cream? Are you making gum?

M: Do you have a feeling of the impact you want something to have when it goes out into the world?

C: The overriding goal of every single thing that I write is that I want it to make the world more free, more compassionate, and more kind. I want it to help break apart the things that are frozen, to help people connect to themselves emotionally – but beyond that, I don’t know. 

I just got to do a couple of events before things shut down, and it was really cool, because at a few of them, there would be one trans or one non-binary kid, maybe twenty, maybe as young as seventeen, who said they were really glad I was talking about how gender identity and gender expression differ, and that they didn’t see this being expressed elsewhere in popular culture. That felt really great, and that’s also me just writing to my past self, wanting to see these kinds of possibilities, an expansive idea of gender, of what a woman is. That, in particular – any time I meet someone and have a conversation like that, it’ll really do it for me.

M: When I read The Seep again to prepare for this interview, I thought a lot about notions of the public and private. The Seep want information about what it is to be human, that’s our end of the bargain which is made with them, reminiscent in some ways of the age of Big Data.

There’s the artist Horizon Line, who in some ways is as close to an antagonist as the book gets, who is seeking a kind of stardom or power through performance, putting on this uniquely rapturous show at the novel’s finale — in some ways reminiscent of that gleeful hallucinogen-dispensing playwright you mentioned in Trouble on Triton.

And thirdly, the book is dedicated to the “secret writers” in your family. Could you say more about the secret, the private, the public, the performative?

C: No-one in my family has ever taken up space in the way I’m taking it up now, being an intellectual in public. It feels great, it’s part of why the Octavia Project is so important to me – lots and lots of us are special, and if we disentangle class and gender and these other boundaries, you will have a much richer public cultural landscape. We’re poorer, currently, for all of those people who don’t get to have this public voice. 

So many of the opportunities I have now are because my parents worked so hard to become middle class and then they got to send me to liberal arts school, and I got to read Dostoevsky and not think about how I was going to get a job. It’s fraught and complicated.

Before my grandmother died, we found she had written all these books of poetry and other writing. She was a housewife, born in 1910, who had four children, her husband was an alcoholic, and I don’t think she was ever looked on or thought of as someone who had that sort of interior world. Having an inner life, in terms of wanting to make? I really think that our souls on this planet want to make, want to creatively express. That doesn’t mean you have to be “good”, or win a prize, or get money, or professionalize, but I think that making things because, as humans, we’re creative and curious and playful, is part of how we get to know ourselves. When I think about her, and other members of my family who have a book tucked away in a drawer which maybe only a couple of members of the family have read, I know that the reason my book isn’t tucked away in a drawer is because I pushed it all the way through, with the support to do this.

M: Is there any aspect of your work which you feel has been overlooked or neglected, or that you wish you were asked about more?

C: I like thinking about it through this lens: the Seep is real and on our planet, a consciousness that unites everything. When you imagine that we are already immortal beings incarnating and having lived human experiences across the whole gamut, including nothingness – I sometimes wonder that people don’t spend more time taking on that point of view.

M: That sense of profound connectedness. There’s a point really early on in the novel where Trina wants to kick a building in frustration and she says, since the Seep, I can’t do this any more, because now we know even the buildings have feelings.

When you talked about grief, you framed it in terms about grief for who we once were. This conversation has ranged from the colonialism of the American frontier to the boundaries of reality. You also said that in some ways your writing is about sending a positive message back to your younger self. 

If you think back to the point where you really realised you were writing The Seep, seven or eight years ago, what is the conversation that the Chana of 2021 would have with her?

C: I’m just so proud. I really feel like I started writing novels because I was frustrated that my plays weren’t being produced. It’s funny that I pivoted to something else that is also so very difficult. I’m proud of my tenacity, because it’s given me so much both in terms of outward things, connections with readers across the globe, but also inwardly.  What I love about writing novels is that you’re writing into your own mind and your own creativity. It’s a process of self-knowing that never stops. It’s really the great love of my life.

You can read the whole text of this interview as a PDF download here. Find out more about Chana and her work at her website.

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