“Leap, and the net will appear”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 2

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?

Read more

“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? 

Read more

Simon Groth: After the Future of the Book

To consume media today means using the same tools and skills as it takes to produce; the device in your pocket is capable of both and its platforms are built with this in mind. This is a profound shift, even from the assumptions that underlie the web, and it’s a landscape in which, superficially, the book does not seem to have an obvious place.

In the latest edition of his newsletter, marginalia, Australia’s Simon Groth describes the closure of if:book Australia, the Brisbane-based “institute for the future of the book” which explored new forms of literature and the changing relationship between writers and readers in the digital age.

if:book projects included a book written and published in just 24 hours, the live-writing event series Memory Makes Us, the N00bz project which saw writers take up tools and formats which were strange to them, the “remixed memoir” collection Lost in Track Changes, and Hunted Down, another “remix” of short stories by nineteenth-century author Marcus Clarke.

Simon’s elegaic piece recounts his journey with if:book as “one of being swept up by larger shifts in current that made it possible—if only for a brief moment in time—to create interesting experiences and opportunities for a small number of writers and readers to engage with each other”.

The anxieties and excitement around digital literature in the 2010s, back when some thought that “the ebook spelled the end of civilisation as we know it”, created an opportunity for the if:book community to surf for a while on some of the more challenging and remote parts of Australia’s literary coastline. No matter how many people were standing on the shore to bear witness, those surfers know what they achieved. The tricks and techniques they discovered will continue to teach all of us who are interested in the future of the written word, both digital and physical.

Today, Simon notes, if:book Australia has no web presence:

Its various project sites have all vanished, their domains no longer point to active sites. Its social media accounts are deleted. If not for the Internet Archive, there would be almost no online evidence that any of it had happened. Maybe this was how it was meant to be. Memory Makes Us had already anticipated disappearance as the logical end for digital literary projects. Such is the nature of the web and digital media more broadly: the threat of data rot is much more aggressive and immediate than the slow degradation of the page.

[…] Ten years on from its initial flurry of activity, its bold charge to explore and investigate how technology was set to expand our conception of the book, all that’s left of if:book Australia is a collection of printed, bound pages.

See more about Simon Groth’s work, and the projects he ran for if:book Australia, at his website.

Exploring Photography with Wendy Catling, Dr. Natasha Barrett, and Jonathan Bart

Last month, I invited three photographers to discuss how their medium is used for art, research, and storytelling in families, communities, and institutions.

Joining me for the conversation were Australian artist Wendy Catling, Research Librarian Dr. Natasha Barrett of the Alexander Turnbull Library (National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa), and British filmmaker Jonathan Bart.

Do photographs offer a collection of scattered moments or an unbroken connection to the past? From first pictures taken through “memories of memories”, stories of migration and famiy secrets, questions of colonialism, agency, and power, my three guests talk candidly about their personal, professional, and artistic relationships to this unique and powerful medium.

You can listen to the discussion on Soundcloud or YouTube.

Would you like to find out more about my guests?

Wendy Catling’s work appears at her own website and the site for her most recent project Nightshade, discussed in the podcast. (She is currently fundraising for the Nightshade photobook).

Read more about Dr. Natasha Barrett’s research at the University of Leicester website, and you can also find Natasha on Twitter.

Jonathan Bart’s work appears at his own website. You can also find Jonathan on Instagram, Behance, Vimeo, and Flickr.

Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

Read more

A discomfort watch

“What was the question?”

The opening line of Russell Harbaugh’s 2018 film Love After Love lets you know that this movie isn’t going to lead you by the hand. It starts as if you’ve just come back to yourself after drifting away from a conversation. You’ll be left to work out what is going on, who is related to whom and how; even the amount of time that has passed between scenes is left as a matter of conjecture.

Family patriarch Glenn is in the opening scenes, raspy-voiced but hearty at a family gathering; then he is in bed, struggling to breathe, and in the bathroom, with his two adult sons struggling to lower him onto the toilet and his wife tugging his pants down to his ankles; then he is gone and the men from the funeral home are clattering the gurney as they transfer him from the bed in which he has passed away.

His death comes a fifth of the way into this ninety minute film, but it’s the stone, cast in a pond, whose ripples we’ll be watching for the remaining duration. If last week, we talked about Groundhog Day and other fantasies of endless repetition, here Love After Love reminds us that the world doesn’t solely run on hours, days, months, and years. There are other ways to mark life’s pace, and other kinds of endlessness, like the time in which someone close to you is irrevocably gone. You might not be able to say how much of the calendar this movie covers, yet it clearly takes place almost entirely within one season: the season of grief.

Read more

Endlessly repeating days

It was Groundhog Day this week. Inevitably that became an excuse for media outlets to return to the 1993 movie, in which Bill Murray’s misanthropic weatherman becomes trapped in an endlessly looped February 2nd. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the rhythms and routines of COVID lockdown.

The New York Times had a feature on the top five time loop movies, saying that they might feel “a little too close to home this year.” Tor.com also reheated a Groundhog Day piece from three years ago, and at the tail end pointed towards two more recent examples, Palm Springs and Russian Doll.

The Times suggested this was a genre “you may not want to relive” under current circumstances, but there’s something to be learned about repetition and release from these oddball shows and pictures.

Read more

It’s not about tomorrow, 2: Samuel Delany

In the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review, Samuel R. Delany gives twelve short responses to the question “Why I Write”.

Delany is a critic, teacher, and author of fiction both popular and transgressive, most famous for his science fiction writing.

The ninth of his twelve answers speaks to his love of the genre, and also the wider question of why imagining wild futures might make us wiser in the present.

Delany writes, of his preference for science fiction over stories of the everyday:

“I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world.”

For those of us who help people make better decisions by telling stories of the future, this “real world” is like the perspective of a decisionmaker who thinks themselves utterly pragmatic and realistic.

Their assumptions are those commonly held in their time and context; their decisions are based on the seemingly firm ground of evidence and data; they see the world through a frame which is widely held by their peers to be “right” for the present moment. They see their successes and failures as being a matter of how well or poorly they adjust to meet this reality.

Yet it cannot be the whole story. If everyone in your peer group is looking through the same frame, they will all have the same blind spot. If you rely on numbers – the reduction of complexity to countable simplicity – you will lose valuable information; quantitative indicators are, after all, not objective facts, but tools designed for specific functions, with all the benefits and limitations that implies. The practices which make you feel comfortable in your decisionmaking will also bind and limit you, both in terms of what you can see might happen and what you might choose to do.

Read more

It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

Read more