In this story, you weave together numerous seemingly disparate elements including ancient myths, pop culture, current affairs, and alien invasion, to name but a few, and it works brilliantly. What was the impetus for this story?
I needed to tell a true story. And the best way to tell a true story is to lie.
I remembered what it felt like to be four or five or six years old, when everything about the world is as garbled and surreal and strange as it will ever be. Historic events unfold around you and feel mundane, while mundane events take on historic proportions. Adults argue in hushed tones above your head or explode into screaming fights you can’t understand. Everything is insane and magical and terrifying, at least that’s the way it was for me.
When Gabriel García Márquez — one of my biggest literary heroes — accepted his Nobel Prize in 1982, he delivered a speech I think every writer should read. He argues that not only is magical realism an important form of literature, but in some cases it is the only mode that’s tenable: it possesses the power to render an “outsized reality” into something believable. His fictions explored regions and histories characterized by “unearthly tidings,” “haunted men and historic women,” floods and plagues and famines and cataclysms. The language of myth was simply the truest, most authentic way to evoke that world.
I believe that childhood is also a place much like this, and I try to explore it with similar language. In the late ’80s and very early ’90s, my family lived in a downtrodden outskirt of Los Angeles: a world of concrete and smog, often rocked by earthquakes. I was too young to read but I puzzled my way through news of riots and political coups and the Gulf War. According to the fundamentalist ideology in which I was already being indoctrinated, these threatening events were omens of Armageddon. Everything was naïvely postmodern and oddly cyberpunk.
Now, as an adult, I can understand the historical context underlying these events, and yet I can also remember when they felt like episodes of fantasy and myth. I try to approach my work, this story particularly, with that child’s mind — where all things are equally possible and equally likely, and no eventualities or realities have yet been ruled out.
“The Island” has the feeling of a modern-day fable or myth. Did you intend this? Can the story be read on both a literal and metaphorical level?
Most definitely, yes, though I think the word I’d use is “allegory.” For me, there are actually two allegories in this story.
The first is happening at a macro level. It’s the story I’m most preoccupied with now, and maybe always will be: the wholesale destruction of our planet, which appears to be unstoppable. And specifically, what it feels like for my generation, who came of age at a time when the destruction was already in full swing, and who are now coming into ourselves in an era in which the consequences appear to be unavoidable. (I was born in 1986, which makes me a Millennial.) My cohort is not yet old enough or powerful enough to influence the policies and practices that are wreaking havoc on the environment, that are poisoning the air, the sky, the forests, the water, the soil, the earth. But we are the ones who will be forced to live out our future on a damaged, broken planet. Everything that people have counted on for hundreds of years, from annual seasons and migratory patterns to the trajectories of storms and courses of rivers, is now no longer certain. This is a horror story in real time.
And yes — a huge amount of blame for this lies with my father’s generation, the Boomers. Not all of them, of course; there have always been individuals who worked to stem the tide. Some of them gave everything. There are many outliers, and I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. But overall, this is a generation that increased consumption to heights never before witnessed in all of human history, who raided epochs worth of riches from the ground, who enjoyed the spoils of a fleeting orgy of oil-burning and forest-clearing and water-gulping, and are now leaving their children and grandchildren to foot the bill that is coming due.
Even as early as the 1980s (the decade I was born), the warnings came that this way of life was unsustainable, but the looting and plundering continued. The weather has already begun to change, yet the same generation retains their grip on power in Washington and across the world. They remain as indifferent to the fate of our planet as they’ve always been.
At times, the fury I feel is overwhelming. But rage is pointless. This island belongs to the kids now, and soon we will have to find a way to wrest it back . . . before it’s too late.
The second allegory is a much more personal one about my family and my childhood. It’s a story I’m still trying to find a way to tell; this narrative was a major milestone on that journey, but I hope that one day I’ll have the courage and honesty to tell it without relying on the language of parable.
But in both cases, both allegories, the moral of the ending is quite clear to me: no matter how we try to repudiate or mitigate or escape the damage that’s been done to our island, or to us, we will not be able to heal it completely. That crevasse (that fault line) and that cursed Tree of Life (Tree of Death) are an inheritance of violence, and trauma, and destruction, and they will be with us always.
In my darker moments, I’m afraid that we and this world are all too broken to fix.
Did you see the family as a sort of alternate or bizarro Swiss Family Robinson?
A bit, yes. I had an obsessive and insatiable reading habit as a kid, and I was particularly fixated on books about survival in the wilderness. Robinson Crusoe (I think I had a heavily abridged, child-friendly edition), The Swiss Family Robinson (who were themselves a riff on Robinson Crusoe), and also more contemporary novels like Hatchet, My Side of The Mountain, Sign of the Beaver, The Cay. I read these books deeply and often. They appealed to something in me that I couldn’t describe or articulate at the time: a pioneering attitude and survivalist streak that runs through my family a mile wide. It was this same spirit that led my parents to isolate us on our own metaphorical island for many years — though our island was not an actual island, but a rural homestead and a peculiar, alienating way of life.
Of all these books, however, The Swiss Family Robinson was definitely most influential on “The Island.” (And I nod to this a bit with the visitors’ names.) In part because, though The Swiss Family Robinson is presented as realistic (even a true story!), the unlikely ecosystem of their island — fruitful, fecund, and varied as is no actual ecosystem on earth, with an improbable assortment of animals that could only be found at a zoo — suggests that their tale is not exactly happening on Earth Prime. And I wanted to capture that same fabulist improbability.
Your use of language is stunning — poetic and lyrical. Is that something you look for as a reader? Which authors have inspired you?
Language is everything in writing; it’s actually the only tool we have, and it can be used for all kinds of effects beyond simply telling a story. I look for all sorts of modes in language, and I typically like and admire anything that’s evocative and atmospheric in an unusual way, whether that way is “poetic and lyrical,” or jarring and discordant.
For this particular story I would point to a few particular influences:
Kelly Link, whose work has been an incredible inspiration to me over the years; I consider her one of the most accomplished writers of short fiction working today, inside or outside of genre. She knows how to cast a spell with a story, to tell a tale that feels light and airy even as it’s leading you into a dark trap. She is the master of the fairytale with an edge.
Jeff VanderMeer, who is particularly skilled at teasing out the uncanny sense of dread in a landscape; I think my brain has been colonized, fungus-like, by that weird and haunting ecological imagery.
Jeanette Winterson, a writer I adore wholeheartedly — particularly her book The Stone Gods, another story about environmental destruction, and one which references Robinson Crusoe as well. The language is lyrical, powerful, and stunning; there are pages that flow like a poem imagined in a fever dream.
And Catherynne Valente, whose gorgeous, transcendent prose often reads like poetry as well: her story “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. Though “The Island” is not very like “Thirteen Ways,” I don’t think I could have figured out how to write it if I hadn’t read Valente’s story first.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several pieces of short fiction, much of it in the same sort of violent and fabulist mode as “The Island.” And I’m making progress on a novel: weird SF that was originally meant for a younger audience, but it seems to be turning increasingly dark — so we’ll see.
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