I saw a similarity between “The Cabbit” and two of your other stories, “EZ2Luv is Hard to Leave” and “A Bird Always Wants More Mangoes.” All of these stories seem to involve characters acquiring or overcoming dependencies on entities around them. In “The Cabbit” it’s especially clear. What draws you to explore different levels of awareness and agency in your characters like this?
I find this an interesting question, because it ties so strongly into one of the criticisms I receive most often from editors—that my characters are not agentic enough—but when I started to analyze this criticism, I found something interesting: it usually came from white people, and most commonly white men. I’ve also found that the people that buy my stories are usually in some way representative of a marginalized sector of publishing—nonwhite, queer, from an impoverished background, disabled, etc. Maybe it’s because I myself am queer, disabled, a woman, and a writer of color, but a lot of the markers of what publishing as a whole considers to be “agency” feel utterly unrealistic to me—making decisions without any real fear of consequences. Navigating each new situation with a plan and from a place of supreme confidence; being able to react in a “smart” fashion to completely foreign—and dangerous—circumstances as if you yourself grasped the levers of power. And there is very little tolerance for depicting the effects of trauma in anything more than an aesthetic sense. It’s always a plot point to be quickly overcome, versus something that changes a person irrevocably. The ending is always a return to normalcy, whatever that means.
I don’t think I’m answering the question well, so like the writer I am, I will tell you a story. When I was in my twenties, I was crossing the Canadian border into Michigan. At the crossing, the agents flagged me and started to ask me question after question. They were clearly looking for something. Finally, they asked me what I did for a living—and I replied that I was unemployed at the moment, which was the truth. For context, I think it is important to understand that I am from Michigan. I have a Michigan license, a Michigan address, a Michigan license plate, and a strong Michigan accent. At that point, I was hauled out of my car, strip searched, and held in detention for almost twenty hours. I was never given a reason. I was not allowed to contact a family member or a lawyer. I was threatened several times and told that if I didn’t admit to “what I was doing,” I’d be sent to permanent detention. I was subjected to several racist comments.
Maybe because I’d already had several threatening interactions with police, but I didn’t react the way an “agentic” character should. I had no plan. I launched no counterattack once the shock wore off. I cried a lot, and I said some swear words, and when it was all over, I went home and stayed in bed for several days. I will never forget driving away, because there was a sign at the exit, that said something like “We strive to serve you. Let us know how we’re doing,” or something along those lines.
Here is the part of the story that matters:
My best friend lives in Canada. I still have not been to visit him. I plan to, once the pandemic is over, but I have to admit that I am still horribly, horribly afraid of what it will be like coming home.
I think I’ve lost the question. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I cannot relate to the average “agentic” narrator, and maybe that’s why all of my characters are exploring agency on their own terms.
The lover in this story is vague. Like the cabbit, he doesn’t get a real name, just something that means “random white guy at a Midwestern college.” And all we really know is that he has long hair and he cheats! Why does this guy get a cabbit, a creature that eats “the parts you don’t want anymore,” and not someone more definitive?
As a young person, I had a terrible sense of self. I was so, so desperate to please that I would constantly get into these terrible relationships without really contemplating if they’d be good for me. These partners had this huge effect on my sense of self-worth and my development, and yet, looking back, I can’t even remember half of their names.
I also don’t come from a wealthy background, and I remember college being this culture shock—so many people from wealthy families that had boats and private school and fancy electronics and in-home help and travel. It felt almost otherworldly to me. I’d never been exposed to any of that.
In the story, the professor is speaking about the Krebs cycle, a process by which energy is stored and released for use by cells. A lot of the story seems to be about learning to choose what we spend our energy on and how. Do you remember a moment in your life where you realized you could be doing better things with your time, energy, et cetera?
Yes. When this story comes out, it will be slightly over a year since I got sick with presumptive COVID. At the time, I was a healthcare provider in a major hospital system. I was also more depressed than I’d been in years. After two months of being too sick to do things like put on pants, make food, or stay awake for more than two hours at a time—and I also had this terrible cough that made it impossible to speak—I realized that despite all of this, I was calmer and happier than I’d been in . . . five years? Because despite how fucking terrible and scary my health was, I also wasn’t having to do a bunch of complicated and frankly unethical bullshit so that my employers could bill someone’s insurance in a way that maximized profits. So I quit. I build author websites now (mviolante.com). I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.
You’ve offered to assist Black writers and organizations with writing, editing, and website design through the Book Friend Project on your website, and recently you put your critiquing skills up for auction in exchange for donations to Stop AAPI Hate and Hate is a Virus. Are there any other organizations, writers, or community members that you want to point Nightmare readers towards?
Yes. For the record, a lot of what I do for the Black Writers Project is just pointing people in the right direction or helping people write queries—most of the people that come in asking for help are really, really good writers and incredibly savvy, and they’re just looking to be connected with resources, because publishing is an entirely different bear than writing.
If you’re looking for SFF specifically geared at elevating minority voices, FIYAH, Khoreo, If There’s Anyone Left, Decoded Pride, and Anathema are all really great mags with interesting mission statements, and there are of course tons more. There’s also an amazing, queer, serialized dark fantasy novel by Steve Westenra that I recommend. He releases a chapter a week on Wattpad, his Patreon, and his blog, and it’s free. It’s also epic—like “will be 300k words long” epic.
If you’re looking for resources specifically about the intersection of marginality and publishing, We Need Diverse Books is a great organization, as is Beth Phalen’s #Dvpit. The PrintRun podcast and the WriteOrDie podcast also address these issues frequently.
Alternatively, if you spend a lot of time in a state of near panic about the collapsing dystopian nature of the American government, a good place to start is the Black Socialists of America website, and particularly their writings on building dual power. I also recently discovered the It’s Not Just in Your Head podcast, which is run by two mental health professionals and examines the influence of capitalism on mental health.
You had a number of short stories published last year! What can we expect from you in the future?
Well, I certainly hope to publish more! I have a few sales coming out later this year, which you can track on my website at MariaDong.com if you’re interested. I am also on submission with my agent with a novel, so fingers crossed on that.
On Thursday, May 27th, I’ll be part of the Neon Hemlock Live reading series on Instagram Live (I have not figured out Instagram yet, but I have some time!), along with Bendi Barrett and AP Thayer. It’s a free event, so I hope to see you there!
Spread the word!