Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Harvests, Solstices, and Aliens: Genre Fiction and Social Commentary by Kate Maruyama


Why do we write? Do we aim our stories toward life lessons, do we set out to beat the drum for a cause? Or does what we’re worried or upset about just naturally emerge as we weave our stories, ask questions of our characters?

I teach a class called American Horror Story at Antioch University Los Angeles’s BA program. We look at genre stories through the decades as they reflected on social ills of the times in which they are written. We go beyond the obvious ones taught in grammar school: Fahrenheit 451, or Animal Farm. We look at short work by writers who didn’t get enough attention at the time, but whose work still stays with us. James Tiptree Jr’s The Screwfly Solution is a 1977 exploration of male toxicity, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas examined culpability in a system that could promote war in Vietnam, but keep us comfortable back in the states.

People have had different responses to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery which exposes the toxicity of small-town thinking and harmful traditions. I had my own interpretation of the story, as Jackson had left the thriving metropolis of Manhattan for the small town of Bennington, Vermont when her husband Stanley Hyman got a post at the college there. The Lottery felt to me a wry skewering of provincial small mindedness that I’m sure was a stark contrast to her New York life. But more chilling is the direct way in which she understood the town. Years later when Jackson aired suspicions that a local teacher was abusing children, she woke to swastikas drawn with soap on all the windows of their house. They had lived in the town ten years and the antisemitism running through the locals finally came to the fore.

Octavia Butler’s Blood Child has had papers and dissertations written on it. There is so much to read into it about ownership of a body, what humans give up in slavery, but, more chillingly, what they will endure when dependent on their masters. It deals with forced pregnancy, violation of the body. I was astonished to read Butler’s explanation for the story in her collection Blood Child. She had simply been fascinated by a breed of moth in the Amazon in which a certain fly laid its eggs. That symbiosis is what she was poking at in the story. Was everything else that came along with it intentional or carried by the author’s deeper knowledge of humanity? Or was it just a story about symbiosis? In the end, that answer rests with the reader.

Somewhere along the way, the author’s intent ceases to mean as much as what the reader gleans from a story.

I have a horror novel Casting that is now making the rounds with editors that I wrote thinking about my years working in Hollywood, the questionable practices in certain areas of the machine, and the ecosystem of a business which exists on vanity and greed. It has dirty business dealings, a maestro demon and a lot of juicy fun. But when I read draft of the book before my agent sent it out, I realized it also talks a lot about gentrification, erasure, and complicity in a larger system that does not necessarily benefit everyone in it. Without knowing it, I had imbued it with social issues that were bothering me at the time I wrote it; particularly in Los Angeles where gentrification is having a terrifying ripple effect on the economy which hurts the poor and erases long existent communities in the city. I didn’t sit down with this approach, it just seeped into the work.

Similarly, my novella Family Solstice (out January 2021 from Omnium Gatherum) didn’t come from the part of my creativity wishing to deal with social ills. I was merely thinking of my childhood home and some pipes that had burst, causing terrible damage. I then thought of some sort of creepy ritual a family might participate in at winter solstice. It was a logical progression that rituals are often built around harvest or bounty and that got me thinking. Only after I’d created my main character, Shea, practicing for a battle which no one in the family has told her about, preparing herself to come of age in a family secret, did I begin to think about what that secret might be. Beyond that open, the book only started unfolding to me in the year 2020 and injustices that are only just coming to light in the US for a lot of folks. I’d done a lot of thinking on inheritance and white supremacy. I thought, what if the family secret involves complicity? How far will a family go to preserve tradition, to what will they turn a blind eye to maintain a certain level of comfort and ease? Then the ugliness of what happens in that house at winter solstice came to me and the rest of the story came together. 

It’s hard in a world with so much going on, in which we are so worked up every time we read the news, not to let that portion of ourselves seep into our work. I do admire the novels and stories where it seems to happen organically, that pose questions rather than beating a loud drum. The stories I teach from the 20th century all still seem relevant; some even more so. Perhaps our observations of present day societal ills are really only, at their heart observations of humanity.

One thing I have learned through writing and reading in horror, speculative fiction and science fiction is that genre has the right tools to cut to the heart of these issues. Often present day fiction takes on these subjects so directly, they can feel dated even a year or two later. Because genre fiction is set in worlds often out of time and space, they remain quite relevant over decades into centuries beyond.

About Kate Maruyama:

Kate Maruyama's first novel was Harrowgate (47North, 2013). Her short works have appeared in Asimov's, Arcadia, and Entropy among other journals; as well as in numerous anthologies, including Winter Horror Days (Omnium Gatherum Media, 2015) and Halloween Carnival 3 (Hydra, 2017). She writes, teaches, cooks, and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.

 Website | Facebook | Twitter


No comments:

Post a Comment