One of my favorite books of 2013 appeared quietly on the scene, an indie publication that pretty much had to go indie, as fitting it neatly into a marketing niche would be tough.
I loved Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest, so much that I asked her questions, and ended up forming the questions and answers into this interview.
Briefly, it is about two pen pals who find one another through a message in a bottle. One is a child in a precarious community off the Gulf coast, the other a political prisoner, suspended over a volcano, in an island nation of the South Pacific. (You can find my review here.)
There is so much liminality to the story, and also the ineluctable tension between yin and yang–young, old, conventional and non, with questions of love, family, politics, believing, and being.
SS: What is it about volcanoes? What gave you the idea of writing about a prisoner suspended above a volcano about to explode?
FF: Okay, so let me tell you about the volcano.
Long ago, several years before even starting the story, I had a dream about a temple, suspended by chains inside a volcanic crater. There was a woman, dressed in a Korean hanbok, in the temple, and I knew, the way you know things in a dream, that she was at once the priestess in the temple, and also a prisoner. In the dream, all around the rim of the volcanic crater were cherry trees, and when the priestess danced, the trees came into bloom.
So it wasn’t the volcano on its own, it was the whole package: volcano, priestess, floating temple. But then, doing research, I pretty much fell in love with the look of Nyiragongo, home of the world’s largest persistent (i.e., not merely temporary) lava lake.
Volcanoes, to me, seem so paradoxical: they are terrifying and powerful, and yet, being tears or rifts in the Earth, and letting us see the moving, glowing innards of the earth, they seem to me to also be an image of vulnerability or woundedness. And then there’s the paradox of their being so horribly destructive, and yet volcanic ash creating fertile soil.
I could blather on at SO MUCH LENGTH–but I’ll leave it at that for the volcano love.
SS: These days, with so much accusation of cultural appropriation on one hand, and on the other, a reaction against predominantly Western settings, culture and characters, how did you navigate these troubled waters?
FF: This question is so fertile! There are a thousand ways to talk about it. Honestly, when I was first writing the original draft, I was so in the grips of the story that I didn’t stop to think about these issues, though they’re very relevant: one protagonist is a biracial child in a marginal and marginalized community that literally floats offshore from the mainland, mainstream life of America, and the other is a young adult, a political prisoner in an unnamed (and fictional) Southeast Asian nation. She’s a member of the ethnic minority in that nation.
Neither of their external circumstances bears any resemblance to my own life. Why was *this* the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go? I don’t know, except to say that I’ve always yearned after lives and experiences very different from my own, and that one of the greatest joys in life is coming to know and understand different thoughts and ways.
When I decided to revise and expand the story, I did do some serious thinking about what I was attempting. I wanted to be worthy of the story, and I tried to accomplish that by dint of research and by listening to as many different, relevant voices as I could.
SS: What kind of research?
FF: A lot of the traditional kind—I read memoirs of political prisoners, news stories about minority communities on the Gulf Coast, collections of folktales, and histories of various areas, not to mention consulting sources on regional flora and fauna, tidal charts, volcanic ash advisory centers . . . it goes on and on!
But I also made use of the sorts of resources that we’re so lucky to have now that let us get intimate with places: I watched lots of YouTube videos, not by pros, but things that ordinary people put up—friends shrimp fishing together, or bouncing on water-saturated sand, or getting dressed up for traditional dances, or cultivating cardamom or coffee.
I inched along the Gulf coast in Google Maps satellite view and wandered city streets all over Southeast Asia using Google Street View. And I listened to voices. For the Gulf Coast side of the story, I listened to lots of StoryCorps clips (these are two- or three-minute-long interviews ordinary people conduct with each other, which are stored as a record of American folk life), and to local news segments. I did that for various Southeast Asian countries too. Those news stories would be in languages I couldn’t understand, but they gave me a sense of body language, of where people stand, of how they talk when they’re upset, or happy—all that. I also talked to friends and strangers who’ve lived in the areas I was writing about.
And finally, I visited both areas. Visiting is not the same as living in a place, of course, but at least you get the smells in your nose and feel the heat on your skin. At least you know what it’s like to breath the air there. I only wish I could have visited a lava lake!
SS: Let’s talk about genre–or rather, the lack. This book includes elements of several genres–literary, mainstream, adult, young adult, fantasy– without obeying the implied rules of any of these. I’ve seen writers saying they chose to publish independently because of the constraints of the Big Six, who seem to need a convenient label to know how to market a book. Was that part of your decision to go indie?
FF: Oh absolutely. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this book **has** to be published indie—it’s what the story itself demands. Its protagonists have no voice in their worlds, but they find voices in unconventional ways; they are powerless people who use the resources at hand to claim power. And, they reach out to each other, in an intensely personal way, over great distance. By going indie, I’m living the message of the book.
SS: One of the hardest things is for the author who has been passionate about their book to describe it quickly for someone who has no investment. People want things quick, they want pique and surprise, in a world rich with new books. Instead of trying to sum it all up, how about a glimpse of each voice?
I think Em and Kaya’s initial letters—the letter Em sticks in a bottle, and Kaya’s response—set up what the two of them are like when the story begins:
Dear person who finds my message,
I live in a place called Mermaid’s Hands. All our houses here rest on the mud when the tide is out, but when it comes in, they rise right up and float.
They’re all roped together, so we don’t lose anyone. I like Mermaid’s Hands, but sometimes I wish I could unrope our house and see where it might float to. But I would get in trouble if I did that, so instead I’m sticking this message in a bottle. If you find it, please write back to me at this address. Tell me what the world is like where you are.
It was a pleasure to get your message. Sumi, my pet crow, brought it to me.
You ask what it’s like where I am. I’m a prisoner, actually. My prison has the poetic name “Lotus on the Ruby Lake.” You mentioned in your letter that your house floats when the tide comes in. My house floats too, in a manner of speaking. It sits on a long wooden platform, which hangs from thick chains that are bolted into the sides of the crater of a volcano. If I lean over the rail at the edge of the platform, I can see the glowing lava of the Ruby Lake. It’s not anyplace you’d want to swim, that’s for sure.
My captors bring me supplies by helicopter once a week, and they let me send notes to my mother. I will include this message in my weekly note, and my mother will post it on to you.
Please do write again; it’s very lonely here by myself.
Kayamanira (Kaya) Matarayi
Em is very forthright: in her next letter she asks Kaya, very matter-of-factly, if Kaya’s committed a crime:
I’m sorry that you’re a prisoner. Did you commit a crime? My big brother Jiminy did. He snuck into a floating casino and was stealing from the people there, but they caught him.
I would visit him if I could, but his prison is not even in the same state, and Dad would never let us go, because he thinks Jiminy threw away his family when he started stealing things. Ma says we should keep him in our prayers, and Gran says the Seafather will find a way to free him, because no seachild should be stuck so far away on dry land, even if he’s a thief.
Em’s directness makes Kaya recall Tema, the upperclassman who took Kaya under her wing when Kaya became the first of her ethnic group to attend a prestigious lowland boarding school:
“Well, keep her in line, Tima–”
“It’s Tema,” Tema corrected, but Vira ignored the interruption.
“–and don’t let her embarrass herself. You’re such an expert on so many things that might trip a backwoods innocent up. Things like Western toilets and all–didn’t you treat the whole dorm to an explanation of Western toilets last year? Fascinating stuff.” Sarei laughed, and the two of them drifted away.
“Stupid princesses,” Tema muttered. “Let’s hurry up and get settled; no point in hanging around here. Grab that bag–no, that one.”
She strode off at quite a pace; I practically had to run to keep up with her, which was hard, lugging one of her bags and my own.
“False praise is worse than jeers,” she said, shoving underthings into the sliding drawers under the bunk bed. “Maybe the princesses think it’s crude to talk about toilets, but some girls really don’t know. If you don’t come from the capital, you might never have seen one . . . have you seen a Western toilet?”
One thing I loved right away about Tema was that she would talk about anything, directly, and with her full heart. Even embarrassing things. Em reminds me of Tema in her directness.
Magic of a sort figures in both girls’ lives. Charms and magical thinking are an everyday part of life in Mermaid’s Hands, and when traditional charms seem insufficient, people invent new ones, as Em’s father is doing, here:
I never heard of anyone making a charm with starlight in water before. “What’ll the starlight bring Jiminy?” I asked.
Dad hesitated. “Starlight’s for your mother,” he said, after a moment. “She’s so set against the ordinary charms, I thought something different, something real fine, real rare, real … real beautiful might …”
So he didn’t set the water out for Jiminy at all. Jiminy’s an afterthought. It was for Ma. He wants her back so bad he’s trying to invent new magic to do it with. Star water. Whoever heard of it? But maybe it’ll work.
For her part, Kaya starts off highly rational, but over the course of her imprisonment, her outlook changes. Here she writes Em about a dream:
My dear Em, a very strange thing happened just now. I lay down to rest, as I said I would, and I had a dream, about you! A young girl was walking out of the ocean toward me, and in the dream I was certain it was you. Now I wish I could see a photo of you. In my dream, you had thick, dark hair that curled around your face, and wide, dark eyes. You had something in your hands. I asked what, and you smiled and showed me–night crawlers. “Are we going fishing?” I asked, and you said, “Do you know what these are?” I cupped my hands, and you emptied yours, but it wasn’t worms that I caught, it was butterflies. They flew away from me up into the trees, and suddenly the trees were full of blossoms. I laughed, and looked over at you, and when I did, I noticed steaming rising from where you had walked through the water. And I realized that somehow you were the Lady of the Ruby Lake. I didn’t know what to say. “Did you-did you like the festival?” I finally managed to stammer, but you just grinned and said, “Thank you for being my friend.”
This dream frightens and excites me. Maybe the Lady really can be a friend to me, and through me, to all the mountain people. Distant, like you’re distant, but real, like you’re real.
Both Em and Kaya need to be very brave during the course of the book—in all sorts of ways. That’s not particularly evident these excerpts, but I hope enough of Em’s and Kaya’s character comes through to make people want to see how they meet their challenges.
Images used by permission from the Pen Pal site.