Liminal Stories: an interview with the author of The Inconvenient God

Francesca Forrest’s The Inconvenient God  is technically a novella (maybe even a novelette by some counts) but has been published as a slim book by Annorlunda Books, which specializes in shorter works. It’s an elegant book featuring a gorgeous cover by Likhain.

I really looked forward to this story, as Forrest’s Pen Pal, a wonderful novel with a brush of magical realism featuring a correspondence between a little girl living precariously with her family and community in houseboats off the Gulf Coast, and a political prisoner suspended above a volcano in a Southeast Asian country, was my favorite book of 2013.

She seems to be drawn to the liminal spaces in our world, whether geographically or philosophically. So it was no surprise when this story showed up, engaging with divinity, religion, culture, and how humans deal with the big questions.

Decommissioner number 37 (also known as Sweeting) arrives at the ancient University of Nanda from the Polity’s  Ministry of Divinity in order to decommission a local god, a nuisance whose worshipers are slackers and goof-offs whose form of worship is hanging underwear off the god’s sacred space, a scraggly tree.

Sweeting is accompanied by a nervous university official who wants the job done quickly, as the university is preparing for an important unveiling event, and they don’t want Ohin, this god of mischief, to manifest in some unfortunate way. Which has been known to happen, usually in desecration of the national’s flag.

Sweeting wasn’t even granted a room overnight, so she is wearing her full regalia in the warm weather, but she figures at least this job will only take moments.

She was wrong. The university was wrong.

What happens, and why, forms the rest of this story which is both delightful and thoughtful. For such a short work, a surprising number of chewy subjects, such as the tension between oral and written communication, especially when a government decides to impose one or the other.

Then there is the nature of divinity, and how human beings can interact with the divine—whether through ritual, which represents order, or by the irruption of the unexplainable into human lives.

Can gods truly be decommissioned by humans? The most boring answer is that they can, easily, because the divine is little more than human imagination or wish-fulfillment, a slant I read over and over during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Forrest engaged far more interestingly with these questions in a story I enjoyed so much that when the opportunity came up to do an interview, and ask some of these questions, I grabbed it.

 

Why, in a place where miracles are manifest, is the Polity shifting from deities to abstractions?

Interesting question! I think it has to do with the Polity’s need to be in control of things. A big part of controlling people is controlling how and what they worship—if you can. It can mean demanding people give up worship of one god and substitute another, but I think it’s a clever trick to tell people that their worship of various individual gods isn’t actually about the god themself but actually about the qualities of the god.

And why do that? Well, I have the impression that it’s a lot easier to dictate to people the meanings of various abstractions (love, courage, abundance, and so on) than it is to try to control the personalities and histories of anthropomorphic deities. As for the miracles, I’d say the Polity is counting on those continuing, whether the object of prayer is an anthropomorphic deity or an abstraction.

Ancient University at Nalanda India

At one point Sweeting observes that “Apotheoses might not be as immune to the weight of time as other divinities”—a fascinating concept! What does that mean here?

Apotheoses are mortals who have been deified. I think there may be some aspects of mortality that cling—like the passage of time.

Oral vs written shift in their culture–what is that about? Is this about the Polity wanting to impose order on its constituents?

In this case it was a matter of bringing one holdout part of one institution of higher education in line with the rest of the country. A written exam produces written records, which Polity officials appreciate–better records mean better control. And the officials no doubt believed that a standardized written exam would assure a certain level of quality and uniformity across a large territory.

Young monks memorizing sacred text

Why would Ohin think that the goddess Amaya’s words would be chained if written?

It’s a good question, because in some ways writing sets words free—free from a particular location and time—they can go anywhere. But think of the difference between hearing a song sung live, and then hearing a recording of that performance. The recording fastens every detail down. If it was summer and there were crickets chirping while the performer sang, then you hear those crickets every time you listen, even in the dead of winter.

Whereas if the singer were to come visit and sing the song for you again, maybe this time just for you, in a room with a low ceiling and a fire going—it would be a totally new and different thing. Writing things down is great—I’m a big fan of the technology of writing—but it’s not as communally intimate as the spoken word.

prayer tied to a tree

What is the stuff of divinity, besides a tingle and smell? Is it the same as the authority needed to apotheosize someone?

I think the tingle and smell are the tangible, perceptible things people like Sweeting notice that signal the divine is present, but I don’t think those things are the stuff of divinity. When leaves rustle and the grass bends, wind is present, but the rustling leaves and the bending grass aren’t the wind. I don’t know what the stuff of divinity is. I think probably in Sweeting’s world ministry theologians debate that point and publish papers on the topic. The Polity probably is happier with some lines of inquiry than others.

As for apotheosizing someone, there’s two elements: there’s what’s in the person who’s going to be apotheosized, and then there’s the power of those doing it. On the one hand, not just anybody can be apotheosized; there needs to be something about the person that’s going to make it possible. On the other hand, to make that declaration, to “make is so” requires status/power/authority of some sort—the power of the people, if it’s a folk apotheosis, or of a prestigious university, or of a strong government. Or of a god: a god could easily apotheosize someone.

There is easily enough world building here for a novel. Why the shorter form?

I enjoyed telling it at this length, but I may go back, sometime in the future, and develop the story more and turn it into a novel. And I may well write other short stories in this world! It’s definitely still sparking in my mind.

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Liminal Stories: an interview with the author of The Inconvenient God — 7 Comments

  1. Francesca: I just *love* that you let it be short because that’s the sweet spot it hit for you. I’d love to see more in this world, so I’m glad it’s still sparking. 🙂

    • Jacob, there’s so much! I have a novel I’m working on now (… I hope it’s not a great pacific garbage patch of a story…), but when I finish it or abandon it, that’s what I want to turn to.