by Tamara Kaye Sellman
Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, Editors. Featuring the work of Karen Jordan Allen, Christopher Barzak, K. Tempest Bradford, Matthew Cheney, Michael J. DeLuca, Adrián Ferrero, Colin Greenland, Csilla Kleinheincz, Joy Marchand, Holly Phillips, Rachel Pollack, Veronica Schanoes, Léa Silhol, Jon Singer, Vandana Singh, Anna Tambour, Mikal Trimm, Catherynne M. Valente, and Leslie What.
Review by Tamara Kaye Sellman, MRCentral.net
I was pleased to receive a copy of this book for review precisely because it invited the dialog, "What is interstitial writing?" I am somewhat familiar with the term, having been a fan of The Endicott Studio for some time now, which addresses the subject frequently enough to put it into its readers subconscious vocabularies, but whenever I come across other definitions of the term, I always find myself wondering whether interstitial writing is all that different from slipstream or speculative fiction.
To read the introduction to Interfictions by Heinz Insu Fenkl doesn't help matters, however, which is a disappointment for me because I usually love reading and value introductions. This one may have aimed to clarify terms, but it ended up being a fairly academic approach to the idea of literary "in-betweenness." I did not find it differed all that much from the discussions raised by magical realist scholars Wendy B. Faris, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Rawdon Wilson, John Thiem, Amaryll Chanady, Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, and other lit-crit heavyweights in the excellent resource, Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.
Though one thing is certain: the term interstitial writing shares the same problem with the term magical realism: there really isn't a single accepted definition for either, and both types of writing transgress boundaries because they are written, precisely, to defy the tyranny of category.
A more accessible set of rubrics, however, might be found at the end of the book in the afterword penned by editors Goss and Sherman. Yet, even there, I couldn't find a clear distinction between the interstitial and what is already considered slipstream or speculative. Both editors cling, especially, to the idea of liminality as a marker of interstitial writing. But is that a strong enough rope on which to swing an entire anthology? All sorts of limbo can be found in all sorts of literature, and to say that experimental narrative technique distinguishes it as interstitial does no justice to experimental writers who are writing for different purposes entirely.
On the back jacket of Interfictions, the "rules of creating interstitial art" are laid out as such:
"Interstitial art is a moving target. It's work that demands you engage with it on its own terms . . . "
My reply: So is experimental writing in science fiction and fantasy. So is alternative history. Do these qualify as interstitial, and if so, how do the SFF and alternative history writers feel about that? (I know, from my experience as an MR "tagger," that not everyone wants pigeonholing, and for good reason.)
"Interstitial artists don't make rules—we debate and interrogate them . . . "
My reply: So do all good writers. Excellent literary realism pushes that envelope all the time.
"Interstitial fiction is an umbrella term for a wide variety of writing that does not preclude or discount the use of other terms . . . "
My reply: Thank goodness for that! The last thing we need is another term for work that doesn't want to be termed. Magical realism has been trying to shake off its cooties for years!
I must say, however, that I do like the notion of opening up the umbrella over shutting down the discussion. It's what we've done since the beginning at Margin, and what Neil is doing now at Serendipity.
"The IAF (Interstitial Arts Foundation) is not creating a new movement; we're a barometer, measuring (and celebrating!) what already exists."
My reply: There is realistic fiction, then there is fiction which isn't realistic by design. Of course, nothing is black and white, which means the areas between (these aptly identified interstices) are meant to challenge either end of the spectrum. The IAF is right to admit they are not creating a new movement, but by calling attention to interstitial writing, aren't they actually risking that very outcome?
I'm on board with the attitude that we should celebrate and explore alternative realism, though I still balk: measuring implies cataloging (and how do you catalog liminal work, really?) , and serving as a barometer suggests gatekeeping (which can unnecessarily or unwittingly exclude voices). Hmmm.
I don't mean to seem overly critical of the ideas presented in this book; in fact, I welcome them because they do open up the dialog about alternative realism, which certainly fits my own agenda as an ambassador for magical realism. It's just that I have this nagging voice in my ear repeating, "Will yet another category simply ghettoize excellent work?"
That being said, our literary universe continues to expand into more transgressive forms, and readers are becoming more flexible about their own literary realities. Interfictions certainly offers a good selection of examples that illustrate the skillful expansion of these boundaries. If fans of magical realism read this book on these terms, I can't help but think they will come away satisfied.
There are some amazing stories in Interfictions that I must call attention to. "What We Know About the Lost Families of ——House" by Christopher Barzak is quite accessible: a playful experiment on the standard haunted house story which says as much about life in the outer reaches of suburbia as it does about the ways death reframes our lives. Leslie What's "Post Hoc" probably classifies as magical realism—a desperate woman mails herself to her ex-lover and ends up taking residence in the post office, the most in-between of all places aside from, perhaps, an international airport—and the writing is simply sublime. The story by Adrián Ferrero, "When It Rains, You'd Better Get Out of Ulga," enjoys the most recognizable signs of traditional MR of the collection, but "The Utter Proximity of God" by Michael de Luca comes very close, as do several other stories. Joy Marchand's "Pallas at Noon" stole my breath with its emotional rigor and its ending-as-beginning motif. I also really enjoyed the story, "Black Feather," by K. Tempest Bradford for its mythic qualities and its contemporary fairy tale edges.
Do I think readers and writers of magical realism will enjoy this collection? Yes, I do, but not because it's gathered under the term interstitial but, rather, because all the pieces in the collection stretch the collar of realism, and the writing here is simply — (I would say fantastic or fabulous or marvelous, but then, that would be a pun, wouldn’t it?).
Ultimately, I think Goss and Sherman have collected some terrific pieces here and it's likely I'll even refer to their book for my ongoing MR workshops. More so, I think this would be a good book to share with someone who is not an academic, a writer, or a consummate reader of the alternative realism "genre." The ordinary reader of mainstream realist fiction will either vehemently like or dislike what they find, but certainly they won't forget it, and isn't that what writers want, in the end?
Story Copyright © 2008 by Tamara Kaye Sellman. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Tamara Kaye Sellman is the publisher of Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism (www.magical-realism.com) and director of MRCentral.net, an interactive membership celebrating literary magical realism worldwide.