Currently Reading: In Restless Dreams, by Wren Handman
On Being a Lit Agency Intern
I think I’m confident enough in my new position to announce publicly now that at the beginning of this year, I accepted an offer from Toronto-based literary agency The Rights Factory for a six-month contract as a literary intern and assistant. Although it means that I am suddenly very busy, and my TBR has grown three sizes this holiday season, I couldn’t be more overjoyed. It’s my first foray into working in the publishing business from starting out as a bookseller over two years ago… and it’s something that I’ve wanted and hoped for a lot.
I’m also completing doctoral studies in critical social work right now, but my role in that field has been in research for the past several years, and my main source of income (despite my bookshop job!) has been as a freelance researcher. My hope, as I slowly finish my PhD, is to put all the skills I’ve gathered over my years as a counsellor, researcher, bookseller, and blogger to cumulative use to help support authors (my actual heroes tbh) in their careers, and play my part in producing some really good books.
Over the next six months, I’ll make periodic updates about my internship, and everything that I’m learning. One of the resources that’s been incredibly helpful to me in my new role has been listening to as much of the Print Run Podcast as I can over the past few weeks. When I got asked to manage some of the TRF agents’ schedules for the upcoming London Book Fair? I was so glad that I’d listened to the Print Run episode that Laura and Erik did about their experiences there last year. I would have been so in the dark otherwise. Shoutout to them, for producing such great content for new professionals in the industry.
2020 Reading Challenge Update
I wrote in my 2019 year in review post that one of the reading challenges I’ll be doing this year is the FOLD Reading Challenge, hosted by the Festival of Literary Diversity. I’m thrilled to be on the planning committee for the festival this year, and to be contributing to this challenge! My picks will be featured on the FOLD blog in October, but I’ll be participating all year long. If you decide to participate, give me a shout, I’d love to follow your progress.
This month’s picks are from Audible, the sponsor of the challenge, and the theme is audiobooks by an Indigenous author. I think that this is a genius challenge, because although Indigenous literature is really having a good cultural moment right now, I don’t think that Indigenous lit is where most people’s instincts take them when they consider audiobooks, unless that is the primary way that they consume written media. From my experiences in the bookshop where I work, I think it’s a common misconception that Indigenous literature is necessarily heavy, political, and serious – and often, historical. Although I would contend that a lot of Indigenous literature is powerful, there are lots of Indigenous books that would just make the commute to work a little more pleasant (I know that’s when I consume most of my audiobooks).
If you’re looking for a super engaging Indigenous title to listen to, I would suggest…
- the suspense-packed Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice, a chilling post-apocalyptic speculative novel.
- Louise Erdrich’s family-friendly middle grade alternative to Little House on the Prairie, The Birchbark House
- the fever dream of an audio experience that is queer Indigenous throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth
- Cherie Dimaline’s multiple award-winning YA sci fi novel, The Marrow Thieves
…which should all be available for free through the Libby app using your local library card, or you can support your local independent bookstore (or mine! Another Story, in Toronto) by purchasing them through Libro.fm.
The Seep, by Chana Porter
I closed out my 2019 reading year with Chana Porter’s debut novel, The Seep, a gently unsettling dystopian speculative featuring a trans woman protagonist. The world is so ready for genre books featuring trans MCs, yall! I read this book a couple of weeks after losing one of my dogs to cancer, and I had been struggling with reading after such an emotional experience. This book was the perfect distraction, and strangely, the perfect balm for my grief and complicated emotions around loss in this disaster capitalist world.
The Seep is about the arrival of a benevolent alien presence on earth, who slowly becomes dominant through their desire to heal humanity. It is unique and precious, while managing to poetically move through several impactful themes, including things like identity, racism, cultural appropriation, art, transformation, rebirth, death, and the end of the world as we know it. I was rapt while reading it, and I was so honoured that author Chana Porter was willing to chat with me about her work. She was so sweet and generous to talk to, and I’m happy to be able to share some of our conversation here.
Feature Interview: Chana Porter on Writing Outside Your Identity, Mentorship, Gender, and Bears
Note: All of the photography featured throughout this post is curated from artists on Unsplash, and reflects the themes of Chana Porter’s novel The Seep.
emmy: The Seep totally bowled me over. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to give it some extra exposure and tell people how much I loved it. I’d love to hear more about why you chose to write your main character, Trina, as you did. It’s obvious that all the aspects of her identity play key roles in the messages of the book. Still, it takes a lot of work, research, and care to write skillfully outside of your own experience, and I think that you achieved that. What was that like, and what were your reasons for making that choice?
Chana: When I began writing The Seep, it was an epic novel with shifting multiple points of view. Trina and her journey was a major aspect of the narrative, but she was one of 3 or so main characters. As I worked, it eventually became clear that Trina’s story was the most heartfelt and compelling. I shaved off the other plot lines and focused on her. (The UK edition of The Seep will have the boy from the Compound’s point of view included as a bonus short story, which is fun for me. I cut a lot of things that I loved!)
I wanted to write a butch trans woman character for a lot of thoughtful metaphorical reasons, which I will get into, but first and foremost, I wrote the kind of character I wanted to spend time with. She has a kind of swagger. She’s a bit of a brooder. She’s tender and passionate and a little gruff.
So Trina is a trans woman, and a butch woman. Her gender identity is distinct from her gender expression. Being a woman is not about wearing lipstick (no shade on lipstick, I like lipstick). That was the first thing I wanted to celebrate in the creation of her character. Secondly, gender identity is meaningful to Trina, and she is wary of the way people use The Seep to change their faces like they were changing outfits. I also liked the idea of people giving Trina guff for being so old-fashioned because she doesn’t want to modify her body. I wanted to show that she felt in alignment with her gender, in both expression and identification, and didn’t need to change anything. I also wanted to show that she didn’t want or need to “look cis” now that it was possible with the wave of a Seep wand.
Trina is also Jewish and Native American.Years ago, N.K. Jemisin gave a lecture one summer at The Octavia Project, a free science fiction summer camp I helped create, where she described how when the European colonizers came to our shores, the diseases and violence that they brought to Indigenous peoples were the equivalent of an apocalypse. She cautioned our teens that when writing about apocalypse, don’t lose sight that many groups of people have experienced something similar already.
I think this is also true when writing about utopia, particularly because The Seep wishes to heal all wounds. We must witness and value past trauma. We also must acknowledge and celebrate what was here before, and is still here.
One of Trina’s surnames is Oneka, which is a Mohegan name. This aspect I crafted from research. The Mohegans are based in central southern Connecticut. In early drafts, it was made clear that Trina and Deeba used to live together in Brooklyn, so I first narrowed it down graphically. Then I located her ancestry there because tribal leadership for the Mohegan people is often passed through the maternal line, and they are known for their deep knowledge of herbal medicine, as well as hunting and fishing technologies. I liked the idea of Trina as an artist and healer, coming from a beautiful and specific tradition, which is very much alive today.
As for the Jewish aspect, my family is partially from Pale of Settlement. It used to be part of Russia, now it’s Lithuania, and the Jewish culture that thrived there is gone. It is a place that no longer exists. I was also interested in this– what happens when a place loses its memory? My character YD explores this idea further. But everyone is grappling with something that was meaningful to them which is now gone. Pina the Bear is no longer really a bear. There is a grief and loss there too.
emmy: You mentioned working with Rachel Pollack as your thesis advisor. Was The Seep a product of your MFA and your work with Rachel? I’m curious what the conversations that you had with her were like, what that process was like for you. What advice might you give other authors who are involved in or seeking mentorship around writing inclusive and diverse work?
Chana: I went to Goddard College specifically to work with Rachel Pollack (great low-residency MFA program, highly recommend). I first learned about her in my study of tarot and Kabbalah, as she’s an expert in both. Then I stared reading her novels, and I knew I had to learn from her. Everyone, GO READ RACHEL POLLACK! A very different version of The Seep was my thesis. It was her metaphysical scholarship and fraught, spiritual science fiction that drew me to her, but of course the way she writes about gender is part of that draw. So it was fortuitous that Rachel is an older trans lesbian (a tryke, as she lovingly puts it), like Trina. But also, because my book takes place in the future, Trina’s character is more my peer in age than Rachel’s, and grew up in a different conversation about gender than Rachel did. I remember writing an early scene (that didn’t make it into the final book) where Trina and Deeba first meet and fall in love. Rachel wrote this comment in the margin, something like, Oh my, if only it could be like this. Rachel blazed the trail for us. We had a lot of rich conversations about identity. She also made me get more specific about anything spiritual, so it wouldn’t read like wishy-washy mumbo-gumbo.
I am a queer person who is in community with a lot of trans and GNC people (I identify as a bisexual woman ray of light ☺️). And because of my own questions around gender and identity, I’ve been reading people like Kate Bornstein and Judith Butler (or trying to) from when I was a wee thing. Two of my dearest friends, who were also deep readers of early drafts of The Seep during the 7 years I was writing it, actually transitioned during that time period. I couldn’t have known that two of my closest friends and trusted readers would transition while I was writing this book. But also, it makes sense. Because part of why we found each other and loved each other was because we were all gender outlaws. It was a long conversation we were all having together, for many years.
emmy: I’d love to talk more about your own process with gender, if that’s something you’d be comfortable sharing a bit more about, both with me and with the blog. I know it’s a complex question! The ways that people choose to identify and the ways that people see their genders sometimes feel very different to me. Language and identity and the ways that they are co-constituted or not can get messy. There are lots of ways that people expand their gender conceptualization and gender expression that exist sort of outside of these labels that get thrown around all the time. If you wanted to talk a little bit about your thoughts on your own process with thinking about gender, I’d love to make space for that, and would be interested in hearing more.
Chana: Okay, I will try to distill down a major conversation of my life into a few short paragraphs! From when I was very little child I thought I was not a girl. I heard the word “hermaphrodite”, which we now call intersex, before I heard the word lesbian, and I thought that this was my big secret. I imagined that I was slowly turning into a boy, and that everyone would be very upset. Partially, I was drawn to the work of Rachel Pollack because she writes about the archetype of the golden hermaphrodite in world religions. I’m very compelled by an all encompassing gender, a totality of gender. That feels more whole to me– angelic, in fact. I have written several plays for theater that explore these ideas. Most people I am attracted to are gender outlaws in some form or fashion. I present as a woman, and I use she/her pronouns. I experimented with using ‘they’ in a few contexts and it did not bring me any comfort. When I feel too pinned down to one identity, I feel trapped. I have been a wife. I’m now a sort of step parent— my partner has two young children. One of them called me ChanaDad on a whim, and I LOVED it. I do not feel like a man– I am not a man. But I don’t want to be anyone’s mother. ChanaDad gives me a freedom that I like.
I like getting femmed up, in a dress and lipstick, and going out to dinner. This always feels like a kind of performance, a costume. And I enjoy it. But when those trappings become a uniform, I feel oppressed. Likewise, I dated a woman in college who would not let me shave my legs. I loved having hairy legs (I don’t have demure body hair), but one day I mentioned wanting to be smooth for a while again. She was livid. I didn’t have the words at the time, but I wanted to say something like, Hey, I stopped shaving because I don’t like being told how I need to look to be accepted. It’s not my problem if my body offends or confounds you. It’s my body. What could be more personal than that?
I have never understood or identified with most things we are told women should want– but is this gender? Or is it patriarchy? I love the feminine, and I wish to enlarge and embrace it, rather than belittle or reject it. Did I identify with male characters more as a young reader because they were written to be witty, mysterious, and interesting? If I had Trina to read as a younger person, I think I would have fantasized about being this swaggering butch. Not being Jordan Catalano or Brandon Walsh, which I did instead. I actually think that there are as many gender identities as there are people. But I’m traveling through the world as a cis woman, and I want to own that identity, with its myriad privileges and traumas.
emmy: A final question. I just loved Pina. By far my favourite character in the book, and as someone who’s on the autism spectrum, I found the ways that Pina talks and the role that she plays so relatable and charming. I would love to hear more about her. Why did you make her a bear? What role did she play for you? Is her affect intentional, or was it just a creative choice? Whatever you feel like sharing about her, I’d love to hear about it.
Chana: I’m so glad you loved Pina and that her speech spoke to you— she is also my favorite. I’m also a person who stutters, and for this reason the cadence of my speaking voice is particular. So I also relate to Pina, in this way.
I CANNOT wait for the audiobook to come out– I can’t wait to see what Shakina Nayfack (who is so brilliant) does with Pina (and YD)!
I created a bear character because of Rachel Pollack, that genius. In an early draft, I had a human character transform into an animal (a dolphin, actually). Rachel’s note was something like– why is this so human centric? What would happen if an animal, say a bear, was transformed by The Seep? I tried it a few ways– I wrote a version where Pina was a human with a bear consciousness, which was fun to write, and then I rewrote her as a bear because I visually enjoyed that more. She is actually a little bit like my grandmother– she wants to feed you, she’s no-nonsense, she is very sweet but sometimes sounds mean. She slams a plate down, and it means I love you.
I wanted to say thank you so much to Chana Porters for this rich and thoughtful interview, and also offer a couple of recommendations on her behalf at the end of this post. Unfortunately, Chana’s plays have yet to be published, but fans of The Seep should make Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack the next book on their TBR!
PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!
Great interview. At the start of the post, I wasn’t sure The Seep was something I’d be interested in (sounded more scifi than I usually prefer), but now I think I will check it out.
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I’m so glad! It’s totally worth checking out!
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