Nino Cipri’s debut collection, Homesick, is a speculative journey into the theme of home — how we long for it but never quite belong when (or if) we find it. “With this collection, there’s a specifically queer feeling of homesickness and alienation that imbues these stories,” Cipri said in our interview.
The stories that make up Homesick are definitely weird. Cipri introduces us to, among many other characters, a haunting poltergeist, a superhero team of murdered girls, and a species of intelligent weasels. While the stories certainly stretch into the unknown, Cipri’s collection brims with heart and humanity.
Cipri and I spoke via email about the fear of vulnerability, the draw of the future, and, of course, the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize-winning collection itself.
When I talk to writers of speculative fiction, I’m curious to find out how their stories take shape. Do you usually know the uncanny elements or the real-world details first?
I don’t really see the line between the real world and the weird world as being a firm boundary, at least in my fiction. It all blends together in my brain. I’ll think of odd scenarios or images or characters, sometimes get a bit of a dialogue or a scene, and then poke at it until something clicks in my brain (or until a deadline comes up). What I’m usually after is a certain feeling or tension that will drive the story. I’ll hold onto ideas for years until the right elements come together in my mind.
Homesick is populated by dynamic queer and transgender characters. The fact that they own the spotlight in many of the stories is really special — and important.
With this collection, there’s a specifically queer feeling of homesickness and alienation that imbues these stories. But I honestly don’t know how to write anything else. This is not to say that every story I write has explicitly queer characters, relationships, or community in it, but everything I write is queer, and pretty much always has been. I was lucky enough to find queer books when I was a young teen in the late nineties–authors like Poppy Z. Brite and comics like HotHead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, plus tons of zines and poetry collections — that reassured me I wasn’t the only gender-confused weirdo who got crushes on multiple genders and the occasional monster. I’m lucky that I encountered queer lit when I did; it was a place where I could see myself reflected back, or that articulated questions that I was fumbling through. It’s important to me to keep writing in that space, with characters that reflect the community I know.
It’s common for a short story collection to get its name from one of the stories it contains, but Homesick does things a little differently. How did the title come to you?
Fun fact: I originally titled it “Home/Sick” before I came to my senses. I’m terrible at titles.
At some point, I realized that at the heart of a lot of my stories was this push and pull towards an idea of home, a longing for something or somewhere that doesn’t exist, maybe never did. This is reflective of my life–I left my hometown in Vermont when I was nineteen and never really looked back, but never really felt settled anywhere else, either. I’m drawn to and estranged from it, and so are most of my characters. The word “homesick” encapsulates a longing that’s hard to articulate, especially when you’re queer and/or trans. Like, what does home mean when I spent decades dealing with dysphoria that made my own body feel uncanny and unfamiliar? When the same years I came out as bi were when there was a massive pushback against gay civil unions in Vermont?
The opening story, “A Silly Love Story,” is one of my favorites of the collection. This line from it has really stuck with me as I’ve thought about the story: “They fold clothes and talk about the apocalypse — nuclear holocaust versus global pandemic, robot uprising versus alien invasion. The apocalypse is easy to talk about, existing in some hypothetical territory that is just as easy to believe as to dismiss. Jeremy doesn’t mention the poltergeist in his closet. It’s harder to talk about than the end of the world.”
We’re dealing in fiction here, obviously, but this observation about Jeremy is quite heartbreaking — and frightening really. Here’s a person who’s more willing to openly embrace the end of the world than to make himself vulnerable and admit something that would undoubtedly label him as being different. Jeremy’s fears are reflective of us as a species, right?
It’s funny, because I wrote this story in 2012, and the end of the world was on my mind a lot back then. On everyone’s mind, I think, at least in the circles I ran in. There was rampant paranoia about peak oil and Mayan prophecies and the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone. Remember everyone flipping out about swine flu? And zombie apocalypse movies were at their peak popularity. Here we are, seven years later, and there’s been a shift in how we talk about the end of the world, but not much of one. I think this entire decade has been defined by our culture’s apocalyptic anxieties and the weird ways that we express them. I don’t want to presume that Jeremy is speaking for everyone, or even for a generation of people, but he’s chewing on questions I don’t think have been satisfactorily resolved. What do I do when everything seems hopeless, but also the rent is overdue and I can’t find a job? What do I do with these crushy feelings in this late-stage capitalist hellscape? More to your point: why is it easier imagining myself as an extra in Mad Max than to be honest and vulnerable with someone?
I suspect the answer is probably toxic masculinity and its preference for death over possibly admitting you’re not completely 100% self-sufficient, but that’s another issue altogether.
As I was reading through the stories, I found myself noticing the many references to the future. In “The Shape of My Name,” the protagonist remarks, “The future feels lighter than the past.” In “Not An Ocean, But The Sea,” Nadia, a woman who cleans homes, seems optimistic about what’s to come as she contemplates leaping into the sea she finds behind a couch: “It looked like the Black Sea, she decided. Not the sea of her memories, with its dirty-colored sand, and leathery old men leering at bikini-clad girls, but the sea of her dreams, with dark water that contained shipwrecks and other unknowable things.” Do you mind talking about your draw to the future?
I think it’s because it’s unknown, and I’m drawn to uncertainty. It’s comfortable for me. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s a discomfort I’m familiar with; the future is always, I think, going to be stranger than we can ever imagine. Good speculative fiction explores that strangeness, and helps build up your tolerance for it, gets you accustomed to the idea of living in it.
Also, just in general: fuck nostalgia. I think there’s a virulent strain of nostalgia that has infected American culture. Or at least, white American culture. You see it in alt-right MAGA talking points, but also in progressive spaces, or this spate of films and TV shows that show sanitized versions of the 1980’s. The past doesn’t offer any kind of real refuge, at least not for me.
These characters seem particularly optimistic about the future. Do you, too, see the future as hopeful?
Yes and no. I do think that things will get worse; climate change is going to profoundly change human civilization, and we’re in the midst of a mass extinction. That terrifies me, but I’m very tired of apocalyptic nihilism; this idea that nothing matters because the seas are going to rise, and the rich will always fuck the rest of us over, and humanity is on a path of self-destruction, but we have no power to change. That’s garbage. Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Reading and writing speculative fiction actually really helped me deal with that apocalyptic anxiety I mentioned earlier. There are some amazing authors—Octavia Butler, Charlie Jane Anders, and Annalee Newitz all come to mind–who navigate harrowing futures in their books. I’ve used those books as road maps in some cases, or as a sort of vaccine against hopelessness.
I believe people can work together to imagine a better future and mold it into being. People already are, even in increasingly dire circumstances. I’ve been taking a lot of hope from current mass movements that are fighting for better working conditions, prison abolition, environmental justice. These movements articulate clear ideas about the future, and do pragmatic work to make them start to happen. They also take a certain amount of failure as a given, which is something I wish fiction did more.
“Dead Air” is creatively told through a series of recordings. But it’s not the only story to experiment with form in Homesick. “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?” takes the shape of a ten-question, multiple-choice quiz. It’s such a creative way to tell a story. When you began working on “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?,” did you know it had to be written in this way? What do you think this structure adds that a more traditional style couldn’t?
With Super Little Dead Girls, I started with a premise, but was missing a plot. I had the idea for a super-group of murdered girls, but didn’t know what kind of story I wanted to tell. The format was actually a fun way to circumvent that, to sketch out a world and dive into some of the themes I wanted to write about. “Dead Air” actually started as a script for a radio play, but I decided to try and recreate that found-footage feeling in prose, to see if I could imbue a story with that same kind of creeping horror. With both stories, using odd formats as a frame gave me a forth wall to bend and break, and the opportunity to play with metatextual weirdness.
With this being your debut collection, I’m especially interested to know what writers’ work has inspired you the most?
Probably my two biggest influences were Ursula K. LeGuin and Kelly Link. I found their short story collections at key points in my life; LeGuin when I was a teenager trying to muddle my way through understanding gender, sexuality, and relationships, and Link when I was trying to understand how to write short fiction. Stephen King probably deserves a nod, since he was the first adult novelist I read, as does Alvin Schwartz, who collected creepy-ass American folklore into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels. That series got my friends and I to start telling each other ghost stories, and that was my gateway into writing.
By Nino Cipri
Published October 15, 2019
Nino Cipri is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Cipri also earned an an MFA in fiction from the University of Kansas in 2019. Cipri’s Homesick won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize. On the horizon, Cipri’s novella Finna will be published by Tor.com in 2020.