Interviews

The Dangers of Utopia

An interview with Chana Porter, author of "The Seep."

Alien invasions are usually depicted in novels and films as violent, colonialist encounters. But in The Seep, playwright Chana Porter’s debut novel, the otherworldly beings that land on Earth are benevolent in nature. Instead of fighting with us, they help us to see the interconnectedness of all living things. The book is set in the near future, a few years after the Seep’s arrival. The bodiless aliens have taken away humanity’s pain and fears, and have given us the ability to transform our bodies in any way we please.

Most people welcome the Seep’s arrival, but the novel’s protagonist Trina, a fifty-year-old transgender woman, isn’t so sure that humanity has changed for the best. Back in her younger days (which would be our present day), bodies were hard to transform, and transformation was something you had to fight for.

I recently spoke with Porter about the novel’s treatment of personal identity and how living in a world where humans can change identities like shirts might have troubling repercussions. We also discussed what inspired The Seep and how the author’s work as a playwright shaped her novel writing.

Amy Brady

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea of an alien race called the Seep—and its radical effects on humanity—come from?

Chana Porter

I was excited by the idea of encountering a race that is incredibly alien to the way we think of personhood—no mouths to speak to us, no separate bodies to name and develop a distinct relationship with. The Seep does not experience emotions like we do, and likewise, doesn’t experience time linearly. I wanted to conceive an invasion story that doesn’t include our limited ideas about forced labor, breeding, war — all of those well-tread tropes. What if they wanted something very different?

Right now I’m feeling mired in the muck of our problems, as I’m sure you do too. The Seep is a thought experiment—what if everyone on the planet woke up to recognize the insanity we’ve wrought on each other, on our beautiful planet? In that way, The Seep is a metaphor for consciousness. I do believe we are interconnected, poetically and literally. I believe if we drop bombs on Iran, we will blow up our own foot, sooner or later. The violence we inflict on other people (even in a misplaced attempt for peace) finds its way back to us. There are no truly compartmentalized actions. You cannot be a good parent and sign an order to keep another person’s child in a cage. It is impossible. The Seep is in part my fantasy, the world I wanted to play in.

So I’m guess I’m saying I’m pro-Seep? Seep, 2020!

Amy Brady

Unlike many novels set in radically changed futures, yours isn’t entirely dystopian. In fact, humans are thriving and existing in a state of interconnectedness with other living beings in ways that many might consider downright utopian. Why depict the future this way? Are your own feelings about the future a mix of hope and melancholy?

Chana Porter 

My favorite settings for science fiction are not clear cut dystopias, but rather complicated futures with emotionally driven narratives. Delany’s Trouble on Triton is a great example, Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I set out to write a rather utopian story, in which different problems arise. I think there will always be conflict, and as Sarah Schulman says, conflict is not abuse.

As for the emotional tenor — I follow the feelings. I think logic is overrated and actually, in practice, underemployed. People make emotional decisions even when they think they’re using logic.

For my own feelings about the future…. There are some days when I don’t know how to be hopeful. I rage, and I mourn. I can’t believe I have to go to synagogue with armed guards at the door. I can’t believe there are children in concentration camps in our country, right now. As I write to you, Australia is burning. But I don’t believe in productive pessimism, nor do I believe in spiritual bypassing — to be numbly positive while the world burns down around us. I think we have to be incredibly, proactively hopeful. We have to recognize what is already lost and fiercely protect what we still have — which is a very beautiful planet that still has more than enough for everyone, if we decided to live that way.

That’s part of why I wrote The Seep. I don’t think it’s going to be a benevolent alien invasion, but there needs to be a huge leap forward in consciousness if we’re going to thrive in the future. Imagination is the first part of that — it has to be. We will not survive if we do not think creatively, expansively, critically. 

Climate change has already become a human rights issue with both refugees and environmental racism, but as we’re seeing in Australia, it will affect us all. Money will not insulate us from the future we are making. I hope that the consequences feel dire enough that we can make bold moves, before more is lost. Elect leaders who promise radical change. Hold corporations accountable. Address the wealth gap.

Amy Brady

A question posed throughout this novel is whether humans are still in fact human when so much of their pain and confusion and emotional hurt is stripped from them. Can you talk a bit about this theme? Is there value in maintaining the darker side of being human?

Chana Porter

While I believe in the possibility of a more gentle world, I also think pain, grief, disappointment, frustration, and loss are all essential human experiences. I’m not a ‘positive vibes only’ person. There is creativity, ingenuity, in suffering. There is beauty and meaning in feeling the whole range of human emotions.

An example: my partner has a young son — seven years old. And on a recent visit to another city, they went to the home of an old friend who has a young daughter. The daughter solemnly presented my partner’s son with a toy truck. He started to cry. This truck was his beloved toy that he had forgotten on his last visit when he was about 3 or 4. He was shocked. He sobbed in the car the whole way home, inconsolable. Not because he missed the truck, he said, but because he had forgotten all about something that used to mean the world to him. Essentially, he was mourning the end of that part of his childhood. This moves me. It feels so human! Resisting change is human too, and completely unavoidable. What a paradox we are.

So I think until we cease to experience time linearly, which I don’t imagine we will, we will continue to suffer. And that’s a good thing. Making mistakes. Mourning that we no longer want the things we used to want. There is an inherent vulnerability to being a thinking, feeling human being. This fragility is a great gift. It helps us to be empathic, to extend out from our own experiences. There are a lot of treasures in the darkness to bring to our art, to our relationships, and even to our public policy. If we embrace our own fragility, our own darkness, we no longer need to guard and protect ourselves all the time. And then, I believe we are able to embrace the stranger because we aren’t afraid of our own selves.

Amy Brady

Where did the character of Trina come from? Is she based on anyone in real life?

Chana Porter

I wanted to write a butch transgender woman for a lot of reasons, but first I wrote the kind of character I wanted to spend time with. She’s whip smart, she’s funny, she’s vulnerable, she’s a bit of a brooder. I essentially wrote my ideal leading lady. She isn’t based on anyone in real life.

I wanted to write a trans character who was at home in her body, who is sexy, successful in work. Someone with deep friendships, who is happily married. I wanted to highlight that gender expression and gender identity are different — Trina does not need to look femme to be a woman. 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. 

And then I wanted to make her suffer. Feeling great loss makes us remember the depth of our connections. How sad would it be, to have a character who could not be affected by losing her spouse? I wanted Trina to really unravel, and not do it on anyone else’s timeline. Her loss is messy and big, which I think is another sign of a life well lived.

Amy Brady 

Before writing The Seep you were writing plays. What inspired the shift in genre?

Chana Porter 

This actually brings us back to our conversation about meaningful suffering. I started trying my hand at fiction in 2013 because I was so incredibly frustrated that my plays weren’t being produced. A play is very much like a blueprint to a larger experience. It’s supposed to be collaborative between designers, director, actors — not a literary object. So I became attracted to the simplicity of writing fiction. I could write a manuscript and even if it wasn’t published, I could give it to a friend and communicate. It was complete in itself. I’m very, very happy that my book is making its way out there far and wide, but I couldn’t plan for that. And eventually, my plays started getting produced. I kept writing both plays and novels in tandem, switching between the two. I still work like that. I find that shifting between genres makes me very productive. They are very different beasts.

Right now I’m finishing my next novel and writing a bunch of short stories, while developing an opera libretto with a great composer. Several plays of mine, both new and old, are being workshopped by theaters around the country. I’m very proud I turned my frustration into a different career and at the same time, kept going at being a playwright.

Amy Brady

Finally, and this is beyond the scope of The Seep, but I know you’re a co-founder of The Octavia Project. Would you tell our readers a bit about this program?

Chana Porter 

The Octavia Project is a science fiction based summer institute in Brooklyn I created six years ago with science educator Meghan McNamara, where teen girls and non-binary youth from underserved neighborhoods gather together to think critically, create expansively, and experiment joyously with traditionally intimidating subjects like computer programing, circuitry, biology, all under the umbrella of world building. Instead of saying, Hey y’all, we’re going to learn HTML today, we write stories and then say, Do you want to learn how to turn your story into a video game? Then we teach them HTML, and they’re coding before they realize it.

Architecture and city planning are important components of the program, involving skill-building with many applications to be sure, but more importantly (in my mind), they are tools for radical critical thinking. Instead of accepting the world as it is, we use science fiction world building as a way to look back at our own reality. 

Guest teachers from the SF community like N.K. Jemisin and Ann VanderMeer knit their expertise into our world-building science fiction curriculum. Our Summer Institute’s rotating roster of guest teachers showcases women of color in fields of art, writing, architecture, graphic design, computer programming, city planning, biology, and more, exposing our youth to a wide variety of career paths and critical 21st century skills.

If we truly believe in the radical, transformational power of science fiction, we need to make sure that people from marginalized communities, often bearing the brunt of the disparity in our country, are given the space and support to unleash their visions and their voices on our world.

FICTION
The Seep
By Chana Porter
Soho Press
January 21, 2020

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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