Alena McNamara lives in Boston and works in a library near a river. Her stories have appeared in Kaleidoscope and Crossed Genres Magazine. She is a graduate of the 2008 Odyssey Workshop and Viable Paradise XV, and can be found online via alenamcnamara.com.
“Starling Road” is a story about imperialism, resistance and an inevitable, unintended consequence of both: people falling in love across cultures.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“Starling Road” rushed out of me after a six-month post-college gap of not writing fiction. Looking back I can see the roots of it in two classes I took my last semesters in undergrad: one on human geography and the other on post-colonial theory. Each only scratched the surface of its subject, but there’s a lot of thoughts from those classes tangled up underneath the surface of “Starling Road”—thoughts about the nation-state, the concept of sovereignty over a piece of land, and how that’s harming the humans who live on this planet. Chiefly the harm rolls down onto those who aren’t “citizens” or who get caught between borders, but we are all limited by these boundaries. Thoughts, too, about the center – periphery model so many of us have of society and the earth. I don’t have any answers but I have a lot of questions, and I thought someone should ask them of epic secondary-world fantasy.
And then Starling and Nisima turned up, and suddenly I was writing the most solely romantic story I’ve composed in my life.
What does secondary-world epic fantasy based most clearly on the Roman Empire have to do with the future of the earth?
Here’s the thing: often when we think about the past, we attach some very contemporary, very modern perspectives to it. Even when we think about the past in the places we live, or where our fairly recent ancestors lived, these perspectives are typically not justified and they limit what we can see. So, for example, in medieval and early modern Europe there was no “nation state”, no concept of a government having absolute sovereignty over a particular patch of ground. Essentially what you controlled—if you were in power—was the people who paid taxes to you. I don’t want to generalize too far, but certainly for myself, fully and deeply imagining that framework reorients all kinds of relationships I take for granted in everyday life.
And yet, most secondary-world medieval or early modern European-based fantasy takes the concept of the nation-state for granted, when in fact it’s quite a recent invention. And many of the ideas I see passed around for the future of the planet are based on that too. It’s hard to imagine a different future if that’s what you think the present is like and what the past was like—if you think that that’s what it’s always like, no questions! Writing a different kind of secondary-world fantasy is a way into that conundrum for me. If I can depict a different kind of relationship with government, with land, with natural resources, then maybe people will begin to realize that those different relationships did exist—still do exist—and can exist in the future too.
What do you think is fiction’s (or poetry’s) role in changing minds, making people think and feel differently? Do writers have a responsibility to engage creatively with humanity’s problems or encourage their readers to do so? (If it helps, consider Paolo Bacigalupi’s answer to this in his recent Grist interview.)
I got into this a bit above. Writing secondary-world fantasy that does not hew to the concept of nation-states may seem like an exceptionally roundabout way to change minds. But narrative is a powerful tool, and stories are a way that a lot of people learn about the world and about what can (or will or did) exist in that world. Personally, fiction carried a great deal of weight in my childhood—I was homeschooled for a number of years when I was young, and I spent much of that time reading. Reading fiction, particularly genre fiction. That reading shaped my young brain and it still resonates strongly for me.
I’m not going to say that the general population of writers has a responsibility to engage with anything in particular, any more than any group of people does. But I do feel that what I put out in the world as a writer should reflect what I believe in and what I know. I have Ellen Kushner to thank for that—she asked me some pointed questions during a critique at the Odyssey Workshop back in 2008 and it’s stuck with me ever since.
What’s your own relationship to the earth like?
Complicated. Not least because of a constant uncertainty on what “the earth” means—is it my concept of the planet? the dirt I would dig into if I had a garden? the number of trees I wish I lived beneath? the land that I live on? In the story, Starling’s communicative, personal relationship with stone and the mountain is something so sacred. I had (and have) a deeply personal relationship with the landscape of Minnesota, where I grew up, but I wouldn’t say I have a sacred relationship with any part of the earth. That’s my loss, I think.
Is humanity doomed?
Like the question about earth, I want to argue with the terms here. What’s “humanity”? What qualifies as doom? I don’t know that I’m qualified to judge either of those definitions. I do think that unless things change radically, the path things seem to be headed down will have unfortunate consequences for a lot of humans. Can writing stories fix that? Not in the short term, that’s for sure—but then, it’s an open question what in the short term could.
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet No. 33, a theme issue about humanity’s relationship with the earth guest edited by me, is available in 30% recycled dead tree form from Small Beer Press and indie bookstores near you. The ebook version is at Weightless Books.