Thursday, 17 July 2014

Interview: Sandra McDonald


This week saw the publishing of Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection. Dozois's annual collections are among the oldest and foremost of the genre, and we're happy to have no less than two stories from We See a Different Frontier on it: Sunny Moraine's A Heap of Broken Images and Sandra McDonald's Fleet. A while ago, I interviewed Sandra about life in a different cultural environment, gender identity and colonialism. Here it is:



1. Where are you from originally? Did you live in other cities and/or countries? Where are you living now? Are you doing something now besides writing or are you a full-time writer? 

SANDRA MCDONALD - I’m a transplanted New Englander living in North Florida, and of Florida I’ve heard it said that the more north you go, the more South you get. Which is a roundabout way of saying there’s a large cultural gap between where I was and where I am now, and I got here through a similarly roundabout route of living in New York, England, Rhode Island, Virginia, Guam, Newfoundland, Key West, Connecticut, and California. Every new place is a discovery and delight. I don’t think I’d be a very good at living in the same house on the same hill in the same town for most of my life. Also, I’d probably be very bad at staying home and writing every day. I teach creative writing and other English classes at area colleges, write novels and short stories, publish some of my own work digitally, and feed every stray animal in my neighborhood. I’ve just passed my first decade of being a published author, and that includes 8 published novels and more than 70 published short stories. It’s all going very well.


2. You were a U.S. Navy commissioned officer working abroad. Where did you travel to and what did you see during your Navy time that might have inspired you to write Fleet?

SMD - What was fascinating to me about Guam in the 1990’s was how Japanese newlyweds would come to Guam to honeymoon “in America” but most Americans had no idea where or what Guam was, or its role in World War II. My apartment in the village of Yigo wasn’t far from the South Pacific Memorial Park, where Japanese soldiers killed themselves while American troops retook the island in 1944. For recreation, many of us would go “boonie-stomping” in the jungle and find abandoned tanks or other relics of war. Guam is lovely, rugged island stepped with a history of invasion and colonialism, and seemed like a natural fit when I saw that you were seeking out tales of post-colonialism.


3. Do you speak other languages than English? What was your experience in bridging the gap between your culture and a different one whenever you were abroad? What were the challenges? (Both in work and in
leisure)

SMD - Two years ago I was in Paris when a lovely old couple stopped to ask me, in French, how to get to the Eiffel Tower. To their amusement, the only sentence I could say in French was “I don’t speak French.” I know a smattering of helpful travel words in different languages but nowhere near enough for a long conversation in a pub. I’m actually sad to be monolingual, but traveling with English-only skills seems to be easier these days than it was when I was an exchange student based in London. Bridging a gap between cultures can be done through music, food, visual arts and other means, so I try not to let my lack of language keep me from interacting with locals and new places.


4. Gender identity and colonialism: two hard issues to tackle, and you managed to get them both very skillfully in your story. Why did you choose to tell the story of Magahet/Isa, and in such a setting?

SMD - She’s a transgender character following in the footsteps of Diana Comet, the titular heroine of my first collection of short stories that won a Lambda Literary award, was a Booklist Editor’s choice, and became an American Library Association “Over The Rainbow” book.  How we define, defend and debate gender in the U.S. is fascinating to me, and certainly there are clashes between cultures where gender is rigidly enforced vs where gender variety is protected.  For years now i’ve tried to explore those schisms and honor the men and women who live outside the boxes we try to stuff them in. First and foremost in Fleet, I wanted to write about how the post-apocalyptic residents of Guam, so cut off from the world, would prepare for the inevitable return of outsiders in a way opposite that of the Pacific cargo cults after World War II. That led me into an exploration of its tragic colonial past. Isa’s birth gender was a secondary consideration. The sexual harassment she suffers is a offshoot of what it’s like to be a woman in our own age, but I carefully set up that she has a loving husband, strong friendships, and the support of her community.


5. "Stories on the themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism focused on the viewpoints of the colonized," as it was written in the pitch for WE SEE A DIFFERENT FRONTIER. Do you think your story is about revenge? Stories written by the colonized are (or should be) always about revenge? Or there is a glimmer of hope for understanding in a postcolonial world?


SMD - I don’t see it as a story about revenge, but instead about the extraordinary measures one society takes to protect itself for as long as possible from the world that has always done it harm. In my own personal belief system, which is mostly Buddhist, revenge is pointless. We only harm ourselves when we harm others. But for civilizations that have been enslaved and destroyed by others, revenge fantasies can be normal or cathartic. My hope for the locals in Fleet is that they preserve their lifestyle as long as possible, given the scarcity of resources and lasting environmental damage, before change washes ashore again.

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