Wednesday 18 July 2018

Interview with Petra Kuppers

It is our pleasure to welcome to the blog Petra Kuppers, author of The Road Under the Bay and River Crossing in TFF, and of Playa Song, part of our disability-themed anthology Accessing the Future. We asked Petra to tell us more about her work as disability activist and performance artist, and about her new publication Ice Bar; a collection of short stories on disability, LGBTQ experiences and the future; pain, myths and the body; climate change, access, and non-realist embodied and enminded difference in science fiction, fantasy, horror and literary work.

Petra Kuppers, an internationally active disability scholar and artist, is a recipient of the American Society for Theatre Research’s best dance/theatre book award, and the NationalWomen’s Caucus for the Arts’ Award for Arts and Activism. She received nominations for a Pushcart (from the Dunes Review) and for the Best of the Net Anthology (from Anomaly/Drunken Boat). Petra is a Professor of Performance Studies in the University of Michigan’s English and Women’s Studies Departments, and she teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. She’s a disability culture activist, a wheelchair dancer, and a community performance artist.

TFF: You are a professor of Performance Art and part of a performance and dance collective. Movement seems to be something very important in your life. How did it start?

Petra Kuppers: I think the fact that my love of movement has lasted into adulthood has to do with being a disabled woman of size who loves to move and be in her body! If everybody around you tells you, “this is not for you,” it’s quite easy to go all contrary and make that something the center of your life. That’s certainly the case with me. I remember being in my late teens in Germany, in hospital, waking up from one of my knee operations. The doctor told me “I am sorry, but you won’t dance again.” Maybe that doctor was doing me a weird kind of favor, offering me a challenge I could not resist. I continued to dance, explored Contact Improvisation, Butoh, Laban Creative Movement, and many somatic modalities. These days, I dance in a different form: five-minute dances, little engagements with specific environments, which then lead to dances with words. I often free-write after movement, and these little site-specific movement/writing nuggets become the seed of a story. That’s the way most Ice Bar stories were born. Site-specificity is still central to most of the stories: sitting on a wheelchair ramp in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by the Rio Grande in New Mexico, or on a barrier island in Georgia.

The Olimpias: The Asylum Project  at Judson
Church/Movement Research. Photo Ian Douglas
TFF: Do you think that performing on stage holds a particular value for people belonging to minorities and marginalised communities?

PK: Yes. On stages, we can show ourselves as well as the wider world our own beauty, pain and depth. I am mainly a street/park performer, which means that I work with fellow disabled people in public environments rather than on stages and in galleries. So few disabled people have (cultural) access to those spaces. Having fun while disabled in public feels like a very powerful way of shifting stereotypes around disability. The same is true with fiction: disabled authors tend to write about everyday life differently from someone ‘imagining’ what it would be like to be disabled. Non-disabled people often make a particular disability (and often its cure) a major plot point. Few disabled writers do that in the same way… for most of us, disability is part of our make-up, not the central feature of it. We can get on with character and plot development in a different way, if we are not caged in by non-disabled stereotypes. We can have fun… in stories as well as on stages.

TFF: Reading praise for your upcoming collection Ice Bar, I was fascinated by the adjectives used to describe your style: “gemlike”, “psychedelically nightmarish”, “gritty”, “fabulist” and many more. What is the most unexpected description of your writing that you have come across?

PK: What an excellent (as unexpected) question! One of my readers wrote in an Amazon review about me being ‘an explorer.’ That seemed a fabulous and surprising way of thinking about what I am doing in Ice Bar: I write as an ethnographer of disability culture, approaching new forms (poetry/performance/dance/fiction) all the time in my ongoing journey to chart cultural ways of understanding difference…with ’disability’ being just one of these borderzones of difference.

TFF: In all three of your Ice Bar stories originally published by TFF, water seems to become a space for transition, either into other places or into other identities and states of mind. Many of the stories in your anthology also explicitly reference to water—what makes this such an interesting and flexible narrative setting?

PK: This goes back to being a disabled woman. I live with pain and fatigue, and water is my dancerly medium. That’s where I can move, can shift my heavy body easily, can gyrate and twist in the ways I want. It’s my science fiction fantasy of low gravity! When I was a little one, my mother, who also had a pain-related disability, would go to thermal springs to help her pain, and I have inherited that habit. I will travel far for a good warm mineral soak for my aching bones. During the writing of the Ice Bar stories, a different kind of water pain was also with me: the protest actions around the oil pipelines, water protectors, in particular the indigenous women who walked the rivers and reminded all of us of our dependence and love for life-giving water. Each day I wrote Ice Bar, I checked in with their news stories and Facebook pages, and joined the protests in my own way.

TFF: The stories in Ice Bar seem to explore a larger than usual range of genres. Was that a deliberate experiment or did you just follow your multiform literary inspiration?

PK: It was deliberate. I love reading horror and dark fantasy, but it’s sometimes hard to be a feminist and queer woman and do that with real enjoyment. So I looked to feminist, queer, solarpunk, afrofuturist and other inspirations, and wrote myself into the interstices of genres, from cli-fi to science fiction and fairy tale retelling, from fabulist erotics to contemporary myth-making. All slippery genres which I approached from social justice perspectives. One of the books I had with me a lot during the writing of Ice Bar was Octavia’s Brood—that’s the kind of meta-genre and community work that inspired me.

Thank you Petra for being our guest. We wish you the best of luck and we look forward to read all the stories in Ice bar!

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Invitation: Making Monsters book launch

Please join us to celebrate the launch of this speculative and classical anthology from Publishing and the Institute of Classical Studies.

Thursday September 6th 2018, 6-7.30pm.

2nd floor lobby, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.

Dress: Monster-themed costumes are encouraged!

Monday 2 July 2018

Recommend: literary places

In many stories, place is so important that it is almost a character: think of the number of science fiction or fantasy novels where the name of the city is in the title of the book itself (even leaving aside City of Illusions, The City and the City, City of Brass…). In this month’s installment of our recommendation post series, we’re asking readers to tell us about their favorite literary place—fictional, fantastic, or a real place given new life in literature, what place do you wish existed (or are you glad doesn’t); what place feels more real than home? To prime the pump, we’ve asked a few authors, editors and other friends the same question, and their suggestions are below. If any of these inspire you—or you’re disappointed your favorite isn’t mentioned—please leave a comment telling us about a literary place you think is worth visiting.

Vanessa Fogg (blog, twitter)

Sofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was a revelation to me. This rich, strange, gorgeously written book introduces readers to a secondary fantasy world which is not based on medieval Europe, but which draws, instead, from Africa and the Middle East. The main character, Jevick, is a naïve young man who falls in love from afar with the Empire of Olondria and then journeys through it, getting into plenty of trouble along the way.

Yet despite the wonders of Olondria, it’s Jevick’s homeland of the Tea Islands which affects me most deeply. The Tea Islands, a tropical land of heavy rains and blue hills, of rivers and jungles and “shimmering deltas, the dank-smelling lagoons, a landscape flat and liquid and loved by birds.” A world rendered with such naturalistic detail that it feels utterly real. The Tea islands was my first encounter with a fantasy world set in the tropics. And that has a special resonance for me because my parents came from a tropical country, although in Southeast Asia (Thailand), not Africa. Samatar’s book made me think, “I want to do this, too. I also want to create secondary world fantasy set in a non-European world.” Her book is one of the few that has truly changed my approach to writing.

Subodhana Wijeyeratne (Hulks; Stone Lotus)

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracks. So goes Mervyn Peake's description of one of the most fascinating and compelling creations in modern fantasy: the endless and darkened reaches of the city-castle of Gormenghast. The story of his trilogy's protagonist, Titus Groan, unfolds amidst its ancient and dreary halls. Teeming with a sort of madness that seems to inhabit the walls of the place, as well as the characters themselves, it is a creation that for sheer aesthetic power should, in my opinion, be up there with Middle Earth.

Peake was raised in China for a while, and was heavily influenced by the monuments erected by an ancient kingdom in the vicinity of his childhood home. The central conceit of Gormenghast derives from the feelings these buildings evoked. Timeless, ancient, and melancholy, they were on one hand magnificent. Yet on the other they also seemed to chain the present to a lost past by their very presence, to crush the now with the knowledge of the vast reaches of the then. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm, writes Peake, of Titus Groan's birth—but it could be of anyone's.

Urša Vidic (Dalmatian elves)

The city of Armilla is composed entirely of water pipes. Young people might think of a computer game or an old screensaver, but the town itself is much more emotional than that, it has all the colours of metal and a fresh wind whistling and piping on the pipes that are filled with very tangible water. It is not clear if the city is something that remained from the past or a place that was built for the future, but now it is inhabited by water creatures, by nymphs and naiads. They always knew very well how to travel along underground veins and so they feel quite at home in these pipelines that are so full of living water and surprising inventions. Before they moved here, they might have been offended, since people misused water so terribly, so it is possible that the city was built for them as a sculpture to apologize and express a newly-found veneration for them, or they were the ones who have simply driven out all the people. We learn of this place from one of the stories that Marco Polo told Kublai Khan and of course he was lying, but you never know with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Damien Krsteski (blog; Faster Tomorrow)

Aurora, a moon in the Tau Ceti planetary system, humanity's second attempt at a home from Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant novel, ended up being more than a science-fictional escape for me; when the book came out, I’d just moved to another country, and lying on the mattress in the middle of my empty, freshly-painted apartment—my suitcase in a corner, waiting to be unpacked—I had only Freya and her Ship for company.

And Aurora didn’t turn out to be their promised land. It bristled, and it made the humans sick, and ultimately it shook them off. Freya decided to return home. Because, she realized, there is no such thing as a home away from home: there is only home, and away from home.

When Freya ended her journey back on Earth, I closed the book and left my apartment to walk this foreign city, and I couldn’t help seeing daubs and smears of Aurora everywhere around me: the strange, the new, scaring me off. In time I began pining for Freya’s imagined Earth, too, safe and inviting, but as I adapted to my new surroundings, Aurora and Earth merged and winked out, and I started appreciating—liking, even—where I was, and soon I realized there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

Hella Grichi (blog; twitter)

A place which would be really cool to visit nowadays is Gilead. There would be something so fascinating and empowering to see the boatless rivers and the bloodstains on the walls being scrubbed by handmaids from yesterday’s executions, something so haunting about the dangling corpses and the limited stock at the supermarket. Maybe it would feel so good to know that, now, going home means facing the spouse you chose who will rock you softly to sleep to your favorite movie or curl up with you and two books that you recently bought at the bookshop with the octagonal window covered in evergreens. How enchanting to know you can visit a doctor that shakes your hand, wear the dress with the fox patterns and kiss the girl you like, sitting next to her at school and doing your homework together. Gilead is a dystopian world that is unfathomable for us but if we do not stay alert and raise our fists in anger, maybe we’ll soon enough don green, red and blue robes and remember days at the beach and trips to the doctor as a remote memory of days impossible to retrieve in a world as sterile as the uterus of a commander’s wife.

Valeria Vitale (TFF bio; City of a Thousand Names)

The city of Prague described by Czech writer Leo Perutz in By Night, under the Stone Bridge probably has a lot in common with the actual capital of Czechia, but they are not the same thing. Perutz’s Prague is a place where, especially at night, the boundaries between past and present, reality and dreams become softer, and as easy to cross as one of the city’s streets or bridges. The buildings are still impregnated with the memories of things that (may have) happened centuries ago, especially during the few years when the melancholic and bizarre Emperor Rudolph had moved the capital of the Holy Roman Empire to Prague. In this Prague it wouldn’t be strange to meet angels, golems, powerful rabbis, or dodgy astrologers, still roaming the streets of their city. Perutz’s book is a collection of interconnected stories, all revolving around a city that, in my imagination, is surrounded by an aura of mystery and magic. I have never been to Prague, the real one, but somehow I feel like I have already met the statues on the Carlo Bridge, and that I could navigate the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter without getting lost. Sometimes I even think that I should never actually go to Prague, and keep enjoying only her ghostly and enchanted literary reflection.

Now we want to hear from you! Please tell us about your favorite literary place in the comments.