The stories in Anita Felicelli’s new short fiction collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, October 2018), explore the tension between honoring traditional norms and creating one’s own community and identities. Winner of the Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Contest, the collection straddles lines between cultures, castes, genders, and voices, to open the reader’s vision to the complexity of human experience in the modern world.
A contributor to The Rumpus, Felicelli’s short stories have also appeared in The Normal School, Stockholm Review, Kweli Journal, Juked, and other journals. She has contributed essays and reviews to the New York Times, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has been anthologized and nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Born in South India, she grew up in Northern California, where she lives with her family.
Anita and I recently spoke in person and corresponded about countries both imagined and material, the importance of non-rational insight, and the ambiguous and unexpected effects of exercising personal freedom.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about the first story in the collection, “Deception.” The pieces in this collection, including this one, have elements of magical realism (at least, let’s characterize them that way). How do you use magical realism in this story, and what work can it do in literature in general?
Anita Felicelli: “Deception” is a mash-up of two narratives. First, it references as a folktale in India—several different versions in fact, from the different cultures within India—about a woman marrying a tiger. In some versions, the tiger is killed by the wife’s brothers. In others, the tiger is killed, hidden in dosas, and eaten. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story with an unhappy ending that has fascinated me since college.
Second, there’s the factual narrative of an FMRI lie detection machine. I came across an article in 2008 about the use of an FMRI lie detection machine in a murder case in Pune, India. A woman was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic based on the evidence from the machine, even though there were questions about whether the machine was accurate. As a former litigator who’s read a lot on how unreliable memory and witness testimony is for purposes of criminal appellate work, I found this Orwellian and nightmarish. Those two threads congealed into a story that contains the themes of the rest of the book.
Rumpus: The two threads embody magic and realism respectively. What can we take from these themes into the rest of the book?
Felicelli: I think the threads encapsulate two ideas that run through the collection. First, there’s the idea of reinvention: can someone actually reinvent herself? Do particular societies restrict reinvention to certain people? Is identity essential? The possibilities and limits of reinvention are tested throughout the collection.
Second, “Deception” plays out the rupturing of standard, social scripts. I’m interested in both the loneliness that might result from the rupture and the idea that this freedom might still be worthwhile, might mean everything, in spite of the loneliness. I think everyone has prescriptive scripts imposed on them by the culture or religion or worldview or caste background with which they were raised. But there are quasi-divine moments in which people break free of those limits—sometimes to poor ends, but perhaps in other cases to rise above the script and create something new or more real.
Rumpus: From that story onwards through the rest of the collection, non-human animals, real and imagined, are a huge presence in the book. We have the tiger married to a human woman, elephants who play polo, yali, the indri, a fossa, all kinds of birds. How do the wild things speak to you as a writer?
Felicelli: I’ve always been drawn to animals as a kind of a counterpoint to the human, modern world. The notion of a hierarchy, that animals are somehow lower than people has always struck me as a very strange, self-serving one. We often see animals portrayed as “less than” humans, a remnant of the Renaissance hierarchy of angels above humans above animals. It might be just the mood I’m in today, but I see the hierarchy the other way: animals being the top of the hierarchy (if there’s a hierarchy at all), then humans, then angels. Angels are the lowest, with animals at the top.
Rumpus: I have to ask about this. Angels are lower than humans?
Felicelli: My thinking is that angels are a fantasy; they’re nothing but our manmade ideals. They’re inconsequential, wholly of the mind. The Enlightenment tells us that rationality is a good thing, but rational thought has led us into environmental degradation, and doesn’t take into account the greater importance of the wild world viscerally existing at all. Also, ideals can’t account for the messiness and the murky grey-scale of the real world and humans. Small, intimate interactions are the ones we should be privileging.
Rumpus: Much of your fiction is peopled with adventurous women who break boundaries, often in a completely matter-of-fact way. When women rupture their scripts, they have a huge impact both on their own characters and on the people around them. How do you see women breaking boundaries (adventurers surmounting those scripts) affecting both fiction and human character outside of fiction?
Felicelli: Many social scripts prescribe that women should behave submissively and defer to a set of social dictates. My gut instinct is to privilege rebels. I wanted these particular stories to interrogate whether breaking scripts always yields good results for an individual, especially when society continues on with the same script and there’s a risk of excommunication, of real, unhinged loneliness. Sometimes individuals experience a lot more hardship than they would have if they’d just colored inside the lines.
In the book, the women who break boundaries are often a little too optimistic about how that’s going to go. Pretty often the kind of person who really feels the freedom to shatter norms, to reinvent themselves, has at least a certain amount of privilege. Due to the blinders of that privilege, they may not understand beforehand how harsh the consequences will be for breaking the rules.
So I’m not unconditionally cheerleading for total individual agency in this book. I’m just wondering about the creation of a more adventurous society, a society that embraces a much broader freedom for all people.
In the story “Hema and Kathy,” Hema breaks a really strict script. She’s a Brahmin-American girl, raised in the professional class, who wants something more intimate and real. So she falls in love and thinks that this unexpected and unapproved love will help her escape an antiseptic reality. If things worked out the way she thought they would, she would have gone on to have her soccer career and to have love, too. But actually the decision to leave the privilege and wealth she was born into has more mixed consequences.
Rumpus: These young women, Hema and Kathy, are set up as the two pathways: freedom or staying on script. Kathy mourns her lost friendship with Hema and the path she, Kathy, could have taken. Hema is somewhat happy, but her choices cost her a career she really wanted. Does that mean there’s no way to win?
Felicelli: I don’t think there is any winning, in that sense. But that doesn’t mean that individual agency is meaningless, of course. The reason for agency mattering is not the end result—it’s not whether Hema or Kathy achieves a particular consequence from their decision. The act itself of breaking free from society’s script is a big act, and in and of itself it’s worth pursuing and worth writing about.
Rumpus: How do you think the idea of personal choice plays out in American fiction; how is the connection between choice and end result portrayed?
Felicelli: In some American literary fiction the choices are of a different scale than they are in this book. The characters are often Americans with both white privilege and at least a middle class socioeconomic status. Those characters’ choices aren’t as clearly connected to the possibility of total loss. You don’t often see characters losing their entire tribe or family or community over whom they love or whether or not they go to college. But decisions like that in other communities can be emotionally devastating. The relationship between choice and reward is a complicated one.
Rumpus: As people writing from a perspective that might have a non-dominant non-traditional viewpoint, our characters are not necessarily default “American white guys.” How do we help people who do not share a non-traditional viewpoint see value in reading other perspectives? How do you bridge the gap between character and reader, or is that even our job?
Felicelli: I’ll be honest—I don’t think that’s our job as writers. I don’t think our job should be to be as concerned with audience as the media would like us to be. The work I care about as a fiction writer and also as a critic drives towards truths, not the whims of the market or the demands of a particular ideology.
But I should acknowledge that my answer is complicated by an unusual background. As someone who grew up in a multi-caste home, an inter-faith home, a middle-class person among mostly upper-class people, I’m compromised by being on the margins of many groups, able to see quite a lot, but never belonging, not an insider to any. The only other person I know in real life with even close to my identity is my sibling. So, helping readers into a new group-based perspective might be more crucial to authors for whom being part of a larger community is a strong, crucial component of their own identities. For those authors, there might be more of a natural push to attract an audience that needs to be engaged and translate the group positively, either for readers who don’t share that identity or readers looking for mirrors. I don’t even have the possibility of writing in this way. I know many authors genuinely feel that their identities are a solid thing from which they write, and I absolutely respect that, but that’s never been the case for me.
Rumpus: Several of your characters, both in this collection and in your other works, have complicated identities, with backgrounds that mingle races, socioeconomic statuses, castes, and nationalities. What would you like readers to keep in mind with respect to the growing South Asian population in the US?
Felicelli: I’m not going to speak for South Asian Americans because even countries within South Asia are very different from each other, but I’m willing to say that the relationship Indian Americans have to power varies enormously based on their caste. What I’ve learned over decades of trying to ignore caste is that pretending there are not cultural, material differences based on caste when writing stories allows the most advantaged, conservative Indian Americans who buy into the “model minority” stereotype to indulge in nonsensical thinking. Also a craft problem arises when Brahmin writers and their editors do not realize those of other caste and religious backgrounds eat different foods, speak differently, worship differently, have different reference points for legends and myths, have vastly different political interests.
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
Felicelli: I’m working on a new novel about technology, immortality, and family history. A main character is an inventor who moves to Silicon Valley from a village in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Rumpus: Is there going to be that magical or mystical element in the novel?
Felicelli: There’s a speculative element, a memory machine. I’m starting to think there will always be a speculative element in anything I write. For me, the things in your imagination, in your mind, are as real as the external environments into which you are placed.