Anita Felicelli is the author of Chimerica: A Novel (forthcoming from WTAW Press) and the short story collection Love Songs for A Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press), which won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Anita’s stories have appeared in The Normal School, Joyland, The Rumpus, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, and elsewhere. Her essays, reviews, and criticism have appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Slate, Salon, SF Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Babble, Romper, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She graduated from UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a Voices of Our Nations alum. Her work has placed as a finalist in multiple Glimmer Train contests and received a Puffin Foundation grant, two Greater Bay Area Journalism awards, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She was born in a city in South India and grew up in the Bay Area, where she lives with her spouse and three children.
Sarah Stone: Your fiction has an exceptionally rigorous, weird, unsentimental approach both to the magical and to realism. Where and how have your reading and life experiences led you into doing magical realist work?
Anita Felicelli: I suspect this approach is because I was left mostly to my own devices as a child—I was largely raised by books. I was drawn as a teenager to Andre Breton’s idea that dreams should take precedence over logic. I encountered poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud and painters like Dali and Magritte and Odilon Redon, and found those poets and artists more captivating than the ones I’d encountered in school. In college, I was most drawn to films by Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau etc. Deepening a natural inclination towards surrealism and symbolism, I spent about eight years in my twenties as a recluse. With severe sleep difficulties and two dogs as my only companions, I read as much magic realist, absurdist, existentialist, fabulist literature as I could – work by Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Viktor Pelevin, Andre Gide, Alberto Moravia, Eugene Ionesco, Milan Kundera, Silvina Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Italo Calvino. Often these titles were recommended in lists my now-husband would send me.
Even today, I think my standards for literature and what literature should do to a reader, the way they should unhinge the reader, tend to be more in alignment with the aims of those books than of traditional MFA course curriculums, with their emphasis on domestic realism. But, with a degree in British literature and many, many American MFA-style workshops over twenty years and since most of the books I’m assigned for review have been realism, I’ve developed a secondary affinity for realism, as well. I think our writing tends to take on whatever forms move us most as readers.
In Chimerica, Maya, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is an ambitious lawyer who’s alone at the novel’s beginning, her husband having left her and taken their children. As with so many of the women in your fiction, she seems beautifully balanced between complicity and vulnerability. In this tense conversation with Spencer, her boss, you give a sense of the wildness of her internal and external worlds:
“Where is this going?” I asked, feeling increasingly like prey—my fingertips were electric and I wanted to run, but I kept myself planted in my seat. Sit still, sit still, conceal your emotions. I started to perspire. Something dark was upon me.
Through the plate-glass window, seagulls were circling the sky like toy birds on a baby’s mobile. A siren howled as a fire truck rattled by and turned the corner. I tried to think of a way to fix whatever had broken in my relationship with Spencer.
What roles do internal reflection and external description play in this book, and in your work as a whole?
I love to play with the balance between internal and external information, so I’m thrilled you noticed the balance. While writing Chimerica, I was particularly interested in external setting as a mirror for internal states. I tried to create a congruity between Maya’s emotional landscape and her physical landscape. I thought the best way to produce a real dream state for a reader was to emphasize the ways in which the emotional landscape and physical landscape of this book are congruent, in harmony, to allow what Maya notices in the world to serve as a metaphor for how she feels. I made that choice partly because her actions are different from what she’s thinking in many situations. So, there’s already one layer of incongruity, the incongruity between what’s thinking and how she feels she needs to behave to get what she wants. I didn’t want that one layer of incongruity to be muddled by another layer of external description having nothing to do with either her emotions or actions. In other books, I’ve wanted to complicate the relationship between the internal and external landscape a little more. There can be a pleasurable irony where the internal and external landscapes are dissonant.
Early in the book, a lemur breaks out of a mural and winds up in Maya’s care. He’s one of the most unexpected, memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. He’s so animal and also such an individual. And Maya is nearly as startled as we are when she meets him:
I thought for a moment that the lemur had escaped from the nearby zoo, but he was much too large, not quite the size of an adult human, but over four feet—far larger than your average housecat. My skin crawled—he was familiar and vulnerable as a child and yet so completely inhuman.
“Took you long enough to notice my existence,” said the lemur.
His solemn amber eyes were unblinking. His intonation was musical, but it faded at the end of the phrase. He stretched his black furry arms wide and leaned back against the fence with his white furry belly exposed, like he wanted to sun himself. His black hairy hands—or were they paws?—were covered with mud and grass.
At first I couldn’t speak. What I said next, I said to cover up my surprise, because, like most trial attorneys, I hated the sensation of being startled or made to reveal surprise. It feels like losing control, and if you don’t have control, you’re open to all sorts of hostile maneuvers and attacks. “How can I help you?”
Did he always talk? How did you find his voice? Was he always a lemur? Can you talk about the role of animals in your work?
The lemur was always a talking lemur, and he visited my imagination with his voice fully formed. I visited Madagascar in 2008 in connection with my cousin’s wedding in South Africa, and became obsessed with indri, which are endangered. In Anna Kavan’s dystopian Ice, the narrator is enraptured by indri and says. “With their enchanting other-world voices, their gay, affectionate, innocent ways, they had become for me symbols of life as it could be on earth, if man’s destructiveness, violence and cruelty were eliminated.” Rereading Ice this year, it’s hard not to think this sentence might have inspired Chimerica back in 2011, without me consciously realizing it at the time. In the penultimate draft of Chimerica in 2015, I considered writing a revision in which the lemur didn’t talk because I thought it might feel more fablelike for him not to speak, but I decided against a revision of that kind. I thought the lemur’s speech patterns were a good, anti-capitalist counterpoint to both the law and Maya’s striving personality.
Animals, all of them, are a lifelong fascination of mine. When I was little, my grandmother visited from India, bearing Amar Chitra Katha comic books. Even as a child, I thought most of these comic books were too hierarchical, too much about war, too sexist. I didn’t like that dark skinned people were drawn with blue skin. But I was drawn to the particular comic books that retold stories from the Panchatantra. The Panchatantra are Sanskrit fables starring talking animals and illustrating Vedantic precepts and strategy. The way talking animals work in the Panchatantra is distinct from how talking animals work in Western literature like The Wind in the Willows. In Western literature, talking animals are often just humans wearing animal skins. In the Panchatantra, the distinctive animalistic qualities of a particular animal motivate the plot of the fable. For example, in one fable an elephant reroutes his herd to avoid killing mice, and later, when he and his herd are caught in nets, because they’ve already assisted the mice, they’re able to call the mice for help and the littleness of the mice allow them to extricate the elephants. It’s the Panchatantra sensibility of talking animals, not the Western one, I brought to Chimerica.
This book is a real page-turner, and also contains passages of such beautiful language and imagery that I wanted to read them over and over, as here:
Early the next morning, I woke to the sound of the lemur singing downstairs, his baroque green roar saturating the air like an operatic aria or sunlight at dawn. Every once in a while he’d burst into another dissonant bit, until one bloodcurdling streak of sound led to the sound of glass, possibly a light bulb, shattering, and an exclamation of oh shit. After that, he kept going like he wasn’t in a sleepy suburb, but at home in the rain forest, and soon a clowder of feral cats that our neighbor kept began yowling along, the way they did when they were in heat.
Can you talk about narrative tension and language, how they feed each other or work against each other? How do you balance that propulsive sense of plot with this other impulse towards detailed, poetic description?
For me, structure and plot are much harder than sentences: I can easily write one hundred pages about idiosyncratic, strange observations I have about feelings and trees in the suburbs and taking the train and watching my kids. But I needed to borrow a structure in order to write a book another human being might find pleasurable. I was lucky with Chimerica because its structure is found within the form of a trial itself. I also benefited from knowing how this structure is deployed variously elsewhere, such as in The Good Wife or Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own or a John Grisham novel. Language games, which I love, tend to work against narrative tension. Poetic description, as one of those games, certainly slows the pace of storytelling, and can also disrupt the suspension of disbelief. When a reader has to pay excessive attention to decoding sentences, it can break what John Gardner called the fictive dream. My hope is to give enough poetry to trigger a mood or atmosphere, while trying my best not to get drunk on my own affinity for language and texture.
Chimerica has aspects of a tense legal thriller and aspects of the novel of ideas, with the characters arguing over a range of issues, including the nature of art and reproduction. How do you think your fiction draws on and/or argues with the legal world and your experiences as a lawyer?
While practicing law, I often wondered, what kind of person would I have to transform into in order to want to be here, in order to desire these particular achievements, in order to be good at these attorney jobs? The novel draws on my particular experiences only to the extent that I have a well-practiced imagination— while working, I could readily picture the person who wanted to be in that setting—who desperately wanted to climb the corporate ladder, and the consequences of particular states of mind.
The book’s plot does draw upon my observations of living as a lawyer and enacting the personality that would best allow me to achieve a client’s aims, rather than my own. I wrote Maya as a character who is enchanted by capitalism and our legal system, an enchantment many immigrants, having elected to come here and become American, possess. But I think in many ways the novel, as a whole, counters Maya’s worldview. The novel’s viewpoint is based upon many years as a visual artist with a strong understanding of copyright and authenticity in the art world, and research on how capitalism, imperialism, and incentives influence creativity and ownership. I hope I wrote a novel that argues against all the ways in which laws and lawyers who serve those wealthy enough to afford them try to commodify and exploit what’s original, beautiful, and wild in the world.
Maya’s life experience makes her acutely perceptive, though she’s often unable to say what she sees to anyone but the reader. She was born in Tamil Nadu, which she describes as “my parents’ homeland.” Much of the book’s tension seems to come from the often breathtaking ways others respond to her, as well as to the gap between what she knows and what she can say aloud:
I was born in a tiny, spare doctor’s office in Madurai, a hot, tropical, chaotic city in the deep south of India, filled to bursting with ornate candy-colored temples, statues of Hindu gods and goddesses on every corner, to parents from different castes, different worlds. I’d grown up without my mother, and without any extended family around, and because of my dark Dravidian features, I was never considered a beauty—either among my own relatives or by most of the white Americans around me. And yet I was seated at a dinner like this, invited by one of the most quietly powerful people in the state of California, solely because I’d gained admittance to a profession invented by the landed gentry of the colonial empire. Wasn’t the almost-morbid nouveau riche decadence of those dinners what everyone in America aspires to?
The euphoria never lasted. I left every dinner acutely aware that my position at the firm was conditional on reining in my perspective, on making sure that a careful pleasant facade covered up all my cracks.
You’ve written before in complicated ways about culture, caste, class, race, ethnicity, and gender, about characters wrestling with their own identities and with others’ expectations and assumptions. Sometimes, as here, the characters consider these questions explicitly. What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities in writing that sometimes becomes directly political (as in phrases like “a profession invented by the landed gentry of the colonial empire”) and how do you navigate these?
I believe fiction that is also good art should address power dynamics in a way that recognizes complicated truths. For me, power dynamics are not so much about essential, immutable traits—claims that Tamil people are inherently like this or that— but rather that extremely uneven power in a society, and never having your place in society and history recognized or acknowledged by others, engenders certain common feelings of being endangered, at risk, in the humans a society places in that position. That common sense of vulnerability is the basis of solidarity, for me. How people act on those feelings of vulnerability, however, can be more individual, especially where there isn’t a community enforcing a code of behavior (this is why Maya being the daughter of an inter-caste marriage, and therefore rejected by caste communities to which she potentially could have belonged, is relevant to her choices in the novel, and therefore explicitly mentioned). Similarly, always having power, always feeling entitled to the best things society has to offer and allowing resentment to seep in when you see someone you think isn’t supposed to have them—somebody vulnerable—can result in overidentification among the majority in a democracy. It’s crucial for those with power to be careful and empathetic about considering the dangers of overidentification. Overidentification among those with more power — in this society, white people— is why it’s so damn hard to lose your job if you’re a person of color, as Maya is.
I think any character who grows up as a minority within her community (as opposed to someone who grows up with the same identification as those around her) knows she isn’t born with total power to shape her life. Instead, her freedom to move about within the community and the larger society is the consequence of laws passed, political actions taken, power seized or ceded, borders crossed or not. An intelligent marginalized character is going to think explicitly about political matters, at least sometimes, simply because politics is more foregrounded in her life as a potential source of conflict. Whether she can get what she wants or not is going to be affected by politics, for sure. As long as a direct political thought is complicated by greyscale, human drama, it’s fair game for fiction. Any bald observation about power, like the ones I cite above, has to be transmogrified for a novel. For example, I don’t think I would have included a naked thought about landed gentry if Maya were disgusted by the spectacle of what rich people eat because the express reference in that context would feel didactic and ideological, too expected, precisely what fiction should not aim for.
Your work is so full of surprising turns, unexpected maneuvers and moments, narrative tendrils that don’t necessarily press towards tidy resolution. It always feels real and alive. Do you have processes or ways of working that take you toward unpredictability? How do you keep the strange events or unexpected actions or emotions truthful rather than arbitrary?
It would be easy to be arbitrary, wouldn’t it? Breton gave surrealists permission to be arbitrary with “When will the arbitrary be granted the place it deserves in the formation of works and ideas?” but I diverge from him. I think living and reading widely, paying attention even when it’s uncomfortable, even when your senses give you information you would prefer to ignore, and being mindful of your unique emotional snag against the threads of social expectation, is critical to maintaining a strangeness, a psychic automatism in writing, that’s also truthful. Life is so much out of our control, it can be unbearable. Some people cope with the anguish of a wild, lawless world through a religious practice, I cope through my writing. Living in a state of elasticity and humility, regularly reminding myself I don’t know everything or maybe anything, gives me a lot of practice with unpredictable, unscripted outcomes in my life, and gives me access to a wide range of emotional possibilities when I’m in the dream state of writing first draft fiction.
As for process— making visual art for years has helped me develop truthfulness in observation and writing. In drawing classes, you’re taught to draw, not what you think a hand should look like, but the actual hand; you are expected to draw lines based on what you truly perceive, a completely different exercise than drawing your mental schema for what a hand looks like. This is how I think sentences must be written; nothing is more irksome in literary fiction than sentences that are pretty, but divorced from real perceptions. Fiction is kitschy and mechanical if every question is fully resolved, if sentences are written by prescription rather than genuine observation—a few loose tendrils are necessary to maintain the illusion of life. I revise fiction using rational thought and craft, but when drafting, I try to maintain the state of mind Aldous Huxley had in The Doors of Perception — as if I’m perpetually on mescaline, and it’s all oozy, raw material of life coming at me to provide the shape, instead of prefabricated with reference to concepts and theory.
Sarah Stone’s new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater (WTAW Press) appeared on the Millions Most Anticipated list for October and LitHub’s 21 Books You Should Read This October and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in fiction. Her previous novel, The True Sources of the Nile, was a BookSense 76 selection, has been translated into German and Dutch, and was included in Geoff Wisner’s A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. She’s the coauthor, with her spouse Ron Nyren, of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Scoundrel Time, The Millions, Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, The Believer, and The Writer’s Chronicle, among other places. She’s written for and taught on Korean television, reported on human rights in Burundi, and looked after orphan chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute. She received an MFA in Fiction from the University of Michigan and teaches creative writing for Stanford Continuing Studies and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.