When you are creating a novel with fantasy elements, as opposed to a story that takes place entirely in a fantasy world, how do you know how much fantasy to mix in with the realistic story? Are there instinctive guidelines you use to know when a plot element can be fantastical or should be realistic?
Writing this novel was more like writing a poem – and it was reworked many times just as I rework a poem. I try to find the balance you’re talking about by making the fantasy elements as “realistic” as they can be and the real world as full of mystical elements as possible.
For instance, the idea of an egg-shaped place where the enslaved workers pedal a bike to create energy for the Giants of God’s Cavern City came more out of the poetical side of me. The eggs were a metaphor.
A reader asked, “Why are they isolated from each other?” I found I had to justify it. I had to find out why it seemed right.
When I thought about it I realized they had to be isolated to keep from being able to form a group that could return, by chanting together, to the real world. The same reader didn’t think the workers could live in such a small place. I found the dimensions of a solitary cell in a prison in California and used those to create the size of the eggs.
There’s a lot of truth behind this fantasy element in the story. In our real world the “Giants” do find ways to isolate us – not literally, but figuratively – through racism, classism, the misuse of religion and more. And in the real world of the book they use these elements to isolate and capture the workers they put into the eggs.
I’ve also tried to add fantastical or mystical elements to the “realistic” side of the story – the parts of the story that take place in the “real” world. Right from the beginning, the communication between the cat and Giselle seems fantastical (although many cat owners might not agree.) When any of the characters take on the image of their Tla Twein, the form of a deity, human or animal, while still in the “real” world, the fantasy has seeped into the real.
You might ask, what is the difference between fantastical and mystical? Fantasy really just means: not realistic in our everyday world. So the fact that the physical structure of Ninas Twei and the Cavern is not anywhere in the physical universe makes it fantasy. The transformation of humans to their Tla Twein, a mythical animal or god, is fantasy, but the actual transformation is mystical. Mystical elements can be fantasy, but they also call out a soaring feeling in us. The actual journey to Ninas Twei and the portrayal of the Tsin Twei (the dance of all the species) are both fantasy, but they are also mystical.
In our real lives this soaring feeling – maybe a feeling of deep connection – often comes from music, or poetry, some art work, or religious experiences. For me it happens when I’m spinning to music. I saw a post somewhere recently where the author referred to that experience (often called “God”) as the Great Mystery. I like that. (Sometimes I call this feeling, “Whatever that is.”)
Religions try to define this and often make it too worldly. For instance, some interpret the idea that “we are made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) to mean that “God” looks like us. Making that feeling of connection into a physically embodied being doesn’t make sense to me. Some interpret this passage as meaning that we are “creative” as “God” was creative. Of course, whatever it’s meaning to the original author, an Israelite who had returned from exile in Babylon and created this with some hints of some Babylonian poetry, it’s a poem, and poems are often metaphor as most of this poem is.
I see in the Earth Woman Tree Woman quartet that humans are out of balance, out of harmony with the rest of the natural world. How do you think we could regain our balance and fit in with nature in the way that we should, and do you think there’s hope that we might get there?
In the book Singing Swan says, “Tsin Twei is where all the grandsouls of all the species join together in one dance for the continuance of life – the dance of life. In the Tsin Twei they become aware of each other, and of each other’s needs. It’s this awareness of each other that makes life work.”
Humans have lost track of this awareness of all the species, of the balance of life on earth, and we’ve even lost track of an awareness of each other. This is why in the book humans have lost the ability to join the Tsin Twei. This is a metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in today. We must become empathetic and aware of all our fellow human beings so that we have a unity, a “grandsoul”, with which to face our problems, and we must bring all of those fellow humans into the awareness of the needs of all the species on the planet. It’s a grand compromise between the needs and wants of the All.
Of course, the biggest need is education. We can not be empathetic toward our fellow humans and the other species if we don’t know anything about them. With knowledge comes understanding.
How did you come up with so much material, enough to make a quartet out of Earth Woman, Tree Woman? What was your writing process like, your process of uncovering the story?
The first book in the quartet was started back in 1974! The ecology movement was strong and the story was meant to bring awareness of that movement. Of course, as all writing does, it served as a method of understanding myself, and of personal growth.
It went through several different forms in those early years, but never went beyond the first book.
Thirty some years later my grown daughter asked to read it. “It’s good,” she said, “but it’s unfinished.” She did not mean that it needed three more books to be a finished story, but that’s what happened as I started to delve into it.
By this time, I was much more aware of the “intersection” (to use a new word for this) of all the different progressive movements, and I felt it was important that the book show this intersection. This lead to a lot of reading into politics, corporatism, women’s issues, racial issues, class issues, economics, etc.
When I created the first story I knew I needed to have diverse characters, but I had no real understanding of just how diverse we humans really are. As the book continued I tried to include everyone – which was impossible – but it did provide me with a delightful chore to try to capture the essence of all these different characters. It involved a lot of reading and talking to people, but that was fun! For instance, I had to consult with someone who used a wheelchair to make sure I really presented An Lien fairly. I was lucky enough to connect with a young dancer from Axis Dance* who happened to be a Chinese American woman of about An Lien’s age. She was a big help and a delight.
I know you’re a musician as well as an author and that you’ve composed songs inspired by this quartet. Do you think that your being a musician has inspired how you write? Do you organize your stories like songs, or like symphonies? Do you have favorite music that you listen to when you write?
Yes, I think music and dance and poetry form a rhythm in me that comes out in my writing. I don’t know about organizing stories like songs – certainly not consciously.
I write at the coffee shop! So whatever music is playing… maybe, too, the music of the coming and going of people and conversations around me.
What inspired this story? Something in your life? Or your reflections on the state of the world?
Writing this book was both an act of personal growth and a need to counter the horrors I see happening in the world around me. As I wrote, and as I lived my life, I grew from the shy, self-conscious, “wimpy” young woman I was when I first created Giselle, to the strong assertive older woman that I am now at seventy-five (feet rooted in the earth and arms reaching for the stars) who can be seen in the later Giselle, but also in the tornado that is Ayoabia. I can even see at the heart of that shy young woman, the strong fourteen-year-old girl we see in Kujakali, fighter of demons!
And who are the Tla Twein of these two – Ayoabia as Oyo from the Yoruban tradition, and Kujakali as Durga from the Hindu traditions? They are the bringers of change, the fighters of demons, those who stand up to the evils in the world and try to bring us to a new way of living in a just and merciful world.
*“AXIS creates opportunities locally and abroad for people with disabilities to engage in dance by championing access, inclusion and equity for people with disabilities both in dance and in the wider community.”