Books A Conversation With PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 Author Alex Terrell
“I have always been fascinated by the idea of women being monstrous and beastly because it ruptures the dominant Patriarchal ideal of the shy woman.”
On August 21, Catapult published PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 , the second edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Jodi Angel, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Alexandra Kleeman. “Black Dog” tells the story of Io, and considers the animal aspects of the human body and how we can be haunted by other possible selves.
Alex Terrell is currently pursuing an MFA. Her research interests include representations of individuated Black experience and Black bodies, magical realism, Afrofuturism, and how women speak in silent spaces. Alex resides in the Northeast, but she is a Tennessee girl.
She would awaken in the woods. In sunlight. Underneath trees and laying on rocks.
Unsheathed and exposed to all manner of elements. But she was warm. Leaves were twisted and mashed into her hair, but she could not feel them on her scalp. This was a reminder that her hair was not hers. It belonged to the girls in India who cried when their heads were shaved and their sorrow could be bought and sold for $79.99 a pack at Lovely’s on Bright Street. She’d only needed three packs.
She paid her cousin, Drea, sixty to put the weave in and another twenty for the pizza she ordered. That investment now had leaves attached to it. And mud, she found.
She also found that there were no tracks, from small animals or large ones. No drag marks. And no explanation for the scratches on her arms and ankles. The bottoms of her feet were stained black like she’d been dancing around in pitch. Her fingernails, which had been short last night, were now long.
She stood on unsteady legs, knees knocking together, quaking under the weight of her body. Out the corner of her eye, she saw several versions of herself dressed in all white, and as a buzzing behind her eyes settled into a slow ache, she thought, How did they follow me here?
Catapult: Where did you find the idea for this story?
Alex Terrell: I have always been fascinated by the idea of women being monstrous and beastly because it ruptures the dominant Patriarchal ideal of the shy woman. I then became interested in how a white woman who turns into a werewolf would code differently than if she were a Black woman. The negative archetypal depictions of Black women came to mind. So, I began looking for a way to reimagine the Black Feminine body in a way that did not engage in those archetypal depictions.
Another inspiration for the story was the fact that Werewolves are my favorite mythical creatures. They represent those animal aspects of ourselves that react to the natural environment (i.e. moon phases) without human reasoning. I also couldn’t help but be interested in the connection between women’s menstrual cycles and the moon. I know there isn’t any medical reasoning linking periods and moon phases, but both of these things involve sloughing off parts of ourselves.
I also like how the words menstruation and moon are etymologically linked by their roots words meaning “month.” Just little things like that got me interested and then the character Io introduced herself to me. It just seemed like the story was writing itself after that.
Also, I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the moon and I’ve had issues with my menses, so that might have been a slight inspirational thread as well.
There are many moments in this story where Io, the protagonist, sees other versions of herself—Io-Leather-Skirt, Io-in-Red, etc. Where did the idea of visually presenting other possible versions of the self come from, and what is released when she kills off the phantom Ios at the story’s end?
I think the idea for depicting the other versions of Io are a real-life correspondence to how I am. I’m really self-aware, especially in social situations. I scrutinize my every move, word, and thought. It’s maddening, but in that madness there is a kind of honesty about how I see myself. It’s not so much about how others see me, but rather how I think they see me. I used to sometimes imagine different, more evolved versions of myself when I was in social situations. I guess it was a kind of coping mechanism. But once I realized other people weren’t really seeing me how I thought they were, it freed me up to kill those other versions of myself. Kind of like a purging. I wanted to depict that in a more surrealist way.
Another inspirational thread was that I became really interested in the visual images of practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudou (among other African and non-African religious traditions) wearing white clothes when they were practicing their faith. These religions are practiced by folks who look like me and that was a very powerful image to see. It looked like real belief to me. That’s why all of the Ios are wearing white at the end of the story. They are a part of some religious rite that’s going on in Io’s mind. It represents the true metamorphosis of Io’s body and spirit. She is releasing her self-judgment and self-consciousness.
Throughout the story, Io becomes more attuned to the animal-esque elements of the human body. You write, “She thought then that she could almost taste him. Pheromones? Were those real? Did they apply to humans? Weren’t humans also animals?” Io begins to buzz and itch and crave raw meat. Was this transformation linked to the idea of phantom selves for you, and if so, how?
The phantom selves represent the things Io is wrestling with in her mind and spirit, these non-corporeal spaces. The animalistic aspects represent her being at odds with her body. Basically, she’s not comfortable with the skin she’s in. Women so often have body image issues that are linked to our mind and spirit, but the atrocities we commit on our bodies are different than those we commit on our minds. Women can be very mean to themselves because the Patriarchy and the media has taught us how.
This story moves effortlessly from the surreal to the everyday, from tender moments to more sinister ones. How do you walk this line as a writer, and balance these different moods in such a small space?
I think life is a bit like that. It’s these random bursts of tender moments with people we care about and then in the same breath, something sinister can happen. Or you can be having a lovely time at your mother’s house and then walk outside and something horrible has happened on your street. In my experience, when writing, it’s not about trying to make something as realistic as possible, but rather it’s about trying to capture whatever mood you want to capture and figuring out how those moods make sense in a story.
I do this by separating my scenes into little chunks with page breaks that show the shift to another place and time. That way each little chunk is like a contained little mood that I can shift around to different parts of the story in a way that registers the range of emotions we feel daily.
Either that or it’s all by coincidence (haha).
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote the story during my first graduate fiction workshop. Writing the first draft of the story took about three days. From there I took about two days to do a first round revision/edit for spelling mistakes, then I had to turn it in for my class. I was so scared because Io was the first Black character I’d ever written. I’d been writing about beautiful white girls my whole life, but when I moved to Maine I saw very few people who looked like me. I started craving the sight of Black folks and since Maine is a primarily white state, the only place I could find them was in my own work. I was so happy when Io introduced herself to me as a Black girl. It was such a wonderful moment. I really felt like I needed to do her story justice. So, I did maybe four more major revision cycles of the story and then I submitted it to Black Warrior Review with much trepidation (haha). My friend was like “Do I need to push the submit button for you?”
All in all, I would say it took me about a year to find my feet with this story. But every story engaging with these themes of Blackness and Woman-ness that I wrote after that took much less time to revise because I finally knew what I was trying to say. But then again, can you ever really be done revising?
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It’s affected me in so many amazing ways. My mother is so proud of me because she was able to hold a copy of the anthology in her hand and say “That’s my daughter in there.” Winning the Dau prize has opened some doors professionally for me as well, so I’m very grateful to everyone at Black Warrior Review for taking a chance on a new writer like me. I’m grateful also to the judges of the Dau prize for seeing enough in “Black Dog” to give me a space in Catapult’s beautiful anthology among such talented company.
The prize money enabled me to get a taste of what it might be like to make a living as a writer and the award showed me that my stories are worth telling. I feel like this is a moment of Kairos for fiction by Black women about Black women. The Dau prize gave me a way to begin telling these stories about Black women that we all deserve.
Thank you, truly.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently heavily editing my manuscript of short fiction. It’s a love letter to all of the women in my family and to any woman who has ever wanted to get in touch with her monstrous side. The book is full of monstrous, witchy women. It’s spooky, bloody, and grotesque, just like our bodies tend to be.
As far as new stuff, I’ve got a couple of projects open on my computer. I’m working on a novella about Valkyries and another about witches or maybe they are just women that magic seems to follow.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Honestly, my two main sources for new writing are my friends, most of whom are writers themselves, and dusty used bookstores. You’d be surprised how much “new stuff” you can find in used bookstores. I guess if I’ve never read a thing, it’s new to me (haha).
As far as “new” writing, I usually look to The Offing. They are always publishing something fresh that gets me thinking about my own stuff. I really appreciate the kinds of stuff they publish because it’s never ordinary.