Excerpt From The Cicadas by Elisa Fernandez-Arias
She came to me in a dream, right as the cicadas took over our city, as their susurrated song echoed from the river to the bricks of the old buildings to the marble of their pillars to the trees right on the shore, as their dark bodies emerged from the ground, spitting old dust and ancient leaves and flesh and grass and dung and bones, as they shed their hard clothes and were born anew as youthful insects of sex, and only sex, and they crawled along the walls of my house, and became just another part of it, that night was when I dreamt of Maria Lobos the first time, as if she were a stranger, although I knew her well, as if she were a witch who had come to find me, and she walked to me, completely naked, her large breasts like second faces, and she too sang a song that had been underground a long time, as though her throat was full of dirt that had been washed with years of rain and snow, and she got a hold of my hair, and her thumb rubbed against my chin, and she jerked her hand suddenly, and tore a lock from me…
Elisa Fernández-Arias is a writer and translator, of fiction, poetry, and of writings inbetween. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Concho River Review, cream city review, Puerto del Sol, and Roanoke Review, among others, and studies creative writing at Columbia University. Below, she talks about influences, taking on dreams, and discovering that males characters are people, too.
The interaction of form and voice are an important part of “The Cicadas.” Where does nailing down the form fit into the creation process for you? Does it come out of the story, or shape the story, or am I just getting us into a chicken-and-egg scenario?
This doesn’t always happen for me, but with “The Cicadas,” the very cliché happened: I was in bed, about to fall asleep, when a certain rhythm and voice began to pick up in my mind, and I knew that a story was coming out, and that I had to write it down. I knew, too, that I had to type it up before it disappeared. So I rushed out of bed, ran to the living room, opened up my laptop, and wrote the whole first draft in several minutes. So, definitely, voice came first. However, it was very useful that I had been reading some writers for whom voice and form go very much hand in hand. I think if I hadn’t been, I would’ve had to figure out the form in a later draft. But because of my readings, I felt prepared, and by the third line or so I knew that the entire story would be a sentence long.
Sort of on the same topic, what have you been reading that you think might of inspired or influenced the creation and shape of this piece?
I wrote this piece almost a year ago, in August, I believe, of last summer. At the time, I was working on a novella that was very dreamlike and mythic feeling, so I was reading a lot of Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, fairy tales, and some Latin American writers, like Cristina Peri Rossi and Gabriel García Márquez. So all of these writers made an impact. However, Márquez’ story, “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” was the most important read. The story is a five-page, sentence-long story, and having read it recently, I knew that I wanted to employ the device/form in something I wrote soon. That’s why it came so naturally even in the first draft of writing.
A majority of this story is a dream, which can be hard to pull off as successfully as you do here. It’s been said that dreams can come off too coherent, or that everyone dreams differently so some readers will never buy it. Did you have any of this in mind while writing and revising the story, or did you simply trust the vision you had for it?
I think about writing about dreams in the same way I think about writing anything. It’s true that dreams in writing can come off sounding gimmicky, or incorrect, but I think the fact is that, like any of our subjective experiences of the world, dreams are different for each and every one of us. So I like to think that, as a writer, it’s important to write about everything you possibly can, and to explore every experience that exists within the human condition. That said, while writing this story, I just followed the voice and music and language of the story, and that meant starting it within a dream. Several other stories of mine start with a dream, actually, because I think that it’s nice to start a story by breaking what so many others consider to be a rule. It opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, content- and language-wise.
This story and another of yours, “Two Countries“, feature male POV characters. What is your experience writing from a different gender? Is it difficult, liberating, or no big deal?
Answer: Having never considered this matter, I come to realize now in answering your question that a majority of my stories have a male protagonist. So, it’s definitely something that I feel comfortable doing. However, when I first started writing male characters, I used a lot of stereotypes. My male characters were always very terse, and were only attracted to super-model-like women, and loved to eat and drink, but, unsurprisingly, I managed often to put my own views in their mouths. I was recently at a talk on identity and writing, where the speaker claimed that, in order to tell the story of anyone unlike you, it takes a lot of extra work. Otherwise they’ll be two-dimensional characters that you don’t really respect. For me, that extra work was in reading. At a certain point, I began to really pay attention to male characters—from Hemingway’s Nick Adams to Annie Proulx’s Ennis Del Mar to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert—and realized that (surprise, surprise) they are just as varied as any kind of human being. I think that by the time I wrote this story, I was already aware of all this, so it was a challenge that I had already surpassed. I must say though, that whenever I write about any experience that is not my own, it is liberating. It separates me from the story, and allows the story to speak for itself. So it was liberating in that sense, absolutely.
I read on your tumblr that you took a primer class in fiction during your first year at Columbia. I’ve often thought that would be a good idea for incoming MFAs (hint hint, NMSU). How do you think it helped you with the MFA, and also with your own writing?
I think this primer class was extraordinarily helpful. A large part of why this is the case is because of the professor, Heidi Julavits; she’s a very gifted instructor. In this class, all the incoming fiction-writers studied many texts together. The range was extraordinary. We read Chabon; we read Stein; we read Cheever; we read Bridget Jones’ Diary, Revolutionary Road, Swamplandia!. One of Heidi’s goals was to expose to writers who write very well, but whose quality of writing is also attainable. It’s hard to always aim so high, and in that class, I definitely learned that it’s okay to think of, instead of voices that you’d like to sound like, your very own voice. It also taught us that there is always more and less than can be done with a piece of writing, even if it is published. And we learned, of course, of just how important variety is in the literary world. The class also helped all of us with our MFA studies because it gave us a common reading experience to turn to while in other classes, especially workshops. (For example, “You’re doing what Karen Russell does in this passage…”) It’s helped me a lot in my own writing, and in the way that most of the literature classes have helped me in my writing: I continue to learn, more and more, about just how much there is out there, and which writers I’d like to learn from as a writer.
Can you talk a little about how you feel while writing? Are you smiling, is sweat rolling off your brow, is it sometimes drudgery, etc?
I’m definitely smiling. No question about it. I guess sometimes I feel out of breath, but by the end of a day’s work I feel really great. It’s like going on a bike ride through some really beautiful scenery. Sometimes there are hills, but I can also take some breathers along the way. And it’s just so purely enjoyable to me. That’s actually one of my philosophies about my writing, too. I’ve come to find that if I’m not having fun while writing, or not feeling challenged, I can’t keep going. The quality of the writing suffers. So I need to feel happy and excited when I write.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Only this: thank you! Thanks so much for publishing my work, and for interviewing me. It was a lot of fun. Thanks!