Reviewer Michelle Anne Schingler Talks Speculative Invasion with Chana Porter, Author of The Seep
With an eye on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this upcoming Monday, let’s take a moment to ponder how he would have reacted to the current state of affairs in our country and the world. What can we take from his teachings to help us move forward from this relatively dark, contentious time? We are particularly dismayed by the viciousness fueling our societal divisions, where it seems the only way advocates seek to influence the political opposition is by expressing hatred. So, what advice might MLK Jr. offer Republicans and Democrats alike?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
And how about this for a crescendo of his wisdom, a searing reminder that we can and must try to be better:
I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. Agape [God-like love] means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.
This week’s interview brings together our managing editor, Michelle Anne Schingler, with Chana Porter, the author of The Seep, an extraordinary utopian novel that dares to imagine an alien force bringing, not fear and destruction, but expansive joy, a planet healed from environmental disasters, the promise of a perfect world.
Take it from here, Michelle.
Your book is the least outwardly violent alien invasion narrative I’ve encountered. Why did having The Seep enter the world in such a seemingly passive, but still world-changing, way appeal to you?
I’m interested in huge leaps forward in culture. I’m also interested in the radical notion that not everything has to be a struggle. In many ways, disembodied aliens of The Seep are a metaphor for consciousness. It’s a thought experiment of what it would be like if we all woke up, at the same time, and realized that we are all connected. When we harm the planet, we harm ourselves. Keeping other people down or separate, be it through borders, cages, prisons, in poor labor conditions, in generational cycles of poverty—these things reverberate through our society and make us all poorer, sicker, and less able to give and receive love. There are no compartmentalized actions.
How would you personally respond to an alien invasion?
Ha, I have no idea! I’d like to think I’d be cool and collected. It might feel too surreal to even be afraid. I’m hopeful about the idea of first contact. It’s likely we’re not alone in the galaxy, but I’d be pretty surprised if this happened in my lifetime. Perhaps, I would throw a dinner party, like they do in The Seep? Gathering loved ones close seems like the right move.
It would be hard to resist The Seep’s offers of magical transformations. If you were to give in and accept some of their changes, which would you go for first, personally or on a social level?
With The Seep, you can feel an object’s history when you hold it in your hands. Right now, I’m looking around my bedroom. There’s probably quite a few things I couldn’t bear to touch if I felt the conditions of the people who made them, and the environmental cost of each product. Which of my clothes could I bear to wear on my body if I felt its history? I’m interested in seeing how that would affect our society.
As for fun things, I would ASAP modify my body to be able to breath underwater. I’d be a mermaid, essentially, but also make it so I could hang out on land. The Seep has cleaned up our oceans, of course, so it would be pretty nice down there.
YD and Trina are among the few to insist on holding onto bits of their old lives. Both come from a similar religious background. Is there a correlation between their commitment to tradition and their religious traditions, or did you feel that something else would move them to cling?
Jewish cultural legacy is an important link between YD and Trina. Instead of using The Seep to heal her body, YD is letting herself age without modifications. This means she’s in pain sometimes. She sees the more uncomfortable emotions and sensations as worthwhile experiences—that feels pretty Jewish to me. So much of the Old Testament are stories of people making bad decisions, people struggling. God even makes mistakes in the text—feels very flawed, very human.
The text hints that Deeba and Trina are soulmates who’ve enjoyed lives together before. Do you envision them getting back together in The Seep’s future, even though Deeba’s been reborn?
That’s a fascinating idea! Maybe? For me, it’s less about romantic soulmates and more the idea that everyone in your life has been something to you in a previous life, be it mother, father, friend, child, teacher, adversary. Prisoner and guard. This idea really appeals to me—that we’re cycling through endless permutations of how we can relate to each other, lifetimes spent grappling with the human condition.
Your story is bookended by parties, both fabulously (but differently) celebratory. What would you serve at your dinner party celebrating the beginning of a new world, and why? How about at one acknowledging the end of the old world? How about one where you’re hosting the aliens themselves?
Here’s a recipe for you, to make a dinner party to celebrate the new world we are creating together in 2020.
Sit still and create a loving space in your mind. Take the following actions without stress or worry, only with tenderness and patience.
Clean your space. Clean your body.
Decide to cook a big pot of something nourishing, like a hearty vegetable bean soup.
As you chop vegetables and wash grains for your soup, imbue each ingredient with its own special blessing.
Some examples: This spinach is to bring you fresh energy. These lentils will nourish and ground you in our changing world. These tomatoes remind you of the myriad miracles it took to have us all here, together. Make it really fun. Eggplant, because not everyone has to like you, but you’ll find the people who love you. Brussel sprouts, because what used to be a hated childhood vegetable is now the hottest thing on the menu—may we find new appreciation, new connections, and new possibilities every day, even from things that we previously overlooked and under appreciated.
Get a good loaf of bread from a bakery, maybe some red wine, definitely some herbal teas.
And then gather some loved ones together around a table, light a candle, and talk about your hopes for the future.
Take turns dreaming of new worlds, ones you didn’t dare to think possible. Be bold with your imaginings. Take out phrases like “this is stupid, but… ,” or “this will never happen, but… .” Allow yourselves space to dream a new world. And then look for actions, big and small, you can create every day to make this a reality.
As for your last question—The Seep do not have mouths, so they do not eat. But I think they would enjoy this party.
Michelle Anne Schingler