An Introduction to Interstitial Arts:
Life on the Border
by Delia Sherman
Borders are interesting places. As debatable land, sometimes wasteland or wilderness, they can be dangerous places to visit or live in, but they are never boring. Even when a long period of peace and stability removes some of their dangerous glamour, they're still (literally) edgy, different in essential ways from the countries they mediate.
Over the last couple of years, I've been spending time in Tucson, Arizona, near the Mexican border, and I'm discovering (slowly, unmethodically) a culture that is neither entirely Mexican nor entirely Euro–American, but a little of both, with a large and immediate Native American influence and a fair seasoning of various Far and Near Eastern immigrant populations. These disparate influences come together in a town that can seem both very familiar and very foreign, and, for its size, almost unbelievably culturally diverse. Even strip–malls and chain stores cannot turn Tucson into a monoculture.
Interstitial Art, like border cultures, defies easy definition. As I attempt to define it, I'm going to discuss Interstitial fiction specifically, since literature is the area that I know best, but the ideas that follow can be applied to other areas of the arts as well. Interstitial fiction defies categories and laughs at expectation; Interstitial fiction breaks the rules. Interstitial novels lurk near or on the borders of two, three, or more genres, owing allegiance to no single genre or set of conventions. But where does it fall in the great realm of contemporary literature?
Imagine a continent — call it Literature — divided into countries. The countries are the standard genres we find on our library and bookstore shelves: Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Western, Sports, Children's Literature, Mystery, Thrillers, Gay and Lesbian, Native American, Historical, African American, Literary Realism. Historical fiction, Literary Realism, African–American fiction, and Regional fiction have formed an alliance, General Literature, which allows them to pass freely over one another's borders. These books occupy the same shelves in bookstores and libraries and enjoy the same access to reviews and distribution. The smaller countries, lumped under the designation "Category fiction," exist in virtual isolation, both from the General Alliance and from each other.
Cordial diplomatic relations exist between General Fiction and the sovereign nations of Mystery and Children's Literature, but Science Fiction and Fantasy, Romance, Gay and Lesbian, Western, and Sports fiction are thought of, if they're thought of at all, as slightly dubious countries whose residents must apply for visas and permits to cross into the Alliance — permission that is seldom, and grudgingly, granted. It works the other way, too. General Fiction writers who produce a novel of Science Fiction or Romance are frequently harshly judged by readers in both camps.
So what does a writer who wants to slip across the border do?
Well, some of them just do it, and let the chips fall where they may. Take Angela Carter, whose free and easy way with literary conventions surely makes her the Patron Saint of Interstitial writers. Nights at the Circus is part fairy–tale, part historical, part picaresque adventure, part circus story, part meditation on truth and reality. Wise Children draws its background from Hollywood history, its structure from the comedies of Shakespeare and Terence, and its characters from Charles Dickens. These books may have been published as General Fiction, but they swim against the current of that stream with every sentence. Similarly, T. Coraghessan Boyle's exuberant Water Music is equally Historical fiction, Literary Satire, and Magic Realism. Toni Morrison's Beloved owes as much to Fantasy as Historical Fiction or African–American fiction. And Historical fiction is not the only genre that often turns to the conventions of other genres. Many of P.D. James' mysteries are distinctly more concerned with Literary Realism subjects of class, religion, and the state of Detective Dalgliesh's soul than with the progress of his investigation. Tony Hillerman's Navaho detectives often have one foot in the spirit world. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a serious historical novel in Western's clothing. Alice Hoffman has built much of her career on the Fantastic edge of Literary Realism. What divides her from another Hoffman, Nina Kiriki Hoffman? Nina's A Fistful of Sky explores the relationships of a family of witches whose powers and concerns are no more or less fanciful than those of the women in Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, and her small–town American setting is no less based on observed reality than Hoffman's magic–tinged suburban Northeast. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's novel is published as Fantasy.
Here's my Full Disclosure Statement. I have an interest in Interstitial Art's becoming a recognized passport across genre boundaries. Much of my own fiction is more or less Interstitial.
I didn't always patrol the wilderness between genres. Growing up, I read–and loved–all kinds of books, from high fantasy to Victorian novels, from children's books to biographies and histories, but I began my writing life as a native of the country of Fantasy and Science Fiction, dwelling most particularly in High Fantasy Land. In high school, I wrote adjective–heavy Medievaloid Romances that owed their plots, characters, settings, and language to JRR Tolkein, Sir Walter Scott, Emily Bronte, and the decorated prose of Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison. None of this juvenalia ever left my desk. After a long academic hiatus, I started a complicated secondary–world fantasy in the 80's. It had a magic and religious system of incredible complexity and a plot in which the fate of the known world hung in the balance. I did not finish it. The systems were fun to think about, but the form didn't satisfy me. I discovered that I was a lot more interested in scenes in which my characters sat around and talked about what they believed in than in inventing new and dangerous things for them to do. Since such Big Fantasy Novels depend on plot, and I couldn't think of one, I quit writing it.
But I was still a writer, and I still wanted — make that needed — to write fiction. I was the child of Morris and Dunsany and Eddison and Lewis, of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope and the Brontes. I had no interest in writing (and little in reading) books set in 1970's New York or Boston. Contemporary realistic fiction did not reflect my contemporary reality, which (owing to the age, background, and temperament of my parents) was far closer to the worlds of Trollope and Dickens than to Updike, Cheever, and Mailer.
What I ended up writing can best be described as a kind of historical/fantastical/Romantic/social realism. That's not what I set out to do, of course. What I set out to do was write something that unpacked the dark places of my heart, that satisfied my need to make beautiful patterns out of words and emotions and images, that allowed me to play with characters I loved, and to explore some of my ideas about class, courage, morality, revenge, purity, pain, and the role of the individual in society. It was more comfortable for me, and a lot more fun, to place these explorations long ago and far away, in times and places where clothing, manners, and language were more decorated and more formal than they are now, when the surface of life was beautiful and expansive even when that which it covered was nasty, brutish, and short. I didn't abandon magic or magical beings or fairytale themes, but I began to use them differently, and I turned to 19th Century novels and Renaissance Drama for my structural models. In writing what I wanted to write, I found myself moving away from the beautiful Fields of Fantasy out into the wilderness that abuts the bustling cities and well–tended plains of Historical Fiction.
What's surprising is that I turn out to have plenty of company. There are old settlers who have been virtually living here for years, quietly tending their own gardens and minding their own business. Angela Carter, of course, bold and brash as her own cockney angel Fevvers in Nights at the Circus. Italo Calvino, whose Barons sit in trees and whose cities are invisible. John Gardner, who is not afraid to let his metaphorical mages and monsters sit up and speak for themselves. But there are newer settlers, too–lots of them, and more all the time. From the Literary Novel side of the border, there are works by Alice Hoffman, Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Knox, Colson Whitehead, Mark Helprin. From the Fantasy side (some by way of Children's Literature, some by way of Science Fiction), there are novels by Gregory Maguire, Sean Stewart, Jeffrey Ford, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, John Crowley. The greater part of the population visits occasionally and furtively, like A.S. Byatt, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, John Barthes, Umberto Ecco, Ursula K. LeGuin, Salman Rushdie, John Kessel; and there are people who seem to have been born on the border, like Jorge Luis Borges, Karen Joy Fowler, Emma Donoghue, Carol Emshwiller.
You wouldn't know how populous an area it is, though. The dependence of Marketing Departments and the buying public on easily recognizable categories encourages discretion, even denial. If you're a Literary Fiction writer, there's no good practical reason to make common cause with Fantasy writers, especially if your book is crawling with ghosts and fairies and magic of all descriptions. The smaller countries don't have the power or the public respect of the General Fiction Alliance, and that's a fact. On the other hand, if you're a Fantasist (or a Westerner or a Romancer), you don't want to alienate your most natural audience by denying your roots. A professional writer without readers is a person without a country: deracinated, isolated, and without purpose.
Thus, Interstitial Arts. Writers whose books defy genre categories already exist. We have pretty much always existed. But the growing Balkanization of the arts industry is making it expedient–more than that, vital–for us to draw attention to ourselves. Those of us on the category fiction side of the border are not slipping through the cracks any more. We're falling into them and disappearing.
And this is not just a problem particular to writers
of category fiction. Writing, after all, is just one way of making art. Music, art, theatre, dance, performance art all suffer from the same crippling compartmentalization that I've been describing, and border–crossers from all of them are struggling to increase our visibility, to give ourselves a voice, to claim a place in the wide artistic community. Our intention in Interstitial Arts is to give all "Artists without Borders" a forum and a focus for their efforts. To that end, we do not want to build up new walls between genres or create new pigeonholes to slot works into. What we want to do is encourage a conversation in which art can be spoken of as a continuum rather than as a series of hermetically sealed definitions: to break down the borders, in fact; and to learn to judge, and choose, art on its own merits.