Dangerous Ideas: An Interview with Lucy Corin

The Curated Collection on “Literature, Writing, and Anthropology,” edited by Darren Byler and Shannon Dugan Iverson, paired articles from the backfiles of Cultural Anthropology with the texts of five short stories as part of a collaboration with the literary journal American Short Fiction. What follows is a brief interview with one of the featured writers, Lucy Corin, as well as a list of links to some of Corin’s other projects.

About the Author

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Photo courtesy of Lucy Corin.

Lucy Corin is the author of the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (2004), as well as the short story collections The Entire Predicament (2007) and One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (2013), the latter of which includes the story “Madmen.” Her stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House, and a lot of other places. She is a 2012 recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize and Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis, where she teaches fiction writing and literature.

Interview with the Author

Cultural Anthropology: What is important about reading and writing short fiction, in contrast to other genres like memoir, academic writing, or journalism?

Lucy Corin: The basic convention of fiction—this never literally happened—allows for what I think of as an incredibly private, even sacred space in which you as a reader can experiment with ideas that would be too dangerous (intellectually, emotionally, politically) to really encounter or take seriously in nonfiction or real-life situations. A stark example is a novel like Lolita: you can engage with the complexities of Humbert’s universe in a novel, while in real life you’d have to condemn him as a predator. The same is true of Lolita herself; in the real world she is reduced to being a victim and a victim only. In fiction she can be a multifaceted human being, glimpsed, if only in shards, through Humbert’s view of her. That mental exertion of having to work hard to see something that in real life or nonfiction might seem obvious or easy to see is profound and necessary. It is what gives access to, unlike anything else in life. You can play out dangerous ideas in fiction in a way that can help you understand what you really think about the world you live in and the choices you make about how to live within it.

CA: What does fiction reveal about social worlds?

LC: Fiction is about the exploration of possibility; it asks “what if?” and that’s a form of cultural critique. If you can’t imagine what could be different from your experience, you can’t really see the nature of your experience at all.

CA: Your story “Madmen” uses the wonder, flippancy, and naivete of the teenage narrator as a first-person guide through an invented rite of passage. In the ritual, the mentally ill are literally harnessed as a way to expose young adults to the wonders of being. What attracted you to the theme of coming-of-age ritual and to the teenage voice? What is the relationship between the way that your story represents that voice and the ways it is popularly represented?

LC: “Wonders of being” is an interesting way to read the story, one that I haven't though about consciously. I thought a lot about what it means to come of age, and I thought about what it would mean for a culture to actually foreground the mentally ill, in contrast to what I think contemporary American culture actually does, which is to try really hard to ignore/not deal with the mentally ill. The mad enter popular discourse, on one end of the spectrum, in the form of mythical monsters or psycho-killers or sensational news stories, and on the other, in supposedly realistic narratives that depict the mentally ill as romantic naifs, or handy-dandy street prophets, or geniuses on a pedestal. All of these ways of seeing seem to totally dehumanize actual people who are struggling with this thing that is basically defined as that which “we” don’t understand.

So my premise was: what if part of coming of age was being forced to confront this? And what if confronting it was institutionalized in a way that suggested that what it means to become an adult is to confront something that is essentially unknowable? I never went through a religious coming-of-age ritual myself, and when I became an adult my sense was that the culture I lived in wanted me to stop growing: be mature, drink responsibly, vote, and so on. Anyhow, in this story I don’t think I was able to avoid the dehumanizing that seems to come with efforts to understand something, but I tried to confront it by dramatizing it and messing with the us/them divide.

The beauty, I find, of a teenager-narrator is that I can ask pretty heady questions and not come off as pretentious on the page. And I am forced to maintain a sense of humor about what I’m doing, a sense of perspective that is important to me as I ask myself the hardest questions I can think of. Teenagers dare to ask the hardest possible questions and no one expects teenagers to have the answers, so as a writer it really frees me up to explore.

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