The Big Idea: Leah Bobet
When it comes to the creative impulse, never underestimate the power of watching someone else get something wrong. Author Leah Bobet, whose debut novel Above hits stores today, found her inspiration when she got aggravated at what she was seeing in her television set. And just as a bit of sand in an oyster shell becomes a pearl, so did this irritation become in time a novel. Here’s how it happened.
I didn’t exactly start writing Above intending to write a book about being marginalized, intersectionality, and cultural trauma.
I started it because I was pissed off at a TV show. An old one. From 1987.
(Yeah, let’s think about that for a second.)
I’m an engineer’s kid; it means I’m a bit of a know-it-all sometimes. There’s always a part of my brain that sees the underpinnings of some genre trope or assumption and hollers But that’s not how it would really work! And Ron Perlman and his friends below the sewers of New York in Beauty and the Beast, using nothing but dramatic black capes to pass on the streets? Not notably worrying about the state of their plumbing or, well, scurvy? That was not how it would really work.
So I started playing around. With how it might really work.
Some of the answers to those questions were pure logistics: things like ventilation; how you’d pirate off the power grid; the social organization that’d emerge in a community where food was constantly rationed. But the bigger ones quickly became about who would live there: What would have to be going on in your life to plausibly look at the choice between living in a cave underground or gritting your teeth and bearing it for one more day to make the cave the better option? Well, you wouldn’t be people with cool superpowers, forced to flee because your claws were just too cool and kept distracting motorists. You’d be people who potentially have enough threat and marginalization and barriers to flee; the people our society’s not so good at being built for. The people we actively let down enough that they might just say, Screw this. I’ll live in the dark if it means I don’t have to deal with that.
–and before I knew it, the underground community of Safe was populated by people with psychiatric diagnoses from schizophrenia to psychosis; people with physical disabilities that were either invisible enough to be scoffed at, or visible enough that nobody took them seriously when they said no, this is what I need; survivors of child abuse and institutional neglect. People ostracized for how their bodies were put together, whether that was something fantastical like your arms growing back as crab claws or something fairly common, like intersex.
It also said something about the minds inside those bodies: The kinds of personalities who would make that choice instead of working within the system or becoming advocates; instead of just putting their energy into whole other parts of their lives and becoming musicians or tax accountants. People who would have chosen to go down, below the subways and sewers, and live in a place that’s a secret.
That meant trauma. A whole community living with, and built around, and creating their mythologies out of trauma.
The stories they’d tell about the world they left would be terrible.
Two things occurred to that wiseguy insisting on realism in her fantasy at this point:
First, it couldn’t last. There’s only so long you can keep people united with the threat of an outside enemy, and even secret underground societies are made up of people. They’d be back to drawing battle lines sooner or later: I’d end up with a whole group of marginalized people, marginalizing each other even more because of that hierarchy-beast inside our heads.
Second: Now, what would it be like to grow up there?
I have some experience with cultural trauma. My grandfather on one side was a concentration camp survivor; my grandmother on the other was evacuated, as a child, from London during the Blitz. There are little habits in how I was raised and educated that overstepped the bounds of normal familial concern: a sneaking, violent distrust of formal institutions; a whole family that was convinced that unless we were in sight — or telephone reach — at all times, something terrible was going to happen; a tendency to hoard food. I was never a hungry kid, and I still feel obscurely less anxious when I have a full fridge.
This is ridiculous and does not make sense in the context of my own life.
But when your parents are brought up by people for whom yeah, children can and did go around the corner and just disappear, and enforced famine was a reality? The idea of normal shifts. All those reaction behaviours built up to keep you alive when things are bad twine around everything else, and they become the new normal, and your own kids treat that as the way to raise a child and pass the whole thing on.
After enough time goes by, and enough changes? Some of those behaviours get downright weird and maladaptive.
That is what it’d be like to grow up in Safe: It would mean having a toolset to deal with the wider world that just didn’t apply when you got up there and had your first real look around. It would mean being afraid of things that weren’t there anymore. Being not afraid enough, maybe, of some of the things living right in your own pocket. Having to get over the idea of Us vs. Them if you wanted to get anywhere at all with anything.
Having to, somehow, go back among the people who raised you and love you, and recognize their mistakes. And not repeat them. Without becoming a traitor.
–and that is how I wrote a book about cultural trauma, and having compassion and respect for the things your parents lived through without having to agree about how the world is, and the terrible balance between redress for having been victimized and starting to victimize other people too. About complicated, tangled, late-stage Growing Up.
And people with crab claws. And living shadow-creatures. And a girl who turns into a honeybee, and a boy who grew up underground.
Because Beauty and the Beast was getting it wrong.