Sudden Hummingbirds, Sudden Dislocations: The Interstitial Experience
Jeff VanderMeer, 2003
If "interstitial" means to literally "stand between," to find a place that has no name until you are there — an exploration, a journey, yes, but at the end of it, a place, now named, if still unfamiliar to most
If "interstitial" means this process and end result, then a life can be interstitial — can be filled with juxtaposed moments that remind us of just how strange and wonderful and full of contradiction the world can be.
When I first heard about the Interstitial Arts, I thought not just of writing and art and music — I thought of moments in my life that were interstitial, or that led, eventually, in my own writing, to the interstitial.
Two events in particular stand out for me, and in describing them I think I'm describing what the term "interstitial" means to me.
When I first heard about the Interstitial Arts, I thought not just of writing and art and music I thought of moments in my life that were interstitial, that led to the interstitial in my own writing.
The first occurred in Cuzco, Peru, when I was eight. I had asthma, and it had gotten so bad, they had me hooked up to an oxygen machine. I lay in bed in a hotel room, the hotel abutting a mountain. Right up against the single glass window lay the dark green moss of the mountainside, like a diorama. One day, as I lay there wheezing, watching that small window, comforted by the richness of the green colors, two hummingbirds appeared, red and emerald, their wings a blur. They were mating in mid-air. In my condition, weak and tired, they seemed like a miracle, an intrusion of the fantastic into the real world. I called to my parents to come look, but by the time they entered the room, the hummingbirds were gone. In fact, later, I could not be certain I had remembered it correctly. Had it been a hallucination? Had I seen them, or had I imagined it?
The second event occurred in Fiji, a tropical paradise surrounded by reefs. I lived there for four years while my parents were in the Peace Corps. Some nights — the best nights — Mom and Dad would take my sister and me to the shallows of offshore reefs. In sneakers and shorts we would shine our flashlights into that miraculous darkness, revealing bridges and stairwells and thoroughfares of red, yellow, orange coral. Phosphorescent squid shot through the breaches in the coral like miniature balloons rapidly losing air. Drab brown moray eels with gold-veined eyes hissed from worn worm holes, while cumbersome cowrie shells with lip-pink snails lumbered gracefully through the sudden spotlight. Tiny emerald fish schooled together, then broke apart into a hundred jeweled tears at the first hint of danger, before coming back together again to form a sparkling chandelier. Against this backdrop, striped Spanish Dancers, living skirts of jelly-like flesh, danced their slow fandangos, oblivious to our intrusion.
The wind, cool and rhythmic, would lull our senses, while on the nearby shore, ghost crabs shadowed our progress and the distant lights of civilization seemed deliciously inconsequential, even ridiculous, in comparison with the smooth, sleek-black world we had entered.
One night, with the sea murmuring and gasping all around, we walked farther than we had ever walked before, so that the lights of the shore were only a memory and our flashlights as small against the night as the moon reflected in a man's eyes.
The reef cut against our ankles and the water salted the wounds, but we continued on, until, for one frightening moment, we could not tell shore from sea, and if we were to have spun blindly, we would have opened our eyes to a world completely unknown and unknowable.
But we didn't; instead, we started back toward the shore. Half-way back, we came upon a grotto filled with water, and in the water a creature we had never before seen — a Crown of Thorns, a type of beautiful yet deadly starfish, bigger than a dinner plate, bronze-brown, its thousands of thorns glistening like dark gold. Eater of reefs, destroyer of entire tiny worlds. I felt such a thrill of discovery in that moment, to be standing on the reef with only our flashlights for illumination, crouched over that grotto, looking down on this creature that seemed so otherworldly and alien. Such bittersweet juxtapositions of beauty and destruction. In that moment, I thought that there could be no sensation better than this one: the shivering delight upon discovery of the sublime and the unknown.
Sudden hummingbirds. Sudden dislocations of the senses on a reef at night. The convulsive beauty that sets us free by allowing us to see with new eyes. These were two moments in which I was caught between — I stood between the real and the unreal. In both cases, the world had revealed the something of the mystery beneath its usual facade of normalcy. This is what the interstitial means to me — the epiphany that comes from breaking through to someplace different and not quite mapped. It is a quality that carries over to my fiction — fiction that is not autobiographical in subject, but is autobiographical in spirit.
The word "interstitial" has a marvelous meaning, then — a three-dimensional meaning, one knows few boundaries and has its grounding in the real world. It can describe my passion for writing, or it can describe my passion for those moments in life when you become aware of that which is other, outside of yourself: shimmering darkly, mysterious, perhaps ultimately unknowable, but still, ultimately, there.