BARBARA CHEPAITIS, 2010
People often ask me if I think I was born bitextual, or if something in my environment made me that way. Do I write both science fiction and mainstream novels, both fiction and nonfiction, because I had an absent father and an overbearing mother, or because I was exposed to too many different kinds of texts at too young an age?
I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer to these questions, but I can review the peculiar circumstances that led to my bitextuality. In fact, for those of you who have concerns about your own persistent wandering through forms, I’d like to come out to you now as someone who is not only bitextual, but also polyformistically perverse. That is, I not only write in different genres, I tell stories in a variety of forms – performance and script, video and audio and sometimes song. And even within a novel, I cross boundaries of consciousness and time.
In looking back over my life, I can honestly say that at least part of my textual preference is inborn. I could never color inside the lines in kindergarten, and I struggled with all those silly little forms you have to fill out in school that don’t give you enough space for an adequate answer. Often, the little boxes on them didn’t even have enough room to fit all the letters of my name.
But I also believe that my tendency toward bitextuality was encouraged by environmental factors. I can easily get in line on blaming the church, for one thing. I was raised a Catholic, and the ritual drama of that religion infused me with an early sense of the mystic, training me to cross boundaries of consciousness on a regular basis. And there were strong family influences in that direction as well.
I straddled the worlds
of the oral and the literary tradition, playing with sound in speaking and in written text.
My father was a violinist and my mother a singer, so our house was filled with live music all the time. We all played instruments, often together, and that trained my mind to feel the sound of things as a source of emotional meaning. I can actually remember sitting at the piano and playing a Mozart Fantasia, all the while thinking that I wanted to be able to create this kind of emotion with words. I think I was about eight years old at the time, so clearly any polyformistic perversity was either engrained at an early age or already there, waiting to bubble to the surface.
However, I never talked about it. Like so many bitextuals, I didn’t even acknowledge it to myself until I got to graduate school. In a feminist lit class we read Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden,” where she admonishes women writers to seek their literary mothers. To fulfill an assignment I began seeking mine and found her in Scheherezade, the literary figure who told stories for 1001 nights in order to keep the king from killing women. Instead of writing an analytical piece about it, I wrote my own version of her story, and instead of handing it in, I told it.
I was well and truly out of the closet now, declaring my polyformistic stance for all of academia to see. Having taken that step, I went on to create a women’s storytelling trio, The Snickering Witches, with the bitextual motto, “we tell the old stories, and make up the new ones.”
Now, like Scheherezade, I straddled the worlds of the oral and the literary tradition, playing with sound in speaking and in written text. Having made the leap, I went on to tease out possibilities in novels, jumping not just between genres but also exploring the edges of things within each novel I wrote.
My science fiction character, Jaguar Addams, is an empath, and her novels are really more like mystery novels that happen to be set in the future. Since she and others in her world have various telepathic capacities, within each novel I played with ways that text can reflect and express the feeling of alternate consciousness. How does language sound/feel/operate when it’s expressed from mind to mind? How can you use words to transmit experience that occurs wordlessly? Really, that playground was a bitextual’s dream come true.
In my mainstream novels I began tentatively to see what was possible. I put a ghost in Feeding Christine, and a melding of family memory with the present in order to realign the future, all of it wrapped around the sensory experience of food, food and more food. My main character in These Dreams is a woman who lives in a dream world of her own making until a random killing takes her walking in nightmare as she seeks the difference between dreams and illusions. In each book, I wrote with an awareness of the glistening surface of life, and how it’s constantly fed by a profound depth filled with joy and fear and ancestral imperatives and longing and love and more. I carried this sensibility into other writing, so that when I was asked to write my first nonfiction book, Feathers of Hope, I created a narrative that moved between the daily functioning of a bird sanctuary, and the deeper human connection to birds.
Once I got my bearings in this kind of motion I felt confident enough to write in my own authentic polyformistic perversity, and I wrote The Amber, which melds upscale commercial narrative with ancient mythologies and stories. This novel (currently being shopped by agent Laura Wood at FinePrint) tells the story of a smart, ambitious 21st century woman involved with a man who sold his soul to the devil. At least, that’s one level of it. The other is historical, revisiting the oldest mythologies of Lithuania, and showing how those deeply embedded tropes continue to live in my very uptown kind of girl.
And all this, I suppose, is how an early tendency to color outside the lines combined with family and environmental influences can create bitextuality, tritextuality, polyformistic perversity and more in an artist. But wait. There’s more, because once you start on this path, there’s no telling where it will lead. The insidious nature of polyformistic perversity is that it makes you believe you can try just about any form, in any way you choose.
At least, that’s what it’s done to me. So lately I’ve been exploring computer-made art forms, a new consciousness for me and one that I haven’t easily related to. First of all, it has no smell, which means that a lot of information we gather without realizing we’re gathering it just isn’t there. Second of all, though computers are the communication tool du jour, they don’t really communicate well with humans. They take directions, but only if you give them in exactly the right way, which isn’t intuitive to Mac people like me. But as a committed Bitextual, I believed it was my duty to go beyond my own boundaries and toodle around. As a result, my latest project is a Keynote video of one of The Snickering Witches’ stories, melding technology with mythology and song, taking storytelling into the 21st century. And who can tell what I’ll try next.
I’ve long since learned to accept and then celebrate my Bitextuality, and I hope this small guided tour through my experience helps you to do the same. Of course there are difficulties associated with being bitextual in a unitextual world. Publishers tend to want work that fits their marketing plans, and you may find that, just like back in grade school, your work can’t be squished into the meager space of their forms. The world has gotten both larger and smaller with the internet, though, and that can work to your benefit so it’s a tool I recommend highly. And idealistic as it may sound, I truly believe that if we admitted bitextuals stand up and shout a little, the world will have to nudge its boundaries out enough to fit us in.
If not, you can take consolation in knowing that at least we get all the perks of our own polyformistic perversity, which allows us to make any kind of candy we want, in any kind of shop at all.
(Ed.: You can find out more about the work of Barbara Chepaitis on her website, www.wildreads.com.)