IAF Origins

In the early 1990’s, in the last remaining coffeehouse in Harvard Square, a musician friend of mine ran a Sunday afternoon concert series. Warren Senders is a musician originally trained in jazz, who then went to India to study Hindustani singing. The concert series Warren produced included the Really Eclectic String Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix and Balkan tunes (but no Mozart), an Indian singing about Hindu legends with electric guitar….

Warren called the series “Interstitial Music.” At every show he explained that he was featuring music that falls in the interstices of recognized categories, that can’t be defined as quite one thing or another. It’s hard to market, it’s hard to explain to people in one sentence…. We loved it all.

Fast forward a couple of years. We’re in my living room, fellow-novelists Delia Sherman, Terri Windling, and I, drinking something or other, munching biscuits and gently moaning about how hard it is to reach our audience. When our work is published in genre, it finds a faithful audience – except for those who are utterly baffled by the fact that it fails to follow the rhetoric of strict genre fantasy, and complain bitterly. When we submit it out of genre, we’re told it contains too many non-realistic elements – code for “it has Fantasy Cooties.” We also wax indignant on behalf of our favorite science fiction writers whose quirky, brilliant short stories fly under the radar of literary critics, and, more importantly, of the reading public. Terri brings up her concerns as a painter working with fantastical and mythic images falling uncomfortably between “fine art” and traditional illustration… I think about the music I’m playing on Sound & Spirit, stuff everyone responds to but none of my listeners can find in the carefully-ordered bins in the record store….

This is too much, we said. We’re living in an age of category, of ghettoization – the Balkanization of Art! We should do something.

“Guys?” I said. “Would you mind if I just phoned Warren and asked if he’s free this afternoon? He coined the phrase Interstitial Music – maybe it’s time to start talking about Interstitial Art!”

We met. We talked. We schemed. In the fall of 2002, we took action. By then we’d met up with writer and academic Heinz Insu Fenkl, whose theory of meta-fantasy and understanding of the reading and writing processes seemed to tie in with ours so well that when he became the director of the Creative Writing department at a State University of New York, he instituted a summer program, ISIS: the Interstitial Studies Institute at SUNY, New Paltz. As Heinz points out in an online essay, “The word ‘interstice’ comes from the Latin roots inter (between) and sistere (to stand)…. It generally refers to a space between things: a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war, the potentially infinite space between two musical notes, a form of writing that defies genre classification.”

We held our first symposium at SUNY/New Paltz in June 2003, and determined to create a website, to publish anthologies with Small Beer Press, and work on how to insinuate into the broader world the notion of art without borders; to reach out to librarians and bookstore owners and others who guard the gates between the work and the readers.

In 2004, novelist and educator Midori Snyder orchestrated the production of a website with over 100 pages of material by a dozen or so contributors (linked to a discussion board), and we became a genuine Foundation with 501 (c) (3) status in 2004. Our Mission Statement includes these words:

“Rigid categorization by critics and educators is an unsatisfactory method for understanding the border-crossing works to be found in all areas of the arts today…. We are …claiming a place in a wider artistic and academic community. The mission of the Interstitial Arts Foundation is to give all border-crossing artists and art scholars a forum and a focus for their efforts. Rather than creating a new genre with new borders, we support the free movement of artists across the borders of their choice.”

In his essay “What’s in the Wind” Gregory Frost offered another metaphor, that of cross-pollination, ignoring borders altogether: “I think a whole lot of our genetically modified products,” Frost writes, “have escaped from the fantasy orchard and blown onto that really big field across the barrier; for some while now, we within the orchard have been trying to describe to ourselves all that cross-pollinated mutant stuff. […] However, winds blow from more than one direction. While the huge literary field was being contaminated by fantasy, so, too, was the genre orchard being sprinkled with stuff coming the other way.” (New York Review of Science Fiction, August 2003)

Borne on the wind, Interstitial Art is incredibly hard to explain and define, precisely because it’s all about the indefinable, the ever-shifting borders that current commerce and current public fashion force upon the distribution and consumption of that most intangible of “products,” creative art.

This drives some people crazy. They want rules, clear definitions – to be a real movement with recognized leaders… but that’s the antithesis of life and work on the border.

As I travel around the country, I meet many like-minded souls. At a talk at the Brooklyn Public Library, I watch librarians nodding energetically whenever Delia utters the magic words, “resisting categorization.” In an independent bookstore in Kalamazoo, we see a wall of recommended reading that practically defines the Interstitial credo, with Michael Chabon’s “literary” The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay right next to Sarah Smith’s “mystery” novels. When I get all excited about this, the bookstore person says, “Yeah, we do get people in here asking, ‘Where’s the Gay Books section?’ and we tell them, ‘We don’t like to ghettoize.’”

We want more, more, more things like that to happen everywhere, in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. Whatever fueled our initial passion, we’re all coming to realize just how critical it is, right now, in a world increasingly segregated by the dark forces of marketing and promotion, to give people the freedom of the in-between places. Obviously, we’re getting support from other artists who feel their work isn’t adequately represented. But the people the IAF ultimately serves are the consumers of art (among whom we also count ourselves!): the readers and listeners and audiences whom popular culture mainly denies the rich world of the interstices.

We feel for those poor reviewers who spend half their ink trying to describe what something isn’t when they should have the liberty to approach a work on its own terms. A webzine review of Neal Stephenson’s latest begins:

“We need the categories, of course. Some writers may dream of breaking free of the genre ghetto and have wild dreams of bookstores simply divided down the middle… Readers would go quietly mad, of course….”

But concludes:

“[Stephenson’s] Baroque Cycle defies categories. It has elements of every genre, from swashbuckling romance to gee-whiz science to historical fiction to spy thriller to modern fantasy and high-tone literature…. Yet it’s hard to accurately finger why these books encompass this paradox….”

I can tell her why: “It’s interstitial.”

(I later wrote to the reviewer, Adrienne Barnes, and she took a good look at Intestitiality in her next column on Bookslut!)

The Interstitial Arts Foundation is not just about books and writing, and it’s certainly not just about science fiction and fantasy, though to some people, it may look like we’re just a bunch of pissed off genre writers. As Terri wrote me, “Of *course* we’re promoting the kind of things we write. We believe in it. That’s why we write it. Duh.”

There is another branch of IA, the academic. Writer and scholar Theodora Goss explains that the academic side of IA is “trying to examine interstitial texts, which are often left out of academic discourse because they fall outside the categories by which conferences and journals are organized, and to create theories about interstitial arts” – theories in plural, she stresses. Just as crucial, Goss adds, is “trying to think of innovative ways to teach texts, ways that cross the usual academic borders.”

On the IAF’s academic discussion board, highly-trained experts argue for hours about the exact definition of the term “genre”…. But for me, it all comes down to more personal things: Whenever radio colleagues read my novels, published in genre with genre covers, they return the books to me saying, “I don’t usually read [or “like”] This Kind of Thing… but this was good!” When I was on a panel at an SF con this year, asked to list the best fantasy I’d read lately, of a room of nearly 200 fans, all interested enough in modern fantasy to be there instead of across the hall listening to something else, when I asked who had read Elizabeth Knox (The Vintner’s Luck, Black Oxen, Daylight) or Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Mistress of Spices), both published as “Mainstream Literature,” only one or two hands were waveringly raised.

The Interstitial Arts Foundation is not meant to be a movement in the strictest sense; rather, it seeks to express support for what’s already moving in the arts: we’re simply trying to give a local habitation and a name to a mindset that already exists, and has existed all along. We’re not setting up in opposition to the New Weird or Slipstream or anything else – we call ourselves an “umbrella organization” but maybe a better image would be a holding tank full of nourishment for all the innovative work being created with no place in the world of categories. It’s work that may or may not achieve liftoff on its own, succeeding through intrinsic virtue and word-of-mouth (and maybe even ultimately spawning its very own category). With the difficult word Interstitial, we hope to create a vocabulary that makes this possible: for critics, for reviewers, for scholars, and most importantly for readers and audiences.

We are in effect a place for the disaffected of many stripes to hang out – a place for non-joiners not to join, but to stand up and be counted.

– Ellen Kushner
June 2004

This essay originally appeared in
Nebula Awards® Showcase 2005, edited by Jack Dann
(ROC/PenguinPutnam, March 2005)
as part of “Movements in Science Fiction and Fantasy: a Symposium”
It is reprinted here with kind permission of the editor and his agent.