Tiffany Morris in conversation with Ariel Marken Jack
Tiffany Morris is an L’nu’skw (Mi’kmaw) writer from Nova Scotia. She is the author of the swampcore horror novella Green Fuse Burning (Stelliform Books, 2023) and the Elgin Award-winning horror poetry collection Elegies of Rotting Stars (Nictitating Books, 2022). Her work has appeared in the Indigenous horror anthology Never Whistle At Night, as well as in Nightmare Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, and Apex Magazine, among others. She has an MA in English with a focus on Indigenous Futurisms and apocalyptic literature. She can be found at tiffmorris.com or on X/Twitter and Bluesky @tiffmorris.
Author and reviewer Ariel Marken Jack spoke to Tiffany Morris about a poet’s-eye view, creative torture, and sharing your suffering…
Ariel Marken Jack: Your debut novella, Green Fuse Burning, is forthcoming from Stelliform Press on October 31st. You’ve previously published two collections of speculative and horror poetry, including the Elgin Award-winning Elegies of Rotting Stars (Nictitating Books, 2022). Green Fuse Burning is a work of prose fiction, but, from the title inward, it’s clear that a poet’s-eye view of the world remains integral to your writing. I’d love to know your thoughts on what being a poet brings to your prose work – and vice versa.
Tiffany Morris: Gosh, I love that phrasing! I find that poetry comes to me more naturally than prose – I think because I tend to express myself in images, my writing across mediums tends to be symbolism-heavy and metaphorical. It’s easier for me to obfuscate than to state something plainly, so the challenge in writing fiction becomes figuring out how to make the idea into a fathomable scene, usually by finding where to expand and where to contract. I write fiction on a sentence-by-sentence basis, which comes from my poetry background, but there is more room to breathe and to play in fiction because you also have character and setting also working in an extended space.
Ariel Marken Jack: One of the first things I found striking about Green Fuse Burning was its structure. Six of the seven chapters begin with catalogue notes describing paintings in a gallery exhibition of the body of work your protagonist, Rita Francis, creates during those six chapters. I love the way each note sets the scene and tone for a particular episode that takes place during Rita’s remote artist residency without giving away what will happen to her during that episode. Your prose has such a painterly quality, given its attention to visual details of light, colour, and texture, that this rather stylized framing device feels perfectly natural and fitting. Did you always envision framing the novella this way, or did it emerge as a necessary structure while the story came together?
Tiffany Morris: It came to me in the writing process! I was having trouble imagining how the story beats would all come together until I realised the framework of the gallery exhibit would add some structure while also hinting at what’s to come as the chapter proceeds. In that way, each painting and chapter could speak to each other, cohering thematically and adding some context to how an artist synthesises experience and heals through creation. Our understanding of time is linear, but I think that cycles are the greater truth of time. Trauma reveals that cyclical nature to us – so it was important that as the story progressed there was that sense of back and forth being carried forward, as well.
Ariel Marken Jack: Speaking of bodies of work, I love that this book is about both a body of work and a body at work – a body that is work. For Rita, existing in her traumatised, grieving body is terribly difficult. Her struggle to keep herself alive – and to want to keep living – makes it dangerously easy for her to sink deeper and deeper down into metaphorical interior swamps as well as the swampy environment around her, which leads her inexorably toward both catastrophe and change. Do you think of body horror as a potentially valuable tool for working towards acceptance and, perhaps, healing?
Tiffany Morris: Absolutely – I love that description! In many ways, Green Fuse Burning is about the horror of inhabiting a body, being alive in a vessel that dies, and living while knowing that loss, pain, suffering are inevitable aspects of human experience. These elements of experience are with us until the moment of our own death. We also know that trauma and stress show up in the body, so some of the horror is in how our damage is expressed in illness. It’s up to us to decide what we do with the knowledge of our suffering and find ways to heal as we encounter it and become immersed in these cycles. This is of course easier to say than to do – the swampland’s waters are still, deep, and sometimes brackish. But there is life and possibility in them.
Ariel Marken Jack: I was really struck by the image at the end of the second chapter/painting of an artist taking the world’s injury and infection into herself – both physically and metaphysically – in order to feel able to make the canvas ‘surrender to her wounded hands’. It feels, to me as a reader, a bit like Rita feels she has to suffer to make art because she has not yet learned any other narrative for what it means to be an artist. Were you conscious of wanting to subvert or redirect this narrative, with its nod to the trope of the tortured artist, for both Rita and your readers?
Tiffany Morris: I think that creative torture is sometimes part of the experience of being an artist – having something to say but not knowing how to say it, wanting your form to cooperate with you but it not coming together, and Rita’s definitely experiencing that in the beginning due to her grief. When you’re creating from your pain, too, there’s a strange relationship with what you make – a fear of truly seeing yourself and your pain, and a fear of others seeing you and your pain, but sometimes it’s necessary to do both. I think that Rita’s creative progress is a purging of her pain and this perception of creative torture, and we see the result of it as the story unfolds.
Ariel Marken Jack: There is so much darkness in this novella, but there is, as the title of Rita’s exhibition – ‘Devastation of Light’ – indicates, also brightness. I love the way this title (among other details) distances the story from the common trope of using darkness as a shorthand for badness and light for goodness. I’m curious to know how you thought about this intricate interplay between light and dark while you were writing.
Tiffany Morris: Yes, I’m so glad you noticed that! I know a lot of people will refer to mental health issues as a ‘darkness’ or ‘emptiness’, and that’s perfectly legitimate, but it’s not really been my experience – for me darkness has been healing, restful, deep, and it creates a soothing and solitary space where I’m invited to slow down. In my own mental health struggles, I’ve felt that the world around me was painfully alive and bright in a way that I couldn’t match, and I brought that into Rita’s experience of grief. I also love daylight horror – we have so many associations of day with safety that it’s easy to subvert the sense of an orderly, well-structured world simply by playing with associations of light.
Ariel Marken Jack: In a similar vein, I am so intrigued by the way Rita sees the colour green as a representation or embodiment of grief – as something that devours. It seems more common for green to be used narratively to represent life, growth, and potential – as in Dylan Thomas’s green bay (though he seems to be doing something rather more complex and ambivalent with colour when he writes of the green fuse) – and I am fascinated by the image this presents of the green fuse burning down to turn the colour of life to death, as the light that green things require to grow becomes a devastation. I’d love to know your thoughts on colour as a narrative tool, and how you work with hue as well as light when you are painting a story.
Tiffany Morris: I love working with colour – perhaps that is due to that tendency to do image-heavy writing. Colour provides such an interesting dimension to a subject. It’s tremendously subjective, as well – colour could be a universal language, but we associate so many different things with it depending on our own cultural context and personal experience. ‘Hope In Her Devouring’, my story in the Chromophobia anthology, was centred on the colour blue – like Green Fuse Burning, it deals with mental health issues and is an exploration and literalisation of ‘having the blues’. Colour can be a great way to show a character’s subjectivity and build what the world looks like to them, so it’s a helpful tool for me when I want to bring interiority to the surface and say ‘this, too, is the world’.
Ariel Marken Jack: Coming back to light, another of my favourite details in Green Fuse Burning is the glowing script that appears in the sixth chapter/painting, which reminds me of a short story of yours I love, ‘Teltunget: Pattern of Speech’. ‘Teltunget’ also features a glowing script, a ‘language of light’, that evokes a truly stunning sense of wonder. Finding a similar script in Green Fuse Burning offers an interesting sense of continuity to readers who follow your work. The narrative impact feels different, as Rita’s circumstances differ from those in ‘Teltunget’, – a somewhat gentler and happier-feeling story – but, having read that softer story, seeing a glowing script in Green Fuse Burning creates such a sense of hope about what could happen for Rita if she makes it through her swamps. Were you thinking about that connection when you wrote Green Fuse Burning?
Tiffany Morris: I was, though it wasn’t intended to necessarily be connective tissue between the stories – to me, it’s part of my love of language in general! In ‘Teltunget’, the fireflies have chosen to speak to us through their own written language, and this was a speculative turn on the relationship L’nuk have to fireflies and harvesting birch bark. The light aspect is meant to evoke the wonder of illumination that learning language can provide. Many people don’t know that L’nuk had hieroglyphic language, but there’s a movement to learn and reclaim it – L’nu poet Michelle Sylliboy, for example, writes poetry and makes art in it. While I’m not trying to learn the hieroglyphic language at present, the Mi’kmaw language has given me new understanding of the world and helped me feel connected to my ancestors in a way that lives in the body, and in Rita’s body.
Ariel Marken Jack: More broadly, is creating a sense of continuity and greater world-building throughout your own body of work something you find yourself consciously reaching for? You’ve spoken before about your fascination with Indigenous cosmologies and geographies, and I’m curious to know how you incorporate that fascination into your creative process.
Tiffany Morris: That’s interesting! It never really occurred to me that these things could exist in a broader universe that I’ve built, because I think even the most strongly speculative things I’ve written resemble our reality to some extent – writing is where I go to vent about what exists and to imagine the better worlds that are possible. My short story ‘When Evening Arrives’ in the Indigenous Futurisms issue of Apex Magazine, for example, is me doing my turn at Mi’kmaw utopian futurism – I wanted something that imagined what Land Back would be like in a world healing from climate change and bringing some of that cultural understanding into it. I like the idea of bringing them together, though – this could be an interesting future project!
Ariel Marken Jack: Another point of continuity that I really love and admire in your work – both fiction and poetry – is the way you weave in Mi’kmaq words and phrases such that the fact of their presence is an integral part of the narrative. I’d love to know how studying and working with your ancestral language informs your artistic practice, and how your artistic practice informs your relationship with the language.
Tiffany Morris: Reclaiming Mi’kmaq has been such a vital thing for me as a person and as an artist – not only do I have a greater understanding of what language can do, but I feel more connected to the world around me and feel that cyclical understanding of time more keenly. By incorporating Mi’kmaw language into my writing I get to practise using it, and to bring others into the learning process with me in a normalisation of Mi’kmaw language usage. It requires some awareness of the reader as I write, but that’s okay – I want the language to be understood as I am understanding it as well, so it’s a process we undertake together, and I only bring it into stories or poems where it feels integral to what needs to be expressed – that helps me have an understanding of what the language does, as well, by letting it weave in and out of my work.
Ariel Marken Jack: On that note, I am curious about what other writers might have inspired your creative engagement with your language(s) through their own artistic relationships with and representations of language(s) and linguistic identities.
Tiffany Morris: Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer has been a huge influence on me with language incorporation; her poetry features her nēhiyawak language and is so powerful as she is a Residential School Survivor. I also love Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho in If Not, Winter, as well as Alice Oswald’s experimental translations of Homer. Oswald’s Memorial is remarkable to me – by creating what she calls an ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, she removes the narrative element to create a trauma portrait – the images left show the lives of the dead, the horrors of war, and the possibilities in narrative experimentation.
Ariel Marken Jack: Finally, when you look at your existing body of literary and other artistic work as a whole, and when you imagine the creative projects you still want to undertake, what do you see? What do you feel the work you do as an artist is about, and what do you hope your art will do in the world?
Tiffany Morris: I hope that my work shows people that sharing our suffering is brave and worthwhile, that there are alternatives to what might be considered inevitable, including and especially colonialism and capitalism and their many expressions. Better worlds are possible and already here, they exist in our human and mycelial networks of connection, our rhizomes of understanding, our ancient and evolving languages, and they can all bloom outward. Thank you for this beautiful interview. Msɨt No’kmaq. ∎
Ariel Marken Jack (they/them) lives in Kespukwitk. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Bikes in Space, Dark Matter Magazine, PseudoPod, Strange Horizons, and more. Their non-fiction columns on speculative and horror literature appear in Fusion Fragment and at Psychopomp.com. They also curate the #sfstoryoftheday. Find their writing at arielmarkenjack.com.
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