Poking Taboo Switches

Chana Porter in conversation with Kelly Jennings

Photo by Kathryn Vetter Miller

Chana Porter (she/they) is a playwright, teacher, MacDowell fellow, and cofounder of The Octavia Project, a STEM and writing program for girls, trans, and nonbinary youth that uses speculative fiction to envision greater possibilities for our world. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and is the author of The Seep, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her new novel The Thick and the Lean is out from Saga/Simon & Schuster April 2023.

Author, teacher, and Interzone reviewer Dr Kelly Jennings spoke to Porter about sf sex, operatic Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and falling in love over cheese sandwiches. (Kelly’s review of The Thick and the Lean will be published in Interzone #295 – subscribe or pre-order at interzone.press…)

Kelly Jennings: I really loved the descriptions of food in The Thick and the Lean. I think when I reached the part about Beatrice making a cheese sandwich for her prospective lover, that’s where I became your fan for life. In the novel, food and the act of eating is the focus of one of your society’s religions – I guess the major religion in the culture – and one which influences nearly every aspect of that culture. What are you up to here?

Chana Porter: I’m so pleased to hear that! I, too, have fallen in love over a cheese sandwich.

The first kernel of the idea was to infuse the sexual shame I felt as a young teenager into a story about cooking and eating. That was the early inspiration for my main character Beatrice locking herself in her bedroom, promising herself ‘just once more and then never again’. A taboo switch is a well-known sf trope – what if there was a world in which this basic thing was treated very differently? But the more I poked at the food/sex taboo switch, the richer and more complex it became.

Growing up, I often felt like I was supposed to be desired but not have my own desire. To be without appetite. Food, especially in recent decades, has attracted its own purity culture. Eating clean, cheat days. This messaging starts young and can follow us our whole lives. Right now, my can of sparkling water declares that it’s ‘guilt-free’.

After I built the personal arc for my first main character, I followed how the massive taboo switch would impact the world in terms of culture and politics. So while the book is still very much about food and sex, the story also explores land rights, Big Agriculture, even reality television. It was very fun to write.

Kelly Jennings: This is kind of connected to the previous question. In The Thick and The Lean, the culture is…I don’t want to say sex-positive, since some of the sexual encounters in that novel don’t seem positive. Sex-centered, maybe? Can you talk about how you’re using sex in the novel?

Chana Porter: Certainly. Because sexual pleasure is totally destigmatized in the dominant culture but food pleasure is highly taboo, I wanted the gaze of the book to feel lascivious when characters ate or cooked, but sex to be treated like waiting for the bus. Boring, normal. This normalcy can serve the plot nicely. When a character finds themselves much more attracted to someone than they’ve ever been before, it elevates the familiar into the sublime. Sex is no longer ordinary – now we have an event that shapes the action going forward.

It’s a bit like the really stunning cheese sandwich. We all eat, every day. But sometimes a meal is very special. Did I just compare falling in love to cheese, again? Wow, two times in one interview.

I really like your take: sex-centered versus sex positive. There are definitely some aspects of the culture, especially in the opening of the book, that I admire. Particularly the way the young people are warned not to use each other as ‘trampolines’. Important to think about with dystopian world building – it can’t be all bad. Because that would make things so much less interesting.

Kelly Jennings: I love all the LGBTQ characters in your novels. (As the parent of a trans son, I especially enjoyed the trans main character in The Seep.) I recently read a book by Kit Whitfield, in which a lot of the characters are neurodivergent, and in her afterword, she talks about why she ended up having so many ASD characters. Can you talk about why you have so many LGBTQ characters in your writing?

Chana Porter: Hi to your son!

I came out as a queer person in the late 90’s. Of course we didn’t say queer then. (For a long time I was a confused bisexual or a failing lesbian.) And we had very few words to engage with gender 20 years ago.

I do think The Thick and The Lean is a queer novel, but it is different from my other work. I’m writing in a world where sexuality is such a non-issue that most people are bisexual without ever needing to come out or take on a label. No spoilers here but it was important for me to write a bisexual character who has significant relationships with a woman and a man. There is also an ace (asexual) character in the book. The language around her identity is intentionally clunky, as she does not live in a society that validates her sexuality. Not everyone wants to have sex or experiences sexual pleasure. I wanted to highlight that experience as well, in this world that is so sex-centered, as you aptly put.

Kelly Jennings: I saw on your bio that you’re a cofounder of the Octavia Project. Butler is one of my favorite writers. Can you speak to ways she’s influenced your work? Who else would you consider a big influence on your work?

Chana Porter: I’m interested in how speculative fiction can influence the way we understand our current reality. It’s powerful, to recognize the world around you is not static or natural, but a series of choices that we have agreed to collectively and historically. That’s why I cofounded The Octavia Project – to empower young people to create their own stories as a way to think critically about our current world.

I found Octavia Butler when I was 19 in a public library. By some stroke of luck, I pulled Dawn down from the shelf. I had no idea who she was. And that book rewired my brain. I don’t think I would have written The Seep without the Lilith’s Brood series – an alien invasion of Earth that solves as many problems as it creates, and thinks so expansively about gender and sexuality.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Rachel Pollack, and Samuel Delany are probably my other biggest influences. I’m definitely standing on the shoulders of Jeff VanderMeer, N.K. Jemisin, Victor LaValle, and China Miéville as well.

Kelly Jennings: What’s your workspace / work routine like? Where and how do you write?

Chana Porter: Currently I write all over my house. I don’t yet have a dedicated workspace. But I’m also not someone who likes to sit in one place for long. I typically write at a desk in my bedroom, then I move to the kitchen table. I used to work in cafes but now I talk to myself too much to be around strangers. The dog and I go for walks every day. Often when I’m deep in a project I’ll talk to myself while I walk, sometimes even taking dictation on the phone. (And I wear headphones so my neighbors think I’m having a phone call.) My new hobby is learning to play the drums. That’s a great writing break activity. While playing the drums, particularly just doing repetitive drills on the practice pad, I sometimes get good ideas. I also have a mini trampoline that I like to bounce on and stare into space. Anything that gets my blood flowing helps.

I rotate between projects. My best editor is often time – if I put something away for a while I can see its issues or missed opportunities. Often I put a novel or a play on hold for a month or more, then I go and work on something else in the meantime. I will repeat this process many times before the project is done. I vacillate between what I call ‘sprints’ – working intensely on drafting a new project – and editing. These two modes require different things of me. I feel lucky to get to do such varied work.

Kelly Jennings: You write plays as well as fiction. Are the plays SFF? How does being a playwright influence your novels? Or does it?

Chana Porter: Currently I’m writing the libretto for an opera by the composer Ted Hearne, adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful novel The Dispossessed. So that’s a direct connection between my life as a playwright and my life as a novelist. I also wrote a play about Mary Shelley, who some people call the originator of science fiction. But in general, my plays are not strictly SFF but they’re never kitchen sink realistic dramas. I’m interested absurdist and surrealist theatre, and language driven forms. Caryl Churchill is a big influence. I was a playwright first, so I’d say dramatic structure influences my prose writing, as well as working from images.

Kelly Jennings: This is a question I ask everyone: My kid once pointed out to me once that all my work was about revolutions, which was something I had never noticed until then. What would you say all your work is about?

Chana Porter: What a great question. In the broadest terms, I would say all my work is about God, or all about love, which might be the same thing. Thank you for these lovely questions.

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com

IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.

You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.

Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!