Interview: Jennifer Marie Brissett

Jennifer Marie Brissett is a British–Jamaican American writer who lives in New York and is currently on staff at the Gotham Writers Workshop. Her writing explores identity and humanity in interesting and moving ways. Her novel, Elysium, published by Aqueduct Press, was a finalist for the Locus Award, appeared on the James Tiptree Jr. Award Honor List, and received the 2014 Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award. A former bookstore owner, her extensive love and knowledge of books comes through in her work. “Kamanti’s Child” is an example of that.

Uncanny Magazine: On your website, you say “Kamanti’s Child” was inspired by Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are a lot of different themes that the two stories touch on, including motherhood, fleeing danger and oppression, unlikely and uncertain alliances, and a supernatural bond between parent and child. What were you responding to, and why did your response develop the way it did?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: I read Beloved a long time ago and it has never left me, a truly haunting tale (pun intended.) The image of the encounter between “Sethe” and the little white girl in the wilderness who helps bring “Denver” into the world has stayed in my mind over the years. Morrison seems to even suggest that in utero “Denver” herself conjured the girl to appear. It was such an alien encounter that I thought, what if I made it really alien? What if the two were so different that communication was all but impossible through language? How would they speak? How would they see each other? And as I wrote, I discovered that compassion has its own language. 

Uncanny Magazine: You say compassion has its own language. Is this something you see in the world around you? Have you explored it in any of your other work? Is this a language that can be taught, or is it something that must be instinctively understood?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: I think we can see compassion in our world. Not as much as we need, but human beings are capable of it. I think it comes from a well of empathy, and empathy comes from being awake. What I mean is that we need to be alert enough to recognize the feelings of others. If you are dead to that, you are dead to compassion. This is what the unborn child inside Kamanti forces her to do—to not give in to her anger and fear. This was the context for Kamanti’s growth. She is forced by her predicament to spend time with “an other” and thus begins to “see” her. Compassion can be taught, but not through language, but through action and experience. Some are born with a well of it. Others must learn. 

Uncanny Magazine: Let’s talk a bit about magic. You have two different types of magic that are central to this story. First there’s the ability of mothers to speak to their unborn children, and then there’s the old magic of the nanathi. What made you decide to use two types of magic, and is there a reason you chose one that was more driven by instinct and one that was a product of a lost craft?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: I wanted to develop the idea of Kamanti’s race being old and far more advanced than how they seem by first appearance. So I wouldn’t call what is happening in the story as magic. To paraphrase Clarke, any technology might very well seem magical to those who didn’t understand it. The nanathi is not magical, it’s lost technology, a remnant of knowledge that Kamanti’s people once possessed but that her particular tribe has chosen to forget. Kamanti’s communication with her child is not magic either. It is a heightened ability that mothers of her race have when they are with child. The child’s ability to “know things” in utero may be the most magic in the story. An unborn child is caught between two worlds—not yet born into this life and yet very much alive. What would pregnant mothers hear if they could truly speak with their unborn children?

Uncanny Magazine: This story gives us a lot to think about when considering who is other and who is othered. Since we move through the world locked tight in Kamanti’s perspective, the bigger picture of what is happening is only revealed in small glimpses. It’s a good reminder that who we are and how our actions are perceived changes with context. There’s a lot of that kind of exploration in Beloved, too. Was this an intentional similarity, or is it perhaps something that just generally interests you?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: What is happening around us is always shaped by context, and I love to explore ideas of perception. What one person sees versus another depends on point of view, which is a sum of history, culture, and language. Point of view depends on so many things related to how much exposure, or lack thereof, to communities outside of the one with which we are familiar. We must embrace the idea that there are multiple ways to see the world and that each point of view has value.

Uncanny Magazine: The way that context shapes and informs our identities and actions is something that you’ve also explored in your novel, Elysium. Can you talk a little about the way that took shape?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: The book took shape around the idea that our bodies and life circumstances may change but who we are as an individual remains intact. It’s kind of a contradiction—remaining the same if who we are on the outside changes. Yet somehow it seems to make sense to me that the essence of you, the being in you, the spirit, the soul of you, would maintain itself while the context of our existence shapes how we react to circumstances. Not saying that we don’t grow and adapt as we learn and experience new things. We do. But the context of our individual situations helps to shape that growth.

Uncanny Magazine: Finally, what’s coming next from you, and where might we find it?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: I’m currently working on my second novel, which is a sequel to Elysium. It’s called Eleusis and it’s technically and emotionally the hardest thing I’ve done to this point, so it’s been taking me a long time to complete. I’ve been making sure to take time off here and there to take care of myself while working on it.

Uncanny Magazine: Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your work with us.

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is the reprint fiction/poetry editor and an interviewer for Uncanny Magazine. She is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast. To find out more, visit www.juliarios.com.

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