Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her series, The Road to Nowhere, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She was a James A. Tiptree Award Honoree in 2018. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, and many other places. Previously an essayist for Uncanny, this is Elison’s first fiction to appear in the magazine; “Dresses Like White Elephants” is a powerful story of drag queens, and wedding gowns, and memories of a painful past.
Uncanny Magazine: “Dresses Like White Elephants” is a powerful and emotional story where the cost of a wedding dress is memories and trauma from the former bride. Your novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife examines some similar themes, and in both cases you do not shy away from painful topics like abortion and abuse. How do you approach writing emotionally devastating topics? Does your approach vary in short vs. long form?
Meg Elison: The unadorned cruelty of the worst moments of my life is so hard to share. It’s easier to dress them up and make them dance to pay their rent. I often take my worst, most complicated feelings and try to work them out in fiction. It’s cathartic and it’s a way to repurpose the bright-burning hot coals in the psyche to do something useful, like bake a potato…instead of just sticking my hand in the fire over and over. A short story can do one thing really well, but that’s all it can do. It’s a flute solo, it’s an Edith Piaf ballad. A novel can do a hundred things, and you can sit with those feelings for a long time, let them sing in chorus and tell you the whole Ring Cycle. Either way, play on and make it hurt.
Uncanny Magazine: The protagonist of this story, Beni, is a drag queen searching for the perfect dress for one last attempt to win the Hymen Games. What drew you to Beni as a character? How did his perspective shape the story?
Meg Elison: I am fortunate to live in one of America’s best drag cities, and I have friends who are performers. I’m in their audience every chance I get, throwing dollar bills and buying up brunch. I’m moved by the work drag does with gender; the way it defies the cage of masculinity and explores the prettiness and pettiness of the cage of femininity. I’ve been through a whole range of reactions in drag shows: I’ve found them uplifting and emotional, as well as misogynist and quite cruel. I started thinking hard about the folks I know who do drag from an authentic, self-reflective place. I thought about the way people often perform highly emotional songs written by women about the pain they’ve suffered AS women, and the way the meaning changes in performance by someone whose experience is different. Beni was a way for me to get close to the kind of performers I love: the ones who know intimately what it costs to be coded feminine and want to do it anyway. The Hymen Games are not for the faint of heart.
Uncanny Magazine: “Dresses Like White Elephants” uses wonderful details to create vivid descriptions of wedding gowns—what kind of fashion research did you do for this story? If you could design a dress (wedding or otherwise) what would it look like?
Meg Elison: I have an unstoppable dresslust and a real problem buying red dresses in particular. I didn’t have to research—I just thought about the wedding dresses I’ve seen at thrift stores and reclamation centers (they all feel cursed) and the fabrics, cuts, and styles I’ve browsed in my many hours of shopping. My own wedding dress was designed and made by my sister-in-law: a pleated sheath dress of white bridal satin with a wide square neckline, worn under a frock dress of apple-red bridal satin and laced up the front through gold grommets. Slit bell sleeves and waist were trimmed with tiny red roses embedded in lace and my veil was white chiffon. If I had it to do over again, I’d always get married in red. I love that dress. These days, I’m feeling a floor-length red velvet with a train, scoop neck with long sleeves and a cape. I’m a sweetheart with the unshakeable aesthetics of a villain.
Uncanny Magazine: What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Meg Elison: What every writer hopes for: compassion and empathy. I hope folks remember that every bit of labor you receive from another person is made of their hopes and pains and the terrible things they had to sacrifice to be who they are and get to where they wanted to be. I want everyone to look over hand-stitched hems and scars the same way: with love and understanding for someone who’s not like you but has felt what you feel. Surely a short story about drag magic can do that, right?
Uncanny Magazine: I love the description of wedding dresses as white elephants—costly possessions that are difficult to get rid of. But the context that people are most familiar with for white elephants is as gifts—what is the most interesting white elephant gift you have either given or received?
Meg Elison: I once received a criminally ugly statue, too big for any living room not occupied by the Pope. My friends and I passed it around—it was not identifiably figurative. It showed up every couple of years painted pink, covered in googly eyes, glittered, scratch and sniff. I think someone finally made a backyard shrine out of it. I hope it’s doing well out there.
Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?
Meg Elison: My short story collection, Big Girl, was just published in May by PM Press. PM is a local independent publisher that’s fighting for existence right now in the wake of the pandemic, so please buy it from them and keep hope alive. Also, my first young adult novel, Find Layla, comes out from Skyscape in September. It’s terribly personal and I feel naked when I think about it. So, buy my shame!
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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