Discover more from The Usonian
Casey Bell on her feminist and surreal short story collection
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with Nevada-based writer Casey Bell about her new short story collection Little Fury (Metatron Press). You can order the book from the publisher here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Browse the full interview archive here.
THE USONIAN: The way your stories tease out bizarre and often unsettling situations reminded me of Kafka or Ted Chiang. Some would categorize that element as magic realism, others might call it slipstream. If there’s a genre you draw from, how would you describe your approach to depicting the “reality” of the worlds you create?
CASEY BELL: I’ve always had a hard time finding one genre that feels like a home for my writing. Maybe that’s because genre itself is such a slippery thing. In these stories, what I’m doing is mainly literary realism, but then I’m using a “very small pipette” to drop in a little bit of surrealism. I’m depicting reality in a way that is mostly recognizable, but tugging on it slightly. I’m drawn to using the surreal as a way to describe the emotional truth of being human.
To me, “regular realism” always falls short—not in novels or short fiction that I’ve read—but as a writer the confines of realism sometimes fall short in exploring really big emotional truths. So things like grief, loss, and trauma oftentimes feel surreal, dreamlike, or uncanny. On the page, they’re too big and unwieldy to be fully explored in all of their strangeness through just realism.
TU: You say that “realism falls short”—could you elaborate on what you mean by that?
CB: There’s this great Karen Russell interview where she talks about “surrealism as another set of the alphabet.” It’s a way to play with image and metaphor. You could use a regular metaphor in literary realism. Using the surreal, however, “explodes” metaphors, so that they can be much bigger. I like that flexibility, but I also love some of the stories in the collection that are not surreal. You can have a lot of emotional dynamic range without tipping a story on its side. But it’s pleasurable to break outside of those confines; there’s possibility and capacity in that. Maybe saying that “realism falls short” is inaccurate. Perhaps it’s better to say that surrealism offers an extra lane as a writer.
TU: The stories in this collection are broadly feminist—and in some cases, the stories cheekily tip their hat at their philosophical underpinnings—in “Sybil and the Saguaro,” the protagonist enters a cactus and meets the spirits of Simone de Beauvoir and Audre Lorde! What role does feminist thought play into your writing?
CB: Some of my central concerns and obsessions as a human circle around feminism. I strongly identify as a lifelong student of feminism. Because of that, a lot of my fiction explores what it feels like to live in the very sexist superstructure in which we all exist. A lot of these stories concern women who are struggling to thrive and find connection in a world where motherhood is often conflated with womanhood, reproductive rights are under attack, gender performativity is really stifling, and trans women are brutalized.
Narrative can be this wonderful sandbox to explore and call attention to the tenets of feminism by portraying characters who are experiencing pleasure, connection, and meaning because they’ve encountered feminism and been enveloped by it. In “Sybil and the Saguaro,” the character is literally enveloped by it, and the cactus becomes this metaphor for what it would mean for this character to spend a lifetime engaging with feminist thought. The story uses that metaphor to show how reparative that would be for this new mother with undiagnosed postpartum depression and a partner who is not hearing her. So this cactus is a big, in-your-face metaphor for what it would mean for this character to be so close to feminist thought, and how significant that would feel for her.
Another story in the collection, “Ways of Bleeding,” imagines what it’s like to menstruate in different scenarios and eras throughout history. That story feels very feminist to me, in that it is celebrating and focusing on the female body, including aspects of the female body that there’s a lot of shame around and that our culture would prefer to never talk about, which is really damaging. This idea that women’s bodies are deserving of literary attention, and that women’s bodies deserve beautiful sentences like in that story, feels very feminist to me. That story also subverts conventional narrative structure, the Freytag’s pyramid that we usually see in the canon. By knocking that over, the story has some feminist capabilities.
TU: In “Wax Palm and Bougainvillea,” you play with perspective, toggling between an elderly lady, Nadine, reminiscing on her life’s choices, juxtaposed with the life of her gardener, Juan Carlos. What guides you as you frame these two different perspectives, aiming to have them connect at the end?
CB: You can achieve a structure through character, through voice, through all these ways that are not typically thought of as structure. I hope this is a story that’s doing that. What guided me, shifting between these two perspectives, and even jumping around in time, is the way these two characters need each other.
In many ways, you could not have two more divergent characters than Nadine and Juan Carlos, who are both in very different stages of their lives, with different nationalities and linguistic backgrounds. But they find this connection over their shared love of nature and the plant world and their sacred reverence for that world.
In the shared space of this garden, when they’re surrounded by these plants, that becomes this access point for them to dream together, to be in communion and really “see” each other. Because of their shared sensitivity and heightened powers of observation, they’re able to fill in each other’s gaps.
But this is a relationship that can’t exist in the real world for very long. It’s fleeting. Because I was able to capture these holy moments of them connecting with each other, it was really about zeroing in on those moments more than it was about showing where they were in time and worrying about that larger structure. I was trying to hit these emotional moments of togetherness.
TU: Several stories in this collection engage with climate and environmental concerns (“Community of Caring,” “Lady of the Lake”). In Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, his book-length essay on narrative approaches to climate writing, he argues it’s often difficult to use climate in fiction because natural disasters often feel artificial as deux ex machina; they don’t organically come from characters, and yet these natural occurrences are very real. What’s your approach to climate in fiction?
CB: Climate is a complicated territory to explore. I’m definitely not convinced I’m qualified to do it or have done a good job of it. But climate occupies this weird space in that it feels both extremely real and extremely unreal. I wonder if that’s because it’s this imagined horror, sci-fi element almost. It’s because we’re living through this intense time right now. For all of my childhood and most of my life, the story was that climate change was coming. We were right on the precipice, and it was about to come. It was always looming—but now it’s here.
That feels like a big shift—not that we’ve totally admitted it as a culture. But it is real in ways that it was not for most of my life. That’s one of the biggest parts that makes it such a strange time to be alive.
A lot of my fiction is a container for my biggest anxieties and feelings of dread, worry, and darkest obsessions. Climate is in this book a lot. Climate is also one of the key questions that I asked myself when I think about motherhood, when I consider my own capacity to hope and my own ability to be open to futurity itself.
I’ve been treating climate as a surreal element in my fiction on the same level of absurdity as these giant bird-angels swooping down and plucking people from the surface of the earth (in the story “Community of Caring”). It’s at the same level of absurdity as society imprisoning women for having abortions (like in “Lady of the Lake”)—horrific. But it’s plausible in our current world, just one more force pressing down on my characters, backing them into corners.
It’s true that climate change doesn’t necessarily organically come from characters. Climate change is the result of what our society has permitted to happen, and what our society values. It’s interesting to think about the ways the individual is both complicit and a victim at the same exact time. It’s an interesting situation for a character (and human) to be in.
Climate has been added to my “list of monsters.” It’s tangled up in character and temporality. It’s fruitful to think about in narrative, but also—I legit don’t know what I’m doing, because climate change is so scary, vague, and real.
TU: Though many of your stories are raw and dark (“Luminous through the Mist”), they can be very funny as well (“Ways of Bleeding”)! What’s your equation of light and darkness, and how do you balance the two?
When I’m writing moments of lightness, joy, communion, tenderness, sweetness, and love, I always have this really big fear that it’s too saccharine and sentimental—tipped over the edge. I hate reading work like that; I hate films like that. It’s just not what I’m interested in.
I’m always aware of that, and I try to adjust for it by putting moments of sweetness and light in close proximity to moments of pain and moments of great injustice, so that they’re back-to-back. Hopefully that produces a dynamic range between darkness and light—and allows the stories to ventilate.
It also feels authentic to me in terms of emotional truth. Lightness and dark are always coexisting at all moments in every situation. When do we encounter something that’s only 100 percent completely sweet and light? Maybe there are those moments, but it’s a matter of what you are choosing and what you are open to, so I tried to make sure I’ve got my finger on this dial and nothing feels too sweet. For whatever reason, that feels more permissible.
It is a balancing act. As I’m revising, that’s one of the things that I’ve got an ear out for—what feels too sweet. And can I trouble that a little bit, these moments that feel too resolved, too sweet? Those are opportunities to introduce darkness and texture.
TU: What are you reading right now?
CB: I’ve got like 50 pages left of Alexandra Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. It is so deeply bizarre, haunting, dark, strange, and funny. I’ve been like thinking about it a lot. It’s this deep psychological departure—it’s wonderful. Everybody should read it. It sticks to you when you put it down in an uncomfortable way.
I also just started Catherine Lacey’s latest book Biography of X, which I’m really excited to read—I love her work so much.
Over the summer I read Life is Everywhere by Lucy Ives, this wonderful “carrier -bag” novel, it’s about a literal bag and we get the contents of everything that’s in the bag. That’s the novel. It’s delightfully strange, and maybe it takes several reads to really wrap your head around, but it’s also a tome—it’s a commitment.
This summer I also read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, which is wonderful. It’s about this outsider woman and at every turn she’s railing against these immense pressures to conform and to be somebody that she’s not. It’s beautiful and lonely and there’s almost a sterile quality to it, but I was very moved by it.
Can I tell you what’s on my to-be read list as well?
CB: Your Driver is Waiting by Priya Guns. Heaven by Mieko Kawakami. And finally—Chain Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. I also want to highly recommend two books that are really meaningful to me that I think everyone should read. "Dogged" by Stacy Gnall and "Happy for You" by Claire Stanford.
Casey Bell is author of the award-winning short story collection, Little Fury, out now with Metatron Press. She has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Reno, and her fiction appears in Sequestrum, Cream City Review, New South, The Boiler, Reed Magazine, The New Limestone Review and Timber. She was shortlisted for the Iowa Review Fiction Award and was a finalist for the American Short Fiction Halifax Ranch Prize, the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and the Calvino Prize. Casey is the co-director of Girls Rock Reno, a music camp for self-identified girls, trans and gender-expansive youth. Originally from Philadelphia, PA, she now lives in Reno, NV with her partner and their pug-mix, Maud. She teaches English at the University of Nevada, Reno and is the drummer and singer of the band Fine Motor.