Interviewed by Sommer Schafer

Read Sasha Carney’s fiction piece, Anglerfish

Sommer: I hope other readers experience the depth of feelings for the anglerfish that I do while reading this marvelous story. Somehow, you have managed to create a very real emotional experience for me through a very fabulist and surreal story. I weep for the anglerfish; I want it freed, living the rest of its days to aplomb in the ocean’s cold depths. Thus, the anglerfish represents for me all who are living hidden and suffering and trapped in life. In what ways do you think a surrealist story can better capture very real lived experiences? How do you decide between crafting a realist story and a surrealist one, and what do you think are the differences style- and craft-wise?

Sasha: I tend to instinctively write toward the surrealist and the fantastic in my fiction work—my first major piece of fiction was a 50,000-word NaNoWriMo novel where various archetypal forces manifested in an Ontario suburb. In some ways, I feel like I’m still circling around the questions raised in that piece, although hopefully with more style and craft than I approached it at sixteen! I think the surreal opens up such rich opportunities to reveal the emotional states at play in a piece: what do your characters want so badly that it actually bursts through and disrupts the parameters of “reality”? What is being suppressed so vigorously that it can only emerge as a strange creature or undead thing? I try to never put fantasy in my work if it feels like it’s only there by force of habit: I want it well-connected and integrated to whatever larger point I’m trying to make.

I’ve also often found I have to do a lot of work to clarify the exact parameters of the world I’m building out for my readers. Readers and writers, particularly readers who consider themselves more “literary” (whatever that means!), are often pre-disposed to assume that your surrealism is only metaphor. I once wrote a short story where the main character was a fallen angel, and half the workshop read it as an ordinary bartender on their way to work! There’s a whole additional layer of “believability” you have to contend with in your craft that goes beyond forming believable characters and relationships.

I love the subtle (or not so subtle?) capitalist critique in this story: “The diner is the kind of diner that exists one thousand times over—two thousand coming soon, then three, then four [. . .].” It’s the sameness of the diner across continents that establishes capital because customers can be assured of getting exactly what they want, no surprises. But therein lies the catch, because there is, of course, a deep, dark secret that no one wants to face: the anglerfish. What happens to the diners when the anglerfish is freed?

To me, the anglerfish is a manifestation of the sheer cost of this corporate sameness, this relentless efficiency, and the expansion of copy-pasted capital across stolen Indigenous land. The only people (here, a singular person) who have to confront the anglerfish in all its repulsive discomfort is someone whose employer has effectively abandoned him with no safety net. It’s all about a process of outsourcing, of placing the consequences of the harm you are implicated in causing as far away as you can possibly get it. The freeing of the hypothetical anglerfish would upend the comforts of the diner––it would be like dumping a slaughterhouse or a levelled rainforest in the centre of a Burger King. And of course, in the Global North, we are constantly in the process of burying the anglerfish, to one degree or another.

The anglerfish’s gender is unknown and somewhat mysterious: “a barb of whiskers where there might be genitalia or might not.” In fact, gender identity and expression (or lack of) seems to be an integral part of this story. Which authors do you turn to when looking for inspiration about writing gender and sexuality?

Lately I’ve been returning to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s decolonial love poetry, Joss Lake’s satirical trans sci-fi, and Anne Garréta’s experimental genderless Oulipian novel. They’re all different in form and content, and they’ve all been huge inspirations to me in terms of producing work where gender and sexuality intrinsically inform craft.

Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?

It sounds cliché, but I’ve always been comforted by remembering that rejection is an intrinsic part of the process of sharing your work with the world. For me, if I’m not getting rejected, that means I’m not submitting enough (and I’m often not!) There’s an ugly kind of preciousness behind my personal fear of rejection: the idea that everything I write has to come out whole and shining and perfect and beloved by everyone who reads it. Which is just not how the world works! By letting myself be devastated by rejection, I’m letting myself miss out on so much of the joyful messiness of living in the world as a practicing writer.

When it comes to your writing, is it mainly inspiration or perspiration? What keeps you going?

For years, I only wrote when I had that “perfect lightning moment” where I felt like I would physically raisin up if I did anything other than write. The problem with the perfect lightning moment model is that those moments are unpredictable and don’t mesh very well with cultivating a continuous writing practice where you’re always in a state of noticing, writing, editing, reworking, pulling scraps together from the world to simmer in your head. To me, it goes hand in hand with the No Rejection Ever mentality I’ve been trying to get away from. I’ve found that surrounding myself with other writers in the midst of messy processes of drafting, editing, and workshopping has been a huge motivation to keep going.

Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!

Thank you so much!