By a happy coincidence, we were able to have Haralambi Markov (who let me call him Harry) visit on the very day that his story, "The Language of Knives," came out on Tor.com! (spoilers ahead, so read it if you haven't yet!)
Harry told us that the focus of this story was on the relationship of the characters, and that felt like a new direction for him, since creating secondary worlds has in the past been front and center for him. He explained that he learned this world through the act of writing about the death ritual that is featured in the story. The story led to an understanding of philosophies and practices that implied things about the larger world. He didn't use names for the characters because he wanted the story to feel universal. The story was initially drafted in a single day during his second week at the Clarion writers' workshop.
The story is told in second person, "you," and I mentioned that I felt the most successful second-person narration is used to create a mystery about the protagonist. Harry agreed with this, explaining that he wanted to create a story about a gay couple but omit the gender of the protagonist, who is an undertaker reminiscing about his life. Harry explained that he wanted to put this character in the position of having roles traditionally given to women, and to challenge those assumptions. One interesting thing that happens in the story is that we start not knowing anything about the character's gender, and then as we read on, hints start to come in that it's not a woman. By the end of the story, we discover who this character is.
Experiencing loss is universal.
We did ask the question of whether using second person narration is a "gimmick." In the case of this story, it isn't - it's used very effectively to break down boundaries between the reader and the protagonist, and also to create a screen over certain types of information about the protagonist's identity. It's almost as if we're standing too close to see everything. Harry said he felt first person narration (I) can be too melodramatic, and third (he/she) too distant, where second (you) is more open as a channel to emotions.
We talked about the focus of the story on parts of the human body. Harry explained that he'd had this idea for a while - the idea of turning a human body into a cake - and had been waiting to find the right story context for it. He says we don't talk enough about our bodies, or about sex or death. These taboo topics are very important. He wanted to deal with the physical handling of a dead loved one. In this secondary world society, there is less of a stigma placed on death. Harry spoke about his own experience with the death of his uncle, and about how he was given a chance to touch and kiss him during the funeral. This brought home his thoughts about fear of death, stigmas and taboos. He feels we shouldn't be so afraid of facing death, and that the dead should be shown respect and given a proper send-off.
Many things that are traditional are not explained. Closing off communication in this way is problematic.
In a sense, he says, the story uses death as a vehicle for the characters to think about emotions that are more difficult to deal with than death, suffusing the story with conflict and a sense of the dysfunctional relationship of the characters. The story features parent and child dealing with the death of the parent who was the child's favorite. Death is something we deal with within the family. So is dysfunction. The story deals with these things and about the regrets people feel for what they have and have not done.
Harry explained that this was a really important story for him, because for a long time he shied away from writing gay characters. He doesn't see gay couples portrayed in a positive light very often. Gay people are often portrayed as very tragic or very funny. Too often, gay people either have tiny roles, or are done wrong, or don't get a happy ending. The dead parent in "The Language of Knives" is portrayed as having been very "macho," very masculine and heroic, deserving to have a daughter from the gods. There was some wish fulfillment in the story, and some effort to widen the conversation as well as to inspire others. He emphasizes that there is no one single right way to portray gay people, but in this story he was showing what he'd like to see.
Things got very interesting when I asked him about the horror genre, because Harry doesn't consider himself a horror writer (and I'm perfectly willing to admit that it's a genre I avoid, so I'm not an expert!). He views horror as making people feel frightened. Instead, he simply wants to face difficult topics such as cannibalism, mutilation after death, flesh and its meaning. "This is all we have in common," he said. It's important to explore what is grim and difficult. This involves blurring genre lines, sometimes using horror vocabulary or dealing with monstrous transformation. He calls his writing "weird fiction" for its strangeness and moments of horror, but views it more as transformative, quiet and emotional.
We also spoke about another one of his stories, "The Woman Who Wanted to Play Miss Havisham." This story is set in a financial dystopian version of Bulgaria, in a future scenario where it has been converted into a theme park, "The Land of Classics" in which cities have been rebuilt to resemble historic cities and the people are cyborgs who believe they are the characters they have been designed to play. A forthcoming story, "The Infinite Proposal," is also set in this world. By contrast to this, "The Language of Knives" is not intended to incorporate any existing Earth culture, but to create a society as a playground for exploration.
He said he'd like to write more about Bulgaria, but that some aspects of it are difficult to work with, such as naming conventions. One Bulgarian habit is to nickname by adding -e, such as nicknaming a person named Ivan as Ivane, which gives the name a softer feeling. He finds, though, that people sometimes ask if those are two different characters, or whether Ivan is a nickname.
Working with marginalized groups as characters is very important, but must be done with caution. People often ask writers to justify why they are doing it. There is also the difficult question of whether a person who doesn't belong to a culture should be able to write about it. We should strive to approach these cultures and issues with respect, to do them justice. We must handle them gently.
Harry is thinking about expanding the world of "The Language of Knives" into a novel. In this world there would be people whose skins are in color, like the colors of the rainbow, because he wants to dissociate from the traditional associations we make with skin colors in our own world.
Harry, thank you so much for joining us and telling us about your work and your worlds! Thank you also to all of those who joined us for the discussion. This afternoon's hangout topic will be Alien Senses. I hope you can join us!
Here is the video: