Interview: Elizabeth Eslami

Elizabeth Eslami

We talk to Elizabeth Eslami about her story “Mata Hormigas” which appears in Neon #18.

The theme of computer worlds and alternate computerised identities is interesting. Have you ever participated in an online world? What do you think of them?

I haven’t participated in an online world like Second Life, or some of the other current simulated reality environments out there. Frankly, they scare me! I feel like I’m doing well to navigate this world. However, I can see the motivation for assuming an alternate identity. Who doesn’t want to escape their personality from time to time, or re-invent themselves? I suppose I find the idea behind these computer identities more interesting than the practice itself. Recently I attended a lecture by an MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, and she discussed the ways that these simulated life programs – and robots – have come not only to fill the roles of humans in society, but even perhaps improve upon them. This is a controversial issue, certainly, and something I find fascinating to explore via short fiction.

Do you think that actions taken in a computer world “matter”? In what way?

Simulated reality actions might not have the same impact as, say, cyber stalking or identity theft, but they matter in the sense that one’s participation in such a world – and the particular identity chosen – probably reveals something psychologically important about them. Does having a cyber-girlfriend constitute cheating? Maybe, maybe not, but I sure wouldn’t like it if my husband had one! It’s certainly a murky issue, though. An alternate identity could be simple escapism, or it could be an outlet for more dangerous, self-destructive impulses, and it’s hard to draw the line between those two. Can you purge a negative impulse by creating a second self, or do you ultimately end up feeding the impulse each time you adopt the identity? What I liked doing in Mata Hormigas was having an adult and a teenager both explore cyber-identities, and showing their different responses. The teenager makes a stupid decision in real life, but her avatar is socially conscious. The father is a decent man in reality, but he lives out a permanent mid-life crisis in the cyber universe.

The ending of Mata Hormigas seems to come from nowhere, and yet is oddly fitting. What is your take on it? How did you decide on this ending?

The story begins with the mother going out to purchase ant poison, and much of the narrative revolves around this action. There is the sense that something has invaded this home, and the characters think, falsely, that they can control the situation. They try, and yet everything unravels. I wanted the end to mirror the scene in which Eden and her mother stand in the kitchen and watch the helpless ants eating the poison. There is something quite tragic about it, with the helper ant, and the trails the ants try to establish, all the ants acting on an impulse of self-preservation – outside, it’s raining, and when we escape inside, there’s food and survival. Of course, that’s not the case, and ultimately, there’s confusion and death. For the humans at the end, when the torrents of rain begin to fall, there is similar confusion. Everyone leaves their houses and looks to others to tell them what to do. I wanted readers to acknowledge the thin line separating the two worlds.

The use of several different names and identifiers for each of the characters is, in a way, humorous, but also quite challenging. What kind of effect did you hope to achieve by this?

I was trying to appeal to the theme of duality. Two worlds, real and simulated, ant and human. Each of these characters looks at himself/herself as a complete, multi-faceted person, but at others one-dimensionally. Eden sees her father as a slob and a simpleton, not as a man who fantasizes about riding a motorcycle and banging a redhead. The husband looks at his wife as merely a sanitized wife, not someone who made out with a floor buffer and left her panties in his truck. The truth is, they are all of these things: mother, wife, slut. Daughter, sister, punk, future teenaged mom. I wanted to give a nod to that through the narrator’s voice.

“Eden”, given the theme of identity, is an intriguing choice for a name. How important do you think names are, both in fiction and in determining a person’s identity?

Well, I chose Eden because, in some ways, she is the most hopeful character in the story. Though at the end, she is a pregnant teenager, she is the only person with empathy, and the only person who can really step back and see what’s happening in the world around her. So she has the opportunity to re-create herself, to save herself even. Hence the Biblical notion of Eden. Also, truthfully, I chose it because it’s become a rather hip name lately, and I think there’s something weirdly ironic in the way that parents seem to choose ever more original and/or odd sounding names for their children, and yet they become trendsetting names, so that you suddenly have a million Montanas and Jetts running around, and it’s impossible that they could all grow up to be such “original” individuals. It’s a high bar to reach. What if you’re named Apple, but you lead a completely ordinary life? Is that a disappointment to your parents, or to yourself?

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Elizabeth Eslami received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in Apostrophe, Thin Air, The Steel City Review, The G.W. Review, Bat City Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, Coe Review and Beeswax Magazine. Her first novel, Bone Worship, will be published by Pegasus Books in Winter 2010.