Colette Arrand currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Establishment, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, and elsewhere. She can be found online at her website, or on the blog Fear of a Ghost Planet.
Here, Colette Arrand talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, transformation, and writing about video games.
When you begin to write one of your Pokémon essays, do you begin with a specific creature and its Pokédex entry in mind? Or do you write a draft free of that influence and then choose a Pokémon that befits it later? (Or does it vary from case to case?) What else can you tell us about the origins of these particular essays, “Metapod” and “Magikarp”?
It always starts with the Pokédex entry. I know my goal here, which is 151 Pokémon, so it’s not a matter of “Do I feel like writing about Merrill or Trubbish today?” because I’m not familiar with those Pokémon—they’re not mine. When I started writing these (and you can read the first two that I wrote at Cartridge Lit), it was after months of just talking to people about how weird Pokémon is as a world, if you think about it, and the Pokédex entries kind of confirmed it. I’ve been writing in response to them for this project. They trigger memory or emotion or both, and then I try to work through those and see where they end up.
While the balance is shifting now, I wrote a lot of the Pokémon essays that are out in journals before I came out as transgender, including Magikarp and Metapod. One of the mechanics of Pokémon being evolution—forced changes enacted upon monstrous bodies—the metaphor for the way my body had changed in childhood and would soon and is currently changing in adulthood seemed obvious, but shrouded enough that I could get away with something while debating how public I wanted to be about my gender, if I wanted to be public about it at all. That’s probably more obvious in Metapod—I think if you’ve encountered a transition narrative (which these essays are and aren’t), then you’ve probably encountered the idea of a butterfly emerging from chrysalis. Metapod’s an odd Pokémon in the game, one you have to really work with to get it to evolve to Butterfree, as it doesn’t know any attacks and can really only harden its shell to protect itself from other monsters. So that’s what I’m working with, this sense of biding time, simultaneously hardening oneself against attacks while remaining a tender, vulnerable organism. Magikarp works in a similar fashion, as it is an incredibly weak Pokémon whose only attack is the useless “flail,” but if you throw him into battle enough times he evolves into a dragon. Initially I had those two essays linked, but Gyrados wasn’t really working for me—it’s a theme I’d explored elsewhere, better. Magikarp I liked the central image of, this interaction with my dad, who is a man that I love but whom I don’t have a long record of communication with. It doesn’t take much to trigger that memory, either. Food that I ate in large quantity when I was younger. A restaurant that I walk past every day on my way to work and school. Ed Pavlić, who is an agonizingly great professor and poet at the University of Georgia, once told me that it was good that I couldn’t afford to travel much beyond Athens because it would make me more present in my environment. Magikarp (and other essays like it) is that theory in practice.
“Magikarp” consists of fewer than 500 words, “Metapod” only 200. Why do you write such concise essays? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint in order to achieve this economy of language?
Part of why these essays are so short is because I plan on there being 151 of them, but most are so emotionally taxing that I mentally can’t go farther than what’s on the page. I write longer essays elsewhere, but I think because I learned how to write online, where brevity is aspired to, I learned how to write a lot and then cut back some. In the case of Metapod and Magikarp, there was a lot of revision. I think the first draft of Metapod, which I wrote while proctoring student evaluations in a campus computer lab, was something like 1,200 words. But I start a new document and overwrite the old one every time I revisit an essay so I can’t really say what was or wasn’t lost except that there was a much more raw version of that essay which was explicitly about my body in a way that I don’t feel was honest. Or sometimes I’ll write an entire essay, let it sit there for a few days, and decide that it doesn’t work at all and start over again. I wrote one for Metapod’s sister cocoon Pokémon Kakuna that was also about metamorphosis, but more so about how I obsessed over transformation sequences in comic books and movies. It’s a good idea, one that deserves an essay, but the emotion of it is off. There’s a monster that’s a hard, angry looking shell with a poison stinger on it. It should stab rather than meditate, and in truth it did neither. So yeah, it’s a matter of form because they have to be short to fit together in a book and revision because I want the rhetorical point I’m driving at to be as sharp as possible, even when I’m working through some rather messy emotions.
In “Magikarp,” you tell a student that “a more impressive trick than telling me a fast-food sandwich is delicious would be to explore the reasons why.” Do you apply this type of advice to your own writing—trying to pull off the most impressive trick? How does this way of thinking manifest itself in your essays?
I wonder about that myself, because I’ve recently started freelancing and I can’t tell sometimes if the sentences I’m writing on assignment are clearly evoking an idea or if I’m noodling around with words just to show that I can. It’s a fine line, I think. That student came to me with an essay that said that we all knew why those chicken sandwiches were delicious, and as a vegetarian who grew up in Michigan all I really know about them was that Chick-fil-A had a rather miserable record of working against the civil interests of queer people, at least as far as the then-big issue of marriage was concerned. So I said it wasn’t convincing, just saying that some sandwich from some place was good. Like, when you’re telling a friend to eat somewhere you don’t just go “Oh yeah, that place is good.” You know all the reasons why. With these essays I’m trying to deal more with the why of the emotion or memory or action or conversation than the what. In truth, a lot of conversations I’ve had about my body are boring. I’m a life-long student, so most of the things I’ve done are boring, too. But there are layers and layers of thought and action that make up those things, and the trick, I think, is to access them. In the Pokémon essays initially, the trick was to unlock them and hide them simultaneously, though I don’t think that’s what I’m doing anymore. In other essays, particularly ones I’ve written about the experience of being transgender, about the early stages of transitioning, and so on, the trick is to write about it in a way where I’m not exploiting myself or other trans people while also casting it for a much larger audience. I think the difference is that I thought of these essays as very private ones, and I write for myself differently than I write for others. I’m not playing any tricks, I don’t think, but I’m using different techniques to please different masters.
In the past few years, we’ve seen writing (both literature and criticism) based on video games grow in abundance and popularity (I’ve even been guilty of such writing myself). While it’s only a small niche in the larger literary landscape, of course, video-game writing has become more visible, at least, thanks to publishers like Boss Fight Books and Cartridge Lit. What’s the appeal for you of works with video games at their center (or periphery)? Why do you think more and more people are writing and reading about video games?
Ha, the idea of being “guilty” of that kind of writing is an interesting one to me because if there’s any guilt to be had over writing about pop culture, I don’t feel it. Video games and other “low culture” items (low culture in quotes because I don’t believe in the distinction) are supposed to be taboo in literary circles, I guess, because they’re a vehicle for pure pleasure, but for me, growing up they were the only cultural objects. Television, pop music, video games, comic books, professional wrestling. That’s what I had. I read voraciously, of course, but science fiction and Star Wars novels are probably held in similar standing. If writers are coming out and writing very poignantly about video games now (and the examples you’re pointing to are proof enough that they are) then its because a lot of us have similar cultural experiences and know better than to tag things as “low” or “high” and are willing to fight for these objects as art. I know poets who stopped writing poetry and took up game design, and I know novelists and essayists who’ve taken assignments writing novelizations of the games they loved as children (Matt Bell’s Dungeons and Dragons novel, for instance) or games developed by people who realize how intertwined gaming and writing are. For me, games have always been a means of exploring identity in a safe space—playing Pokémon on a Game Boy, the only person who knew I had the Pikachu edition (you know, for girls) or that I had given my boy character a girl’s name was me. A book can deal with identity, too, of course, but unless you’re reading a gamebook, even a video game adaptation’s sense of identity is closed off and limited. The first question Pokémon asks you is your name. That’s an enormous power to give to somebody. I think in video game literature you see an appreciation for that power, as well as encouragement to explore a world, make mistakes, and figure out what it means to be a person navigating through a complex societal system whose rules and functions were dictated by people you’ve never met. That it’s possible (even encouraged) to break that system is tremendously empowering.
What other writing projects are you working on now?
Beyond this, I’m working on a few things. At Entropy I’m writing a series of essays about famous and infamous wrestling matches (SHOOT FIGHT), and at Queen Mob’s Teahouse I am writing about music videos (ADD/MTV). I’ve been writing movie reviews online for seven years through my blog, Fear of a Ghost Planet and recently started self-publishing zines. I’ve done one about the poetry of pro wrestling interviews, am working on the second issue of that, and am also working on zines or ongoing projects about queer movie villains and Star Wars fan fiction focusing on the mundane daily lives of ridiculous spacefaring superheroes. In my spare time, I’m learning how to write comic book scripts and have thought about game design as a means of storytelling, but I also need to finish my degree, so those things are likely on the backburner until I free up some time, somewhere.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter, Motherlover by Ginger Ko, The Bruise by Magdalena Zurawski, Binary Star by Sarah Gerard, Nevada by Imogen Binne, and A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett, as far as what I’ve read in the past three months. And zines. God. If you have a niche interest (and you do), there is a zine out there for you. The ones I’ve loved most recently are Shotgun Seamstress, The Atomic Elbow, Pro Wrestling Feelings, and Merrit Kopas’ These Were Free on My Blog.