“The Rock Eaters” Uses Magical Realism to Explore What It Means to Be the Other
Brenda Peynado, author of the short story collection, on writing about politics and racism through the lens of fabulism
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The stories in The Rock Eaters often have an elastic relationship with reality, familiar political landscapes or emotional struggles warped by the uncanny. Some stories fall more explicitly within the bounds of science fiction or fantasy, but most show us a world nearly known, but not quite.
In “The Touches,” humans are cared for by robots and live in airtight cubicles in a plague-filled world they call “dirty,” while they spend most of their lives in a virtual reality known as “clean.” In “Thoughts and Prayers,” families pray to cow-like angels to save their children from rampant school shootings. In “What We Lost,” humans lose body parts at the whims of an unnamed dictator. In “The Dreamers,” people “sleep about a third of their lives…but all in one go before [they] die. [They] live [their] youth and sleep away [their] old age.” In the title story, the children of immigrants—who inherited their parents’ ability to fly—start swallowing rocks to anchor themselves to their ancestral land.
I met Brenda Peynado in the summer of 2019, when Peynado was teaching at Orlando’s University of Central Florida and I was in town on a residency. Peynado sold her debut story collection, The Rock Eaters, that summer, and now, two years and one pandemic later, I have at last been able to read the book in physical form.
Peynado and I discussed underground movements, virtual Metallica concerts, lucid dreaming techniques, and the differences between realities lived and remembered.
Deirdre Coyle: “The Touches” is a story about a plague-ridden world that was originally published in November 2019. What was it like revisiting that story in 2020?
Brenda Peynado: It was really wild that so many of [the events in the story] ended up happening. Not just the pandemic, but then I also got pregnant [as does the protagonist]. So, the main character thinking about legacy and what she’s going to give this virtual reality child has been also really interesting for me. I ended up getting an Oculus Quest that first summer of the pandemic, a VR headset, and I spent most of the summer of the pandemic in VR, playing in the lightsaber dojo. I also went to a jellyfish viewing and a Metallica concert in VR. You could see other audience members. You couldn’t see their facial expressions, because the technology isn’t that good yet, but you could see their hand movements and their head movements, when they sat up and sat down. So I could see the people around me headbanging to Metallica.
I think that story came out of a feeling of isolation that I had because I had moved out to the suburbs and wasn’t really connecting with people well, because we lived so far away. I wanted to write a story where that isolation was more concrete, and a pandemic was definitely a way of doing that. Now, of course, so many of us are coming out of quarantine, where the isolation was literal. I think we all have the potential to be that isolated, and to quarantine ourselves from people, or to have quarantine imposed on us in various ways, so in that way, I’m not surprised that I would have written that story before the pandemic. It’s more extreme, but it’s something that we can all experience in really small ways, and that’s where the impetus for the story came from.
But then in other ways, [there were] things that I could not have anticipated. I knew that I wanted some people to refuse quarantine [in “The Touches”], but I always thought it would be an act of rebellion in a sort of individualist way—individuals might choose to quarantine, and there might be an underground movement, but it would be very underground. Something that people didn’t talk about because it was risqué.
I never could have anticipated how things have split along party lines, in terms of quarantining or not quarantining. I think if I were to write that story today, I would have to acknowledge the politics of that. It’s not just a small, underground movement of people who are willing to break quarantine and touch. The whole country is wracked by that divide. Who could have guessed?
DC: If I tried to imagine a pandemic, I would never have guessed that this is how it would have played out.
BP: Right? That a huge section of America would be like, “You know what? I’d prefer to risk death than not go to Wal-Mart.”
DC: It’s not at all like “The Touches” in the sense that people who don’t want to quarantine seem to be very vocal about it.
BP: Right, and the motivation seems weird. In my head, I was thinking the people that broke quarantine probably [did so] because they couldn’t imagine suddenly not seeing their family or their friends. But I couldn’t have imagined just sheer, “I want to go to Wal-Mart when I want to go to Wal-Mart,” and not “I desperately want to see my best friend that I haven’t seen.”
DC: On the one hand, the story feels terrifyingly Matrix-like with people in their pods, but there was another level where—and again, this is me reading it in 2021—it made me feel safe to imagine being taken care of by a robot while I live in virtual reality. I think that having that instinctive reaction was a little bit terrifying in its own way, that on some level I feel this way now.
BP: Yeah, that it actually sounds like a positive experience. Like, oh, my little quarantine box, all snug in my nest!
DC: In “The Drownings,” you talk about the “liminal moment when a fluid darkness answers all the questions there are to ask.” I was thinking about liminality more broadly in the collection, and especially in the stories like “The Drownings” that are narrated by teen and pre-teen girls. I wondered how—or if you do—see the liminality of that time of life informing the genre liminality of fabulism?
BP: Oh, I love that question. I do think that so much about growing up has that liminal quality because you don’t have the language to either ask the questions that need to be asked or to name the things that are happening to you. I think one of the reasons why I love writing in children’s or communal voices, or teen voices, is that they don’t have to name what is happening, and so it allows [the narrative voice] to be maybe more complicated than an adult who thinks they already know the answers—even if they don’t know the answers, they have the language for it. Language can be so limiting sometimes, once you have terms and you can quarantine them off in boxes, and understand how you feel about it.
I remember that haze of being a pre-teen. The world was happening, and the feeling of it happening was so much more important than the words. I wanted to try to give that feeling in fiction, even though I was communicating it in words. Just that feeling of, “you can’t pin this down,” or “you can’t quite name this,” and allowing it to be a little bit more expansive than the words we might use otherwise.
In the first story, “Thoughts and Prayers,” the main character is dealing with some really heavy things, and having feelings for her friend—and her mother does know the words for it, but doesn’t want to put it into words. As a result, the girl can think whatever she wants about her relationship with her friend, without having to pin it down—until, of course, she loses it.
I do think that fabulism can short-circuit so many of our boxes for things. Fabulism has to prove less about the world, because you already have short-circuited people’s logical expectations. So if you’re like, “Well, these people can fly,” then there’s less of an onus to prove exactly how and why and when they flew. What I like about using conceits for something very emotional is that you can get rid of the reader’s expectations about the logic of whatever it is and just let them feel the magic or the emotion of whatever that wild conceit is. One of my favorite parts of fabulism is that I can tackle some pretty political and large things like violence and race and xenophobia and short-circuit a lot of the reader’s expectations in ways that I know other writers can do with realism, but is harder for me to do with realism.
DC: I really loved the recent essay you wrote for Lit Hub about fabulism and sincerity. You write that you’re “insisting on a truth that spites realism.” I love spite. I’m super interested in spite. Can you say more about spite as inspiration, or motivation?
BP: That’s a really interesting question because I think my characters are often coming from a place of love, but they’re often fierce and they’re violent and they don’t do the right thing, in a lot of ways. I think that comes from a lot of my own emotion in storytelling. It comes from a place of love, but also a place of fierceness and anger, and those two things tied together are a lot of what my characters are dealing with.
I reject so much of what I read in terms of people’s reality that doesn’t—it’s not that I reject people’s reality that doesn’t fit my own, but I often reject something that feels like it’s not giving the complete picture, or that seems like it’s missing something essential about the society it thinks it’s looking at, or the people that it thinks it’s giving credence to. So in terms of writing out of spite, I definitely think I write out of love, but the spite part comes when I feel like people have been getting short shrift, or something has been excluded from the narrative, and so from that place I definitely write with a sort of fierceness in mind.
And there’s so much about realism that is banal realism. That is hard to believe when you live in a place that is so wondrous. I just feel like wondrous things are happening all around me and all the time, and even incredibly large, bizarre things happening all the time. There’s a lot of quiet realism that I love, but there’s something missing from it when I think of the grand gestures that have made up my life. Maybe it’s that I don’t feel like I have a banal life. In that way, I feel like that is a kind of realism, a kind of reality, but it’s not necessarily the reality.
DC: I often feel that reading fabulism or magical realist work better reflects how the world feels to me, what reality feels like to me. Which isn’t to say that I don’t also have many beloved works of straight realism—however you want to define that—but that’s how I think of my predilection for fabulism.
BP: I think there’s also lived reality, and then there’s remembered reality. We don’t remember those small moments, we remember grand gestures, and tie things together across different parts of our life. When I think about oral histories or family stories, it’s never been all realism. Nobody’s telling you about their day, and if they are telling you about their day, you’re about to get really bored because those are harder stories to trap people in. So a lot of times those family stories have these grand, mythic, cross-generational exaggerations, and that’s what remembered life is like.
One last thing about that—my parents came from the Dominican Republic, and they had this grand legacy that went back hundreds of years. They had all these stories about when people came to the New World, and people’s great-great-great grandparents, and all that. So for me, growing up, remembered history and remembered life were the things that gained purchase. But I think a lot of American thought is very ahistorical, especially when people move from place to place. It’s such a large country that people often don’t stay connected, necessarily, to their roots, although some people definitely do. But I wonder if that kind of banal realism does feel true to them, because there is no remembered history for them in their family, in that same way. I haven’t thought that out, but I wonder.
DC: Although some of your stories take place in unnamed countries, several are explicitly located in Florida, and one in the Dominican Republic, places where you’ve lived and spent time. How did your own sense of place impact the stories where you did decide to place the story in a specific location?
BP: There’s so much about Florida that is wondrous and interesting, and there are so many different versions of Florida, you know, there’s the swamp Florida, the upper panhandle feels-like-Georgia Florida. I grew up in the suburbs of Tampa, and there’s something so particular about that place. I reject the idea of the suburbs as a place of fakeness and sameness, because for me, there was so much hiding beneath the surface of all of those houses. Our suburban household was like a little plot of the Dominican Republic. My family friends would come over, and they were people that my parents had met back on the island, and their kids. There was something so magical about the backyard and what you could find there, and that probably informed my sense of liminality and skew, of things hiding beneath the surface that were pretty wondrous.
And also moving from being ripped up every year to spend the summer in the Dominican Republic, and how different a place could feel, even the words that you used to describe maybe the same thing, and how different they were and how even, like, strawberry-flavored ice cream in the States was so entirely different than the Helados Bon of strawberry in the Dominican Republic. So things like that just made me realize how much there was underneath the words that people use, and the surface of things, and I really loved—one of the reasons why there are a lot of unnamed countries [in The Rock Eaters] is that mish-mash, I suppose, in my growing up of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, but also how the Dominican Republic that I visited and remembered—I wish, when I lived there, it had been a homecoming, but instead it was very clear to me that I hadn’t lived there, and a lot of times the country that I remembered or imagined fondly from when I was a child was—it never existed, it was sort of skewed through the eyes of a child that didn’t really understand what was going on. And so I knew that I couldn’t name those imagined countries; they had to be imaginary, because so much of what I loved about the Dominican Republic was this imagined space.
It’s always hard returning to a place of your youth and realizing that it was never what you thought it was, or what you had made it out [to be] in all those years, that you were thinking about it romantically.
DC: Right, and you can’t know for sure whether it is the place that’s changed or if it’s your own brain, or a combination.
BP: Yeah, and I think that’s what’s so lovely about horror as a vein of fabulism is that uncanny feeling of not being able to quite pin something down. That it’s not one thing or the other and that you might never know. That’s usually what gives you that feeling of the uncanny, and the horror, the fact that you will never be able to pin something down or know its true self.
DC: Even in “The Rock Eaters,” which I don’t read as horror, it is kind of horrifying that the children are swallowing rocks. That image is very startling, even though the story itself is not horror in that sense.
BP: I think one of the stories that might be more considered horror is probably “What We Lost.” People are losing body parts, and the most horrifying part is they don’t quite know where their limbs have gone. If they had known exactly where their limbs were, it would be more of a thriller/revolution story. But instead, it’s this horror of not quite knowing where their nose is now.
DC: If you were to live inside the world of one of these stories, which would you choose and why?
BP: I really like the world in “The Dreamers” because I would really just like to sleep all at once. I’m so horribly impatient and I hate that we have to go to bed for so many hours a day, and I do like the fact that [in “The Dreamers”] you can choose and be a rebel and sleep before your time. There’s something that’s really hopeful about also being able to live your youth and choose it, in a way. I like the idea of choosing the life that you live in a more obvious way than I think maybe people think of their lives. They just think, I’m here, I’m living it, I kind of have no choice but to move forward. There’s something freeing about having consciously chosen to be awake for this moment, to make the best you can out of this moment if you are, in fact, awake and not dreaming.
Also, I live such strange lives in my dreams, and then a few hours later I wake up and I sort of forget about it. But there must be something that is so freeing about dreaming for 20 years. That is a life. What would that look like? Maybe it looks like all the stories in The Rock Eaters mish-mashed together, and that’s the whole dream.
Which one would you want to live in?
DC: I would pick “The Dreamers,” too. I think I would choose to go to sleep early; staying awake seems too hard. Imagining peacefully falling asleep and knowing that you could be in a dream state for decades seemed really nice.
BP: I’d imagine that in that world there would be a lot of people who would be afraid of what dreaming was like, and would prepare for it in monastery kinds of ways of like, “This is how you control your dreams,” and lucid dreaming. People who are like, “We are going to lucid dream. We are going to control this uncontrollable decade, or two decades, of our life.”
DC: I did once read a book that marketed itself as a field guide to lucid dreaming. I got better at lucid dreaming for a while, but then I stopped doing the things you’re supposed to do to get yourself to do that.
BP: Were you able to lucid dream?
DC: Yeah. I had this bracelet that I would touch to remind myself to check whether I was dreaming. The idea is that if the “reality check” is such a normal part of your day, it will be there in your dream, too. And eventually, I had a dream where I touched the bracelet, and was like, “Oh, I’m dreaming.” And I knew. So it did work, but then I stopped wearing the bracelet, and now I haven’t had a lucid dream in a long time.
BP: That’s so interesting. And I think it says a lot about what fiction can do, too. In dreams, we’re willing to go along with so much, even though it seems strange. I feel like once in every dream, I’m like, “This is weird!” And then I’m like, “Okay, that’s just what we’re going with.” I feel like fabulism does a lot of that, but then that reality check of, “is this a normal part of life,” or “is this a normal part of my body,” is really interesting.
I’ve only lucid dreamed once, and that was when a colleague looked at me in the hallway of the dream and said, “I don’t know you.” And I thought, “This is definitely a dream, because you absolutely know me.”
I wonder what each person’s touchstone is. What is that core part of their self that is so core that if it was confronted in a dream, they would reject it? Maybe that’s what really wild fiction does. It keeps that core moment, and keeps you in the dream by keeping that core stable. Then the rest can go to weirdness all around it.