Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Limbo" by Stephanie Dray

My dead great grandmother talks to me.

She was an immigrant to this country and she feels perfectly entitled to lurk in the back of my mind demanding that I make an accounting for my life, since I have opportunities she only dreamed of. This constant nagging, this sense of inter-generational obligation, has always informed both my politics and my writing.

Of course, my great grandmother was illiterate and probably considered writing to be my most useless skill. But I still think she’d have been tickled to find out that she’d inspired a story like “Limbo”--a quirky tale about a young Italian-American woman whose dead grandmother possesses her body and meddles in her romances. At its core, though, “Limbo” is about the inherited baggage we carry through life. And I consider this story my own little tribute to the colorful women of my family, whose flaws and virtues I really could not exaggerate with my prose if I tried.

But “Limbo” was also inspired by some of the other great ladies I've learned from, including my three female instructors at Clarion East. Nalo Hopkinson encouraged me to enrich my own writing with the details of my cultural heritage. Maureen McHugh challenged me to test out different authorial voices and to give myself permission to engage in wacky thought experiments. And Kelly Link prodded me to break with convention and try my hand at something just a little bit weird. (I like to think that Kelly will appreciate that I finally found a way to work a metaphorically disembodied head into my writing.)

The night before I wrote “Limbo,” I was at a writer’s convention and someone dared me to emulate the voice of a writer I admired. I have problems resisting dares, and at the time, I was immersed in Maureen McHugh's "Mothers and Other Monsters.” I’d never written anything in the present tense before and I wasn’t sure I could do it. On the long car ride home from the convention, I felt overwhelmed by the challenge and filled with self-doubt about my chosen career path. Right on cue, great grandma started yammering about how I really ought to learn some marketable skills like goat-herding. (To be fair, she doesn’t just nag me when I’m feeling insecure. She also has an opinion on my home d├ęcor, since a lot of the furniture in my house once belonged to her.)

Anyway, the point is that great grandma’s yammering, a writer’s conference, and the collective influence of some of my favorite female writers converged on one long car ride, and “Limbo” was born.

I knew the story was a success when my writing group asked me for the recipe for pasta fagioli and started sharing tales of their own zany relatives. In those stories, more narratives about how we’re shaped by the influence of people long departed began to emerge.

You see, deep down, I think everybody’s dead relatives talk to them. I just hope that “Limbo” will help people listen to what their ancestors really have to say.

(artwork for this story (in the current issue of IGMS) by Anselmo Alliegro) (Stephanie's website:

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