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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Eden Robins’ short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming in Shimmer, Kaleidotrope, M-Brane SF, and the M-Brane SF GLTBQ anthology Things We Are Not. In 2009, Eden co-founded Brain Harvest Magazine along with three of her fellow Clarion West graduates.
This issue of Apex Magazine features her short story “Cape to Cairo”, which was inspired by Eden’s own travels in Africa. It’s no wonder many of her stories have a theme of travel, as she has bicycled across the United States and circumnavigated the globe. Eden was kind enough to talk with me about world travel, the unique challenges of writing time travel stories, watching tourists get what they expect, and live literature events.
About “Cape to Cairo”
APEX MAGAZINE: “Cape to Cairo” was born out of your experiences at Clarion West. Can you tell us a little about what inspired this story, and your experiences at Clarion?
EDEN ROBINS: I’ve done a lot of traveling, and everyone is always telling me I should write stories about my experiences. I have a really hard time writing true stories — I don’t know if this is because it makes me uneasy to be so baldly personal, or if I just really find it uninteresting to write about stuff that’s already happened. But I had the intention of drawing from my actual travel experiences when I wrote “Cape to Cairo.” I wrote it while rounding the corner into week 5 at Clarion West, with the final 6th week looming ahead of me. I wasn’t ready for Clarion West to end, and I was also worried that I hadn’t learned the lessons I had hoped to learn yet — that I had somehow squandered my opportunity. I didn’t actually put this together until just now, but clearly I was worrying about the workshop ending in similar ways to Alice worrying about her trip ending. Time passes differently when you’re traveling, or experiencing something life—changing like Clarion West — and you hope you come out better for it in the end, that you’ve changed or stayed the same in all the ways you’ve needed to. But it can be hard to trust that process.
AM: Alice is so lonely. I kept wondering if she was lonely simply because of the challenge of finding someone who spoke her language, or if she is just an introverted, quiet person. She can’t even remember the last time she had a conversation with someone. Craft wise, was it a challenge to write a character who has so few interactions with anyone?
ER: Traveling alone can be a challenge for introverts, even though meeting and relating to people on the road is much less difficult than meeting people in normal social contexts. I can’t say I found it too difficult to write this way, which might say something about my own tendencies. But I also think it helped that there were lots of things for Alice to observe and feel overwhelmed by, so even if she wasn’t interacting with anyone, there were always immediate sensory happenings to talk about and interact with. It also helped that I’ve been to all of the places Alice has been, so I could figure out what someone like her might be seeing and reacting to.
AM: Alice is traveling the Cape to Cairo Road in Eastern Africa, and I was very emotionally struck by the line “Alice’s time is running out, she is running out of continent” How did you go about researching the Cape to Cairo Road and the types of transportation Alice would use to travel it?
ER: I lived in Arusha, Tanzania for a total of about a year over the course of two trips. There was a clock tower in the center of town, and near the clock tower was a sign marking the spot ‘halfway between the Cape and Cairo.’ There was something sort of epic about that declaration — especially for someone like me, who was just visiting from a totally different hemisphere. It gave me a sense of my place in the world that was totally overwhelming, in an ‘oh shit, we’re all actually flying through space on this big blue ball’ sort of way.
It also has a distinct whiff of colonialism, since the sign marks the center of a trans—continental road that was eventually abandoned by the British when they were kicked off the continent. (Truth be told, Namibia was not on the Cape to Cairo Road, but hopefully I can have a little leeway for its inclusion. Namibia is worth it.) But to actually answer the question — I had Alice take the same path using the same transit that I used. Easy peasy.
AM: She’s traveling towards something that will let her see a glimpse of the future. How did you come up with the idea for this, and is it something you’d want to use?
ER: I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate time travel into a travel story, while having the method of time travel actually be something that young, naive, misguided foreigners would use for fun. Obviously bungee jumping came to mind, and so I just put time travel and bungee jumping together and was pleased by the result. I am also drawn to depictions of time travel as ineffectual, as opposed to the robust and meaningful time travel you see in most stories.
Then, of course, there was the buzz kill part of any time travel story, where you have to figure out a way to make it a) at least a little unique and b) plausible enough that people don’t get too bogged down in worrying if you’ve got your logic right. And no, I would never want to use the Time Bungee; it sounds horrible. But then again, in the spirit of adventure, I could probably be convinced to try it once.
About Writing and Travel in General:
AM: You’re no stranger to travel yourself, and many of your stories have an element of travel to them, be it traveling characters, or modes of transportation as in “The Empire Builder.” How did you catch the travel bug, and what is the oddest thing that ever happened to you while traveling?
ER: I have always wanted to travel. My parents aren’t big travelers, so I’m not sure where it came from, but I remember fantasizing about traveling as a teenager, and was both thrilled and terrified by the idea. Traveling is what I spend most of my hard—earned money on, whenever I can skip town for an extended period of time.
Here’s a story — during my first trip to Tanzania in college (a study abroad program), I was trying to do an independent study project in a Hadza forager village. I had some naive and embarrassing notions of what the people would be like, which of course turned out to be patently false. They mostly wore T-shirts and shorts and didn’t really do any hunting, for example. But when, one day, a Land Rover full of tourists from Orlando showed up, everyone in the village dressed up in ‘traditional’ garb and started dancing and singing for the tourists, and then they all went out on a hunting trip together. They also hid all indicators of modern life (plastic bottles, etc.) for the sake of the tourists and their expectations. It was fascinating. I hope they were paid well for their charade, but I doubt it.
AM: You mention on your website that you enjoy learning new languages (even if you won’t use them). How many languages do you speak, and what methods of learning a foreign language seem to work best?
ER: Sadly, I don’t have the discipline to become fluent in any language. But I have had varying degrees of conversational fluency at various points in my life in: Swahili, French, Spanish, and Hebrew. It is much easier to understand a language than to speak it. So I can understand people speaking Spanish, for example, but when I open my mouth to respond, I can barely recall a single word. My advice is to learn as many languages as you can before the age of five. Barring that, going to a country and being forced to learn and speak the language (ideally also with some lessons in—country) is by far the fastest and best way to learn a language as an adult, though it will feel like your brain is on fire.
AM: Congratulations on becoming the new host of Chicago’s Tuesday Funk! What’s Tuesday Funk all about, and how did you get involved in this project? How is the experience of hearing fiction (and non-fiction) being read live different from reading it?
ER: Hey, thanks! Tuesday Funk is a monthly live lit series in Chicago, hosted by myself and Andrew Huff, who is something of a man about town around these parts. It’s a curated fiction and non-fiction live lit series (one of MANY in the city), happens the first Tuesday of every month at Hopleaf Bar, one of the best bars ever, anywhere. I took over hosting duties from my dear friend, the impressive SFF writer Bill Shunn, who abandoned us for New York. The thing I find most interesting about live lit shows is that the qualities that make something a good read on paper are not the same qualities that make something a successful out-loud read. There are no hard and fast rules, but in general, simplicity is helpful, humor is good, the shorter your piece is, the better (really). Also, having an awareness of the pacing, timing, and cadence of your voice may seem obvious but somehow… isn’t. I’ve learned a lot about how to hold an audience by hosting Tuesday Funk, and have tried to translate it into my own live readings.
AM: Thank you so much, Ms. Robins, for sharing “Cape to Cairo” with us here at Apex Magazine, and for telling us more about how your travel experiences have helped guide and inspire your writing!