“Our minds are not monogamous. We have a need for trust and long-lasting relationships but also for novelty which is at odds with long-term monogamous relationships. Dreams and fantasy fulfill that need for novelty and I find that interesting. In a tongue and cheek way, we’re wired to have it both ways, to have our cake and eat it.” — Susana Medina
We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner post, we are featuring a guest post on “Oestrogen,” Susana Medina’s story in Best European Fiction 2014, from University of Utrecht student Cormac McGee. Using “Oestrogen” as a starting point, McGee explores Medina’s fiction–in particular her interest in the relationship between dreams, fantasy, and reality.
The Dream World of Susana Medina
Susana Medina sits in her home studio jotting down short notes: “sexy alien abductions”, “sex and the big toe”, “undress him with your teeth”. She wishes she could write while cozy under the covers of her bed, but not enough natural light reaches there. The desk makes everything easy, and now she’s scribbling furiously. The result is a 350-word chunk of sexual headlines that reads like the covers of the Cosmo magazines Medina used to read as a teenager. The spontaneous list is an extension of many women’s magazines’ obsession with sex – “sex any time of the day, advanced sexology, sexercise, why we like sex so much” – and it goes on and on.
This sequence is one of the standout points of Susana Medina’s short story “Oestrogen,” which represents the Castilian writers of Spain in the 2014 edition of the Best European Fiction anthology. The piece is an adaptation from Medina’s “forever unfinished” book, Slumberville, a Spanish-language novel about dreams. Medina explains dreams are extremely difficult to write about because they’re highly private and ungraspable affairs. “I adapted a few bits from Slumberville and worked on a story for a month. The end result didn’t work well,” she says. “So I went to bed and asked my dreams, can you please help me? My dreams really behaved, as it was a dream-related request. I dreamt I should adapt the sections with the Sexual Arousal Studies. ‘Oestrogen’ is a story with a story.”
In “Oestrogen,” we see how dreams can affect a person’s reality. The story follows Eureka, a part-time worker at a Sleep Research Institute in charge of conducting a study on sexual arousal during sleep. A self-described “erratic thinker”, Eureka takes us on a trip through her sometimes uncontrollable fantasies. Bored with work and frustrated with the lack of intimacy between her and partner Toshi, Eureka turns to an exciting and extreme fantasy world to keep her entertained. Seemingly innocent at first, we see the danger of letting a fantasy become too real through Luciana, the divorced volunteer in the study, as well as Eureka’s own disappointment when a set of twin volunteers she’s been playfully dreaming about cancel their appointment.
But as her sexual frustration with Toshi increases, so does her fantasy life and she struggles with balancing her promiscuous erotic “existence” with the reality of her contented domestic life. As Eureka tries to separate her parallel lives while doodling an oestrogen molecule, we’re reminded that her desires could be part of a chemical joke by a simple, yet curious biological function. The audience is left with the difficult and somewhat scary question of whether we’re free in our fantasy lives or if we’re just the product of our hormones.
But sex is just a launching point for Medina to explore the thrill and intensity of the unknown. Eureka takes us on an erratic trip through the foxhole of her mind filled with fantasy, self-doubt, frustration, excitement and spiking levels of happiness. She shows how safe and crippling our dreams can be. For Eureka, they were a private territory where she could practice the promiscuity she would avoid at all costs in real life, then revel in it while awake. But she eventually finds – in fantasy and reality – it’s difficult to top the first encounter. We’re all eventually bored with our fantasies, no matter how wild they may be. As Medina writes, “Their allure came down to the enigma of the unknown.”
Susana Medina was born in Hampshire, England in 1966 to a German mother and Spanish father. At an early age they moved to Valencia were she would be brought up. She grew up with a comparative study of these three countries and from realized from an early age how subjective habits and customs are. “There are no rules,” explains Medina. “Rules are conventions.” She began writing “awful” poems at 14 years old, that same year she came across Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. “This book really blew my mind,” she says. “I thought writing was such a wonderful thing to do: to share the music and cacophony of your imaginings, thoughts and ideas, by means of pen and paper.”
Inspired by book jackets that detailed various authors’ lives who moved from their homeland to pen their novels, she moved to London at just 19 on her quest to become a published writer. She succeeded six years later with Trozos de Una (Chunks of One) winning a Generalitat Writing Grant. But writing wasn’t exactly in Medina’s blood. Her mother was a personal assistant at a German chocolate maker and her father managed a small freight company. She was the first person in her family to go to university, studying at University College London. Writing first excited her because of the bodily pleasure words can produce. She explains that the way writing flows creates an aesthetic pleasure that has to do with sound and images. But that’s not just it. For Medina, writing is so much more:
“I write to share ideas, atmospheres, to make people laugh and wonder. To be able to live so many lives, to generate something that is transformative, to challenge myself, to communicate an energy, a pulse, an internal movement, to blow life into something unknown, something that is fumbling within me, to have my own space instead of being constantly at the mercy of external events, to encounter the marvellous, to think, to grasp a thought, to be able to explore taboo areas with the alibi that you’re a writer, to be political, to denounce social injustice, to be moral and amoral, to extend the horizon of the possible, to convey beauty, to fail and to succeed, to meditate on life, to process experience, to convey different emotions, even confusion, to subvert reason, to explore the irrational, to squeeze meaning out of the ordinary, to engage in dialogue with the unknown, to lose my sense of self, to explore different parts of myself and share this experience with the reader who will then explore different sides of themselves.”
This is not the first time Medina has explored this battle between sex, biology and the mind. Her latest collection of short stories, Red Tales, delves into the topic on various occasions. In the story “The Space of the Tangible Hallucination,” protagonist Elle morphs into a knight whose sole purpose is to save the person he/she desires. But she experiences another kind of transformation when the object of her desire begins to disgust her, showing the limits of our ability to transcend our biology. But “Oestrogen” is special for two reasons: its writing process and form.
Wanting to be considered for the Spanish representation in Best European Fiction, Medina and her translator Rosie Marteau submitted “Red Tales” to the Dalkey Archive Press. They rejected the submission, but said they would be interested in seeing a new story from Medina. As she was focusing on primarily writing in English at that time and with the tight deadline of just one month, she opted to adapt parts from the unfinished Spanish novel Slumberville instead of coming up with something completely new. It was during this time she really recognized the differences between writing a short story and a novel. Short stories require more accuracy, making it more difficult for her because a novel can be an alibi for practicing the art of digression. However, when it comes to editing, “A short story is like a room, whereas a novel is like a house, so when it comes to editing, dealing with a room is less daunting than dealing with a house”. But she believes writing’s length is overrated. The story should be given what it’s worth, whether it’s three or 3,000 pages, it’s not up to us to say how long it should be.
“Oestrogen” is also very unique because of Medina’s descriptions. Take the first three words of the story: “April, orgasmic green.” This hook immediately sucks readers in and the whole opening paragraph – written in a sort of stream of consciousness style – provokes many questions in readers minds and a curiosity to keep reading, a technique Medina uses throughout the story. “Eureka” might be a somewhat ironic name for the protagonist, as the story written without speech breaks reads like one constant, fluid thought without a real “eureka!” or “aha!” moment. “’Oestrogen’ is about inner space,” Medina bluntly explains. The writing is the way Eureka’s thoughts play out in her head. But the outlandish descriptions and topics brought are bound to peak any reader’s attention. Lines like “oysters and desire”, “aggressive sensuality” and “sex infiltrates us by seeping into every one of our pores” are peppered throughout the tale.
With these intense sexual descriptions, Medina steps a bit out of her comfort zone and the language readers are used to seeing from her. But that’s how art should be, according to her. In her collection of poetry Souvenirs of the Accident, she writes “Coherence is often confused with homogeneity. In order to be coherent, art should shoot in all directions”. With this she throws out the idea that art is an order making sense of the chaos around us. “To be truthful is to acknowledge that both chaos and order constitute us, and that chaos may have, after all, the upper hand,” she says, further explaining that artists often get stuck in creating the same types of work for commercial reasons. But imagination shoots in all directions and always goes beyond commerce.
There may be no better way to explore this theory than through our fantasies, where we take on extraordinary personalities and circumstances. With “Oestrogen,” Medina explores our sexual fantasies through our minds excited by adultery. “Our minds are not monogamous,” she says. “We have a need for trust and long-lasting relationships but also for novelty which is at odds with long-term monogamous relationships. Dreams and fantasy fulfill that need for novelty and I find that interesting. In a tongue and cheek way, we’re wired to have it both ways, to have our cake and eat it.”
But that’s just one corner of our fantasy lives, and it’s exciting to see where she’ll explore next.