• The Swamp Issue

    As Bad As They

    The Swamp Issue

    Photos by Tiff Cotard

    Bella Bravo is a Bloomington based author and playwright whose craft emerges from their zeal for storytelling and all its un-positioned parts.

    As Bad As They

    Bella and I first met in 2009 at a Midwest anarchist gathering hosted by our mutual friends. Bella had come from Bloomington, where they studied law at Indiana University. Though new to each other’s company, I felt their sense for language and story-generation right away. We quickly related over our favorite authors and through our care for reading and writing. It was curious to me that they were studying law, while storytelling appeared at their heart.

    Only a short while later I moved to Bloomington where I first lived in Bella’s closet. Believe it or not, that tiny room remains my favorite. At the time they were just starting to experiment with sharing stories with others. When I moved away three years later, their debut collection The Unpositioned Parts was published and they were embarking on a month-long reading tour through the Northeast.

    Now a deputy public defender, Bella still somehow finds the time to make way with words. In just the last year, they joined the Monster House Press collective (a nonprofit publisher of literature, art, and thought in the Midwest) and wrote and directed their first full-length play. As Bad As They will run live just once, at 9:00 pm June 30, in Bloomington, IN, but you can catch it streaming on the site 24/7 for a year.

    More than happy to catch up with an old friend, I sat down with Bella to talk about life, their recent endeavors, and writing process.

    How did you start writing fiction?

    Honestly years ago my partner broke up with me. After they moved back home, I had a months-long psychic tailspin until I realized that as much as I missed having them in my life I was wholly dependent on them for direction – cosmic, political, and emotional. I needed something for myself, so I started journaling pretty instinctively. At the time, I was in law school, which was a stressful program designed to disorient its participants and congeal us into a like-minded professional class. I remember I spent a lot of emotional energy keeping my two lives separate. I’m not sure where this impulse came from, but the outcome was that I wrote fiction in my journal. It was unintentional at first; I started with a piece of my environment or a gesture that I saw and wrote from there.

    Stories born out of your journal. That's perfect. Would you talk about your meaning-making from there?

    I believe in telling stories. It’s funny though, 'meaning' apparently triggers my millennialist, and I go all apostle. Sure, “I believe.”

    So, with a story, I can start to decipher my experience. Meaning happens with resonance, so to the extent that the decoding reaches beyond me, the farther the better. A story will always reflect back to myself, but I don't think my experiences are that unique or what I want to devote my energy to, but rather finding how certain experiences coalesce.

    With writing, I try to orient myself within myself and among other people. It's bigger than that, too, like the individual is a necessary part of the universe. I think that's why I get so zealous about storytelling. It's a way for me to test my contours and insist that I'm not alone.

    Like in “Young Biographies,” a long short story in my collection The Unpositioned Parts, parents and then siblings try to protect their family, their the greater whole, by withholding parts of themselves. People in my family definitely bequeath generation to generation an impulse to withhold yourself from the people whom you love. And, I had been thinking about what that does to a community, so like how people live together and how we thwart our efforts by cutting ourselves off, whether piecemeal or whole.

    What are your thoughts on community? Do you feel like you have one or are a part of one?

    I think of a community as people who feel the effects of a group whether or not they feel a part of the group or identify with it. I think this concept of community comes from feeling ambiguity in how I identify in terms of race and gender and religion. In groups that center around identity, I tend to feel alone and never fully part of anything. I think groups exclude by virtue of drawing a boundary around membership, but I think that boundary inevitably makes the group rely on those outside the group. This tension I think binds people together. A community is a way to describe how lives get bound up with together. Some can be nurturing and some can be destructive.

    Yes, I feel like I live in several communities, mostly right now I'm thinking of friends.

    What are some of your inspirations for writing fiction?

    Oh, life, I guess. But, I’m naturally a slow person; I hate being rushed. So, it takes about a year for an experience to turn up in my writing. I use writing like an emotional lymphatic system, every experience could come up in a story at some point, but it takes awhile.

    Ideas also. Writing is kind of a way to interpret and experiment with big, abstract ideas. It's difficult for me to think thoroughly and explore options without writing, so a lot of my work involves trying out various permutations or the logical extensions of an idea. So for example when I am reading someone's theory about like the mind or society, I will start to imagine what the lived consequences of those theories are and then those will become a part of a character.

    For craft guidance and inspiration, I tend to re-read short-short fiction, like Grace Paley, Italo Calvino, Lydia Davis, because they make the most of every syllable. I also love the work of poets Bhanu Kapil, Anne Boyer, and Juliana Spahr. I keep a copy of Ariana Reines’s Mercury on my nightstand.

    You've been writing plays more lately. Does it differ greatly from other writing? What is your workflow like?

    I run or dance at some point earlier in the day, like on my lunch hour. Then, after work during the week or in the afternoon on the weekend, I go to a quiet, public place and read for about twenty minutes, taking notes. And then I write. I usually start off editing whatever I wrote the previous day.

    My workflow for playwriting is still a new process. In my head, I'll see the stage, the actors, everything in action, but they're surreal images. I have to walk through the movement and gestures. That means I need space and privacy to move around while I'm writing the stage directions.

    Then workshopping a play with the actors is the best. The actors with whom I'm collaborating are lovely and so insightful. They take the lines and improvise variations, add affectations. They make the character feel and sound present. So when we run scenes, the play changes. It's the only collective writing process that I've found.

    Have social trends affected your work?

    Yeah, I think resonance is often determined by historical patterns as they shift and repeat over time. So, like, I’m the child of a Colombian immigrant and my mom is first-generation as well. Most of my family members are immigrants, and some of them have practiced/practice cyclical migration, that is they live both abroad and in the States.

    While America has always been racist and xenophobic, this election validated a resurgence of far-right populism in the West. These trends are so dangerous, and especially so as they build momentum.

    Now, Blue Lives Matter and anti-immigrant campaigns are more than the rally cries and brutal romanticisms of a niche fascist platform. Now, that platform will be a publicly funded, first-term federal agenda. And, there could be one, two, or three-lifetime Supreme Court appointments. Short of widespread civil unrest and the dissolution of the US government, that’s a terrifying possibility.

    A good example of how terrifying is the case of Hernández v. Mesa, wherein the parents of a dead 15-year-old Mexican kid are suing the US Border Patrol agent who shot and killed their son. The issue before the supreme court is whether the parents can sue in a US court. The issue is that the harm, that is the death of their child, happened outside of the US because their son was standing on the Mexican side of the border. The court is currently deciding whether border patrol can kill people in Mexico with impunity. Somehow this an unanswered question.

    And, after I read about this case I extrapolated, imagining, instead of the concrete wall promised by the administration, a human wall. Instead of a concrete wall, I imagined ‘job growth’ propaganda, a non-taxed enlistment bonus, the automation of American gun factories, and just armed border agents standing in a long dark line embossing the border. My dystopian poem basically wrote itself. I never write poetry, but I’ve been feeling disembodied lately.

    My, that is harrowing, and this is in your book's title too? What does the title The Unpositioned Parts mean to you?

    I wrote about body parts, because I'm tactilely very sensitive.The title refers to the parts of ourselves indelibly moved by circumstance. While I was writing those stories, I was thinking about how like circumstances and encounters with people shape me. But I was thinking about how I'm not totally new after every encounter and I don't necessarily lose or gain something, but circumstance definitely impacts me. The impact just feels like a transfer of energy into my body. Instead of writing about bodies being acted upon, I tried to focus at how different body parts move and mutate in response to the world, and then how the world moves and mutates in response to the changes in these body parts.

    I liked the term unpositioned, but there's a nostalgia to it, a look back, like the movement between positions is embedded in the word.

    Tell me about Monster House Press?

    Monster House Press is a small literary publisher located in Bloomington, Indiana. I joined its five-person collective last summer and started editing fiction for the press.

    Most recently, we released a newsprint anthology of poetry by people incarcerated in the local jail here in Bloomington, and all proceeds will go to providing programming inside. I'm stoked for the rest of this upcoming year's publication list, which includes Anais Duplan's poetry Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus, Lydia Dresser's anti-capitalist sci-fi novel Metabolize If Able, and a stunning collection of translated stories by Argentine writer Juana Isola.

    What do you like to do when you’re not working?

    I like visiting my friends and family (everyone lives apart), and the usual: reading, dancing, running, and listening to music, all of which are better with friends.

    My friend who is doing the score for my play Jon Meador and I have been working on a sound and text project. I hope to swim and hike and away as much of the summer as possible. Oh, maybe I'll learn to sail. That'd be sweet.

    What do you want to see more of?

    To be honest, I’m selfishly excited for a resurgence of punk. The father who raised me is a cop. My mom voted for Trump and Pence. These last few months, I’ve dreamt – both at night and during the day – about me just screaming at the top of my lungs in my parents' kitchen while all nine of my mom's tiny dogs mill around my feet. I think anger and absurdity will resonate over this next chunk of time.

    In art, I would like to see people explore narratives that are not centered on human perception, specifically the individual or the hero’s vantage point or narratives that don’t trade in money and value. Seems important given the doom of our species on earth. I'd like to see more people working with how narratives reproduce selves in society, how often we foretell our lives. I'd also like more interspecies encounters that turn on multiple perspectives and interjections. And the suspension of physical principles, how the construction of time shifts between beings into the singularity sensation.

    In general, I would like to see more people lighting candles and throwing valuables.

    Me too, definitely.
    And you have a play coming up I hope to see.

    Yes! As Bad As They premiers June 30.

    It's a comedy-drama that takes place during the first month after a guy decides to stop using. His sister tries to help but has difficulty not just controlling the situation. Last June, I wrote the story that the play's based on, “Public Figures,” after a conversation with my sister. She really checked me and got me thinking about ways to support someone without impinging their autonomy.

    The performance is on June 30 at 9:00 pm. It will run in Bloomington and on a live stream at asbadasthey.live. I want people who can't leave the house to be able to watch it. I have a close friend who is on house arrest, right now, so access is the forefront of my thoughts. I also asked a few friends in other cities to host screenings.

    All proceeds are going to Courage to Change House, a peer-operated, low-barrier halfway house for individuals and families in Bloomington. I'm concerned that in the next four to eight years we'll see insurance companies cut coverage for recovery and substance abuse treatment, and federal and state budgets institute comparable rollbacks, while jail cells re-populate and private prisons propagate.

    So, I'm hoping the live stream of the play screening in several cities will help people to identify that recovery projects exist. Both to serve a fundamental need and to show that we as individuals can help sustain projects in the future. The screenings in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit and New York will go to a local recovery program and Courage to Change House.

    You can get Bella's book at Monster House and keep up with their other writing at theunpositioned.parts.

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