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The Transformation Chase


The transformation chase is my favorite thread that binds ancient myth, folk traditions, and modern fiction. In a transformation chase, hunters and prey alternate changing their identities--not just who they are but what they are--to either connect or protect.

In ancient Greco-Roman myths, many personal transformations were singular, magical, and transhuman. Zeus changed into animals and objects to mate with women, usually by force. Daphne changed into a tree to prevent Apollo from doing the same to her (pictured above). In fairy tales and other folk traditions, characters undergo magical changes to escape imprisonment, rape, death, and cannibalization. Sequences of magical change include the transformation chase, the obstacle chase, and the series of transformations meant to break a hold on the changer's body (as in "Tam Lin" or "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"). In my favorite of these, the transformation chase, the pursuer and the pursued transform alternately in a call-and-response until the chase ends.

My favorite novels all the way back since childhood have followed a character arc that is something like a metaphorical transformation chase. My favorite novels to read--whether or not I think they are actually the "best" novels--are weird, wild, and follow the adventures of a character who changes not just internal qualities like beliefs, personality traits, and habits but actual social identities. These novels can be magical (as in Virginia Woolf's Orlando) or only magical-feeling, because the boundaries transcended in them are shocking but not impossible. The identities destroyed and replaced are social constructs such as tribal or ethnic identity, caste, legal status, profession, family relation, or gender. The wilderness the main characters run through is a social and moral chaos rather than the literal forest of ancient myth and lore, and the forces that help them along the journey are no less mysterious for being scientifically plausible.

These stories share a certain progression of energy and frantic development that has spoken to me on a deep level since I was a child. I grew up in a way that was peaceful and ordinary on the surface, but there were always undercurrents of wild, dangerous mystery tangled up in the roots of my family tree. My parents both deliberately crafted themselves into the parents they wanted to be rather than the parents they had. And surely they were not the first in their own families to do so. My family histories (probably along with most Americans') are filled with murky memories, rumors of questionable parentage, secrets covered in so many layers that the reasons for concealment have been forgotten, and shifting identities--national, ethnic, racial, religious, political--to escape persecution, claim a place in the world, and survive another generation.

In my youth, I understood instinctually that a flexible identity was critical to survival, and that to be an authentic member of any social group paradoxically required a loss of authenticity as a fully creative human being. I had persistent dreams of owning many pairs of glasses and many different pairs of contact lenses that all looked and functioned differently. I saw a kaleidoscope of contrasting truths and paradoxes. I understood that all identity is performance, whether conscious or unconscious.

It made me feel lonely, isolated, and strange to see the world this way. In those days before Photoshop, I made a paper-and-glue collage to represent the awareness inside of me that never slept: a serpent made of lidless eyes seeing in every direction at once, set within a cold vastness composed of imagery from the ocean and outer space.

In adolescence, when everyone around me, even my best friends, sought membership within various social groups, I resisted the stickiness of labels--not because I didn't want to belong, but because I couldn't naturally conform. I went to parties and scout meetings and church services and sports games, but I always kept my eye on the exit. I was comforted by books about people who found the power to adapt to new environments with chameleon-skin quickness.

In the '90s, I switched from the insular, private school system where I had gone since kindergarten to a public school where I had only one minor acquaintance. Nothing frustrated me more than finding out how difficult it was for me--and for others I knew--to transform into a completely different person. I made new friends who were as unlike me as they were from each other. We were a loose confederacy of weirdos who took honors classes and got into mischief cleverly enough to escape getting caught. We didn't sit at any of the lunch tables but rather played hooky off campus or loitered in unsupervised corners of our crumbling, stately old school building to commit minor acts of vandalism while debating philosophical and social topics.

When the 21st century began, I took every opportunity to find further wildernesses: to travel, learn new languages, eat different foods, and experience different cultures off the beaten path. No matter how many difficulties I experienced (a couple parasites, some riots, lack of access to basic necessities, etc.), I never felt homesick, only ravenous for more unfamiliarity.

By the start of this decade, I was settled into the lifestyle my young self would have least expected: a suburban wife, mother, and church employee teaching Sunday school classes on the weekend--in my hometown. Now, my dream is to create the kind of work I have always loved to read.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Transformation Novels

1990s

Sue Harrison's Ivory Carver Trilogy (Young Adult the way I loved it as a kid: filled with sex, violence, and meticulous historical detail)

Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone

2000s

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex

Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune 

2010s

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

So these are some of the inspirations for my current work, Matka Danu Miklagarth, a tale of young outlaws and outcasts in the 11th century Danube River basin who seek identity, hope, and love as they run from forces that would consume them.

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