No. 24: Carrie Messenger
Q. “I couldn’t remember before the Dust, but my sister could. She had two years on me. She was four when the Dust came.” Do you see anything in our lives functioning like Dust in this story, changing the world so deeply that it’s hard to remember the time before? Natural or manmade: natural disasters, or smartphones, or something else?
I was a senior in high school in 1989, and then served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, the former Soviet Union, after 1989. The world I was born into, and the world my Moldovan friends were born into, disappeared some time between 1989 and 1992. But I suppose every generation has that kind of frame. I’m most comfortable with the technology that came out when I was still in college. Everything else feels like science fiction of the not-too-distant future, in which we are condemned to live the rest of their lives. I have a younger brother and sister, and I liked to inform them about the world before they were born, even though there was little I could remember about it. But I told the stories enough that I started to believe it.
Q. A matter of capitalization: the lowercase “dust” against the uppercase “Dust.” How does the proper-izing of an otherwise ordinary noun change the way one writes about it, or reads about it, in your mind?
When I took German in college, I loved how the capitalization in that language seemed to personify everything. And because of the Grimms, there seems to be something so German about fairy tales. When I was watching the Ken Burns documentary about the Dust Bowl, I kept thinking about the way that the people being interviewed discussed the dust so intimately, a destructive force they couldn’t help but breathe. I wanted to give their enemy a name. But I was also thinking about Phillip Pullman’s Dust in His Dark Materials. In that trilogy of novels, Dust is potential. L. Frank Baum was looking for a secular fairy tale, and so was Pullman. I think Pullman’s Lyra and Dorothy would like each other.
Q. In the story, Dust threatens not only our reality, but the reality of Oz. It jumps between genres, between imaginations. Do you see other events—again, natural or manmade—occurring the same way? Threatening not only our own lives, but the made-up ones in our books and movies?
I think nonfiction is always falling into fiction—the historical facts, the disasters, the tragedies, that can only be understood once they are transformed into something else again. I just watched the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. In the movie, Los Angeles itself jumps from genre to genre and is destroyed over and over again, sometimes in disaster flicks, sometimes in dystopias like Blade Runner or retro noirs like L.A. Confidential and Chinatown. And I just watched the movie about Guatemalan immigrants from the 1980s, El Norte, which in many ways is a retelling of The Grapes of Wrath. The story of disaster coming to the countryside and flight to the city is not just an American story, but the planetary story of the last few generations. In my story, it’s Kansas to Hollywood. In Nigeria, it’s the countryside to Nollywood. In India, it’s the countryside to Bollywood. The city is beautiful but unsustainable and unequal.
Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor Joel Hans.
Carrie Messenger’s piece, “Children in the Time of Dust,” appears in The Emerald Issue of Fairy Tale Review.
Once it was dirt. It was in the ground, it was the ground, it stayed at our feet. Now we call it Dust. It’s in our hair, our eyes, our lungs, coating the house in film, whistling at the door for us to let it in. It lives in the whorls of our fingertips. It can’t be washed away, not with soap or water, no matter how hard we scrub.
Every day we compiled a list of new metaphors for the Dust. It’s like a curtain, a wall, a scrim, a screen, a death. I couldn’t remember before the Dust, but my sister could. She had two years on me. She was four when the Dust came. We weren’t sure which one of us was better at the Dust metaphors, because of what she could remember, because of what I couldn’t. What do you remember before the Dust? I asked. She told me, You could see the world and touch it, press it, without a barrier between you and it. Everything was realer then.
It’s the world, I said. That’s what changed, the world isn’t the same. It’s the Dust, she said. If we could clean the Dust, the world would be back. We just have to scrape at it.
You’re both right, and neither of you, said our mother.
It was the Dust Bowl, but we couldn’t eat it. That was a cruel metaphor. There was nothing to eat that the Dust wouldn’t get into, so that everything had the chalky taste of Dust. Soon, there wasn’t anything to eat at all. The Dust suffocated the plants, a vine, a snake, a squeezer. The garden withered. The Dust choked the hens. They laid Dust and not eggs, and then nothing, not even when we brought them inside with us to roost in the kitchen in crates. We couldn’t keep the Dust out, not even with quilts and patches for quilts tucked into the cracks and crannies of the house, at doors and windows. Not when we swept all day. We’re Cinderellas, said my sister. That was ash and cinders, I told her. Not Dust.