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Interview: Sadie Bruce on “Little Girls in Bone Museums”

 Tell us a bit about “Little Girls in Bone Museums.”

It’s an allegory for beauty standards where a young woman is tied into a contortionist’s pose, atrophied, and turned into a living work of ‘art’.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

A lot of times I start with an aesthetic and I knew I wanted a woman frozen in a contortion which gave me an excuse to look at pretty pictures, especially of the older contortionists like Lena Derejska. But I didn’t really have anything else until the beginning of Clarion Week 3. I was supposed to be working on that week’s story but I was intimidated, feeling like dirt, and avoiding writing. Instead I started reading about trophy wives (this has always been my fall back career choice) and Anna Nicole Smith (as you do) and it sort of fell into place. I was still really worried how it would be received come crit time and almost turned in something else. People aren’t super fond of allegories.

 

Was “Little Girls in Bone Museums” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It is, sort of. I live with beauty standards and I perpetuate them even though I know better.

 

What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I would be happy if someone said, ‘this bone knot thing is disturbing but I would totally go see a debut parade’ because then I would feel a kinship in the relationship I have with beauty.  Oh, and I guess I should make a distinction with how I use beauty vs. attraction. To me, beauty is a commodity and depends on acceptance across lots of people. Attraction is invaluable and personal. The two get twisted up a lot but when I say beauty I’m referring specifically to the accepted cultural standard, that weird seemingly all agreed upon pinnacle of what makes someone beautiful.

I would be over the moon if what someone took away from the allegory was at least shred of admiration how Piedra endures her fate. Here’s a woman existing with something twisted, touching every part of her life, and deteriorating her from the outside with no chance to escape but in spite of it all she manages to feel joy, not go too crazy, continue to reflect on herself and her relationships even after being laughed at, to appreciate nature, and finally, get a say in how she dies.

 

I was hoping you could delve into this a little further: the characters’ points of view, why the little girl in the museum wants to be a bone knot so badly in spite of the horror of it, and her grandmother’s resignation to the inevitable, seemingly.

I’ve had a ton of conversations and arguments with myself over how to answer this without rambling. So the short answer is: the little girl can’t help herself. She doesn’t find the practice horrific. She’s been told the knots are the height of beauty her entire short life and she’s convinced any sacrifices she may tangibly be aware of are worth it.

The little girl tries to explain the desire to her grandmother using words she knows she’s supposed to say because the truth is embarrassing and often confusing to the person experiencing it. I compare coveting a beauty standard to greed. You know it’s a rotten emotion. You know you’re not supposed to be feeling it and yet you truly believe that if you can just satisfy the greed you’ll be so happy for it. That’s how it feels to exist with bone knots. It’s like an itch you’re willing to take a knife to in order to get the promised relief – even when your rational self knows the knife is way worse than just letting the itch be an itch.

I struggled with the grandmother because I felt like the reader would want someone to stand up to the knot process. I want someone to stand up to the knot process but frankly I think the way we deal with beauty standards is resigned. She represents the ineffectual stance at the point we are now. If readers are frustrated with her, know I am too.

If I were to spin the story out, the girl will be all right. She’s wearing tap shoes, she’s got access to a museum which makes me think she’s also got access to a library, and she has a loving adult providing her support. That’s more than Marilyn Monroe ever had.

And there you go. I feel like everything I’ve said has all been said before!

 

What are you working on now?

I’m in-between things. I’m messing around with multiverses, a mini-Elvis, hotels, and beehives. The hairstyle not the bug habitat. I have a story coming up in Steampunk Magazine about tornadoes, ghosts, and genetically altered Pony Express horses.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I would be an awful person if I didn’t take this space to say thank you to the people who helped me with this story. My awesome Clarion class (2012, http://awkwardrobots.org/) especially the boy who followed me home. Extra thanks to grande dames Carmen Machado and Allegra Hawksmoor whose enthusiasm for this story made me feel beautiful in a way I’d never experienced.

“Little Girls in Bone Museums” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.

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