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[GUEST POST] Patricia Ward (Author of SKINNER LUCE) on Fractured Identity, and Searching for Belonging

Patricia Ward was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon during the civil war. Because her American father was under threat of being kidnapped, her family was forced to flee, resettling in the U.S. when she was 18. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Bullet Collection, about two sisters growing up in wartime Beirut. Her second novel, Skinner Luce, is an urban fantasy set in modern-day Boston. In between novels, Patricia developed a career in book arts with a focus on miniature book-objects and dioramas. See her work and find out more at patriciasarrafianward.com.

My Life as an Alien

by Patricia Ward

When I moved away from the real world in my writing, I thought I was moving on. I was wiped out from digging into memories of the war, the anguish of leaving home, and my fragmented identity. I’d explored these seminal experiences in numerous stories and my first novel, The Bullet Collection, and they’d resurfaced more recently in my artist books, the imagery bringing up a world of pain from the past. I needed to step back. Over the years, I’d begun a handful of fantasy novels that I never finished, and I decided it was time to go back to one of these.

The draft I resurrected would become Skinner Luce, and it offered a wholly different landscape. The protagonist Lucy is a ‘serv,’ indistinguishable from humans, created by the alien Nafikh to attend Their visits to Earth. She’s lucky enough to have been adopted by humans as a baby, but she can’t shake the yearning to be with her own kind. Too late, she discovers she doesn’t fit into the squalid, rough serv community. Her life spirals into one of anxiety and desperation, scrambling to make ends meet while lying so wretchedly to her human family. Worst of all, the Nafikh are violent and unpredictable, and she faces severe injury or even death every time she’s called up for Service.

It was an adventure to be writing such a different sort of book, so gratifying to invent this alien experience, totally other and strange.

Except, it kind of wasn’t that strange.

There’s a moment early on when Lucy notes that Service amounts to two extremes: terror and boredom. Writing those words jolted me to a stop. I knew that feeling intimately. I had a sharp, instant memory of being in my bedroom in Beirut as a child: yellow bunkbed, shelves, toys and books. The sky outside the window a silent menace. The space around me brimming with not knowing what might happen.

Being a serv, I understood, is like living in war. You can’t count on the next day. You can’t make a plan. You have to be watchful wherever you go. You might be killed.

The war, so strangely, had crept into my fantasy book. Lucy often lies awake as I once did, frightened of what may come. She has no control over her days—at any moment, she might have to change direction. One day in Beirut my mom and I were walking, and there was gunfire, very close. We huddled in a doorway. A jeep careened down the street. The guy behind the mounted machine gun saw me, swung the barrel my way, laughing. Then they were gone. We took a different road home. That’s how it is for servs. They have to watch for which streets to avoid. They’re ready to run on a dime.

It was bizarre to see these mental and emotional states so deeply familiar to me pressing up through the fabric of this alien tale. It wasn’t just the high-wire anxiety of war. The other main themes of my life, those of displacement and fractured identity, are also woven throughout this book. After all, Lucy is a misfit, unable to be part of the serv community, a guilty liar to the humans who love her. I used to lie to people I met about where I was from; it was just easier. For years, I felt utterly out of place, like I had no real home. Lucy doesn’t belong, either, not anywhere. None of the servs do. They are the quintessential immigrants, left on a strange shore, clustering together for comfort. Those first days in the States, I was scared to go outside because everyone spoke English. I know it sounds weird. But I was just so shell-shocked by this move. Our whole family was. We’d been forced to leave under such terrible circumstances, and we all thought this was temporary, a kind of crazy dream we just had to get through, and then we’d go home. But we never did.

It’s been 29 years since I moved to the U.S., which is a staggering bit of math. Unless something in the news sends me into a spiral that can only be described as PTSD, I am pretty much settled now. I live the existence of any middle-class American in a small town with a river and a cinema and coffee shops, with a husband and a kid and a yard and so forth.

But it turns out the past is all there, still. It’s almost as if the war is the only thing that ever happened, and everything that came after, just a postscript. How else to explain the persistent shooting up of these experiences into the least expected space? I know I’m still prone to bouts of PTSD. That’s to be expected, and they’ve greatly diminished. But do I still feel, in some deep-down place, not quite here? Not home?

I just wanted to belong, Lucy tells her human mother Eva, in a scene when she’s realized the depth of her mistake in choosing to join up with servs. She disappeared from her family for so long, and now she’s telling more lies to cover up where she’s been. She’s curled up on her childhood bed, with the smells of her mom’s cooking coming up the stairs.

You belong here, Eva tells her, oblivious to the depths of her adopted daughter’s deceptions.

Those words resonate with me as if they’re not my own, but a message delivered through the act of writing. Because even if Lucy’s deceiving her, Eva’s right. In my past writings and art that mirror the real world, I searched so hard for where I belong. Perhaps through fantasy, I’ve happened upon the answer. I grew up as the self-conscious, half-American child with blonde hair in Beirut, then came here, to all appearances American, but not, an imposter, really. After years of struggling with my fractured identity and dislocation, perhaps that’s the answer, so simply: I belong here. Here, with my family, no matter where we are. And in the end, Lucy comes to understand this, too, no matter how deeply trapped she may be in her alien life.

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