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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Terra L. Gearhart-Serna

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]

Terra Gearhart-Serna hails from sunny Albuquerque, New Mexico, the

eldest daughter in a family of women–four girls and a fantastic single

mom. She is proudly half Mexican-American, with the love of tortillas,

chile, beans, and the Spanish language that comes with it. She studied

English, Political Science, and Hispanic Studies at the University of

Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 2007, and is currently in her third

and final year of study at Yale Law School, where she focuses on

international human rights, public international law, women’s rights,

child advocacy, and immigration law. After graduating from law school

(and hopefully surviving the New York bar examination), she will serve

as a legal clerk in the Appeals Chamber at the International Criminal

Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, the Netherlands.

In her non-class-attending hours, she is a Teaching Fellow for the Yale

Political Science Department, a dancer and choreographer in Groove

Dance Company, a beginning quilter, and an avid writer–with hopes to

publish more creative work once her focus is not on

50-page monstrosities of legal scholarship.


Charles Tan: Hi Terra! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to combine two fairy tales (or rather, use the characters of one culture’s fairy tales and the plot of another)?

Terra Gearhart-Serna: The story was actually originally written for an English seminar titled “Feminist Fairy Tales,” which I took at the University of Pennsylvania my senior year of college. I wrote it as part of the course’s midterm assignment, which asked students to write their own creative retelling of a fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast was one of the stories that we had covered in the class, and I had always liked it–I loved the Disney movie in part because the heroine was a brunette, like me (a breakthrough after so many blonde princesses!) and because the romance in it seemed somehow sweeter than in most fairy tales–that’s just my impression, I’m not sure why. I think I was attracted to the idea of falling in love with someone who was so completely out of sync with conventional princely-ness, if that’s a word. It appealed to the romantic in me, I suppose.
 
When I was thinking about the story and how to use it and reshape it, I just sort of naturally came to the idea of combining it with a coyote story. I grew up in rural southwestern New Mexico, reading and hearing tales from the Anglo, Native American, and Hispanic story traditions, and I have heard many, many Coyote the Trickster stories in my life. I even played the lead (at the ripe old age of 11) in a play based on the Native American tale “Rainbow Boy and White Corn Maiden,” in which Coyote tries to trick White Corn Maiden into marrying him instead of Rainbow Boy–he winds up tricked himself in the end! As a major motivating factor, though, I should also mention that there’s a famous New Mexican storyteller, Joe Hayes, who lives in Santa Fe and travels around telling tales, in addition to doing storytelling in the Old Plaza in Santa Fe. I owned three of his books as a child–in fact, I still have them with me now, at the age of 25–and I also had an audio cassette with four of his stories on it, which my little sisters and I could recite by heart. He would tell stories from all three New Mexican traditions, cowboy/Western tall tales, Native American legends, and Hispanic folk tales, and would often tell the Hispanic ones in a mix of Spanish and English. I’m of Mexican descent on my mama’s side and started learning Spanish when I was little, so I loved that bilingual aspect of his stories. There was also a Native American man in our community who would tell Coyote stories to the local kids at various gatherings, which I always enjoyed as a child. Coyote stories were particularly fun because we had coyotes everywhere, and it was nice at night when they were keeping you up with their constant howling to imagine that they were talking to each other, swapping stories. Less annoying, more interesting, especially when you’re 10 and trying to get some sleep!


CT: There’s a lot of fusion in your story, whether it’s fairy tales, culture, etc. Did you encounter any difficulties in this combination of sensibilities and style?

TGS: Not so much difficulty as fun! I don’t tend to put a lot of planning into my writing, I just sit down and start typing. I actually found this particular story very easy to work on; the voice I wrote it in made so much sense to me that I didn’t really have to think about it, it just sort of came out. I did put some thought into how Coyote’s relationship with Valorosa develops, what the tensions would be between them–are they cultural? Sexual? Battle-of-the-sexes? Maybe a little bit of all of those. But for the most part, the whole story just sort of flowed out.
 

CT: In the story’s afterword, you talk about your own “changing shape”. Could you talk more about the resonance of this story with your own personal experience?

TGS: Of course! I was in a particularly reflective mood when I wrote the afterword, as I was just about to graduate from college when Terri and Ellen asked me to write it. I thought a lot about the idea of “changing shape” throughout school, both in terms of true metamorphosis and in terms of just adopting a new shell in order to blend in. My family is probably the single most important thing in my life–my mama, who is a single mom, and my three little systers–and I had a particular kind of life with them in New Mexico before I left home to go to college. We struggled to make ends meet, but we were also a loud, loving, rambunctious kind of family–always bickering, but with an incredible closeness. We were also deeply influenced by the fact that my mama was Latina and by living in a state that is so heavily non-Anglocentric in terms of its culture. We knew lots of Spanish curse words, ate tortillas and enchiladas all the time, and were used to a certain kind of culture that’s pervasive in small-town New Mexico. Going to college in Philadelphia was incredibly hard for me. Not only was I some 2,000 miles away from my “tribe” of girls (as I would refer to my family when I was talking to friends at Penn), but I was also the first of my family to attend a four-year university, and there I was starting out in the Ivy League. No one seemed to speak Spanish, there was no green chile to be found (which was and remains a tragedy), everyone had more money than me and my family, and I knew only one other person from a single-parent home. On top of that, the whole culture seemed very different from New Mexico; no more small-town friendliness and comfortable multiculturalism, but rather acute and disturbing class and racial divides. Penn is an elite institution settled down in a neighborhood that is primarily poor and Black, and the resulting tension was not something that I was at all prepared for. I should say here that I actually loved Penn, loved my education, and wouldn’t trade it for anything; but, I had a hard time taking on the role of Penn student and fitting in while I was there. I was homesick nearly all the time.
 
I’m now a 3L at Yale Law School, graduating less than a month from when I write this. I’m still “changing shape” on a regular basis, but I’ve come to accept it as a more comfortable part of the process of my life. I’ve decided that changing shape is a good thing, so long as a certain central core remains. I speak Spanish as a translator in our legal clinics, and I still talk to my mama and sisters all of the time; my mama even ships me tortillas and green chile from home. I’ve become more comfortable with my role as a student, an adult, and a soon-to-be lawyer, and I’ve got a firmer grasp now on how to change and be comfortable with the shape I’m in. I suppose I identify even more with Valorosa now than when I first wrote her.

CT: Since this is your first published work, how did your story end up getting picked up by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling? What were the challenges in getting it published?

TGS: This is a fun story! I alluded in my bio, I think, to a particularly wonderful English professor to whom I am indebted for the story’s publication. As I mentioned above, I wrote the story as a midterm assignment for a seminar called “Feminist Fairy Tales” at the University of Pennsylvania, during my senior year. English was one of my two majors, and I had decided to take the course because it sounded fantastic and because my roommate of three years, who was in the engineering school, was looking for a fun literature class to take as a distribution requirement. We decided to take the course together, and immediately fell in love with it. Our professor, Veronica Schanoes, was then in the final year of her English PhD program (she’s now a professor at CUNY Queen’s College–we still keep in touch), and my roommate and I both instantly hit it off with her. When the midterm assignment rolled around, we were asked to do two things: first, write a creative retelling of a fairy tale; and second, trade creative pieces with a partner and write critical essays of each other’s work. Naturally, my roommate and I paired up. She decided that she loved “Coyote and Valorosa,” and when I got it back from our professor, she apparently agreed–and A+, with a comment written across the back that said “PUBLISH THIS.” I found out the next time I saw our professor that she had emailed Terri Windling, a friend of hers, and told her that a student had written a story that Terri might be interested in. Terri and I then corresponded; I sent her the story, and she said that it could well work for an anthology that she and Ellen Datlow were working on putting together–I just needed to get a thumbs-up from Ellen. I sent the story to Ellen, who gave me great editorial comments on how to make the story work best for a non-academic audience–and a yes! There was a small celebration in my seminar when they found out, and I am incredibly proud to have the story published now, particularly with the array of talented authors in this anthology. When I received and read the galleys and saw all of the authors featured in the book, I felt both lucky and humble to have my story selected to appear with theirs. My mama and sisters, of course, pre-ordered their copies of the anthology and got them the day after the book was released. I’ve been informed that I am expected to autograph them when I come home next. Never underestimate family pride!

CT: What’s the appeal of “The Beastly Bride” concept to you?
 
TGS:
It’s such a fascinating concept, the idea of the connection between animals and people and how one can morph into the other. It has such a brilliantly cross-cultural and -continental appeal–obviously, since the stories in the anthology are from all over the world! I like that aspect of myths and fairy tales, their ability to be shared and mutually comprehensible across cultures and miles. I think the idea of the anthology, particularly as beautifully summed up by Terri Windling in her introduction, really represents the best of that cross-cutting appeal. I’m back on my multiculturalism horse, obviously!

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