Kim talks to Addie Tsai about their new biracial, queer, gender-swapped retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
KG: Hey Addie, and welcome to VA btw! I haven't read Unwieldy Creatures yet but I want to. It feels like a good season to read it too. I'm curious why you decided you wanted to write a retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? How did it start?
AT: Hi K! Thank you! I'm loving fall!!
I've been obsessed with Frankenstein since I read it in a Romantics Literature class in college. I just recently figured out that I became obsessed with the novel at the same age that Shelley was when she wrote it, which feels special to me. I would say that I relate to it in more unexpected ways. I related to it because as an identical twin, I was interested in how Frankenstein and the Creature mirror one another while being, of course, very different. As a person of mixed race reading the novel at a time that mixed race was incredibly stigmatized, much more so than today, I related to the Creature's tale of isolation and being othered by society. In fact, it's only when society turns on the Creature that Shelley begins to call him the daemon, the wretch, the ogre, etc. Finally, as a child of narcissists and in particular a child of maternal abandonment, I felt seen in the novel, especially as a teenager. I began to reread Frankenstein, as I like to say, as a "self help book," when a relationship with a pathological narcissistic painter (one who, ironically enough, I was collaborating with on a Frankenstein gallery show at the time) ended terribly. I wanted to understand narcissism, and so I began to delve back into Shelley's masterpiece to understand it, to somehow free myself of being drawn to narcissists. That led me to propose a dance theater adaptation (and a collaboration) of Frankenstein, with a local choreographer where I lived at the time. We co-created Victor Frankenstein a decade ago this past February, which was a contemporary dance theater adaptation of not only the narrative of Frankenstein, but also some of the circumstances and relationships of Shelley's life that I felt informed her creation. It was in the summer of 2019 that I started thinking more about a Frankenstein retelling, though, while my ex-partner and I took steps to begin IVF. As I learned more about IVF, and started to consider the rise of the access and use of reproductive technologies, reproductive rights began to be challenged, particularly in the American South. It was then that I thought we were living in the perfect landscape to consider a new framework for Frankenstein. From there, UNWIELDY CREATURES grew.
KG: That’s a lot of different interesting connections! Being a twin and mirroring, but also traumatic experiences re narcissistic parents and partners. Did you find any insights in Frankenstein, as a “self help book”? A dance theater adaptation sounds really fun, too. The Creature is kind of like the ultimate othered literary figure. I read in your book description that it’s a modern retelling with an embryology lab and queer biracial characters (and a nonbinary creature!) which sounds super exciting. What kind of story did you want to tell and how did Mary Shelley’s original inform your version?
AT: I wish I could say that Frankenstein did offer me insights? I mean, it probably did, but it was a slow burn, if you know what I mean. SPOILER ALERT I think one of the things I really thought about re-reading it in this lens is how Frankenstein (the scientist)'s unprocessed trauma leads to his narcissistic irresponsibility.
UNWIELDY CREATURES is definitely a story written for Frankenstans, as I created a parallel scene or storyline for almost every part of the original, aspects of the original that aren't often included in adaptations. I also attempted to use a diction that was a kind of hybrid between a contemporary diction and Shelley's 19th century language.
KG: Oh that makes me want to read them together and compare lol. And that's also something I think about alot, narcissism as a result of trauma, and what you can do about it. How trauma puts you in survival mode? It feels like a difficult topic to talk about.
Speaking of adaptations, we watched Young Frankenstein this past weekend, which is alot of fun. I'm also a fan of Penny Dreadful (the first two seasons anyway) and their Frankenstein and Monster. I remember watching the original Frankenstein in a high school film class but don't remember anything but the lake scene, vaguely, as horrifying. I need to rewatch it. Do you have a favorite film adaptation? Did you find any inspiration there too or was it mainly the book original? It's interesting that you said you created parallel scenes, which is like a mirroring!
AT: Yes, I hope you do! Haha, tell me how it goes. I think the trauma and forced enmeshment that Victor experiences as precursors to how he decides to embark on his "experiment" is largely missing from adaptations. At the moment, I think narcissism is talked about badly! And too generally.
Young Frankenstein is my favorite adaptation! I am trying to get access to Penny Dreadful! I hear it's really great. The original Frankenstein is charming, but certainly not my favorite. I did not really look at film adaptations for this work, probably because UNWIELDY CREATURES is more an homage to Shelley's text than to all the many adaptations of it.
KG: Can you elaborate a little bit about what Unwieldy Creatures is about? What's the story in your adaptation?
AT: Unwieldy Creatures is set in a few different locations--Indonesia, Oxford, West Texas, Vermont, and somewhere in the southern United States. Most however, occurs in real time in the final location. Our narrator, Li, also known as Plum, tells us the story of meeting Dr. Frank, also known as Z, who is a queer biracial Indonesian reproductive scientist and the first to create an embryo without using sperm. Plum is a biracial Chinese intern at Dr. Frank's lab, and through a number of circumstances, ends up caring for Dr. Frank in her apartment. It is here that Dr. Frank tells Plum about her childhood, and the events that led to the sordid story of her creation (and how it went dreadfully wrong) to ultimately ask Plum to collaborate with her on an experiment. Plum has to decide what her desire for ambition is worth. This adaptation largely takes on in vitro technologies as the scientific basis for the creation narrative, and considers some of the ethical dilemmas as our technology around in vitro grows more ethically complex.
KG: Thank you, that sounds super fascinating. So, something else, kind of unrelated but also feels connected, that I wanted to talk to you about is photography. When I first added you on fb I remember you were posting a lot of polaroid self-portraits and double exposures (which I love!). I’ve been getting into photography more in the last couple of years too and also self-portraits, thinking about and exploring/interrogating masculinity (it feels, as a construct, so resistant to being seen as a body? and also any sort of ornamentation?) which is something that has paralleled my own slow understanding of myself as nonbinary.
What’s your relationship to photography, has it always been an interest, and specifically these self-portraits? And why polaroid, which has gotten really popular again? My daughter is into it! There’s also like a general simplistic idea that taking selfies is narcissistic, but do narcissist really want to self reflect? lol. In my experience they want to use others to reflect them (Frankenstein?)
AT: Ah! I love to hear about you using the self portrait to explore/interrogate masculinity. I also consider many of my self portraits a way to interrogate gender norms, especially considering "the male gaze" as it has proliferated among photography in particular. I've been interested in photography, in one form or another, since I was ten years old, and I asked my mother for a snap and shoot 35mm Vivitar camera for my birthday. I wish I'd had the money and access to formally train in photography, but alas. I started with a 35mm Pentax in my late twenties, and largely focused on self portraits, and then double exposures shortly thereafter. But, as film has become harder and harder to process - you could still get your film developed at Walgreens back then - I'm enjoying the Polaroid because it's still analog and because of its quick nature. Polaroid cameras are being reissued, with a bunch of contemporary app features, and I really love the physicality of the object and how finicky they are. There are so many things you can't get with a Polaroid! I love the tension in that. Writing is something I work very hard at, technically speaking, but with photography I really enjoy not knowing *too* much about its processing. It's a place I enjoy playing, experimenting, failing, and seeing what will come of it.
I suppose you could always use any sort of medium to indulge in one's narcissism, but I'll first say that I think self portraits and selfies aren't the same, and I get very frustrated by the conflation. To me, self portraits are works involving the creator as the subject and are very carefully cultivated and considered, and selfies are snapshots taken of one's self. I'm not saying selfies aren't ever working in ways that a self portrait does, but I don't think it's necessarily the case. I agree with you, though! That narcissists are less about self reflection as they are about seeing everything around them as reflections of themselves, which is very different!
Polaroids by Addie Tsai
KG: Ideally I would want to get into film photography but the process feels intimating, and also more costly to keep up. I wish we had more access to photography equipment because it’s so expensive! They should have cameras at libraries, in an ideal world, that you can check out. I have a used Canon but it’s had some problems which has kind of killed the joy for me, temporarily, but I hope to get back to it eventually. A polaroid sounds fun and relatively easy tho, and I like the idea of limitation and the physicality and not being fully in control over the outcome. Maybe I’ll look into it too. When I was looking at cameras last I was trying to find some sort of analogue and digital hybrid because I don’t want my creativity to be dependent on being able to buy film.
Anyway, photography is kind of on pause for me at the moment but I’m sure it will come back, what about you? How often do you use your polaroid, or other camera? And do you have any other literary projects you’re working on at the moment?
AT: My institution does have access to cameras ... but alas, they are all digital. It would be amazing to get more into it. When I have time I want to also start using my old 35s again...maybe one day. I hope you find a way back to it also! In 2020 and 2021 I was taking a lot more photos with the Polaroid, especially when our version of quarantine was happening and I was teaching from home. But right now my life is just way too overwhelming and so I mostly just use Polaroid when I'm specifically inspired. I miss it, though.
I'm working on a few projects! I'm currently trying to gather submissions for this new anthology project I'm editing with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, EXPRESS YOURSELF, an anthology centering LGBTQIA+ teens on fashion and will also feature a few prominent adults: https://addietsai.com/express-yourself-anthology-seeking-submissions. I'm also working on a non-linear lyric memoir, a graphic novel in verse, and I have a couple of other ideas up my sleeve.
KG: I look forward to hearing more about them! And also seeing your photography when you get back to it. Thanks for taking time to answer these questions and I’m happy to have gotten to know you a little more!
One final question, do you associate any particular music with writing Unwieldy Creatures? Any songs or artists come to mind? Does your writing process involve listening to music? Or just anything you feel would pair well with it. I always find myself making playlists this time of year, as it gets colder and we approach Halloween.
AT: For many years, which includes UNWIELDY CREATURES, I listened to Sufjan Stevens's Carrie & Lowell in order to write. I can't explain exactly how it put me in the exact frame of mind I needed to write the novel, but it did. I think I finally wore that one out, though, and am currently taking new requests! Lately I've been writing to instrumentals. My writing process doesn't *have* to include music, but it often does help me get into the mood. But it has to be the perfect thing, and sometimes what works one day doesn't work on another.
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