Beauty and Boundaries
The London Zoo. It’s a short walk through Regent’s Park, where, on a fine spring morning with the gardens in full blossom, the Jack Russells and regal poodles and floppy hounds are loosed from their leashes to run the wide plains of grass. Their owners follow at a slower pace, and they raise a friendly hand to passersby who halt their progresses to stroke a strange beast or two. At the edge of the park, before the street’s edge, collars are reconnected to straps and everyone goes on their way. All is well.
Then you turn a corner and enter one of the greatest zoos in any city. I’m not normally a fan of zoos, but the London zoo contains a feature that attracted me: open houses. There’s one for monkeys, one for butterflies and moths, and (my object) one for birds. The caged animals are well-fed and look healthy, but I wanted to stroll through the open houses where the winged things are let loose.
Genre’s been on my mind, especially the boundaries between types of fiction: literary vs. popular; historical vs. contemporary (which is when, exactly?); paranormal vs. realistic (are there more things in heaven and earth?). A story set before the twentieth century, almost anyone will say, is “historical.” But does that define it . . . and will it then be called “popular” as a matter of course? What if it contains a relationship? Must it then endure the label of “romantic”?
I almost missed the bird house entirely, having gotten fixated on the gorgeous scarlet ibises showing off their color outside. The open space is for the smaller species: hummingbirds and wrens and pekin robins. If you’re not careful, you may trip over one or find a handout-seeker perched near your shoulder. Who decides which ones make the freedom cut?
My own first novel, The Altarpiece, contains a mysterious element or two, as does City of Ladies, coming out in October 2014. But when readers call them “historical mysteries” I feel a little odd, feel myself beating at the wire edge of the genre cage. I didn’t really think of them as mysteries. I wanted to explore the character of a woman caught in a time of political and religious upheaval who’s trying to figure out where her beliefs and loyalties lie. But people do die and others wonder who killed them; things disappear and people must find them. So that’s a mystery of sorts. I suppose.
The butterfly house is hot and damp, and you have to search to find the inhabitants. Once you spot a single moth, however, you are suddenly able to see dozens of them. The atlas moth, the largest in the world, is also the quietest. They hover, unmoving and regal. Some of the youngsters are still in the pupa stage, and the zookeepers are deeply committed to fair trade with butterfly and moth breeders in other countries in attempts to preserve and propagate endangered species. If you’re patient, you can watch a young moth begin to emerge from its sac, the transformation from caterpillar to wrapped-up leaf-like branch-bump to winged glory complete. Moths and butterflies have it all—they exist in all forms and everywhere from ground to sky. They have their names, their designations, but it’s hard to tell one from the other unless you’re very close. I guess I want that fluidity in the way we speak of our books, too. As a writer, I want to be able to let my writing almost slip through the wire of genre designation into something unlimited . . . but not quite.
I can’t remember the names of all the birds and butterflies, but their colors and shapes haunt my imagination. It seems mysterious, but it’s not. Any of the keepers can tell you the whole story of their lives. I like to think of them getting almost to that free space, then stopping at the porous wire that both limits and protects them. I’ll let them fly in memory, though, as far as the thin, almost invisible, wires will let them go.