have always been into science fiction. Dragons, faeries, and the like I basically got over circa 1990 along with Lisa Frank, trolls, and Skip It; this isn’t to disparage the entire genre of fantasy, it’s just to say it never sank its teeth into my burgeoning bibliophilic mind. Somehow, even at seven years old, I was too cynical to take flight with unicorns or cast spells with wizards; even The Golden Compass (although I wanted my own sinister golden monkey-daemon something fierce) felt oddly saccharine and silly to me.
Instead, I was taken by classic tiny paperbacks I’d wrench from my parents’ jammed and dusty bookshelves —Kafka, Neuromancer, anything by Philip K. Dick, but especially Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ray Bradbury; Heinlein and Asimov were too dense and cerebral for me at the time, but still, I’d wade through their minds and pages desperate to glean what I could.
I’d clammer to discuss the absolutely terrifying rat-laden ending of 1984, my almost tears at all the charred books in Fahrenheit 451, and the genius of Huxley and his creation of SOMA with my father; he’d chuckle and remind me over long, cold, and grass-frosted winter walks that the very cinema and television and food and malls we consumed as a society, were, of course, our own very SOMA. We were living an iteration of Huxley’s dark vision.
Damn, I’d think, to myself with dawning horror. He’s right!
This is all to say that these stories that, indeed, speculated on our collective futures, examining class, race, gender, sex, money, family, government, death, biology — everything that comprises our reality and then some — became necessary tools of my own critical thinking.
And they weren’t only cautionary tales of what could be. They were also cathartic. They offered a different means of being alive, complicating what was possible — technologically, physiologically, societally, cosmologically. With every book I read — and this sensation continues today — it felt like I’d carved a new facet in my being and I was able to glimpse myself and the world I occupied from a new angle of refracting light.
Sin Eater by Megan Campisi is one of these prismatic books.
It tells the tale of 14-year-old May who is caught stealing bread and is punished by the Makermen (pseudo priests) and forced to become a sin eater — a shunned, tongue-branded woman who must not speak nor make eye contact. She is tasked with the performance of a sacred if vilified funeral rite of consuming food that symbolizes each particular sin — from disobedience to faithlessness, to lust and murder. This ritualized eating allows the dying to transfer their sins to the Sin Eater, thus granting their souls access to heaven.
May traverses what feels like a bastardized Elizabethan world—twisted, scheming monarchs and small-town wickedness comprise a world predicated on sanctioned dictatorial misogyny, and cruel-edged delineations of class and money.
I imagine the worms in the earth all around my mother eating her now. Thinking ill of the dead: roast pigeon. One year after my mother died, my Daffrey granddam arrived with two big men, my uncles. She pointed a finger warped like a birch twig at me. “Learned something new about this one. We’ll be taking her now.” Da tried to fight them. “She’s mine by law.” “Is she now?” said my granddam. It was the only time I heard Da swear.
He was no match for my uncles. It took only one strike for him to fall. And that’s how I came to live at the Daffreys for the turn of a year. As black a year as ever there was. The Daffrey house was down by the river on a spot where the earth sank and squelched under every step. The first week during my year with the Daffreys, my granddam kept me tied by a leash to the kitchen stove to be sure I didn’t run away. She was turned in and hard like an old walnut, the meat all black and sour inside.
And while poor women suffer the greatest injustices — torture, rape, silencing, starvation—the rich women of Campisi’s novel are hounded and haunted by their own host of demons and oppressors; like the women of Henry VIII’s court, they’re pitted against one another, desperately vying for power and position. Each one is lonelier than the next. We experience everything through the eyes of May however, a young girl barely literate although exceedingly clever Campisi grants May her own lexicon and means of interpreting the world around her:
“I heard the Queen’s favorite was married once,” Fair Hair says so quietly I barely catch the words. “But just after he joined the Queen’s court, his wife took a nasty fall down a stair and broke her head like an egg.” Mush Face crosses herself across shoulders and hips, “Maker save us from such misfortune.” “Misfortune, was it?” Fair Hair’s tongue darts against her upper lip, letting her words sit.
The ladies are so intent on their talk, they don’t notice the Painted Pig come back into the room and cross toward them. “You’re suggesting she was pushed?” Mush Face plants her leather slipper like a mule, “The Queen’ll take your tongue for slander.”
“Don’t chastise me,” Fair Hair says. “Your mother’s dead and your father was executed for treason. His badge of golden wings was taken from the banner room wall. If not for the Queen’s mercy, you’d be a beggar.” All at once, there’s a loud slap. The Painted Pig stands above Fair Hair, her face so fixed you’d never know she’d just struck the blow. Fair Hair looks like she’d like to stick her thumbs through the Painted Pig’s eyes.
I absolutely hate spoilers and I want everyone on the prowl for a frothy, feminist mystery set in the claustrophobic trappings of The Crucible to read this book—so I won’t reveal the riddle at the center of this tale, but it’s a doozy centering around the discovery of a deer heart.
And while you know by now how deeply I value science fiction, I’d venture (I am, as it turns out, a gambling woman) that there hasn’t been a better time to explore alternative realities or lance blistered hearts about our current one—in more than seventy-five years.
I got the chance to talk craft, folklore, and the role of art in exacting social justice with Campisi; I myself am ever on the prowl for a new way in to the strange and sinister and sickness-ridden times we find ourselves in.
Here’s what she had to say.
KATIE: I can never resist a little backstory on the author…! Can you talk a bit about how your own childhood dovetails (if at all) with your own pursuits of writing?
MEGAN: I actually started out as the actor of the family, not the writer. My parents regularly enjoyed (read: endured) performances by my sisters and me in the family living room — puppet shows, musicals, plays. I followed that passion into a career in theater. After graduate studies in Paris at L’Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, I started a theater company in NYC. I was deep in the theater world. But the more plays I created, the more I discovered just how much I loved playwriting. It began to occupy more and more of my time (free time, that is. My day job is teaching at a theater conservatory in Manhattan). When my first child was born, getting to rehearsals in addition to teaching became so challenging that I decided to give long-form prose a try.
KATIE: As a writer who has always gravitated towards non-fiction and memoir writing, I am always astounded by what seems to me the very mysterious and daunting process of choosing a plot — what was your inspiration behind “Sin Eater”? Why this book now?
MEGAN: When I discovered sin eating, I was fascinated. I knew I wanted to explore the point of view of a sin eater, and a young one. The central mystery came after, and I drew on a handful of historical facts from Elizabethan times, including a witch’s poppet found in London that was most likely meant to hex Queen Elizabeth and a Privy Council investigation into allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated on the young Elizabeth. I can’t say much more, or I’ll give the story away! What I can say is: Sin Eater’s story is proving very timely. At its heart is a young woman persevering through intense isolation to find her strength and her people.
KATIE: Can you talk about other books and legends that helped inform the world you built? I know that Sin Eaters were an actual phenomenon in Welsh culture and that Margaret Atwood penned a story by the same name…
MEGAN: In addition to the history of sin eaters, I drew on heavily on nursery rhymes and fairy tales. For me, nursery rhymes are magical little snippets of cultural history that get passed down from generation to generation like a game of telephone. And like a game of telephone, over time the story becomes distorted until it’s a delicious mixture of puzzle, history, and invention. I love that quality and have tried to bring the same combination of puzzle, history, and invention to Sin Eater.
Author Megan Campisi beside her new book ‘Sin Eater.’
KATIE: I’m always keen to know a little bit about other writers’ processes — are you a dogged “ten-pages a day come hell or high water” person or a more “when the mood strikes” …or somewhere in the middle?
MEGAN: When I began Sin Eater, my first child was nine months old, I was pregnant with my second child, and I had a full-time job teaching at a theater conservatory. My writing process was: whenever I can! I would scratch notes on the subway while commuting, type one-handed while nursing . . . at times it got ridiculous. But it taught me not to be precious with when, where, and how I write. My mantra is: I can edit later.
KATIE: There is obviously quite a bit of social commentary here — everything from class and gender are held up for examination. There is perversion, murder and intricate lies among the royal and rich; nearly everyone with power and money are cruel and avaricious. And men, of course, decide the dark fate of all the young girls in trouble…can you talk a bit about your book’s role in taking aim at systemic oppression and art’s larger role in lancing these collective wounds? Can art — especially speculative fiction — exact social change?
MEGAN: Feminism is such a deep part of who I am that its values — like, equality between genders — emerge in almost all my writing, be it playwriting or prose. In Sin Eater, I wanted to chart a revolution in the way one young woman views herself and her situation. I believe feminism, and social justice more broadly, can begin at home, so to speak, with yourself, and grow from there. There’s an important resonance in the story between Queen Bethany and May: one is a powerful woman and the other powerless, but both struggle in a patriarchal society. For me the message is two-fold. Failures of social justice affect everyone. And you needn’t be a queen to make significant change in your life.
As to whether art can exact social change, folklorist Bill Nicolaisen said: “The past does not exist unless narrated.”
I’d say the future doesn’t either. We envision possible futures through storytelling, whether fiction, non-fiction, or speculative fiction. Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools for imagining social change. And if we can imagine it, I believe we can enact it.
The Makerman places the collar around my neck. It’s heavy and cold, except where his hands touched it, and I have a sudden image of a horse’s bit, like next he might slide it up into my mouth. But it’s worse what happens next. The second Makerman takes hold of the collar’s lock and shoves the shackle in. Even my guts feel the wards catch.”
KATIE: The branding of the tongue coupled with the golden collar of the sin eater are potent and disturbing symbols that render them invisible; it is one thing to not speak, but somehow it’s even more alienating and dehumanizing to be ignored entirely. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of women being heard and spoken to? We get May’s internal monologue which, to me, meta-magnifies the role of voice in this novel…
MEGAN: On an international teaching trip as an adult, I once visited a community of monks who, as part of their vows, could not look women in the eye. While the lack of eye contact was not intended to dehumanize, it felt dehumanizing. It was a startling experience for me because growing up my parents valued my voice. I was not just looked at, but seen. I felt not only listened to, but heard. In crafting Sin Eater I wanted to evoke just how devastating it is for a society to take away people’s voices and selfhood.
KATIE: I found myself feeling increasingly queasy when reading “Sin Eater” — the idea of eating whatever you must, coupled with the frequency in which you have to eat really added an embodied element to the book. The reader is both subjected to the same meals and simultaneously relieved they’re not actually being forced to consume everything before them/May…
MEGAN: I love writing visceral scenes about the nitty-gritty aspects of living: eating, dying, stinking, bleeding, all of it. The only thing a writer can be sure she shares with her reader is the experience of living in a human body. So visceral descriptions and sensory details are the most immediate way for me to transport readers to the world I’m creating.
KATIE: What’s next on your horizon and radar?
MEGAN: I work on multiple projects at once. One is another historical fiction novel about women spies in the American Civil War. It centers on women’s relationships with each other across a deep political divide and whether that divide can be bridged — something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.