Marisa Crane on shadows, shame, and role of the prison industrial complex in their debut novel

Marisa Crane on shadows, shame, and role of the prison industrial complex in their debut novel

There is no joy quite like diving into a debut book from a rising star writer. There’s a certain excitement and energy that, in my opinion, can’t be replicated. Of course, just being a debut doesn’t mean the book is great, or more specifically, great to your own taste. Especially in today’s political climate, where we can all feel a little drained and exhausted by the failures of our government to lead and serve constituents, selling someone on sitting down with a dystopia can really go either way. 

But Marisa Crane’s phenomenal debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself, is the book that will get people reading from Page One to the end. Crane, a queer writer and parent who also writes short stories, essays, and poetry, is introducing their brilliant debut in January 2023 with Catapult Books. I’m lucky to consider Crane, who lives in San Diego, California, with their wife and baby, a close personal friend—we talk every day—and we share a publisher and an editor over at Catapult.

Am I biased in so warmly recommending my friend’s work? A good question. In full transparency, yes—but I don’t just love their work because they’re my friend. I love their work because reading it makes me a better writer. Knowing them makes me a better person.

This is a lot of big talk, yes. But I feel confident that hearing from the writer themself about the creation of this dystopian government, where people are assigned “shadows” to represent crimes they’ve committed and ostracize criminals from their peers, and the way queer people ultimately find chosen family and joy amid an oppressive environment, will prove I’m not just blowing smoke. (Their glowing reviews in places like Publishers Weekly probably help my case, too.)

Luckily for all of us (including, and especially, me!) Crane sat down with Daily Kos for an email interview about what went into creating the dystopian surveillance state in their lyric, fragmented novel about an oppressive government that feels eerily similar to what our futures could look like. They also chatted with us about the importance of voting, activism, and how to confront the ongoing anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric from Republican extremists.

Let’s dig in below.

RELATED: 10 books about transgender and nonbinary folks you don’t want to miss

This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.

Q: Can you briefly explain the role of “shadows” in your book and how it connects to concepts like policing and prison abolition?
 
Crane: Well, prior to and while drafting this book, I’d begun reading more and more about prison and police abolition, and I strongly believe that abolition is the only way forward if we want to create a safer world, especially for Black and brown people, trans and queer people, mentally ill and disabled folks, immigrants, sex workers, and beyond. But then I began to imagine how the powers that be could manage to fuck up so badly in the face of abolition. What they might replace prisons and police with. And this ended up guiding the rules of my world and the shadow creation.

Essentially, the Department of Balance assigns wrongdoers extra shadows for their crimes, although the Department is corrupt and oppressive, disproportionately giving extra shadows to innocent marginalized people, especially those sitting at the intersection of several marginalized identities. The extra shadow has two purposes: to shame the “Shadester,” serving as a constant reminder of their crime, and as a warning to “NoShads”—that is, people without extra shadows—that this person should be avoided.

In essence, this extra shadow marks someone forever, not unlike a prison record, making it more difficult for formerly incarcerated people to obtain jobs, find housing, receive certain loans, etc. Likewise, in my novel, Shadesters are stuck with their extra shadows forever—there’s no way to have them removed. The focus is on punishment and shame as opposed to restoration and healing.

QI Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself is fiction, but insights into marginalization ring eerily true. How did you decide what to keep from our lived experience and what to create/imagine?

Crane: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t mean to give a cop-out for this question, but so much of this was written on pure instinct and guts before I took a step back and examined what was actually going on. The first line— “The kid is born with two shadows.”—haunted me for a long time. I didn’t have any idea what it meant or what I was supposed to do with it.

Then, after weeks or months, I made the connection that it was related to that self-shaming snippet I shared above, and I realized the book was, in part, about the far-reaching consequences of shame. Otherwise, my first draft was largely a draft of discovery, and I was surprised throughout the process. Eventually, I realized this book was a way for me to confront some of my own fears.

Q: Like what?

Crane: When I first started writing I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, my wife and I were talking about family-making and I was scared for a million reasons. What would change between us? Would I be a good parent? Was I ready for this? All the usual anxieties around bringing a child into this world. Writing this book and having one of the worst things imaginable happen, in that Kris’ wife dies during childbirth, actually helped me process some of my own fears and anxieties. A game of “worst-case scenario,” if you will. 

So, really, I guess that’s my way of saying that the heart of the book is my lived experience as a queer person loving and parenting in our society. And I used some other real-life situations to guide additional plotlines or threads about shame and punishment. For example, I worked as a behavioral health worker in a school setting back in Philly, where I lived before moving to San Diego, and every day I was faced with the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, which is reflected by the “troubled kids,” in my novel feeling as if they’re destined to become Shadesters.

Beyond my lived experience, I felt that the world in the book had to be different enough from ours that readers would be able to engage with it and would find surprising details on the page, yet familiar enough that the result was an eerie and unsettling atmosphere that held a mirror up to our dysfunctional society.

Q: What advice would you give queer people who are feeling afraid in today’s climate of Don’t Say Gay bills, anti-trans bills, and bans on LGBTQ+ books?

 Crane: I would say that it’s okay to feel afraid, it’s okay to feel uncertain about the future, and to sit with that fear and anxiety. However you are feeling is valid. Otherwise, I would say community can be healing, and the best thing you can do is to find community, whether that be online or in person. As much as we all complain about the hellscape of the internet, it has allowed us queer and trans people to access others like us and to find support and care where we might otherwise not find it.

Also, vote if you’re able to. Is voting perfect? Hell no. We live in a country rife with voter suppression, redlining, a racist electoral college, and corrupt, money-hungry, fear-mongering politicians. If you’re able to, channel some of your fear into action: write letters to your elected officials, find organizers in your area, provide mutual aid, and volunteer your time and resources, especially on a local level.

 Q: What queer books have you read lately that you want to shout out?

 I’ve read so many incredible queer books lately. I already mentioned The Women’s House of Detection by Hugh Ryan, which I’m still working my way through.

Otherwise, I’d love it if everyone took the time to read The Boy with a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund. It’s an absolute treasure. And also be sure to pre-order Brother & Sister Enter the Forest by Richard Mirabella, a beautiful and haunting debut novel. Really, I want to name so many. Exalted by Anna Dorn, Manywhere by Morgan Thomas, The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo, Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke, Sarahland by Sam Cohen, and Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. I’ll have to cut myself off here, but I’m sure there are many more.

You can pre-order a copy of I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself here and here. Also, don’t forget to request a copy at your local library if you have a library card!

Note: Crane uses they/them pronouns, so please take care to use they/them when discussing their work in the comments. Thank you! 

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