If you’re looking for a beautifully queer abolitionist novel that isn’t afraid of asking hard questions, Marisa (Mac) Crane’s debut I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is for you. In the world of this novel people who commit acts considered punishable by the government are assigned an extra shadow by The Department of Balance and forever labeled a Shadester. Shadesters are publicly shamed for their actions, watched by the state, actively discriminated against, and harassed. We follow a Shadester named Kris as she navigates life as a single mother to her daughter who was given an extra shadow for “killing” her wife Beau in childbirth. In order to do this Kris must learn to live with her grief over her lost wife while also establishing a new understanding of love in an authoritarian state which denies both her and her daughter humanity. Throughout the story Kris encounters challenges making us consider complicated questions of addiction, family, betrayal, and, perhaps most importantly, forgiveness. 

Crane’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Joyland, The Offing, No Tokens, The Florida Review, TriQuarterly, Lit Hub, Catapult, F(r)iction, and elsewhere. An attendee of the Tin House Workshop and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well an American Short Fiction Merit Fellow and Sewanee Writing Conference fellow, they currently live in San Diego with their wife and child. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is their first novel and it was a January Next Pick and New York Times Editors Choice. 

They were kind enough to answer a few questions for us here at MAR. Please note Crane uses they/them pronouns, so take care to use they/them when discussing them and their work. Thank you! 

Gen: One of the many things I admire about your novel is the depth and intentionality you bring to your world-building. How did you come up with these ideas for shadows and “Shadesters?”

Mac: Thank you, that means a lot to me. About eight or nine years ago, when I struggling with a lot of shame, self-hatred, and regret, I wrote a short poem that read, “If the shadows of everyone you’ve ever hurt followed you around, day in and day out, would you still be so reckless with people’s hearts?” I foolishly thought shaming myself would help me avoid hurting people, but it of course did not. Years later, the first line of the novel popped into my head: “The kid is born with two shadows.” Eventually, I connected this line to the earlier poem I wrote and soon was able to build a world that runs on shame and punishment, a world, much like our own, that is racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and beyond, a world that is the very antithesis of healing and growth. I wondered, “Even if the government abolishes the prison-industrial complex, how can they still manage to mess it up? How can they still foster a harmful and punitive society?” I was really interested in the intersection of shame, oppression, parenting, queerness, and the power of community.

Gen: What stood out to you in the process of writing about parenting?

Mac: It was incredibly hard because I felt like I was method acting as a widow grieving her wife, because I had to lean into the trauma of that, into the pain and fear of the unknown around raising a disenfranchised kid under an oppressive government. And also the everyday fears of parenting: Are they happy? Am I a good parent? Am I failing them? Will I mess them up? How do I keep from messing them up? How do I give them a beautiful future? It was emotionally trying and draining, especially because I was more or less writing into many of my own fears. I wasn’t a parent yet when I started drafting the book but my wife and I had just begun talking about family planning. Attending seminars, learning the ins and outs of fertility treatment. I was scared for a thousand reasons, and I used those fears to channel some of Kris’ experiences, in order to access a deep and painful part of her.

Gen: Though your book is a work of fiction I’ve found myself thinking of it as an abolitionist text which is able to use dystopia as a platform to discuss questions of surveillance, marginalization, shame, and punishment. What role do you see dystopia having in the examination of social issues?

Mac: It thrills me that you think of it that way because that really was my intention. Honestly, maybe I’m biased, but I see dystopia as the best way to examine social issues. Octavia Butler, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, George Saunders, George Orwell, Jessamine Chan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Aldous Huxley, Lois Lowry, on and on and on—writers that I admire the hell out of, writers who have written stories with staying power, stories that touch and move people, that force them to examine the world we live in. With dystopias, the unfamiliar (yet familiar!) setting provides a necessary distance to get readers to pay attention, to engage with the text. I mean, I know that realism can and does provide social commentary as well, but sometimes, I think, if it isn’t done expertly, it can feel too much like hammering readers over the head with ideas. I view dystopian work as an act of distancing in order to close the distance.

Gen: Can you share a bit about your writing process for this book? Did it change in any major ways after finishing it?

Mac: Yeah my writing process changed considerably in that…I will never write a book the way that I did Exoskeletons ever again. I was on unemployment and basically racing against the clock to get a draft done before I got a new job. Which was fine for what I needed at the time, but it meant I had to do countless drafts afterward, which felt very daunting. And it didn’t help that it’s written in about a million fragments because I wound up moving the fragments around obsessively like a puzzle until they clicked. I’m such a brat about revision. I really don’t like it. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time thinking and brainstorming and writing notes before I ever actually decide to write a story, essay, or novel. Once it takes shape in my head, I sit down and write very slowly. The resulting draft is much much stronger and something I feel confident I can polish and fix up without blowing it up. Plus, I’m a parent now. A lot of the “writing” has to happen in my head when I’m doing other things. The most generous thing I ever did for myself was to view everything as writing. Living is writing, doing the dishes is writing, rocking my kid is writing.

Gen: Do you have any advice for novelists starting out?

Mac: Oh goodness, I am always hesitant to give advice because it tends to feel so prescriptive and well, through the lens of what works solely for me! But if I have to give advice, I would say: Don’t forget to play and delight in your work. Take risks, throw yourself into whatever your obsessions are, and be unapologetic about it. 

–Gen Greer, Blog Co-Editor