The Lightning Room With Eiko Alexander

Eiko Alexander dragged us through centuries of bloody warfare in “Iao’s Strays,” from our February issue. To the things we are compelled to pick up and hold:

1. Hi. I have been in nearly this exact situation. Why do you suppose some people are absolutely determined to save the most pathetic creatures?

You mean the cats, right? I think some of us are attracted to things that are falling apart; I certainly am. A few years ago I sat in the parking lot of the Iao Valley, taking pictures of those cats until people started laughing at me. I did not try to take one home, but I know people who have wanted to rescue street dogs. Often it doesn’t matter if the animal or person or whatever is actually in distress; you see an opportunity to do what seems like a good thing, and create stories about what will happen after you’re gone. Who will feed it? What if it gets sick?

I think too there’s something about feeling special, like you’re the only person who could care about that diseased and dying thing. I don’t want to admit it, but fixating on those cats at Iao was probably driven in part by my own ego, that need to differentiate from all those oblivious tourists.

2. I absolutely love the tone in this piece, how you can see all the flexes of the narrator. How do you craft these sentences? I imagine it to be a lot of reading things aloud. Who are you addressing this story to; how do you picture her in your head?

Thank you. Most of the time there’s some sort of narration going on in my head, whether it’s fiction or what I ate for lunch. I hear stories before I write them down. I’d been thinking about a story like this, and one morning I heard the narrator’s voice. I had to write as fast as she was speaking so I didn’t lose her. Funny though, I don’t read my work aloud much. I guess I don’t want my own voice to get in the way.

I picture the narrator’s girlfriend as this nice, normal, compassionate person but she’s just as complicit in the sickness in their relationship because so far, she has refused to acknowledge it. That’s where the narrator’s anger comes from. I see the girlfriend as this sort of wide-eyed pretty girl who’s smarter than she seems.

3. How did you choose to set this story here? When you travel, are you always picturing the spots where a relationship could crumble?

Travel is supposed to be this utopian experience for a couple. In reality, your time together is so concentrated that it often becomes about controlling how you really feel. In my head I often play out these scenes where one person is desperate to get away from the other, but has to keep up the pretense. That’s so soul-sucking, that having to pretend things are okay. For this story I was initially thinking about a couple on a road trip, the whole being trapped together in a car for hours thing. The Iao Valley was more interesting, though. You’re supposed to fight on a road trip; you’re not supposed to fight in Maui.

4. This story conflates a giant battle fought 200 years ago with one between just two people. Tell us about another place where our decisions have already been made.

I think every place holds on to its history, especially houses. I can remember the details of all the bad fights and breakups I’ve had: where I was standing, the time of day, if the bed was made. It’s like the rooms remember, and months later there you are trying to pack for a holiday but it’s hard to stop glancing at the spot where you smashed the clock radio against the door. I don’t think a fight here or there means a relationship is doomed, of course, but have them often enough and the walls of your house become painted with all that misery.

A better place to have a fight is a neighborhood you rarely visit. Outdoors ideally, where you can shout.

5. Where is the best place to abandon someone, in your opinion?

A bar. Really though, there’s no good place to leave someone. At least provide a ready supply of alcohol.

6. Feral cats as a metaphor for:

The narrator thinks she craves freedom. What she really wants is to be left alone so she can destroy herself. Especially when we’re unhappy, self-destruction is tempting. There’s an elegance in it. The Iao cats were like that. Complete disasters, but by choice. They were like, We’re totally going to die out here, and that’s awesome.