A Brief Interview with Kirsten Imani Kasai, Author, ‘Tattoo’


Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author the 2009 novel Ice Song, a New Weird science fiction tale of predatory corporations, human/animal genetic hybrids and gender-switching protagonists. This week Kasai returned to this world with the release of her follow-up novel Tattoo. She recently spoke with me about her early wanderlust, the fluidity of gender roles and what inspired the genetic hybrids of her novel.

In an environmentally fragile world where human and animal genes combine, the rarest mutation of all—the Trader—can instantly switch genders. One such Trader, the female Sorykah, is battling her male alter, Soryk, for dominance and the right to live a full life.

Sorykah has rescued her infant twins from mad Matuk the Collector. Her children are safe. Her journey, she believes, is over, but Matuk’s death has unleashed darker, more evil forces. These forces, led by the Collector’s son, cast nets of power that stretch from the glittering capital of Neubonne to the murky depths below the frozen Sigue, where the ink of octameroons is harvested to make addictive, aphrodisiacal tattoos. Bitter enemies trapped within a single skin, Sorykah and Soryk are soon drawn into a sinister web of death and deceit.

Kirsten Imani Kasai:

I understand that you’ve had a pretty adventurous life. Tell me more about that San Francisco flat!

That infamous flat! I was like Harry Potter, living in a cupboard under the stairs. I come from a family of world travelers. My wanderlust has led to sleep on a lot of couches, floors and in shared beds. Now I’m just a boring suburban mom, being slowly driven mad by routine.

How did you first get interested in writing, anyway? Do you recall the moment when you thought, “Wow. I think I could really make a go at this”?

I’ve always been writing, but it wasn’t until sophomore year of high school that it really clicked for me. Ice Song is dedicated to my HS English teacher, Gary Hicken.

Urban fantasy novels often combine sex and death in ways that make me recall Freud’s theories about Eros and Thanatos; that humans have as strong a drive toward death as they do toward life and love. What do you think makes this combination so enticing to readers?

There’s something profoundly primal about our yearning and/or resistance to sex, especially for women, who know that it can lead to pregnancy, birth and the demise of one’s infant or one’s self. We seek the “little death” as a transformative experience. Our drive for union–with our version of god, or a lover, parent or friend–pushes us across our boundaries in search of both connection and release. The body is an anchor in this world. Imagine if we could step out of them with our ‘selves’ intact! We would soon miss the pleasures of a corporeal existence–cuddles, kisses, ice cream, whiskey. We are bound by our bodies as much as we yearn to be free of them.

Tattoo‘s setting features a lot of cutting edge technology that is just in its infancy right now, and I’m particularly intrigued by your idea of animal and human genes mixing. How were you inspired to write about such a world?

I love science and nature programs, and I’m a big fan of those medical mystery shows. There are actual genetic mutations that produce “mermaids,” giants or a Cyclops, and give people horns, tails, fur. These births are the source of our monsters of myth, I think. When you hear that we share something like 60% of our DNA with the humble banana, well, anything becomes possible.

One of the characters in your book can switch genders. Do you consider gender to be a fluid state or a static one?

Actually, Kirwan, the father of Sorykah’s twins, is also a Trader. He’s had a much different experience than Soryk/ah, who suffers from a “disease of forgetting” that complicates her transitions. Gender roles are social constructs. There was an interesting article on NPR recently about new research showing that gender is primarily a product of conditioning. It can be very fun and freeing to play with gender roles, but the pressure to conform to expectation places crippling limits on human expression.

Unfortunately, the gender issue is one of the most provocative aspects of Ice Song and Tattoo, but it’s incidental. Sorykah’s conflict is not related to gender-switching. It stems from having to share her body with a psychological twin, to be fractured and questing for unification of self. Like her, we each seek to balance the dark and light in us, to achieve homeostasis and become whole by continually integrating our experiences and emotions into our perception of self and our place in the universe.

Some of your book reminds me of the “New Weird” wave of fiction. I’m thinking of people like Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville and Steph Swainston. Who were your actual influences?

Angela Carter has been my biggest influence. She’s brilliant. Her writing is so densely elaborate and multi-dimensional, it continues to challenge me. The Bloody Chamber is my absolute favorite book. Tanith Lee and Sarah Waters also inspire me. Admittedly, I did not know that I was writing New Weird or spec fiction until others told me!

Some men dismiss books that have any element of romance or eroticism as being “women’s books”. Should they do so? Why should they give Tattoo a chance?

It’s a cultural fallacy that men are repelled by romance. Any parent of little boys knows that they can be incredibly tender, sweet and loving and in my experience, men often seem less resilient to heartbreak than women. Everyone empathizes with tales of heartache and loss; they makes us feel less isolated by our own pain while love stories inspire and encourage us. Plus Tattoo has enough sex, blood, adventure, fighting and explosions to satisfy anyone.

What’s next for you?

I hope to be lucky enough to be able to write full time. My head is bursting with untold stories!

There’s 1-2 more books about Sorykah and the child, Teszla. I’m also writing a paranormal urban fantasy series and a Gothic novel about a time-traveling succubus, voodoo and 1850s New Orleans. Now that my kids are older, I can return to painting and create more creepy art to adorn my walls. Hooray for creepy!

Kirsten encourages readers to participate in her new contest “In Bed with a Book” during Aug 1 through 7. “Like” her Facebook page for details and announcements.