Interview: Misha Nogha and the Weird

"I like stories that are transformative"

Misha Nogha (also published as Misha Chocholak or simply Misha) is an accomplished writer of science fiction and fantasy, often noted for her contributions to the subgenre of cyberpunk, her use of shamanic traditions in her fiction, and her vivid, poetic style. Born in 1955 in St. Paul, Misha is of mixed Nordic and Metis ancestry and has studied Cree medicine path and Seidr, an ancient form of Nordic Shamanism. Misha’s first novel, Red Spider White Web, often considered a classic of cyberpunk, won the 1990 ReaderCon Award and was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her prose piece “Tsuki Mangetsu” was used in a dynamic performance by two Australian composers and won the 1989 Prix d’Italia. Her short story “Chippoka Na Gomi” was recently included in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Other work of hers has been reprinted in anthologies such as Storming the Reality Studio and Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. She was formerly the editor of New Pathways magazine and her review column “Points of Impact” was carried by three different magazines: New Pathways, Ice River, and Science Fiction Eye. Her most recent release is the short prose and poetry collection Magpies and Tigers. In addition to her writing, Misha is an accomplished musician, often working in conjunction with her husband, composer Michael Chocholak. Together they own and operate a ranch in Eastern Oregon.

Author Marc Laidlaw recently interviewed Misha on behalf of Weirdfictionreview.com, asking her about her writing, her experiences in the industry, and her current projects, among other things.

Weirdfictionreview.com: Do you think of your writing as weird?

Misha Nogha: Well, if in the old Norse sense of wyrd or urðr–One of the Norns – that which has come to pass, yes. I am all about the Eddas and that set of tales. But in the normal sense of the word, maybe not so weird. On the other hand, it’s certainly not prosaic. When I look at images say from the Hubble telescope or an electron microscope, I think, all that is out there and someone is writing something formulaic and bland? What is wrong with you people? No, forget it, why waste everyone’s time?

WFR.com: Your work first started attracting notice in the mid ‘80s, partly through the strange and wonderful zine, New Pathways in Science Fiction. But you must have started writing and publishing before that. Can you talk about your early writing and publishing experiences? (And for those who are hunting for these old stories, they often appeared under the byline “Misha Chocholak.”)

Misha: I think my first published story was in a college literary magazine. The story was entitled “Saturday Afternoon on the St. Croix River.” I still like it.  Most of my early stuff was published in Factsheet Five. The magazine allowed for lots of freedom in style. I might have been one of the first writers of flash fiction as they now call it. I think I had a couple of small SF stories published here and there but New Pathways is one of those first venues that published my work. The editor and I started talking about what writers we liked and we liked a lot of the same writers so he invited me to edit for him. We didn’t have a lot of diversity at that time so I thought it would be fun to ask writers: what story did you have in the bottom of the drawer that you really wanted to be published that everyone rejected? As a matter of fact, if NP was still around I would have submitted “Predatory Intermissions,” which is a short story I wrote as a collaboration with Brian Aldiss and Richard Truhlar! Brian suggested sending it to Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he said he got his first start publishing in the US with his Hothouse stories. But apparently, it’s too strange for F&SF even today, nearly two decades after it was written!

WFR.com: You gained some notoriety for your “Points of Impact” columns, which started in NP and reached their peak in Science Fiction Eye. Could you describe them for those have who never encountered them?

Misha Nogha:  “Points of Impact” was definitely influenced by the mail art movement. Take something ordinary and do something extraordinary with it.  I think we were all getting tired of the type of review which just gave a synopsis of a book without really saying anything substantial about it. So this was a reaction to that kind of review, a kind of over-the-top parody so to speak. It was a graphic review, that is – photos of books being ravaged in creative ways. It was all for fun and not to be naughty. I did read and enjoy all the books I deconstructionalized! So I really meant no disrespect. My funniest comment was from Orson Scott Card whose book was chainsawed. He said “best review I ever had.” My favorite review was of a book about a man who turned into a wolf. I think it was called Wolf Dreams. The pull quote read “So-and-So dreamt of being in a wolf” or something like that. You could read the pull quote in the review, which was essentially a photo of the book being torn apart by a bona fide wolf that belonged to a friend of mine.

WFR.com: How did you get started writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or was there a revelation at some point?

Misha:  As a little girl I was fascinated by fairy tales and mythologies. I would tell my mom. “That’s not what really happened!” She would say, “Oh no, it’s just a story,” but I would say, “They didn’t tell it right!” I got the feeling even as a very little girl that there was some kind of agenda behind some of the stories and that the agenda in some of them was oppressive. I liked fairy tales that were transformative and not didactic. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the indigenous myths had old women that were kindly and helpful and that most of the western ones portrayed old Grannies as mean and ugly and ate children. I had the most wonderful gramma a kid could ever dream of. Just like the witches, she had a dowager’s hump and was always introducing me to magical ideas in a fun way. And the talking animals and trees were usually mean. I didn’t agree with that at all! Then again, my whole young life, my mom always bought me red shoes! The red shoes in the fairy tale were evil and bad but mine were wonderful. I could never figure out why they made the nuns so mad. As an adult, I found out why my mom always bought me red shoes and it made me laugh. But as a youngster I wanted to re-write the fairy tales the way they were supposed to be. I like stories that are transformative and bring you to a realization that the world is bigger than you are as an individual. I still do. My first novel was sci-fi and I wrote it at 12. I had this idea that we were really from Mars and had come to this planet because we got Mars in trouble. Kind of a reverse Martian Chronicles as Bradbury had written them. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a writer per se. But I like telling stories. I also like using words just as sound and pictures instead of only text.

WFR.com: You’ve had a peripheral impact on many other writers — K.W. Jeter, John Shirley, Tim Ferret — in themselves a fairly urban and “cyber” sort of group. Yet your home, Badger-set, is a sort of haven in the country. Do you feel kinship with other writers?  Do you think they’re messed up?

Misha: I don’t think I have really impacted those good folks at all, but we were all writing about our world – making social commentary using the genre of SF. Yes I feel a kinship with writers. We are all struggling to make sense of our world by speaking out about it just as our early ancestors did! And just as our early ancestors understood metaphor, so do the writers I like. People are such literalists now, they can’t extrapolate. I think it stems from a teaching that only the material is “real.”

WFR.com: What is writing like for you, when you seize the time to do it? Is it ritual? Song? A summoning?

Misha: Yes, writing is like a ritual that is sung. You set up certain sacred objects, sing some charms, and see what happens! I feel it is something channeled from an alternate reality. I always start with interesting characters and follow them around to see what they are going to do in various situations.

WFR.com: Your style is strong and idiosyncratic, uncompromising — it is reminiscent of R.A. Lafferty, not that he seems to be an influence. Who are your influences? Have they changed with time?

Misha: I haven’t really read much Lafferty but I think I had better read more. I have been influenced by everyone, I suppose, but to pick four SF writers who have captured my imagination I would say, Mary Shelley, Philip K. Dick, Gerald Vizenor and lastly Cordwainer Smith. These are writers who all struggle with what makes a human, human. I never get tired of that theme in my own writing. Non-SF writers who inspired me the most? That would be William Blake, Colette, Mark Twain and Herman Melville.

WFR.com: What are you working on now?

Misha: Well, a few years back I finished my non SF novel, Yellowjacket–maybe it fits in the category of magic realism, but it was not well received by agents, so it just languishes on my computer un-submitted.  My idea behind Yellowjacket was to create a character who is compelling, unique, teaches compassion and helps readers get through a sort of rite of passage from one phase of life to another. I am also working on The Bell Factory, which is a sequel to Red Spider White Web, and that is a story that turns the cyberworld on end because my main character is suddenly plunged into the wild world of nature and has to learn to cope. Also, a buddy and I are writing a young adult novel called Alruna, and I always write little short-shorts for this and that. The one I am writing now is about Baba Yaga. You are right, though, in saying that I don’t have enough time to write. Farm chores reign supreme and I have to say the world of nature is so damned riveting. If I am not working, I am riveted by the world around me. Most recently for example, a pair of pygmy owls has moved onto my farm. Their call, diminutive size and eyes like liquid gold stop me in my tracks and my jaw drops. Then too much time has passed for fooling around with fiction, darnit. I hear “Predatory Intermissions,” the story by Brian Aldiss, Richard Truhlar and me, is going to see the light of day this spring in Rampike Magazine. This pleases me. I wish Yellowjacket would get out there. It’s a very funny book but maybe passé. I wrote it over seven years ago now. Sigh.

WFR.com: Shamanic traditions play a strong role in your fiction — particularly in the way the natural world is represented as an alive, immanent, and interestingly unpredictable presence. In a lot of weird fiction — well, let’s say bad or lazy horror especially — the natural world is presented in a way that seems almost prejudiced. Nature is cut out to play the role of the formulaic villain, providing the expected and predictable shocks of the generic horror story. While perceiving (or portraying) nature as evil is commonplace of the classic screwed-up western worldview, shamanism’s approach to nature is more along the lines of what you have called transformative. There is a more dynamic relationship between human psychology and the hidden reaches of the natural world. Please stop us before we go completely over the edge….

Misha: About the stereotype of nature being evil or scary — well, there are so many reasons nature is scary. First of all, it is the unknown for most modern people and what you don’t know, you find scary. Most of the axial religions see nature as bad, evil, as opposed to spirit or God, which is good. The baser side of life, violence and suffering, does exist in nature, and sometimes they are right: there are malevolent and wild nature spirits that are harmful to humans and to all life. On the other hand, science looks at nature from only the material side, the forces of being a result of chemical and mineral mixes that are uncaring and unconscious. They are right too, in some cases, Sometimes a black cloud is merely water vapor and not a sign of being beleaguered by bad intent. In both cases, humans are somehow seen as outside of nature, opposed or at least merely an observer or a person who tries to understand it by simply measuring and categorizing it and what it does. The anomalies can be life-threatening! The shaman does not live apart, he sees the spirit side and the material side and acts accordingly. He is all about respecting those very powerful forces, and yet realizing that without water, food, oxygen, warmth – people cannot survive! For a shaman to be afraid of nature is like saying a fish is afraid of water.

But I think all of us are a bit afraid of facing danger alone – and especially danger that is so huge that we have no hope of surviving it.

WFR.com: Your novel Red Spider White Web is out of print and hard to find, yet it continues to have an impact on those who read it years ago or stumble across it now. Can you say something about the book that would somehow miraculously appeal to both those who have read the book (and would love to know more about its origins) and those who haven’t encountered it, but might be encouraged to track it down?

Misha:  It’s very strange, you know, I have had the most interesting phone calls and questions about RSWW from folks. One guy I was ordering pet food from asked me, “Say, you are not the lady who wrote Red Spider White Web by any chance, are you?” I was like yeah – why? He said the book changed his life!

When I wrote RSWW, I had in mind writing a literary cyberpunk that was really social commentary on religions, philosophy, art, science, history, love and life, on environmental issues, social status — and, a tiny bit, on shamanism – but to extrapolate on that is for another time.

I wrote it on four levels. First, there was fast-paced, edgy action for those folks who wanted only that. Secondly, it was loaded with references to all those things above, plus iconic images, for the person who loves to play those games. I wanted it to be a book for brain and viscera. The kennings, alliterations and assonances and metaphors and sounds colors smells tastes feelings, living through all six senses. There was a spiritual side to it as well. What was compassion? What was art? What was a human being? What was the meaning of life?

I wanted to address all these issues at once in very few lines. Take the title of the book for example: Red Spider White Web. People ask: did you mean it to represent the Japanese naval flag? Yes. Was it the blood of Christ surprised by life’s flight? Yes. Did you mean that a person of native American heritage was trapped in white western culture? Yes. Did you mean it that Iktome the trickster was caught in a web of his own making? Yes! Did you mean the Norns, Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld had woven a web of fate that all these characters were inextricably caught in? Yes, yes, and yes!

WFR.com: Can you go into some further detail on your life and mindset at the time of writing Red Spider White Web? What kinds of questions and ideas were propelling you?

Misha: When I was writing Red Spider White Web, my family and I were living very humbly, even more so than we are now. All six of us were crammed into this tiny single-wide mobile home with rescue dogs, cats and even a duckling that got separated from its hatch mates. There was no carpeting, just a bare particle-board floor. We had a couple of sticks of furniture and no central heat. Michael and I slept on the floor in the living room, letting the kids have the bedrooms, and often as not in the winter when we woke up in the morning our bedding was frozen to the floor. We had a milk goat, some chickens, and the kids and I raised a good garden every year, but our fare was simple and sparse. Despite all of that and many other amazing hardships, I think our existence was spirited and rich beyond measure. We had a constant stream of artists from all over the world visiting us, also sleeping on the floor, eating kettles of stone soup and vast stacks of fry bread, and drinking watery coffee. No one seemed to care; these visitors were true artists, composers, writers, poets, painters, film-makers, graphic novelists, editors, publishers, and people who felt art was the bread of life, not the wheat flour. When we got up, we did the farm chores, ate something – usually someone was already at the piano or keyboards – and got right down to the joyous work of creating. It always amazed me that people, even notable comfortable-income people, would come to our little farm to create. It was a lot of fun. I started to create RSWW out of this highly charged creative atmosphere, maybe in the fashion of Gully Jimson from The Horse’s Mouth: “It’s only the art that matters in that space and time.” Creative collaboration is one of the most amazing experiences the world has to offer, and it does create intense thrills. I also wanted to move on and on and on past the beyond in my writing, In the words of Franz Kafka, “From a certain point onward there is no longer and turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”

I want also to say something about the Japanese themes and use of Japanese in RSWW. First and foremost, I had just won a scholarship to and completed a total immersion Japanese culture and language course at a local university. Since I was learning to speak Japanese, to breathe it and eat and draw and write the culture, I thought it would be great if the whole family did it with me. So we all learned to speak Japanese and write in katakana and kanji. We ate a lot of rice and miso and sushi before it was “a thing” in the US and we read a lot of Japanese fiction, watched Japanese movies (oh, the delights of introducing all of us to Kurosawa) and had a lot of Japanese cultural items in our home. It was fun to see how the kids played Ninjas and Samurai instead of cowboy and Indian games. And it was also amusing to see how the kids, by learning Japanese, got to understand some of the nuances of another culture than ultra conservative small town America. We were a family of Japanophiles, which was no end of delight to our Japanese visitors who were grateful to be able to speak Japanese while visiting in the US. So it was not about being “fashionably Japanese” as some cyber novels were; we were all in Japanese immersion right then.

And there was another, more personal issue for me. I had always and forever been upset about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even as a little girl. I could never accept the reasons why the government felt it necessary to kill 74,000 people in one go, not to mention animals, plants, etc, in order to “win.” It was unacceptable. Completely and utterly unacceptable. Even as a little girl, frightened by drills to prepare for nuclear blasts, it had not escaped me that my country, the United States of America, was the only one which had dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. I was heartstruck by it, and always will be. It is a recurring theme in a lot of my writing. But then again, keep in mind, some of my heritage is Native American. A culture and race of people nearly genocided by others who wanted to win a war. A war on Indians. No. I said no and I will say it again: no!

Then there was the issue about animals. Our whole family was about animals. We saw them as fur people, with hopes, feelings, dreams, desires. We accepted animal species as also just another culture. But then again, the Native side of me pops out. Not only animals but objects, places, plants, celestial bodies, earth, wind, water, fire, all these things seemed in a way sentient. We all followed the words of Frank Fools Crow: “If a stone person can speak, it is proof there is life in all things.” I also began to wonder, as did writers whom I loved, what made humans human? What was the defining gate that separated? At the time of writing RSWW I had decided it was the ability to create and appreciate art. Make something that took the elements of something else, add in a grandiose metaphor and voila, something wonderful has been created to say a lot of things in one simple phrase or sound or sculpture or drawing. I mean, you have to admire Billy Blake, probably my greatest literary influence. He said everything that ever needed to be said in these four lines from Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

WFR.com: Would you like to say something about the origins of “The Stone Badger”?

Misha: My Native American heritage is Metis, a people who were French/Cree mixed breeds from Northeastern Canada. A lot of Metis stories were Windigo tales, taken from Cree myths. The Windigo is a creature who is essentially a skeleton of ice. To me, he is the epitome of the corporate world. He keeps gobbling up everything in sight – people, trees, animals, rocks – and his hunger is never satiated. My ancestors talk about people who “go Windigo” – a sort of arctic hysteria, I guess, where folks actually see their tribesmates as ptarmigan or some edible animal and cannibalize them. In the tales, only a weasel, a badger, or a wolverine can kill a Windigo by climbing down its throat and chewing up its icy heart. In “The Stone Badger,” the main character sees herself as a victim of ice, cold, voracious people – even trapped by her caretakers in the hospital. In waking and in dreaming life she is carving a kikituk of a badger who will come to save her from a deadly fate.

WFR.com: Finally, what is your favorite story of the weird variety?

Misha: Come on. For a writer who cut her teeth on Kafka’s Metamorphosis there can’t be only one. So I will mention three.

The first is “The Savage Mouthby Sakyo Komatsu. It is a horrific story about a person who decided to eat himself, totally, completely, even down to cutting open his own skull and spooning the brains out. How was this done? By artificial organs as his real ones were consumed, and by machines who fed himself to himself.

Secondly, “The Animosh Driving School(possibly my favorite story of weird) by Gerald Vizenor, in which two well meaning social workers on an Indian reservation decide to teach the reservation’s dogs to pull the elderly around in carts. Things start to get out of hand when the dogs then learn to drive taxis and even fly small planes. A most wonderful and hilarious story

Lastly, I have always been quite taken by the creativity of Julio Cortazar and his Cronopios and Famas stories. Here you have three types of people: Cronopios, Famas and Esperanzas, all folks described by their very strange and unique actions. Brilliant creativity and totally original!

One reply to “Interview: Misha Nogha and the Weird

  1. I just wanted to make the correction that the first US trade paperback edition of RED SPIDER WHITE WEB is very much in print and available through Wordcraft of Oregon (www.wordcraftoforegon.com). We also have copies of Misha’s first book/chapbook, PRAYERS OF STEEL and MAGPIES AND TIGERS. We also have a number of copies of KE QUA HAWK AS with slightly flawed covers (spotting on black ink on cover) which we will sell for 50% discount if you send an email to editor@wordcraftfoforegon requesting one of these numbered editions signed by Misha and Ferret. If you click on Backlist and the Wordcraft Speculative Writers Series, both PRAYERS OF STEEL and RSWW can be found and purchased. Not really so hard to find if one wants to look.

    Thanks to Marc for doing this fine interview of Misha Nogha and to Weird Fiction Review for posting it.

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