Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

Q&A: Religion in SALVAGE

Nici McCown asked me a great question on Twitter today. One hundred and sixty characters isn't enough space to answer it, though, so I thought I'd address it here.


I grew up in a very religious home. My stepfather was a Methodist minister with a progressive streak and my mother was both socially liberal and devout, which is a combination I don't think you hear much about in Christianity, especially in the rural South. Growing up as a preacher's kid is an odd double-edged sword. On one hand, I got the chance to meet people from all over the world and from different religions through my parents' mission work and interfaith outreach activities. Soraya*, who is Muslim, is based in equal parts on the wife of a local imam who I met when I was a teenager, Middle Eastern academics like Azar Nafisi, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the main character of Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big in This?

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On the other, even the most progressive, welcoming churches can be very insular communities. They are tiny worlds where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everything about everyone. People judge. They gossip. They buy into certain ideas wholeheartedly and can't see past them. The Parastrata and the rest of the merchant crewes were based largely on my experience growing up inside the church.

Despite my liberal parents, our church was still in a predominantly Protestant evangelical community in '90s farm country that was beginning its slow transformation into suburbs. That is to say, not exactly a bastion of equality and feminist ideals. For example, I was allowed to be an altar girl, but I was also called out of the worship service some Sundays to run the church nursery. I only realized in looking back that this was something the boys were never asked to do. At the time, though, I knew I had it better than some of my friends in more conservative churches, so I just felt sorry for them and didn't consider my own situation anything other than normal. I was fortunate, even.

Which brings me back to the imam's wife. She and her husband came to dinner at our house one night when I was seventeen. I had heard about Muslim women. They covered their hair and were subservient to their husbands. They were oppressed. My mother and I, eager to make a good impression on our guests, scurried around making dinner and taking drink orders while my stepfather sat at the dinner table with the imam and his wife, making conversation. She was so calm an self-possessed, but didn't hesitate to speak up when she had an opinion about religion or the interfaith initiative. As I hurried into the dining area with a bowl of yeast rolls, it hit me. I had expected this woman to come join us in the kitchen, to help us make dinner, because that's what women did when you had people over. The men talked and the women helped, even if they were your guests.

And yet, there she was, calmly sitting beside her husband at the table, carrying on a conversation like she had every right to be there.

This was not what I expected. My mother and I, we were the ones who didn't have to cover our hair or dress a certain way. The imam's wife was the one who was supposed to be subservient. Her husband wasn't supposed to treat her as his equal, as if they were speaking for their mosque together. Yet, here we were. Was it really her headscarf that made her oppressed, or was the real problem our exclusion from the conversation?

There is a Bible story about Jesus telling a woman named Martha not to chide her sister Mary for discussing religion instead of helping in the kitchen. That story popped into my head then. The irony wasn't lost on me, either.

Parts of the merchant crewe's religion came from this feeling in the water when I was growing up. Women had worth, but only under certain circumstances. We might think we had power and influence in our community - we certainly had responsibilities - but when it came time to sit down at the table, we were too busy with those responsibilities to take part. Good women were demure and helpful. They didn't need credit for things they did, because God saw and took note. It wasn't a stretch for me to write about a religion in which women are simultaneously treasured and discounted.

Beyond that, I picked up the ephemera of the merchant crewe's religion from odd sources over the years. The inspiration for the carvings on the captain's doors came from European wood cuts I studied in college. The cadence of the stories and poems in The Word of the Sky came from a lifetime obsession with folktales and myth, which included several trips to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., along with years marinating in and memorizing Bible stories.

Religion is complex. It can buoy you up on your darkest night as easily as it can be used to destroy someone. I hope those shades of gray come through in Salvage.

If you have any other questions for me, please ask! Submit your question through my Contact page or give me a shout on Twitter at @DuncanAlexandra. I will do my best to answer.

*If you're interested in reading more about Soraya, she appears in a short story I wrote called "Bad Matter." It was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in December 2009.

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