3 Questions

3 Questions with Writer Miriam Sagan

A new novella envisions generations of New Mexicans coming together after the world falls apart

The dystopian future in Miriam Sagan’s new novella Commune of the Golden Sun (Cholla Needles, 2024) takes place in familiar terrain—Albuquerque and thereabouts—rendering a not-so-distant future—2026-2066—in which civil war and climate change have made for a hardscrabble existence. Yet while the novella evokes 1970s feminist sci-fi authors such as Marge Piercy (Women on the Edge of Time) and Joanna Russ (The Female Man), it nods equally to folkloric tradition and Buddhist koan. Ultimately, Sagan weaves together through multiple points of view an intergenerational love story in which relationships transcend time and space (literally), as a group of young survivors leave the New Mexico commune in which they were raised to explore the world they had been told no longer existed. Sagan wrote the book over the course of four years—in part during the COVID-19 lockdowns—in what she describes as “the world’s longest process.”

Author of more than 30 books of poetry, memoir and fiction, Sagan founded the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College and directed it until her retirement. She will read from her novella at 5:30 pm, March 19, in an online event, “Leaving Utopia: A Reading and Discussion with Miriam Sagan,” which will include writing tips for approaching the short novel, writing through difficult times and more (register at tinyurl.com/saganevent). We asked for one of those tips in advance, which she supplied: “Conflict is inherent in our relationships, whether we admit it or not. If you want psychological realism, even in a world that’s not that realistic, you don’t have to add conflict, or devise conflict: You have to put things and people next to each other and see what the conflict is.”

The following interview has been edited for space and concision.

Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin had a debate years ago about the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction, the latter being fiction that depicts a world or events that doesn’t exist, but could, given current conditions. Does Commune of the Golden Sun fit into that category, or do you see it as more encompassing of other genres?

I think it’s pretty obviously speculative fiction, but I think of it as being a little bit like magical realism as well. [Isak] Dinesen and [Jorge Luis] Borges was what I was reading big chunks of when I was writing it. There’s Narnia: We go through the wardrobe into the other worlds, right? This is proposing it’s one world, but it really is two worlds; the magical worlds are sealed off. We do come and go from a variety of magical worlds: the Commune, Blue Arrow and, essentially, the sense of being split in two. I’d say the real world is place A: Albuquerque, and then there’s a bunch of place Bs. So it definitely falls into what Atwood says, but it also has some freedom of motion that you find from [Italo] Calvino, where you basically you do whatever the heck you want, because it’s like a fairy tale or a fable.

Maira has a line in the story that also appears on the back of the book: ‘No one can see the future. Sometimes I think I can’t even really see the past.’ Why is that emphasized?

The book is a lot about competing views. You know: ‘I love you. You didn’t love me. No, you never loved me.’ That kind of thing. ‘You’re a tyrant/ No, I was a darling sweet grandmother.’ We can’t know what’s going on in terms of our lineage, but we’re also trapped in it and therefore kind of compelled to try to understand it. And that understanding is always going to be imperfect, which is why it’s changing as things go. I mean, for example, Emi thinks her mother has abandoned her, but her mother is desperately trying to get to her, so everything changes in a second.

In real life, you’re half of a mother/daughter creative team Maternal Mitochondria, with Isabel Winson-Sagan. Is there something about intergenerational relationships that you think is particularly important in the political climate that shadows this book?

I think it might be an attempt to reclaim the family from a right-wing discourse about what family is. I do think maternal lineage, since I’m a woman, is very, very important, and who your ancestors are is very important to you, and something that gives you power and security, a place in the world. The notion of family has become so reactionary; it’s as if we have to choose between this reactionary patriarchal construct and loneliness. There’s a lot of people in this book who are on murky terms with each other, but they are there for each other.

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