Story Notes: “Sexual Cannibalism”
Another in my very occasional series of story notes (so occasional that I’ve literally only ever done it once before, and that was three years ago). This time it’s about my first-ever lit-mag publication: “Sexual Cannibalism” came out in the Fall 2014 issue of Birkensnake.
In his video footage, the mantises terminate their mating with considerable tenderness. Their thumb-shaped heads rub up on each other and killing mandibles brush each other’s bodies. Their wings become entangled and then shake themselves free. The male often stands near the female for a few hours to ward off other males. Sometimes, if he is old and ill, the male will break off its own genitals and allow them to remain lodged inside the female, sealing them together in irrevocable monogamy.
Although it was entirely rejected by thirty editors and ignored by everyone (even my friends), there is a part of me that suspects this is the best story I’ve ever written. In fact, for a long time, this story drove me to despair, because I was like, “How can I ever surpass this masterpiece.”
It’s a hard story to summarize. It’s seven vignettes, about an entomologist who grows up and experiences confusion about his sexuality, and it’s told against the backdrop of a worsening climate situation. Also, there’s tons of facts in there about praying mantises. I’ve thought over and over about this story and about why it failed to hit, “Was it not clear enough? Did it not make sense?” And in the end I concluded the story is perfect–it’s really just one of those things.
Mostly, I think the problem with the story is that it’s troubling. The surface reading of the story (which is the correct one) conveys a truly deep ambivalence about homosexuality, and I think lots of people aren’t prepared for that. Throughout the story, there’s this focus on the mating of the preying mantis. It’s this gruesome, horrific process that seems so unnecessary, and his innovation is that he discovers that it’s not. Everything we observe about mantis behavior is the result of pollution–trace levels of hormones–in their environment. At the same time, the entomologist is experiencing his own confusion. Is he gay or not? He resists the label–can’t seem to settle. Even after he’s married, his husband feels like he’s pulling away.
Finally, the entomologist is asked to testify to a scientific commission (tasked with preservation and restoration) on behalf of the praying mantises–the focus of his life’s work–and he refuses. He says that even though their mating is grotesque, it seems successful. It works. And maybe that is just how they should be now. And only then is he able to experience any kind of peace with his husband. He’ll never fully accept his own homosexuality–there will, to him, always feel an element of the grotesque in it–but he can finally see the beauty in it.
I wrote this when I was dating a man for the first time in my life. It was my first time dating anyone, actually. And although it was a very good relationship–I liked him quite a lot–it also aroused in me feelings that I couldn’t express to anyone. I didn’t feel gay, precisely. I felt like there was both more (and less) to my sexuality than that. And I put that ambivalence into this story.
I think the story is brilliant in its spareness. I’ve never so successfully used the objective correlative. The descriptions of mantis mating behavior stand in for the character’s feelings. I actually selected each tidbit carefully, to mirror what he was feeling in each situation, and that’s why there’s so little description of his thoughts or feelings. At the time, its reception by editors left me feeling hurt and confused, but I’ve grown to accept that sometimes we can see a beauty in our stories that other people can’t. Someday, though, I hope this story’s time will come.
I wrote the story in the course of about a day, for an assignment in my MFA program. We’d been assigned by my favorite professor, Jean McGarry, to read a book by the French poet Francis Ponge. His thing was to write long odes to very prosaic things, and she challenged us to do the same. I chose the mantis. At that time I was also reading, I believe, Scientific American for inspiration, and I saw something in there about a scientific commission which was tasked with determining which endangered animals would receive conservation funds. From that came the idea of a man who is appointed as a sort of Lorax–it’s his job to speak for the mantises.
As I said, the story came out in a day. It flowed so beautifully. That was a semester when I was writing a lot, and I was finding it very easy to write. I didn’t do nearly as much research as you’d think. My research is always very much on the surface. I just watched some youtube videos and did a google search. Everything I know about praying mantises is there in the story. But I kinda sound like an expert, though, don’t I? And it also dramatizes a real scientific controversy (how common is sexual cannibalism amongst mantises?)
The college student thinks he knows the truth about the praying mantis: death during copulation is neither expected nor inevitable. The male mounts the female from behind and keeps his forelimbs on her in order to control her movements. She is stronger, but the angles are in his favor: she can only kill by pinning him down with her hooked flanges, and these are designed to reach forward and below her. As long as he is on top, she finds it difficult to take him.
The male must dismount carefully, choosing a moment when the female is distracted or unwary. Sometimes they remain latched together for up to 24 hours; it is not unknown for the male to die of exhaustion while he waits.