Research Notes · 10/17/2014

By Light We Knew Our Names

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Anne Valente writes about By Light We Knew Our Names from Dzanc Books.

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Because By Light We Knew Our Names is my first collection of stories, it includes a great deal of research — something that has become increasingly essential to my fiction — but also a great deal of my adolescence and what it meant to grow up for me, so many years rolled into the landscape of a first book. There is no autobiography here. But there is an attention to childhood, and to the things that first moved me. There is also research, a natural extension of the same curiosity I carried with me as a kid.

Where that curiosity came from: Baking soda volcanoes. Plaster-cast planets. Building molecules and compounds in third-grade science class with toothpicks standing in as chemical bonds, stuck into gummy bears and spice drops, each color signifying a different atom or element. Reading beneath the covers. Flashlights. A revolving mobile of silver airplanes my grandparents hung on their back porch. A plastic aquarium of sea monkeys. An ant farm on my dresser. The pond down the street. Crawfish and tadpoles.


courtesy of 1886 H.M.S. Challenger
report on Cephalopoda
And research: the suctioned feet and three hearts of an octopus. Its hard beak and soft arms, its self-starvation while incubating eggs and its quick death beyond their hatching. Its intelligence and capacity for memory. Its inclusion on the list of animals that should not be experimented upon without anesthesia. Echolocation. A pink dolphin that for weeks swam in Lake Calcasieu, not far from where I lived in Louisiana for a year. Dolphins and bats. Hearing and navigation. The movement of fins through water.

Birthday parties. Pin the white eyeball on Bart, a Simpsons-themed celebration. The corner piece of cake with the most frosting, how my parents saved it for me. Shooting a basketball at the hoop mounted above our garage until the sun faded behind the house. Rocket park. A jungle-gym spaceship my sister and I climbed on. Valentine’s Day at school, mailboxes made of construction paper and rubber cement. The musty shelves of the elementary school library. Story time on the magic carpet.


World’s Fair dinosaurs; public domain courtesy of Tom Simpson, Flickr

The 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park: a parade of otherworldly dinosaurs on display for Sinclair. And twenty-seven years earlier, Amelia Earhart’s attempts at transatlantic solo flight. Her Lockheed Vega, her twin-engine Electra. What the world must have imagined when she first took flight, the same awe of New Yorkers at a futuristic World’s Fair. And deep in the sea, just off these coasts: how lobsters grow and grow. Regenerative telomerase, an enzyme in their DNA. Hard exoskeletons and the ocean’s weightlessness.

Water wings in the pool, before I learned to swim. Storm sirens. Crouching in the basement. The safety of the closet beneath the stairs. Cicadas and summer crickets and the drone of the highway and an electric tower. My parents’ record collection. The Moody Blues. Jimi Hendrix. Paul Williams. Home inventory tapes. Tornadoes and thunderstorms. The green light of the sky and the pulse of the wind.


courtesy of Ray Stinson,
Glacier National Park Service
And the borealis: lights I’ve never seen. Ionized particles and solar wind. A geomagnetic storm so unlike the wind-lashed trees of the Midwest. Atoms and molecules, the pull of the earth’s magnetic fields. The tilt of the seasons, the pull of an axis. Lights I hope to see someday, harboring the same awe of a child, and the same wonder I hope makes its way into these stories.

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Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, just released from Dzanc Books. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in One Story, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Normal School, among others, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post.