Research Notes · 09/06/2019

Chimerica

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Anita Felicelli writes about Chimerica from WTAW Press.

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When I was in elementary school, my father took a theater class in which they learned about different methods of acting, and one of these was Lee Strasbourg’s method acting. In method acting, an actor uses his or her own emotional memories to develop a realistic performance. However, Strasbourg traveled beyond Stanislavki’s method for accessing emotional memories by asking actors to prepare for roles by immersing themselves in the real life of their character’s circumstances. So, for example, a middle-class actor who grew up and lives in a city might get ready to play a character who lives and works on a farm by actually living and working on a farm. An actress playing the part of an anorexic teenager on stage might deny herself food to understand what that feels like. Method acting can be extreme and dangerous, with some actors choosing not to step outside the role even after going off stage or the cameras stop rolling.

I’m drawn to extremes. I always have been, and perhaps that’s why the concept of method acting struck me so deeply in elementary school when my father explained it, and lingered in the back of my mind over decades as a form of research that was on the same level as reading books in the library stacks. I read more fiction as a child than anyone else I knew, usually many novels and works of nonfiction each week. But in spite of all my reading, I had an intuitive sense as a child there were things other people were experiencing through their different bodies in the world that I was not experiencing. Equally, I had the sense of being misunderstood, because so little of what I had experienced was written down anywhere. I wanted to know what others knew deep in my bones, and I wanted them to know what I knew. Perhaps this drive to know other people and be known is why I became a fiction writer. But how to know that? How to have any idea? You only get one life.

Somewhere in adolescence I started to think about the possibility of my own life as a chain of method acting exercises, as a form of research for writing fiction. I’m now middle-aged and I’ve made many, many mistakes in pursuit of lived experience, and find myself no better a human being for it. But, I do feel like I can write with emotional authority on the kinds of things that interest me — trouble — for having consciously considered living itself as a long, corporeal research project.

Going to law school was partly to have a day job — I was worried, as an English and Art major with immigrant parents, I wouldn’t be able to find a day job — and partly so I had something write fiction about, something other than academia. Academic campus novels were big when I was in high school and college, thinking about what to do with my life to make money. The Handmaid of Desire by John L’Heureux. Blue Angel by Francine Prose. Moo by Jane Smiley. The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Going to law school was a three-year stint in learning about every kind of trouble people can find themselves in. After, I did find jobs as a litigator in small law firms, but not because of an ambition to be a trial attorney so much as needing to make a living. And that’s where the research comes in for Maya Ramesh, a down-on-her-luck, but highly ambitious trial attorney in my novel Chimerica.

In Chimerica, Maya Ramesh winds up representing a lemur who claims to have come to life from a mural depicting Madagascar in downtown Oakland. I’d written Maya as a younger character in a novel I wrote before ever going to law school myself. But I don’t think I could have written her as a trial lawyer in Chimerica without living within the world of litigation myself, accumulating haphazard notes on what workers in this particular subculture are like, on what kinds of trouble arise in what patterns. And I’m not sure I would have survived my day job as a litigator for eight torturous years had I not treated it as research. I had to believe I was not only doing the best possible job I could for my clients, sometimes people with whom I disagreed in a very fundamental way, but also that I would be able, one day, to make meaning out of what I had learned as a human being in that environment, living through those conditions.

Maya is a character who is mostly nothing like me. She didn’t spend her whole childhood reading books or wanting to be a fiction writer. She’s never made art. She’s not a critical perfectionist frequently made sick by anxiety and a mood disorder (in fact she’s entirely unsympathetic to her estranged sister’s mood disorder). She isn’t somebody who wanted to be a mother. She’s not someone who analyzes, for even the most minor daily decisions, what the moral course of action would be before taking a step. Instead, she’s a quietly skillful tactician and strategist playing to win. She speaks even when she’s not sure. She has the ability to be ruthless and cutthroat in a way that I am mostly not. She wants, desperately, to be a star, and she wants to be a star in a very specific American way — by becoming a successful trial attorney. We’re alike only in one way — our ethnic identities are fairly close, we’re both Tamil American and both from inter-caste backgrounds.

Litigation, like novels, are a site of extreme trouble. The courtroom is not a place where people go to feel better, and often litigation makes people feel worse before it makes them feel better — if, and that’s a big if, it makes them feel better at all. When trial lawyers get together, they tell war stories, and “war stories” is less a metaphor than you might understand. Trial is a battle, and trial lawyers are expected to bear a certain amount of verbal and temporal violence on behalf of their clients. Sometimes trial attorneys incite further verbal violence in order to achieve a particular result for a client.

As an attorney, I bore the violence, but I also stepped back from the immediate experience to observe how people talk in different litigation settings — the self-talk of artists when the stature of their work is not recognized, the words of judges who believe the attorney appearing before them is inexperienced or otherwise inadequate, the posture of already-wealthy people suing for first-world problems, the commentary of wealthy white liberals doing pro bono work for impoverished refugees, the anxieties of the prisoner filing a habeas petition from prison, the self-talk of litigators suffused with the competitive mania of needing a win, the calmness of mediators trying to show each side how their arguments might be weaker than they think. Experiencing all this, I was flooded with thoughts, many of them contradictory, many of them simply emotional responses to other thoughts. To keep going, I had to choose which thoughts to follow for purposes of action, and which to file away as an observer’s thoughts.

Throughout my time in litigation, I asked myself, which thoughts would I need to claim as my own in order to stay here in this position? Who would I need to be to want this kind of violence to be my real life? What personality and life experiences would I need to have to think this should be the way I spend my short time on Earth? Who would want this experience? And more, what does it mean to be a fighter in this particular context, fighting not only a visible adversary in the courtroom, but also shadowboxing with the invisible adversaries of racism, sexism and implicit bias?

I had to find an answer to all these questions to write Chimerica, but in my own life, the answer was different. Needing to do a form of method acting on a daily basis to think the thoughts and become the person my clients needed me to be to win was, to put it mildly, emotionally exhausting. In particular, observing the differences in what thoughts I needed to think versus what my coworkers were able to think was fascinating. Implicit bias is hard to fight because it manifests in both large and small ways, and yet it’s everywhere, in every industry, in every person who unquestioningly buys into an industry, including the legal industry. I was viscerally relieved to leave behind litigation and the observations I made about the world through that mode of being.

But what I gleaned from method acting my way through a career added up to more powerful research about trouble than I could have ever gleaned from reading books about the law (or about art, about lemurs, about Tamil legend, about Madagascar, all of which also figure in Chimerica). The emotional truth of what it is to be a woman of color trial attorney, a woman of color fighting for a place at the table in a white male-dominated world — I’m not sure that could have been gleaned through the books on hand. These were experiences and thoughts I found in a book the summer before law school — Lani Guinier’s Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change — but it was the kind of trouble I was only able to understand deeply, with the kind of depth you need to write fiction, through corporeal research, by putting my own body into that unfamiliar circumstance.

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Anita Felicelli is the author of the short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press), which won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, and other books. Her fiction has appeared in The Normal School, Joyland, The Rumpus, and her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, SF Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Electric Literature. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and an alum of Voices of Our Nations. She was born in South India and grew up in the Bay Area, where she currently lives with her spouse and three children.