One Positive Difference: A Conversation with Marissa Landrigan
Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat: A Young Woman’s Search for Ethical Food. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Guernica, Orion, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She writes a monthly column for Paste online called “Breaking Vegetarian,” curates the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University. An Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, she can be found online at marissalandrigan.com.
Marissa Landrigan’s story, “Mara,” appeared in our Inter++sections Temple Issue. Below, she talks with editor A.A. Balaskovits about same-sex relationships, writing nonfiction, and message-board misogyny.
Your story for us, “Mara,” is so wonderful because you flesh out the humanity in the game, which I think is something the Elder Scrolls struggles with at times. What made you want to highlight romance in this world?
Skyrim was the first video game I’d ever really played, and the aspect of it that most intrigued me from the beginning was the extent to which I had choice as a player. I could wander and roam the (incredibly-rendered) landscape for hours, just riding my horse or performing random side quests. And when I eventually got to the point where I could have followers, and eventually, marry them, I was in awe at the prospect of a same-sex marriage in this world. It was so casual—less than casual, really. The game, being a program, didn’t have any opinion whatsoever about whether my female player-character married a female non-player-character. Given the way in which gender and sexual orientation choices are restricted in the physical world of modern America, to have such a choice, and to have it be such a non-issue, felt pretty revolutionary. I think this is why I became so attached to my game wife, Brelyna, and so enamored of playing the marriage as a significant component of the game: the way I could bring her gifts, the way she spoke so affectionately to my player-character. The romance possibilities of the Elder Scrolls world felt so much more permissive than the physical world, and I really wanted to explore that.
Do you think that games where social stigmas are not present—or rather, not programmed in, as they have to be created—are giving us a hope for what could be, even if the game takes place in the past or in a magical world? Does that take away from the, dare I say it in reference to Skyrim, realism?
I really do think so. I know people who play games because they feel the player-character gives them license to occupy some unexplored or stigmatized part of themselves, and I can see how that kind of liberation could ripple out into the physical world. For example, I identify as bisexual, but am in a happy, heterosexual marriage, so a player-character in a lesbian marriage was a fun, no-stakes way to explore that aspect of my sexual orientation. I don’t think this takes away from the realism of the game at all; in fact, you could argue that kind of freedom allows the game to be truer than my “real” life.
What really spoke to me about your story was that it was about a pretty healthy relationship—something we don’t often see in literature (but ironically we do in video games sometimes). Was that something you consciously thought about when setting down to write this?
That was honestly exactly my intention. Once I discovered that Skyrim enabled player-characters to marry non-player-characters, and specifically allowed same-sex partnerships, I wanted to see how others had chosen their game mates, and what kinds of relationships had emerged, so I went to the message boards. And wow, was that a mistake. What I saw there were lots of people making (predictably) sexist and misogynist assessments of Brelyna (among other NPCs) as a wife. In debating the relative merits of marrying various female NPCs, I read offensive comments like “all she’s good for is the cooking,” and “have you seen her without her hood, she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down,” standard objectification like “all female characters have nice bodies under their armor,” and complaints about a lack of sex from the NPC. But I also found threads of people discussing how much fun they were having with the game loophole that offers no punishment for abusing one’s spouse (“Behind closed doors I can thrash the living daylights out of my wife and she never rats me out to the guards”) and threads seeking and offering advice for the best way to murder one’s game wife without getting caught or punished for murder, and while maintaining the ability to marry again. Basically, I was all excited because I thought the game had created this sort of utopia where same-sex marriage was possible and no big deal, and then I crashed into the reality that a (mostly male) player base was still being sexist and gross about imaginary female characters. So I decided to write an ode to Brelyna, a celebration of her beauty, and her power, and her history, as a sort of counter to all that, and, maybe an illustration of one positive difference between (most) male and female gamers.
What you are working on currently?
My current work is all about science (can you tell I’m a huge nerd yet?)! My first book is coming out in just a few weeks, and it’s a personal narrative that focuses on the idea of eating meat ethically. Naturally, for my second book, I wanted to make things more complicated, so I’m working on a proposal for a book that asks whether it’s ethical to eat plants; new research suggests that plants are capable of feeling pain, forming relationships, and communicating with each other, so I hope to explore the ethical implications of considering plants as “conscious.”
I’m totally into your first book, and I love that idea for the second one. Can you give us an insight into your research and how you became interested in these topics?
One of my favorite things about being a creative nonfiction writer is that it allows me to explore any subject I randomly become interested in. So, feeling an urge to read lots of books about Norse mythology? I’ll write an essay on it, and then it’s work! This is really how I came to write my first book: I’d been a vegetarian for about seven years and, while living in Iowa for grad school, met some farmers who were making me reconsider. I had lots of questions, lots I wanted to learn, lots of ethical considerations to work through, so naturally, I turned to writing to help me figure it all out! My next book project was actually my editor’s idea. Greystone Books, my publisher, just recently published the English translation of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and Jen suggested that this idea of tree and plant communication might have some implications for vegetarians, and wondered if I might be interested in exploring that. I was hooked—it’s a natural extension of my work on the first book, and is giving me the chance to return to scientific research, which I’ve always loved writing about in narrative form.