Dear readers, tonight with me is someone we don’t normally see – an author. But don’t worry, she is also the protagonist in her own novel, set in a world where books have ceased to matter and barely exist.
She is here to tell us about how things changed through the 21st century, and how after fifty years of self-imposed exile, she returns to a world far more terrifying than the one she fled. In Dallas, Nigeria, and India she doggedly pursues the truth her heart demands.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
I was born in 2015 and grew up in a world that no longer exists. We were living in Dallas, Texas, which was still part of the United States then, and I was named after one of the daughters of the President. I always believed—and I suppose this is true of most children—that my family and everything we did was normal and natural. We were neither poor nor privileged, or at least we didn’t think we were. Mine was the last generation to grow to adulthood in the world before the youth miracle drug Chulel and before they started sending children to boarding colonies to be raised by professionals.
Wait. If you were born in 2015, how old are you now?
Yes, well, you would want to ask, wouldn’t you? I’m 111. Most people my age still look about 22, but for various reasons, I was never as devoted to Chulel as most people. I took it for maybe 30 years, but then I quit. So, yes, I look old. But not as old as 111 used to look, right?
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
As a child, I cared little about toys. Books were my fascination, my constant companions. My first acquisition was something I spotted in a recycling bin while my parents were busy shopping. It had this wonderful picture on the cover, but I was even more fascinated by the orderly configurations of lines that I didn’t yet recognize as words. I picked up the book and tucked it inside my coat. ‘Stealing’ and ‘theft’ weren’t part of my vocabulary yet; I couldn’t have been more than three. And of course, that was just the start. As it became harder and harder to find printed books, my collection became an obsession.
What did you end up doing for a living?
My first job was as a bookseller. Second-hand books of course, since the corporate houses had stopped publishing new print books by the early 2030s. Digital books were so much easier to manipulate, so much easier to tweak to fit changing corporate needs. The corporations controlled everything and the story industry was dominated by a corporation called Mekong. It was in a secondhand bookshop that I first encountered Vintagonists. These people—mostly disgruntled and rebellious youths like me—seemed to love printed books as much as I did. Through them I broadened my interests and my private fetish morphed into activism. That’s how I met Jenda Swain and Montagne Williams. Eventually I also became an author in my own right. Although under a pseudonym – Vlad Carpenter. Lio and I created that pen name together and we thought it was terribly clever. We were huge Dracula fans.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
“Adventure!” As hard as I tried to avoid it, adventure always seemed to find me! I guess when you’re a dissident that’s inevitable. And my love of books in a society that feared them meant I had no other choice than to be a dissident. Discovering what I’d been required to forget has finally left me alone here in India. No, not alone. Not really alone.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
Maybe the scariest thing was the thing I’d forgotten. And then remembering it, with Montagne’s help. There was also the raid on the book shop and that encounter in San Antonio with my old friend Alicia. But nothing compares with the terrors of witnessing the end of civilization. We witnessed quietly, Tao-Min and I, doing what little we could to help.
What is the worst thing about being a dissident?
The worst thing was the constant looking over my shoulder, trying to second-guess where the corporate cops were looking and trying to be somewhere else. The Recall Network got pretty good at that! And honestly, the more they hunted us, the stronger we became. But then the corporations got better at restructuring our memories at the Chulel spas and better at disappearing people altogether. Thinking about that still makes me angry.
What is the best thing about it?
It was the camaraderie. The sense of shared purpose, knowing that we had each other’s backs. Early on, we fed one another’s rebelliousness in meetings and protests, always with poems and songs and art. You should have seen some of our art installations and how they would just spring up overnight! The movement dissipated after a while but never went away. Its roots ran deep. We were just waiting for our chance.
Tell us a little about your friends.
There’s Jenda, of course. (NOTE: Protagonist of Volume I, Way of the Serpent) I idolized that girl when we were teenagers. But then she changed and I moved away and… I guess I changed, too, though at the time I didn’t know why. Running into Jenda again in Dallas after so many years really kick-started my whole quest. And Montagne. Montagne Williams was a rock of the Recall Network, someone you knew you could trust no matter what. Also, while I was living at Walden 27, I got to know this girl named Mandy. Mandy was special to me although, again, at the time I didn’t understand why.
Any romantic involvement?
I still can’t talk about Lio. Knowing him – losing him – changed me forever. No, let’s move on.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
Who do I hate? I hate the corporations. The plutocrats. The ones who stole our books, our stories, our identities, our lives. How I wish I could go back in time and warn people! I think it all began to seriously unravel with that 2016 election in the United States.
What’s your favourite drink and relaxing pastime?
I guess my favorite drink has always been coffee. When we were in high school, we always used to meet in coffee shops to plot our next protest. I guess I have pleasant associations with coffee shops. Except for…never mind.
Reading books used to be a relaxing pastime for me, but as the years went on and we read to find out what the corporations were altering in the digital versions, it became a lot less of a pastime and more like a passion. And it was hard work. Writing stories has always been my favorite escape!
What does the future hold for you?
The future? You’ve got to be joking! The world has ended. Those of us who are left will live out our lives as best we can. Although… my friend Tao-Min has told me that Jenda’s brother Jonathan is on a quest of sorts. Something to do with his grandfather, who was a high-ranking plutocrat. I can’t believe that will end well, but you never know. (NOTE: Jonathan’s story plays out in Volume 3, Flight of the Owl.)
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
A secret? My life has been so full of secrets! But there’s one that’s been haunting me lately. Maybe I need to share that. When I was living in Walden 27, this woman showed up one day who was never able to say who she was. We called her Sally Who. But one day she told me something about herself and made me promise not to tell anyone. She said she had a grandson named Gavin and that more than anything she hoped she would see him again. Tao-Min says that Jonathan met a boy named Gavin and I can’t help but wonder if that’s him. (NOTE: Stay tuned for Recall Chronicles, Volume 4!)
Donna Dechen Birdwell is an anthropologist and creator of a haunting dystopian 22nd-century world in her Recall Chronicles, which began with Way of the Serpent in 2015. Her writing is informed by a lifetime as a student of humanity and her travels to many countries, several of which (Belize, Ireland, Nepal) have become her “homes away from home”. Donna is convinced that storytelling is one of our most powerful social mechanisms, imagination our most precious human trait.
Malia Poole encounters Jenda Swain in chapter one of both Way of the Serpent and Shadow of the Hare. Way of the Serpent is Jenda’s story. In Shadow of the Hare, Malia tells her own story.
Join us next week to meet a political leader, feeling increasingly isolated and lonely after she was forced to arrest her own brother. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right), via Twitter, or like our Facebook page to be notified when the next interview is posted.
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