Sarah Etter finds human emotions in the unusual, she explained as the 127th speaker in the American Book Review reading series.
Etter, the author of “Tongue Party” and most recently “Book of X,” presented her pieces at the University of Houston-Victoria on Thursday. Before reading an excerpt from “Book of X,” she discussed surrealism, its origins and what it means to her work.
The journey into surrealism began when Etter was in her master’s program, and she wrote unusual stories.
“I was showing up with these stories with dead koalas washing up on the beach,” Etter explained. “I felt really weird, and I didn’t think I belonged.”
She said the peers in her classes wrote crisp, typical fiction like historical and romantic stories. It almost pushed her to stop pursuing writing after she received her masters.
A professor noticed Etter’s work and steered her to surrealist writers who do the exact thing she was trying to do, and it inspired her.
“That changed everything for me,” she said. “It made me realize everyone isn’t writing this perfect story. There are some people who are writing this experimental, messy, strange way and they are open to that.”
She said most people accept messy art when it comes to the visuals, but she wants to see that type of freedom applied to the written word.
“We are very rigid about language,” Etter said. “We are very rigid about what’s a story and what’s not a story. I wish we would play a little more. I do see people come into programs and get so serious that it takes away that joy.”
Surrealism gained a foothold among artists in the 1920s, and it started in Paris. Etter said it began in writing, but it was the visual artists that made it popular.
Some of the more well-known surrealist artists are Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, although she rejected the notion that she was a surrealist, Etter explained to a full Acorn Auditorium.
Stories of surrealism are becoming mainstream again in shows such as “Black Mirror,” “WestWorld” and the “Twilight Zone.”
Etter’s most recent novel, “Book of X,” is based in a surrealist style. She said she likes to take two unlike things and make them a reality on the page.
The story follows Cassie, a girl born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot. It takes on universal themes of the human experience like exploring capitalism and body image issues.
“Everyone is dealing with them like money, life and death,” Etter said. “These are things we are dealing with all the time and so in some ways we’re not separate.”
She wrote the book during a month she spent in Iceland, which she called a magical and cold place that inspired the tragic story.
“(Cassie) goes through a lot,” Etter explained. She related Cassie to characters such as Edward Scissorhands and E.T.
UHV psychology freshman Star Davis, 18, said she had never heard of surrealism before, but it’s now a genre she will delve deeper into.
“I want to know how she comes up with these dark ideas,” she said.
Davis said the girl with the knot spoke to her because many families maneuver generational attributes like they do in “Book of X.”
English Professor Jeffrey Di Leo is the editor and publisher of the American Book Review, which is in its 14th year of its reader series.
The American Book Review features unrepresented writers such as women and people of color.
“Humanities are very important to a higher education,” Di Leo explained. “Without the humanities, it would be a lower education.”