A tale of two fetuses

UC Santa Cruz literature professor Micah Perks
UC Santa Cruz literature professor Micah Perks
In What Becomes Us, a new novel by UC Santa Cruz literature professor Micah Perks, twin fetuses tell the story of a pregnant woman who abandons her controlling husband in Santa Cruz, moves to a small upstate New York town, falls in love with a Chilean man, and becomes obsessed with a historical figure who wrote one of the first captivity narratives about survival in the wilderness.

The longtime co-director of the UC Santa Cruz creative writing program explained how she came up with the idea of having twin fetuses narrate the story.

“I originally wanted a big storytelling voice, but I didn't want the voice to be anonymous,” Perks recalled. “I liked the idea of this big, Whitmanesque voice coming from a tiny being inside the main character--a little like the position of the author.”

“I love twins, and I love all the utopian possibilities with twins,” she added.  “And the ‘we’ voice now seems essential to what the book is about: the tension between individual desires and the desire for community.”

It took Perks nearly a decade to complete the novel, all the while teaching and serving as a provost on campus, and raising four kids at home. She admitted that there are some similarities between her own life experience and the characters in her book.

“Evie, the main character, moves west to east, from Santa Cruz to rural New York state. I did the opposite. I grew up on a commune, and Evie finds herself in a communal situation. I've been pregnant, Evie's pregnant. My beloved is a Chilean man who loves books and has a killer smile. Evie is in love with a Chilean man who loves books and has a killer smile. So I definitely take things from my own life, but everything gets distorted, pulled and pushed in service to the novel,” said Perks.

“It's so interesting, when I write memoir, many people ask me, is it all really true?” she added. “They want to know what I ‘made up’. And when I write fiction, people want to know what's true. People have anxiety about or interest in genre, genre slippage or blurriness.”

Warm, quirky, hilarious, and written in an artfully inventive style, What Becomes Us is a surprising novel. Excerpts of the book earned Perks a National Endowment for the Arts grant and won the New Guard Machigonne 2014 Fiction Prize.

Perks’ previous works include a novel, We Are Gathered Here; a memoir, Pagan Time, and a long personal essay, Alone in the Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter and Me. Her short stories and essays have won five Pushcart Prize nominations, and her work has appeared in anthologies and journals such as Epoch, Zyzzyva, Tin House, The Toast, and The Rumpus.

She will celebrate the publish date of the book with a free public reading on Tuesday, October 4, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. She then embarks on a regional tour that includes appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sausalito.

Perks will also read on campus as part of the UC Santa Cruz Living Writers series this winter quarter.

“I hope people are captivated by the story and the music in the language,” she noted. “A couple of people told me they cried at the end. A few people told me it made them laugh. That makes me really happy. I definitely have a feminist agenda. I think that's obvious.”