Marisa Crane’s debut novel I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is set outside of our reality: in an America where a cruel form of public shaming has taken the place of prisons.
In Exoskeletons we meet Kris, a new mother struggling to see a future for herself and her kid in the wake of her partner’s sudden death. As if that weren’t hard enough, Kris and her child both wear an extra Shadow, the physical brand that the “Department of Balance” attaches to anyone they deem a threat to the status quo. The book is speculative in the way that Octavia Butler’s Kindred is speculative: the premise pushes on the limits of reality only to bring us closer to understanding our own relationships.
In a fragmented and intimate style that evokes writers like Sheila Heti and Jenny Offill, Crane allows Kris to explore all the corners of grief, love, desire and hope as she finds a way to forgive herself and reinvent her family’s form. Crane and I spoke over Zoom about the early days of parenthood, the innate need for community, and all the ways shame can keep us stuck.
Rebecca Ackermann: What was the first seed of this book that felt urgent to get out into the world?
Marisa Crane: It’s probably weird to say that I love talking or thinking about shame—but it’s been so prominent in my life for my whole life. The start of this book idea was eight or nine years ago when I wrote a poem that was meant to shame me. The gist of the poem was “if the shadows of everyone you’ve ever heard followed you around, day in and day out, would you still be so reckless with people’s hearts?” For some reason, I thought that would make me not do bad things or not hurt people. Which really doesn’t make any sense. I think I was steeped in a lot of shame and guilt over what we all do—hurting romantic partners, friends and family—and I wasn’t understanding that we all hurt people, but it’s what you do with that information and how you react and change and apologize and make active choices to behave better. I forgot about the poem forever. Years later, the first line of the book came to me in the shower: “the kid is born with two shadows.” I didn’t make the connection right away, but the line just wouldn’t leave me alone, and that’s always when I have to write something. The idea of the world came to me first because of that poem, but then I was like, “Okay, what could a baby have done to be born with two shadows?” The driving force behind this book has always been shame and how shame follows us and haunts us and keeps us from becoming what we can be. It can keep people stagnant or passive in their own lives.
RA: At the beginning of Part 1, you include an excerpt of a Mary Rueffle poem, White Buttons: “bright sunlight/can also be very sad”. It resonated deeply for me with the experience of parenthood, especially the early stages.
MC: As parents—and especially as mothers or people who are read as women—we’re expected to be like, “everything is amazing.” People still feel ashamed and lonely in those early weeks, and aren’t telling each other that they’re feeling awful. I’ve had some of my closest friends have kids, and then in the group text they’re like, “Oh my god, it’s so amazing. They’re so cute,” and just send cute pictures. But then three months later, I’ll find out that they were doing horribly. That bright sunlight line by Mary Rueffle really resonated with me. We’re told that a certain thing should be wonderful—like, you’re supposed to be so excited about bright sunny days. That’s the epitome of a beautiful day. So if you don’t feel happy about that, there’s shame underlying it. It’s really funny living in San Diego because it is almost always sunny, and I complain about it sometimes. My friends are like, “Oh, you live in paradise? Boohoo.” There are all these things we’re supposed to be happy about. And it’s hard to talk about it when we’re not.
RA: As a reader, it also felt like a small resistance for Kris to be so confident as the whole world is telling her that she’s bad in all these ways. Kris believes a lot of things about herself, but to not believe that she’s a bad mother is a hopeful piece of the book.
MC: Every day, most parents are berating themselves for not doing better, no matter how great they’re doing. So, I do think it is refreshing that Kris doesn’t really sit around being like, “Oh, I was awful today.” I also think the kid is really easy to feel confident parenting, because she is so self-assured and competent. She feels easy for Kris to relate to. I wanted the kid to have a lot of agency because there are so many books where the children are just used as means for other people’s character development. I wanted her to be a powerful character on the page. I think Kris sees that in her and is like, “I must be doing something right.” That’s helpful for Kris to see.
RA: There’s also a nice contrast that you’ve set up with the confidence inside their unit, and the very real problems that are going on outside in the world. That’s different from a lot of other parenthood literature, where it’s almost exclusively internal, about the dynamics of the relationship. In this book, the dynamics of the parent-child relationship are so good, and even the dynamics between Kris and the ghost of Beau are good. But what’s happening outside of the family brings serious challenges.
MC: I can’t say that it was a fully intentional choice. But I wrote it that way innately because in our world, and in the Exoskeletons world, these are some of the only ways that we can resist the powers that be. I do think that queer joy, parent-child joy and domestic joy are really powerful ways for us to resist. It’s a middle finger to the Department of Balance in the book. “Yeah you’ve got cameras in our home and you’re trying to fuck everything up, but we’re still bonding in these really powerful ways.”
RA: Yeah, let’s talk more about the community that Kris and the kid find in friends and extended family. I found it very meaningful that the relationships are not just between Kris and other people, but between the kid and these people too. It’s that sense of “it takes a village.” They are coming into the family to help—and not just to help in a one-sided way, but it’s an exchange. What pieces of community did you want to represent in the novel?
MC: So often parents talk about how we need space away from our children, but we don’t talk as much about how our kids also need space away from us. They need all these various relationships that enrich their lives—friends their age, but also other caregivers, and other adults. If I am with my kid for three days straight, he will start getting super cranky, and mad at me. I’m like, “I think you’re sick of me. I think that like you need to go see a grandparent or one of my friends needs to come over and hang out.” And he immediately brightens up and learns different things from different people. We can’t give them everything as much as people want to believe.
I have been thinking about community so much lately because I realized that I was inadvertently raised in community without calling it that—I played team sports for my entire life, including in college. Your team becomes your family and community, and there’s also the coaches and the parents of other players. When I graduated college and wasn’t on this basketball team anymore, it felt like being flung out into the universe alone. My next writing project is a grief memoir about basketball, so that’s been top of mind. I’ve been thinking about community—how important it is and how we find it, maybe without realizing that we’re cultivating it. Obviously, there are a lot of people who are intentionally cultivating loving communities, but there are some that just spring up. It’s always beautiful when that happens.
RA: There’s this narrative in our American individualistic culture that the family is the unit that should be entrusted with a child’s care, and you shouldn’t need anything outside of that. If you do, that’s weakness. In my own experience, I’ve definitely needed more—and because of that narrative, it felt shameful to ask for help. But it’s such a strange cultural story when that’s not how people have lived for generations and generations throughout the world.
MC: The single-family home really destroyed a lot of that intergenerational community—especially for white people. Some other communities are still functioning in the way I think we were meant to with many different families and family members around to help raise the kids collectively. Even the framing of “you shouldn’t need help” is really harmful. Why should it be considered help? Shouldn’t it be considered this team effort, or what the kid needs? Flipping that narrative can be hard. But it’s beneficial to literally everyone.
RA: What I found restorative about Exoskeletons was that those ideas are understood in the novel: community and extended family are necessary, the kid needs other relationships just as much as Kris needs other relationships. That was almost a speculative aspect of the novel for me—in addition to the Shadows and the dystopian government. It’s a world where Kris already knows that parenting is not an individual sport.
MC: That’s something that is so prevalent in my own life. We have a group of friends here who are all parents, and we go camping with them very frequently. When we go it becomes this community where we all take care of all the kids. It’s completely understood. Nobody’s like, “Can you watch so and so for five seconds when I go to the bathroom?” It’s so refreshing. There’s 12 adults and five kids and we chuck them in the middle, and everybody cooks for everyone. But then we leave camping and all go to our separate single-family homes. I always have an emotional hangover afterward. The only way to replicate it in everyday life is if we buy tons of land, and all of us live on that land. But those things are really hard to make happen.
RA: I appreciated the bureaucratic euphemisms you use throughout the novel, like the Department of Balance and Shadows, and the way that the fictional government you’ve created cloaks their fascist policies in the illusion of abolition. It reminded me of how language plays a role in so many real-life stories of oppression, from World War II to the U.S. border crisis. What inspired your depiction of an oppressive government?
MC: I really didn’t pull from real history to inform the government. I was looking into shaming and humiliation throughout history, especially for queer and trans people. Queer people’s names used to be printed in a newspaper, things like that. After I wrote the book, I readThe Women’s House of Detention, and he talked about how before prisons, people would be marked—like their ears would be clipped or they would be branded. That is really what the Shadow [in Exoskeletons] is to me. It was interesting to learn that I made this accidental connection there. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how I didn’t build out President Colestein’s character. Fascists are going to fascist. I’m not interested in the president or the government. I’m interested in the people that the fascism affects—that was a guiding principle to me. My friend texted me the other day to say that my novel was answering a question that their fiction cohort had talked about: “How can writers have an antagonist that isn’t an active participant in the plot, but is a constant presence in the character’s lives?” That’s what I’ve been trying to get at this whole time.
RA: There’s a metaphor for generational inheritance in your story of a kid who’s born with a Shadow. Kris has an extra Shadow too and a complicated relationship to what she has given her child. It’s something they have in common, as you said, but it is also a source of tension. In the book, the solution for the lasting trauma of abandonment and shame is community care and self-forgiveness. How have you looked to shape your own destiny outside of what you’ve been given, and how do you hope your child gets to shape his?
MC: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is queer futurity. When I was younger, I could not see a future for myself, especially one that wasn’t basketball. Everybody told me I have to marry a guy and get pregnant and have some kids—which is funny because I’m married and have a kid. It’s not that far off, but my wife does matter. But I was really depressed and I didn’t want to arrive at that projected future. I threw everything into basketball because that was a future that I could imagine; I didn’t imagine relationships, I just imagined getting a full scholarship to a D1 and then I wanted to play in the WNBA. That was the only thing that kept me alive. When I graduated and I didn’t go play pro because of a million injuries and because I wasn’t good enough for the WNBA, that future felt ripped out. All of a sudden, I had to imagine a new future that I wanted to participate in. In a lot of ways, shaping my own destiny looked like deciding that I was going to embrace my queerness and what that meant for me, and start coming up with ideas of what family could look like. It came down to giving myself permission to hope and create a future that I actually wanted to be a part of.
For my kid, that’s such a deeper, harder question, but it’s important. It feels like an ongoing collaboration with my wife and everybody else involved in his life. I just want to create a world where he feels emotionally safe to dream up whatever he wants. My wife and I both have complicated relationships to things that have been passed down to us. But I don’t find power in negating, being like “I don’t want to be like so and so or I don’t want to do what so and so did.” I want it to be this expansive, creative process of respecting him as a person. My friend the other day, told me something that is so simple: In addition to saying “I’m proud of you,” always say, “You should be proud of yourself.” Building that pride is so important. In a lot of ways, I can barely see his future because I’m so focused on trying to make the present this wonderful place that helps him arrive at that future.