We love getting to know our Issue 046 authors a little better, just as much as we love reading their stories! Today we talked with Jennifer Shelby about her thoughts and inspirations behind “The Voiceless of Shalott.”
LSQ: Your story starts with a powerful image of a girl’s voice literally being burned in her throat and taken away. How did this image come to you? Does it have a deeper meaning?
Jennifer: In that scene I wanted to externalize the violence of being silenced. It is a cruel and devastating act that is often overlooked, ignored, and reasoned away because it happens in secret and the aftermath remains inside our private worlds. By pulling this outside of Tasilinn’s mind and placing it in the physical world, I hoped to break what may be the reader’s habit of seeing silencing in this way and to show it as the violence it truly is.
My own experience of being silenced was with weaponized religion and I wanted that to present in this scene. From there, the idea of Tasilinn’s parents stuffing her throat with pages of their scripture and lighting them on fire to burn out her voice spilled onto the page organically.
LSQ: Not allowed off island without being able to speak, Tasilinn looks for other ways to show her voice. Do you believe many who are sent to the island end up testing their boundaries? Is the message she finds an indication of this?
Jennifer: I think so. I was sixteen when I escaped the cult I based this story upon. When I had finally healed enough to look back, which took about a decade, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the majority of my peers from those years had broken free themselves. We all fought individual battles to gain freedom over our lives, very much alone, and with whatever tools we found at our disposal. The message that Tasilinn finds scratched under her desk acts as a catalyst for her, but I think that it was written as a tiny act of defiance on the part of the writer and without any great intention to influence another person. In hindsight, I’ve often wondered what messages my old peer group left for each other that we may have only seen as little rebellions when they happened.
LSQ: Tasilinn struggles with what has been done to her, though no one around her seems to give it a thought. What kind of world allows someone to suffer while others blatantly disregard her struggles?
Jennifer: The girls are sent to the Island of Shalott in this story because it’s a place where they can exist, but hidden. The cruelty is never public, it is always in a private space where the abusers are protected from scrutiny. The Faithful in this story have created an insular community where their motives are justified via their faith and their ideals. There is no one to point out the audacity of their actions and their acts have become deeply embedded into their identity as a religion. I think this happens often in society and I think it’s vital to our personal agency to be able to recognize it as the manifestation of a cult, whether it’s happening to you, someone you love, or if a kind of cult mentality begins to infect your own worldview.
LSQ: A lot of this story is about the intersection of undeserved Faith and the lies her parent believe. What other layers are present?
Jennifer: There’s the fight for agency in a life that others presume to own and dictate. I think that’s also true of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. In the original poem, the Lady is locked away in a tower and told that if she looks down to the kingdom directly, rather than through a mirror, an unknown curse will fall upon her. We never learn her name, that Lady’s, and the only agency we see her perform in the original poem is when she defies fate and looks down at a knight (Lancelot) through her window. It’s beautiful but also meaningless and wasteful unless you realize that this glance is her choosing a moment of freedom over this rigid set of rules that would hold her captive all her life. Tasilinn doesn’t know what awaits if she manages to escape the tower, but there is a desperate creativity that comes to her in her worst hours that she clings to and follows because she can sense the choice inside of it.