Issue 051 Author Interview: T. K. Rex and “The Hall of Being”

Another week, another spectacular deep dive into one of our Issue 051 stories! Today we’re talking with T. K. Rex, who discusses the rich real-life inspiration behind “The Hall of Being.”

LSQ: This story felt absolutely joyous to me, and was a joy to read. What a beautiful exploration of a potential future, as well as a great way of looking at the past. What inspired you to write this story, and what feeling are you hoping people get from it?

T. K.: I’m so glad that was your takeaway. A big motivator for me in my writing these days is to envision paths forward into futures that we can still look forward to, even if most of the worst predictions for climate and collapse come true.

This story happens in a place I’m deeply familiar with – the East Bay hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. There’s a very strong Humanist, Pagan, and Arts & Crafts presence there, especially in Berkeley where my mom lives, and that culture was a big influence on the Hall of Being itself, on the design of the buildings, furnishings, music (which btw I noticed my sandolin got spellchecked to oblivion, but that was supposed to be a science fictional instrument). A big theme in my writing is ecology and place, and I like to show how native plants and hyperlocal economies can be a bigger part of our lives, and an answer to many of the challenges brought by globalized industrial manufacturing and agriculture — with agriculture being especially important here in California as non-native crops that didn’t evolve for this climate use 80% of all the water that we have less and less of every year.

Another very Bay Area thing about me is that I work in tech, and at the time I wrote this, I was training to become a manager and thinking a lot about leadership and facilitation and inclusion, and feeling a lot of imposter syndrome, so that was definitely a big influence on where Currant is in her own journey in this story.

A whole lot of threads came together writing this, but I think the kick that got me going in a really dark time — I started the first draft around January 2021 — was just wanting to craft this vision of a way of life that integrated technology and science and spirituality and art in this really inclusive and human and kinda weird way. You gotta have weird. It’s what the ancestors want 😉

LSQ: The tradition of going away and then coming back changed is so strong, both in the real world and in the literary one, plus the mystical journey that Currant went on. Did you pull any of your details from real-life experiences?

T. K.: Oh definitely. I moved around a lot as a kid, and there were years when going away was all I ever did. Sometimes I came back, sometimes I didn’t. I think I went to twelve different schools across four states. The most formative coming-back experience was halfway through high school, when my dad and step-mom in New Mexico split up and I had to leave the one place I’d ever managed to spend four whole years, and move back to Oakland to live with my mom. I’d lived with her near there when I was a little kid and visited her many times since, but I was so homesick for the desert and I missed my friends in that really intense way that only a sixteen year old can. I had genuine culture shock going from Gallup, a little desert down on the edge of the Navajo Nation, to this huge metropolis, even though it was so familiar and had, once, been home.

As hard as that was at the time, I see a lot of value now in how (willingly) spending time in other places and with other cultures broadens your perspective, especially at that age where you’re itching for adventure and if you don’t find it in a safe way that’s built into your community’s way of life, you might very well find it in much more dangerous way.

I knew kids in Gallup who died of drug overdoses before they could even start thinking about college. I remember hearing once that our county had the highest rate of teen deaths by alcohol related car accidents in the whole US. There was this feeling almost every kid I knew there had, that there was just nothing else. That this economically depressed place in the middle of nowhere (that I happened to love) was all of the world they would ever have access to. There was a real hopeless feeling to that place when I lived there. I think that’s changed a bit since I left but the wounds of colonization take generations to heal and the parents and grandparents of kids I went to school with were still victims of the boarding schools that the rest of the world is finally only now hearing about. A generation before me, Native kids were still physically abused even in public school for speaking their own language. When I was there in the late 90s, Navajo was offered as a language credit and the Code Talkers were celebrated in the media, but there was still a lot of bias in that system. Even though most of my classmates were Diné, almost all the teachers and school administrators were white. I have no idea if that’s changed at all.

I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere, and my immediate ancestors are all from Europe where I’ve spent a grand total of like three weeks tops, but imagine being forced to feel like you don’t belong in your own land that you and all of your family have always lived in. And simultaneously knowing you’ll have zero opportunities to ever leave. And having that connection to the land that your people always depended on intentionally severed on the physical, spiritual, and psychological levels by generations of occupation and oppression. That’s colonialism and it’s alive and well in 2022 all over the world. It sucks. It sucks for all of us even if we don’t think we’re in a colonized group (btw Europe colonized itself first) because it prevents nearly everyone from forming the kind of close, long-term relationships with our local ecosystems that would make us all stand up and fight if we truly saw what’s been done to them in the name of ever-increasing shareholder profits.

I can’t say that this story even attempts to undo colonialism, but the world it takes place in is one that is starting to heal from it.

The mysticism and spirituality in “The Hall of Being” is an amalgamation of all my favorite things about the different religions I’ve spent time around, without being an actual religion. I was raised Wiccan/Pagan but when I lived in Gallup, I attended church sometimes with Catholic friends, dances with Mormon friends, and pow-wows with my journalist dad, who came from a secular Jewish family. His beat was the Navajo Nation, and he was invited to a peyote ceremony at least once, which he described to me when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I think you can find the influences of all of those traditions in The Hall of Being if you go looking for them, although I tried very hard to avoid appropriation. I really wanted to create something that felt like its own thing.

As an adult, I found that I didn’t need any religion to feel a spiritual connection to the universe — it was all around me, and studying ecology and evolution and deep time gave me this perspective of being intimately connected to the earth and all life on it, in a much more detailed and real and nuanced way than even the earth religion I was raised in could. My earliest memory of truly dizzying awe was on a kid’s fossil hunting trip in Oregon, when I found a fossil clam and realized that I held in my hand something that had been alive there millions of years ago, long before my ancestors looked human. For me, nothing religious has ever surpassed that feeling.

I’ve also come to understand that the real value of religion for so many people is not just spiritual, but communal. And that form factor, of communities coming together every week or every new moon to connect and make space for each other’s personal challenges, and maybe even dabble in transcendence — that has a lot of value, and can be extremely hard to find if you’re not religious, or don’t feel welcomed by the religions around you. So the Hall of Being is my way of bridging that gap to envision a spiritual, communal activity that connects people to our shared, four-billion year ancestry as part of this incredible, unique biosphere, and celebrates diversity because it’s fundamental to life and evolution, to the health of our communities, ecosystems, bodies and minds. We all know the value of diversity on a personal level no matter what our politics are — we get bored eating the same thing every day, frustrated when stuck in the same place for too long. We need diversity in our diets, activities, and day to day experiences to stay physically and mentally healthy. It’s not optional. And it’s as true on the biggest scales as the smallest.

As far as psychedelics go, I’ve only used them a handful of times, and while I’ve never met anything claiming to be a god, each trip has absolutely broadened my perspective and had a lasting positive impact. The substance described in the story is carefully engineered and completely unlike any modern-day psychedelic. I wasn’t trying to reproduce an acid trip, but I was trying to say loud and clear that mind-altering chemicals can be extremely useful tools. If you’ve never tried them, it’s so important to do your research beforehand, know what dose to take, and have that experience with people you trust, in a place that’s safe. The cultural use of psychedelics goes all the way back, it’s probably older than Homo sapiens, and I think it’s really harmful that current policies cut us off from that part of all of our shared heritage. I’m glad to see attitudes starting to change and decriminalization making a lot of headway the past couple years. Psilocybin was just decriminalized in San Francisco this year and I’ve had more than a couple coworkers rave about the therapeutic benefits and recommend microdosing for anxiety, which, I mean, wow. What exactly do lawmakers think all the people who are still in prison for possession were using it for? All “recreation” in a system this broken is therapy.

LSQ: So, which of the ancestors is your favorite? I’m a fan of the Tiktaalik, myself.

T. K.: Tiktaalik is wonderful and since you mentioned it I have to tell a story. A few years ago I was in a lecture hall listening to Ted Daeschler, one of the paleontologists who described the species, talk about Tiktaalik and its place in the early evolution of tetrapods (us). He mentioned this term “transitional species” which often gets translated in popular media to “missing link.” I asked something along the line of, “How do you know if something is a transitional species?” His answer completely blew my mind: “They’re all transitional species.”

Deinonychus was my first favorite prehistoric animal, and Parasaurolophus was my second, but ever since I learned about Arthropleura I’ve been entranced. Imagine a millipede two feet wide and nine feet long, crawling along the forest floor of the Carboniferous era, munching on fallen fern tree fronds, watching giant dragonflies fly around, and just being a super chill giant bug. I want that life.