'Women's Identity Is Composed of Myths': Author Samantha Hunt on Mermaids and the Reissue of The Seas 

In Depth

Nearly a decade before Samantha Hunt published her haunting novel Mr. Splitfoot and years before The Invention of Everything Else was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, she published The Seas, a poetical and ghostly novel about a girl stuck in a seaside town struggling with the nature of identity and language. Characteristic of Hunt’s approach to such complex topics, The Seas, her first novel reissued this month by Tin House with a new Introduction by Maggie Nelson, is hardly a straightforward examination of these often abstract topics, but rather unravels them through myth, teasing out the stifling narratives that compose realities—among them, gender and romance.

Narrated by an unnamed teenage girl, The Seas is the story of a young outcast. Stuck in a rundown fishing town, the girl and her mother stay, waiting for her father to return. Her father disappeared nearly a decade ago; he walked into the ocean, the narrator says rather ambiguously—it’s never (purposely) quite clear if he actually did disappear into the ocean or what exactly that means.

Whether or not the narrator is a mermaid is the mystery that’s at the heart of The Seas.

A social pariah with little to do, the narrator focuses on her attention on two intertwined obsessions: her love for Jude, a much older man struggling with alcoholism and PTSD from the Iraq war, and a secret her father told her before he disappeared. “Dad said I’m a mermaid,” she tells her skeptical mother.

Whether or not the narrator is a mermaid is the mystery that’s at the heart of The Seas. She believes that she is, and in Hunt’s deft hands, the boundaries between myth and reality are dissolved by linguistic and narrative play.

Identity, especially women’s identity, is composed of myths, both internally and externally composed. Myth is what moves The Seas—the myth of identity and form, but as in Mr. Splitfoot, the shared myths of the rational and the scientific are just as uncertain. But for all of its vivid language and narrative layers, the novel is, Maggie Nelson writes, a “compassionate portrait of how and why we don’t get out of our fucked-up towns, our fucked-up loves, our fucked-up families, our fucked-up habits, our fucked-up homes, and our fucked-up wars.” Against all of those odds, however, the narrator of The Seas gets out—but in her case, what escape means is up for debate.

The Seas is my favorite kind of novel: a story filled with a surreal blend of desire and questions, but with few answers. Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot is, to my mind, one of the better novels published in the past few years, and The Seas has a similar sense of adolescent yearning and ghostly deconstruction that lingers long after the book is put down.

I spoke to Hunt about The Seas, her previous novels, myth, mermaids, the ocean, and science. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

JEZEBEL: The Seas is your first novel; it was published almost 15 years ago. What’s it like to return to your first book?

SAMANTHA HUNT: It was written well before that. As my first novel, it took a really long time for it to find a home. I was even younger, I think I was 28 when I actually wrote it. So it’s even older than 14 years ago, to my thinking.

It’s been funny to return to it. I’ve been wondering: “Who is this girl? Who is this girl that I was?” Probably the biggest surprise is how much the same issues still continue to haunt me. Because this was my first book and I wasn’t aware of readers, I was writing for different reasons. I’m still writing for the same reason, but now I’m more aware that people might respond or be influenced by it. At that time, it was almost an act of channeling. I felt—and still feel—that language has to do with sexism or that identity is impossible for adolescent girls. All of these things I didn’t quite understand that would become big questions and continue to be huge questions in my work.

When I looked at The Seas again, they seemed to be happening so subconsciously and I think, for me, a lot of the experience of writing the book is identifying the things I most care about, the things I most want to write about, do often come up in an unconscious way. While I was writing, I often didn’t know why something was important to me. It doesn’t necessarily end at publication; it’s not like something gets published and I understand why something is important to me. I was actually glad to see that, 15 years later, the message is still relevant and important to me, maybe even now so more: the identity that the narrator is struggling with are slowly becoming things that we talk about a lot more freely.

I read Mr. Splitfoot first and, as I read The Seas, I saw it very much in dialogue with many of the themes raised in Mr. Splitfoot, particularly the use of myths and fairytales to compose identities. There’s this liminal space in both novels, between being real but simultaneously beholden to something not tangibly real. I am wondering what the appeal of myths and fairytales are to you, especially as you suss out issues like motherhood and gender.

Certainly, in Mr. Splitfoot, The Dark Dark and The Seas, a lot of the meat of what I’m working on is how girls and women perceive themselves and what we’re given in the world to create these identities. Really young in life, I became tired and perplexed by this idea that if I felt it, it wasn’t real. Similarly, the language often used around women that’s the language of illness or disease: pregnancy is a disease, the idea of hysteria which comes from the word uterus, and then there’s mental illness, too, the trope of the madwoman in the attic. As I grew, all of those illnesses or sickness were ascribed to me at some point. I thought, “This is bullshit. I’m not sick. I feel things. I imagine things.” That doesn’t change the import just because it’s not physical.

Even with the Tesla book, The Invention of Everything Else, I was trying to say that it’s not necessarily just about women. All of his inventions came to him as visions and ultimately some of them were made manifest and physical and some of them were not. To me, he was the perfect male embodiment of these ideas—just because you feel it or just because you imagine it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a physical impact in the world. Stories and fairytales are that precisely. They let us explain how the world is created to our children. So, for example, we’ll make up a story about turtles carrying the Earth on their backs. Something in that is true metaphysically; something about that makes sense.

Just because you feel it or just because you imagine it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a physical impact in the world

The mermaid myth is definitely troubling to me. It’s so disgusting and hateful to the female form in so many ways. They’re these sexual beings that have no genitals. That is so twisted! Who would do such a thing? Not only that, they murder men, too. I’ve always thought, “Wow, this is so messed up.” The thing that was maybe most troubling to me was, at the time I was writing, Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid was running rampant across America. I think of this book as exploding that story and that myth by allowing the mermaid to be more complicated than simply an unsexualized—or ungenitaled?—mankiller. I wanted to make the myth more complicated.

The way that storytelling works for me, is that instead of defining traditionally female things as diseased, for me, the better definition is to think of it as a pure story. That’s never been a problem for me because stories and fiction have shaped who I am. I don’t see them as any lesser. In fact, I’m married to a journalist and he jokingly tells my children, “Daddy tells the truth and Mommy tells lies.” I’m always like, “Girls, you know that’s the biggest BS.” All they read is fiction and even the non-fiction they read, they turn it into stories. I want them to take the scientific truth of the world and see how it works metaphorically. I always tell them that they are true scientists.

In The Seas there’s this collapse between the scientific and the metaphysical. The narrator, who already believes she’s a mermaid, also wonders if she is a scientist or if she is in an experiment. Again, because I read The Seas through the lens of Mr. Splitfoot, this seems to be a concern of yours. There’s a scientific element to the myths that we tell ourselves…

Absolutely. I see science as a stepping stone on the way to story. Like in Mr. Splitfoot, I keep coming back to eyeballs and snowflakes. Those are incredible stories that we now believe to be true, but nobody knows how eyeballs are made. No one ever sat me down and said: “This is how eyeballs are made.” If we encountered an eyeball and didn’t know what it was, we’d be so perplexed. We’d think, “What is this crazy thing? It must be from outer space.” Eyeballs make no sense to us, but we totally believe them and pretend to understand how they work to some extent.

The ocean couldn’t give a flying fuck about what we call it. I like that about the ocean.

You could even get into the idea that eyeballs are making up fictions all the time because they only see this pointillistic view and then our brain fills in the rest. Even what our brain is telling us what we’re seeing is a fiction that’s being filled in by story.

The other thing I’ll say to that is that when I was an undergraduate, I studied geology and was going down the path of being a scientist. There was something in the way that arts and sciences are separated, more so then than now, but it kind of turned me off that path. I did a lot of ocean geology, and one of my textbooks was this amazing book called Waves and Beaches by Willard Bascom, he had one line in there that has haunted me for years. He wrote, “There are a lot of waves that don’t have names yet.” When I read that, I was like “What? That’s insane!” If a human hasn’t named it, does it not exist? That was really the start of The Seas—that line, where it’s implied that if we name it, we understand it. There’s something to that, but the ocean also couldn’t give a flying fuck what we call it. I like that about the ocean.

I thought that this was an interesting parallel to this young girl trying to define herself in a small town where everyone already has a clear definition of who she is. It’s like the way we can label a teenage girl. We can call her a slut, and that’s something very easy for someone to digest, even though it’s reductive and absurd. It was the same way that these adorable, foolish scientists in The Seas label the ocean. It’s the idea of where language meets the wonder of the world—whether it be an adolescent girl or the ocean. It’s the same in Mr. Splitfoot. Let’s not make a dividing line between the science that we understand and the science that we don’t yet understand.

The ocean itself is a central site of many of the myths and stories that we tell ourselves. When I was reading this book, it seemed to me that the theme of waiting is reexamined and deconstructed throughout the book. I read a lot of nonfiction about maritime disasters and, central to many of these stories, is this narrative of men conquering the ocean while women stay at home and wait for them to return. But in your book, waiting is almost turned into an oppression rather than this romanticized anxiousness. Can you talk about that theme of waiting that runs through your book, especially as it pertains to gender?

In some way, it’s interesting to give the “wait” to the ocean and ask: What is the ocean waiting for? Is it waiting to snatch us and kill us? It’s absurd to think that the ocean even thinks of us. And your point about the men conquering it—that’s another absurd notion we have about the ocean. The ocean could care less about men floating on its surface.

Historically the idea of the waiting woman is simply not true; they’re not just waiting. Two of my sisters live on an island which was a whaling island, where the men were gone for three years. The women ruled this island and it made amazing women: The first female astronomy professor in America and Lucretia Mott, the abolitionist, are both from this island. It’s amazing what the women who were supposedly waiting were actually doing. They weren’t waiting, they were making amazing things. Waiting can actually be changed to creating; there are both space and quietness needed to create. There is something about waiting that is essentially making stories.

In the distance between when The Seas was published and now, the concept of waiting has changed so much, it hardly seems to exist. We never have that moment of slowness or creation because we are always on our phones; there’s a sense of business that never leaves. I wonder if we will create another Lucretia Mott or Maria Mitchell or without that sense of not knowing, without the sense of openness that waiting allows.

These women are waiting, but I don’t feel that they’re actually being propelled by men in The Seas. I think that, in some way, it’s an excuse to be left alone in order to find that identity or just left alone. Maybe the mother isn’t actually waiting for her husband to come home. I don’t know, her grief doesn’t actually strike me as someone who believes her husband is going to come back.

It’s also about obsessive romantic love because that’s so common for young women, to feel that overwhelming tidal wave of desire for somebody.

I know that The Seas can be read in many different ways by different people, and it has been, but for me, the true love affair is the young girl getting to know herself. So she has to get this idea of obsessive romantic love out of the way for a moment. It’s also about obsessive romantic love because that’s so common for young women, to feel that overwhelming tidal wave of desire for somebody.

I wanted to ask about that—the adolescent longing in this book is very focused and enduring and, in some ways, for really inexplicable reasons. Jude, the narrator’s romantic interest, isn’t exactly a catch.

He’s not a catch! It’s true. But I think that’s the nature of adolescence; at least in my own experience, it had nothing to do with with the quality of a person. I can look back now, as a person in my 40s, and realize that my teenage obsessions had nothing to do with the object of obsession, it only had to do with me. If only I could have known that at 14, that it didn’t really have anything to do with my object of desire.

At the time I was writing The Seas, I was reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet a lot and those ideas about desire that she writes about—that it has to do with the hole in your body, that lack that you feel. I love the idea of bodies walking around with cavities with holes inside of them. I think of As I Lay Dying where Faulkner actually has holes in the text. I think that those holes are very satisfying. And that, too, is common to Mr. Splitfoot as it is in The Seas—the idea of people walking around with their emptiness and trying to fill them in all sorts of absurd ways.

In her introduction for this book, Maggie Nelson describes Jude and the narrator’s relationship as “fucked up.” To my mind, Nelson is completely right, their relationship is deeply fucked up and, in many ways, as you point out, adolescent obsession is often fucked up. It’s also embedded with pain and yearning that, even now, well beyond my adolescence, I still recognize. Structurally, while writing the book, why did you tease at this relationship? Why is Jude this ruined, almost terrible person?

That’s funny, I don’t think of him as a terrible human being. He’s someone who has been decimated by war and he has nothing inside. He has a chunk of ice in his chest; he has nothing left. Out of some sort of pattern of being human, he still tries to go through the actions of love. I have a real soft spot for him because I do think he tries his best to take care of the narrator. He messes up all the time because he’s a drunk and he’s so wounded, but he does try.

In some way, I think of him as kind and gentle, even if he’s going through the movements of being human. He’s been cleared out by the horror he has seen. It’s absolutely a fucked up relationship, but so is her relationship with her dad and with the whole town. In some way, their honesty about that is noble. These characters acknowledge that coming into contact with other humans is dark and messed up, but that doesn’t stop them.

The other extreme is her grandfather who has given up on other humans and has sunken himself into language. Or even her father, who sunk himself into the ocean. Opting out doesn’t seem like an option to the narrator; she’s too curious.

In reading it and recognizing those feelings, I had so much empathy for her. I really just desperately wanted her to get whatever she needs even as what she needs remains a mystery, even to herself.

To me, it’s a quest for identity and that’s why I think her relationship with Jude is not cruel. I think he recognizes that he’s not really what the narrator wants.

You don’t get to come back from the dead so find another choice.

In this quest for identity, the ending of the book is very open-ended and can be interpreted in a lot of ways. It made me think of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, especially how she ends that novel by just writing something very ambiguous about a character crossing the ocean. And it leaves you wondering, what does it mean to go into the ocean? It can mean a thousand different things. I wondered if you could talk about that because you’ve returned to this concept of forming identity. Is the end of the novel open-ended because identity, especially for women, is an endless interpretation done through both yourself and other people?

To me, the ending is not that open at all. I think there are only two choices. I sometimes read this as a choose your own adventure because the pieces as I was writing them were very moveable. To me, the ending is either that you will choose life or you will choose death, and that decision lies in the reader, not me. Both are an absolute possibility at that moment. I like the idea that the choice lies with the reader. I think that’s the ultimate goal of good storytelling—a story that asks a reader: How does this make meaning for you?

People come to me all the time with their different interpretations of the novel. Some people are devastated, thinking this it’s clearly suicide in the end. Others are completely uplifted, thinking that the narrator has found herself and is at peace with the idea of myth and story and where that creates her story. The open-endedness is less open, maybe. My daughters have not read The Seas, but they know the story. They are just obsessed with the question, asking me over and over if the narrator dies at the end. I always tell them, “It’s up to you.” They’re so mad at that answer.

It is as complicated as identity, particularly since it comes down to choice. I wrote this book shortly after my dad died (and my dad died young) and my mom said that our choice was not to have him alive again, it was whether or not to be happy again, and I took a lot of that to the ending. You don’t get to come back from the dead so find another choice.

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