Three-A-Week (3.1): Nino Cipri’s “The Literal Forest”

Three-A-Week #3! This week we have Nino Cipri, who can be found online here and here. Get excited for three great stories– And! An interview with Nino to wrap up the week! How are we so lucky, imaginary readers!? Let’s get to the first story.

Published in Betwixt (Issue 4)

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

“The Literal Forest” was such a wonderful and meaningful surprise for me. The beginning of the story seemed to be setting me up for a pretty standard portal fantasy, a story in which a woman escapes her difficult reality through a magical wood. And that would’ve been just fine with me, because the wood exploding into life in the middle of a library in Chicago is such a cool, delightful idea that it probably could’ve carried a really traditional story structure like that. But “The Literal Forest” is so much more than that. It uses the promise of escape to consider how people find homes for themselves in this world. It made me think of Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s books (total favorites of mine) in this way. The stacks of held books for the staff in the library turn out to be completely thematic. Elsa tells Kay that she’ll have to “shove everyone’s crap around to make room for yourself. Which is a good metaphor for living in Chicago, incidentally,” but this is about more than living in Chicago–it’s about living. Kay struggles with where she belongs, with where she wants to belong, and this instruction from Elsa ends up being exactly what she does: she creates a home for herself, or she at least goes out of her way to find a home for herself.

I’m realizing as I write this that Kay’s trajectory sounds like one of escape: she lives in Chicago, experiences the good and bad of it, tries to come to terms with the past she’s leaving behind, the people she’s moved away from or lost, and then she disappears into the literal forest. But Nino’s treatment of Kay’s attempts to find a home is more thoughtful than that. Kay’s relationship with her environment grows more complex, more nuanced, after she learns about the literal forest. She doesn’t recede from her world or ignore it; she better engages with it. She begins to imagine her environment anew, seeing a tiny house in the middle of a bridge as a microcosm of infinite possibility and potential. And that’s a far more complex and empowering narrative than the simplistic escape that portal fantasy sometimes offers.

I love the progress Kay traces between her two experiences getting lost in the woods. Her experience in Chicago neatly parallels her experience in Washington, and there are moments where it seems like Kay hasn’t grown, hasn’t changed, is still stuck in the quagmire of her past. But then we hear about how she got lost in the forest in order for someone else to find her. Like so many kids, she ran away with the hope that someone would pull her back and show her she was wanted (which is now striking me as such a beautiful and nostalgic critique/celebration of escapism in fantasy). But this time she runs away into the forest to find a home, to make a home. She’s not looking for someone else to find her, she’s going to find herself, and that makes all the difference.

In the end, the text from Aunt Billie, flawed as it is by the typo, is portentous; Kay truly is almost home, but the home she finds in “The Literal Forest” is not Chicago but a quiet stillness growing inside of Chicago. The title of the story and Elsa’s assurances of a “literal” forest engender a sense of home that is certainly metaphorical and insubstantial even as it is truly grounded in reality, in the literalness of space and of place. Reality asserts itself insistently in this story–the unendurable heat of Chicago, the voices of people outside of Kay’s apartment; the physicality of a home can’t be forgotten, and it shouldn’t be. “The Literal Forest” doesn’t undercut the idea that home is where the heart is; it simply adds to it. It pairs a physical reality with an emotional one, and the result is powerful and personal.

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