Places are imbued with genre. The ways in which we experience space, time, geography, and adventure are influenced by what media we read and consume. For the next year at Uncanny I’ll be doing meditations on place and genre. Sometimes it will be about real places, sometimes about the places we imagine and how we construct space for the characters we write about. My life is going to be a little mobile for the time being, so it’s possible this will be a good place for me to reflect on my experience as well.
Last month I found myself in a BBC miniseries. Or at least, that’s how my brain understood the trip that I took to London and Derbyshire. I was there for a wedding, to visit my best friend from elementary school and stand up for her as a bridesmaid.
I had traveled across the globe by myself, too. Not an easy feat when you’re attached to a 63-pound Labrador who thinks foxes in public parks are the new black. (Yes, there are foxes in London. According to my friends who live there, it’s like London’s version of raccoons.) For those of you just joining me in my corner of the internet, I’m deafblind and I’m escorted literally everywhere (including foreign countries) by a black Labrador guide dog whose code name is Astra.
So let’s break down why this trip felt like a BBC miniseries.
There are set dressings first of all: The two places I stayed once I made the two-hour trip to Derbyshire were a converted convalescent home with a view of a sheep field, and a converted chapel next to a pub with a view of a sheer cliff face and what I’m pretty sure was a priest hole that had been glassed over so you could see it for effect.
You could stand at the pulpit and chat with your friends in the living room.
Secondly, there’s the emotional tension. I was grappling with major changes in my life, changes that are going to affect the next several years of my life. Geographically, emotionally, spiritually.
So when I found myself standing on the side of the road, a light English rain falling on my shoulders, looking out over a moss covered stone wall to a slowly rising river that flowed under the bridge. When I fled the converted church trying to stifle feelings I couldn’t manage to hide any longer. When my new friend, the Scotland Yard detective came to find me…
My brain categorized the whole weekend as a BBC Miniseries. It was the easiest way to explain the weekend (well, really middle of the week) that I had to people who weren’t there. It could have been a modern-day Downton Abbey. At points, the Scotland Yard detective and I joked that there was going to be a murder and we were going to have to solve it, a la Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. The ex-convalescent home might have one been the grounds of a Call the Midwife episode.
My brain picked a genre for the emotional and geographic experience that I had.
And we do that pretty frequently. We pick what matches our experience, we pattern-match. We find what we think best explains what has happened to us—sometimes it’s unfair.
I mean, the truth is, no one lives in a BBC miniseries. That idyllic, dramatic setting doesn’t really exist, and yet in the liminal space of a three-day wedding it does.
We create our experiences, try to make sense of them through the stories we tell. We create order out of chaos by trying to tell our friends what genre, what trope, what episode we’ve experienced one after the other.
Our lives are shaped by the media we consume, and in fact our understanding of that media is what shapes our emotional reaction to our lives.
I loved my trip to England—despite the emotional turmoil and the priest hole that I could swear English Schoolgirl Sadako (the well-dwelling ghost of Japanese horror fame, veiled by her own hair, clawing her way from the well through your TV screen) was going to crawl her way out of. I loved it because it allowed me to be the tweed-wearing woman with a dog at her side, walking down country roads and drinking more tea and half pints of cider than anybody has a right to.
It allowed me to be one of the iterations of myself that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I like her. I think I’ll keep her. I think I’ll go back.
Each time I go back to the countryside of England, though, it won’t be a BBC miniseries. As it becomes a place that I know, rather than an experience that I visit, I’ll find myself seeing less of the genre and more of the truth.
© Elsa Sjunneson