Photo by  Elena Roussakis

Photo by  Elena Roussakis

Author profile: “Mem” author Bethany C. Morrow

In her debut novel, “Mem,” author Bethany C. Morrow asks some provocative questions about memory, identity, and what it means to human.

Set in Montreal in the 1920s, “Mem” is the story a good-natured academic who makes a startling discovery: memories, both good and bad, can be extracted and thereby erased from the patient’s consciousness. Once free from their source, a memory (or Mem) becomes an exact physical copy of the patient without being truly human. Mems simply replay the memory over and over until they quickly “expire.”

But Elise, or Dolores Extract No. 1, is an exception. Formed in 1906 after her source witnessed a gruesome accident, and still alive a shocking nineteen years later, Elise is more than a Mem: she is a fully-functioning human, capable of forming memories of her own – much to the delight of Professor Toutant and his wife Camille.

However, the public has concerns: what does Elise’s existence say about the nature of humanity? Is Elise still Dolores, or is she someone else entirely?

“Elise came to me as a concept first,” author Bethany C. Morrow explained in a recent interview. “I try only to write a story about the most interesting person in any given concept… So when I realized that there would be a Mem who didn’t fit into the expectation of her identity, that’s the person I glommed on to.”

Things get complicated for Elise in this speculative literary novel when scientists, who in this world are called “bankers,” begin experimenting with reprogramming Mems, essentially erasing their consciousness.

In order to escape reprogramming, Elise must undergo a dangerous procedure to prove her autonomy. Or is there another way?

“I’m not interested in doing things that to me feel familiar,” Morrow says of her surprising plot twists and world building. “If I feel like I know where this is going, then I don’t think I’m actually following the character. Because the character is not me.  So she shouldn’t always be doing things that I expect or understand.”

Morrow explains that her characters are like her, though, in other ways.

“My default in writing is black. While the reader’s default might be white, that’s a little silly if you’re reading my work.”

Literary themes

A California native, Morrow has a B.A. in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz and completed coursework in Clinical Psychological Research at the University of Wales in the U.K. While Morrow did not write “Mem” with specific themes in mind, she recognizes that her academic interests and her perspective as a black American woman shaped the novel in different ways.

“When I’m writing I’m honestly following the characters, so on some level this is just Elise’s story. But as a former student of sociology, I know nothing is ever written in a vacuum.”

Morrow lived in Montreal for six years before returning to The States. After writing a piece on Paris Noir, she started to wonder why black Americans moved to Paris in the 1920s instead of Montreal.

“Given that I’m an American, I’ve heard all my life this sort of completely disingenuous story about Canadian niceness and the lack of institutionalized racism in Canada. I thought: why weren’t black people just moving to Montreal? It’s also francophone. Why would you go all the way to Paris if you could just go to Montreal?”

As she started researching, the reason became clear to her: Because “it would have been the exact same situation as you had in the United States.”

Her research texts included the book “The Hanging of Angelique,” by Dr. Afua Cooper, which tells the history of a slave who was blamed for the great Montreal fire, then tortured “in gruesome French fashion,” and killed.

“You can go all the way through your education in Canada and never hear about slavery whatsoever. It’s a completely omitted part of history. The only thing we talk about is how Canada was the end goal for the underground railroad.”

“That was very upsetting to me: that you could completely erase and ignore the fact that you had over 200 years of slavery and that the majority of urban slaves were in Montreal.”

In the world of “Mem,” traumatic memories can be extracted as easily as a tooth. Morrow doesn’t wish the same ease for erasing difficult parts of history.

And neither does Elise, as evident in her recurring question: “What kind of people are we if we can’t go back through our own memories?”

Morrow was not writing with this theme in mind, she explains, but she sees the connection.

“If I were back in one of my old high school classes writing about (“Mem”) I would say Elise is indicting Canada and their historical imagination and their culture of omission.”

New Work

Morrow’s next novel, tentatively titled “The Sound & The Stone” goes in a different direction. While still speculative fiction, the book is a YA novel set in the contemporary United States. It’s slated for a 2020 release from Tor Teen publishing.

“It’s about two magical black girls living in Portland, Oregon, in a world where only black women are sirens, and therefore, of course, sirens have become feared and distrusted.”

One girl is a siren, and the other has a unique power, something unknown in this imagined world.

“For me [the book] is about being a black kid in the west in what are presumed to be progressive spaces, and what it’s like to actually live in those spaces as black people.”

“The Sound & The Stone,” Morrow says, was written specifically to black young people “because you are living something that I don’t know how I would have handled at your age. I want you to know that somebody is paying attention to the fact that you are being thrust sort of backward in time and it looks like we’re progressive – and yet you know better.”

“I want you to be seen. I want you to feel seen.”