Total Immersion

First-time novelist Marjorie Celona delves deeply into her characters

Shannon, the wholly unique central figure in Marjorie Celona’s first novel, Y, is marked by a fuzzy white afro, a lazy eye and short legs. An orphan since birth, Shannon is on a perpetual search for her true identity, an emotionally and physically stunted nomad we follow from her first breath to the beginning of the rest of her life at age 17. 

Y grabs one from its opening scene, which takes place at the local “Y”: “My life begins at the Y. I am born and left in front of the glass doors, and even though the sign is flipped “Closed,” a man is waiting in the parking lot and he sees it all: my mother, a woman in navy coveralls, emerges from behind Christ Church Cathedral with a bundle wrapped in gray, her body bent in the cold wet wind of the summer morning.”

The mother is Yula, whom Shannon spends the next 256 pages trying to find.

Published to wide acclaim in early January, the affecting Y is a novel of myriad pleasures, the most obvious being Celona’s sensitive, psychologically complex conception of Shannon, a character who refuses to leave one’s consciousness long after breaking with her sometimes frustrating company.

“She was just a really loud voice in my head,” Celona says from a chair inside her Northside home on a recent February afternoon, her dog Betsy Lou begging for attention as she describes Shannon’s pull. “She was just a little bulldog in my head one day that kind of wouldn’t be quiet. She just had this really clear story to tell.”

It’s a story Celona had been thinking about in one way or another since leaving her native Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, nearly a decade ago. Shannon first appeared in a short story published by the American Literary Journal Indiana Review in 2005, before being anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. 

A few years later, after Celona received her MFA from the highly regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she began to miss Vancouver Island, and Shannon and Y became the perfect vehicle through which to revisit her homeland.

Celona’s own nomadic journey to published novelist has been nearly as curious as Shannon’s. In addition to her stop in Iowa, the 31-year-old writer has done stints in Montreal, Scotland, Wisconsin and tiny Madison, N.Y., where, in 2010, she wrote Y over the course of one solitary year. Celona moved to Cincinnati in late 2011 to enroll in UC’s Ph.D. program for creative writing, from which she’s been on leave since it became apparent Y would be published.

Tall and lean with long, jet-black hair and an angular face, Celona is the physical antithesis of Shannon in almost every way. But, like Shannon, she had an acute yearning to investigate her childhood surroundings.

“Because I grew up on Vancouver Island, and because I felt like I could do something else with the novel besides tell Shannon’s story, I felt like it could also be an homage to the place where I’m from,” she says. “It was also a way of preserving the Vancouver Island of the ’80s and ’90s, which, like everywhere else on the planet, is changing.”

Y follows Shannon as she moves from one Vancouver Island foster home to another before, at age 5, finding some semblance of stability with Miranda, a single mother with a daughter of her own, Lydia-Rose. Shannon describes her new sister with great attention to detail, culminating with this typically incisive observation: “She is six months older than I. She has long skinny legs and runs as though she were flying. Her face is fierce and determined; her eyes, impatient and keen.”

“She’s like a little detective; she’s like Sherlock Holmes-ing all over the novel,” Celona says of Shannon’s need to dissect her surroundings. “She’s looking at somebody and she’s trying to size them up. She’s trying to deduce whatever she can about a human being based on their outward appearance. She’s hungry for details about people because she’s hungry for details about herself, and everything to her could be a clue.”

It’s been nearly a month since Y was published in the U.S. (it came out in Canada last August), and Celona is still getting used to talking about a character and book that had been locked in her own head for so long. 

“It’s especially weird when people talk about my characters the way I talk about them, as if they’re real people,” she says. “I kind of almost have an out-of-body experience when I hear that, because they are talking about people that they know, or as if they know them. But those can’t possibly be the same people that I know, and yet we’re calling them by the same name.”

Celona enjoyed inhabiting the headspace of her troubled protagonist. But she also warns readers that Shannon is not necessarily based on her own life and experiences, as is often assumed of authors who present characters in a deeply immersive first-person voice.

“Because it’s first-person I sort of enjoyed putting on that mask and kind of being her while I wrote Y. But I don’t know where she comes from, I don’t know who she is. I don’t know whether she is an amalgam of people I’ve known in my life or just completely random and unique human being. I still haven’t figured that out.”

It’s clear Celona thinks about such things deeply. It’s also abundantly apparent she believes the novel is an indispensable art form.

“There is nothing that sort of can even attempt to get at the complexity of human psychology and existence like a novel can,” she says. “I don’t think any other form can even touch it.”

She admits that part of Y’s long evolution from short story to novel was getting over her own worries about creating something singular, a story that would stand on its own. 

“I probably have an overly inflated idea of how important writing is,” she says. “I take it very seriously, and I always have. The writers that I know and love and admire and really respect, I think every book does just about kill them to write. I think that’s a good thing. It sounds really melodramatic, but I am kind of melodramatic.”


will appear at a book signing with fellow Cincinnati-based author

Leah Stewart

4 p.m. March 3 at The Bookshelf, 7754 Camargo Road, Madeira.

This story is part of a cover package that includes a profile of Stewart. Click here to read the introduction and here to read about Stewart, who recently published The History of Us


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