For my mother In the past month, ten rivers had gone missing. Throughout the South, zigzagging up and eastward from the Gulf Coast, tributaries popped up dry. Their dryness could be seen from above in a helicopter, funny…
I wrote the first draft of “River Bandit” when I was twenty years old. Twenty was the year I first read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I loved the novel for its fantastical strangeness, its familial and political drama, and its emotional intensity from the first line to the last, which had me in tears. I also loved the novel because my grandfather loved the novel. My mother told me it was one of his favorite books as he saw much of his own life in Colombia in it. I had never met my grandfather—he died before I was born—and at twenty, I was starting to feel the gap between me and that part of my family. My mother had become somewhat estranged from her relatives in Colombia, whom I knew little about. She never taught me or my sisters Spanish, her mother tongue. Looking back at myself then, it’s clear that this story was in some ways my attempt to articulate this feeling of disconnect from part of my heritage through characters much different than myself as much as it was an homage to Márquez’s trademark magical realism.
But this was not the only inspiration or driving force for the story. At the time, I was in a sci-fi and fantasy creative writing class taught by Kevin Brockmeier and for the first time I was encountering stories by writers such as Kelly Link, Octavia Butler, and Jeff VanderMeer. I was excited by the possibilities of genre and how speculative conceits could reveal complicated truths about the relationships people have with each other and their own bodies. The main conceit of this story—a young woman whose mother is literally the Gulf of Mexico—comes from my lifelong fascination with Greek myths. In Greek myths, characters are often the children of mortals and gods and some of these gods are personifications of bodies of water. In this story, I simply took out the part where the body of water is physically represented as a sea nymph or ocean god and asked what would it mean for someone to be half-human, half-ocean? How would her relationship with the environment and other humans be different? What kind of pressure could this put on the plot of the story?
Alongside these intentional ideas that were there from the story’s conception, I now see other influences popping up in it. One of these influences is fairytales, which you can see in the way the characters are arranged. Maria Isabel is a magical princess locked away from the world by her cruel and possessive father. She even has an evil stepmother, though Jackie is not “evil” in a conventional sense. For a fairy godmother, Maria Isabel has Miss Dominique who ends up saving her from trouble she’s gotten herself in, though Miss Dominique has her own agenda and motivations and Maria Isabel’s freedom comes at a price. Another influence is the American South, which you can see in the story’s setting. Having grown up in Arkansas, enjoying its natural beauty and driving through its many small towns, I knew and loved the varied landscapes of the South, and so they became the backdrop of the story. I even see my love for Southern writer Flannery O’Connor emerging in the details. For instance, Maria Isabel’s rickety Ford feels very much akin to Hazel Motes’ busted Essex in Wise Blood.
In the end, “River Bandit” and the world within it feels like a conglomeration of my many personal interests and concerns as well as many different literary traditions. It’s both a magical realist American road narrative and a Southern Gothic fairytale, borrowing a little from each genre to become its own strange thing.
CARL NAPOLITANO is a writer, ceramicist, and drag performer from Little Rock, Arkansas. He recently received his MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his work has appeared in Assaracus, CRAFT, and The Rumpus. He is an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press.