Once while visiting a park on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, I observed what appeared to be anarchic behavior among a group of squirrel monkeys. More than twenty of them were clustered together on a limb, fussing, fighting, biting, examining each other’s genitals, having sex and pushing each other to different limbs. They seemed to be engaged in endless conflict. I later learned that what looked like chaos was in fact the maintenance of a certain order, albeit at a speedy metabolic and behavioral rate. Squirrel monkeys live in large mixed-sex gatherings of females from the same natal group, with immigrant males among them that are typically kept on the periphery despite their frequent, often frustrated attempts to take different positions in the community. Males that grasp and examine females are apparently seeking olfactory cues to the female’s reproductive state; much of the fussing, biting and pushing I observed are efforts to defy and test social and sexual order, blended with actions maintaining that order in the quest for strong sexual mates.
Their crazy but oddly logical monkeying around was almost like a cartoon of evolutionary genetics reflected in behavior. Conflict, failure and the occasional moments of harmony are at the heart of evolution. A similar kind of change happens over time in human culture, including the arts and literature.
The best new voices often defy the accepted in the quest for new themes, subjects and possibilities of form. Beethoven composed music so complex it almost threatened to become disorder, with density and [End Page 5] stylistic variety and a mingling of the inordinately sophisticated with the childishly simple. In art, Picasso disassembled “realistic” imagery—which he was quite adept at imitating—in his quest to see and embody the abstract elements of form, color and movement.
Artists who defy the accepted, either in form or in subject, may not be fully appreciated until they are either dead or near the end of their lives. Jane Austen is now so widely admired that her work is thought of as a standard model of the novel. However, during her lifetime, because she was an innovator who challenged both novelistic themes and the accepted roles of women, she was largely unknown outside a small realm of family, friends and opinion makers. The novel was not yet widely considered to be an art form. It was questionable for women even to be writing novels, especially when they so vividly portrayed the shaky position of their gender in a world where security was contingent on a “good marriage.”
In subjects and themes, this issue is replete with testing and defiance. Robin Romm’s story “What to Expect” depicts a thirty-nine-year-old film editor who has decided to have a child by artificial insemination. She is now pregnant but feeling unsure about how she will manage single motherhood. She impulsively makes friends with a couple who are also seeking a child by the same means and despite her pregnancy begins an affair with the man, who is a filmmaker. The story is an interesting look at the scariness and uncertainty of deliberate single motherhood and the challenge of cultural norms.
“July Sun” by Aamina Ahmad is a story about how vicious some societies can be toward those who defy convention. A young Pakistani man, newly and happily married, sees his wife’s unmarried best friend engaged in a tryst. He is shocked by the impropriety and soon learns that the young woman and her lover have eloped. The tragedies that ensue include the murder of the young woman and the wreckage of the couple’s own marital happiness. Ahmad’s story highlights the destructiveness of intransigent cultural norms, where breaking certain rules is met with simple extermination and a shared poison lingering among survivors.
“The Prodigal Daughter” is the second story we have published about M. G. Stephens’s Irish protagonist, Eileen, a recovered drug addict and former wife of a Cuban jazz musician. Eileen has returned to Ireland to see her mother, who is dying. Eileen has a tense interaction with her sisters, who have lived “better” lives than she—no drugs or wandering [End...