I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with author Sara Hosey to talk about her new book, Iphigenia Murphy, a coming-of-age story set in Forest Park, Queens. The novel explores the sustaining love of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and the indelible bond of family. Iphigenia Murphy captures the gritty side of 1992 Queens, the most diverse borough in New York City. Iffy and the friends that she makes in the park–Angel, a stray dog with the most ridiculous tail, Corinne, a young trans woman who is escaping her own abusive situation, and Anthony, a former foster kid from upstate whose parents are addicts– all seek a place where they feel at home. Whether fate or coincidence has brought them together, within this community of misfits Iffy can finally be herself; but she still has to face the effects of abandonment and abuse, and the possibility that she may be pregnant. During what turns out to be a remarkable journey to find her mother, Iffy embarks upon a personal journey to ultimately discover herself.
You have a new book out, Iphigenia Murphy. What is the book about and what should the reader take away from it?
“Iphigenia Murphy is about a fifteen-year old girl from a dysfunctional home who takes matters into her own hands when she runs away and sets up a life for herself in Forest Park, Queens. Despite the dangers of the park, Iffy feels safer there than she did in her family’s apartment and ultimately, the park does become a place of refuge and community for Iffy. Especially now, when many of us are scared, anxious, isolated, and mourning, I hope that readers find a message of hope and connection in Iphigenia Murphy.”
Is there a connection between your first book, Home is Where the Hurt Is, and Iphigenia Murphy?
“I love that you brought up my non-fiction work because there are some very important overlaps between Home and Iphigenia Murphy, and no one else has asked me about this! Home is Where the Hurt Is is centrally concerned with the ways girls and women are often depicted in popular culture. And while I loved researching and writing about others’ creations when working on Home, I also found that I wanted to participate in the creation of that culture. So I tried to write the type of book that I would like to read. That is, I wanted a book that dramatized some of the issues that many girls and women must grapple with, including, too often, abuse, violence, poverty, and the specter of trafficking, as well as the realities of making autonomous reproductive decisions, and on the more positive end of the spectrum, the healing power of female friendship and support. My characters are not perfect people, but I did try to write the kinds of characters, male and female, that I’d like to see more of in popular culture. I wanted an adult character who could model how to support a person in need without trying to “fix” things for her, and I wanted to include a trans character who, although she’s had many struggles, isn’t defined by her oppression. And finally, I wanted a female protagonist who has a lot of rage and sometimes has to fight back, but also learns how to protect herself and advocate for herself without using violence.”
Iphigenia Murphy is set in Queens, New York, during the 1990’s. Is there a reason behind this?
“In many ways, Iphigenia Murphy is my love song to Queens, a place that was for me, as a teenager in the 90’s, full of contradictions. I think Iphigenia Murphy is a novel that is only possible in this 90’s Queens: a place of really astounding diversity but also some pretty entrenched racism and sexism, a place that could feel oppressively provincial, but which was a subway ride away from the cultural capital of the world. It felt, to me, like a time and a place in which anything could happen, and often did.”
How do you select the names of your characters? Iphigenia is certainly an unusual name, as is her nickname, Iffy.
“I first encountered Iphigenia’s story in the Greek play, The Oresteia when I was in college and it floored me. In The Oresteia, Iphigenia’s father heartlessly sacrifices her so that his ships will sail. It seems so brutal and cruel and awful—and it is. But Iphigenia’s murder happens basically offstage; it’s not a major event in the play. It’s not a big deal. Except that it is a big deal—to Iphigenia’s mother. When Iphigenia’s father returns home from the war, her mother avenges her. (Full disclosure: Iphigenia’s mother also had her own agenda, but her husband’s murder of their daughter certainly didn’t further endear him to her).
This story resonated with me deeply, for several reasons. I was and am, fascinated by the idea of a girl who believes she is not valued or whom society treats as disposable, dispensable, a tool for someone else to use or exploit. I became committed to exploring what might happen to the kind of girl who could run away and “nobody looks for” her. And I also wanted to explore the desire for the mother-as-savior, the yearning for the mother-love that I think we all, regardless of our actual relationships with our mothers, often experience. I felt that so much of that was already embedded in the Iphigenia story and I wanted to create a narrative that drew on those ancient themes and updated them.
Iffy is able to survive and to advocate for herself in part because when she was younger, she had a mother who loved her and cared for her. Iffy’s mother wasn’t perfect, but that early love fortified her for the challenges she faced later. I hope that we all have a well of love and strength from some point in our lives that we can draw on in difficult times, and especially now, when many of us are separated from the loved ones who usually provide us with that support and strength.
Then, of course, the nickname, Iffy, perfectly fits the character as we are first introduced to her. To be “iffy” is to be unsure, undecided. When we meet Iffy, she could really go either way: she could leave school, develop a substance abuse problem, become ensnared in the criminal justice system, become in some ways a “lost girl.” Or she could try to find her mother and, in doing so, find her own strength, her own community, and the resources that she’d need to advocate for herself and the people that she loves. So, part of the novel’s movement is her journey from Iffy to Iphigenia, to becoming a person who not only comes to understand the legacy of the difficult name that her mother bestowed on her, but who carries its weight with grace.”
Goal #5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 concerns gender equality, and empowering women and girls and ensuring their equal rights. As an Associate Professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College, where you also ran the Women and Gender Studies Program for a period of time, how do Home is Where the Hurt Is and Iphigenia Murphy address current women and gender issues, and what did you want to communicate to your readers?
“As La Voce has reported, gender violence remains a worldwide epidemic. Sadly, the situation has only gotten worse for many women during the COVID-19 pandemic. In much of my writing and teaching, I am centrally concerned with understanding the ways in which home is often a dangerous place, especially for women. And while there is much we can do personally and politically to end violence against women–such as educating ourselves and advocating for policies that empower and support women–I also think it is crucial that we look hard at how these issues are represented in our popular culture.
In Home is Where the Hurt Is, I argued that after half a century of propaganda seeking to convince women that their place was in the home, more recent popular culture had finally caught on and has started to represent the home not as an idealized space, but as a space that can often be really perilous for women and girls. For example, despite the fear of the stranger in the dark alley, the reality is that sexual assault victims are victimized by someone they know. To put it another way, most perpetrators know their victims. In addition, family members make up 34% of perpetrators of sexual abuse of children.
So in Home, I looked at television shows and movies that took on topics such as domestic violence and I argued that although many still fall back on outmoded stereotypes, thanks to feminist criticism and activism, media is changing. We are seeing more interesting and diverse and complex narratives about girls’ and women’s experiences than ever before. I think this is important because I believe that representation matters. I think we can look at whose stories are valued and amplified in our culture to get a sense of who and what is valued.
And so I wanted to write a book about a girl who does not feel valued, who does not see herself or her experiences accurately reflected in popular culture. And while this book is for everyone, some of the most meaningful cultural experiences for me personally have been when I’ve been introduced to the experiences of folks unlike myself. I hope that for readers who do identify with Iffy, who recognize and relate to her experiences, that Iphigenia Murphy lets them know they are not alone and helps them in their healing.
You have recently completed writing a novella, Great Expectations. What can readers expect from this new work, and is it connected to Home is Where the Hurt Is and Iphigenia Murphy? While Great Expectation differs generically from my other work, it is concerned with many of the same issues and themes. Great Expectations has a runaway in it too, and it has abuse, and it has two women who forge a sustaining relationship. I like to say that if Iphigenia Murphy is about children longing for functional parents, Great Expectations is about adults longing to be functional parents.”
What inspired you to become an author, and what is your writing process like?
“I’ve always written and, although I’m often very secretive about what I’m working on, I do believe that writing is inherently about connection, about externalizing what is going on inside you, what you’ve observed or experienced, and hopefully, finding the courage to share that work with someone else. Reading others’ work has not only been one of the greatest pleasures of my life, but has also been the activity that, aside from actually being with my kindred spirits, most makes me feel less alone in this world.
My ideas often come to me as phrases or characters that I start to ruminate about. With Iphigenia Murphy, I was fascinated by the names Iphigenia and Iffy. With Great Expectations, I couldn’t stop thinking about a town that I’d imagined, called Miserable. The novella begins with an anecdote about how some residents of the town pushed through a referendum on changing the town’s name, but it was defeated because so many people, young and old, were attached to the name. And I started thinking about who these people were, who would take pride in living in a town called Miserable.”
Are there any other projects in the works?
“Several! I am working on some short fiction, while at the same time revising another young adult novel—this one set in upstate New York in the late 80’s. I’m also continuing to do some nonfiction writing, focusing on science fiction film and television. And finally, I am taking notes in preparation for a book about the foster care system, an institution that touched my life when I was young—I had two foster-siblings as a child—and which I continue to educate myself about as an adult.”
What project would you like to work on in the future?
“My problem is: I want to work on them all! I have so many ideas but, sadly, I am a slow writer and, in the words of Morrissey, “these things take time.” However, one thing I would like to work on and which I am currently putting out feelers about now is adapting Iphigenia Murphy for the screen. I think it would be an amazing streaming series and I would love to reach an even wider audience with Iffy’s story.”
Sara Hosey is scheduled to do a virtual “In Conversation” at the Astoria Bookshop on 5/27 at 3:00 pm. She will be joined by the audio book narrator, Tavia Gilbert. Please visit https://www.astoriabookshop.com for more information.
In addition to Iphigenia Murphy, Sara Hosey is the author of a composition textbook, Wide Awake: Thinking, Reading and Writing Critically (Pearson 2013) and a scholarly study, Home is Where the Hurt Is: Media Depictions of Wives and Mothers (McFarland 2019). Her novella, Great Expectations, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press. She is a contributing fiction editor at Barren Magazine. Her scholarly work has appeared in publications including the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Feminist Formations and Feminist Teacher. Catch up with her at sarahosey.com.
On the couch that was also my bed in the apartment I’d lived in all my life, I sat, sucking my thumb, thinking of the terrible things he’d said to me, using them to ignite a small fire, to get myself warm and moving, to get myself going, to get myself gone.
But, cold and numb, I sat listening hard to the noises: the train rumbling down Roosevelt Avenue, a bus squealing its brakes and then its tired engine sighing and heaving back to life, the water running in the pipes over my head and then the padding footsteps of our upstairs neighbor, my stepmother’s whistle-snores through her bedroom door.
My empty stomach churned. Vaguely, I knew that if I sat there long enough, someone would wake up, emerge bleary-eyed, and ask me what was going on. What’s that stupid look on your face, Iffy? Answer me. Sucked teeth. Dumb skank.
I took my thumb away from my mouth. I touched my eye and my clammy fingers stayed there, gently exploring. It was sore from where I had fallen against the edge of my stepbrother’s dresser the day before.
My backpack sat on the floor beside me. This morning, I’d gotten up and packed—clothes and underwear and bathroom stuff. I’d folded and stowed my sheet, gone to the bathroom and brushed my teeth and hair. But then, when it was time to leave, I sat back down on the couch, cold and quiet inside.
Remembering myself, I reached for the straps of my backpack.
There was a flutter and then a scratching noise from across the room; my stepmother’s bird was moving under the rust-colored blanket draped over its cage. I felt something moving inside me too—maybe something kindling in me as I thought about my stepmother. Although she’d often loudly insisted on her love for them and spent quite a bit of money buying them, my stepmother averaged about one parakeet every three months. A pretty short life expectancy, right there. I honestly wondered whether she realized that they were unhappy. That their cage was too small and too dirty and that they were neglected. That she was killing them. Did she not know that? Or did she just not care?
There was a noise from my stepbrother’s room, something falling, maybe a sneaker or a beer bottle kicked from the bed. Then, a low moan. Layla’s still asleep. I almost smiled. Something was warming inside me.
Layla was a neighborhood girl, and she and my stepbrother had been running around for weeks behind the back of her scary-as-hell boyfriend, Oscar. It was late when they’d come in last night and I’d been sleeping on the couch when the door clicked open. My whole body had tensed, then relaxed when I realized Layla was with him. They went straight back to his room. Through the thin wall, I could hear them fooling around, and then playing video games, and then fooling around again, for hours.
I’d lain awake for the rest of the night, listening to the pounding Mortal Kombat music and Layla’s murmured Oh, Marcos. I would have put my headphones on, except I needed to save my batteries. But lying there, I had resolved to follow through on the scheme I’d come up with.
And hearing the bird, thinking of that scheme, finally I jumped from the couch, moving decisively around the apartment one last time.
I took a piece of loose-leaf out of my backpack, went into the kitchen and scrawled a note: Staying at Lizette’s. Be home on Sunday. Iff.
I slapped the note down on the kitchen counter and grabbed one of my stepmother’s Pop-Tarts, knowing that’d piss her off. Thinking better of it, I grabbed a second packet and shoved them both in my hoodie pocket, carefully returning the empty box to the cupboard. Now that would piss her off.
On a roll, I went and opened the kitchen window. I took the three short steps back to the living room and undraped the birdcage. Tweetie flapped its little wings and looked at me. I eased open the sliding gate and stuck my pointer finger in; even though we didn’t interact a whole lot, the bird seemed to sense what was happening and hopped right on to my finger.
I carried the bird carefully back to the kitchen, one hand cupped around it as though I was holding a lit candle, and I set my hand out the window.
That bird didn’t hesitate. It got gone.
I watched it perch on the neighbor’s fire escape before setting out for real and flapping down 83rd street. “Good luck,” I whispered.
I had no idea if that bird would make it through the summer, if it would live to see 1993, or if it would fly south or find a new family or what, but its odds were a lot better out there than they’d ever been in here.
And I was right behind it.
I redraped the cage and headed to the door. They probably wouldn’t even notice that cage was empty ’til tomorrow. I picked up my school bag and popped my skateboard under my arm.
I opened the apartment door and pushed the little button by the deadbolt so that it would stay unlocked. I went into the hallway and pulled the door quietly behind me. I became lighter with each step I took, as though ropes that had held me loosened and frayed and snapped off the farther I got from that door. I jogged down the three flights, jumped the last few steps, holding the railing and swooping down, like I’ve always done, since I was a little kid. I was weightless.
My breath was short, my heart fluttering when I burst from the service entry into the sunny morning. They—my stepbrother, Layla, my stepmother—were still asleep, I knew, but nevertheless I felt pursued, a fugitive. I dropped my board and stepped on it. Other folks were just starting to emerge into the day, the dog walkers and deliverymen hustling around. I put on my headphones, holding the bright-yellow Walkman in my hand as I kicked off to the opening notes of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”
I thought more about that bird as I skated the three blocks over to the playground to meet my friend Lizette one last time.
I was getting gone too.
Iphigenia Murphy can be purchased using the following links: