Dystopia is no longer just a literary genre or an imagined future; we’re living it. The Supreme Court is deciding a number of cases about everything from abortion access to gender discrimination in the workplace that could set people from marginalized communities back for decades. There’s also the ever-looming issue of climate change, which is resulting in unpredictable temperature fluctuations, wildfires in Australia and California, and rising sea levels. And of course, there’s the pandemic we’re currently facing, which is laying bare all of this country’s inequities and may permanently alter the way we live our lives. Given the state of the world, it’s unsurprising that there are more women authors writing feminist dystopian fiction.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, a number of books specifically about a world where there are fewer men or where women are being purposely inflicted with pain have hit our bookshelves: There’s Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2017), Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (2017), Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2017), Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks (2018), Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M (2018), Christina Dalcher’s Vox (2019), and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (2019) and Blue Ticket (2020).
As Alexandra Alter wrote in a 2018 article for the New York Times, “This new canon of feminist dystopian literature…reflects a growing preoccupation among writers with the tenuous status of women’s rights, and the ambient fear that progress toward equality between the sexes has stalled or may be reversed.” Playwright Megan Campisi’s debut novel, Sin Eater, is a welcome addition to the canon, though it’s set in an alternate historical past where girls—the book’s protagonist, May, is 14—and women are sentenced to heinous punishments, including being hung and burned alive, for any and all crimes. When May, who’s an impoverished orphan, steals a loaf of bread, she’s sentenced to life as a sin eater for the remainder of her days. Historically, sin eaters performed a ritual after a person’s death to absorb their sins; in Campisi’s world, May becomes a pariah without the ability to talk who is sent from home to home to absorb the sins of her community’s most esteemed and wealthy nobles.
Sin Eater, like the other novels before it, uses dystopia to discuss troubles that feel familiar to many of us: criminalizing poverty, disproportionate treatment in the criminal justice system, and overall exploitation. It also goes a step further, becoming a murder mystery midway through, engrossing the reader in May’s journey for autonomy and dignity. Campisi spoke to Bitch about how she fictionalized the idea of a sin eater, the process of developing a self-reliant teenage protagonist, and the ever-growing importance of women novelists writing dystopia.
How did the genesis of this book develop for you?
I’m a history nerd. I encountered sin eating, which is a historical folk custom that existed in parts of Britain, and I was fascinated because people knew so little about it, and it incorporated a social pariah. It was this strange mix of both a little bit of Christian practice and also pagan practice. This immediately sparked my imagination about making a protagonist a sin eater. That was the germ and then I needed to do a lot of invention to create this world and create a historical novel because, historically, sin eating is a fairly limited [practice]. It’s just eating a piece of bread on someone’s coffin. So, there was a lot of invention that went from that initial germ to what you see in Sin Eater.
What was your process for researching a book that borrows so heavily from history?
I did a ton of research, which I love doing. It really took me all over the place. I, of course, researched the political intrigue surrounding Queen Elizabeth I. But I also did a lot of research into what is often called the criminal underworld [this in turn became] the characters that turned out to be the different variations on the unseen in Elizabethan society. Because at the time that I’m placing this book, which is Elizabethan England, there was a huge portion of the population [left] without livelihoods and homes because of political circumstances and bad harvests. Some laws enacted, particularly the poor laws, and then enclosure of public lands, put a lot of people in really terrible situations. I did a lot of research on that as well.
So much of this book grapples with the idea of shame being wielded against women who are considered “unruly.” When May is first arrested, she and the 19 other girls and women recently arrested, are walked from the jail to the courthouse, allowing people to see them and publicly shame them. How did shame become such a pertinent through line of the book?
Sin Eater is partly a coming-of-age story: When we’re at that moment between girlhood and womanhood, our sense of self is really changing, and our sense of who we are in the world is changing. Women have a lot of power at that moment, but people don’t necessarily want us to know that. That was something I experienced when I was going through adolescence, and I experienced a lot of shame around the process. Part of that was my individual circumstance, but I wanted to look at how you go from the simple notions of good or bad that can produce shame to a more complicated understanding of the gray areas that exist in life. At the end of the day, the most important thing is what you think of yourself, even if you’re in a terrible situation; that kind of self-worth is where everything else begins. That’s sometimes the only place we can make a change in our lives, but it can be a powerful place to start.
In the beginning, May is really witty. She laughs and cracks jokes, even if the audience is the only one who hears it. How did you develop this character’s interiority?
I wanted to look at some aspects of [May’s personality that society considers to be inferior] that, to me, aren’t. For example, May is illiterate and she doesn’t have a large, broad, depth of knowledge about certain aspects of society. I wanted to show that that doesn’t mean she’s not incredibly intelligent. It’s more circumstance than who she is. And so, I wanted her to have a deep intelligence, resourcefulness, and resilience that would contrast [with] the things that were pushing her down in society. So, poverty, her gender, and her illiteracy, are [seen] more as the opportunities that are [provided] to her. I wanted to put that in contrast with who she was.
May is sentenced to become a sin eater—a pariah who can’t be touched, talked to, or regarded outside of her profession. But that becomes almost like a superpower for her. She can be an outsider and observe everything without being noticed. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. I really wanted what was perceived to be a curse to turn into a source of power. I thought back to when I was a child and I would have nightmares. I was trying to figure out, if I’m being chased in my nightmare, how do I deal with this? Because what happens if I stopped running and let the attacker come get me? Or what if I start cheering for the attacker instead of being afraid of them? I wanted to think about how you can really turn the tables on what someone is imposing on you. While people are saying May is the lowest-status person around, there could be some advantages to that. I don’t mean to condone it, but just [want to consider] that [maybe] there [is] something that we’re not seeing. Is there some way she could find a source of power, even in a devastating situation?
How did you craft the relationship between May and Ruth, the older sin eater who becomes her mentor?
I drew on those tough-love relationships I have in my own life. Ruth has to warm up to May and accept her in, and she has a lot of very valid reasons for being closed off emotionally. I wanted to take time with their relationship and have glimmers of connection between them that finally break through Ruth’s hardened exterior. They have a physical connection. At one moment, Ruth holds May. They’re expressing their connection in their relationship physically, which I think we do so much more often than we realize—just the way you hand someone a cup of coffee where you may or may not touch their arm communicates so much. I tried to put their relationship into small actions like that.
What was your process for figuring out May’s story arc, from becoming a sin eater to the end of the book. What was your process for figuring out what freedom would look like for her?
I thought a lot about that. Part of me wanted her to run away or tear down the entire patriarchy in which she lived. But then I started thinking: What are the [realistic] possibilities for this woman? In that time period, running away to another town was not really possible. You would be arrested for vagrancy. A young woman alone with no community around her was in a very dangerous situation. I wanted to stay true to that. These days we have a lot more freedoms than May does, [although], that’s certainly not true all the way around the world. So I wanted to see: What if I stick to these kinds of historical realities and constraints? How could May find freedom within her situation? I got to the place where I felt a little bit more comfortable with that because to me, it was about a revolution in an individual woman’s way of viewing herself and her situation.
That gets back to where does feminism begin? We aren’t all queens or presidents who can, in theory, change the world. A lot of us don’t have that option. But if we can have one small radical revolution in the way we view ourselves, then change can grow from there. I wanted May to have that by the end because once she had that, I felt like she was going to be okay and she had that light glowing inside. I felt like I could send her out into the world.
I am sure Sin Eater has drawn comparisons to other dystopian novels, particularly The Handmaid’s Tale. What drew you to writing dystopia?
Part of it is simply my love of historical fiction; my imagination is just inspired by historical fiction. In writing about a 14-year-old, it’s hard not to go toward dystopia because when I was 14, I experienced things very intensely. Part of that was just me and my personality, but everything was very high stakes. It was Greek tragedy for me. To reflect [the growing that] happens in adolescence, it makes sense to go to a very extreme world.
There are a number of other women writers who have recently written dystopian novels. Is there a reason for that?
I’m sorry it took so long, but luckily, more people are finding their voices and feeling comfortable sharing [them]. I think it’s hard because these feelings have been going on forever as far as I’m concerned, wanting to voice pro-feminist literature. But I think the last couple years have really opened up people to feeling more comfortable putting their voice [out there].
Would you say you approached this book knowing it would be a “feminist novel?”
It wasn’t in my mind when I was approaching the book. I didn’t even articulate that to myself. But the truth of the matter is, I believe those values are so ingrained in me that the book couldn’t have come out any other way. I feel lucky in that I grew up in an environment that really laid those values in deep; they’re with me no matter what I write.
How early in the process did you know the protagonist for this book would be a teenager? Why did you make that decision?
I always wanted her to be young. When I was 14, I was dealing with particularly how I saw myself in the world, how I understood the world, and how that was changing. I was raised Catholic, and at 13 or 14, I lapsed. There was a lot of thought and emotion that went into that decision. And so, to me, there was a lot that resonated with a young woman in the story who would be starting to question religion by the end of the book.
We aren’t all queens or presidents who can, in theory, change the world. But if we can have one small radical revolution in the way we view ourselves, then change can grow from there.
You are a playwright and a theater teacher. How did you transition from writing plays to writing novels?
It was very practical. I had been writing plays, and the way I made plays—and I’ll use the word “make”—is very collaborative. That’s the theater tradition that I come from. If I’m writing a play, I’ll be in rehearsals trying out ideas with actors. It’s very active and on-your-feet collaborative. But when I got pregnant with my first child, it became really hard to get to rehearsals at a set time and organize that kind of gathering. So I decided to try longform writing as a way to simply make it easier for me to manage both teaching, having a kid, and writing. But the playwriting still comes out in my writing, especially with May, because she’s not allowed to speak. I had to find new ways to communicate information between characters and also to the reader. I really leaned on my theater background because what I teach is called physical theater, which is a way of looking at how the body can communicate information, using the body as a language, using action as a language. I leaned on that [training] while writing Sin Eater.
If there is one lesson you would want readers to walk away with from this book, what would that lesson be?
Start with yourself, find your self-worth, and then everything else can change from there. Maybe that’s idealistic, but there is some truth in it, even if it’s not easy or that simple. This book is about a woman who perseveres through a really crappy situation and total social isolation. I would hope that people who are feeling isolated right now might take heart in that as we’re going to get through it. I like to use a quote my Uncle Dave would say to me, which is, “There are good events, and there are good stories.” Even the tough times enrich our lives, even if it’s really hard to see that in the moment. I hope that we can, like May, persevere through our isolation and come out stronger on the other side.
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.