Early Utah author examines history, language and anthropology

Alyssa Quinn said she was home alone one evening – feeling hopeless as she struggled to start her first novel and incorporate the theories of language she wanted to write about – when the first line came to her: “The museum is a nightclub.”

These words, she said, were followed by an image: that of a female Homo habilis – the now extinct species that gave rise to the human genus that we Homo sapiens now represent – illuminated with deep blue light.

With that spark, Quinn wrote that night the first draft of the beginning of her first novel, “Habilis”. The finished novel will be published on Tuesday, September 13 by Dzanc Books.

“It’s a really exciting and important time for me, when something happens that I don’t know what it’s like as a writer, but it’s generative,” said Quinn, a Farmington native. “I’m going to trust what’s on the page and go for it.”

By then, Quinn said, she had been researching for a year — having read a theory about the origin of language in Raoul Eshelman’s book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism, in the last class of his MFA at Western Washington. University of Bellingham, Wash.

In particular, it was the first moment when language arrived in the human species that sparked his imagination. From there, she began researching human evolution and anthropological discoveries, reading the fossil finds of renowned archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and the theory of language by anthropologist Eric Gans.

“I knew I wanted to write about [this particular theory]”, Quinn said. “But I didn’t know how.”

Then she had her brainstorm, and from there, Quinn said, the rest of the book went by pretty quickly.

The resulting book is a disorienting, yet masterful, set of interconnected tales about the origins of language, the human species, and the way we communicate.

He partly follows Lucy, who finds herself in an anthropology museum that turns into a disco every night. As the story progresses, Lucy loses her ability to communicate – and with it, she loses part of her identity.

“His character was a way of thinking about loss, especially the original loss,” Quinn said.

Lucy has no origin story: she was found alone, very small, on a train. “She has this kind of big void early in her life, similar to how we humans have something of a void early in our species,” Quinn said. “We can never know for sure how our species evolved or how language came about.”

Readers may be taken aback by Lucy’s journey, feeling the visceral experience of being lost with her. It’s intentional, Quinn said. “I’m interested in disorientation in all my writing, disorienting the reader and the characters.”

The novel later delves into the origins of human evolution in East Africa, through three distinct characters: archaeologist Mary Leakey, an Indian indentured laborer working on the Ugandan railway, and a curator.

Quinn said that as a white writer, she had wondered how best to navigate writing about “colonialism and the complicity of anthropologists in this region” and wanted to best incorporate the harsh realities of these experiences into his work.

“The quest to find human origins has been complicit in a lot of violence, as it sometimes assumes that being human is a universal experience as opposed to a deeply diverse experience, depending on who you are and where you are. I was born,” Quinn said.

It was through this process that Quinn said she was also able to title her book. It points to Homo habilis, which was discovered by Mary Leakey and her son, Jonathan, and means “handyman.”

“The book is so much about gesture communication and pointing,” Quinn said. “What does it mean to point something, [to have] someone else is watching where you are pointing. This connection and this shared gaze are in a way the basis of communication.

It seemed fitting, she said, that the species named after her hands — which may have been the first human to use gesture communication — should be at the center of the book.

Quinn is currently working on her doctorate in creative writing at the University of Utah. Working on this novel – which examines language and communication in such a complex way – has made her a more considerate wordsmith, she said, even though she has been writing since she was seven.

“I become less stuck with everyday language,” she said. “Growing up as an English nerd, it was kind of the reputation you have, that you’re the grammar nerd.”

She added, “I’m interested in how language is continually changing, how it’s being used differently in all kinds of situations. How playful and edgy it can be. Language is dynamic and can never be a thing.

Quinn said she’s been waiting for this moment for more than 20 years, the publication of her first novel, and at the heart of it all “is the question of how we tell stories about ourselves”.

She said she hopes the book will give readers a new perspective on “how we conceive of science and history as not being pure and diverse universal truths.”

What she likes to do most in her works is the same thing that Quinn wants her readers to understand: “If you look [anything] strong enough, it will open up and reveal that intricate story behind it.

Alyssa Quinn’s first novel, “Habilis”, will be released on September 13. Quinn will be on hand for an in-person book discussion and book signing on Friday, September 16 from 6-7 p.m. at the King’s English Bookshop1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

Editor’s Note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.

Lola R. McClure