Psycho Nymph Exile, a forthcoming multimedia novella by Oakland artist Porpentine Charity Heartscape, probes into the limitations and possibilities of trauma and love — in multiple dimensions.
Heartscape is best known as a champion and innovator of Twine, an online gaming platform on which she creates poetic hypertext stories exploring topics such as femininity and capitalism through a radical re-imagining of science fiction, fantasy, and body horror. Commissioned by Rhizome, her latest work is a collaboration with Neotenomie, who designed the novella's layout and the triple iris eye visual motif that recurs throughout it; and features artwork by Sloane on its cover. It's also her first project that plays out not only online, but though a physical book as well, which will be released during the first week of December.
Psycho Nymph Exile takes the form of a nonlinear collection of vignettes exploring the daily life of two women, Vellus Satowary and Isidol Amberdice. Both characters are stricken with a mysterious disease known as DSTP that's infecting the citizens of Mjar Opti, a kudzu-infested city-state at war with gigantic, Neon Genesis Evangelion-esque monsters. Not coincidentally, DSTP is the inverse of "PTSD," or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With Pyscho Nymph Exile, Heartscape attempts to explore the ways in which PTSD can permeate every aspect of a survivor's life both physically and mentally, shattering the division between body and mind.
"Psycho Nymph Exile is trying to talk about PTSD, especially CPTSD, as a physical disease," said Heartscape. "I hate how people talk about mental illness as if it's this vague thing to fill whatever agenda, and, depending on what people need from you, they can either diminish or inflate what they call mental illness."
Much like In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger's 15,450-page novel, Psycho Nymph Exile is a vast and un-chartable world of women who hunt, hurt, and love each other. There, being sick is the pervasive norm rather than an exceptional spectacle. At the center, Vellus and Isidol, two traumatized women with DSTP, form a romantic bond over their shared pain.
Heartscape's art often intertwines explorations and exorcisms of her experiences as a poor, abuse survivor and chronically ill trans-woman with critiques of popular culture and academic discourses. Her inspirations are found in the visceral and pulpy worlds of fan fiction, erotic literature, and dialogue between video-game characters — things seen as lowbrow by society that are revelatory to Heartscape.
Her science-fiction future is rich with eroticized slime and otherworldly grime — a kind of alternate-reality mixed with anime influences and an enthusiastic love of grotesqueness, rendered in holographic pastel colors that evoke the internet of the early Nineties.
"What I like about sci-fi and fantasy is that you can encrypt the truth of your life within these really fun-to-write wrappers so that your own people can get it," she said, "so that they can be like, 'I totally feel this,' in a way that is not as consumable to someone else."
Most of Heartscape's fiction features "trash women" and "slime girls" messily living and dying in a gooey, trashy future. Clearly, trash is a central motif in her work. Heartscape's reasoning: Although it is disposable, it's also stubbornly irrepressible.
And the trash motif extends to her personal life as well. Heartscape describes herself as "trashgender" rather than transgender, and "trashbrained" rather than traumatized, as a way to push back against the static and reductive generalizations haunting those terms.
Each physical copy of Psycho Nymph Exile comes with two stickers of Vellus's eyes, designed by Neotenomie, adherent to any chosen surface, from glass to flesh. It makes the novella an immersive experience, tearing apart the tenuous bonds between virtual reality and "real" life.
The nonlinearity of the novella's narrative further shatters that binary. The text is a sea of vignettes ranging in length, peppered by footnotes that lead into tangential stories either on the page, or online by providing keywords. That way, the opulence of Psycho Nymph Exile's story spills from physical pages into digital space on Porpentine's website, slimedaughter.com. There, readers can interact with Girlbeam, a hypertext poem; Probiotic River Therapy, a 3D poem-scape; and Girlshard Portal, hypertext mini-games unlocked by keywords from the novella. In these, hyperlinked words function like portals into various branches of the narratives, like a digital choose-your-own-adventure book.
And throughout the physical book, the story is consistently interrupted by black and white eyeballs that allow the reader breaks for breathing that Porpentine hopes will make the book more accessible. "I want a book that's more legible for people with brain damage," she said, "so that it doesn't have to be this punishing experience."
Indeed, despite dealing directly with themes of sexual violence and trauma, Psycho Nymph Exile is emotionally intimate and pleasurably disorienting. In part, that's because it's clearly written for those who are systemically erased — who often fall through the cracks even in discussions of marginalization.
"Psycho Nymph Exile is definitely a love letter to trashgender people," said Heartscape. "It is very much written for weird women with cocks who are exiled from society."Correction: The original version of this article included an erroneous description of Psycho Nymph Exile's plot. This version has been corrected.