How a Utah author examined the evolution of language in her debut novel

Alyssa Quinn’s book delves into anthropology, history and how language came to be.

Alyssa Quinn said she was home alone one night — 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 discotheque.”

Those words, she said, were followed by an image: Of a Homo habilis woman — the now-extinct species that began the human genus that we, Homo sapiens, now represent — illuminated in deep blue light.

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

“That’s a really exciting and important moment for me, when something happens that I don’t know what it is as a writer, but it feels generative,” said Quinn, who hails from Farmington. “I’m going to trust what’s on the page and just go with it.”

At that point, Quinn said, she had been researching for a year — after reading a theory on the origin of language in the book “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism” by Raoul Eshelman, in the last class for her MFA at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

In particular, it was the first moment that language arrived in the human species that prompted her imagination. From there, she started researching human evolution and anthropology findings, reading about the fossil discoveries of the renowned archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and the theory of language from the 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 poured out fairly quickly.

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

It follows, in part, Lucy, who finds herself in an anthropology museum that converts every night into a disco. As the story progresses, Lucy loses her ability to communicate — and with it, she losses parts of her identity.

“Her character was a way to think about loss, specifically loss of origin,” Quinn said.

Lucy doesn’t have an origin story: She was found alone, as a toddler, on a train. “She has this kind of big void at the beginning of her life, similar to how we as humans have something of a void at the beginning of our species,” Quinn said. “We can never know for sure how our species evolved or how language first originated.”

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

Later on, the novel dives into the origins of human evolution in East Africa, through three separate characters: The archaeologist Mary Leakey, an Indian indentured laborer working on the Uganda Railway, and a curator.

Quinn said that, as a white writer, she asked herself how to best navigate writing about “colonialism and anthropologists’ complicity in that region,” and wanted to best incorporate the harsh realities of those experiences in her work.

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

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

“The book is so interested in gestural communication and pointing,” Quinn said. “What it means to point at something, [to have] somebody else look where you’re pointing. That shared connection and gaze is sort of the basis of communication.”

It felt fitting, she said, that the species that was named for its hands — who might’ve been the first human to use gestural communication — would be the focus of the book.

Quinn is now working toward her Ph.D in creative writing at the University of Utah. Working on this novel — which so intricately examines language and communication — has made her a more considerate wordsmith, she said, even though she’s been writing since the age of seven.

“I become less uptight about everyday language,” she said. “Growing up as an English nerd, that was kind of the reputation you get, that you’re the grammar nerd.”

She added, “I’m interested in how language evolves continually, how it’s used differently in all sorts of situations. How it can be playful and edgy. Language is dynamic and can never be one thing.”

Quinn said she has been waiting for over 20 years for this moment, having her first novel published, and at the heart of it all “is the question about 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 universal truths that are pure and diverse.”

What she loves to do most in her works is the same thing Quinn wants her readers to understand: “If you look at [anything] hard enough, it’s going to crack open and reveal this intricate history behind it.”

Alyssa Quinn’s debut novel, “Habilis,” will be released on Sept. 13. Quinn will be on hand for an in-person discussion of the book, and a book signing, Friday, Sept. 16, from 6 to 7 p.m. at The King’s English bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

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