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Story & Study: “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky

The nominees for the Nebula Awards are up. The winners will be announced in May, but until then, there is a great lineup of reading to be done.  Rachel Swirsky is on the list with her short “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” published by Apex Magazine.

This piece dances on the edge of speculative fiction since the speculative elements remain, well, speculative.  Having been an ESL instructor, I recognized the structure as one I’d employed in many a classroom: the unreal conditional chain!  At first this distracted me, but Swirsky, with her prose, managed to drag me out of my teaching persona and into gut-punched reader.  From its unorthodox, whimsical beginning, the narrative leads us through a brutal progression of emotions until by the end, we’re engulfed.

English language teachers (and learners) will recognize the conditional chain as a common classroom activity.  Student 1 starts with an unreal conditional (aka: second conditional) sentence. Student 2 uses Student 1’s main clause and adapts it to their conditional clause.

S1: If I were rich, I would buy a big house.

S2: If I bought a big house, it would be located in Hawaii.

S3: If my house were located in Hawaii, I would eat pineapple pancakes every morning.

Swirsky finesses the game 1) with imagery both scintillating and ruthless, and 2) by introducing a T-Rex into the equation, and 3) leading us to a place far removed from the initial game.  So for all of you TESL/TEFL folk out there, if you have an advanced class reviewing their conditionals, lay this piece on them.

Comprehension Questions:

1. Who is the narrator addressing (the “you” of the piece)?

2. How would the narrator’s lover be different from a typical T-Rex?

3. How would the narrator care for her T-Rex?

4. How would the T-Rex become famous?

5. How would scientists recreate another dinosaur? Why would they want to?

6. What is the central image of the narrator’s imaginative fancy (hint: the longest pair of paragraphs)? Why would that image be of primary importance?

7. Where is the turn of the piece (Where does the tone shift)?

8. Before the turn there is some foreshadowing that this story is not purely a whimsical fancy. What are some hints that all is not well?

9.  What is the actual setting?

10. What is the real situation?

Discussion Questions:

1. What is the progression of emotions explored through the piece? Is it a logical progression?

2. The imagery of a blue hydrangea comes up twice—what does it symbolize?

3. What are the indications that the relationship between the narrator and the addressee (the “you” of the story) is one of genuine love?

4.  This story was published in a science fiction magazine. In what ways is it science fiction? In what ways does it step outside of the genre? Could it be classified as straight fiction? Why or why not?

5. If your true love were a dinosaur, what kind would s/he be?

6. What kind of relationship would you maintain with your dinosaur lover?

7. If you were to lose a loved one through violence, what might your reaction be? (If you have ever had such an experience and wish to share your reactions, please feel free to do so as much or as little as is comfortable.)

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