Queer Romance, Selkies, and Folklore: an Interview with Molly Ostertag, Author and Illustrator of The Girl from the Sea

by J.D. Harlock
(This interview was originally published by Interstellar Flight Press.)

Known for her webcomic Strong Female Protagonist and her first graphic novel, The Witch Boy, Molly Ostertag is an acclaimed American cartoonist whose work seeks to represent the best of the queer experience. In 2020 Fobes Magazine named Molly one of their 30 under 30, and her acclaimed forays into the worlds of animations and comics have more than earned her that honor. Her new graphic novel “The Girl from the Sea” will be out soon. It follows a Morga, a Korean Canadian teen, that falls in love with a selkie named Keltie in Nova Scotia.

1- What were some of the artistic/literary inspirations behind The Girl from the Sea?

I’m having trouble putting my finger on anything specific. I love romance movies and books, in theory, but often I get frustrated with the fact that characters don’t get together until the end! I like seeing the drama of an actual relationship rather than just the buildup of will-they-won’t-they, so this was my attempt to make a story like that.

What else?

There are some fashion designer plotlines that are inspired by watching too much Project Runway: Junior. Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Sam Gamgee’s relationship to Frodo, so there’s some of that devotion in Keltie. And the germ of the story came from a three page comic I made back in art school about a selkie and a human girl.

Like every book, it’s a weird mix of personal experience, random sources of inspiration, and the all-powerful drive of not finding stories you resonate with and so having to make them yourself!

2-  Why have you chosen to tell this story? Where’d you get the idea from? How has your life fed into the story?

The setting came first – my parents are both teachers and had summers off, so we would spend all summer on Wilneff Island in Nova Scotia when I was a kid. It was magical, this place outside normal life, a place with a giant sky and endless ocean and incredible natural beauty where anything felt possible.

But it was also very lonely. My little sister started having intense emotional issues, and there weren’t any other kids my age. There was no internet or TV (not even plumbing!). But I had a sort of fantasy – there was this pod of seals who lived on a reef nearby, and I would imagine that they could turn into people and be my friends. It was remembering this feeling of lonely, imaginative yearning that gave me the heart of this book.

I knew I wanted to make something for a slightly older audience than my previous work on the Witch Boy trilogy. I wanted to tell a story about first love and coming out. I wanted to tell a specifically gay story, drawing on my own experience.

I didn’t want to rely on homophobia to provide drama, but I did want to explore the fears I felt around coming out, especially at Morgan’s age. The drama in the story comes from how it’s scary to declare yourself as something, from the desire to be private versus the desire to be openly yourself. Coming out means being known and being vulnerable. Even if your friends and family are accepting, it’s still scary!

And of course, I wanted to make a love story! Queer love is transformative. It illuminates parts of yourself you never knew were there. I wanted to write the teen summer romance with a girl that I never had.

3- So why is Keltie a selkie as opposed to a mermaid or a siren?

So, to share selkie lore in case not everyone is familiar: they’re a Scottish legend. The classic selkie story is about a woman who lives in the ocean in the form of a seal, but can come onto land and shed her seal-skin to appear human. A human man usually steals the seal-skin, meaning she must marry him. She becomes a dutiful wife and loving mother to their children, but yearns for the sea – and when she eventually discovers where he hid her seal-skin, she takes it and returns to the ocean, abandoning her human family.

I love the bittersweetness of selkie stories – the mystery and grief of losing someone to the sea, something that all coastal communities have folklore about. I love how they’re torn between the land and the sea. I love that, unlike many legends of supernatural romance, they are not malicious to humans. And I love the physicality of them. When you spot seals in the wild, it’s easy to see human intelligence in their eyes, easy to imagine the human just under the skin.

There’s also a violent, patriarchal theme of stealing the selkie’s agency and forcing her to become a wife. When telling a sapphic selkie story, I knew I wanted to reinterpret that. Gay romance is not just straight romance with same-sex characters – it is its own thing. It was important to me that (minor spoilers) Keltie come on land of her own volition, and important that Morgan give her back her seal-skin when she asks for it.

4- Do you see yourself (or even other people) in Morgan and Keltie?

Morgan definitely captures a specific time in my teenage life, when acknowledging an attraction to girls would have been really inconvenient, so I just pushed it down. I thought that I could be exactly who everyone else needed me to be, and thought I could make everything in my life work without acknowledging that side of myself. It turns out this is not how anything works!

Keltie is a little closer to who I am now – I do feel that coming out allowed me to be freer with my emotions, more vulnerable, and kinder. Their relationship is a bit based on me getting together with my wife. There were a lot of external obstacles to our relationship, but the force drawing us together was more powerful than anything else.

5- Do you plan to revisit these characters in future installments?

Not presently. Their story has a full arc and I’m a fan of stories finding their natural end! But I do love drawing them, so maybe there will be some short comics in the future.

6- Do you think that readers have embraced sapphic romances, or is there still a long way to go? Are there any speculative sapphic romances you’re particularly fond of?

I definitely think they’ve been embraced by readers. Personally, I would love to see more romances with gender nonconforming and butch lesbians. Butch lesbians are such an important part of our community, but I rarely see them represented in media (I’m holding myself accountable with this for future projects). One great exception to this is the Locked Tomb series by Tasmyn Muir, which I’ve been loving. It’s about a weird far future with necromancy, spaceships, and a really dynamic central relationship between a sword-wielding jock and the deeply broken necromancer she took a vow to protect.

7- Any other interesting projects you’re working on at the moment?

Nothing I can talk about (imagine me looking very mysterious as I say this). I am working on something big though, and I hope to be able to share it in the future!

J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer/editor based in the Lebanon. He is the Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt, the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine, the Outreach Manager at Utopia SF Magazine, and the Social Media Manager at The Dread Machine. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.

Published by Solarpunk Magazine

Creating a new and better world through speculative literature.

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