Bender Sisters Discuss Ambiguity of Cats, Writing for Fangoria and Empathy at Egyptian Theatre 

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On the Egyptian Theatre stage, Karen Bender was charismatic and gregarious. Her sister, Aimee, was thoughtful and elusive. They're as enigmatically different and similar as sisters can be.

It was fitting that, without consulting one another, they each introduced themselves and their work by reading stories about cats. Karen read the final story in award-winning collection Refund, "What the Cat Said," about a house cat that ambiguously meows "I love you" to the narrator.

Aimee's "Tiger Mending" was about two co-dependent sisters who encounter wounded tigers that need to be stitched back together.

On the internet, cats are shorthand for soothing cuteness; they're respites from the problems of the world, for which the internet is a sort of megaphone. For the Bender sisters, cats are sources of mystery and funhouse mirrors for our own world views. Their Readings and Conversations talk on March 9—their first public speaking event together—was a master class in the power of stories to illuminate and create empathy.

"Fiction is the closest we get to knowing what another person feels," Aimee said.

The wide-ranging conversation that followed started wide, with the Benders discussing attending Masters in Fine Arts programs, early writing gigs—Karen wrote for legendary horror mag Fangoria and sci-fi periodical Starlog, saying of her first forays into literature that it's "very hard in the culture where you feel like you're doing important work."

Their talk had serious notes as well, as they discussed the role of literature in building empathy in an unsparing political climate. Speaking about growing up in a household where their mother was a dancer and their father was a psychotherapist, the Benders recounted how they were allowed to play with their food at the dinner table and otherwise cross boundaries that would have resulted in parental discipline for other children.

Learning to break the rules and transgress, Aimee said, has allowed the sisters to freely cross boundaries in their writing and give voice to truths that would otherwise be inhibited by the boundaries of everyday life—a crucial skill that builds connection between people who otherwise might disagree on facts or have differing ideologies.

"Your creative expression is part of you and you need to just do it in whatever way you can," Aimee said.
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