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Escaped lemur faces judge in 'Chimerica'

Former Mountain View litigator finds inspiration for fictional case in courtroom

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Art, law and jungle primates mix in surprising ways in Anita Felicelli's new novel. In "Chimerica," published next month by WTAW Press, the Mountain View writer puts a giant talking lemur on the witness stand in a twisty legal case of artists' rights.

As the novel opens, Tamil-American attorney Maya Rashem wakes up alone in her Oakland home, recently vacated by her husband, who took their two children with him when he left.

Maya's day further unravels as her lover — a named partner at her law firm — is fired and Maya herself is let go, due to an unspecified ethical issue, not to mention the lack of a "killer" instinct. The only professional solace she can take is that the firm's premier witness wants to stay with her. That witness just happens to be a self-aware primate who wants to get to Madagascar as soon as possible.

The lemur in "Chimerica" began its life as part of mural in Oakland, and when it somehow detached itself from the painting, it created a legal conundrum.

"Chimerica" isn't the kind of taut legal thriller Scott Turow would write, but it's one that matches Felicelli's sensibilities. In a telephone interview, she said, "I like the combination of rigorous ideas mixed with pleasure. That's one of my favorite things in fiction, so it makes sense that that would be the kind of fiction I would write myself. I like things that are cerebrally challenging but still have some of the magic that made me fall in love with writing as a kid."

Born in Southern India, Felicelli, 42, is Tamil-American and moved with her family to the Midpeninsula in 1984, where she attended Gunn High School. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley as an English literature major and later attended law school there. The actual practice of law, however, didn't agree with her.

"I was hoping to go into policy or work for a nonprofit after graduation," Felicelli said. "The jobs I got were litigation jobs, and they just didn't suit my temperament."

Those jobs did, however, influence her fiction. The premise of "Chimerica" might sound far-fetched, but the lawsuit at its center is strongly based on actual non-lemur-related cases.

In the novel, Fellicelli writes: "The mural was protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). VARA is a piece of copyright law that grants visual artists 'moral rights' in the objects they produce, even if the physical copy no longer belongs to them. Under VARA, artists have two moral rights: the right of attribution and that of integrity. The right of integrity, which is at issue in the lawsuit, allows an artist to claim damages for any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of a work of recognized stature."

"The lemur himself is not above the law," Felicelli explained. "He's from this mural and ends up being the subject to a lawsuit that seeks to destroy him. Because he's part of the mural, he's the property of the artist."

Felicelli said she wanted to explore "the hysteria of litigation and how quickly something can spin out of control if you're thinking strategically instead of morally."

Why the talking animal?

"The lemur just came to me as part and parcel of the novel," Felicelli said. "When I originally conceived of (the lemur), I conceived of him as a personification of art and what's wild and what might fall outside of our normal (societal) structures."

Felicelli has not completely left legal work. She ghostwrites for attorneys, and still finds plenty of time for her own projects.

During 2013 and 2014, she wrote for Palo Alto Online's Off Hours blog, covering food, film and other cultural topics. Asked what she learned from the experience, she said, "I started thinking more about what readers might be interested in reading. I naturally gravitate toward more obscure things."

Felicelli is the author of the children's book "Izzy & Poe," the poetry collection "Letters to an Albatross"and the young-adult novel "Sparks off Me." The last connects to "Chimerica," in that Maya's sister is the main character of "Sparks off Me."

"It was a reverse coming-of-age story about a young girl with psychiatric issues and how she unravels over time," Felicelli said.

Felicelli's stories have appeared in The Normal School, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Her debut short story collection, "Love Songs for a Lost Continent," was published by Stillhouse Press and won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. "Love Songs for a Lost Continent" features stories set in Silicon Valley and India, Madagascar and Kentucky.

"Rampion" is a take-off on "Rapunzel," told from the point-of-view of the infertile woman who steals a baby. In "Once Upon Great Red Island," a young couple discovers a rift between them during a visit to Madagascar. "Deception" chronicles the tale of a woman who marries a tiger.

Themes of memory and identity weave through the selections, as do the supernatural and the uncanny.

"I'm interested in the things we think we know," Felicelli said. "Intuitions, things we formulate through the observation of what we can't articulate, I'm interested in that phenomenon."'

She indicated that part of her interest emanates from the strangeness of where she resides.

"I've seen so much change (in the South Bay) over the last 30 years. It's definitely on my mind all the time. When we moved here it was a little more of a hippie town. I still remember it the way that it was. I walk around and I see the ghosts of the things that were there before.

"It's strange because I'm the immigrant. I wouldn't say I'm a native, but I've seen this place through multiple iterations of itself, rises and falls. How time passes through one particular place influences my fiction and how I think about identity."

Next up for Felicelli is a family saga about an inventor who moves to Silicon Valley and has a contentious relationship with his daughter, who is a filmmaker. So far, the novel does not feature any talking animals.

Michael Berry can be emailed at mikeberry@mindspring.com.

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