Weblog #5: Queer Africa, queer teens

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I went to the Cape Town launch of Queer Africa 2 last night. The anthology follows the award-winning success of its original and contains 26 stories by African writers. It’s published by Ma’Thoko’s Books, the publishing imprint of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), an initiative for LGBTI culture and education in Africa. Cape Town’s LGBTI community is clearly hungry for this literature because the launch was packed. I recently got a buzzcut so I felt like I fit right in. My curls, I thought, would have looked so straight.

One of the best moments of the evening was when they opened the floor to the audience and this 12-year-old kid asked, ‘If you’re my age and you’re queer, would this book be helpful?’

The whole room was delighted.

I think this particular book would be too adult for her, but one of the panelists did mention the need for a Queer Africa for teens, and to close off the evening, Book Lounge owner, Mervyn Sloman, mentioned that his daughters organise regular Teen Pride events at the bookstore for LGBTQI teens and their allies.

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‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms

It’s rare to find a story as beautiful as it is bleak, with the ability to crack you apart in just the right way. I avoid tearjerker books and movies guaranteed to make you cry, yet I love stories that leave you feeling like you’ve been knifed in the lungs. ‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms, is one, and you can read it in the May 2017 issue of Shimmer.

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William is a ten-year-old boy living in a trailer on the edge of a fallow field. The dictionary definition of ‘fallow’ refers to farmland that has been left unsown because it needs to recover or because it’s unneeded, but it also describes an inactive or unproductive period of time. Synonyms include ’empty’, ‘neglected’, ‘stagnant’, ‘depressed’. The story defines it as ‘a word for places where things don’t grow’, and William has never seen anything grow in the field, even though the drunken owner, Earl, ploughs it anyway.

In the first scene, William plays spin-the-bottle with his best friend Misty and her sister Penny, but, bizarrely, the bottle never points at any of them. The game was William’s idea, and it’s like the world itself is somehow rejecting his attempt at affection. The girls eventually go home to their trailer and for reasons he cannot articulate, William plants the bottle in the field:

He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. The dark shape of it, the earth torn up and left to cool in the dark, a little steam rising. How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.

The next morning a baffled crowd gathers around a tall, green, glass statue that has inexplicably sprouted in the same spot. For William – an impoverished child who has just likened himself to a field where nothing grows – it seems to be the only productive, interesting thing he’s ever done, and it’s like a stand-in for his personal growth and self-expression. Although few people pay attention to William, lots of people now pay attention to the field.

Misty says the bottle-statue looks pretty, and William insists it looks a bit like him. He continues to bury things in the field, developing an understanding for what grows and what doesn’t, so that he only makes the field an offering if he thinks it will give him something in return.

There’s something there, in that refusal to give without getting, and I had it in mind when he tries to act on the crush he has on Misty. Unfortunately, his only understanding of intimate relationships come from his mother and the various men she brings home, and what starts out as a cute, sweet kiss between ten-year-olds quickly turns ugly. (TW: this story features sexual abuse between children.)

Blooms handles this with such sensitivity and care that William manages to be simultaneously repugnant and empathetic. You can be repulsed by what he does but feel for him and understand him all at once, in his poverty, loneliness and longing. It helps a lot, I think, that he’s a child who doesn’t know what he’s doing but is making an effort anyway, and he’s got enough self-awareness to see his mistakes.

Here, for example, he scares me:

Misty said she would meet him. She promised. William waits until his hands get cold, and then he walks home, feeling tired and hungry and something else. Something like anger, only smaller and meaner.

But here, I feel sorry for him:

Misty hasn’t even seen all the things that he’s made for her. She hasn’t mentioned them, not even once. William’s vision blurs and he looks down at his own two feet.

I love the way Blooms uses evocative, recurring details throughout the story. I could pick them apart for ages, but that would spoil the story for so just consider, for now, the bottle in the opening paragraph:

The base of the bottle has a deep crack running through it that snakes along the length, almost all the way through. The crack raises up a little, just enough to tear their skin if they aren’t careful.

It’s the one they use to play spin-the-bottle, and it functions as a tool for William to start expressing his confused, premature sense of sexuality. The crack carries the subtle threat of hurt and blood, and its cutting edge is recalled, when William’s mother is introduced:

William lives with his mother, who is beautiful, and younger than any other mother William has ever met. Her name is Shannon. She has white-blond hair and a scar in the crook of her arm and even that is beautiful–in the way that it raises up from the rest of her skin, in the way that it curves, in the way that it never changes.

That sense of danger, damage and sexuality is significant, and heightened when you realise that William’s relationship with his mother is a bit worrying. She’ll come home drunk and dance with him, or crawl into his bed, her breath fever-hot against his neck as she tells him things she has no one else to tell to. When William kisses Misty, he ‘thinks of his mother and wonders if he is doing it right’. Which is not to say that his mother is a bad person – Blooms gives her enough character for us to understand that, like William, she seems to be trying her best in difficult circumstances. Shannon’s working all the time to care for herself and her son, and she goes on dates because, like most people, she wants a partner who loves her; who can hold that against her? She might be likened to a cracked glass bottle, but it’s worth noting that the bottle was the least broken one that Misty found among the ‘tired things, slowly fading towards the same color of rusty brown’ in the barn. The sense of poverty and stagnation is palpable and unnerving without being overwhelming.

And that, I think, is also why this story is so good – it’s brutal but delicately so, incredibly thoughtful and nuanced. I hope to see more of Blooms’ work.

Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

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Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

Monday

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Somehow, I find this to be one of the most motivational quotes I’ve ever read. I fantasise about being Fairuz.

Fairuz

First posted on my Instagram account – follow me there!

You can read Genevieve Valentine’s surreal SF/F story for free on Tor.com, and it’s worth clicking through for Tran Nguyen’s gorgeous cover art.

Happy Monday everyone 🙂 Have a good week.

 

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

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The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

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My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

The Feminine Future edited by Mike Ashley

The Feminine FutureTitle: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
Editor: Mike Ashley
Published: 18 March 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, short stories
Rating: 4/10

As editor Mike Ashley notes in his introduction, it’s often assumed that women only recently started writing science fiction, despite the fact that Frankenstein, one of the first works regarded as sf, was written by a woman. The Feminine Future attempts to dispel that misconception with a collection of sf short stories by women, published between 1873 and 1930.

You probably won’t know most of the authors (I’d only heard of Edith Nesbit), but there are some historic names here. Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to contribute to the first sf magazine, Amazing Stories, and several of the other authors here made regular contributions to the early pulp magazines.

Many of these women were among the first to explore new ideas. Edna W. Underwood was inspired by the increased use of anaesthetics when she wrote “The Painter of Dead Women”, where drugs are used to preserve the human body in a comatose state. The light-hearted “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” by Elizabeth W. Bellamy was published at a time when many new inventions were being patented and, like other stories of that period, it takes a humorous approach to “madcap inventions that go awry”. In “The Ray of Displacement”, Harriet Prescott Spofford uses ideas about atomic theory to imagine a device that dissipates matter, allowing an individual to walk through walls. “The Artificial Man by Clare Winger Harris is one of the first stories about an augmented human or cyborg.

Historic details aside though, it’s worth noting that this is not, in fact, a feminist anthology. Only a few of the stories are gender-conscious or have feminist themes. Most of them have male protagonists. Some of them don’t even have female characters. I’m not trying to suggest that female writers have a duty to write feminist fiction – they don’t – but if that’s what you’re looking for, be warned that you’re not going to get it.

The stories that are openly feminist tend to take a simplistic approach to gender. In “A Divided Republic – An Allegory of the Future” by Lilli Devereux, women get so fed up with men that they set up their own society. With no one to either nag them or take care of them, the men go out and get drunk whenever they want, never shave, and live in filth. On the women’s side, there’s no drinking, everything is pretty and well organised, but it’s a tad boring.

“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens also suggests that women are rather delicate in some ways, even when they’re in power. In the world of the story, it’s long been established that women are superior to men. A lowly little man boldly goes to a tea shop where female engineers and pilots like to hang out, and, ignoring the stares, buys an old sailoress a cup of tea and a plate of macaroons in the hope of hearing some of her stories. She tells him about the time she was stranded on a sentient island. She could tell, from the island’s behaviour, that it was a “lady” which is why her volcano erupted when a man came to the island and swore too much. Ladies, apparently, cannot abide swearing. Even when they’re islands. And, again, women just naturally choose tea over alcohol. How cute.

There’s another matriarchal society in “Via the Hewitt Ray” by M.F. Rupert, and I sort of liked this one for being adventurous, but with some serious reservations. A man travels to another dimension and, when he fails to return, his daughter, a pilot, goes to rescue him. She finds herself in a world with three vastly different societies, including a technologically advanced city of women who keep a few docile men around for reproduction and pleasure. One of the men gets sentenced to electroshock therapy and sterilisation for his insubordination, but the heroine saves him by asking if she can take him home for experiments. The women are in conflict with a more highly evolved race, and it’s decided that they’ll use the father’s tech to wipe out this super-intelligent race. The heroine gleefully helps them with this impromptu genocide and goes in, blasting enemies with a ray gun. She doesn’t feel bad because these people are so highly evolved that they’ve got giant heads to contain their giant brains and are therefore quite ugly. Later, she goes home with her sexy man-slave, and when he behaves too timidly, as he’s been taught, she yells at him and tells him to be a man, that men are superior to women (a lie to boost his confidence), and that he needs to bully any woman who disagrees with him. She then claims that she doesn’t mind being considered inferior by the “right man”. Overall, “Via the Hewitt Ray” was one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever read, topped only by other stories in this anthology.

And this brings me to the main reason I didn’t like this – it’s pulp fiction. And, as it turns out, I really don’t like pulp fiction. While it was interesting to see some of the early expressions of feminism in sf, no matter how absurd, there was little else about the anthology that interested me. The title suggests that these stories are gender-conscious, but it’s really more like a general collection of early pulp sf by women.

This gives it some distinctive and – depending on your tastes – unpleasant characteristics. For the most part, it’s all just silly. Obviously, it’s also dated. The writing is often stiff and formal (to my ear, at least) with many tedious infodumps, so some stories could be a real chore to read. Kooky science is to be expected, but there’s also a weird lack of rationality to the characters and plots.

It’s no surprise that the stories are conservative too, and I’m not just talking about the assumption that ladies don’t swear or drink. The Christian god is frequently invoked as a certainty, something that I never see go unquestioned in contemporary fiction. The religion remains benign, but some of the other conservative content is pretty offensive, usually because it involves the assumption that some people are naturally inferior to others. Sexism is rampant, even in the more progressive stories. One story is casually ableist: “The Artificial Man” by Clare Winger Harris, about a man whose lost limbs and other body parts are replaced by augments, is based on the premise that the title character is mentally and spiritually corrupted every time he loses part of his original body.

Racism rears its ugly head. Edith Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” begins with a man being attacked by “Apaches” – a term for muggers or gangsters, based on European assumptions about Native American Indians. “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves not only refers to a “black man-ape” but also uses the word “kaffir”, a South African racial slur so offensive that its use is actionable in this country. I really felt that the editor should have written a footnote to accompany these slurs rather than allowing them to pass without remark. Or better yet, pick stories without racial slurs.

Then, as I mentioned there’s the genocide of the ugly smart people in “Via the Hewitt Ray”, which is not even the only thoughtless mass killing in the anthology. In “Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (quite possibly the most absurd story in an anthology of absurd stories), the main character (sort of accidentally) wipes out an entire community, babies and children included, and doesn’t give this a second thought except to keep an eye out for survivors on the way back to the airship that will take him home. This story also includes an attempt at eugenic marriage, which the main character quite happily agrees to when he sees a picture of the beautiful woman who has been promised to him.

Did I like any of these stories? Well the first one, “When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford is quite touching. It’s about a man who experiences his life twice – once normally, and then in reverse, watching passively as his life rewinds. The idea is similar to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was written twenty years earlier.

I also liked the end of “The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood, when the protagonist – a stunningly beautiful socialite – effortlessly escapes a serial killer through her athletic skill and endurance. Similarly, “The Ray of Displacement” by Harriet Prescott Spofford ends with a wonderful moral complication that I enjoyed more than the rest of the tale. I experienced most of the other stories in this way – I liked one or two aspects, but not the whole thing.

So yeah, if you already like pulp sf, this would be a good anthology for you, especially if you want to know more about women writers in the genre. But if, like me, you’re more interested in the feminist angle but aren’t a fan of pulp, you might not like it either.