Like many writers I know, I have been struggling with fiction writing this past week. I fear that my stories are self-indulgent drivel. Worse, I fear that stories in general are useless—or rather, that the only stories that have an effect in this world are broad propaganda which foment rage, divide us, and blind us.
I say this even as I acknowledge that I’ve turned to literature for comfort. I’ve been reading poetry. I see beauty in art. But. . . but I wonder how much it matters.
My reading picks this month were all chosen before the U.S. presidential election. They are beautiful stories and essays. Some of them are very dark. Some are hopeful. Some ring not only with defiance, but with ferocious burn-the-world-down rage that resonates uncomfortably with me at this moment, when I think that the politics of nihilism have brought my country to this point.
I’m sharing these stories, though. Even if I can’t write myself, I can boost other voices.
I don’t know what good a story does. I don’t know what a single poem or song can do.
I don’t know, I don’t know.
Here, read some beautiful things.
The second issue of Liminal Stories amply fulfills the promise of the first. Together, these six stories take up the theme of escape. In some instances, it’s literal escape from a witch’s house or tormenting captor. It’s escape from an abusive relationship. Or it’s the escape (no less real, no less important) from the weight of history and societal expectations, from the invisible strictures which hem you in, which attempt to keep you from being who you are and who you want to be.
Here are some highlights.
The Symphony of Park Myong Lee by L. Chan
L. Chan is a writer to watch, a spinner of delightfully original tales (See his story about garbage-scavenging cyborg whales here). Set in a futuristic Seoul, “The Symphony of Park Myong Lee” is about a cloned K-pop star seeking freedom from her oppressive management company. This future world is wonderfully, fully realized; it’s fast-paced, sharp, and everything that happens clicks just right. The ending twist had me cheering.
One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want by Helen Marshall
Oh, this aching, gorgeous, yearning piece. A boy comes of age in post-Communist Romania, in a village and family haunted by violence and ghosts of the past. This piece is so beautifully written, skillfully twisting fantasy and dark reality. This is a story of survival. In the aftermath of darkness and loss, life continues and tries its best to embrace light.
Odonata at Rest by Nancy Au
This gentle, shimmering story is so wonderfully funny and quiet and aching. Quirky, grieving, science-loving Bernice Chan does not get along with the nuns of Saint Gregory Middle School. But one of her teachers is not exactly what Bernice thought. A truly lovely story of connections, of how we’re perceived and who we are beneath; of seeking freedom.
The Solace of Counted Things by Natalia Theodoridou
A dark, brutal story of sibling violence, captivity, and art. Short, yet powerful.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain by Martin Cahill
I almost hesitate to recommend this for anyone looking for hope these days. But it’s an astonishing, gripping piece; a fully realized, original, intriguing world. I started reading and couldn’t stop; the tension and pacing never flag. It’s beautifully done, and yes, the ending is absolutely, heart-wrenchingly devastating.
The Boy Who Would Not be Enchanted by A.M. Dellamonica
If you can’t take angst right now, then please try this piece. It’s a wonderful, rollicking, enchanting adventure. The world and characters are apparently from Dellamonica’s Stormwrack novels (which I need to add to my TBR pile), but it’s okay if you haven’t read those books; this story stands alone. And it’s made by the narrative voice of Tonio, a supremely self-confident, charming boy of twelve who steals away on a ship in search of adventure. Here’s an example of the witty prose and Tonio’s self-possession:
Garland found me belowdecks the first night, heaving into a barrel. He didn’t say anything, just hitched himself onto another a nearby trunk. He waited until the sickness passed, then passed me a flask of water sweetened with mint.
“Well,” I said, determined to make the best of it, though in truth I was crushed he’d seen me in such a state. I wasn’t in love with Garland—I knew well he was too old for me and inclined to women—but he had a face so infernally bewitching that you had to care for his good opinion. “The weather must be very bad, no?”
“No,” he said, with a kind smile.
It just gets better.
More Dark Stories from Various Places
The Night Cyclist by Steven Graham Jones in Tor
This is another example of a story that is absolutely made by the voice of its narrator. A chef who is also a formerly competitive cyclist works through his midlife crisis in a most unusual way. I adore the world-weary, resentful voice of the narrator. And no, I’m not being snarky. I have a true weakness for complicated, not-always-sympathetic-but-basically-decent characters who are seething with resentments (I guess I identify?). In this case, the narrator resents growing old and growing up, losing the sense of freedom and possibility he once had. Hey look, I guess I understand. This is a tense, dark ride with an audacious premise that delivers (it’s also grounded so well in details that I think the author must have worked as a chef and been a serious cyclist. . . or he’s done a hell of a job of research).
Hat tip to Maria Haskins for recommending this one!
The Get-Get Man by Melissa Moorer in Fireside Fiction
An incredibly unnerving horror story. The Get-Get Man captures all the dread of dark urban legends, the stories that you and your childhood friends told each other at slumber parties to freak each other out. Consider me freaked out. A dark story of wanting.
And in Our Daughters, We Find a Voice by Cassandra Khaw in The Dark
There have been many retellings of The Little Mermaid through the years, many of them involving mermaid vengeance. But you haven’t seen vengeance quite like this. The prose is intense and visceral, gorgeous and richly horrific.
The House that Creaks by Elaine Cuyegkeng in The Dark Magazine
I found this story perhaps the most horrific one of this month’s list--drawing on real history and resonating eerily with current political events. A house once loved the child who lived within its walls. The house was turned into place of torture and death by an oppressive political regime. The house will take revenge. This bleak story uncomfortably probes at innocence, erasure, collective sin and responsibility. This is a narrative of rage and pain. Deeply powerful.
Grief as Mythos by Brandon Taylor in Wildness literary magazine
A beautiful, moving essay of grief, family, and the myths we tell of our dead.
I cried savagely, wildly for several minutes, but then it was all gone, like a squall. The spot in me from where the tears had flowed went dry or sealed itself off like a private, inner sea.
Also, if you haven’t seen this piece yet (which went viral on my Twitter feed), please read Taylor’s piece, There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You. I agree with every word.
The Fantastic Ursula K. LeGuin by Julie Phillips in The New Yorker
Have you seen this profile yet? Reading it made me love LeGuin even more.
Bonus Anime Pick!
I don't do sports anime, thought I. I don't do slice-of-life. I like action and angst; I don't go for gentle, kind, heart-warming things. I was SO WRONG.
Yuri Katsuki is a Japanese figure skater who, at age 23, may be facing the end of his competitive ice-skating career. Having bombed the major international competitions of the season, he finishes college and returns home, depressed and ashamed. While trying to regain his love for skating, he practices the winning routine of his skating idol, Viktor Nikiforov. A video of Yuri perfectly skating Viktor's routine goes viral and catches the attention of Viktor himself, who flies to Japan to be Yuri's coach.
This anime does things I didn't know could be done; it's shown me that triumph and uplift can squeeze a heart as surely as tragedy and pain. This is a lovely, lovely story of a depressed, shy, insecure young man growing up, gaining confidence, opening up, discovering his sexuality and yes, falling in love for the first time. It's gaining wide attention as a groundbreaking example of legitimate gay representation in anime (as opposed to the usual fetishistic baiting). It's tender and sweet, funny and raunchy and hot, with beautiful music and animation. Real Olympic figure skaters have been praising the realism with which it captures the sport.
It is a good, pure thing. I need this in my life right now.
I think that maybe fiction is needed to depict the worlds we want, as well as the world as it is.
And I would write more, but I need to catch the next episode now.