It's probably no real surprise that in the pieces for the first half of Strange Horizon's Our Queer Planet there is a sense of longing. A hunger. To see and be seen, to comfort and be comforted. To reach out and act on desires that are dangerous, to fly in the face of convention and doubt. These stories and poems and works of nonfiction are affirming and powerful. Beautiful and refined and raw and bleeding and staunched and just so good. These are stories that I as a reader am hungry for, poems that I want to see more of, nonfiction that helps me both think about my reading and writing and also about my queerness. There's so much good here and I'm going to get to those reviews!
|Art by Alex Araiza|
"Sweet Marrow" by Vajra Chandrasekera (3784 words)
This story to me is about institutions and resistance, change and safety and fear. The story is told as a sort of personal report, the people named in code, the main character, Ulna, a civil servant and, by extension, an informant for the government gathering data on her fellow citizens. She's queer but as the government considers such criminal she's living at risk, insulated by her usefulness but at risk all the same. Her partner, though, Marrow, is a journalist and someone pushing for change. For progress. It's something that Ulna seems to have largely given up on, trading idealism for some stability and security, even one that's partly illusory. I love the way the story moves, Ulna almost compulsively loyal to the government, trying to stay on their good side, not saying when she stumbles on a conspiracy that could have large implications. And I love the use of bones as people, the idea that the society is something of a vast skeleton, that the government is something of a vast skeleton, and where Marrow gives it strength and passion it's actually Ulna who is vital to make change happen. [SPOILERS] And I love how it all comes together, the way that Ulna took her job for safety, to help her and those she cares about, and how she realizes that she still can, that even as a small cog she can resist. And that even a small part of the larger whole can be somewhat responsible for things changing. By taking a stand. By working from the inside for progress. The story sells that moment so well, that ending, that revolution that was the entire reason that she was in the government. It's a beautiful story and a great way to kick off the Our Queer Planet project. Indeed!
"Water, Birch, and Blood" by Sara Norja (3972 words)
This is a nearly haunting story of a woman named Elna visiting her family's summer cabin and, through it, her own past as she takes a short vacation with her son and wife. The story starts with a dream partly remembered, a specter that comes to loom over the story, a past that refuses to be completely lost. I love the mystery of the piece, the darkness creeping, the way that something almost remembered, almost forgotten seems to be pressing all around. There is a magic of childhood, that mix of whimsy and horror that makes fairy tales both beautiful and terrifying. The mood of the story is great and the setting, the cabin itself, becomes its own sort of character. One that's trying to remind Elna of her past, of something that was taken from her. [SPOILERS] And I love that the story is a portal fantasy after all the layers have been peeled back, that Elna is a survivor of a portal adventure and in some ways is being called back. Is yearning for a return to something magical, to an adventure. And yet as she slowly comes to realize that she has a magic already, so too does she also realize that the past, that the fantasy world she visited, is not something she can return to. Now a wife, a mother, Elna does not have a place in the world of the bear-queen, but still it helped to make her who she is. Still she can mourn, and still she can dream, and still she can seek out the magic of her world, the magic and the hope and the beauty she can create with her family. It's a sweet story and a fantastic read!
"I Am Not Buffalo Bill" by Evelyn Deshane
This poem seems to me to be about the way that people frame ideas and identities in order to make them into something that they can better conceptualize and, in doing so, create a narrative that is harmful to those who have those identities. To me, at least, the piece is a call against reductionism, especially when it comes to trying to find existing names for identities that have not been allowed a language of normalcy. So that, in this case, transgender individuals get pushed into frame that don't really fit. People say "woman trapped in a man's body" as if that makes it clear to cisgender people and as if that false clarity is more important than trans representation or presence. Like the most important thing to do is frame difference in a way that is comfortable for the dominant groups, which only ever leads to poorly constructed representations of those non-dominant people. You end up with Buffalo Bill, who is problematic across many different layers. Who should not really be mentioned in the discussion of transgender characters except as a cautionary tale of what not to do. And so the poem becomes a warning against trying to find metaphors to match something so complex as life and gender and oppression. That in many ways we need to first reject these reductions in favor of examining the whole people present and their very real bodies. It's a complex piece and a moving one, filled with an affirming message and a building power. Indeed!
"Odessa" by Marina Berlin
This poems manages to fit a lot of science fictional world building into a short space and wrap around it a mission, a couple, and a desperate hope. The action of the poem involves two people racing back in time. With bullets meant to do…something. To stop something from happening. To stop something from happening again. There is a great sense of the weight and the cycles of history in this poem, the idea that things repeat in variations and that we are all linked to the past, to our blood and ancestors but also to the oppressions and the wars and the violence. That it is our legacy and that, ultimately, it's not something we can avoid or undo. The poem to me speaks to the need to address and own the past, to see what happened and bring it forward into the future to see to it that we don't make the same mistakes. People talk a lot about learning from the past lest we repeat it. But I feel that it's a lesson people don't often understand because of how manicured our history becomes. How much a fiction that is used to mislead and obfuscate. Here the characters are living a past, are seeing what has happened, and can see that they are represented there. To me it speaks of the erased queer people who have always been present, who those in power want to argue do not exist because they were criminal, because they had to hide or die. And the poem seems to me to be about taking their courage and their stories forward into a future in order to make people visible. To make people have the opportunity to live out and safe. To fight for that. It's a fun and flowing poem and definitely one to check out.
"Interview with a 22nd-Century Sex Worker" by Darren Lipman
This poem speaks to me of the unwanted. To those that get left behind for newer models, who find themselves in need of touch and response and presence. The poem is framed, as the title suggests, as an interview, all one sided, so that only the sex worker's voice is present. They sell their body to androids, scrub them of their rust, see them. And the poem is a touching picture of that, of how these androids are forgotten and seen as good for nothing. How simply gestures and even the act of seeing them can be sexual, can be intimate. And the poem speaks to populations that are pushed aside. The androids are masculine, men, but not the ideal. It reminds me of people who don't know what to do with older queer bodies. Like we expect queer people to come with some expiration date, after which we don't want to think of them, and definitely don't want to think of them as sexual. This works for old people in general but I think that especially for men who were sort of forced to seek out casual and risky sex, for those that reach old age the world has a lower opinion of them, like it expected and almost wanted them to die or cease to be. But these people remain, these androids remain, and the narrator of the poem shows them in a very tender and moving way, people still and no less so because they buy sex, just as the narrator is no less a person because they sell it. There is a need here, and a reaching out on both sides. For comfort, for companionship, for help. It's a sweet poem with a heavy message and a beautiful core. Go read it!
"A Mergirl Speaks of Travels" by Michelle Vider
This is a rather strange but beautiful poem about the sea, about a world without land but with a cold reminder of the past, and of a sort of family, someone always leaving, never still, and someone else who is constantly left. The use of marine life here is fascinating, populating the world with people of a very different sort than those who lived on land, where life now is impossible. And yet for all the changes to the land, for all that these people are now whalepeople and merpeople and sharkpeople, there are certain things that haven't changed. Or that might not have changed. The narrator of the poem wants them to be different, wants a world where they are enough, where they are not bound, where they aren't expected to stay still. In this case the implication is that it would literally kill them, that they cannot stay still, despite the love they feel and despite the fact that they care about their family. But this never stopping is a part of them and important, and that's what the poem revolves around, the desire to be accepted, to buck more traditional conceptions of what love has to look like, how it's supposed to be organized. It's a lovely poem and one that asks, in a world where so much is different from how it was, can't people change this as well? Can't we find a better way and see that people are not evil or lesser or uncaring because of their natures, because of who they are. It's a fun and weird poem and one I quite recommend!
"Duck Dance, Two-Step" by Halee Kirkwood
I read in this poem a sense of longing, a hope to belong, and finding things not as easy as imagined. The narrator addresses a boy with the poem, though I personally feel that it's something directed at them, at their memory, rather than actually to them. There is no answer and, to me, to expectation of answer. Instead the narrator seems to be reaching back into memory. Into this past moment where the possibilities seemed endless. Inspiring. It brings to mind differences. In skin color, in sexuality. And a brief, and fleeting, moment when those fell away and these two people held hands and the narrator imagined a future where they were together. And there's something fleeting about this moment, an innocence maybe or an awakening, a way that the narrator knows that this was a turning point for them. There's this strong sense of finality about it. The only time they held hands, the only dance. The ending which [SPOILERS] seems to imply that the narrator is taken apart, at least figuratively. By desire. By disappointment. By a world where they are a thing. Being about dance, it's got a nice rhythm to it, a violence but also a flow, a sense of transformations and sacrifices and just so much that the poem too becomes like the narrator, waiting to be picked apart, dissected, and examined. It's a moving piece and darkly fun. Another excellent read!
"Did you Mean 'A Romantic'?" by Penny Stirling
Whoa. This is a very powerful article grounded in the many ways that media fails to imagine that aro and ace people can exist. I will admit that when I think about headcanon and queerbaiting and plutonic partners in shows, I have a somewhat different view, but maybe because I haven't thought about things in the way that this article pushed me too. It hits on so many different tropes and relationships and choices in TV and books that are…well, that I've always had problems with. Bones and X-Files and werewolf romance and…well, lots of things. The idea that there is no such thing as plutonic friendship, or that friendship is always consumed by sexual or romantic love…these things are harmful, but it's brought to a whole other level when viewed in relation to ace and aro people. There's a reason that conversion therapy for sexuality is considered torture, and yet so much of that goes on invisibly to most people, embodied in media and fed to young people, fed and fed and fed so that it becomes the only way the world seems to work. And that's just really awful. I'm both a reader and a writer of romance and erotica, so maybe I'm a terrible person to think about this article. But then, maybe I'm also suited to think about how romance and erotica and really all media shouldn't seek to erase people's sexualities or identities. The narrative of people with no interest in sex or romantic partnership being convinced, being changed, is an incredibly damaging one, no less terrible than portrayals of queer characters who are "cured" of their sinful desires and find straight relationships instead. This is erasure that often gets overlooked because the ways we are taught narratives work. Which means that it is the responsibility of storyteller, of writers, to change the way that we imagine the world. To change how stories must end. There is the cynical belief out there that only romantic stories will sell. Only movies that end with romantic pairings will sell. Katniss will settle down. Harry and the gang will pair off and procreate. And it's not only wrong, it's incredibly harmful and lazy. There need to be better endings. And there's a lot that people can do. So yes, a great article and an amazing read!
"How to Write Like a Queer: A Letter to Myself" by Fabio Fernandes
This is both a very personal account of a person's experiences and their advice to themself as well as a template of sorts, a set of advise that isn't directed solely to one person but that everyone can learn from. At the very least, it's a guide post to show people struggling with queerness in SFF (and really, what queer writer doesn't struggle with being a part of SFF at times?) that they aren't alone. That the struggle is something that unites us. The piece is written as a list of things addressed to the writer's younger self. About discovery and about doubt and about kindness and about forgiveness. It's about the audacity to keep going, to remain in a field that still, after all this time, is not exactly unharmful to queer writers. To writers of color. That even being in the field means having to fight. And that it's worth it. It's something that everyone needs to hear every now and again. That despite the pain and the shame and the doubt and the fear, there's something worth doing here. That writing as a queer person is an act of rebellion, resistance. That taking up space and saying, however people might try to tear away your identities, that you are who you are, is powerful and necessary. It's a compelling piece, lifting and affirming, and it's definitely worth checking out!