The wait is over and Mithila Review is back with a double issue of content! Which, yeah, there's A LOT to read through. Just…just look at all the interviews. And fiction and poetry and nonfiction and… O.O Which is why this time I'm going to be sticking to my regular policy and reviewing just the original pieces. Which still leaves four short stories and six poems and is, well, still a lot. And is still amazing. There are a number of threads that weave the stories together, but I think the strongest is the ideas of loss and yearning. These are pieces that know what it is to hope but also know that hope alone is not enough. They are at turns brutal and tender, far reaching and intimate. And before I gush too much, I should get to the reviews!
|Art by Likhain
"Samjogo and the Vengeful Stories" by Mark James Russell (7971 words)
This is a delightfully fun story full of myth and adventure and the power of stories. Which makes it pretty meta, too, if you think about it. In it, Samjogo is a being in the form of a man who has just returned to Earth after an extended adventure in the Heavens. Short of money, he finds a local magistrate in need of aid and offers his surfaces to riding the land of a strange blight upon it, a force that is slowly killing off the animals and people of the magistrates household and lands. And I love the way the story slowly unfolds, the way it respects the oral tradition of storytelling and the power of stories. And I like how it plays with expectations, setting up the Captain of the Guard, Jang, as rather suspicious and, well…[SPOILERS!] I absolutely love how the story plays out, the way that it's about a man who wants to horde stories, who wants to keep them all for himself, and how Samjogo decides to handle that. Samjogo's character throughout is just great, the way that he is boastful and proud but at the same time competent, patient, and cunning. Things seem to work out for him because of luck at times but more it's that he knows how to wait and how to act, and how to take advantage of situations. He's full of humor and is, like the author, a fine storyteller. And that's the interesting meta point that the story makes, that leaving a story unfinished or untold leads to problems. That what stories want is to be shared, to be experienced. That without stories we are drained, easy to control, and those unspoken stories become dangerous. They become holes in the world that slowly get hungry, malevolent. And this piece just works at showing how powerful stories are and how foundational they can be to identity. Samjogo is his stories, and we are all much better off for hearing about them. A charming and amazing read and a great way to kick off the original fiction!
"Rooting" by Isha Karki (3287 words)
This story weaves a very complex and in some ways shattered vision of the future, one where there are "regular" humans, or Saps, Replicas made using Western DNA, or Reps, and then the main group of characters, who are mostly denied a name outside their difference to the other groups. They are also made of replicated DNA but they were made to be servants. Domestics. And they have returned to a ruined city for reasons they don't really know, except that they were called, and they have questions. The setting of the story, this city reclaimed by the forest after natural disaster and social uprising have razed it…is amazing! The entire story breathes with this life, with this vibrancy, that is undeniable. I love the way the main characters are collective and individual at the same time, the way that the story seems to imply that replicating humans to create a new lower class doesn't erase the other injustices or oppressions. Even among the replicas there are groups like the main characters whose history has been erased, who has been denied the chance to integrate with the rest of those replicated people. There is still racism and still intolerance and the whole situation has only gotten more complex. Only the main characters have power. Not at the top where it might be easy and bloodless to make change but they have power still, to adapt and to resist and to fight for their history and their home. To fight for a place where they are not lesser. It's a vivid story with a nice layering to it, the main characters dropping into their own history through a human woman who contributed her DNA to their template. It's a great story with a call for change that, while it happens in the far future, should definitely echo back to this time, right now, to try and spur action.
"Give and Receive" by David S. Golding (994 words)
This is a short and strange and rather unsettling story about friends and about choice and about a place of death. It's about a girl, Ana, who finds a place where animals come to die. A secret place. And it's about Ana's school, where administrators are forcing students who don't speak the dominant language good enough out and into other schools. It's about the decision to say something about it, to make a stand against that, or to bury your objections. And I love the sense of subtle magic in the piece, the sense of childhood. Ana and her friend Maya live in this fairly idyllic way, not perfect but with children's concerns. Until Ana finds the place of death, and until the school acts, at which point there's that decision to make. And I like that the story uses a soft touch with that, showing the gulf that has opened up, shows how it threatens to eat Ana whole. It's something that could eat her, especially if she rebels, if she decides to stand up for her friend. The story has a nice creepiness to it, too, the place of death being hidden and dangerous and yet not unpleasant for Ana. [SPOILERS] And I quite like the ending, for all that I thought it was slightly heartbreaking as well, that Ana decides to take her article and run, to kill it. That it speaks to a larger culture of silence is interesting and compelling and nicely handled, and that she has to bring it to this almost magical place to destroy it is telling to me, as is the fact that it also kills the magic of her childhood and in some ways, as I read, also kills her belief in fairness. In justice. It's a nicely unsettling story and definitely worth spending some time with!
"Rudali" by Amal Singh (2871 words)
This is a story about grief, about class, and about change. In it, Shashi is a rudalis, a woman who mourns at funerals for the benefit of rich people who do not show their grief. It is something that she does because she is stuck in many ways. Because she is poor and uneducated and this is what's open to her. And yet as she works something changes. She feels something. She feels something of true grief and not the performative grief she was taught and in doing so the dead that she was mourning come back to life. And as this starts to sink in she finds that she there might be some reason for this. And it's something that shakes her world and leaves her with a complex mix of guilt and grief and hope and fear. [SPOILERS] And I like how the story handles the grief of Shashi dealing with the loss of her mother, which in some ways seems caught up with her grief surrounding herself. Her future. That seemed to die when she was denied an education, when she was pushed into having to live off of this false grief for the wealthy. And at first she finds that she cannot cry for her mother. Cannot cry for herself. She has no grief because she has no hope, and I love how that works, that she can't even imagine a way to fix things at first, that she is convinced that whatever she does doesn't matter. And I love that it's that hope that also brings the grief, that it's only when she believes again that she can express the loss, that she can really feel it with some chance of getting over it. It's an interesting premise with a great execution, and the result is magical and resilient and strong. Another great read!
"Lessons in Mango Picking" by Shobhana Kumar
This poem does a great job of using negative space to both slow things down and also to leave things open. The poem unfolds in very short stanzas that to me seem like ways of breaking up the different lessons. And I love that the poem is about how picking mangoes can teach people. About life and about so many things. It does this with actual lessons yes, but also with that space, which acts for me in a number of ways. Partly it helps to give the poem a sort of leisurely pace. Reinforcing the idea that this can't be rushed, that things need to be taken deliberately and patiently. For me it gives the feel of the sky above, the sort of idyllic atmosphere of being outside and picking fruit. Without really giving any sensory information about the act of picking fruit, and yet it evokes the feeling of it, the sensation of it. When it mentions inhaling it calls to mind the smell, the memory of being there with the weight of a mango in your hand, even if you've never been there. Even if you've never had a mango. Because the poem weaves this idea that it's not about the mango so much as it is about the act, about being mindful, about what it can teach you. It's a rich poem and a relaxing one and one that makes me hungry for mango. A nice read!
"Life 38" by Seo-Young Chu
This prose poem evokes dream and war and trauma and the yearning for something that is far away, but not necessarily beyond hope. The poem opens with a stark physical description and something of a mystery. The narrator is under their desk and not really aware of how they got there. It's a mystery to me that's slowly revealed as the poem unfolds, as the narrator reveals a dream of climbing a chain link fence, hoping to cross into a land of blue skies and clear water and beauty and hope. And yet the narrator also brings things crashing back to the present, to the work to be done, to the trauma still not really recovered from. [SPOILERS] from the evocation of the DMZ in Korea I'm going to guess, though, that the narrator ends up under their desk in the night, despite seemingly far removed from conflict (direct conflict, at least), because of training, because they are drawn there for safety, knowing that bombs might be dropping any time, that conflict is never really gone even if it is distant. That it lives inside them as well, and while there is some hope for relief, for progress, for healing, it's not something that will be easy, or free. That what is required is the effort and resolve to push for change. Not just to climb over the fence but to try and tear the fence down so that maybe, someday, there will be no need for the DMZ and it can go back to just being land and, for some, home. An understated but powerful piece!
"Fallen to Witches" by Jennifer Crow
This is a story about loss and about the power of desire. How the narrator of the story has lost someone and is desperate to get them back. There's a lingering question for me about what actually happened to the one that they lost. The setting that the poem evokes is one of hunters and farmers, of a rather sharp divide and one where witchcraft abounds. I love the way the piece frames desire as this hunger inside the narrator, that they will try anything to get back the one they have lost. The imagery of the beginning is ripe with death and violence and as the story moves it deepens the mystery of what has happened, and why the narrator would go so far into the forbidden to get their love back. [SPOILERS] My personal guess is that their lover has died, that their lover went out on a hunt and was killed and it was blamed on his relationship with the narrator, the village pushed away the grief and loss and making it all the more painful. As I read it, at least, the image of the man running through the mountains and never looking back is a way to frame the death, the ghost of what remains, the hope that the narrator clings to. Because it seems to me that the desperation to evoke dark magic is in hopes of fighting against something so huge as death, trying to go against the supposed natural order because it's cruel and unfair, the narrator and their lover both caught by the regret and their hope to be reunited, the only thing remaining of either of them this ghost, this desperation. It's a stark poem and one that speaks to me of loss and love and a refusal to let go. An intense and wrenching read!
"An Elegy" by B. Clifford
Well, this poem is what it says, an elegy for the dead. For a person who, as I read it, was sick of a slow disease and who died in pain. The poem takes much of its inspirations from Greek mythology, or at least uses mostly Greek allusions. The minotaur, Icarus, a promethean knife. It's a poem that uses these trappings of myth to describe something achingly personal and tragic. A death that has become as large as myth for the narrator, who is left in the wake of this death trying to find some way to handle it. I feel that the poem really explores the grief of the narrator, the way that there is no small way to describe it. It is watching a loved one crash into the sea. It is slowly being stalked by an unseen and massive adversary. It's sickness and it's decline in someone who seemed so full of life, who was beautiful even as their sickness ravaged their body. It's a poem that speaks to me of trying to find words in the face of loss. Of trying to find hope or relief in the face of what was a chronic illness and decline. And yet the narrator resists turning the poem into something bright. Instead it remains a tragedy, for the lost and for those left behind. And trying to ease that, at least in that moment, seems like it would be to betray some aspect of what happened. It would be to forget what actually happened. It would be to shy away from the pain, which the poem resists. It's a portrait of loss and of that final pain that deserves to be faced and respected. And it's another fine read.
"where are you, / Nessie?" by Brendan McBreen
This poem drops a bit of the somber tone of the last and asks where Nessie has gone. And, to me, the poem also asks something deeper than that, which is where has the space for Nessie gone. Not Nessie necessarily as a physical being. But Nessie as a mystery. To me at least the piece seems to focus on the nebulous nature of Nessie, the way that they were never seen, always part hoax but not able to be disproven because it existed in this mystery place. Who knows the depths of the loch, and who could possible say it's impossible. And yet more and more it is becoming harder to find places where true mysteries can live, where these hoaxes can be considered even remotely true. After so much effort to prove that Nessie doesn't exist, the poem seems to ask if that idea, if that mystery, will simply move further away. Will that desire to have something magical and unexplained go on or will it give way to rationalism and fact? And I think it's an interesting point, a moving picture of the human want to believe in things that don't make sense. For things to defy expectations and knowledge. For bits of magic. And I love that the poem asks where that urge will take people next. To Mars and beyond? Which is great because even as it's concerned with people wanting to believe in the magical, it's something that does push forward discovery as we search, still hoping, disappointed when there's no Nessie but always pushing forward the bounds of human understanding. A great poem!
"Puppy Love" by Ken Poyner
This is an interesting take on the idea of the female robot. The fembot who exists to please a man. Who can be customized into the most perfect of objects. But object still. The narrator of the poem is a young boy with a paper route who passes by the store where a fembot is kept. It's a rather weird situation, this Molly kept at a second hand store and forever waving at passers by. And the boy passes multiple times a day just for her to look at him and smile. And it fills him with…and here is where the poem gets rather complicated. Because the poem is about infatuation. Is about puppy love. That the boy is drawn to this robot despite knowing that he's not going to have her. That he is happy with her attention even knowing that it's artificial. Knowing that it's something that really happens to everyone who walks by. So what he is giddy with glad about, then, is…that she exists? That, essentially, even if he won't have her he lives in a world where she's there, where the gender roles are such that he can expect that, that he could have that if he had a better job. That, in some way, it is a comfort that there are these women who are objects. Which is a really complex statement and as I read it an interesting critique of masculinity, of this idea of puppy love, that it's hollow, that it's more about power than it is about love, that there's something rather unsettling about it. It's an interesting take on the subject, definitely, and certainly a poem to think about.