“Invisible and Dreadful” by S. R. Mandel (6224 words)
No Spoilers: Carrie is attending school in Japan, set to work on her thesis, only she doesn’t know what to write. So her two friends, Yumi and Kazu, decide the cure is a trip to a shrine where a famous historical author is. Or, well, the hologram of a famous historical author, who write in an era of court politics and strict rules. Only Carrie finds herself distracted more by her attraction to Yumi than by her need to complete a thesis. As the trio arrive at their destination, though, everything dovetails together into a slightly surreal, yearning, and beautiful story about desire, suppression, and love. It’s a look at loneliness and the risk of reaching out when nothing feels safe or familiar.
Keywords: Isolation, Holograms, History, School, Friends, Queer MC
Review: Yes I have a soft spot for stories of queer people kind of terrified to reach out and confess their attraction to people they don’t know are queer or not despite all the flirting they constantly do. And it’s complicated here by the social change that Carrie has gone through, the way she is an outsider, a foreigner, and doesn’t really know the rules perfectly. So that she knows that she’s friends with Yumi but not if Yumi is actually attracted to her in _that way_. And it takes this confrontation with the past, with the mirror in the form of a hologram, to really start to see that the same fear...if it’s not universal, it’s at least been heavily present in this place as well, so that Carrie can feel this common bond, this expected suppression of queer desire, and once she feels that it’s almost like a weight is lifted. Not because it’s easy to deal with but because she can see that Yumi is carrying the weight as well, and it pushes them to lean on each other, to carry it together and make it lighter in doing so. Tucked into that is also a bit about the ways that queerness outside of sexuality are similarly suppressed, Kazu’s more non-binary or genderfluid identity often erased because it doesn’t fit into what is socially accepted. Carrie herself overworries and overcorrects when it seems that Kazu mostly just wants to exist outside of a lot of the constraints society and language place on them. What remains important is the centering Kazu’s identity and ability to self-identify outside rigid structures, placing their comfort above Carrie’s when it comes to who they are. It’s a complex work that features a rather casual relationship between the characters but one that’s more layered than they are acknowledging, so that the more they explore, and talk, and confess, the better they understand each other and the deeper their friendship becomes. It’s just a bit haunting what with the holographic voice from the past, but it’s also lovely and it resolves into something warm and stirring. A wonderful read!
“Heatwave” by Joanne Merriam
This piece speaks to me of change, namely climate change, and the ways that communities adapt to the new realities the heat brings. The lack of water, the thinning of livestock, the way that everything seems to be drying up more and more. It’s a poem that definitely creates a sense of setting, of place, of a world that has gone further down the road that we’re already on, that will be harder and harder to turn off of as time goes on. And I really like both the sense of hardship and the sense that it’s not a sudden ending. Because I feel that one of the reasons that people avoid dealing with climate change is that the crisis is a gradual one, increasing in ways that are hard to perhaps notice as out of the ordinary, because weather is a tricky thing. It always changes, seasonally and yearly, so that when the extremes push out in either direction it doesn’t seem so strange. But the poem really drives home what this might look like over time, where the survivors have memories that seem like lies, that seem like dreams. Of rain. Of winter. The piece for me really gets at the idea that community survives, and even climate change won’t kill everyone all at once. But it will change people, and the adaptations will only go so far until there really isn’t much hope left. Until the water runs out and all that remains is the people growing up or growing old, who either don’t remember a time before the worst of it or who remember it like a picture that might be fictional. It’s a complex piece that doesn’t have to use long lines to get its point across, and it’s brutal and, despite the heat, quite chilling. A great read!
“The Unicorn’s Question” by Cynthia So
This story mixes a contemporary voice with an older myth/trope—the unicorn. And here the unicorn exists as both the elusive creature that appears to virgins in the forest, and as a more updated creature who has spent time traveling the world, seeing narwhals, and needing to buy groceries in a shop. The narrator is a young person who as a girl would visit the unicorn, but since then the unicorn has been absent, just returned. They meet in the grocery store, and it’s such a strange, loaded encounter. One that spikes a lot of doubt in the narrator as they try to answer a question that the unicorn asks them. For me, the piece speaks to the strange space of being bi, or struggling with that label and all it might mean, all it means to other people, all it means to each person individually. The narrator of the piece has a difficult time articulating exactly why they have to add “...I think” to their identity. Because it can often feel like the public pressure to conform to a certain _kind_ of bisexuality is so strong. There are gatekeepers and sexuality police, essentially—or at least it feels like there are. Because people who struggle with this know how much it hurts, how hard it is to hear people declare what bisexuality is and is not. And so they are left in a space of not feeling like those definitions fit comfortably and not wanting to carve out space that will exclude others. And the unicorn, as if sensing all of that, merely accepts them, which I feel is a wonderful and affirming moment. Where they sweep aside the doubts and the fears and just accept all the things that the narrator is saying and not saying, and letting them know that it’s okay. Or okay enough. That being bi isn’t just one thing, and doesn’t mean that you have to agree to anything other than what they feel inside, the complex and beautiful reality that is them. It’s a fun piece, bringing together this older fantasy feel with a very modern take on sexuality politics and it’s so very much worth spending some time with. A wonderful read!