|Art by Julie Dillon|
This month kicks off Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Fantasy!, with three poems, two short stories, and a novelette all written by disabled authors. The pieces definitely look at different ways that characters deal with disability, with pain, with limitations, with chronic issues that they can’t just will away. It looks at how the rest of the world treats them, which ends up defining a lot of their existence, what they’re able to do. The works are often a bit grim, and perhaps not surprisingly take on fairy tales and other media that has a history of...not handling disability very well. The fantasy is strong here, and gorgeously rendered, so let’s dispense with further small talk and get right to the reviews!
“Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (8109 words)
No Spoilers: Suss is a young woman who can transform into a wolf. And more specifically, Suss is a young woman who has chronic pain who can transform into a wolf who doesn’t. Which complicates her life, giving her an escape but also a price to be paid when she comes back to her human form. Namely, it leaves her with the damage she does while still a wolf, and a need to make amends. She’s helped with that by her best friend, Yana, and the people of her village are nice enough about it, but the situation needs to change, and it’s up to Suss to figure out what that means, and what she’ll do next. The piece builds nicely the stakes and the world Suss inhabits, showing the pressure Suss feels to give up her wolf-self, and how she can resist that pressure and maybe find a better way forward.
Keywords: Wolves, Transformations, Pain, Prices
Review: I do love the way the story deals with pain and the way that pain is often valorized. That people are expected to suffer in order to fit in and try to inhabit the role they’ve been assigned. Suss is someone who suffers from pain, to finds that it impacts her life in very profound ways, and that there’s not really a way for her to live with it that allows her freedom. Either it leads to people pitying her or else not believing her. The only person she really trusts is Yana, because Yana is very concerned with making sure she doesn’t violate Suss’ independence, never doing anything “for her own good” but always making sure to establish consent when trying to help. But even so I really like the way the story explores how Suss is expected to cave, to just accept more help, to find a way to fit in that is more about other people’s comfort than her own. And how the story rejects that, asking instead why Suss should be expected to give in to the comforts of the town. It really asks why spending most of her time as a wolf is bad. Because she’s destructive? But she only seems destructive because the circumstances don’t suit her. Because she always has this pressure to live in a way that she’s expected to hurt. And so she rejects that, finding instead a way to live where she gets to choose how much time she spends as a wolf, and she can still become human, but doesn’t have to. There’s a price, of course, but she finds it’s one she’s completely willing to pay, once she drops the values of the village, of her mother, which never really worked for her anyway. And that in living true to herself it helps everyone, and she can finally find acceptance and belonging. It’s a wonderful read!
“Tower” by Lane Waldman (4486 words)
No Spoilers: This is a rather interesting and powerful retelling (in my opinion, at least) of the Rapunzel fairy tale, imagining not only a young woman but her older mother as having hair that grows uncontrolled and gets into everything. It’s something that has narrowed both of their lives, cramped by the press of hair, but when an electrician comes by to try and fix a problem they’ve been having, the prospect seems to open up the future. It’s a familiar enough story, but one that is made fresh by the framing of the hair, the way that it becomes this thing that keeps the young woman and her mother trapped, caught by their affliction and the pain and weight of it. It maps the shape of their desire to escape and their exhaustion and the reality of their lives that makes change so very difficult, as well as shows how there’s no help for them, no white knight poised to rescue anyone who could not already rescue themself.
Keywords: Witches, Hair, Fairy Tales, Family, Electricians, CW- Suicide
Review: This story deals very well with...a generational issue of certain conditions. The young woman in this story is dealing with not just her own hair, but the hair of her mother, a mother who is too exhausted and in some ways defeated to deal with it like she says she will. So that the daughter comes to represent for the witch, the mother, a hope for a release that simply isn’t fair, isn’t fair because a child should be expected to save their parent and because it’s not like she’s free of the hair and the pain. But she’s expected to fix things, expected to use her youth in order to attract someone else who will then get them out of the situation. Who can make it all better. Only of course that’s not how it works, because this man, this electrician who is supposed to fix things, is just a part of the system that sent them all into exile. And the more I read the story the more it seems obvious that the witch isn’t in the woods just by chance, that she must be there because she was shunned, because she was deemed unfit to be in the rest of society. Because from what the electrician says it’s obvious that the failing is with the witch and her daughter. That if they wanted to change enough they’d be able to. And in order to get help from the rest of the world they have to prove that they don’t need it. It’s a brutal Catch-22 that works to keep the witch and her daughter in this cycle of harm that only seems able to end in tragedy. The piece is heavy and draining and beautifully done, able to convey so much tired frustration, so much hurt anger at what the electrician does, at the hair, at the unfairness of it all. There is hope perhaps but of a grim sort. There is no help for the witch or the daughter. Either they help themselves (while never being able to help each other) or else they are consumed by their pain. Either they are destroyed, or they are transformed, which carries it’s own power and beauty but its own tragedy as well. And it’s a great read very much worth spending some time with!
“Seed and Cinder” by Jei D. Marcade (2004 words)
No Spoilers: The being known by humans as Geon is an immortal, large and shaped perhaps like a dragon. They’ve come to the city of humans out of curiosity in part and because they feed on death, on fire, and the city is where they can get plenty of both. Over the years they have many handlers, people assigned to them, but it isn’t until they meet Kyoseong that they begin to feels things they haven’t before. It’s a story that places the reader into the perspective of an immortal creature, using second person to make sure that you catch the depth of both their disdain for humanity and their budding feelings of something warmer toward at least one human. It’s tender and angry at turns, and it opens on something of a betrayal, but it resolves into a rather beautiful portrait of a relationship that might just last a long, long time.
Keywords: Immortals, Fire, Bargains, Deaths, Devouring
Review: I love the voice of this story, the way that this being bristles at the human world and yet is drawn to it. The way they burn and devour, holding this secret that they will one day eat the sun itself, and yet also might feel just the inkling of something that humans know quite well—loneliness. Because they might say that they come to the city for practical reasons, and they might constantly question why it is that humans want to live in such close proximity, but they are also drawn to it as well, being pulled little by little into the heart of the city, and into the heart of one man who is sent to be their handler. And it’s such a subtle thing, what I would call adorably romantic, to watch these two circle each other and butt horns (so to speak). So that the being can almost not help but fall and resist falling at the same time. And the act of betrayal that begins the story, that anchors it, changes context as the piece progresses. At the start it seems like something done out of spite, to hurt Kyoseong. It seems like it must, for all you claim it, and for all the voice is dripping with a certain caustic superiority. As the piece moves, though, something else for me comes to the front. Not that it was an act to hurt, but that it’s ultimately a manifestation of fear. It’s the being admitting on some level that they can’t stand the thought of losing Kyoseong. And so their eating of his death isn’t to punish him, isn’t to drive him away, but is an attempt to make sure that death does not separate them. Because of their brush with it, because it was so close, and because the being seems to not want to ever feel that way again, but just can’t admit it. And it’s a beautiful and lovely piece and just SO GOOD so please go out and read it immediately!!!
“Monsters & Women—Beneath Contempt” by Roxanna Bennett
This is a short piece that seems to focus on the idea of healing and performance in stories, in narratives. And in some ways it seems to speak to the idea of audience and the purpose of telling stories. For me at least it feels like the poem is working around ownvoices narratives about (given the project it is a part of) disability. Because so many stories are about being magically healed, feature characters who get to leave behind whatever disability they had and enter into an able world where they are somehow their “true selves.” And this promise of cure seems to be at the heart of the poem, just as in some ways it’s at the heart of the project, the issue, as well. Because the stories and poems are seeking to get away from that kind of depiction of disability, as something that needs a cure, as something that is about overcoming or the like. The piece speaks of expectations of performance, and for me that feels a way of saying how readers come to texts about disability, wanting a kind of narrative that ends of affirming their status as able. That makes _them_ feel good rather than helps them to empathize or realize that lots of work needs to be done addressing injustices done to disabled people. Needs to be done in making sure people listen to the stories of disabled people without silencing them because they don’t fit into what’s comfortable. For me at least the poem seems to be a way of calling for a resistance to the pressure to hide the stories that go against convention and niceties. It’s very short, so it’s quite possible that I’m missing something, but I do quite like that it seems to be reaching out to those who have been marginalized by history and by storytelling, defined only by a happy ending that erases them. And it’s a great read!
“Cavitation” by Toby Macnutt
And I called the last poem short. This even shorter work looks at liquid and life, scale and scope. The title refers to the creation of bubbles in water, or to space being created inside something solid. Given the aquatic tones of the piece, it’s likely that first definition is the one more appropriate to what’s happening (though I like the haunting, lingering implication of the later one as well). And I love that the piece opens on a statement that at first seems wrong. Because it calls whales small, where they are creatures that in turn make human beings seem tiny. But the piece seems to be about drawing back and seeing something larger than the whales, than humanity. A great space through which we are moving, though which our movement might only be the slight swish of a tail. For me, at least, I feel in the piece a kind of weightless yearning, a call for something that might not be out there, that might not have the ears to hear what it is being sung into the great distance. For the whales life seems simple. Swimming and chasing, pain, time unfolding. Whatever is happening above, in the human world, reduced to rubble debris drifting through the waters, sinking. While something is rising as well. And maybe that’s where I find the hope in my reading of the poem, that these bubbles created by the whales rise up all on their own, possessing for me a kind of eerie beauty. It speaks to me of words, making a sort of meta twist on the idea of poetry, or art, of action, that people create their own bubbles moving through the world, and that those bubbles rise, reaching for a surface somewhere far above. And again, with the short length of the poem I’m possible reading too much into the wrong things, but I just find something hopeful about the way the bubbles lift, these artifacts of a passing creature that doesn’t know that it is small, but that is alive, singing, undaunted by the immensity of the universe. A fine read!
“Neithal from abroad” by Shweta Narayan
This is another rather haunting poem, the longest of this month’s releases, and from the title seems to evoke a style of poetry that I’m not that familiar with, one that describes a place and through that place, a mood, and through that mood, perhaps, a relationship. And yet the poem is arresting at first because the imagery is not exactly pastoral, the scene one of stink and rot and nets. This is not a scene that immediately draws to mind a chaste romance. That doesn’t mean that it’s not romantic in its own way, though, just that the piece seems to me to be struggling with place and time, with distance especially. After all, this is a poem “from abroad,” which might imply that the narrator here isn’t near this shore, isn’t close to the waters that they are describing. Not physically, at least. Emotionally they might still be there, might still be lingering in that place, might be yearning for it and all the messy things that it brings up for them. The ugliness and the pollution but also something deeper, something that speaks to them as necessary as air, as memory. And that their romance might be with the place itself, might be with the scene they are describing, even as they have such conflict about, their memory not one of magical and peaceful beaches, not of wildlife that seemed plucked from magazines. Their recollection is more visceral and more real, but that doesn’t make it any less for it. There is for me a feeling of being pulled back, of being caught on the edge of drowning, seeing a shore that might be far too far away to swim to. So the narrator is left with the poetry, with the romance that isn’t exactly romance. With being abroad and thinking of this place that might be home but which has certainly complicated that word, that idea of ownership. It’s a strange and striking piece, still rather short and with a kind of airy feel to the stanzas for me, the variable length lines and stanzas adding to the rather chaotic energy of the piece and building that yearning reach for something that might only be a memory but that still feels as deep as blood. A great way to close out the month’s offerings!