|Art by Mariana Palova
The September Fireside Magazine breaks a bit from the usual mold, in that three of the stories are translations (all from Spanish, I believe). Together, the stories and poetry paint something of a grim picture, revealing hungers and traumas, lies and fears and doubts. The characters are often put in situations where they're trying to figure out how to be themselves, how to walk the line between performance and identity, and never exactly coming away with a clear answer or map. The works are challenging and wrenching but often fun as well, emotionally charged in different ways. So let's get to the reviews!
“Shelter, Sustenance, Self” by Aimee Ogden (823 words)
No Spoilers: Phil was a young father with a tragic illness. A clear candidate for a procedure to take his memories, his mental patterns, and try to transfer them into an artificial body. To allow him to live. But what made Phil...well, Phil, might not be something that can be transferred from body to body. The piece explores the implications of the procedure, and what is left, and the decisions that still need to be made, the feelings that remain even when everything else is lost. It’s a touching, short read, full of warmth in the face of a rather pervasive cold.
Keywords: Memories, CW- Terminal Illness, Family, Transferred Consciousnesses
Review: This is an interesting story of a transferred consciousness, where the narrator doesn’t think of themself as Phil, but also doesn’t really know who they are. They are the compilation of Phil’s memories and experiences but none of the specific context. They are his memories but not his preferences, not his likes and dislikes, and in any event their senses are not Phil’s senses. They’re different, and in that difference they know that they aren’t the man who they were supposed to be. And it’s fascinating to me the space the story explores, looking at this new person as separate from Phil but also, because of their shared memories, wanting to honor Phil’s memory. Even when, as here, that means basically lying to everyone that Phil cared about and pretending to be Phil. Which is sort of fucked up, but definitely carries some emotional weight, because it looks at how Phil wanted so badly to provide for his daughter, to make sure that she had a father, that the narrator decides to go forward as Phil because that will be the closest thing they can manage. And there’s so much tucked into that, into the admission they make that they’re afraid, but that they’re going to try to do this thing, to be a father to Phil’s daughter, because they remember how much it meant to all of them. Not sure what exactly that means with Phil’s wife, Mira, and probably for the best that the story doesn’t really explore this, because it’s a lean piece and that would certainly bog things down, as much as I hope that the narrator isn’t going to lie to her as well. Because while the decision to _be_ Phil is one that they’re making for a fairly compelling reason, I feel like there’s a difference between wanting to honor the dead and lying to someone about being their spouse when you aren’t. In any event, though, the story is short but moving, quickly establishing the world and the science and providing a powerful look at consciousness, memories, and relationships. A great read!
“Chickens” by Raquel Castro, translated by Julia Rios (382 words)
No Spoilers: This very short piece deals with a small village here chickens have begun to disappear. Suspicion falls, as it often does, on an old woman who lives on the outskirts of town, doña Martha. Framed as something of an urban legend, something of a campfire story, the piece twists expectations nicely, managing an edge of creeping horror that carries beyond, slipping free and reminding the reader that not every urban legend will melt back into mundanity if delved deeply enough.
Keywords: Chickens, Transformations, Nahuals, Stories
Review: I really like the way this very short story manages to defy expectations. Because in some ways it follows the line for a lot of PSA-style “the more you know” narratives where the people who are spreading rumors about the old woman in town have to learn that she’s not a monster and shouldn’t be targeted just because she’s vulnerable. And instead, well, the story takes that and...well, I don’t think it reverses it, really. I don’t think that the story says that old women living mostly on their own should be targeted because they’re all monsters. Again, the story does place the “lesson” being learned on the boys who were spreading gossip, but doesn’t really give them a redemption arc. Instead it makes them examples of what not to do. Don’t gossip and don’t target the vulnerable is still as I see it the point, but the carrot of understanding has been replaced by the switch of monsters will straight up eat you. And that if you’re going to see monsters in the vulnerable, then at least own that you don’t actually believe that they are monsters. Because if you did you’d take precautions. You wouldn’t be so brazen. It’s a call, to me, to really own your actions, and to treat everyone well not only because it’s the right thing to do but because some people might actually be nahuals and they might devour you should your plans veer to close to visiting violence on them or theirs. Again, it’s a really quick piece, and more fun than anything, but I like how it still works as a sort of fairy tale, a morality story, but tinged with a power for those normally left powerless. A wonderful read!
“City of the Angels” by Libia Brenda, translated by Julia Rios (943 words)
No Spoilers: Split between two time periods (one in the 1500s, one in the 1700s), this story explores a place, Puebla de los Ángeles, and its connections to the divine. In the first piece, the actual angels debate the merits of establishing a base of operations in then New Spain, and in the second, a young monk writes to a friend about how he finds the city two hundred years on. And it seeks to map a bit not just the place but the roles of the angels in human affairs, their affiliation with human religions, and purpose and aim of their mission. And it asks in fairly blatant terms what role the angels have in periods where it seems they must be looking away.
Keywords: Angels, Cities, Debate, Religion, Victims
Review: I don’t often see stories that take on the actual angels as characters, and it’s interesting to see their debate in the first half of the story. Because it does question what role angels should play in the affairs of the world. It pokes at their allegiances, and places them in the context of the religions that act using their names. In this New Spain, after all, the conquistadors have done awful things, and it seems in some ways like the angels are working with them, concerned not about the damage being done but about their own influence. Except the piece looks at the historical and religious roots of the city, the supposed inspiration for its founding, and draws lines to a cause a bit more noble than the colonization of the Americas. Because here the angels are not the forces driving that colonizations but beings witnessing the events going on and wanting to do things to help those in need. To side with the victims of war, knowing that at least by having a presence in the ground they can try to do more good than from their vantage high above. The second part then draws things to the fully human realm and the ways that the angels seem to work, influencing and inspiring people where they can to make this city and the larger world a place with more compassion and help. At least for me it seems that the monk is being filled with some of the power of the angels, nudged to take action to try and help those being prejudiced against and oppressed. It’s a complex story, one that takes a look at history and religion and doesn’t veer into cynicism, but instead looks at what good these angels can do, even amid injustice and violence. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!
“The Box” by Iliana Vargas, translated by Julia Rios (1793 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is just a passenger on a bus until they’re asked the time by a fellow passenger and end up being pulled into a strange story about the delivery of bugs. Bugs that definitely don’t seem normal, that are part of something that seems large and dangerous. And yet as the narrator listens to the woman who seems to be a courier in this system, they find that they can’t resist following along and seeing what happens. Which ends up being either a mistake or exactly the adventure they were looking for. The piece is weird but also compelling, the story by this small woman about her exploits haunting and a bit tragic, but also limned with magic. It’s a piece that a bit of a mystery, and fascinating to behold.
Keywords: Transport, Time, Bugs, Deliveries, Scars
Review: There’s a part of me that doesn’t know quite what to make of this story, the strangeness of it, the way that this random person on a bus, who seems like they might be a bit of a weirdo, turns out to be a person engaged in this rather extreme situation where they’re transporting dangerous bugs across the city. It’s work that has taken its toll on them physically, though they are resolved to do it, or resigned to do it, or something like that. More, though, I feel like the story is playing with the idea that she’s just this random person. An immigrant to wherever the story takes place. A person who most people wouldn’t stop to talk to, who the narrator doesn’t want to stop and talk to. And yet someone who’s a part of something dark and terrible, who loses parts of her body, who is punished if she cannot meet standards that aren’t under her control. For me the piece becomes about the narrator really seeing this person and instead of rejecting empathy, begins to understand what it’s like. Starts to see the full horror all around them, that this is something going on in their city, on their buses, that people are being mutilated and risking death probably just for a chance to live. Because they have no other options. I love the way the story captures this woman’s mentality about the job, that it’s completely unreasonable but also, shrug, what are you going to do? It’s what she knows how to do now, regardless of how much it hurts her, how certain it is to kill her eventually. It’s a sharp and rather horrifying look at this moment in time that is still full of a kind of magic that has before been ignored and hidden because only the rich can afford it and only the very poor are destroyed by it, rendering it rather invisible. A fantastic read!
“Questions to Grow Up On” by Ashley Deng
This piece uses structure to create an experience of being spoken to from two sides, each opposed in some ways, each trying to push the second person you of the poem out of that particular group and into some other imaged space that, as it becomes more and more clear as the piece flows, doesn’t exist at all. The subject of the poem here, the “you” that is being spoken to and who, in turn, seems to be speaking out to the readers of the piece, is caught between worlds and cultures, diasporas and identities, gatekept because of how they look at the assumptions that their appearance invokes in others. They aren’t allowed to be who they are, because to the wider population who they are doesn’t exist. The world is broken up into hard lines and borders, so that people who are of mixed race are pressured to pick one thing to be. Except that, here, the subject doesn’t get that option, either, because no matter what they would pick, they are told that they are wrong. That they need to pick again. That certainly there is a mistake. Because they don’t look right, don’t have the right experiences, the right history, the right...and the poem interrogates that, shows the pressure it puts the subject under, so that they have no community, no place to belong, rejected from either side because of an assumption that they will have other, better choices. That their desire to belong in one of the groups they belong in is some sort of affectation or appropriation, which is effectively a violence done to them. A way of stripping them of a place to have an identity. So that the piece is also them pleading, asking, where they should go, how they can reclaim the things that have been taken, how they can find a way to feel right? To which there is no good answer, because people believe in clear distinctions, bold borders that can’t, or shouldn’t, be crossed, not realizing that so many live in the spaces between and across borders, looking for space that is so often denied them, which only furthers historical and contemporary injustices. It’s a story that looks at the mess that identity can be and asks that the reader sit with that and seek to answer the questions that many seem to think are so easy, that are actually impossible. A wonderful read!