Thursday, September 5, 2019

Regular Sip - The West and Everything Above (Neon Hemlock Press)

I’m doing something a little different today, looking at a new chapbook from an emerging queer publisher, Neon Hemlock. The chapbook itself, The West and Everything Above, is the winner of the 2019 Outwrite Chapbook Competition and contains three stories exploring trauma, family, memory, and hope. They reveal characters who have been hurt, who have been scarred by a world that often seems indifferent to their suffering. That doesn’t cut them any breaks, and often seems poised to stomp them out entirely. The characters are survivors, though, finding ways to weather any assault or else craft themselves into nails to punch through the thick sole bearing down on them and strike back against the seemingly-unstoppable forces at work. It’s a difficult and often unsettling handful of stories, grim but with a resilience and determination to refuse the rigid structures imposed by the dominant culture and find a way forward embracing a universe where they can exist without compromise. To the reviews!


“You Can’t Grow Corn on the Moon” by Brendan Williams-Childs

No Spoilers: Nina is a trans woman working in a slaughterhouse, trying her best to live her life twenty years after being part of a failed colonizing project on Mars. Despite her firsthand experience at the horrors of space, she can’t seem to dissuade a coworker from wanting to go up there, to be recruited for yet another colonizing run. The piece is bleak, filled with layers of trauma and exhaustion. There is perhaps a yearning quality to it, a disillusion that the world will ever be that place you want or need it to be, and that sometimes seeing that can keep you alive, even if it makes the world and the galaxy and bit less magical.
Keywords: Mars, Terraforming, Slaughterhouses, Trans MC, Employment
Review: Go figure, a story taking place largely in a slaughterhouse and featuring a woman who survived a failed colonization effort on Mars isn’t exactly the most cheerful. And yet I deeply appreciate the way that it builds up Nina’s character and what she’s gone through. What she’s survived. She’s older than she ever expected to be, having beaten the odds on life expectancy, and yet while it gives her a certain resilience, makes her harder to hurt, it also means that she’s been worn down. The hope she had when she was young, that the world was open to her, that there was something grand to expect, has been stolen. Taken by those who made her kill, who continue to make that her primary skill. And she’s alive, an elder who beat the odds, but her advice for the younger people around her isn’t exactly hopeful, because whenever she hoped for something she was exploited, betrayed. What she’s left with is a situation that is still killing her slowly, that has left her isolated and perhaps a bit lonely, though she is definitely still defiantly alive. It’s a piece that shows that she’s not broken, even after everything, but she’s not what she was, and not what she might have been had the environment been different. Had everything not been designed to tear her down, to keep her from being content and happy. It’s a piece that for me really gets into the idea of toxic systems, and how they poison people and futures. It’s a wrenching piece, full of horrors and hurts, but it’s very much worth spending some time with. It certainly opens this small collection with a certain twisting dread and beauty. A great read!

“Platte River Access Road” by Brendan Williams-Childs

No Spoilers: Lou can see ghosts. It’s not surprising, really, given how long he’s been working in hospice care. But following a failed attempt at exorcism, he’s out of a job and staring down a pretty hopeless situation. Which is when his sister calls with news that their father is dying. Just not quite quickly enough. The piece explores the ways that families can mess each other up, the things that Lou has to confront in going back to take care of a father who doesn’t even know him. It’s wrenching and grim but also in many ways affirming, showing Lou’s strength and refusal to bend to the expectations of others.
Keywords: Hospice Care, Ghosts, Family, Trans MC, Bargains, CW- Euthanasia/Murder?
Review: When writing the above, I keep on returning to the double meaning of “take care of.” Lou is an end of life caregiver and that means occasionally being the one to end that life, accidentally (in the case of the exorcism) or purposefully (like what his sister wants him to do). Again the story is dominated by this harshness, by this unrelenting force pushing at the main character. Like the last story, there’s a glimpse of the ways that trans people face more difficulties, more pressure, more prejudice. The way they have to always be aware of and try to prevent people hurting them. For Lou, though, this goes deeper and more intimate because he is faced with his family, by his father, who he’s been estranged from. He has to face the ghost of himself, of the person his father wanted him to be, in order to reach for something like hope, which at least here is a real thing. It exists in the money that he’s making, in the way that his father’s death with give him more security and options. The world here is harsh, unforgiving, but Lou is determined, and has decided that he belongs. Which is a powerful ending, visceral and gutting but indomitable as well. Because it recognizes the pressure, the taunting pain and memories, and the fear above all that Lou has that all he’s done will be taken away, erased. That somehow he’ll be made into what he knows he isn’t. And it’s beautiful and haunting the story shows him overcoming that. It’s a story that is not afraid to grapple with some dark and difficult content, and it does so to fantastic effect!

“2004 to 2014” by Brendan Williams-Childs

No Spoilers: Ida used to be a cult. But not a very good one, really, if you listen to her tell the story. A cult run out of a small house in Las Vegas, far from the New York where she grew up, where she experienced a traumatic brain injury, and where she ran away from. Told in fragments, in fits and starts, the piece relays the Ida of the present, with her surgeon boyfriend and her seemingly-well-to-do life, as she then tells the story of her time in the cult. Only underneath the story she tells at parties, or even to her boyfriend, there’s another story. A darker story. The piece unfolds as a confession told to the reader, of a time that was both foundational to Ida’s recovery and growth, and as a series of events that almost seem to have happened to someone else.
Keywords: Cults, Trauma, Queer MC, Memories, Drugs
Review: It’s fascinating the divide within the narrator, between Ida as she is in the present, and the woman she was when she was a part of the cult. Someone lost who was found by a charismatic and skeevy leader of a cult that only had a handful of followers. A cult that was mostly about doing drugs and finding ways to get enough money to pay the utilities on the house they shared. For Ida it’s both where she went to recover from the trauma of her injuries, and a different kind of trauma, a continuation of the disorientation and pain that she had to sort out before she could return home and become the person she always fantasized she would be. The time in the cult is framed as if in some ways it’s happening to someone else, perhaps a reflection of her state of mind when it happened (probably dissociating quite a bit) and a need to put some distance between her present self and what she did. It’s both a weight she carries and a past she’s laid to rest. For me, at least, it seems a part of her, but one that she’s put aside. Not as in she’s repressing anything, but as in it was something she needed, and then she didn’t. She survived it, and it changed her, but it doesn’t define her. She defines herself, the story perhaps in some ways an attempt to “set the record straight.” Because it must be so strange for everyone to see the “normal” person they assume her to be while she knows the truth is so much different and stranger. It’s a weird and resonating piece, one that deals with memory and trauma, recovery and belonging, in a touching and real way. It recognizes that the past can often be real fucked up, but that doesn’t mean a person can’t change, or chart a course toward the life they want. A lovely way to close out the chapbook!


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