Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Quick Sips - Mithila Review #12 [part 2]

Art by Theobald Carreras
I’m back diving into the latest issue of Mithila Review, which is still rolling out content for free on their website. These are all technically 2019 releases, but as some of them didn’t come out online until this year, it puts me in a weird position for where to place them. But we’ll burn that bridge when we get there. As for the content, there are some strong pieces, and a nice running sense of continuity as the works explore people who have done wrong. The fiction, at least, features three different people facing their own kinds of trials. Having to defend themselves or give into the voices calling for justice. And they work well together, exploring the way that violence acts as a toxic presence, corrupting everything that builds out of it. And there’s a lot to get to with three short stories and three poems, so I’ll get right to the reviews!


“The Ghosts Teas of Sakurajima” by Deborah L. Davitt (5980 words)

No Spoilers: Akitate is an assassin who just lost his wife to what he assumes is illness. Complicating his grief, though, is the fact that she’s back. Or might be back, in the form of a spirit whose cries he hears but whose voice seem muted by the veil of death. At first he rejects that this could be the spirit of his beloved, but as he embarks on a quest to either rid himself of a trickster or put her finally to rest, he comes to understand the full picture, and all of its dark implications. The piece is an adventure exploring grief and the rich relationship between Akitate and Emiko. It’s got a few twists, and features a nicely built world and a great mix of emotional and speculative beats.
Keywords: Ghosts, Assassins, Marriage, Duty, Betrayal
Review: I love the way this story just sort of sets out to hit its marks and...does. The wheel is not reinvented, but there is the definite sense that this is a well crafted, fun, interesting story that features a man dealing with his grief in a society where he’s not really allowed to do that. He’s a weapon, an assassin, and he’s supposed to be only that. That he fell in love with a woman he was arranged to marry, and that she fell in love with him, and that through that love they were able to maybe reach for something beautiful and be better people...well, it comes through, and it’s effortlessly built throughout the tale, in the ways Akitate reveals the back story, in the ways he struggles with the apparition of his wife, in the ways that she sticks by him, trying to get him to open his eyes not only to the specifics of this tragedy, but the broader issue. That he isn’t just a weapon, and that accepting that will only lead him to bad ends. Because a blade is only useful if sharp, and will be used until broken. And this unfolds as he goes about his business, as he interacts with a world that is obviously exploiting him. But one that he doesn’t see a way out of, because it’s been his whole life. Because the only thing to challenge his duty was his love, and that’s been stripped from him as well. Except it hasn’t. Not really. It’s lingered, in the form of the spirit of his wife, and it shows this redemptive power, that he’s not beyond saving, not only a weapon. The piece ends on hope, still mixed with grief, but also with resolve, to do better, to live, and live as a person rather than a weapon. It’s an emotional turn that the story manages well, and the whole thing is just a delight. Go check it out!

“Flower Arranging at the End of the Japanese Empire” by Dean A. Brink (3540 words)

No Spoilers: This story unfolds as the account of the narrator about their time growing up under Japanese colonial rule in what was the Western United States. And the piece deals with the complex, messy issues surrounding growing up in a colonized place, having to deal with the racism and the double standards and the pressure to, through it all, please an oppressor who refuses to acknowledge your humanity. And yet through that there is also a statement on resistance, and rebellion, and art, set amid some wonderful descriptions of flower arrangements and some rather harrowing descriptions of abuse and prejudice.
Keywords: Alternate History, Colonization, Occupation, Lineage, Flower Arrangement, CW- Racism/Colonization
Review: This story takes a messy and rather interesting look at colonization, imagining a future where large parts of America are under foreign rule and have been for quite some time. And I personally really like that the piece ends up being mostly about flower arrangement, but before I say more on that I want to talk about the framing. Because the piece is framed as basically testimony for a trial. The narrator is speaking to presumably an assembly who want to affirm their loyalty. Not to the Japanese Empire, but to the new government (or old one) that has risen after the Japanese have been expelled. And that they have to defend themself is interesting because it echoes the Nuremberg Trials where war criminals where tried for their part in the war and occupations. And for me I like that the narrator is constantly trapped between impossible standards. Under Japanese rule they aren’t Japanese enough, are criticized and held back, ridiculed and insulted because their work just lacks something. And then to experience essentially the reverse when the Japanese leave, that somehow they are too Japanese, essentially because once things starting to go badly for the occupiers, the narrator found themself thrust into the spotlight as a model citizen, as Japanese in spirit as well as technically genetically thanks to a bunk procedure they had done to try and meet the impossible standards of the occupiers. And it really does show that they can’t really win. That the whole idea of empire, of nationalism, are things that most of the time just lead to hurt, and erasure, and abuse. Which is really well captured in the piece. And okay, back to the flowers. I love the descriptions of the flower arrangements! It’s something that I don’t see very often and I think it’s an excellent way of showing that here the narrator was trying to do something to prove they were a good citizen, that they were assimilating, and it became only a tool of their abuse, where they were subjected to awful double standards and mocked. And I think the piece works, where the narrator is left with only being able to laugh at the ridiculousness of nationalism and empire, because otherwise there would be nothing to do but cry. A great read!

“The Executioner General” by Raluca Balasa (5104 words)

No Spoilers: Lucian was a general—in his opinion, a very good one. A man who got information, who acted decisively, and who saved lives. The world and his own military has a new title for him, though. War Criminal. Staring down a life sentence in prison, it’s on Lucian to decide whether to accept that or take a very different sort of offer—be part of a colonization effort to establish a human population on Mars. But is that mission it’s own prison...or even a death sentence? The piece explores the violence of the general, and how that translates to his role on the mission, in a very non-military setting where the stakes might be the same as on the battlefield (life and death), but the goals are far different.
Keywords: War Crimes, CW- Torture, Mars, Prison, Eyes, Space Colonization, CW- Suicide
Review: I like how the story interrogates authoritarianism, both in the military and in situations that similarly “require” discipline and decisive action. The general here feels that he’s the perfect fit for a mission to Mars because he isn’t afraid to make decisions that might involve killing people. He thinks that he’s a leader because that lack of fear makes him better. And the story doesn’t let him get away with that. Not only does it make him realize that he might rely on people, and desire friendships and understanding, just as much as everyone else, but it also shows that his brand of violence and authority is actually a very brittle base on which to build anything. I really like how the piece plays with the ways that these kinds of brutal characters, these brutal men, are seen as necessary in times of conflict, in times of scarcity, because they impose a singular vision on things that makes it easier to follow to live. Only that, too, is a lie, and as Lucien quickly realizes once they are all on Mars and things start going wrong. Because while there is a certain...utility to what he does, there isn’t any creativity. There is only a rigid kind of selfishness, and after everything else he’s gone through, I like that he finally has to feel disappointed in himself. That all his authority and drive and will won’t build a utopia out of nothing. That he depends on others and always has. That this mission, this project, needs something beyond his brutal efficiency. It needs innovation. And it needs community and shared effort. The piece has its share of uncomfortable moments and elements, but I think it does manage to pull off in the ending a spot of hope even as it shows a man dealing with despair and self-annihilation. The hope is not that the characters will necessarily survive, but that even monsters can see that their monstrosity is never necessary, but only made to feel that way by a toxic and corrupt system. A great read!


“Lesson Plan” and “Tethered and Tied” by Holly Day

In the first of the works, “Lesson Plan,” a teacher grapples with teaching a group of (presumably) young people about the stars. And I really like the way the piece captures the difficulties of both teaching to young people and on a subject that has become somewhat different in a human way than it was a long time ago. Humans have almost innumerable stories about the stars, after all. For most civilizations, the stars have been a constant presence, a mystery and a source of inspiration and contemplation. Since the spread of light pollution, though, and more crowded urban developments, people’s connection to the stars has become a bit less strong. The children of the poem don’t know the stars, haven’t wondered after them, and don’t probably have many stories to explain them, because there isn’t the constant visual reminder of their presence. So the narrator of the piece, the teacher, has the challenge not just of teaching the children about something they really haven’t experienced directly, but teaching them the history and perhaps science behind them in a way that might reconnect them to the roots of what stars not only are but what they’ve meant to humans through the ages. And for me the piece really gets at the difficulty and value of teachers. The title of the poem is one that sounds almost boring, a sort of clinical hum-drum that doesn’t really get at the kind of magic that is going on here, where the narrator is doing this layered thing, putting so much care and time and work into trying to help these kids connect to something larger than themselves and really learn. It’s a wonderfully understated piece, evocative and moving, and it’s a great read!

The second poem, “Tethered and Tied” speaks to me of hope and despair, of the spectacle of witnessing ships leaving Earth, bound for Elsewhere. Outward into space. Though it’s not stated or explained, I feel from the piece that these aren’t just missions of exploration. They feel more like missions for survival, Earth facing some final or seemingly final catastrophe or climate change and as many people as possible getting into ships and setting a course for a likely world that’s so far away that the chances of reaching there isn’t exactly great. That’s what I take from the images of seeding, of blowing to the wind, that humanity has this risky hope of maybe drifting far enough to take root on another world, but that the original plant, the flower of Earth, is pretty doomed. But not right away, and the people left behind are wait with only the hopes riding on the backs of those gleaming metal ships and people. And the piece sinks into the kind of grief and shock and numbness that follows some of those lights, those stars, going dark. Flaring out. Blowing up or crashing or malfunctioning. And as horrible as it is for the people on those ships, it echoes back in a different way on Earth, because there goes a little more of that hope. That dream. That sense of continuity. The looming shadow of extinction grows darker and darker. And the title reflects the ways that this works in two directions. It shows that humanity might be tethered to Earth, the dream of colonizing distant worlds just too outside our reach. And it shows how those people making the attempt carry with them the tethers to the hearts of everyone they’ve left, and how painful it is when those tethers snap and fall back to Earth. A touching and kinda devastating read!

“Mud Dauber Wasp Nest” by R. J. Keeler

This piece speaks to me of work and art, enlightenment and simplicity. It contrasts a monk, and specifically the monk of a particular wooden carving, with a dauber wasp. And in doing it seems to make almost holy the actions of the wasp, as a creature of nature, industrious without having to be motivated or ambitious. The piece links the industrious wasp with the ways that monks aspire to a kind of natural simplicity. At the same time, the poem seems to side a bit more with the wasp, pushing them forward as one who rather effortlessly achieves what the monks must put in more effort into. At least for me that push is done not with cruelty or mocking, but almost a comedic fondness. The piece is visual in that it nicely captures the movements of the wasp, the daubing of mud, the work and work and work until, at last, there is rest of them. And it’s visual in that it evokes a piece of visual art, a carving of a monk, and it finds the mud dauber building their final resting place inside the carving, inside the monk’s head, and for me the piece speaks to that kind of surprising discovery. To come across this art that is supposed to capture the moment of a monk achieving this wisdom and piece only to find that there’s a bit of that, a bit of the natural world, already tucked up inside, making something of a joke of the whole thing. Except that it seems to deepen the experience for the narrator, that instead of the wasp mocking the monk there is a sense of echoing, of layers, and the narrator is able to appreciate the human art and sentiments of the moment while getting their own taste of the natural world’s response, which keeps right on doing its thing. A fine read!


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