|Art by Flavio Bolla|
“To Balance the Weight of Khalem” by R.B. Lemberg (9163 words)
No Spoilers: Belezal is a student, a refugee from one war-torn country to another, striving to reach a land where they can be themselves, where they can live their truth. But the requirements for being allowed to live in that nation are strict, and it takes a decade of study in their second city to be able to move. And along the way, leaving one city for another, they meet people who are refugees themselves, who can’t go home, and they all navigate the difficult waters of identity and hope and home. It’s a complex story of balance and of connection, people reaching people through food and fragrance, through moments of shared grief, through the ways their hurts contradict and the ways their hurts bind together, links in a chain crossing borders. The setting is magical but not exactly adventurous. The action is real, dealing with people caught in systems, caught in machinations so much larger than they are, arbitrary but devastating. And yet it finds something even larger underneath it all, a shared humanity that is beautiful and powerful.
Keywords: Onions, Refugees, Wars, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Travel, Schools
Review: I love stories that deal with food, with cooking, and here the flavors of onion saute and shift across cultures, across cities, as the characters meet and part, as they talk around their hurts and their scars, as they share and, through those meals, parts of themselves and parts of the places they are from and of. Belezal’s situation is impossible--all of their situations are impossible---a refugee from a place they barely knew, too poor to be able to get into the country they wanted, that their family wanted. Taken in by a different country instead, one that needed their bodies to balance the corruption that was fueling another way. Years of hunger and struggle, losing almost everything of value. Their family declining in health. More war. More loss. And finally it seems an opportunity, fragile but necessary. A gift of an onion, and the news that they can be a student in the nation they always wanted. And there’s just SO MUCH to this story, it really is so skillfully and deeply layered, each event, each complication a layer of the onion that the story is. That, when cut apart and cooked, comes alive with flavors and heat. Which, I mean, the story is also sweetly romantic at times, the relationship between Belezal and Gabi just so wonderful for all it seems fragile as well. It’s hot and sweet and delightful, joyous despite the intensity of the difficulties they face, the horrors and the griefs they’re fleeing from. And larger than that the piece for me is about connections, about found family, about homes and the way they can shift, the way they can disappear or be shattered and yet remain. Belezal struggles with identity, with who they are and who they might be. Both with regards to their gender and their national identity. They are a refugee and an immigrant, once by force and once by choice, and for me they don’t seem to really know what to do with that, how to feel. And for me the warmth of the piece comes from moving forward all the same, in some ways embracing the in between, the uncertain, to forge an identity that acts as a connection between places, a chain that cannot easily be broken. A person who can embody their own truths, as complex as those might be, and still find community. Still find love and family. It’s a beautiful story, stunningly built and intimately rendered. I love the food, the importance put on talking and building new language to deal with issues that can’t be discussed under certain constraints. It’s a wonderful story, and I recommend you check it out immediately!
“Never a Butterfly, Nor a Moth With Moon-Painted Wings” by Aimee Ogden (6283 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a part of a people displaced by war, some of them taken in by a neighboring nation, pushed to assimilate while being used as cheap labor and a source of delicate embroidery. They are the people of the Butterfly, always moving, in migration, but in this new nation they are trapped by the realities that make travel difficult, that require them to submit to the new language and religion of the dominant. And the piece is framed as a kind of letter from the narrator to their daughter, who grows up both as a native to this new place and as an outsider, something not of either the world of her mother or that of her surroundings. It’s a wrenching piece, warm but dangerous, and it walks a careful line between war and intolerance, aiming for safety and peace and finding something strong and beautiful, even if it never reaches its intended destination.
Keywords: Immigration, War, Sewing, Family, Queer MC
Review: This is another beautiful story, and another one very much about immigration and being a refugee. Here the narrator is also taken in to a city that wants her body, who wants her labor and her weight. Who wants to exploit her as much as possible, keeping her as expendable while enjoying what she brings to their city. The narrator, for her part, never loses the part of herself that is a Butterfly, not seeing herself as of this new place, always holding to the thought that some of her people have gone beyond the mountains and found a home. Meanwhile her own life is one of slow progress, of weathering the storm that is living in this foreign city, working in the fields, embroidering to bring in some extra income. She’s a mother, and it’s her daughter who becomes the primary focus of the story, because the piece is a letter to that daughter. And it explores her very unique place as being born into this new city but never fully accepted by it. Who is clever and sharp and is able to see very keenly the injustices around her. She’s queer in a place that is very religiously intolerant of that, and she has her mother’s desire for movement, to reach for somewhere that she can be and live her own truths. The piece is painful in the things that the characters never really get to talk about, never get to voice because of the ways they are vulnerable. Mother and daughter see each other across a gap in language, a chasm that they don’t want to lure the other into. So they have separate lives, their own secrets, while still supporting and trying to protect each other. It’s a beautiful and fragile space, and the story pulls away before it’s shattered, capturing a powerful and rather devastating moment that is still full of hope because despite the danger and the violence and the threat of annihilation, the characters never stop moving, never stop fighting for their families. A fantastic read!