A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Welcome to a new year and a new edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. Perhaps one of your resolutions this year is to read more works by women. Or to discover new-to-you authors. Or even just to read more in general. If so, you’re in luck! Here are four amazing women you should be reading, and a recommended starting point for their work.
I’m going to combine the first two recommendations as the stories make perfect companion pieces, each looking at feminist issues through the lens of food. Women have long been associated with cooking and preparing food for their families, but there are also a whole slew of metaphors and descriptors that get applied to women and POCs in a way they rarely get applied to white male characters. Almond eyes. Cherry lips. Skin like coffee or chocolate or mocha. Caramel curls. And so on. Octavia Cade‘s “The Mussel Eater,” which appeared at Book Smugglers in November 2014, and Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl,” which appeared in the November 2014 Apex Magazine, tackle these tropes head on. Both stories center around the idea of consumption and possession of a female character by a male character, and using food as a means of domestication. “Candy Girl” has a woman literally turned into chocolate and eaten by her ex-boyfriend, touching on issues of cultural appropriation as well. “The Mussel Eater” retells the legend of Pania of the Reef, where a man uses food to try to change the essential nature of the sea-maiden he claims to love, trying to trick her into staying with him by making her eat cooked food, and trying to force human norms on her by applying various cooking-related scents to her skin to disguise her fishy smell. In both stories, the man is the outsider, looking in at a culture he doesn’t understand, but is determined to possess a piece of, as long as that piece (i.e. woman) conforms to his notion of them and his rules. And in the end, both stories turn the tables by having the male consumed, once from the outside, and once from within. Despite exploring the same theme, both authors have strong, unique voices to set their stories apart, and both as well worth reading.
My recommended starting place for Brooke Juliet Wonders’ has very little to do with food, although rainbow-colored cereal does make a nasty appearance. “Griefbunny” from the December issue of Apex Magazine centers a brother and sister whose father is dead and whose mother/stepmother has abandoned them. Lola does her best to cope by taking on the parent role in caring for her little brother. Teddy, on the other hand, adopts a mangy rabbit, insisting it’s a jackalope that speaks to him and can do tricks. One of the interesting things about Wonders’ story is the way it plays with the trope of a child insistent on magical thinking not being believed by an adult. In this case, the “adult” is a child herself, struggling with abandonment and responsibility above her age, faced with a brother who won’t be talked out of what she sees as an irrational and dangerous belief. The reader is never given conclusive evidence one way or the other as to whether Elijah is more than a rabbit. He grows to a monstrous size, seems to defy death, and protects Teddy in his own way. Beyond that, on the surface, he appears to be a regular, ill-tempered rabbit. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Elijah is magical or not. His presence allows Teddy to deal with his loss, and ultimately it brings the siblings closer together as Teddy tries to pull Lola into his games, insists on reading Watership Down with her, and asking her to retell the stories their father used to tell them about jackalopes.
Finally, for a complete departure from food and short fiction, my recommended starting point for Cherie Priest‘s work is her latest novel, Maplecroft. The amount of heart in this novel genuinely surprised me. The premise – Lizzy Borden fights monsters with her axe – could easily have been a straight-up adventure romp, or devolved into something cheesy. However, while there is action, there’s more darkness than adventure. Priest effectively describes several chilling and gruesome deaths, giving the novel weight and making the stakes real. She also makes them very personal. The heart, or hearts, of the novel are Lizzie’s relationship with her sister Emma, and her relationship with her lover, Nance. Lizzie is torn between her sense of duty to her sister, who is ill and dependant on her, and her desire to be free and to be with Nance. The relationship between the Borden sisters is anything but smooth. There’s a large gap in age between them, and while they love each other in their own way, and look out for each other, they often don’t understand each other. Their relationship, by necessity, is laced with resentment and guilt. Emma resents the weakness of her body, which makes her dependant on Lizzie, and Lizzie resents being tied to her sister, but feels guilty for thinking of her as a burden. When Nance is infected with the ‘plague’ tied to the monsters Lizzie has been fighting to, the relationship devolves even further. Priest does not pull punches. She shows the sisters growing farther apart as Lizzie throws herself behind the cause of saving her lover, even when Nance seems beyond saving, at the expense of her sister’s health and safety. Neither sister is painted as the villain. The reader feels genuine heartbreak from both of them, and witnesses genuine strength as well. To sum Maplecroft up: come for the intriguing premise, stay for the wonderful characters.
Women to Read: Where to Start will be back in February with more recommendations. In the meantime, leave your own recommendations in the comments!