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
It’s April, and spring is maybe, possibly just around the corner, or three or four corners as the case may be. Regardless, it’s time for another Women to Read: Where to Start, wherein I point out fantastic women writing in the speculative fiction genre and suggest a starting place for their work. As I was choosing stories to talk about, a loose theme of resistance and rebellion emerged, so I figured why not run with it? Enjoy!
Karen Russell’s “Reeling for the Empire” originally appeared in Tin House in 2012, and was reprinted in her collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. On a side note, the entire collection is wonderful, and any one of the stories would be a worthy starting point for her work. Each piece in the collection is infused with a weird, lovely magical realism. They exist on the border between real life and fantasy, presenting the world almost as it is, but skewed slightly through an uncanny lens. “Reeling for the Empire” is a perfect example of what Russell does with her work, and a particularly powerful one. It tells the story of several young women lured away from the homes to work in a silk mill. Rather than being mere laborers, the women’s bodies themselves are transformed to produce silk – a unique color for each girl – to be reeled away from their fingertips by a vast machine. The girls are fed on a steady diet of mulberry leaves, becoming less human the longer they remain at the nameless factory. The story examines the politics of women’s bodies in several ways. It puts a fantastical spin on the very real and deplorable conditions faced by many factory workers, historically and today, as they are treated less as humans and more as expendable pieces in a machine. The women in Russell’s story are all sold or given away by their families in exchange for a small advance. The exception is the story’s protagonist, Kitsune, who forges her father’s name on her own contract, and willingly swallows the tea that will transform her. It is an act of rebellion, as Kitsune takes control of her own destiny and makes her an active participant in trying to save her family. This aspect of the story also plays with the idea of victim blaming in the way Kitsune views herself and what is being done to her. She wanted to help her family with her sacrifice, but unlike the other girls, she can’t claim to have been forced into her misery. There are undertones of rape and abuse in the Agent from the mill’s “seduction” of the girls, in the promises made to bring them to the factory, and the drugged tea given to them to complete their transformation. While abuse is not overt, or explicit, the parallels are there to be read, adding an extra layer of terror to the tale. By the end of the story, it is clear to all the girls that no matter what choice they made, or didn’t make, to bring them here, they are not to blame. The monstrous thing that was done to them also offers a means to reclaim control of their lives. “Reeling for the Empire” is a story of transformation, fighting back, and finding inner strength. The imagery is lovely, layered on top of the dark themes, all of which makes it a perfect starting point for Russell’s work.
Alice B. Sheldon/Raccoona Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. likely needs no introduction. Her name appears nearly every time the conversation about women writing science fiction is raised, which is part of the reason I haven’t covered her stories in this column thus far. Not that her work isn’t wonderful, or doesn’t deserve attention, however part of my goal with this column is to move the conversation beyond the same few names (or exceptional women), and to highlight to voices working in speculative fiction today. Why I’m recommending a Sheldon story now, and why my particular recommended starting point is “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light”, is it strikes me as painfully relevant to the conversations we’re still having about feminism today. The story originally appeared in Aurora: Beyond Equality in 1976 under the Raccoona Sheldon byline. The entire story can be seen as physical manifestation of an us versus them mentality. The story’s main character has created her own post apocalyptic world, one populated entirely by women, where nothing can harm her. She believes herself to be a courier, carrying messages and mail across the ruins of the midwest. In “reality” she is an escaped mental patient who has been subjected to shock treatment as a result of breakdown which led her to abandon her family. Those around her are incapable of seeing her reality, the ultimate breakdown in communication. They alternately dismiss her (a doubly marginalized voice, female and mentally ill), deeming her viewpoint unimportant, and blame her – a woman roaming around alone deserves whatever happens to her. Even her family seems less concerned about her safety than keeping up appearances. Her rejection of what every woman should want – to be married and living in the suburbs with a child – is incomprehensible to them. Her parents want to return her to her husband, not for her sake, or even his, because it’s the way normal people behave. The story also makes literal the threats leveled against women who dare to speak up about feminist issues – rape and death. Here again, we have victim blaming, and the ‘it’s not my problem’/’it’s not my fight’ attitude made viscerally real. The cops who were nearby as the protagonist was attacked, one of them a woman, did nothing because it wasn’t their job. All of the conversations we’re still having today are wrapped up in this story – the idea that women have to be the communicators, that it is their responsibility to reach out and bridge the gap, while at the same time knowing they will be ignored, dismissed, misunderstood, threatened, and ultimately punished for speaking out. The beauty of Sheldon’s piece is her main character does not break from her chosen reality. The act of rebellion here is a very private and personal one. Even as she is dying, the protagonist refuses the narrative the world is forcing on her. She sees wild dogs, not men, and she sees her sisters, their faces filled of light coming for her. The world does not break her, and she is not punished or put in her place; she is steadfast in her vision until the end. Aside from its powerful message and the examination of culture, gender roles, and everything else packed into this story, it’s a unique, apocalyptic vision. It’s no wonder Sheldon’s name comes up so often, or why there’s an award (open to recommendations right now) presented in her honor.
Continuing with the theme of resistance and rebellion, my recommended starting point for Lisa Bolekaja’s work is “Medu” the anthology Long Hidden. The story re-imagines and reclaims the legend of Medusa through the main character, Lil Bit, a black cowgirl with fierce, powerful, sentient hair. Lil Bit dresses as a boy to go out on the cattle trails – hiding both her gender and her true, mythical nature as a Medu. Her life is about control, not letting the outside world see who she really is, or what she can do. When danger threatens Lil Bit ‘s family and friends, she refuses to stay hidden any longer. She embraces her nature, unleashing the power of her hair to fight back without letting it destroy her the way her father feared it would. There’s another layer of rebellion in this story, evident in the background the author provides for the story on the anthology’s website. The very act of writing “Medu” was a rebellion against unquestioned cultural norms. The story was born out of anger, out of the author’s desire to see characters like herself reclaiming their rightful place in history, and not allowing them to be erased and overlooked. The story rebels against the generally accepted picture of the Old West, full of straight, white, square-jawed cowboys as the only important players in history. The story lashes out at other damaging cultural narratives as well. As Bolekaja says in her background piece: “Black hair is seen as negative. Nappy. Rebellious. Unmanageable. A lot of black women hate their hair because it isn’t naturally straight. Fuck that. Black hair is magic. Dreds are powerful. Where are the stories about fierce black hair?????” “Medu” gives us a story of fierce black hair indeed, and a wonderful character in the Lil Bit, the girl who wields it. As a relatively new writer (she was eligible for the Campbell Award in 2014), I look forward to seeing many more wonderful stories from Lisa Bolekaja in the future.
Since I tended a bit on the long side with my recommendations this time around, I’ll limit myself to three. However I’ll be back at it in May with more women to read, and possibly even some novel recommendations to change things up. In the meantime, leave your own recommendation of women to read and where to start in the comments.