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 the last Women to Read: Where to Start of 2015. To close out the year, I offer you an assortment of fabulous women and starting points for their work, without any particular theme this time around.
First up, my recommended starting point for Arkady Martine’s work is “When the Fall is All That’s Left” from the October issue of Apex Magazine. This story is a masterful example of efficient writing, packing an entire world into fewer than 3,000 words. Gabriele is a living ship, a skilled pilot wired directly into the guts of her craft. As the story opens, Gabriele has just flown through a star. As a result, the instrumentation is a wreck, and Gabriele’s pilot and friend, Iris, is dying. The scenario is essentially Thelma and Louise in space, focusing on the moment after the car plunges off the cliff. Martine doesn’t specify what the women are running from. What matters is freedom, and the price of that freedom. If there’s even a fraction of a chance for one of them to survive, Gabriele must be removed from the ship, and fly blind as a human being again. Just as Martine doesn’t reveal what the women are running from, she cuts the story off before Gabriele can either fail or succeed at piloting the ship unwired. It truly is a story just about the fall, but with enough glimpses to allow the reader to build a full picture of the characters, their deep friendship, and the desperation of their flight. It’s a story about sacrifice, and about what makes someone human when almost everything associated with humanity has been stripped away. The story packs a punch without bogging down in text, and makes an excellent starting point for Martine’s work.
Shifting gears in setting and tone, my recommended starting place for Lesley Nneka Arimah’s work is “Who Will Greet You at Home” from The New Yorker, an eerie story with a killer opening line: The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. This is our world, but set slightly askew. Women create children out of yarn, plaster, mud, and sticks, each material coming with its own risks and rewards. Ogechi’s mother made her out of sticks and mud, but she aspires to something more for her own child. They argue, and Ogechi resorts to paying her boss for blessings to protect her child rather than facing her mother’s judgmental attitude. Determined to make it on her own, Ogechi steals hair from the salon where she works and weaves it into a baby, something old folk tales warn against, but which Ogechi, in her pride, ignores. Arimah builds a striking picture out of the story’s details. The child-building materials available to each mother reflects their socio-economic status. A woman who can afford to make her baby out of porcelain can give that child a soft, pampered life. A child built out of sticks and mud might be hard and ugly, but also tough and durable. The story’s horror elements draw from the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Unable to pay with money, Ogechi gives up bits of her happiness in exchange for blessings to protect her child, and literally gives up pieces of herself to feed it. There’s a full and satisfying arc for Ogechi, one that reflects how a daughter’s attitude to her mother might change as she becomes a parent herself. Ogechi resents her mother’s seeming lack of love and compassion, but in the end, after the failure of her hair baby, she builds a child out of ash and sorrow, similar to the way she was built; it will be a bitter thing, but strong enough to survive. Who Will Greet You at Home is complex and layered and an excellent place to start with Arimah’s work.
Shifting gears again, my recommended starting place for Nin Harris’ work is “Sang Riamu and the Medicine Woman” from the summer 2015 issue of Lackington’s Magazine, a twist on the trope of the fairy debt and the fairy curse. As a teenager, Cempaka encounters a fairy Empress surrounded by a palace made of golden filaments of light. The Empress speaks of a debt to be repaid, but rather than claiming Cempaka, the Empress offers her a mango before vanishing into thin air. When she tells her mother of the encounter, Cempaka learns of her distant ancestor who stole a prisoner from the faeries much in the way Janet reclaims her love from the Faerie Queen in the story of Tam Lin, holding onto him through multiple transformations, despite the danger to herself. However, even though Cempaka devours the fairy fruit, there’s no supernatural punishment, or reward. Harris frames the story as one of disappointment for Cempaka. After her encounter with the Empress, Cempaka is haunted by a were-tiger, Sang Riamu, who watches her, but never attacks. Both the were-tiger, and the fairy debt linger around the edges of her life, but she’s largely left to her own devices. The tree grown from the seeds of the fairy mango bears fruit that makes her slightly better at brewing love potions in her chosen profession as a medicine woman, but the man she loves still marries someone else. In the end, Cempaka makes her own way through the world, transforming herself into a were-tiger through her own determination, patience, and potion-making skill. She’s an old woman by the time she transforms, a nice change up from the way many (Western) fairy tales focus almost exclusively on youth, with ‘older’ women relegated to the role of dead mothers and wicked crones. In addition to being a fascinating inversion of many fairy tale tropes, “Sang Riamu and the Medicine Woman” is beautifully told, and it’s a wonderful starting place for Harris’ work.
Keeping with the jumps between styles and themes, I’ll close with a recommendation of Lovecraftian horror. Pandora Hope’s “Eight Seconds” from She Walks in Shadows edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles mashes up bull riding and the cosmic horror of Shub-Niggurath, aka The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. Like Arimah’s story, at its heart, “Eight Seconds” is about a mother and daughter who don’t get along, and the sacrifices mothers make for their children. Sam is a bull rider, whose daughter, Lula, doesn’t approve of her career choice, and leaves home at sixteen. Sam is content to let Lula go her own way, until she finds a pamphlet slipped under her door suggesting Lula has joined a cult and found herself a new mother. There are stories about ‘the Sick Place’, where radiation deforms people, which is where the cult appears to be located. At the urging of her friend Laurie, the rodeo clown, Sam sets out to find her daughter, and comes face to face with Shub-Niggurath. Being a practical sort of person, Sam tries to convince herself the horror of a goat-headed, goat-legged woman large enough to squeeze a horse to death with one arm is the result of radiation poisoning. Whatever the goat-woman’s origins, Sam uses her rodeo skills to save her daughter’s life, figuring if she can ride a bull for eight seconds, she can surely stay alive for eight seconds, distracting Shub-Niggurath long enough for Lula to escape. The story’s voice is wonderful, with Sam being bull-rider gruff and stoic, but still willing to do whatever she can to save her daughter without getting sentimental about it. Lovecraft has been mashed up with Westerns before, but I’ve never seen the show riding aspects of the culture combined with cosmic horror. It’s a fantastic blend, and a wonderful starting place for Hope’s work.
Hopefully these recommendations will carry you through the end of the year. I’ll be back in 2016 with more Women to Read. As always, please leave your own suggestions in the comments.