Monday 31 July 2017

Recommend: queer short stories

This time for our series on reader recommendations, where we shamelessly use you to add to our reading lists, we’d like to hear your suggestions of queer/LGBTQIA+ short stories that can be found online. To be clear, we want to hear about all the letters (and more) in that abbreviation, not just lesbian and gay stories, so hit us up with all the intersectional diversity you can think of. As always, to prime the pump we’ve asked a few editors, authors and other friends for their ideas. Read and enjoy, and then please tell us some of your favorites in the comments!

Rachel Linn (author page)

Full disclosure: “Something that Needs Nothing” (New Yorker 2006) isn't really speculative or fantasy fiction, though Miranda July’s way of seeing and describing the ‘real’ world often transforms it into an alternate reality.  Her writing feels like a more surreal version of The Catcher in the Rye, one in which you’re even less sure if the narrator’s perceptions are unreliable or if the world itself is.  I was intrigued the first time I read the story, but even more so after talking to a football player who was assigned it as a reading for a college class and chose to analyze it for his final paper.  He said he "related to the narrator's voice", which, coming from someone so different from myself, reinforced my impression of the story’s bizarre accessibility.  When the narrator says, "We were always getting away with something, which implied that someone was always watching us, which meant that we were not alone in this world," I think most of us know what she means.

Also, I should note that this story is explicit and—like much of July’s writing and performance art—plays with offensiveness (and therefore might not be everyone’s cup of tea).

Jo Thomas (Journeymouse)

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine 2013). What I like about the story with respect to queerness is the lack of detail about identity until the very end and, even then, it can be interpreted several ways. The writer uses first person so, if one realises the writer is a woman, there's a tendency to assume the narrator also is—but their gender identity isn't revealed until the narrator calls themself “the paleontologist’s fiancée with her half-planned wedding.” Likewise, the paleontologist love in question isn't definitively called a man until the very end and that only serves to show that the narrator and, presumably the love, recognise that identity for sure. So, with the the narrator saying that their love is called “a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not,” there is still an ocean of possibilities over gender and identity. There is room for questions—the most important possibly being why does the reader see it like that?

Claudie Arseneault (author page)

When asked for recommendations, choosing what to promote and fan over is often the hardest part of the task. Today I’ve picked two very different stories both featuring aromantic protagonists which I’ve discovered since the start of the year.

The first, “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed A Party And Saved The World” by Ada Hoffman (Unlikely Story 2014) is a near-future science fiction in which social media status heavily influences your place in the world. Emma is a Relator—she might not want to date, but she has over 2000 friends, and she’s ready to use those relationships to help her World Saver best friend. I love the way this piece defies the aromantic loner trope, the fullness of its characters, and how evocative those social media titles are. It’s a fun and free YA story that really stayed with me.

The second is “Nkásht íí” by Darcie Little Badger (Strange Horizons 2014), a brilliant short story steeped in Lipan Apache ghost lore. Friends of misfortune, Josie and Annie investigate a man’s car crash after he insists a malevolent spirit drowned his baby girl. Annie’s grandma has often warned her against restless ghosts. Haunting, tense and beautiful, “Nkásht íí” focuses on the unbreakable bond between two women, simultaneously providing horrified shivers and the warm glow of solid friendship. Easily one of my favourite reads this year.

If you ever feel the need for more free aromantic fiction available online, you can always check Penny Stirling’s great list. Happy reading!

Rachel Verkade (story; poem)

I first read Tim Pratt's story "Life in Stone" (Escape Pod 2006) in his excellent collection Hart & Boot. It seemed at first a fairly typical story that borrowed much of its premise from the ancient Slavic tales of Koschei the Deathless; a sorcerer has made himself immortal by placing his soul in an inanimate object and hiding it away. The trouble is that now, after many millennia of life, the sorcerer wants to die, and can no longer remember where his soul is hidden. So he hires a skilled but aging mercenary/assassin to find his soul and end his life.

What made the story stand out for me first was the setting—a bizarre future America where magic is rampant, and the characters are as likely to drive their SUV down to the local Italian eatery for supper as they are to fight their way through a den of lake monsters. And the other was the fact that the assassin and the sorcerer are lovers.

What unfolds is a story about aging, the loss of physical and mental capacities, about memory and the nature of the soul… and about love. About how sometimes what your lover wants may seem unfathomable, and sometimes the kindest thing to do is also the most painful. About two aging men working towards a single goal, each for their own reasons, and how one begins to question those reasons even as he commits acts of horrible violence to reach his end. It's also, of course, a very sad story… but also a very poignant one, and, in its own way, very hopeful. There aren't many older queer badass assassins in fantasy literature, and Pratt's Mr. Zealand makes an amazing impression in only ten pages.

Trace Yulie (author page)

K.M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” (Uncanny, 2017) is written from a trans perspective, by a trans author, and it isn’t a sweet story of acceptance or an inspiring story about transition struggle; I say this because these seem like themes some readers are more comfortable with. There is of course a space for affirming fiction, and sometimes queer stories just aren’t for non-queer folks, you know? But Szpara’s stories are not on those themes. Oh no, no, no. They are raw and vulnerable, and the narratives situate the reader firmly in the trans viewpoint in a way that I find at times deeply unsettling. And that’s good (at least for this privileged reader). If one goal of fiction is to create situations where the reader identifies and empathizes with the people depicted in the story, they should feel unsettled by the horror of finding oneself in the wrong body, or a changing body. The character’s experience is viscerally, vividly described. The character feels intimately embodied; the stories are about being trans in the body. The reader can’t look away or bounce off that perspective, as it isn’t sidelined into a token side character or pushed into the background. On the surface, “Small Changes” is a vampire story, but the transformative turn from human to vampire resists easy metaphor or resolution. It’s a heavy, dark analogue for the harsh complexities of sex, desire and a intense something-else that defies simple explication. The story was hard for me to read. But I don’t think the story was meant to be comfortable, and I’m glad I didn’t look away. I also recommend Szpara’s “Nothing is Pixels Here” (Lightspeed [QDSF], 2015), an older publication about a different kind of embodied terror, but no less complex and painful. I make no assumptions that these stories are written for a cis audience, but as a cis person I came away with a measure of empathy I didn’t know I lacked before reading them.

Please tell us about more great online queer stories in the comments!

Sunday 23 July 2017

Shubbak: Imagined Futures

A couple weeks ago I spent an evening in the Barbican watching the only part of the Shubbak Film Festival: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture that I made it to this year—a program of five short films titled “Imagined Futures.” These were not all science fiction, by any means, although at least two of them explicitly position themselves within the genre. I’m not going to try to review the films or the collective here, but give a few thoughts and reactions—if you can catch any of this series for yourself, you should surely do so.

Mare Nostrum is a Syrian/French production directed by Anas Khalaf and Rana Kazkaz, which in 13 minutes shows us a Syrian father apparently being irrationally cruel and abusive to his young daughter. The father’s own anguish at his daughter’s fear and suffering makes it clear that there is more going on, and the story ends on a heartbreaking—if all-too-familar—dénouement.

An animated short film from Lebanon directed by Chadi Aoun, Silence lasts only 15 minutes and is a beautiful/terrible dystopia where silence is obligatory (and brutally enforced by military agents), and rebels dance supernaturally to a music that seems to result from their choreography. Very nicely animated, tear-provoking film.

Selma, a joint Algerian/French production directed by Batoul Benazzou, is at 35 minutes the longest in this anthology, and rather than futuristic is about a girl worrying about her future after graduating school. Another longish piece, the 21-minute Lebanese parable Submarine, directed by Mounia Akl, is about the only woman who refuses to abandon her town when the garbage crisis gets apocalyptically out of control.

The shortest film of the evening was the 10-minute, Palestine/Denmark co-production Nation Estate, directed by and starring Larissa Sansour (who also joined us for a Q&A in the theater after the films), a squeaky clean dystopia in which the entire Palestinian people are housed in a single huge tower block. Their lives are luxurious, well-fed, with plenty of space for everyone and every resource and comfort they could want. The protagonist even has an olive tree in her living quarters, and instant, classic Palestinian food in preserved containers in her kitchen. The pseudo-utopian setting is so convincing that—Sansour tells us—a German critic went so far as to delightedly proclaim that this would be a good solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict! A spine-chilling, and more subtle science fiction offering than most of those shown here. Other than a couple of fascinating/infuriating anecdotes, the Q&A was brief and rather shallow (the questioners’ fault, not Sansour’s), but the collection of shorts made for some nice contrasts, and none of the films were duds.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Recommend: Superheroine

For this month’s recommendation post we’d like to hear from you all about your favourite superheroines. They can be costumed comic characters, spandex-clad muscular movie heroes (or villains), or superpowered characters or people of any stripe—if they’re superheroines in your book, tell us about them and why. To prime the pump, we’ve asked a handful of authors and other friends to tell us their favorites. Read and enjoy—and then please tell us yours in the comments!

Priya Sridhar (author blog, story)

The Adventures of Superhero Girl is always a fun read, a project by Faith Erin Hicks that is currently on hiatus. Superhero Girl spends her days fighting crime, giving loose change to homeless people, and babysitting kids that have temporal powers. She also lives under her brother Kevin's shadow. Kevin has a huge superhero fanbase and merchandise collection. For the most part she has to be the ordinary kid sister who happens to have superpowers. Thus she gets little to no respect. But she keeps trying, and to keep herself from resenting her brother. The art has a loose, fun style that lends to large panels. I can get lost in SHG's story, her struggles which combine mundane resentment and fantastic adventures.

Omi Wilde (story; story)

Like Spiderman and Daredevil, Storme DeLarverie patrolled the streets of New York. But Storme, nicknamed “guardian of the lesbians,” was a real life hero who played a pivotal role in North American queer history. Described as a “gay superhero... tall, androgynous and armed” in her New York Times obituary, Storme walked the streets of downtown Manhattan well into her 80’s, always protecting her “baby girls” from any “ugliness.” She was present at Stonewall in 1969 and by her own admission and many reports, threw the first punch and inspired others to rebel against police persecution. As well as her work for the LGBTQ community, as a musician and drag king she organized and performed at benefits for abused women and children and is quoted as saying that she did so because “Somebody has to care… If people didn’t care about me when I was growing up, with my mother being black, raised in the south… I wouldn’t be here.” A biracial butch lesbian whose credo was caring and fierce protective love—she's very easily my favourite superheroine.

Check out Storme’s obituary and a short film on her life and career in the Jewel Box Revue.

Su J Sokol (website; Goodreads)

My recommendation for a superheroine is from the novella Scale Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. One of the main characters of the story is Hau Ngai who is also Houy’i—the immortal archer of Chinese mythology who is married to Chang’y, the goddess of the moon. In this retelling of the ancient legend, the archer Houyi is interpreted as female.

Though technically an immortal rather than a superheroine, the setting of the story in modern-day Hong Kong, along with the almost cyberpunk feel to the aesthetic, gives the character of Houyi a distinctly super-heroic feel:
Houyi stands on the first letter of HSBC, ancient myth-feet resting on logo black on red, under which throbs a mad rush of numbers and commerce and machines: trades riding cellular waves and fiber optic, fortunes made and shattered in minutes. She does not shade her eyes.
As a feminist who grew up reading superhero comics, my heart thrilled to this description of Hau Ngai/Houyi. I could almost see her cape as it caught in the winds of flight.

Regina de Búrca (twitter; TFF bio)

C.B. Lee's Not Your Sidekick is set in a quasi-dystopian 22nd-century America where the line between hero and villain is often blurred. Jessica Tran, a bisexual Chinese-Vietnamese girl, is a superhero precisely because she struggles to figure out what her superpowers are, or if she even has any, growing up in a family of superheroes, in a town full of people with special powers! While working as an intern for the town supervillains' lab, Jessica comes into her own as she embraces her identity. The book’s title references the #notyourasiansidekick movement and this novel does an excellent job of challenging stereotypes and redressing imbalances in representation via Jessica's character. As Jessica plays to her strengths, her story shows that being empowered is not just for the realm of stereotypical superheroes.

Now tell us about some more superheroines in the comments, please!