Short story first published in The Future Fire Issue 35, 2015.
Girls are always being taken, it seems. Within a temple’s sanctuary, you peer at the murals, painted women stolen by painted men, each face serene as praphodhisat. Safe at home, you sit with jostling family, the storyteller filling your ears with tales of heroes and brides.
You know what brides look like, of course: sculpted in beauty, skin smooth and lambent, hair long as a river and lustrous as silk. I’ve looked at women, wondering if they might be my bride—an impossibility, and in any case I’m ill-suited to marriage.
Once I spent an afternoon reflecting upon this. Lamentations on the irregularities of my face prompted Taphaothong to offer sisterly encouragement: “You’d better die and be reborn.” Her touch was soft, her voice was tart. My little sister always knew just the thing to say. She was lovely as a crow, sharp-eyed, dark, cackling.
My latest piece is up on The Dark. I was in the mood for a re-telling, and I’d never written horror or antagonistic siblings before, so I thought I’d give it a try.
A look through Fascinating Folktales of Thailand by Thanapol Lamduan Chadchaidee brought back a memory of the Klong Sa Bua market, where you can watch a performance of Kraithong in the water while eating wonderful snacks. Kraithong is an obvious candidate for horror—there’s at least one horror film already—but it is, perhaps, a less clear choice for a queer re-telling. It’s a straightforward tale about a hero wrestling monsters and being rewarded with marriage. I guess, if I were of a certain mindset, one way to do a queer re-telling would involve a woman punching a crocodile in the face to win her bride. But that’s still not enough substance for short fiction, imho (in my horse’s opinion), and I wanted to push harder to find said substance.
I was thrilled when Djibril got in touch soon after I sent along my portfolio. The story was dark fantasy with plenty of imagery and emotion to pull from, so I was happy to put down some ideas.
For the illustrations, I wanted to evoke a book of fairytales, aged paper with washes of colour, so I began staining the paper with tea.
(Spoilers for the story underneath the cut.)
It’s rare to read a story and know it’s for people like me. Even rarer for such stories to push at gendered bodies and relationships in truly interesting ways. Stories unconcerned with the white, straight gaze. Stories which knowledgeably play with shared mythology.
She is paya-nak, she is monarch among serpent-kind, and once she allowed me to see her true form, and that broke my heart to pieces. Her jeweled tongue flicked out to catch every one. She is a girl’s dream, she is a queen, and snakes great and small make obeisance to her.
Oh, if only my baby was a snake, egg-hatched, compelled to prostrate before her might.
I lower my face to her scales. Sometimes below the waist she is snake; sometimes she is woman. Now she is coils upon coils, black, all the shades that are black, and she wraps her serpent-part around me until we are one, fastened at the waist like a conjugal vow. “My husband will return. One day.”
“I will give him to one of my sisters, to eat or drown as she pleases.”
“Mak is not a bad man.”
“He lies between us as drought lies between mortals and survival. He hangs over the knot of our want as a blade hangs over a thread.”
You can imagine how I felt, years ago, when I read Paya-Nak, a lesbian re-telling of Nang Nak, a much-beloved Thai folktale. These are thoughts which have simmered in my head since then.
My newest, shortest piece is the first one to be published. ‘A Mermaid in The Mermaid’ is on Stone Telling. You should look through their archives, be appropriately delighted, add your support to their patreon, and buy Here, We Cross: a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling 1-7 edited by Rose Lemberg (Amazon US / UK).
About my poem: it’s set in Rye, a small town in East Sussex, England, a seaside town abandoned by the sea centuries ago. My partner’s maternal family grew up there. I visited it myself a couple of years ago, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. You can read more about my trip here. There’s an actual Mermaid Inn on Mermaid street there, so it was an obvious choice for the Joke Issue.
The moment I visit somewhere like Rye, places which are so charmingly cobblestoned with history and where much of the diverse people I encountered were tourists like me, I get thinking.
Rye is the perfect place to set a piece of historical fantasy fiction, a genre replete with images of cravats, silver teapots, billowing skirts, and sprightly pink nipples. It doesn’t have to be that way–indeed, it shouldn’t, as a narrow history ignores material evidence and constructs a narrative which harms people today, erasing their heritage. Certain readers can apparently believe in magic, fantastic beasts, and improbable economic systems, but if you suggest that brown or queer or neurodiverse characters may exist in the front and centre of your work—why, you’re taking it too far, you’re making everyone uncomfortable with your Forced Diversity, it’s simply not believable, sellable, readable. Well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And just because something is A Joke doesn’t mean it can’t also be a little thoughtful. We who are marginalised are often the butt of jokes. Jokes shouldn’t have to be cruel to work; nothing bores me more than “satire” which is so clearly the end product of the same old chewed up and thoroughly digested petty bigotries, pushed out and then finger-painted in the usual patterns–only you’re supposed to admire it simply because the author says it’s satire. Please. Your jokes are bad and you should feel bad.
Er, this is not to say that a light-hearted short poem fights the good fight against hegemony. I just wanted to write a fun little poem about lesbian mermaids, and it never occurred to me to make the mermaids blonde and straight. That’s all. There may be poems which are powerful and life-changing in as many lines, but it is not mine.
The shortest thing I’ve written is also the one I have done the most teeth-gnashing over. I’ve tried to forgive myself for that: unless you make it a regular exercise, rhyming well is tricky.
Since the preferred length was just 25 lines, I thought I’d have a good go at it. The estimable Nicki Minaj only took a week to write her glorious verse in ‘Monster,’ which is essentially the only reason you should listen to that song. I worked on my piece sporadically throughout January.
It occurred to me as I was wrestling with the verse that I actually have no idea how to rhyme properly, or how to write a basic poem. There must be rules somewhere, obviously. Instead of looking them up, I hammered away at a rhyme dictionary, switched tabs to stare angrily at ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter,’ and swore a lot.
I showed my partner what I’d written and asked what would make it better.
‘Um,’ he said, ‘scansion?’
I had to re-write the whole thing, letting go of certain images I wanted to use because I just couldn’t find a single bally rhyme which would work. You know how it goes better than me, I expect.
Somehow, through all the fiddling, a poem happened. My partner talked more enthusiastically about this second version, paying particular attention to its
legs feet. I nodded. There were indeed some of those in the poem, even though it is mainly about a mermaid and a piece of the sea. I tweaked it a bit more and then off it went, all within the hour before the deadline passed in my timezone.
Is it unsightly and not terribly interesting to know that a lot of effort went into a short poem? Maybe to some. I get that. But this will serve as a reminder to myself, and perhaps another writer out there, that this is just fine. And it got me published in a zine I’ve read and enjoyed for years. So, know that.
My first ever completed short story of 2014 was, gratifyingly, my first ever fiction sale. Chuffed doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I researched and wrote ‘The Women and Insects Sang Together’ in a little over a week; I thought if it took the same amount of preparation and cooking as a decent essay, it’s probably okay. Probably. In any case I’ve joined 11 other authors in exploring what Southeast Asian steampunk can be. These are our stories! I’m so pleased to be a part of this whole.
One of our editors, the excellent Jaymee Goh, suggested we participate in Steampunk Hands Around the World. Many of us answered roundtable questions about our stories; I’m getting a little restless waiting for the anthology to come out so I can finally read the work that each writer talks about…
Here’s the TOC + links to each author’s roundtable answers:
Authors will also be participating in a Twitter chat in the #SEAsteampunk tag on February 15, so drop by!
Here, then, I break in the spine of my blog, lean against it with one hand while the other writes.
I’ll begin with telling you about Rochester Spiritualist Chapel in Kentish Town. I find it amazing there’s such a place local to me. Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the founders–yes, him of Sherlock fame. Perhaps it’s surprising that he, physician and writer, so famed for creating that singular character who deployed abductive reasoning to such thrilling ends, was drawn towards Spiritualism in his later years. Well, people change, don’t they?
A look at the old site, with its, um, nostalgic design, tells you a breadcrumb trail story. Recently the 88 year old chapel was the subject of a bit of further kerfuffle when a group of people started squatting there. Curious, I looked at the Rainbow Family of Living Light homepage and was amazed at the highly nostalgic design and casual appropriation of an ‘Old Native American Prophecy’ (in truth, there’s nothing of the sort, and can people just stop talking rot like that, please?).
Occupants old and new are attached to this chapel, both cleaving to the inherent validity of belief in spirits. All I know of capital-S Spiritualism is drawn from reading Affinity in a bit of Strong Poison. Common or garden spirits are a different matter, though. I grew up with stories of Thai spirits, though they lost much of their teeth–or their protection; many Thai spirits can at once harm or hurt–on the journey over to my household in London.
I don’t know about your ends, but the dominant image of spirits of the dead or the land and elements in British pop culture is generally this pick’n’mix of low-key spooky shit, a bit of sleepover fun, old wives tales, Halloween, the odd weird hippie. It’s stuff to be mined for books and films, apparently.
Yet when acknowledged as part of actual cultures and lifestyles, denigration of The Other comes out in full force–how hook-nosed the witch and unnatural the fortune-teller, how dark the voodoo practitioners, how primitive the animists and all that. Or the beliefs and rituals great and small are carelessly boiled down to vague sayings and prophecies captured without context as evidence for how ancient, how simply and earthily fascinating these real, actual, contemporary people are, ignoring the layers of tradition which shape these ideas. It’s sheer disrespect.
I have to say I don’t much participate in the actual beliefs but I’m deeply interested in how people treat them. Here are some stories about spirits where the supernatural is deeply rooted in their respective settings in very different ways.
By Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, trans. Lola Rogers, 2013
When Lavie Tidhar described it as Twin Peaks meet Moomins, I couldn’t help but pick it up.
Initially I was turned off because on the first page we’re introduced to Ella Milana’s defective ovaries. Please. There’s always this creepy, obsessive concern about women’s reproductive organs (both cis and trans) as if they’re the foremost part of a woman’s essential self. Fortunately the protagonist’s ovaries are swiftly left behind and the book settles into a wonderfully creepy exploration of local myths surrounding spirits and human writers (and, perhaps, not-so-human writers). And yet–I won’t spoil you, but I’ve got to say that I’m not a great fan of neurological disorders as plot twists. Yeah, I’m such a killjoy.
What I unexpectedly enjoyed was the fact that it’s writing about writing. It’s an exploration of the sort of emotional contortions you do to mine the world for writing material, the strange process by which you become alienated from yourself and others in order to write about the human experience. The sort of fiction writing presented in the universe is shown as an act which alters the self and the very fabric of reality.
By Ursula K. Le Guin, 2008
Le Guin strikes a balance between the archaeological evidence of Bronze Age Italy and the Italy of Virgil’s poem, creating a world that is believably honest, small settlements with subsistence farmers and royalty that can speak for the spirits in the caves and rivers. There are no human-form gods, but there’s great reverence for the forces of the world; omens, prophecies, and ancestor worship are the rituals which anchor Lavinia’s world.
Both Virgil and Lavinia are also spirits, in a way: Virgil’s dying ghost-self time travels to Lavinia’s kingdom, and Lavinia herself understands she is a lightly sketched character, a half-thought, and it’s exactly because of this that she lives on.
What I found troubling was the depiction of Lavinia’s manipulative, controlling mother, Amata, as simply “mad”. She’s “mad” because she behaves in that way, and she behaves that way because she’s “mad”. Hmm. To my sketchy knowledge, Ancient Italians did think of extreme behaviour as the result of being overcome by strong emotions to the point of ill health, so, y’know, historicity and shit, but at the same time it ties into unfortunately common, contemporary ways we reductively view both abuse and mental illness.
By Benjanun Sriduangkaew, The End of the Road ed. John Oliver, 2013
Thailand is full of women celebrated as legend. Ordinary women can become spirits and goddesses if you believe in them enough. The common thread in the telling of these women, though, is that they die for or are purified by a man. Women are created and defined by men as shadows cast. Benjanun reworks local stories into ones where women are the centre.
A soldier, Thidakesorn, copes with the shock of war and grieves the loss of Queen Suriyothai. As she travels home alone she meets a woman, Ploy. What follows is a story of desire, the pretence it takes to survive, the various costumes we wear on our strange flesh.
By Nalo Hopkinson, 2000
This broke my heart. Caribbean spirits meet magic and technology in a world where interdimensional travel is possible. It is far from paradise. The protagonist, Tan-Tan, becomes herself in a fragmented world. She survives basically the entire gamut of childhood abuse, from the subtle to extreme (there is graphic sexual violence). Making herself into the Robber Queen persona is complicated; it’s part heroism, part coping mechanism. Tan-Tan is at once resilient and vulnerable; you don’t always like her, but you still, quite impossibly, want the best for her. This is also a story about story-telling, about myths and replication of information, of what it really means to communicate.
I wanted to read it mainly because of the opening paragraphs:
Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you a little bit with one anasi story:
It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree she planet.
This is Anglopatwa, a neologism by Hopkinson which describes the particular language used throughout the book, everything from the speech to the onomatopoeia. It reminds us well that stories, spec fic in particular, doesn’t need to be hemmed in by Standard English, and generally you’ve got to ask yourself what’s “normal” or “respectable” English. My ear was already used to aspects of Jamaican English; I imagine it’d be more of a barrier to those who aren’t used to the idea of multiple Englishes, but that’s their problem, frankly.
By Catherynne M. Valente, Apex Magazine, 2011 (Read it here)
Delicious. A demon wants to break bread with the little town of Sauve-Majeure, whose human citizens are split between Catholicism and Puritanism. You can probably guess what happens next. It’s the elegantly amused voice which really carries the narrative.
Valente leaves unsaid what exactly happened to make a many-crowned earth god into a demon. Instead, she focuses on that demon’s longing for companionship and the different ways humans attempt to make sense of her. 16th century religion and demonology cannot fully explain her. Aside from her loneliness, Agnes the demon is sufficient unto herself.