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.
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?
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.
1. The Rabbit Back Literature Society
By Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, trans. Lola Rogers, 2013
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.
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.
4. Midnight Robber
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.
5. The Bread We Eat In Dreams
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.