I have a story there. It’s my week 2 Clarion piece, “Ink: A Love Story”, about two writers who write their perfect lovers into existence.
I’m sharing the TOC with Clarion classmate Manish Melwani and the awesome Zen Cho, author of Sorceror to the Crown.
The cover of the issue, done by the talented Lydia Wong, was based on my story.
Please grab a copy now!
I’ve also just returned from the 1st Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Writers Workshop, which was held by the UP ICW at Microtel, UP TechnoHub. The focus was speculative fiction, a first for the Philippines. The workshop completely exceeded my expectations, from the quality of the work to the quality of the discussions to the quality of the accommodations. I was even struck down by stomach flu some hours just before the cosplay graduation ceremony, unfortunately. Photos to follow, but for now, here we are, about to watch the play Distrito de Molo at Palma Hall in UP (photo taken by panelist Eliza Victoria).
I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the year I turned 11. Like so many other Harry Potter fans, I was hoping against hope that Hogwarts was real and that I’d get a letter inviting me to attend (of course, no such thing happened). But then, I read a phrase that I didn’t realize the magical potency of until years later:
Harry laughed but didn’t voice the amazement he felt at hearing about other wizarding schools. He supposed, now that he saw representatives of so many nationalities in the campsite, that he had been stupid never to realize that Hogwarts couldn’t be the only one. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 85, US hardcover edition)
So even though my eleventh birthday passed (and my twelfth, thirteenth, all the way to my seventeenth) without my ever getting a letter and I eventually outgrew the series, I could always hold on to the hope that maybe somewhere in Harry’s world, there is a Philippine wizarding school and I or some fictional character like me was magic enough to attend.
I’ll preface this by saying that I am still holding out for information on the other four schools and that it occurred to me that judging this incomplete information may seem a little unfair. But even four additional new schools won’t be enough to appease my uneasy feeling toward there being only 11 wizarding schools on the face of the planet. Is the magical strain in each person so limited that only 11 schools can educate them all?
I’m going to begin by talking about Uagadou, the African school built into a mountainside and shrouded in mist.
It is apparently the oldest surviving school, out of many other smaller schools. That half-assed explanation almost appeased my rage, but how is it that Africa–which has 1,500-2,000 languages, an indeterminate number of tribes, and anywhere between 47 to 55 countries depending on whom you ask–has only one school of magic, which purportedly takes in students from all over the continent? And given that Europe has three schools of magic with three clearly different languages of instruction–seriously, why? What language of instruction are Uagadou’s teachers using and how are the students even getting along, especially if they are from warring tribes? What does this mean for the magical mechanics of the African brand of magic? (The same, in fact, can be argued for having only one school of magic in all of the South American continent.)
All that aside, do you notice how–and this is not new in pop culture–the Pottermore article and many of the news articles written up on it appear to be referring to Africa as if it were one country?
But hey, I’m not from any country in Africa by birth or by blood (although this person is qualified to speak further on the matter here and here), so I’m going to talk about the school that’s a little (sort of) closer to home.
Mahoutokoro (by the way, it is pronounced Mahōtokoro, at least get your pronunciation right) is situated on a supposedly uninhabited volcano island of Iwo Jima. Given that there is already a Harry Potter theme park in Japan, having a school there makes sense for practical reasons. But what really bugs me is, as of now, Mahoutokoro is the only magical school in all of Asia–and as the first one released, it is the best known. Of course it’s Japan–it’s the only Asian country the West seems to know, right?
(This is probably a quibble, but the fact that kids at start age seven and are given robes that change color according to your marks in class screams the Smart Asian stereotype to me.)
And the worst part is, nowhere does the text explicitly state that it takes students from all over Asia; it even says that it has the smallest population of all 11 schools. But even if it did take students from all over Asia, there are so many caveats–as someone who spent a few days in Japan, I can tell you that you’d need to have more than a working knowledge of conversational Nihonggo and the ability to read katakana, hiragana, and kanji if you want to live in Japan.
And then there’s the money. You can argue that traveling is for free in the wizarding world, but let’s not forget how much schooling costs. Do I even need to state that Japan, just like Britain and the US, is a rich nation?
I have a theory as to why these schools were so short-sightedly located and why the mechanics seem so short-sighted, too. Rowling was probably thinking with the mindset of a native English speaker living in a primarily English-speaking nation–meaning, everyone speaks one language (or at least knows the dominant/common language) and so, they can all go to the same school. At least, that’s what I think must be one of the rationales behind Uagadou’s holding together such a diverse population of students. Yes, I know they don’t need wands and presumably words to perform magical acts, but let’s put magical mechanics aside and talk about practicality in education. The same goes for Castelobruxo and might probably be true for Mahoutokoro (regional dialects aside).
Which means that, until information on the other schools come to light, in Harry Potter’s canon, every other Asian in Asia cannot go to magic school.
(Side note: the Patil twins are Indian in heritage, but they might as well be white [the Goblet of Fire movie does a better job of at least displaying their heritage by giving them Yule Ball dresses of an Indian design]. If there is no magic school in India, this seems to imply that Indians need to travel to England, their ex-colonial master, in order to get a magical education.)
Because I am a writer who can attribute her love of fantasy chiefly to the Harry Potter series, this revelation regarding the canon led me down the road to a worldbuilding exercise.
So, going by the language rationale and judging by the schools’ tendency to be housed in ancient temples or royal landmarks (not so sure about Uagadou, sorry), if there were to be a school in South East Asia (SEA) that took in students from all over the region, it would most probably be in Malaysia, with Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia tied for second place. I am thinking of Malaysia because it’s such a melting pot of cultures and because as a former British colony, English is widely spoken and the SEAsians can best understand each other using English. If there were ever a Philippine school, it would probably be in a Spanish colonial building on Siquijor (well known as our Witch Island) and the medium of instruction would be primarily English, given our past as an ex-colony of the US.
But this tends to ignore how each SEAsian nation has its own mythologies, cryptozoologies, and brands of magic. Because of its archipelagic geography, the Philippines alone has many brands within its own culture–for further information, read Paolo Chikiamco’s essay “Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue” in vol. 1 of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. But for now, here are Paolo’s words on the essay.
My solution to that problem: make a magic school for every country. If you want to learn about another country’s magic system, the Castelobruxo entry clearly states that there is an exchange program.
Argument: Chill out, these are just books!
Maybe, but I clearly recall instances of several churches burning copies of the books because they purportedly influence children to engage in Satanistic practices or whatever. Whether a “good” book or a “bad” book, books have power. Specifically, her books made me want to write my own. Specifically, I am a fan trying to engage with a series that was a huge part of her childhood with the rhetoric of an adult. As we say in my country, walang basagan ng trip (or roughly, “let’s each have our fun”).
Argument: Much of the Harry Potter series is already problematic, so why bother dissecting it when others already have?
I know it is. I love other problematic works of literature, like Lord of the Rings, but sometimes, I ponder on what it could have done better. My friends and family can be problematic too, but I love them and I often think on their flaws. I am a problematic person and I definitely think on my own flaws (that’s why I’m such an anxious, neurotic person). I am trying to make sense of something that is known to a lot of people because I am trying to figure out what it means for me.
Everyone who isn’t the right skin color or gender or sexual orientation has a story that serves as their entry point to the diversity talks. I thought for a long time that I was one of those people who read stories about white people’s adventures and didn’t have any strong feelings on invisibility toward them because on some level I knew that their problems and cultures were so far away from my own so as not to concern me. But I felt a strong push when I read an article on the 11 wizarding schools because Harry Potter was one of the few books that burrowed deeply into my psyche as a child, and now, I am confronting what makes the series problematic head-on, in much the same way that a child comes to terms with the fact that his/her parents are not gods.
Argument: The books were written a decade before the diversity and race talks became mainstream, so don’t critique it using modern standards.
Literature majors do this kind of thing all the time for the senior thesis, so why can’t I do this for fun? But that aside, the existence of Pottermore and the continual release of new information regarding the world of Harry Potter means that it will be subject to criticism using modern-day standards. The fact that Rowling revealed that there are Jewish wizards:
Seraphina is about a teenage girl with a talent for music and a terrible secret landing a job as assistant to the court composer in an alternate medieval world of an uneasy peace between humans and dragons. Just as she arrives at court, one of the princes of the royal family of Goredd is murdered, and the mystery surrounding his death is a lot closer to her past and family than Seraphina would like. She ends up teaming up with bastard prince Lucian Kiggs, whose reputation as a skilled investigator and position as Captain of the Royal Guard make him the most likely person to ferret out Seraphina’s secrets. Together, they uncover a plot that could unbalance the world they know.
It’s been a long time since I picked up a novel, longer still since deliberately choosing a Young Adult fantasy novel as reading material thanks to a dearth of vampire romances and their copycats, and even longer still since I devoured a Young Adult novel featuring dragons from cover to cover. Seraphina breathes new life into the genre not only with its unique mix of fantasy tropes, but with how it treats the intelligence of its readers, who are supposedly aged 12 and above, with respect: the novel presents concepts in art, religion, philosophy, politcs, race, gender, and love, and fully expects its readers to engage with these.
The goal of any novel should be to prove to readers why they are taking time away from their precious families/friends/significant other/pets/internet/work/food/sleep for its sake. Seraphina accomplished this goal magnificently, in my opinion; every page had a new plot twist and every chapter ended in either a cliffhanger or a stepping stone to a spiraling event, resulting in my going to bed at 2:30a.m. on a weeknight and no regrets in the morning.
The writing itself flows smoothly, unimpeded by unnecessary words (although it does not shy away from big words, especially when dragons discuss math and music). It is also descriptive using only light touches, as with this quote from a Porphyrian philosopher that describes Seraphina’s mind’s garden:
“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.” (p. 442)
Which is a feat considering how many rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments the reader is introduced to (and some of which turn out to be actual medieval rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments, according to the author interview bundled with my edition).
There’s a great balance between exposition and being left to figure out what such-and-such is supposed to be or mean. The society is sufficiently complex: the novel contains some very realistic portrayals of racism and prejudice between the humans, dragons, and even the lesser dragon race of the quigutl, and this is dealt with in different tones. Take for example, this ironic quote:
“I scrupulously hide every legitimate reason for people to hate me, and it turns out they don’t need legitimate reasons. Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with.” (p.124)
And this humorous passage:
An aged monk led me to the infirmary. “He’s got the place to himself. Once the other invalids learned there was a dragon coming, they miraculously got well! The lame could walk and the blind decided they didn’t really need to see. He’s a panacea.” (p. 429)
Nuances within each race are also present—for instance, dragons are emotionless (or are damn well trying to be), but that does not mean they are not complex creatures driven by a thirst for knowledge and bound by the philosophy of “ard” or order. Worldbuilding-wise, my favorite aspect is Seraphina’s ever-changing mental garden of grotesques, which houses others of her kind whom she regularly has visions of, and some of whom actually see her and try to reach out to her (not always in good ways). It also seems like an ideal technique for dealing with problems in real life.
Seraphina herself is a compelling character. Her struggle with loathing her body and self completely resonated with me. I think my two favorite things about her is that 1) her actions make her out to be a courageous young woman even though she never once felt courageousness in her bones, and 2) she can take jokes about herself, going so far as to refrain correcting those people and incorporating them into some lie or other that she built around herself. I sometimes wondered if she was snatched out of precarious situations by too many lucky coincidences, but I tended to forget that as I read on.
The supporting cast is full of characters to love or feel compassionate toward. Seraphina’s dragon tutor Orma is an adorable, socially awkward scholar (but then, all dragons are socially awkward, as they still don’t get the nuances of human interaction even after 40 years of walking in their skins and feeling their discomforts). Princess Glisselda could easily have been the typical flighty dimwit, but Hartman also makes her out to be shrewd in affairs of state as well as friendly. Even Seraphina’s lawyer father Claude was not the yelling, antagonistic person I had initially expected him to be.
I want to use Prince Lucian Kiggs’ character as a touchstone of an aspect of Seraphina I absolutely adored and which stood out for me the most: the novel’s treatment of relationships. As someone who plays a lot of dating simulation games and who ends up writing relationship-focused fiction herself, it was refreshing to watch the unfolding of a love story that began from a place of mutual respect and friendship instead of mutual disgust or mutual attraction. Kiggs and Phina’s—as he calls her when he isn’t upset with her—relationship trajectory is just as rocky as any of the great romances, but the bullheadedness and stupidity that often plunges them downward are more borne of the conflicts in their goals and their personalities instead of an authorial need to get the plot going. At their best, their respective intelligences dance in perfect step with each other, more than their actual bodies dancing the pavano, such as when they quote Porphyrian philosophy to each other while speculating or extrapolating on clues.
One of the best scenes starring Kiggs and Phina involved them having a private conversation at the steps of Kiggs’ “beastly tower”, a day or so after Phina insults Kiggs, who once again asked too many personal questions. The word “love” will not make itself seen until some chapters later, but you can really sense over the next four pages that Kiggs and Phina are falling for each other the more they discuss Porphyrian philosophers and their treatises. Afterward, when they bid each other good night and he closes the door, she turns around and stands with her hand on the the surface for a long time, wondering what Kiggs does up there, leaving only when one of her musicians walks by and asks if she’s all right. As I read the novel in both public and private spaces, I had to struggle to contain gigantic grins whenever I read a scene concerning these two (ultimately resulting in some weird facial expressions)—and I’m usually very difficult to impress when it comes to romances.
It isn’t just Kiggs that Seraphina has a strong, complex bond with, however. She also has a strong familial relationship with Orma. They never say the word “love” to each other, but it’s clear that even Orma—who should not be feeling love, as this is considered a disease in dragon culture—cares deeply for Seraphina. Seraphina could also have easily hated Princess Glisselda, who is her music student and romantic rival, and her father Claude for keeping her sheltered most of her life, but she reacts to them with compassion and understanding. Her relationship with her mother Linn, who left her a mind pearl of maternal memories, does have shades of anger in there for her perceived recklessness in falling in love, marrying, and having a child with her father—but that reaction does not end there. Seraphina eventually manages to find empathy for her mother with every new maternal memory she experiences.
These nuanced relationships also reflect on the world at large: yes, Goreddi society is flourishing after forty years of peace with dragons, but that has done nothing to ease the hatred and violence its members commit against the dragons in their human forms (called saarantrai in the plural). Yes, the ruler who forged the peace with the dragons is female and it seems that their long line privileges women in the seat of power, but clothier Thomas Broadwick can still insinuate that Seraphina is a “worm-riding quig lover” who will end up in a sack in the river after he sees her buying a figurine from a quigutl. Yes, Seraphina loves Orma and can understand dragon language and behavior, but she finds newskins or newly transformed dragons appalling to behold and refers to herself often as a monster due to her parentage. The child who picks up this book for the first time will be forced to ask questions while the adult looking for cultural, racial, and political realism will be satisfied—or at least, I was. I was so satisfied that I went looking for other similar Young Adult fantasy novels with the small hope that I would find something just as complex but would induce in me the same amount of sheer joy.
When I reached the end of Seraphina during lunch out with my family, just before diving into the 30+ pages of bonus materials in my edition and some hours before I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy of the sequel Shadow Scale without a second thought, I laid my head on the table and told my sister, “You know that feeling you get when you realize that a book has wrecked you in a good way? This book has wrecked me.“
Finding this book (and its unusually bright cover) in the usually snooty Literature section of the bookstore,
The blurb from the amazing Kelly Link at the back,
Finding out that the author’s day job is that of a journalist,
And the summary stating that this would be a book about a smart, cynical grad school student caught up in a magical world a la Narnia, Oz, Fairyland.
I even read the first couple of paragraphs in the store itself and thought, wow, looks like it’s off to a good start, even if it’s a little slow–and there are 560+ pages!
But, to my disappointment, the novel doesn’t deliver after that good start. It gets exciting when the protagonist, Nora, literally walks into another world, but the things that happen to her from then on made me want to facepalm in secondhand embarrassment for her.
Nora is the thinking woman of the title. Even though she’s stuck in a rut with regard to her English postgraduate thesis, the fact is, she’s made out to be pretty smart, if somewhat dense in the romance area (she was still kinda pining for her ex-boyfriend, who is going to marry someone else in a few months. He invites her to the wedding and she rightfully gets upset, at least). She adores Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book that becomes a literal plot point, and idolizes Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but she’s not even half as sharp as the former.
Case in point: during a weekend wedding, she immediately gets caught up in the glittering world of the Faitoren, the queen of which, Illisa, regales her with illusions of parties from glamorous eras from her world (like the Hollywood Golden Age). Nora even gets engaged to, marries, and has the child of smooth bastard Raclin, Illisa’s son. Yet things go downhill from there (like, near-murder and a miscarriage downhill, none of which psychologically affect her for long), and she’s rescued by the grim, cruel magician Aruendiel, who begrudgingly takes her in and eventually condescends to “teach” her some magic (not much teaching going on there, really). By the way, when Nora leaves the beautiful illusion of the fey world, she stumbles into another Medieval Europe analogue–complete with castles and pastures and poor peasants, but with magic thrown in.
The first 300-400 pages felt like the author was feeling her way around the world just as Nora was, so not much goes on there except to parse out bits of Aruendiel’s history as Nora falls in love with him. She also falls for him despite the fact that he is, oh, I dunno, 180 years old, half-dead, killed his first wife, and treats her like a simpleton–which she is, considering how halfway through the book, she sees Ilisa again and literally walks right into her arms. Or she would have, if Aruendiel hadn’t saved her–and despite being a simpleton, he also falls for her. I can’t even.
And that ending. You’re warned somewhere that this is the first book in a trilogy, kinda forget it as you plod through the serviceable but ultimately pointless prose (I mean, I did keep reading ’til the end), and then get smacked by the fact of the trilogy at the tail-end of the book.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic wanted to be a lot of things: portal fantasy, epic magical war story, Pride and Prejudice romance, contemporary romance novel. Perhaps it is all those things, and I may have missed a few. But I feel like a better job could have been done in stitching all those together and cutting off so much excess.
Also, it boggles me that Amazon categorized the book under Horror > Occult. There was nothing scary about it (except for the horrifying way Nora kept getting herself into messes that could have been avoided if she stopped to think for a bit), and I am a huge scaredy-cat.
Things have been pretty quiet around here. Bear with me while I adjust to some life changes, including a new job and a rowdy litter of puppies.
But I’ve also been writing a novella at the same time. It’s kept me sane since January, for which I am grateful considering some of the really shitty things I’ve been through of late. This story is the big revision on my Week 3 Clarion story. I’ve titled it “The Witch and the Mango Tree,” at least until a better title comes along.
Earlier today, I got to share over at Where Ghost Words Dwell a scrap that I may or may not reinstate at a later date titled “Apologies Eaten.” Do check it out! And if it makes you want to read my other works, all the better. 🙂
“To Megan, with Half My Heart,” my short story about Philippine folklore, first love, and motherhood, is now live at Expanded Horizons!
I wrote drafts of “Megan” as early as 2009, but I wasn’t ready to write the story yet. Apparently, I was ready enough to tackle the content as part of my undergraduate thesis in 2012, however. An earlier version of this story appeared in The Silliman Journal vol. 54 no. 2, and in the Heights anniversary issue.
If you find that it floats your boat, please feel free to share it 😀
Before the actual post starts, let’s be clear here: Week Four Syndrome is a thing. But one will never be prepared for it no matter how many Clarion blogs one reads. I know I certainly wasn’t. In general, it’s usually the week when all the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological exhaustion comes to a head in this pressure cooker of a writing workshop.
Considering how this week was probably the Peak of All Intensity at Clarion and due to the personal nature of much of what I’m about to post, I’ve had to sit back and re-review why exactly I am writing these posts, and for whom (just like when writing a story). I do this for the following reasons:
To process. The week before, I experienced a rather rude awakening, which became key to discovering that I have become frighteningly good at repressing my feelings when I need to let them out the most (more on this later). In the interest of unlocking my emotions and allowing myself to recover from Clarion and from that major issue plaguing me, I will try not to back down from writing about the hard stuff.
To back up. As you will see further down, there will be a point where I will lose almost all my data. As of this writing, I have taken my hard drive to two specialists and the common verdict is that the data can no longer be read. Should all of the things I wrote down be lost some day, I have one “back up” at least.
To remember. I’ve made a lot of memory maps for myself with myriad things over the course of 6 weeks; now it’s time to make one giant map I can rely on in the future.
To help future Clarionites. Especially the ones who, like me, read blog posts obsessively. I also noted that I never really read a post that was “a little bit of everything,” so I am writing the type of posts I would have wanted to read.
P.S. Padding this with some unrelated photos because I did not take enough photos of this week.
SAN DIEGO ZOO! After breakfast with Nora, Sarena drove me, Leena, Tamara, and Marian there just as it opened. We bought sandwiches and water bottles at Ralph’s first, which turned out to be a good idea.I stared at Sarena’s car’s carpets most of the way to SDZ in order to contain my excitement. I was finally gonna get to see a giraffe up close and in person!
I wonder what coming in the evening would have been like; when we got there, it was as if most of the animals partied hard the night before and were nursing hangovers in their dens. The giraffes were wide awake and enjoying a 15-minute-long line of people who wanted to feed them, though (the others kindly chose a cafe where I’d have a good view of them walking around and joked after I returned from the bathroom that they were probably going to skip the giraffes). I settled for taking their photos just outside their fence. Saw the two baby giraffes! And the one who is my age came up to the hollowed-out stump of a feeding trough near where I was standing and so graciously posed for me.
Some other highlights: coming face-to-face with a red panda and not knowing if it was real or stuffed (it was real; it scampered back into the tree just when we took out our cameras); world-famous baby panda Xiao Liwu turning in its sleep; seeing a baby Visayan warthog try to clamber over a sleeping adult and fall off; watching a grizzly bear eat a hare (accidentally dropping it over its pool’s edge, flinging back into the pool, all that jazz); a glimpse of a sleeping polar bear with its pink ball very close; coming up to the completely zoned out and drooling Bactrian camel’s den (one of its humps was deflated); that sign that said that the llamas were probably out walking with their keepers; accidentally finding out that rhino penises can reach the ground; buying Harry a stuffed toy sloth and Marian a stuffed toy unicorn for their birthdays; and getting lost in the zoo with the others at around 2 p.m.
When we returned to campus, Nora had put up her prompt: create a culture completely unlike anything on Earth. I could have easily given into hyperventilating, but surprisingly, the prompt was helpful in rejiggering my plot for this week’s story, which would turn out to be the first science fiction story I’d ever write. It seemed to make more sense to me, at least. I invented a race on Pluto that would later be called “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space.”
Luckily, we had only two stories to tackle for Monday. Went out onto the cliffs with a few of the others. Amanda, Nino, and I talked about that green flash sunset that occurred for a fraction of a moment sometime last week (I managed to see it, luckily, without even knowing beforehand that they existed).
At around 11 p.m., just as I had decided to shower, Amanda and I were disturbed by some persistent knocking on our front door. They turned out to be a raucous group of teenage boys with thick European (Scandinavian?) accents. I dealt with them on the other side of the window; they looked surprised to see Amanda and I.
“Oh, we’re sorry,” said one that looked like Skandar Keynes. “But have you seen anyone our age?”
My mouth: “Try downstairs.”
My brain: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, OUR AGE? HOW OLD DO I LOOK TO YOU?”
Rotten kids. *grumble grumble*
Saw that I hadn’t used some brown flats I’d specifically bought for this trip, so I thought while I was rushing out, hey, why not, my black ones were full of sand from the cliffs anyway. By the time I got to the cafeteria, I was limping on one foot and figured I’d have no time to have breakfast if I’m walking this slow. By the time I got to the classroom, I was being asked, “What happened to you?” because I was limping and the backs of my feet were raw and bleeding. It was suggested to me that I walk barefoot for the rest of the day, like Cat did last week–I will never wish I could walk barefoot around any outdoorsy place again.
The workshop rules were changed once again. I think we kept to the usual amount of speaking time, but Nora introduced the concept of “Ditto/Anti-Ditto” in which the group agrees or disagrees with the speaker’s critique. She also said that she’d only read one submission story each from us, but opened up extra hours to anyone who wanted a discussion about that particular story. Like Geoff from Week 2, Nora also had some discussions ready–but unlike Geoff, these were not to be MFA-type line-by-line discussions of texts; they had more to do with the political aspects of writing.
In the case of Monday, Nora and the 2014 class built a world together–a completely secondary world where some of the scientific theories, tectonic shifts, and equatorial lines governing the planet were shit, but would do for the time being.
“The key to worldbuilding is plausibility, not science,” Nora said. “Science can be the chocolate coating on the pill you’re trying to sell.”
More on plausibility:
“Depending on how good a writer you are, you can sell any size of a whopper to an audience–but you have to have dollops of plausibility.”
“Small details help establish that this world is not our own, but it is close. You can only put stuff in dollops, you can’t overdo it.”
“Worldbuilding is nothing but plausibility.”
She had other gems for us too:
“You’re trying to sell the inculcation of thought in worldbuilding.”
“You need to understand how the world works even when the readers do not.”
“A lot of what we do in worldbuilding is informed by misinformation on how the real world works.”
“To be a good SFF writer, you need to be informed by reality.”
“Class struggle is not a hierarchy–it’s all over the place.”
“There is no fix for a system that eats/consumes its citizens; it should just be burnt down and the citizens should start over.”
We constructed a history in which the Tropical Forest People of the Western Side of the Pangaea-like Continent were on top for a long while due to having all the resources and thus, a faster technological development. But then, over the mountains bisecting the Continent lay the Desert and its Desert People and the Nomadic Tribes to the far East. Both the Eastern and Western Peoples weather constant raids from the small but hardy group of Vikings living on a Frozen Northern Island. The Desert People’s kingdoms and the Nomadic Tribes are united by Princess Priscilla the Wrestler, daughter of a conquering king, who chooses her husbands (yes, plural) according to whosoever can beat her at wrestling. At the point of the worldbuilding in which we stopped, Priscilla had three husbands, one of them in charge of a large navy that can circle the continent and head for the Tropical Forest People, whom they’d been unable to assail up until that point due to the mountain range. The navy encounters an archipelago to the South, which isn’t really their goal, but they’ve discovered that those islands have spices…
Nora stopped us there and told us that she just wanted to show us the kind of thought that should go into worldbuilding. And then we went for lunch. Amin and I accompanied Nora to the bike rental shop, as she was used to biking around in New York. Amin came away with a bike himself, though the two of them walked their bikes because:
I don’t fit on either of their bikes, tiny as I am,
I don’t know how to ride a bike, and
I was walking without shoes.
We parted with Nora on her floor, and then Amin and I spent 10 hilariously confusing minutes trying to figure out how to park the bike on one of the handle-thingies outside the elevator leading to our floor. I don’t know about Amin, but I have never seen any of those things anywhere in Manila. Noah looked pretty confused himself when I finally showed up at his door and the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you know how to park a bike?” And when we got to Amin, he’d finally figured out what that hook thing was for. Hay.
Found out that a storm had hit the country yet again and my hometown (or rather, my home city) was right in the storm path.
In the afternoon, I decided to do my critiques in the Common Room because I realized that we were already halfway through Clarion and Greg did advise us during Week 1 that when faced with the choice of writing more or partying more for the duration of this workshop, we should choose to party. These were bonds that were going to last us a lifetime. Six weeks is not enough to get to know 18 people, let alone one, and I only had three left. I felt the quality of my writing was going to dip for this, but I brushed that aside as I joined Noah and Marian in the first of our Wine-and-Popcorn nights.
Decided that the two main characters in my story for this week would be two men in a loving relationship. That was a first for me.
In the afternoon, my friends back home were typing in our group chat that they were scared because the wind was so loud and the windows had been blown open and some were afraid that their roofs might fly off. Using the internet on his phone, my dad told me that the storm knocked out the electricity at my house–at most people’s houses, really. Heard that my niece was inconsolable, as she’s developed a phobia related to the sound of rain.
Had a good, much-needed discussion about writing the other in class, during which Nora recommended reading Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Luckily, I got my copy in the mail the week before and told the others I’d leave it on the Common Room table for the rest of the workshop if they wanted to read it. Something to keep in mind from Nora that day: “You’re not stuck writing your own culture, but you have to recognize the power differential.”
After lunch today, Kiik talked to me about considering the MFA program at UCSD. He walked me to the cafe behind the bookstore, where I was going for the first time and had no idea existed. It’s a nice, quiet place to work (and feel the desperation creeping in with regard to where your story’s going)–and what’s more, they had a Doge drawing on their cafe board. I found a table where Marty was sitting and reminded him that I was still up for beta reading his story for this week, as he asked me to do the week before.
On the story front, I was having trouble making the plot gel together, as it was also the first time I was writing a story following an emotional arc. I told Cat during our one-on-one the week before when she asked me what I had the most trouble with was putting emotions into a story. What I said was, “I have a hard time putting emotion into my stories…I write and write and write…until I crack.” I’d pushed the worry into the back of my mind, to be dealt with when I was more desperate.
Marty and I ran into Ryan sitting at one table, as he’s supposed with Shelley, like I was. She offered to read any story we like every week and talk about it for maybe half an hour. I was only able to meet with her this week because the story I wanted to send (my Week 3 piece) was completed only the week before.
After talking about my story and bringing up important points that confused me some more (in a good way), she asked me how I was doing, how the class was doing, how I’m liking the workshop and everything. Up until this point, Shelley and the instructors have been repeating what a good class we are–not just in quality, but also in how we interact with each other. Sure, there are ruffled feathers every now and then, but things could have been way worse.
This is something Nora reiterated during her Empathy lecture after dinner, but the point would not be driven home until later in the week. Meanwhile, the Empathy lecture was pretty eye-opening: she started off by telling us that different people of different cultures have very specific delusions when they have psychotic breaks. She also defined empathy for us:
Empathy: Seeing another’s differences, sympathizing and feeling for them.
Bigotry: The breakdown of empathy.
Nora stated that “Empathy failures are compounded by intersections of hierarchies (called kyriarchies), the tops of which are continually aggrandized by the lower ones.”
“When writing the other, any other at all, you need to understand them to the degree that you can, even if you feel contempt for them,” Nora explained. “You have to regard them with the same love and respect you hold yourself to.”
Well, who knew I’d be able to connect my religion lessons as a Catholic schoolgirl here?
Nora continued, “You need to address all your empathy gaps to be a very good writer; this will help stop you from falling back on cliched ways of depicting people different from you. As artists, we must engage that which is ugly and fucked up.”
Nora also opened up about her troubles with death and rape threats the previous year due to Vox Day and his compatriots. Then she gave us an exercise in which we had to imagine a person or group each of us felt contempt for and imagine extending empathy toward them. It was really hard for a lot of us. She also challenged us to try writing an empathetic story about a group we feel contempt for. I don’t know if any of us took on that challenge, but it is definitely more difficult than many of the challenges we were issued before.
Then we all went off to karaoke, which Nora took a crack at even though she had bronchitis. As usual, we brought our manuscripts to the pub and read while waiting for our turns, not forgetting to clap and cheer once the singer was done. I took a break from the pop-rock songs for a bit and sang Katy Perry’s “Thinking of You.” Not long after, Kayla asked me to duet with her on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” I didn’t know a lot of the lyrics, but Kayla took care of that and we belted the choruses together.
Before breakfast, I went into Harry’s room to greet him happy birthday and present him with the sloth that the girls and I bought him at San Diego Zoo. He was ecstatic. I wish I took a photo.
Dad said that my grandmother got her power back and that they’re going there for a while to charge their cell phones and laptops. He sent me pictures of our dogs and of felled so many trees by Commonwealth Avenue, the main road we go down every day. He also sent me a photo of my best friend, whom they met by chance at the McDonald’s near my old university. She had the poor timing to come home from Hong Kong in between resigning from her old job and starting her new one.
Marian got her stuffed toy unicorn and a bouquet of roses from her husband for her birthday before class began. Sweetest thing ever ❤
Class is really starting to feel the strain of having been cooped together for four weeks without being able to see our families, friends, and lovers. Or do anything that isn’t connected to writing, really–I know that I have to force myself to go out and have fun on the weekends. Admittedly, there was even a moment after I woke up on Sunday morning wherein I almost decided foregoing the zoo in favor of writing. Argh. But I asked for this and I got exactly what I signed up for–boot camp pressure cooker blues. After class, I asked Nora if I could talk to her about one of my submission stories tomorrow and she agreed.
Marty passed me his story for the afternoon. He did warn me that it’d be pretty long and also reminded me that I opened the floodgates with my 8K whopper last week. Between writing, we ended up talking about what we think we write about and why we write what we write and all that. I enjoyed that discussion, but I was also using it as an excuse to avoid writing the scene(s) that I’d have to dig really deep down for.
Nora’s reading! I felt a little guilty for being one of the people who entreated her to our (fun) karaoke night as her bronchitis hadn’t gotten any better. Was also really excited for her to read something from the upcoming Inheritance trilogy novella, The Awakened Kingdom, but as a lot of people in the audience hadn’t read it yet and the very fact of the novella’s protagonist is a major series spoiler, she read from her upcoming novel The Fifth Seasoninstead.
Also bought some McDonald’s fare because I’d forgotten to eat dinner on account of griping over my story, as I didn’t even know if I’d hit the halfway point and my session was on Friday and holy god, how did everyone else manage? Was I the only one flailing in my unintentional procrastination? But anyway, I was shocked to discover that I could not finish the pack of McDonald’s fries. I’d also managed to hold off on the softdrinks until that very night–I’d forgotten to buy a water bottle.
A few more people joined Marian, Noah, and I at the Common Room afterward, but it eventually dwindled to just the three of us again. Noah fell asleep while Marian and I ranted to each other over garlic-flavored popcorn (mostly me) and wine (mostly her).
Parents still don’t have power. I count myself lucky to have heard from them at all. Can’t imagine what I’d feel if none of them had data plans on their phones. No yoga class today, as even Sarena was feeling kinda fizzled out.
Nora told us in class that people have been randomly coming to her room and talking out a problem or two with her. She said that that was normal and that apparently, at this camp thing for teenagers that she helps run in her day job, the same thing is happening (only much worse because teenagers don’t yet have the adult restraint needed). She repeated that we were actually a pretty good group, as we were letting off steam in little hisses and pops instead of in one giant explosion.
After class, Marty and I walk together and I talk to him about his story. We almost missed lunch, sitting under a tree near Canyon Vista and chatting about what I perceived were possible revision points. At some point, he introduced me to PuppyCat and we somehow created our own version of Chekhov’s Gun (or Chekhov’s Chupacabra, in my class’s case): “Use the sword, PuppyCat!” Grabbed a cheeseburger at the cafeteria–that was my first time doing so, and I have to say, it wasn’t all that bad.
We wrote in the cafe again for a while, but I eventually went back to the apartments for my first one-on-one with Nora. She talked to me about the issue of translation in my story “A Cha-Cha with Insanity,” which was written as a lifestyle article about Philippine mythological creatures staging a play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, to the chagrin of most humans (this story was re-titled to “First play for and by Tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night” and has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9). She told me that even something as simple as translation could be pandering to a wider-known culture, as I’d put an English translation next to the deeper Tagalog dialogue–language is political, in short. This led to questions of whom do I think my audience is, and I surprised myself when I said, “It depends on the story.” She referred me to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who has talked about the use of dialects and native languages.
I returned to the apartment and ate a combination of Creams peanut butter cookies and lemon-laced Animal Crackers on my bed and worked until my laptop conked out. Luckily, my story’s file was still open, but I was completely unable to access the other files. Tried restarting and a bunch of other things–hardware tries to install, but fails miserably. I saved the file in a completely different drive, unable to process for now what just happened. Kept writing until I hit breaking point and tears were welling up in my eyes when it should have been ideas in my head. I had no more time to back away from what was most tender to me.
I went to Amanda’s room, asking if I could stay here a while. When she let me, I went over to a free bed of hers and just cried. The story I was writing was about two artists in a loving relationship (they’re both men; a first for me)–until one gets a grant to study the subject matter of his art (the created culture) on another planet. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to write because I somehow managed to transpose the angst that’d crop up whenever my boyfriend and I talk about me pursuing my passions in another country (MFA, Clarion, what have you). We’d been together since we were college sophomores–in fact, our fourth anniversary fell upon my second day ever at Clarion–and my six weeks there was the longest we’d ever spent apart. Somehow, while writing this story, I ended up recalling many of our conversations about this, and about how lucky we seemed to think we were for having each other. The line that made it into my story (which also happened to be the line that broke me) was “How did I ever snag somebody like him?”
But in the end, I pulled myself together, finished the story–knowing that I had several loose ends by going with that happy ending–and submitted it.
Hung out at the Common Room and got very cold yet again. Manish told me he was going to a class reunion in Las Vegas and would be happy to send me my critique next week, when he gets back. We also agreed that by Sunday or Monday, he’d let me know if I can have his Wednesday slot because a few weeks ago, I stupidly believed that I could handle writing a story between Friday and Monday.
Decided to sit next to Nora for my session, as it’d been a while since I sat next to an instructor. I wore my purple dress and brought Toothless with me–and I will never forget the way Nora’s eyes bugged out as she squee’d (yes, squee’d) over Toothless when I set him down on the table.
“Do you wanna borrow him for a while?” I asked, smiling.
“No,” Nora said. She held him like an evil villain does his fluffy pet cat and stroked his back. “If I do, you’ll never get him back.” And she set him down next to me again.
My session went relatively well. I know that I rushed the ending because I just wanted it to be over and it didn’t quite resolve a lot of loose ends–however, that’s not why I started crying like nobody’s business. I am very sorry to everyone whom I made uncomfortable. I explained when it was my turn to talk that the writing had taken a lot out of me and I don’t even know why I’m crying myself. I also said that I made the ending happy because it seemed like everyone needed something to cheer up over this week (and, really, I am a firm believer in hopeful endings if not happy ones). Also, Nino had the cutest drawing of her interpretation of my “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space” on my critique.
In the afternoon, Nora and I discussed the story I put forward in class. She said it was extremely close to publication but I might want to look into fixing the ending and a minor point about colonization that was easily fixable. She also asked me if my boyfriend and I had been separated before (I said that this was the longest period in our relationship so far) and how was my family doing (I explained about the storm). She noted that I was under a lot of stress and that maybe I should try writing flash next week to relax–and considering how many days I accidentally gave myself to write, that was probably a good idea.
In the evening, Nora gave us her final lecture, which was about life as a professional writer after Clarion. There were 7 main points overall, with lots of tips in between:
Get business cards made
Work on your 30-seconds-or-less elevator pitch
Get on the slate at your local readings or start your own reading series
Begin developing multiple lines of income
Tax–file for anything that helps your business as a writer
Join writers’ groups
Get an agent as soon as you finish your first novel
“Celebrate every milestone and victory,” Nora said. And with that, she stepped out of the Common Room, put on her shades, and stepped back inside with a loaded water gun. There was a box full of unloaded ones at her feet. “You guys must have forgotten that you have these. You have 60 seconds to load ’em up and meet me downstairs.”
And thus, the great Clarion Water Gun Fight of 2014 began. There was much jumping over bushes and hiding behind pillars and sending down empty elevators and throwing water balloons.
SAN DIEGO PRIDE PARADE! Ryan took Harry, Amanda, Nino, and I. I was really excited, as I’d never been to a Pride Parade before. Ryan warned me that there may be naked people there and I braced myself to have my Victorian sensibilities scandalized, but nothing of the sort happened. Also, why did no one tell me there would be a surplus of cute dogs?!
What I liked about the parade was how interactive it was with the crowd–that is to say, people walking up to you and giving you free stuff. Plus, quite a number of cute guys and near-naked buff guys and cute, buff, near-naked guys–and for some strange reason, PUGS IN STROLLERS. I got a photo with what I like to call a Rainbow Stormtrooper of Love.
We had a light breakfast before going around the shops (where I ended up buying the jelly fruits my mom had been bugging me to get and a second hand book of Sharon Shinn’s The Thirteenth House); Nino and Amanda were nicely dressed up. Somehow, Nino let me have the salmon on her sandwich, which she didn’t like, prompting Ryan to suggest we go to a sushi place for lunch. Then I got really excited–I thought I would have to stave off the sushi for six weeks because I heard how expensive it was, so I pigged out with my officemates the day before I left Manila.
If you’d like a quick education in culture, I highly recommend eating sushi with people from different countries. Ryan and Nino were very surprised when I took the lemon slice from my glass of water and squeezed it over the soy sauce (“I’ve never seen anybody do that,” Ryan remarked), as the resto probably didn’t have calamansi (I explained the concept of calamansi to them, but sadly had no visual aids). Meanwhile, since we had a plate full of different kinds of rolls, I was surprised at how much Californians liked putting avocado in stuff. It was nice to know that Ryan liked uni, too.
We went back after lunch and…I don’t know how I managed to lounge around that afternoon, but I did. When I came up, Nora was making gumbo with Nino’s help and Nino’s thumb had a humongous bandage with a smiley face on it. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had already arrived, too, but they turned in early after some gumbo because they were tired from the trip.
Thus ended Week 4. I don’t know if I’ve said it before elsewhere, but Nora was the perfect teacher for Week 4 (and she told us too that she was originally for Week 2). I’m really thankful for having her be with us at the right time and right place…and I’m also a little sorry that we kinda blew in “little hisses and fizzles,” as she put it, but that was better than how it could have gone down, like I heard it had in several Clarions past.
Readers can dive into a short story collection at any point in the book–unlike with novels, which are usually read from cover to cover.
Not so with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. You could read the 16 gems in this book in any order, but to get the full effect of her nesting doll-like structure, you must read them in the order they were presented. How else are you going to realize that some protagonists are descendants of others, or that they all cross paths at some point? Sourdough is not just a masterful collection–it’s a masterclass in how to curate stories for a collection.
Now, I have huge To Be Read piles (yes, piles) that aren’t getting any smaller despite my reading more books this year than the last two years put together, because:
I am also a Book Hoarder, and
Even though I profess my undying love and loyalty to print books, I have to admit that the next best thing to getting books that will not ship to my damn country are eBooks.
I was planning to read something else for my job, but I ended up taking a peek at Slatter’s September-released The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in my Kindle. Slatter said in her intro that it’s a prequel of sorts to Sourdough and Other Stories, so logically, I exited from my copy and dove right into Sourdough.
I don’t know if my attention span’s grown shorter or there just aren’t enough really riveting books coming out lately or some other truer reason, but there have been so many times when I picked up a book and read maybe a paragraph or even a chapter of, and then put it down, not at all drawn to it again. That was not the case with Sourdough. If I put the book down, it’s because my real life intruded on my reading time; otherwise, it’s hard to leave when the paragraphs look like this from the titular story:
My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.
It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a THIN silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.
If that doesn’t grab you, then you have no imagination at all. You get a sense while reading Slatter’s collection that it’s like walking into a bakery–there’s 16 kinds of bread all laid out nice and crisp. But don’t think you’ll know what to get once you pick one up despite such labels like “Gallowberries” or “Dibblespin” or “Little Raddish.” Don’t think that they all taste alike either, oh no–though most of the stories end in a bittersweet way, they each have their own shape, their own distinct flavor.
The only time I felt unsatisfied after reading was after “Under the Mountain.” I got the sense that it and its prequel “Sister, Sister” would have been better next to each other as opposed to being interwoven between “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.” The reason I feel this way is because I feel that, while all the stories are connected, only three sets of paired stories are true sequels to each other, with the third pair being “The Story of Ink” and “Lost Things,” which were next to each other and a little earlier in the collection. “Under the Mountain” ends on such a terribly sour note while “Lavender and Lychgates” had an ending that was a little brighter than most that came before it.
I think Slatter’s stories trained me into thinking that there is hope for each character even beyond their stories, however grim–their appearances in later stories, which also happen to be later times, are proof enough–but “Under the Mountain” was different somehow. The doors of the troll kingdom closing on the protagonist Magdalene don’t just signify the close of the story, the collection; they’re a closing off of all possibilities for her redemption, for finding any love. Of course, a lot of other characters come to such an end elsewhere in Sourdough; I may have hoped that in the roulette of tales Slatter set up, the closing tale would be hopeful, too.
Ultimate favorites from the top of my head include “Gallowberries,” “A Porcelain Soul,” “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.”
I’m really excited to read The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I feel like it’ll be a little bit like coming home.
Things have been quiet around here lately, mainly because of my day job and some troubles I’ve been having with it. But on the plus side, my writing life is as vibrant as ever. 🙂
Out within a handful of days of each other, two anthologies where my stories have found a home were released.
The first is “How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian,” found in Phantazein, which is published by FableCroft Publishing. This one is about two outcasts trying to keep up a ruse that would make both sets of their parents and their tribe happy, while simultaneously dealing with what lies within the forest outside their village. Includes forest gods and outlandish dishes.
The second is “First play for and by tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night,” found in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9.In this news article-type tale, a young journalist reports on the turbulent history, protests, and opening night of a tikbalang epic-turned-stage play by an artistic madman who is also pioneering new techniques in how drama is done in the Philippine art and literature scene–including casting mythical creatures as actors.
If any of these pique your interest, please consider buying either or both books. The anthology titles link out to their Amazon pages. 😀
Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.
When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.
This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.
I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.
I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.
The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.
How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.
I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).
In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.
But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.
I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.