Recent short fiction reads: Das, Mehentee, Miller

I look out over the sea-wall to the grey expanse of the Gangetic Delta. It’s cloudy but bright, dispersed sunlight soaking the clotted clouds and making me squint. The sea-walls weren’t there when I was last in Kolkata. The tide has risen since.

“Do you want to?” I ask Teresa. Her bump pushes against the bright red kameez she’s wearing. It’s not too obvious yet. She looks at the capsule in her hand. It’s transparent, like an oversized pill the size of a phone. I suppress the memory of small bodies looking alien in their stillness, as if Akir’s light had marked them as its own species. The capsule is surprisingly heavy. It holds the remains of our baby, who was born on Akir’s World. We brought the ashes of our children with us, so they didn’t have to be sown in the quartz-dusted soils of their homeworld.

‘A Moon for the Unborn’ by Indrapamit Das (Strange Horizons, 2014) starts with the image of unborn children walking in a single file on an alien world – an image that haunts the protagonist and his wife even after they have returned to Earth. It explores loss, the difficulties in keeping your relationship alive in the face of alien nightmares. It’s also remarkable in that the Kolkata it portrays is depicted as normal, treated as perfectly everyday, showing once again the immense gulf between the insider and outsider view (and affirming that the outsider view is, at best, unnecessary and at worst harmful). This Kolkata is effortlessly real, effortlessly alive, populated by people rather than colonialist caricatures. This is lived culture rather than costume.

The protagonist Vir is a trans man, a facet that does play a part in how he navigates the world, but it’s not played up as exclusively a mark of trauma or otherness. There’s nothing of oppression porn in this story; instead it’s about coming to terms, about nuanced humanity, about being able to continue in the face of trauma. Interestingly I’d say this hovers beautifully between magic realism and hard SF, which is a fantastic – and unique – interstice to inhabit. It’s a subtle, understated piece. I adore it and very much look forward to Indrapamit’s novel The Devourers being released in ebook (I’ve also heard good things about it from trusted sources).

To Reshma, this poor little boy sounded as if he’d been cursed. She and her sisters knew a thing or two about a curse’s power. Since it was believed that the presence of her kind at weddings and births brought good luck, so it followed that a Hijra’s curse brought calamity. It was all that prevented others’ insults from escalating into violence.

‘The Salt Mosquito’s Bite and The Goddess’ Sting’ by Jehangir Mehentee (Strange Horizons, 2015) is a quiet slice-of-life story with the air of a fable: atmospheric, sweet, down-to-earth and like the Das story, it’s effortless in its portrayal of life. It also depicts hijra characters in an understated way, without (I think) othering or making them exotic, or marked only by trauma. It does take into account the difficulties they face but it doesn’t make that the point of their existences. Instead, this is a story that focuses solely on spirituality, religion, and rediscovering faith.

‘When Your Child Strays From God’ by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld, 2015) is a story that requires some background knowledge to contextualize. The basics: parts of the United States of America (also called the USA or simply the States) practice Christianity in a specific way, invoking hellfire, brimstone, and damnation on anyone not strictly conforming to a narrow code of conduct – such as going to church (a house of worship typically marked by crosses – the vertically asymmetrical one, not the one that looks like an X – and benches called pews, not to be confused with pew-pew), being homosexual, and I’m not sure what else; perhaps wearing makeup and using skincare, seeing that the narrator and her community appear to have atrocious skin.

Joking aside, this story uses the conceit of a psychedelic drug to introduce a fundamentalist pastor’s wife to the concept of empathy and understanding her son deeper than the surface of propriety and parental nostalgia. It’s told through absurdist hallucination and I appreciate that despite the setup this doesn’t turn out to be a Coming Out or Queer Trauma story. It’s a perfectly charming, breezy story and I enjoy the narrator’s interiority making her more than a soccer mom stereotype. The gossipy tone fits just right, as do amusing, witty passages like:

I climbed the steps slowly, aware of the sin I was about to commit. I paused at the door to his room.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So I did not enter Timmy’s room lightly, and panic seized me in the instant that I did. Fear stopped me in my tracks, threatened to turn me around. The smell of stale laundry made my head swim—the bodily odors that meant my little boy had become a man. I summoned him up as the smiling little boy he had been before puberty caused him to declare independence, defy us as righteously and violently as America spurned its colonial overlords.

(Soccer mom is used in the story, another Americanism I didn’t get but which has been explained to me by Australian, Canadian, and Dutch friends; for which many thanks! Soccer is itself also an Americanism, quaintly to refer to what the rest of us call simply ‘football.’ I’m not sure what a pastor is, but no matter.)

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