‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’

‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’

Terasadh arrived in the world with a force so abrupt that the resin womb holding her split in two, cracking as she took her first breath and cried out from the shock of being alive.

Her aunt, King Nadjana, was the sole witness; she cleared the infant’s throat of birth-fluids and warmed the infant’s breath with her own. For a week the king secluded herself. In that week she fed the newly-made prince with the juice of ripe language-fruits, the milk of wisdom-orchids, and the nectar of doorway birds. Royal birth is a delicate matter, and she would trust no other to anoint her heir.

This one’s a big story for me, literally: 7,200 words. For the record, I never thought I’d be able to place an epic fantasy at Apex.

I describe this story as ‘queer desert Arthuriana’, though its connections to Arthuriana are extremely loose. I picked apart some of the base components and transposed. There is an Arthur figure, but not exactly; there is a Mordred figure (and Mordred’s mom), but not precisely. The analogues are intentionally very rough. What I wanted to play around with—rather than ‘King Arthur, but queer’—was the idea of prophecy, agency, predestination, and the lost monarch who’ll return to serve her land in its time of need.

More forefront is that I wanted to work with pronoun fluidity, the gendering of nouns. I don’t like gendered common nouns, as a rule, and a lot of them are aesthetically ugly: authoress, stewardess, policewoman. Many are outmoded and have fallen out of use, but others remain firmly gendered: queen, princess, mother, niece, sister.

I don’t think the genders of the characters in ‘Prince’ need spelling out—that’s part of the point—but it’s probably worth saying that Terasadh is non-binary. (A story about deconstructing gendered language where everyone is cis would, of course, be absolutely lazy.)

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi

There’s a certain kind of fiction, usually contemporary or near-future, written by white American women (but, hashtag, not all white American women!). It has a particular tone and interest, and the setting tends to be extremely provincial, to the point that reading such fiction feels like reading someone – and this applies to Americans in general, whether they’re turning out nonfiction or otherwise – who’s never set foot outside their own house but who believes their experiences are nevertheless relevant and universally compelling. The focus is on, vaguely, the human condition though really the writers are most interested in whimsy and sentiment. It’s sort of literary, in a workshop kind of way, and any gestures it makes at progressiveness are palliative rather than radical. I find this universally draining to read. As in it literally drains my will to read, and also to live. It’s not offensive (on the contrary it’s anodyne). It’s not bad. Occasionally it shows promise. I don’t retain anything about it, not what it has to say (on the rare event it has any) or characters or setting (interchangeably American) or the prose. I expect it is very nice to read for others who share the mindset and life experiences and cultural background radiation with the writers. People who like that sort of thing will find it the sort of thing…

When I first read the final story in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, it seemed worryingly like that sort of thing. It’s not, exactly; maybe this collection has more in common with Kuzhali Manickavel than its white American female counterparts. I have to preface that I like the collection as a whole a great deal before I say that this is that sort of thing, but done well: without the provincial narcissism, the limitation of thoughts and images. It’s magic-realist and whimsical, and it’s pretty and airy, and it’s very easy to read. It improves you literary constitution, if you have one of those. The stories are interrelated, but in an effortless rather than labored way. There is a leitmotif – keys, access – but this is, again, nothing labored; rather it is effortlessly arrived at. There is an incredible ease to the prose, the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole. It’s hard to find anything to criticize, or even particularly dislike. I enjoyed my time with it.

SEÑORA LUCY was a painter with eyes like daybreak. Like Montse, she wore a key on a chain around her neck, but unlike Montse she told people that she was fifty years old and gave them looks that dared them to say she was in good condition for her age. (Señora Lucy was actually thirty-five, only five years older than Montse. One of the housemaids had overheard a gallery curator begging her to stop telling people she was fifty. The Señora had replied that she’d recently attended the exhibitions of some of her colleagues and now wished to discover whether fifty-year-old men in her field were treated with reverence because they were fifty or for some other reason.) Aside from this the housemaids were somewhat disappointed with Señora Lucy. They expected their resident artist to lounge about in scarlet pajamas, drink cocktails for breakfast, and entertain dashing rascals and fragrant sirens. But Señora Lucy kept office hours. Merce, her maid of all work, tried to defend her by alleging that the Señora drank her morning coffee out of a vase, but nobody found this credible.

That’s from my favorite in the collection, the opening story ‘books and roses’, which – setting the tone for What is Not Yours is Not Yours – is one part fairytale, fully a love story (lesbian, in particular). Unlike the palliative progressiveness – the bland, lazy ‘diversity’ – of that sort of thing, this is confident in itself and its presentation of protagonists who are black, brown, queer. You can’t hear the author wringing her hands over how to describe black skin or Indian girls, because there’s no hand-wringing. There’s nothing self-conscious about most of it, though I’d say it opens strongly and toward the end begins the process of petering out. ‘dornička and the st. martin’s day goose’ is extremely typical for what it is, aesthetically and thematically quite safe, a fairytale that moves and concludes like a fairytale. (We come back to ‘people who like this sort of thing…’ To a lesser extent, ‘drownings’ is subjected to the same structure and tone.) Meantime, ‘“sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea’ or ‘is your blood as red as this?’ or ‘presence’ are peculiarly themselves, difficult to pin down, and very good.

I do much prefer Manickavel’s short fiction, having said that, because Manickavel leaves more lasting impressions on me than this particular Oyeyemi (and I enjoy Oyeyemi’s novels, I mean). Maybe it’d be different on reread – I’m not in a habit of rereading by and large; most likely it would. I wish I’d liked it more or that it’d made more of a mark on my brain, or that I felt more strongly about it.

(As an update, what do you know, Nina Allan had a similar response I did to this book.)

This collection is as rich and strange as any you are likely to find. It seethes with invention and originality, and yet I came away from it confounded by how little these stories affected me on any level other than the merely cerebral. My mind was left cluttered with images and metaphors, and yet I seemed unable to remember a single one of the stories distinctly, set apart from the bigarrure of its fellows. Each story is about many things—yet none of them are truly about anything. Each contains a kernel of outrageous beauty or glorious transgression—the guerrilla book swap in “a brief history of the homely wench society,” the audacious lie told by Freddy about Ched and Tyche in “freddy barrandov checks . . . in?,” the bizarre act of deception perpetrated by the grandmother against the wolf-beast in “dornicka and the st martin’s day goose”—which renders these tales exhilarating in their bombast and totally unlike any other story you might read on any given day. Yet for me at least they felt lacking in any emotional resonance whatsoever. There are several leitmotifs—keys, roses, puppets—running through the core of this collection that serve as loose thematic binders, but their importance feels circumstantial rather than being freighted with any deep meaning, and the same might easily be said of the recurrence of various characters from one story to another. These are stories that never stay still, which is perhaps the reason they never acquire any meaningful depth.

I admire this book a great deal, but I don’t really like it much, and I say this as someone who counts Oyeyemi among her favourite authors. It’s not her, it’s me. Your mileage may vary.


Some reviews of this collection that amused me and which I don’t agree or disagree with in any particular way. From Chicago Tribune, ‘A writer’s writer (I first heard her name from Kelly Link, who cited Oyeyemi as a favorite at a book festival panel), she spent all of one semester in an M.F.A. program before bolting — perhaps wisely intuiting that her writing was better off with its weirdness fully intact, and fully hers. Thank goodness, because the nine stories in this collection feel idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.’ (The phrase ‘a writer’s writer’ is very apt and may or may not be associated with a certain dynamic that the founder of Bookslut mentions when she talked about shutting down Bookslut.)

Aaron Bady: ‘The same could be said of Oyeyemi’s writing. In struggling to describe her work—and it is a struggle—book reviewers often praise her mastery of craft. NPR declared her new novel What is Not Yours is Not Yours “flawless,” a “masterpiece,” and The New York Times describes her as a master author who “expertly melds the everyday, the fantastic and the eternal.” But I would praise her work in almost exactly the opposite terms. Oyeyemi’s fascination is with the flaws that make us human—and the dreams through which we approach our own brokenness—and so, her stories are twisted and imperfect. As another reviewer observed, they are “idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.” Like dreams, her books are too odd to be good, too terrible to be loved, and too broken to be masterpieces. (In this, she has a lot in common with Silvina Ocampo, and much of Oyeyemi’s introduction to last year’s collection of Ocampo’s fiction could read as a description of her own aesthetic.)’

(He also says, ‘Dreams are the return of everything our daytime brain has worked to ignore. Dreams are the uncanny and the forbidden’ which is exactly the kind of thing a reviewer adds as filler and rather tautological. I suppose you could technically call it a novel – a mosaic novel to be exact – but to me it’s very much a collection; YMMV. It’s interesting how even reviewers who review for big venues take a certain view of workshops.)

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.)

Recent short fiction reads

‘The Deepest Rift’ by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com). This is a very particular kind of story, I think – it’s quiet (despite the trope of first contact being usually treated as higher-stake), personal, driven by relationship and scientific curiosity. In those areas it excels and the way the story implies at hierarchy and cultural hegemony is something I appreciate, but by and large while I read to the finish and found it quite enjoyable, what didn’t work for me was the relationship between the protagonist and their lovers. Again, it’s gracefully understated:

warm hands brush shoulders on the way to the kitchenette; familiar body language tickles my peripheral vision. We speak rarely. Still, it matters that we are in the same room, on the same world.

But for me I can’t get invested in their need to stay together. At about 7,800 words, it’s not very short (though it did feel much shorter than it is – it’s a pretty smooth read), but I don’t think there’s enough room to establish the protagonist’s partners as distinct individuals. That relationship being so central to the story, the result is a whole that’s missing the middle.

‘Tin Cans’ by Ekaterina Sedia (Weird Fiction Review).

You know that you’re old when your children are old, when they have heart trouble and sciatica, when their hearing is going too so that both of you yell into the shell of the phone receiver. But most often, he doesn’t call — and I do not blame him, I wouldn’t call me either. He hadn’t forgiven and he never fully will, except maybe on his deathbed — and it saddens me to think that he might be arriving there before me, like it saddens me that my grandchildren cannot read Cyrillic.

This is a reprint. I first encountered it in Ekaterina’s collection Moscow But Dreaming (reviewed on Tor.com here), which is absolutely worth reading. It’s a dark magic realism story that, unlike most contemporary SFF, is not infused with inescapable Americana, geek pop culture references, and all the other markers that too often blight that particular sub-genre. This one is infused with real history, real darkness, and haunting imagery: honed like a knife, sharp in its effectiveness. It makes me sad that Ekaterina doesn’t write in genre anymore, because no other writer creates the same kind of short fiction she does.

‘Android Whores Can’t Cry’ by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld).

Some notes on the translation of Massacre Market

There is some uncertainty about the translation from the local language of what I have called “Massacre Market.” Other possible translations include “Atrocity Place,” “Massacre Fair,” or, and that was the most confusing aspect of this, “Pearl Fountain,” because even though each of the two words means something different, together they create a new compound which, as Dick and Brigitte explained to me, could rather clumsily be interpreted as “a fountain whence pearls flow,” “the breeding ground of oysters,” or even “the plane of sublime imperfections.”

This is an intricate, interstitial story that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Interfictions. It covers memory, identity, uncertainties, haunting imagery – so naturally, I’m all over it. It does rely on contemporary depiction of gendered violence, but then this seems a relatively near-future piece so that’s not out of place at all.

Fiction

2017

‘No Pearls as Blue as These’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Bidaten is a bulwark, one of those bred as living weapons to fight horrors from beyond the high, vast walls that keep humanity safe from monsters. Duty is all she knows until her lord brings home a beautiful foreign bride.

‘Fade to Gold’ in Pseudopod (audio reprint). Narrated by Jen Zink.

‘The Universe as Vast as Our Longings’ in The Jewish Mexican Literary Review. In a far future, a country of tyrants conquers a world and takes in its children to raise as willing collaborators. When all you have is nothing, living itself is resistance. 6,200 words.

‘The Sun Shall Lie Across Us Like Gold’ in Clockwork Cairo (ed. Matthew Bright, Twopenny Press). Post-colonial steampunk in 19th century Thailand. Sequel to ‘The Governess and We’. 3,500 words.

‘Parable of the Cocoon’ in Big Echo. When the aliens came it was not to invade, but to uplift humanity for the purposes of an inscrutable war. Human subjects are selected for alien communion, given to perceive time in parallax… or perhaps something else entirely. 5,800 words.

2016

‘We Are All Wasteland On the Inside’ in The Future Fire. Noir meet tragic Spirited Away. A woman haunted by her childhood visit in Himmapan Forest attempts to help an old spymaster solve her murder in a world slowly decaying from its contact with myth. 4,700 words.

‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’ in Apex. Queer desert epic fantasy lightly influenced by Arthuriana, deconstructing gendered language and prophetic tropes. 7,200 words.

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