I wrote this story in a fit last August, one of those inspirational writing sprints that poets are supposed to feel. I wrote it after months listening to stories about the Uighurs in China, violence and state surveillance. Which made me think of the Stasi, and our own Canadian brand of Cold War surveillance in PROFUNC, the Fruit Machine, the Lavender Scare.
The list doesn’t end there, of course. But these examples are particularly horrifying (to me, I mean) for their intimacy, the way they evaluate a citizen’s behaviour in their most private, internal moments. There’s no privacy, no recourse, no escape from that evaluating gaze, which seeks out imperfect citizens, deems then internal enemies, and destroys them.
I was on a panel once, talking about the DEWline (a paper that I revised into this article), when Karl Jirgens, a Canadian writer, argued that the technologies of the Cold War– surveillance, proxy wars, MAD– have become standard operating procedure for all the world’s super powers. We might have celebrated the end of history and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we still live within the structures of that era. When I look at Uighurs, I believe Karl, and I am nauseated, and terrified, by how effectively those technologies have been refined, enhanced, rendered more perfect. Implacable.
So, as usual, I wrote a story about it, trying to capture the intimate violations of state surveillance.
So there’s a thing called the fourth trimester, a name for the first three months of an infant’s life, when they still seem foetal and completely unsuited to the world. They can’t regulate their temperature. They are only happy when they’re in contact with you, skin to skin, like they haven’t left your body. They register no boundaries, and no limits, and no language, but respond to touch and tone, and to your heartbeat, and rhythm of your footsteps walking up and down and up and down.
I’ve written a lot about pregnancy and birth since I got pregnant and had my son in the Summer of 2017, with “Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” being the last story I published on the topic (and the last story I published– a YEAR ago). “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” appears this month in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it was the first thing I wrote after giving birth, and it’s about those first strange months. It’s about trying to figure out what it means to live this wordless, animal life, caring for a creature who is beloved and disoriented and helpless, who cannot be argued with (no matter how tired you are, and how much you try to explain that he needs to need for sleep). I write “animal” meaning it in the best possible sense, since the fourth trimester belongs to a place before language, or maybe beneath it, where all communication is visceral rather than abstract. The story is about what this experience does to your daylight, rational, waking self. Since I write gothic-ish, horror-ish stuff these days, the story is a darker version of events than what I experienced. This is a representative excerpt:
Max’s first doctor’s appointment, day twelve. Getting out the door a disaster. Max crying, inconsolable. She stood in the middle of the living room, trying to remember what she didn’t have, but how could she think when the sound of his voice wrenched her mind until she couldn’t think —
it’s okay just a minute don’t
— what was it —
cry it’s okay max boy my max my little guy
— sandals she could step into because otherwise she’d have to tielaces and —
just a minute
Such a tiny and desolate sound, it was hard to believe, sometimes, that he was human and not some other sort of creature, so enormous were his eyes, and his head, and his thin little arms and legs braided across his body as though he was still enwombed.
Handbag. No. Phone. Yes. No. Keys?
max my sweet boy my dear please
And? Something else. She need —
baby don’t cry im right here im
— ed her phone. She grabbed the landline and let it ring until she heard it through the basement door, where a faint light shone through the cracks and —
You can find my story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s online at weightless books, as well as on their website, and over at amazon.
ETA: There’s an interview up over at the F&SF website.
I have in the past avoided eligibility posts, mostly because I assumed people who wanted to read my work would find it via either the magazines that published it or my earlier posts. But then I saw ACWise collecting 2017 eligibility lists on twitter, and talking about why they’re valuable. She’s right. There’s so much fiction being published now it’s very easy to lose stories. I certainly need the reminder of what I’ve read, so I’m assuming other people do, as well.
So here’s my list, and my contribution to keeping track of 2017 in SF/F. All three of these are Hugo/Nebula/Aurora eligible, and fall into the short fiction category in each case:
“Lares Familiar, 1981” appeared in Liminal Stories back in May. It’s about the Cowichan Valley and the logging industry and a family with an uncomfortable relationship to both. It’s another of my attempts to capture the uneasy feeling that certain legends give me– those stories about strange encounters that never quite resolve, but leave you with a sense of how how huge and complicated and strange the world really is.
“On Highway 18” (this takes you to an interview about the story and includes some buy links if you’re interested) appeared in the September/October issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Another one about strangeness on Vancouver Island, and about violence and the intensity of adolescent friendship.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September. It’s very close to my heart, and I used the story to organize and process a lot of thoughts about the First World War and how the world ends, about the beauty and frustration and vulnerability of archives. I love Oskar (the main character) who is smart and naive and resilient. I love the world, which is full of pre-FWW optimism and utopianism as it falls to the Guns of August.
And that’s my literary 2017: the rainy Pacific coast of Canada; strange meetings; genius loci; mal d’archive; our relationship with history both personal and political; memory; early 20th century optimism and early 20th century violence colliding in the First World War.
So social media is full of #metoo. Or, as one friend put it, “of course #metoo” and as many others have asked: is this any kind of a surprise?
A couple of years ago (at Clarion West) I wrote a story called “On Highway 18.” It’s about small towns and girls and cars and hitchhiking and the constant, pervasive, numbing threat of violence, which touches everyone directly or indirectly. It grew from my own experiences as a young woman, and I borrowed a few from other people as well.
It’s much easier to write fiction about this kind of pervasive, low-grade anxiety because in relating each lived example, I tend to downplay the hurt. They seem slight in retrospect, even if my skin crawled at the time, or prickled with anxious sweat, or I sprinted from the scene with my heart beating in my throat. If I described the facts of these sorts of events, I might add, I know other people have experienced much worse, or but you know I’m fine, or it wasn’t that bad… was it?
In fiction, though, I can try and capture the immediate, subjective experience, independent of whether the encounter was “bad enough” to count as trauma. In fiction there’s room for evocation and impressionism, to describe the way each encounter taught me something about what it means to be a woman, and the amount of power men had to define me, to tell me to smile, to demand my attention. To touch me. “On Highway 18” was therapeutic from that perspective, a whole catalogue of experiences that aren’t “that bad,” but nevertheless accumulate into a feeling of dread and smallness. At least, for one of the characters. Other characters aren’t so “lucky.”
I’m posting this paragraph, which is reportage:
Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
“You girls want to party?”
Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.
Worse has happened since, and worse is happening this very moment, but I still hate that I didn’t know– as a fourteen year old– how to answer his question more powerfully.
After a few years of alien parasites and “filigree cosmic horror” (I owe that designation to Julia August) I’ve gone back to The Paradise Engine. Not directly, but by association: “The High Lonesome Frontier” is a story about recording technologies, the strange vertiginous effect that music can have on us when we listen hard, the way a song can be found and lost again, but still hide out in the back of your mind, or on a mix tape in an old car, or a .flac on an external hard drive. It’s SF in the very broadest sense.
This is also the first story I wrote after I finished Clarion West last year. I wrote it last August, in a strange, exhausted haze between the six-week workshop and the defence of my dissertation. It’s the biography of a song called “Where Does That Water Run?” imaginary, but inspired by obsessive listenings to “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground,” tracked from its composition, through sheet music and player pianos, through performances and torrent files and broadcasts. Through– most importantly– the people who hear it, and remember.
Two relevant contexts (relevant to me as I wrote—possibly not to someone reading):
I like songs that only become folk music as they are repeated, gradually coming unstuck from their original authors. “Now is the Hour” was popularized by Gracie Fields after the Second World War—one of those songs of longing and separation that seemed so popular in those years. The melody was written by a theatre critic called Clement Scott and called “Swiss Cradle Song” until a Maori woman named Maewa Kaihau wrote the now-familiar words and renamed it “Po Atarau” and then “Haere Ra Waltz Song.” In the song’s global wandering it lost its original attribution, which is why Gracie Fields called it a “traditional Maori song” when she heard it in 1945.
“Wildwood Flower” started out as sheet music in 1860 with the title “I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets,” but by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, it was folk music—attributed only to “trad” until AP Carter got a writing credit when the work was republished after its success.
Ernest Seitz was a Canadian composer. He trained in Berlin before the First World War, but returned to Canada in 1914 for obvious reasons. While he devoted his life to teaching and concert performances, he’s probably most famous for a song that doesn’t have his name on it—“The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” He was, according to some stories, embarrassed to have written a pop song. Nevertheless, it captured the imagination of so many performers: Fritz Kreisler to The Beatles, and Oscar Peterson to Neko Case.
Did he ever enjoy that remarkable accomplishment? Did he ever hear one of these versions on the radio and think that’s mine?
A new story of mine is in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #184, called “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” It’s about a wealthy Victorian lady named Flora who does ladylike things like paint china teacups. It’s creepier than it sounds, since it’s a dark fantasy about empire: Flora’s paintings– her unearthly landscapes–may be conventional on the surface, but there’s violence in their depths.
This idea of a Victorian woman doing something unsettling with parlour crafts came came to me after re-reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. There’s a scene where Rochester quizzes his new employee about the paintings in her portfolio, which are full of corpses, shipwrecks, icebergs, and the aurora. He suggests she couldn’t possibly have dreamed up these unsettling images on her own:
“Where did you get your copies?”
“Out of my head.”
“That head I see now on your shoulders?”
“Has it other furniture of the same kind within?”
“I should think it may have: I should hope—better.”
Jane confides in us– her readers– regarding the pictures’ origins:
The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” started when I read that passage and imagined what might arise in the “spiritual eye” of a woman who seems conventional, but contains something terrifying.
ETA: For those who like to listen, the story is now up in the BCS Podcast!
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” was written with the support of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
Lackington’s published a story of mine in their last issue. It’s called “The Glad Hosts” and is one of several stories and images Ranylt Richildis selected to explore “Skins” as a theme. It is, according to readers, a piece of parasite body-horror.
I say “according to readers” because while I wrote the story because I’m curious about parasites, I did not consider it body horror until I saw the responses. Yes, it describes the transformation of a woman’s bodies in multiple ways, but horror?
After the issue went live, a friend of mine posted a link to a metafilter discussion which included a series of insightful and amusing responses that indicated yes, I had written a horror story while I thought I was writing a story about transformation and distance and family.
(I particularly liked this one: “Are there parasites around that will remove this story from my brain because it was horrifying?” from jeather)
Since then other people have responded in equally interesting ways. At Marooned Off Vesta there’s an extensive and considered discussion about free indirect narration and what it does to storytelling, as well as some good points about the challenges of authorial self-consciousness. Charlotte Ashley over at Apex makes some interesting observations about what the story says about subjectivity. There are similar points over at Susan Hated Literature, which suggest it’s a story about the limits of such subjectivity, and where (exactly) we locate the self.
This is all less about “The Glad Hosts” than it is a reminder to me that while my writing life is spent mostly alone doing work that is invisible and unread, there are actually people out there who might catch a story at the right moment and read it and respond. This makes me very happy because it makes me part of a conversation. And it leaves me feeling lucky, too, that Lackington’s exists as a place for us to meet up.
Yesterday when I came home there was a big box from NeWest waiting in the hallway outside our apartment– 20 copies, bound in this lovely, slightly nubbly coverstock. I’m still a little shocked to find that I’ve written an actual book. Unreal! It almost makes up for the grotty weather, which seems to have regressed to some miserable day in early March.
I added a page with some info about the book, should anyone want to hear more.