Why stories matter

I’m not sure when most of this video was shot, but my part was done winter 2013/2014 when I was in the middle of the most horrendous few months of pain I’ve ever had. I wasn’t really sleeping, so I look pale and thin and fragile. That’s not how I look now—I just want to reassure you! But the message of all these authors is the same: story is woven into our lives; story is a human thing; story matters.

So your mission for the day: go find a good story and enjoy it.

Nearing the cliff edge

Charlie Stross has just saved me the trouble of writing another Brexit screed. He makes a lot of sense. Go read it.

I am so tired of talking to people in the UK who wilfully refuse to believe the coming shit storm*, who insist, “Oh, the government would never let that happen to us!” They are mostly white, middle-class, nondisabled straight Christians; they won’t be first against the wall. They are the people who voted Leave. They’re used to being Us, not Them. (Those of us who have been Them all our lives are much less sanguine.) Even so, if I were them I’d be stockpiling food, meds, and fuel. If I had room for stockpiled fuel, I’d buy a generator. I’d cancel plans for travel anytime after February 2019. And I’d be very, very glad that, when the unrest comes, there aren’t more guns in the hands of UK citizens.

For those in North America and Europe (and every other continent for that matter), remember that the more complex and intertwined a system becomes, the easier it is to break. And civilisation is extraordinarily complex. Short term, what happens here after Brexit will be nothing like the UK. Long term? You might want to start looking at your supplies.


* Just eight months to go…

Glimmer: new audio fiction

Earlier this year I wrote a very short story, “Glimmer.” I recorded the audio last week. It’s 8 minutes.

If you like it, maybe I’ll start a regular audio feature here.

I wrote the story for Particulates, an anthology of very short fiction written in response to Rita McBride’s art installation, Particulates, at DIA:Chelsea, and edited by Nalo Hopkinson. It’s for sale from DIA Books and available for pre-order.

Image description: Photo composite of (left) the green cover of anthology Particulates, and (right) the table of contents: stories by Elizabeth Bear, Samuel Delany, Kameron Hurley, Nicola Griffith, Annalee Newitz, Ken Macleod, Karen Lord, Sofia Samatar, Daniel Jose Older, Minister Faust, Mark Von Schlegell, Victor LaValle, Vandana Singh, Gina Ashcraft, and Nalo Hopkinson.

 

Fighting words

Image description: Black and white photo of a white woman’s fist coming at the viewer. 


Fighting words are usually sexist, racist, ethnic, homophobic, and ableist slurs levelled by a member of a culturally and socially powerful group against a member of a traditionally oppressed group. They are not only beyond the boundaries of polite discourse, they are the kind of words that, when hurled as an insult in certain circumstances, might allow a jury of peers to forgive the insulted person for responding physically.

Some insults have deep and abiding links to violence.1 They are so closely associated with physical danger that I would rather not write them here: their use can be construed as violence, as harm. They are not just hate speech but can be, in and of themselves, hate crimes. Their use when combined with an intensifier (filthy is common) often signals imminent harm to the victim, sometimes fatal. It’s not unreasonable for a member of a traditionally oppressed group who hears the C word, the N word, the R word, and so on, to feel not only dehumanised, but to believe they are in danger. Women, people of colour, disabled people and many others don’t only dislike these words, we fear them, and with good reason.

I don’t have the data but I’d be surprised if detailed reports of hate crimes didn’t show these fighting words thrown by the perpetrators as a warm up to the main event. Certainly every single time men have threatened or attempted to physically assault me, they’ve called me a dyke, a bitch, or a cunt.2 As a result, if a man yells “Cunt!” in my face I might hit him in the throat, hit him hard enough and in just the right place that he could have difficulty breathing. Cunt, from a man to a woman, particularly when no one else is around and so the abuser is less likely to feel constrained by law and custom, is, to me, a fighting word; striking first is self-defence.

As with all slurs, if a member of the same oppressed group is doing the insulting, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s not nice to be called a bitch or cunt by another woman, or filthy dyke by another queer person. And it’s no fun being insulted by a clearly unwilling-to-act man or straight person in a crowded public space. But to me at least it doesn’t signal the same clear and present danger as when those words are used by a member of the dominant group in a dark alley, lonely field, or locked room.

So fighting words are only fighting words in certain circumstances. More often they are firing offences—or should be. But that’s a whole other post.


1 The word insult originates with the Latin insultāre “to leap upon” or “assail.”
2 One of the reasons I studied martial arts, and then studied and taught women’s self-defence, so intensively for so many years is so that, with one rather spectacular exception, the men could not get beyond the threat.

Reading May/June

Another busy couple of months with travel, and performance, and writing, and interviews. Again, no nonfiction. This month as well as the usual Recommended titles I’ve listed a handful that could be worth your time picking up but about which I have no deep thoughts. Not listed: some other books I finished because I was stuck in circumstances with nothing else but which I found worthless; no titles of the books that seriously pissed me off.

Hopefully next time I’ll be able to report on some lovely, chewy research reading for Menewood. Meanwhile, please see caveats below.

Read and Recommended

Maggie Terry, Sarah Schulman
Set in 2017 Manhattan, Schulman’s latest is day-after noir: the party is over, the neon burnt out, and there’s nothing to drink but cold-pressed kale juice. While you were doing lines and knocking back shots, your wife took your child and left, your partner got himself killed, and you lost your badge. So now you have nothing but 12 steps. And while you weren’t looking, or at least not seeing, someone slowly strangled your community. It’s all gone: the gays have left, the bodegas are shut, and rat-infested tenements all replaced by condos overrun with man-buns.

This is classic Schulman: crime fiction, yes, but the murder that matters is of the urban neighbourhood. Schulman flenses and dissects the human condition, weighs every organ—how we connect, what forms the beating heart of a community—then magically breathes life back into the husk and helps it rise, reborn. Schulman asks, Who are you when you have nothing left? What can you do when you can do nothing? You go on. You learn to see, or see clearly, to tell yourself the truth and accept that truth, and shoulder the responsibility. Maggie Terry is a light shining in the waste, offering hope: Where there are people, there is the possibility of connection, and together we can make it. You should read this.

Disobedience, Naomi Alderman
The Wikipedia plot summary: “The novel is a first-person narrative of Ronit Krushka, a 32-year-old non-practising Orthodox Jew, who is working in New York as a financial analyst and having an affair with her married male boss. The death of her estranged father, a powerful rabbi, brings Ronit back to her childhood home in Hendon, London, where her provocative ways outrage the local Orthodox Jewish community. Discovering that her cousin Dovid, who is also her father’s chosen successor, is married to her former lover, Esti, forces Ronit to rethink what she left behind.”

It took two tries to finish this one. Partly it’s because I started reading on a plane, and the claustrophobia of air travel resonated too strongly with the claustrophobia of a small, inward, restrictive—particularly of women, extremely of queer women—religious community. This is a world I do and do not know. Alderman’s setting is the London suburb of Hendon, while I grew up in the Catholic community of Leeds. In both, everyone knows each other and social mores are iron rules: the congregations are hives of gossip, school reinforces restrictions, and there is zero privacy. Both are stifling. I realised, a few weeks after putting the book down, I was reading for a kind of lesbian vindication, or at least satisfaction, which does not appear to be Alderman’s goal. I wanted Ronit and Esti to end up back together, to kick over the traces and—after hot and satisfying sex—fly over the rainbow to the kind of life they should have had.

It’s obvious very early on that this is not that kind of book but—partly because I so wanted it to be, and partly because Alderman is so very good as a writer—I kept reading anyway. And of course got crosser and crosser and more and more claustrophobic. When I picked it up again last week it was with adjusted expectations, and this time I read it dispassionately to the end. Will I read it again? I doubt it. Am I glad I read it the first time? Yes. And you should, too.

Visible Empire, Hannah Pittard
This book took me completely by surprise. I knew nothing of it, or the author, but something about the title or the cover intrigued me so I downloaded it from NetGalley. And once I started, I was hooked. Like Disobedience, and like Maggie Terry, this is a story of how community works, how it forms, breaks, and reforms. How it faces inequity, and how it changes in the face of events. Like Obedience, Visible Empire is set in a world I do and do not know: this time Atlanta. It’s Atlanta 30 years before I lived there, but many of the underlying structures of wealth and discrimination and mythology have not changed much.

In June 1962, a chartered jet carrying 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens, crashes and burns as it takes off from Orly. It is an earthquake in Atlanta’s cultural community: families, friends, spouses, businesses all left without their anchors and suddenly adrift. Importantly, too, for those involved, established hierarchies are disturbed, with money being inherited, lost, and shifted abruptly, upsetting the city’s equilibrium. The publisher’s blurb reads “An epic novel—based on true events—of love, grief, race, and wealth, charting a single sweltering summer in Atlanta that left no one unchanged… Visible Empire is the story of a husband and wife who can’t begin to understand each other until chaos drives them to clarity. It’s a story of the promise and hope that remain in the wake of crisis.” But I read it as a examination of the mythology a community weaves for itself, that hides its own knowledge of the truth. And what happens when that curtain is twitched aside, even temporarily, and we’re exposed to reality. Reality, of course, always redrapes itself, but sometimes over a slightly different shape. Pittard does a lovely job of showing how much we fool ourselves, how we believe what is convenient, and how we might change for the better. A couple of important white characters felt a little too optimistically drawn in that regard, but I understand the impulse to give the reader an easier experience. On balance, yes, recommended.

The Best Bad Things, Katrina Carrasco
Gritty street fiction set in the lawless 19th century when Port Townsend was the Deadwood of the Pacific Northwest, The Best Bad Things is a bloody brawl of a book. Carrasco uses a whippy structure and flexible prose to play an unsettling shell game as Alma, dressed as Jack, sheds her impulse control along with her corsets, and the plot accelerates into a visceral, unexpected underworld of bare-knuckle fighting, opium smuggling, and genderqueer lust. Both Jack and Alma are creatures not of head—or heart—but gut. In the streets and between the sheets they live for the thud of bone on bone, wrench of muscle, and tear of breath. Neither they nor Carrasco flinch before the bold choice and the result is a jaw-dropping knife-thrust of an ending. Definitely recommended.

Queen of the Unwanted, Jenna Glass
First of a feminist fantasy trilogy with all the main roles played by women ranging from teens to young adult to middle-aged to old. What they all have in common is being, in various ways,  unwanted and shut in/shut out of power. This is a patriarchy-has-all-the-power-until-the-worm-turns thought experiment about reproductive rights (and magic, and swords and ponies, and romance) designed to tick a lot of #MeToo, #Resistance, and #prochoice boxes. One of the protagonists is a middle-aged matron, another an astonishingly responsible and wise maiden, another a crone-in-training who’s still young enough to have hot sex with the strong-but-gentle warrior.

The real crone died at the beginning working the magic that sets up the change in the world order around which the plot turns: women gain complete control over their fertility. After this spell that’s generations in the making, women cannot bear a child to term unless, deep down, they really truly want one. (Don’t think too closely about this or logic holes begin to appear.) It doesn’t matter how much a king desperately wants/needs an heir, unless he can make his queen happy in her marriage, he won’t get one. (Just go with it.)

The majority of main characters are women. After the spell, they get to have sex and romance and run countries and make decisions. They move from the periphery to the centre

Queen of the Unwanted is a kinder, gentler, epic fantasy version of The Power—much more #Resistance than #FightBack; women commit no overt violence. But it’s definitely a worthy thought experiment that kept me happily reading in strange hotel rooms. It’s stuffed with fantasy-romance names like Ellin and Alys, and the only sex is straight sex, if I recall correctly—though I read it fast and I read an early bound manuscript so that might not a reliable recollection. I’ll probably pick up Book Two when it comes out and hope that some queer women have been magicked into existence.

Also read

Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware
Head On, John Scalzi

Couldn’t finish

There were half a dozen novels I’d like to rant about here—ranging from those that grind a promising idea into the dirt then grind some more; to tedious, self-absorbed narrators I’d flee from at any party; to what I at first mistook for a reprint from the 50s the gendered characterisation was so bad; to an overdone noir whinge about the poor choices of badly done-to white men; to the vile tale, disguised as a thriller, of a deluded man tormenting a woman—but I’ll save everyone by stopping there.


Caveats:

These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for .99¢ from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I’m often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those for upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and b) if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.

 

 

Reading April

I wrote this a couple of months ago and forgot to post. Gearing up for a book launch can be crazy. So some of the descriptions this month are a bit sketchy. Please see Caveats below.

Overview

No nonfiction this month. I was travelling, writing nonfiction writing, doing interviews, holding business conversations, etc. So I started many (scores) of novels and story collections and did not have the bandwidth or patience to finish most of them.

Read

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucy Peach, Kelly Robson (2018)
Cool SF ecofiction time travel to Ur, with lots of disability themes, biotech, and knotty ethical dilemmas. Passes the Fries Test with flying colours. Novella with lots of heart and one extremely unflinching choice. Set up for a sequel. Recommended.

Hal, Kate Cudahy (2015)
Unpolished Swordspoint knockoff: secondary world fantasy with no magic, but stuffed with duellists, nobles, politics, and lesbians. If you have a miserable, heavy cold and are doped up on every over-the-counter soporific on the planet, it’s a soothing chunter through familiar tropes. First of a trilogy.

Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins (2018)
Also a secondary world fantasy but this time with an early medieval flavour, and set in an analogue British Isles undergoing its own version of a Christian conversion. It’s the tale of sisters, daughters of the king of the biggest kingdom on the isle. Each sister embodies traits familiar to experienced readers of fairy tales: the Warrior, the Romantic Airhead, the Obsessive Convert, and the Saintly Healer. Their father is remarried, with all the usual attendant step-family troubles, and falls under an enchantment that the sisters, working together, must defeat. It sounds like a cliché but it’s nicely done and involves a lot of well-described outdoor travel and well-considered consequences. A perfect companion for a long, hard journey by plane, train, and automobile.

Island of the Mad, Laurie  R King (2018)
A lesser entry into the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series but, as always, worth reading, this time with queer young things in Venice, lunatic asylums, and a #MeToo moment that was seriously obvious to me from the beginning but dear Mary Russell had to be hit over the head with a zillion times before she could accept it. There again, that’s the underlying theme of #MeToo, too, so in that sense I suppose it makes sense.

Jar of Hearts, Jennifer Hillier (2018)
16-year old Georgina, known as Geo, falls for Calvin, a Bad Boy who turns out to be even worse than anyone thought. Things go very wrong and he ends up becoming known as the Sweetbay Strangler. For 14  years she escapes discovery of her part in his crime, but then the past catches up with her and she spends 5 years in prison while Calvin gets concurrent life sentences. Before she gets out, Calvin escapes. When she gets out she has to remake her life, but then dead bodies start turning up again. It looks as though someone is trying to get her attention… I kept seeing how it would fall into cliché but Hillier kept escaping cliché by the skin of her teeth. Mostly—enough to keep me reading. The last few pages go off the rails a bit, but I still enjoyed it well enough to recommend to those looking for a competent brisk canter through crime, punishment, and redemption, with a bit of straight romance to flavour the mix.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2017)
When I first heard of this book I saw a lot of potential for Alderman to get it really wrong, to write an eye-rollingly obvious worm-turns story. (I should have read the acknowledgements—Karen Joy Fowler, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin—before I read the book; I would have been reassured as to its lineage and aims.) But she gets it almost wholly right. It’s a cool sfnal premise: a new organ develops in women, the skein, that allows them to generate an electrical field strong enough to incapacitate. Women suddenly have the power, in every sense. Alderman does a fabulous job of imagining how that would change the world, and she uses the kind of strong, plain prose familiar to genre readers. What counts here is the story and the thought experiment. There isn’t much wasted. Her descriptions of the shocks (in all senses) the world experiences are particularly good. Recommended.

Not finished

This month the list is just too long to bother with. Wow, there’s a lot of crap out there…

TBR

The next post is just about ready to go, so read that tomorrow.


Caveats
This is not meant to function as an in-depth assessment. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).

The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published, old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get for .99¢ from BookBub, sometimes because they’re old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, sometimes because it’s a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines. Some of it is also not-yet-published, some ancient and out of date foundational reading, and almost all a combination of fascinating, difficult, annoying, and necessary.

I start many books; I don’t finish most of them. When that happens, I often won’t discuss them. Why? Because in terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prosthesis; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often (the misuse of language; avoidance of specificity, particularly in matters of time and/or place). Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but not always. I’ll make exceptions for a) those upon whose reputation my comments will have little or no impact (which is, y’know, most of them) and b) if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.

30 years ago: a love story in photos

Thirty years ago today Kelley and I met in East Lansing, Michigan, on the campus of MSU. We were there for Clarion, a six-week writing workshop. Neither of us had a clue what we were in for. (Read an excerpt of my multi-media memoir, And Now We are Going to Have a Party, for more on that meeting.)

What we were in for turned out to be the beginning of the rest of my life, the fulcrum around which everything turns. But first we had to be apart for over a year, me in Hull, England, and Kelley in Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, to amuse myself, I put together a little photo story.

That autumn we were apart, in 1988, was very, very hard. Kelley was working at GE Computer Services, going to parties, and making friends in the Atlanta queer community. In Hull, I was grief-stricken (my little sister died), stressed out of my mind (in love with two women on opposite sides of the Atlantic), and frantically earning money to get back to the US. As well as my actual job as a caseworker at a street drugs agency, I was teaching women’s self defence as many evenings and weekends as I could. I hadn’t really started to get sick yet…

1989

Then I did get sick. And I lost weight. But then, finally, I managed to get back to Kelley. I’m not sure we let go of each other for more than 5 minutes at a time the whole seven weeks I was in the US. This Polaroid was taken in Tampa, where Kelley introduced me to her mother and stepfather.

This time when I left her it was to sell my house, leave my partner of 10 years, and say goodbye to my family. It took three months. It was hard.

We lived in a brand new apartment way outside Atlanta: Duluth, Georgia. Then moved closer into the city with a rented house in Decatur. Finally, with the advance I got from Ammonite, we had just enough to put down a scarily skimpy deposit and risk an adjustable rate mortgage on a little house in Atlanta itself. At some point I would either sort immigration and we’d move somewhere not so damned hot, or the immigration thing would completely implode and we’d have to leave the country. Either way, we’d be selling before the interest rate jumped too much. It was worth the risk. But money was tight, immigration was daunting, and my mysterious fatigue was not getting better.

In the photo on the left, taken in 1992, the strain is showing. We were seeing lawyer after lawyer and not getting the immigration answers we needed. I was having medical test after medical test, ditto. We knew it was serious when I began to limp. Six months later, I had my diagnosis: MS. Six months after that, we got married. I wore long sleeves because of all the IV bruises on my arms.

Although the marriage had zero legal force it had a profound effect on me. Weirdly, that manifested in me beginning to grow my hair. (Something about being settled? Being a wife? It’s a mystery.) Anyway, by the next spring it was long enough to spray and pin into an updo for a big ol’ Southern party at my editor’s father’s house: everyone who was anyone in Atlanta society was there. It was like playing dress-up. It was playing dress up.

Then I sold another book. I got my Green Card. And we moved to Seattle.

1997

1997. Seattle. We are much more at home. Kelley has a fab job and I’ve published two novels and sold a third. We have a lovely little house in Wallingford (that’s a friend’s house in the background). We’re bursting with happiness. One fly in the ointment: my hair. It’s long enough to plait, very heavy and very annoying. Here it’s scragged out of the way; I am sick of it.

1999. Vermont. I’ve started to shorten my hair. One year later, in 2000, I’ve chopped it all off and bleached it white. This is us in the Queen’s Grill onboard QE2: a transatlantic crossing that was our 40th birthday present to ourselves. We’re both wearing long dresses because they take First Class seriously on that boat. (Next time: a tux!)

2005. One last shot of Kelley taken in the kitchen of our old house-with-steps in Wallingford. One of me in the kitchen of our new single-level house a month later. Kelley has published Solitaire and just started the longest-ever rights negotiation for the movie rights. I’m working on Always.

May 2008 in Los Angeles: winning my sixth Lambda Literary Award. Then the day after in the bar feeling a leetle rough. Then June in Seattle: a dinner party at home to celebrate our 20th anniversary. I am about to start writing Hild. Kelley is writing the screenplay for OtherLife.

These are all taken between 2009 and 2012. The black and white one is me being delirious with delight at getting an offer from FSG for Hild.

2013. General happiness, and then, a few months later, a fully legal wedding on the 20th anniversary of our first nothing-legal wedding.

And that’s it, because, strangely, I just couldn’t find any photos taken in the last five years of us together without other people in them, apart from a set taken last year that we plain don’t like. We’ll have to fix that. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we’ll be spending the rest of the week in a state of general benevolence. I hope your plans are as delicious as ours…