Monday, July 21, 2014

Bouncing off stories & how I read

I'm slightly over halfway through Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History now, and I'm beginning to see some patterns in my reactions.  (Tracked here).  A few days ago I mentioned that with Long Hidden, there are 4-5 stories competing for my "Favorite", and only a couple that I've bounced off of.

Let me take a moment to suggest that you go buy Long Hidden right now and read it if you have any interest in SFF / speculative fiction more broadly, or if you enjoy short stories, or (like me) want to like short stories but usually have trouble.  Because my usual hit rate on a short story magazine or anthology is really enjoying 1 or 2, and being glad I read more than half.  So Long Hidden overdelivered with about the first 5 stories.  It's a phenomenal anthology.  Go buy it.  I'll wait.

Here's my attempt to talk about one story* in particular that I just think I didn't really give a fair reading, and some observations about what that says about how open to diversity I am as a reader.
(General disclaimers - this isn't a review.  I'm not experienced enough to write reviews, and I haven't even finished the anthology.  This is personal reaction and thoughts about those reactions.  Also, some light spoilers follow.)

The story I most remember having trouble with was "Across the Seam" by Sunny Moraine, centered around the 1897 Lattimer Massacre (of unarmed striking miners in Pennsylvania).  The story's protagonist is an immigrant from central Europe, haunted by the witch Baba Yaga, and perhaps beginning to identify as a woman rather than a man. (Despite some googling and listening on twitter, I don't have the vocabulary to describe the gender identity.  At the beginning of the story, Iwan is "him", but Baba Yaga and his own behaviors and feelings challenge that identity as the story unfolds).

Throughout the entire story, I spent my time alternately arguing with the author and puzzling over this choice.  The story is set during an important labor event.  The main character is an immigrant, already an outsider.  Why include this confused gender identity? Some of the time I was looking for the reason the gender identity was necessary to the story.  The rest I was deciding that it wasn't necessary, so the various hints and inclusions could be removed.

I'm going to pass over the necessity of gender identity very briefly.  It's possible that Baba Yaga is primarily linked with women and so this confusion is "necessary", or that the scenes strengthen the link to the importance of women in the labor movement, or simply that the author always envisioned the character this way.  Critiquing the "necessity" of these elements feels a bit like "a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic ... about nonwhite people"  (Aside - I can dig more into how Baba Yaga figures in this time/characters, because there's a bibliography for each of the stories on the Long Hidden website!).

Instead I'm going to talk a bit more about my reaction demanding that this identity be necessary to the story, or be removed.  Because implicitly what I'm saying here is "keep your characters within a nice, safe, gender binary that I'm familiar with, or justify it."  In the real world, this has a pretty ugly corollary: "you can't identify as something other than your biological sex without constantly proving it, going through therapy, etc."  In fictional reading, I'm a half step away from "keep your characters all white men or justify it".  And that's a bit of an unpleasant realization, because I've been reading, and cheering, about why We Need Diverse Books.  I backed Long Hidden because I wanted to read diverse and unfamiliar stories.  Because diverse and unfamiliar stories by diverse authors brought me back to SFF.  I'm also just going to link to Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" and Kate Elliot's "The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding" because they also make good points about the value of diverse representation in fiction.

One more counter to my "that non-binary gender character better have a good reason to be in this story".  Here's my reaction when re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles when Tanis asks "Who is he" about the Forestmaster and the centaurs slap him down with "She".

Sometime after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I was exclaiming with someone about how amazing the scenes with Nahadoth were, and she pointed out that they were sex scenes.  I was actually a bit taken aback.  My reading identity was as someone who doesn't generally read sex scenes, particularly not from the perspective of a woman.  Except that these scenes were some of what I most enjoyed about one of my favorite books (even if I'd been hiding behind descriptors like "sensual").  It took a few days, but things finally clicked.  "OK" I thought to myself.  "I'm someone who can read and enjoy sex scenes.  They're not porn, they're not just sensual, they're sex scenes."  And when I got to sex scenes in other stories (including some of those in Long Hidden), I got to read the sex scenes.  No need to skip, get flushed, or anything else.  I'm not, right now, a reader who can read stories with protagonists who don't have a clear binary gender identity.  But I can change that.  So after I finish the anthology I get to go back to "Across the Seam" and read it again.  And I'm pretty sure also "Neither Witch nor Fairy".  And I get to set aside my expectations about the categories a character is allowed to fit in

Long Hidden is a fantastic anthology.  One that deliberately set out to tell stories from the margins of history, and stories about people on the margins.  The stories are rich, and varied and on the whole delightful.  Every story that I've been able to read, instead of arguing with, I've enjoyed.  Even those that I found a bit disappointing are stories I would have been thrilled to find in any other anthology.  And apparently I can mostly read and enjoy them, trusting the authors and editors to tell these stories respectfully, except when it comes to non-binary gender.  That's a disappointing realization for me, but also an empowering challenge.  At least, that's how I'm going to take it.

**Unfinished - Long Hidden has a bibliography.  I am so excited about this!
Unfinished 2 - Long Hidden as a safe space for me because I'm unfamiliar with many of these stories & worried about exploitative/dishonest/incomplete storytelling.
Unfinished 3 - "OK, I'm someone who can read and enjoy sex scenes"
Unfinished 4 - Yeah, I also need to talk about "Marigolds".

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