Friday, January 23, 2015

Two #ShortSFF stories

As a child, I loved Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Some years later, I fell in love with The Chronicles of Narnia and longed for my own portal to some almost-parallel magical universe.  This month, along with other bloggers, I'm going to discuss two new short stories that bring us into a nearby magical place.   Ruthanna Emrys’ Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land from and Because I Prayed This Word by Alex Dally MacFarlane from Strange Horizons.  Both are beautiful short stories that will be quick to read and yet reward re-reading.  Go ahead and read them before coming back.

Next week we'll be hosting a twitter chat using the #ShortSFF hashtag, so I don't want to dive too deeply into either story, but I have a few thoughts for now, and some questions I'd like to explore further.

First, Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land, in which planting the special seeds of the distant land Tikanu allows people to enter its library, speak (or email!) with the golems who tend it, meet with the fairies and ants who populate the garden, and perhaps even encounter dolphins and learn to defeat Leviathan.  The story is delightful, and Tikanu is dangerous as well as beautiful, demanding effort to preserve and strengthen the land even as it gives gifts of food and lore.  It is the land that so many children (and even adults) long for, but as with most manifestations of Faerie, it is to be entered with care and respect.  After finishing the story, I want magical mint leaves!

In Because I Prayed This World, Alex Dally MacFarlane shows us a city covered with words, specifically love poetry written by and about (as far as I can tell) women.  This city is set up for those excluded from The City of Ladies (a manuscript written by Christine De Pizan in 1405).
Questions crowd at Perrette's mouth like birds at a granary window. She selects the first. "What is this city?"
"A place for women who. . ." The woman's gaze slides away, to the women-shaped words on the door. Perrette wishes she could read that script. "Let me read from this poem: this woman's apron. It was written several centuries ago, by a woman named Hamda bint Ziyad." The woman says nothing for a while, only murmuring under her breath: reminding Perrette of her own murmurings, turning Latin to her own words. Then the woman speaks, and her words hold Perrette like a binding.
"My tears reveal my secrets
in a wadi with traces of beauty
rivers encircling gardens
gardens encircling rivers
among the gazelles, a sweet doe,
full of milk, has grasped my heart
her gaze keeps me from sleeping."
The woman glances at Perrette. "Is that enough? There are more lines. . ."
Perrette, her thoughts full of Barbe, says, "That is enough."
"Think of this as Hamda bint Ziyad's city," the woman says. "And mine. And yours. It is for any woman who shares this love. I, meanwhile, would also love to know your name."

My own reading of this passage is that the city of words is a city for women who love other women.  There is also mention in the story of another city of sound, for women who are illiterate but still part of these cities-which-are-not-Christine's.

I love the City in Because I Prayed This Word.  I enjoy discovering new texts, discussing them with others (fancy that), and disappearing into pages and words and ideas.  I studied Medieval European monasticism in college, so a story that opens with nuns illustrating The Lives of the Desert Fathers immediately intrigued me.  It was a joy to be introduced to various characters in the story, watch them make connections, and eventually also find contacts outside the City in "our" world.  I

Thoughts I haven't fully fleshed out but would love to discuss -
In Because I Prayed This World, the city is entered through doors.  In Seven Commentaries, Tikanu is brought to our world via planting mint.  Is there something to make either of leaving our world vs. bringing magic into our world, or of having a literal portal vs. infiltrating living things like a garden?

In both stories, connections made in the other world carry over into our world, and friendships are formed in our world.  Harold adventures alone, and the children travelling to Narnia mostly travelled for their own development.  When I was a kid, the adventures I wanted to have somewhere else weren't necessarily adventures I wanted to share with others.  Where does this emphasis on community in our world come from?

I am struck that Seven Commentaries constantly builds and recruits new members.  If you can be trusted with Tikanu, anyone can share some plants with you.  Because I Prayed seems less about inviting new people in, but instead giving an often-persecuted subset a safe space.  I think there are lots of jumping off points here to think about communities, but I'm not sure where to go with that, except I hope there's a city for lesbians who like working with their hands?

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