Words for Thought: November 20228 min read
Welcome to another Words for Thought! It’s hard to believe 2022 is almost over. As the year winds down and we look ahead, it seems appropriate to focus on stories dealing with what came before and how to honor that while still moving forward. These stories all feature characters grappling with the past—whether they are haunted by the dead, feel beholden to certain established narrative paths, or are weighted down by their ancestors. They are all looking to make their own way in life, but first they must reckon with what they owe to history, or what history owes to them.
“Sunday in the Park with Hank” by Leah Bobet, published in The Deadlands, is a beautifully-written and heartbreaking meditation on trauma, guilt, and survival. Lillian wants to spend some time alone with her fiancé, but Hank, like so many other young men, returned from the war literally tethered to a ghost.
Horatio’s blank black eyes open, and she thinks: Farewell to all that. Hank’s attaché, as he so deprecatingly calls Horatio, floats blurrily upright, his tattered uniform twisting with a wind that leaves the leaves untouched.
All Lillian asks is for just one afternoon to themselves, but Hank is offended by the mere suggestion. He sees it as his duty to carry the dead—the price of his survival. Lillian has her own pain that manifests as spectral rabbits. At first she feels compelled to keep them secret, but ultimately she learns to make peace with them and set them free rather than keeping them tethered to her side.
Bobet packs a lot into a relatively short piece, exploring different approaches to living with pain. Hank lets his experiences in the war define him. Horatio is a badge of honor; his ghost is his second self. Lillian doesn’t have just one ghost, but multiple small ghosts, and it feels telling that Hank never sees Lillian’s rabbits. He is never forced to accommodate them or shape his life around them the way she is forced to shape her life around his ghost.
The imagery in the story is striking, and overall, it provides a lovely means for looking at the past and how it shapes us, as well as touching on the ways men and women are expected to cope with pain, whether they’re allowed to speak of it or expected to hide it. The story does a wonderful job of asking whose hurt “counts” and whose stories are given weight and importance.
“Choke” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, published at Tor.com, is a powerful story about a young man named Kédiké who all his life has heard the voices of his ancestors telling him he will choke. It might be a promise of doom hanging over him, or it might be nothing at all, but it is an ever-present part of his life and even caused his religious parents to bring in exorcists to cure him of his “devils” as a child.
Ancestors, like many words in this tongue, is a deficient descriptor for those who whisper in your ear. For all you know, some are as old as time itself, and some as recent as Grandpa Oli who died only a few months ago. It doesn’t matter who they consist of, though, because they all murmur in one voice. Or voices, since it’s kind of a chorus, whispers packed full with sibilants.
Kédiké’s neighbor, Alphonse, convinces him to tag along to a dinner being hosted for international students. After all, who can pass up free food? The dinner starts out uncomfortable and creepy, full of microaggressions and “well meaning” racism as the host family gushes about how excited they are to have someone from every continent at their table and explaining how they give their international guests English names (so fun!) to make them easier to remember. The meal quickly devolves into full on horror when one of the family’s sons, who was arrested for assault and whose leanings are clearly alt-right fascist, shows up unexpectedly.
Voice and language are at the heart of this story. Kédiké literally hears the voices of the past, but it isn’t until he attends the dinner that he finally understands what they’re saying. Choke can mean many things, and in this case, his ancestors’ warning is about silencing, having his voice taken away, his words altered, his past erased, and his truth smothered. Okungbowa nicely draws parallels between the white-robed priests and exorcists of the religion Kédiké’s parents embraced trying to “cure” him of the voices of his ancestors and his past and the white-robed Klan who would erase the present and future of people who look like him.
These parallels are also a microcosm of the larger themes the story explores—the mentality of colonizers who believe (or claim) their actions are for the good of the colonized, which is similar to the mentality of those who encourage immigrants to “Americanize” and “fit in”, as examples of racism disguising itself as kindness, making it easy for people to dismiss, versus the overt racism of hate crimes, slurs, and burning crosses that is more easily recognized. It’s an excellent and haunting story; definitely the sort that sticks with you long after reading.
“We Can Make Death Work” by Cassandra Khaw, published in The Sunday Morning Transport, is a bittersweet meditation on life, death, loss, and being tied to certain narratives about personal identity and the larger narrative of what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead.
The dead are picky eaters. Not picky in the way of some children, who prefer beige to any other flavor, or picky in a fashion concurrent with their parents, who shy away from tripe and stews thick with peppercorn. The dead can eat anything, but what they want is whatever reminds them of what it was like to be alive.
The narrator is desperately trying to lure their dead wife’s spirit back for a visit by making increasingly elaborate meals. They owned a restaurant together, but Phoebe was the talented one as far as the narrator is concerned; all they were good for in the partnership was doing the groceries and supporting Phoebe. They try to follow Phoebe’s recipes, and even attempt to recreate their ten-course wedding meal, but nothing turns out right. Phoebe’s spirit remains absent until Phoebe’s sister convinces the narrator to try comfort food and simple dishes instead.
Khaw packs a lot into just a few thousand words. The story is heartwarming, but doesn’t shy away from the pain of loss. There’s a full and satisfying arc for the narrator, not easy to pull off at this length, as they learn to let go of their view of themselves as powerless and hopeless without their wife, and gain a new perspective on life and death as well. Honoring the dead and celebrating life doesn’t have to involve grand and elaborate gestures. Sometimes the moments that make us feel most alive are the small ones—like eating bad junk food with your favorite person in the world.
“Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist” by Isabel J. Kim, published in Clarkesworld, is a story that makes use of a wonderfully slick and stylized voice to interrogate the tropes and archetypes of the cyberpunk subgenre, while also exploring the power of narrative and who gets to tell (and control) their own story.
Cool and Sexy Asian Girl stands outside the convenience store under the striped awning and waits for the rain to stop. The rain is never going to stop. Cool and Sexy Asian Girl would need to go to a different city for the rain to stop, a city not built on phosphorescent fluorescence and slick glass, a city that doesn’t breathe through its elevated train lines and subways.
Cool and Sexy Asian Girl knows there are limited roles for her, unlike the unlimited options for white, male protagonists. She doesn’t want to be relegated to the girlfriend role, especially not a fetishized and infantilized one. In order to keep herself in the center of the story and exert some degree of control over it, she has to fit herself into a certain mold—aloof, mysterious, maybe a little dangerous, and above all, useful. But in attempting to control her own fate, she’s hurting others. She ends up doing to others what she’s been trying to avoid having done to her—taking away other people’s choices and erasing their autonomy.
Kim does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of cyberpunk while also dismantling it and holding it accountable. Cool and Sexy Asian Girl is the protagonist of Kim’s story, but at the same time, she is the side character within the cyberpunk story-within-the-story. The protagonist of the story-within-the-story, the straight, white male known as The Tourist, never has to face the kind of reckoning Cool and Sexy Asian Girl does—he gets to blithely go on being the center of his own story without caring about hurting others, because that is an avenue open to straight, white, able-bodied men that isn’t open to others.
Kim asks readers to consider who gets to tell their own story without consequences and who has to fight simply to be heard. At the same time, she does give her protagonist the means to seize control of her story and make choices that free her from the tropes and expectations of the genre, allowing her to carve her own path rather than existing in a narrow channel simply because “the story has always been told this way”.
“So, You Married Your Arch Nemesis…Again” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, published in Lightspeed, is another story about a character trying to escape the weight of narrative and create a better future for themself. The story is told as a series of interview excerpts, alongside excerpts from stories, movies, and games in a variety of genres. All revolve around iterations of the same two characters who were once partners and lovers, but find themselves repeatedly forced into conflict, usually resulting in one of their deaths.
“How did we come to this?” Thracius’ voice softens, digging up painful memories from childhood of when they spun tales of far-off galaxies, when both Xentsiu and Thracius were innocents of war.
Xentsiu grits their teeth, their palm on the weapons trigger. “You had to be stopped.”
Like Kim’s story, Wolfmoor’s plays with voice, using the tropes and style of various genres to find the places where those genres tend to fail certain people. In this case, the characters – and by extension, the readers – being failed are queer, asexual, and non-binary. Over and over again, the characters in their various guises are forced into narratives with unhappy endings – the bury your queers trope where they suffer instead of being allowed to live happy and fulfilling lives. And similar to Kim’s protagonist, Wolfmoor’s also finds a way to break free of their story and write a new one, while also breaking the fourth wall and providing hope to a young, non-binary reader looking for a happy and fulfilling narrative for someone like them in the stories they consume.
The story is beautiful and emotional, and like Kim’s also has fun with voice and structure. Wolfmoor strikes the perfect balance between honoring the genres they take their characters through, while showing that there are ways to tell new and more inclusive stories using those genre building blocks. And they do all of it while also delivering a satisfying story that is a gut-punch in the best of ways.