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A Testament of Bloom

everyone thinks i dodged a bullet,

i think i shot the gun.

     —Greg Laswell

 

i don’t think pain is the only thing i inherited from my mother. yesterday, i was another shade of a zephyr and with every place i grazed, soliloquies replaced the emptiness i’ve always carried. frail/ grey/ the evening news/ another strand of her hair/ age/ really/ can be some strange thing. màámi’s pendulum is swinging more and more towards me/& the formula for oscillation isn’t so out of reach. her conversations with the dark/ loosening knots/ resurrected embers/ familiar aromas/ blooming fireflies/ the rabbit a full moon holds/ her qualms/ another star/ that adorns a thick night. i want to etch my shadows on these words and watch them wave through a window, through another element capable of ushering my darkness in—     call me an object of gravity. what if the laws of physics are nothing but dust, nothing but abstract projectiles and fading footprints? is this where my tongue will morph into paper and enough will be all it oozes/ where these lips will be nothing but open doors/ holding freedom in the little spaces between them? swim into this body, wallow in these little fires, is this how each day will be a feast of heavy prayers and a rite for hopes unburnt? look deep this time, you might just find stubborn streams of blood and water trying to deny their purpose, struggling not to be lyrics of the blade’s song, again. finally, to smile will be to watch the sun grace my walls/ to see in the morning a mirror/ housing golden reflections of my being, whispering i, too, can be a testament of bloom.

 

(Editors’ Note: “A Testament of Bloom” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49B.)

Interview: Iori Kusano

Iori Kusano is a queer Asian American writer, competitive Yu-Gi-Oh! duelist, and Extremely Ordinary Office Gremlin living in Tokyo. They are a graduate of Clarion West 2017 and their fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine and Baffling Magazine. Their debut novella, Hybrid Heart, is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press in 2023. “can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time” is their first story to appear in Uncanny, a moving tale of trauma and healing, with eggs cooked—incorrectly—to order.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This is an emotionally powerful story where Matt is struggling to move on from a world he’s lost. What was your inspiration or starting point?

Iori Kusano: In the summer of 2020 there was an /r/relationships post from a woman who was rightfully alarmed by her boyfriend repeatedly going to Waffle House, receiving an incorrect egg order, and getting into fistfights with the cook about it. I think it was later revealed as fiction but it absolutely fascinated me. The author of this post had just invented a whole new type of guy, and I wanted to pop the lid on that guy’s brain and see what gasket had blown out to make him behave this way. And, as it usually is with me, the answer was “isekai trauma”!

In the first iteration of this story Gary was in a closer place to Matt’s mindset, but that was way too heavy and bleak. The version of Gary that has healed from the trauma and self-actualized is a lighthouse for Matt, even though Matt reacts to it with hostility. I think of them as two monks in an unusually violent koan.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could go to Hirekkyo, but only once—would you want to?

Iori Kusano: Who’s to say I haven’t?

Uncanny Magazine: I love the bit where Alice is leaving and the only thing that Matt can think of to say is that he can’t eat all the tomato sauce alone—it is such a great character detail. How do you come up with your characters? Do they ever do things you don’t expect?

Iori Kusano: Rather than my characters behaving in unexpected ways, I struggle most with their inclination towards inaction. The vast majority of my protagonists just want to be left the hell alone; even when their status quo is rotten, changing their circumstances or healing themselves requires so much vulnerability (materially and/or emotionally) that it is more comfortable to crawl under the covers and pretend they’re not unfulfilled-at-best. I spend a truly horrible amount of time trying to wrench the plot around to force them into action despite the risks and consequences that they’re afraid of.

Uncanny Magazine: How do you like your eggs?

Iori Kusano: I’m an omurice junkie, but it has to be served in curry or beef stew. The omurice at Jonathan’s is pretty good—I have a deep and abiding spiritual attachment to a particular booth where I get a lot of my writing out.

Uncanny Magazine: “can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time” opens with a great fight scene. Do you have some favorite action sequences from fiction or other media?

Iori Kusano: I love Sammo Hung’s fight scenes, and that’s a strong influence on how I block fights. He was the action director for Games Gamblers Play and The Private Eyes, two 1970s comedies starring the Hui brothers; the kitchen fight from The Private Eyes lives rent-free in my head. I find fights that incorporate the environment as either hazard or tool to be vastly more interesting (and fun to write) than two guys swinging at each other in an empty warehouse.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Iori Kusano: I try not to talk too much about projects in progress because I feel like that sucks energy out of them, but I am yet again elbow-deep in one of the four recurring themes that I’m obsessed with. My debut novella, Hybrid Heart, will also be out from Neon Hemlock in 2023, and I’m really looking forward to that!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Travelers’ Unrest

I stood at the back of the viewing platform and watched my fifteen tourists stare at the Fairy Falls of Mallu. Low murmurs of appreciation arose from most of my people. Images of Fairy Falls were often included in collections of Year’s Best Pictures on interstellar substreams, but the reality was better.

Under a warm blue sky, small, brilliant clouds of colored light drifted in and out of the sheet of water that fell from the top of a jagged black cliff to thunder into a pool below. The lip of the cliff towered three stories above us. Rainbow mist rose from water pounding into the pool at the base of the cliff.

The lights were some sort of Malluran life form, or maybe they were gaseous emissions from a cavern behind the falls. Sometimes there were many of them, and sometimes only a few. What I knew as a tour director was that the fairy presence was a reliable phenomenon as long as CampTours paid a fee.

I glanced at Imlaka, the Malluran Fairy Falls guardian. She nodded a knobby head. She didn’t look or smell human. She was more like a stack of rocks, with three tentacular arms banded in gold ending in small nests of tentacles. She smelled like sun-warmed burlap.

The older child darted toward the edge, and I ran to stop him. There were no guardrails here, not even invisible ones. I pulled out my null-grav field spinner in case he plunged over, but one of his parents gripped his shoulders before he fell. “Koro, what did we tell you?” she said. “No running up here!”

“They’re so pretty,” said the younger child. She walked slowly to the edge and peered at the little clouds of light. “Do they talk? Will they come to us?” She reached toward the nearest fairy-cloud and almost fell over the edge, but by then, I was close enough to grip her shoulder and tug her back.

“Bo!” said one of the other parents. “I’m so sorry, Fra Jukia,” he told me as he came to pick up the girl. “We explained the rules to them.”

“I understand,” I said. “They’re children.” Usually we didn’t let preadolescents on our tours. The family had begged, and offered better tour fees, and my boss had consented. I needed to keep better track of the children. I wasn’t used to them.

“Seen enough,” said TriChip, the streamer, the person I liked least on this tour. He switched off his link, turned away from the drift of fairies in the flood, and stalked toward the stairs that led back to our bus, muttering about second-class attractions and bad connections.

I knew he’d pace back and forth in the shade of the bus, creating worse and worse reviews to share with his followers, getting more and more lurid the longer the rest of us stayed on the viewing platform. I didn’t want to let his impatience make my decisions for me. I glanced from the fairies to the faces of my charges. The children were still staring at the fairies, and so were all the others. Most were capturing images or vids. The three retired sisters got the single, older man to image them in front of the fairies.

Opal, the woman I was most concerned for—she came on the tour alone; she was an independent contractor, a spacer who almost never came down out of the sky, and she was not used to being with other people, didn’t know how to dress or make pleasant conversation—watched the fairies with her mouth half-open and her eyes wide. Wonder lit her dark face. At last she turned to me, then looked past me at Guardian Imlaka. She said something in a language I didn’t know, something with gravel in its undertones, and Imlaka, who on all my previous visits to Fairy Falls had stayed in one spot and not interacted with any of my tourists, moved two steps forward and replied.

Smile lines creased the skin at the outer edges of Opal’s eyes. She blinked slowly at Imlaka and touched her fist to her chin in a salute of Malluran respect I had only recently learned. Imlaka raised her arm and touched her squirming fist to a knob on her head.

Opal turned to me. “The fairies are people,” she said, and I returned her smile.

“Thanks for asking about that,” I said. “I wasn’t sure.” The other tour directors and I at CampTours had wondered whether the fairies were beings or just some kind of local weather or geologic phenomenon. Imlaka understood Standard and could speak it, but she didn’t usually answer questions.

I felt like I’d been given a gift. I wanted to ask more questions. I didn’t want to push Opal, or upset the connection she had made with Imlaka.

“Everyone,” I said in a louder voice, “let’s go down to the bus. It’s time to head to our next stop.”

The rest of my group took a few final impressions and then went down the stairs. Opal rumbled something to Imlaka and followed me down.

Everyone loaded into the bus, and Kase, our driver, checked that everyone was strapped in. Next stop on the itinerary was the Mallu ruins, and we would be hovering over some rough ground on the way there.

We’d been on the tour two days already, and everyone had assigned themselves seats except TriChip, who changed seat partners after every stop. People wanted window seats, of course, though the screen up front would show the best feeds from multiple cameras mounted on the roof. The bus’s main cabin had clear plasteel sides we could opaque as necessary if the sun was too bright or people felt like resting. Five pairs of luxury recliners upholstered in beige and turquoise lined each side of the bus, with a wide, carpeted aisle in the center that led back to the snack bar and the bathrooms. Our camping pods attached to the back of the bus. Kase and I popped them off and deployed them each night at our chosen campsites.

Kase had set the air temperature to moderate in the bus, and the enhanced air inside—a little extra oxygen to keep people energized—smelled like desert aromatics, the small-leafed plants on Mallu that reminded me of sage, an herb my mother had used on my old world before we had to flee. My mind stuttered, tripping over a childhood memory of our pale, egg-shaped kitchen in yellow morning light, my mother alive, smiling, making morning cereal over a brazier by the open back door, tinting the air with the mouth-watering scents of grains and spices and fruits.

I blinked and returned to now. TriChip had seated himself by Opal. Something pinched in my chest. Did she know how to handle toxic? I’d already seen him smiling and saying something to her at breakfast, his tone gentle, and yet she had wilted. I’d seen him do this to the exuberant three sisters, too, some remark in a sweet voice that made them look at each other, lose their smiles and their sparkle. He’d tried it on the kids, but they ignored him. Go, kids.

We had three more days of tour. I didn’t want him ruining it for anyone.

Everyone on the tour had accepted a chipped wristlet that let me keep track of them on my pad. If anyone wandered off or was taken by a rogue or had some other disaster happen, I would at least know where they were. What we never told our travelers was the bands had other functions. We could knock people out with the touch of a screen in case of actual physical fighting or someone doing something forbidden. TriChip hadn’t even approached the maximum penalty. He hadn’t started any fights. I still wanted to press the red dot on my pad to knock him out and stop him from spreading any more poison. But I’d lose my job.

As Kase sealed the bus and engaged the engine, I took my stand at the front and touched the collar tab that would amplify my voice just a little. “The next place we’re going to is Emiala Mellu,” I said, “one of the ruined cities left after the tech wars two centuries ago, after which civilization on Mallu took a different path.”

Koro, the older child, raised a hand from where he sat beside one of his mothers. “What was the first path?”

I had sent everyone material they could study before the tour, but some people never looked at the info-packs. And this was a child. Did children his age even know how to read or access content? Probably they did, but I could repeat the information anyway. I always did.

“Their first path was like many of our human paths. Expanded use of resources until the resources were gone. Expanded population, expanded technology, expanded wars, shrinking survivability.” I pointed out the window at the burnt orange desert we were hovering across. “The final war left much of the landscape like this. Not many survived. Those who did chose to alter their genotypes to exclude, as much as possible, transmissible traits involved in competition and fighting. They chose different priorities. That’s why there’s now a green belt girdling the planet and making the air breathable for the Mallurans and for us.” Wait. Would a kid understand what I was saying? Probably not in a gut sense, if he even knew the words. I hadn’t had a meal with the family yet and didn’t know enough about them.

“The Malluran was that rock pile at the Fairy Falls?” asked the younger child.

“Bo!” said one of the mothers.

“What?” said the child.

“That was Imlaka,” I said, “and yes, she is one of the Mallurans. There were three Mallurans standing guard at the International Market yesterday, and some Mallurans had booths there, selling relics and cloth and seed boxes. Did you talk to them?”

“I didn’t know they were alive,” she said. “Not until that one talked to Opal.”

Yep, no info-pack reading in the family, I guessed. “That is what the Mallurans look like now. Before the tech wars, they were very different. We’ll see some images at the ruins.”

“Will there be any Mallurans there?” asked the older child.

“Yes, there will.” Mallurans guarded all the sites we visited. I’d never seen one do anything. I didn’t know if they could. But their presence made us all aware that we were being monitored. Sometimes that helped.

“Can you help me talk to one?” asked the older child.

“I can try,” I said. “Opal, would you help us?”

Opal glanced up. Her dark face was flushed. TriChip’s quiet voice had been talking as I spoke, I realized. He had already been at work.

“Sorry, Jukia, I didn’t hear.”

“Koro and Bo want to speak with a Malluran. I’ve been living on Mallu for ten years, studying their culture and their history and everything else I can, but I haven’t learned much of the language. Linguists say it’s one of the most difficult to learn. I practice some phrases every day, but when I say them to Mallurans, they don’t acknowledge me. I’ve had conversations in Standard with some of them, but I don’t get very far. Could you help us speak with a Malluran at the Ruins?”

“Sure okay,” said Opal. She looked up at me. My breathing quickened. I blinked slowly at her, wondering if she would understand it as an expression of my interest in her, or if that was just a thing from my previous life that didn’t translate. I had studied many cultural customs to be good at my job, but I couldn’t always remember which gesture belonged where.

Opal smiled, and that was better than seeing the flush TriChip had left her with.

The Emiala Mellu rose in black iron spikes and spires against the red desert and blue sky. Many of the buildings had fallen. Some still stood, shells of their former selves. The sky spikes had once carried communication networks with other cities and satellites. In most of the ruins, the spikes had been first targets, but Emiala Mellu had mounted the most successful attacks, destroying other cities before they could retaliate. Still, one of the other cities’ satellites had succeeded in striking Emiala Mellu. The underground labs there had survived long enough for the Malluran scientists to modify genes in viral form to spread among the survivors, and shepherd four generations through the changes. Then they had self-destructed.

“Ground rules,” I said as Kase brought the bus to a stop in our designated parking spot. “Stay together, everyone. We have permission to walk a strict route through the city. Do not stray. Agreed?”

“Aye.” “Okay sure.” “Yes, Fra.” “We’ll leash the kids,” said one of the mothers.

TriChip didn’t answer, but I knew he heard me; he imaged every lecture or admonishment I gave so he could tear me down on the social substreams. I used to read him before I met him. He could be amusingly cruel. Sometimes even hilarious. He was a genius at editing his clips to make everyone around him look foolish and incompetent, silly, and unchic. He had many followers.

When I saw his name on my manifest, I stopped reading him.

We all got off the bus except Kase.

I felt cold every time I visited these ruins, even if the sun was shining and the air was warm. They were so dark, with so many sharp angles, as if they could cut open the sky to a darker dimension.

Three Mallurans stood on the path inside. I had met Yuntill before; his head knobs had streaks of pale green among the brown, and his tentacle arms bore thin jade bands. I didn’t think I had seen the others before.

“Greetings, honored beings,” I said. “We are here to see and not to disturb. All are registered visitors. May we pass?”

Silence for what always seemed like an hour. The children shifted. Their mother had actually put harnesses on them, with leashes attached. That gave me some comfort.

“One may not pass,” said Yuntill. His arm rose and pointed at TriChip.

“Oh, no frikking way,” said TriChip, who was imaging already, pointing his lens at the Mallurans, then at me. “I paid for this. I’m going in.”

“There’s a contingency in the contract you signed with us,” I said. “If you offend the Mallurans, they can refuse you entrance anywhere.”

“How have I offended them? I’ve never even talked to them.”

I glanced at Yuntill. He said something in that gravelly language. Opal came to stand beside me. She touched her fist to her chin, then spoke to Yuntill. He touched his hand to his facial knob and answered her. She turned to TriChip. “Some of them are following your stream,” she said. “They say your ideas are poisoning the planet, and they want you to leave.”

“What? They can’t do that! Words and pictures are all I deal in!”

I got out my tablet and looked at the marker for TriChip, then cocked my head at him. The red dot was right there.

Yuntill spoke, and Opal translated. “Words and pictures can be weapons. Your words aren’t welcome here.”

TriChip took a deep breath, opened his mouth, then deflated and marched back to the bus.

I put my tablet away and dropped my hand to my side. Somehow, Opal’s hand was there to meet mine. We turned together to face Yuntill.

“Thank you, honored elder,” I said. “Will you speak with these children?”

“I will,” he said, and Bo and Koro came to stand with us, dragging their mother after them. The rest of my group crowded around to hear what the Mallurans had to say.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Travelers’ Unrest” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49B.)

can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time

Matt tells the waiter he’ll have his eggs over easy. They come back scrambled, a neat glistening pile framed by perfect triangles of toast, a lacy froth of hashbrowns lurking across the plate.

He doesn’t notice he’s chosen to move until he’s already halfway to the kitchen, adrenaline flooding his body. It feels good, electric, the old berserker rage no longer a long-lost daydream—the same rage that once let him defend Hirekkyo and the Sphinx who ruled it.

Gary charges out of the kitchen to meet him, doors swinging in his wake, arms outstretched as if to embrace Matt. Last week’s black eye still decorates his face. He goes for the grapple and they go down rolling towards an empty four-top, both men trying to obtain sufficient leverage for a punch. Once Matt realizes he can’t land a solid hit with his fists he snaps his face forward for a headbutt, catching Gary in the chin. Their bodies know each other like their own reflections, two students of the same teacher. The clack of Gary’s teeth meeting echoes in Matt’s ears, even though he still dimly registers the sounds of “Toxic” blaring on the Waffle House sound system.

Matt tries to draw his legs up to lever Gary off him, but a knee to the lower intestine distracts him. Somewhere in the fugue of battle he recognizes wetness on his face: blood, sweat, tears, spit? Whose? Gary rolls them under a table, and in the sudden darkness Matt is pinned.

And then hands are hauling Gary back. Matt lunges upward and brains himself on the underside of the table.

Before the starbursts have cleared someone seizes him by the ankles and drags him into the horrible fluorescent light. All his senses are in overdrive: the whiff of sweat and kitchen grease, the pulse of the lights, the taste of blood in his mouth—he hadn’t even noticed he’d bitten his lip—makes him queasy. He hasn’t been hit this hard since a time and place he wishes he didn’t remember.

The night watchman gazes down at him with unvarnished pity. “Man, you have got to cut this shit out. I haven’t called the cops on you yet because Gary here asked me not to, but you keep this shit up and I’m gonna have to do something about it, get me?”

He forces Matt into a chair like an errant child, which, fair enough. “What is your beef, champ? And why haven’t we just fucking banned you already?”

Gary groans, clutching a lumpy dish towel full of ice to his jaw. “I told you, Marco, it’s fine. He’s just going through it. We’re friends from school.”

“Oh, is that all?” Matt snarls.

“Ex-boyfriend?” a waitress asks Gary.

“Not my type.”

They laugh, and Matt wishes he’d hit his head a little harder so that he wouldn’t have to hear it. He closes his eyes, still leaking tears. Fuck Gary for having anything to laugh about.

Marco grabs Matt’s hand to unlock the smartphone he’d dropped. “What’s your girlfriend’s name? I’ll call her to come get you.”

“No,” Matt yelps. “No, fuck, don’t. I—I’ve got Lyft on there. I’ll take a Lyft.”

Matt’s tears give way to convulsive, wretched sobs as he limps to the parking lot. He has given up on using his words. He used his words the last three times this happened: moaned, “Immuteios, Immuteios, say you remember, say it was real” as Gary put him into a headlock on the thin, stained carpet.

Using his words hadn’t gotten him anywhere. It isn’t even about the goddamn eggs. He regresses whenever he sees Gary, shrinks into a sweaty-palmed teenager in baggy hand-me-downs staring into and through the old apple tree in the park as if it would open again.

And he keeps seeking him out anyway because—man, fuck Gary. Fuck Gary and his shiny new sneakers and his perfect hair.

Fuck Gary, smiling like he owns the world while he dishes out the wrong eggs for shits and giggles.

He doesn’t pass out in the Lyft, but it’s a close thing. Matt watches the sleeping commuter town blur past the window as the heaviness of faraway settles into the tired lines of his face and wishes he could blow it all up, set it on fire, kick it far away from himself. Fuck this whole world for daring to exist. Fuck this whole world for not being Hirekkyo.

Morning finds him spangled with misery, suffering under what feels like the invention of hangovers. Unfair: he wasn’t even drunk last night. But consecutive hits to the gut (fuck you, Gary) can wreak just as much havoc as tequila. Before he hauls himself upright, he wonders if maybe a kidney hasn’t ruptured in there. He’d be okay with that outcome, but since he didn’t bleed out in the night, it seems unlikely.

Alice, love of his life, a goddamn saint, has coffee and potatoes hot and waiting when Matt staggers into the kitchen. She frowns at the dried blood on his face, or maybe at all of him. It’s hard to be sure.

Flushed with embarrassment, he scrubs at the scabbing crust on his swollen lip. “I’ll, uh, wash the sheets before I leave today,” he says.

“That’s not the problem,” she says, gesturing for him to sit down. Matt throws a hearty squirt of ketchup on his home fries and digs in. He gets three bites down before he realizes that Alice is still standing at the counter.

“You have to tell me why you’re doing this shit,” she says.

He keeps chewing.

“Tell me,” Alice says.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

She looms over him, merciless as a drill sergeant. “If you don’t tell me what he is to you,” she warns, “I will keep asking until you break.”

Matt thinks that he is already broken, that nothing she does can grind the shards any smaller. He turns his mind away from that as if he’d touched a hot stove.

“Ex-boyfriend,” she guesses. “Stole a Tonka truck from you in kindergarten. High school rival?”

Fight, flight, freeze, fawn—he always picks freeze with Alice, cowed by her righteousness even as he shelters under it. She’s had four years to learn that and she pounces.

“I knew it! Was it some kind of sports thing? Did he beat you at water polo? God, I don’t even really know what men hate each other about.”

He hates himself for giving away that much. He should’ve moved after he graduated. How did he ever think this county was small enough for him to forget?

But he would never have moved. He’d have had to leave the apple tree.

“Allie,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. It—it won’t happen again. I love you, and you’re the best thing in this world that could ever happen to me, and I’m sorry I disappointed you.” Two lies, three truths. The truth tally is still up, and that’s what counts, right?

“Matt, listen to me. I am not willing to be in a relationship with someone who gets into fistfights, plural, with the cook at Waffle House and refuses to explain himself. You can keep holding whatever stupid secret grudge you’ve got against him until the heat death of the universe if you just stop picking fights with him. But you can’t expect me to let you come home and smear blood all over my Boll & Branch pillowcases and never tell me why.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Matt mumbles, fully fucking aware that this is, like, one hundo percent the worst thing he can say. It’s unfortunate that it’s also true.

Man, fuck Gary. Fuck that guy for being the only person who gets it.

“Okay.” Alice’s voice is tighter than he’s ever heard it; she twangs like a bowstring. “You either want to keep your weird rage-y secret, or you want me, and I guess I know which.”

She is so firm, so strong, and Matt wonders if the only reason she’s got it together is because she hasn’t been tested. Alice has no specter of old hurts smiling serenely and sending out the wrong plate of eggs. Alice has no well of pain to send her flying over a table at some ex-friend she hasn’t seen in a decade.

Ex-classmate. Ex-acquaintance. They were never friends, were they? A friend wouldn’t have left Matt alone all those years ago. But Gary hadn’t even recognized him that first night. Matt had ordered his eggs poached, gotten them scrambled, looked for the waitress—and seen her laughing with Gary as he plated sirloin and eggs with the kind of grace that belonged in a much more expensive restaurant. Just a mistake, but one that had sent Matt sprinting with raised fists.

The second time, and the third, and the fourth—Gary had recognized him then. He’d pulled this shit on purpose. And Matt should have backed down, should have gone to any of a dozen other restaurants where no one was deliberately sending out the wrong order. Where Alice is wrong is thinking that he could.

“Matt, you are a person who seeks someone out, deliberately and repeatedly, to hurt them for mystery reasons! Do you know how scary that is? Do you understand that I can’t trust you not to point that anger at me? All the thousands of times I’ve seen you be normal and peaceful can’t outweigh that. I’m not going to hang around hoping you get your shit under control.”

Matt picks at his chapped lips until they split. He bites his nails to the quick and then some. When he was a kid he’d worry at loose teeth with his tongue until he could push them out, the only reward for his trouble a mouthful of blood. Matt doesn’t know how to stop hurting himself. Where do you even begin a task like that? How do you unlearn that habit?

She is shaking, or he is, or they both are. Matt isn’t sure. He only knows that she’s quivering in front of his tired eyes, that the leg of the table is rattling faintly.

“I already talked to my dad before you got up. He’s bringing his truck over this afternoon to get my stuff,” Alice says, resigned. “If you could be elsewhere I’d…appreciate it.”

Matt racks his brains for anything he can say to halt her. His eyes dart around the apartment, scanning four years of shared history: the couch they went halfsies on, the scarf he knitted for her last birthday, the Lothlórien travel poster Alice picked out on a drunk Etsy spree.

“We made a whole gallon of tomato sauce last weekend. I can’t…I can’t eat it all alone.”

When he looks at Alice again there is a tired pity in her eyes. She’s gazing at him the way the night watchman at the Waffle House did, as if he is a sad stranger she can’t help.

“Are you aware of your total inability to get to the point, or have you genuinely never noticed how you dodge everything that matters?” Alice says. “To hell with the pasta sauce. You should have led with I love you, maybe.”

“I do love you—”

“But not enough to change.”

He could go anywhere. He could go to his study carrel on campus and sit with the other PhD candidates, pretending that his palms don’t sweat every time he thinks about the forty thousand dollars in student loans he’s taken out so far. He could go to the library, to Taco Bell. He could even go to the goddamn Waffle House.

But he goes to the apple tree. It’s far back enough in the park that it can’t be seen from the road. Its leaves are yellowed with the autumn, and small, hard fruits stud the ground around it. He feels for the door for the thousandth time, and when he still can’t find it, he tears at the bark until his short fingernails are broken and bleeding, and he collapses heartbroken against the roots. The parents shepherding rambunctious toddlers and the dogs leading their humans give him a wide berth.

Matt closes his eyes and prays for oblivion. He doesn’t care why he was born into this world, why he only got the briefest hit of a better one, why fate decided to destroy him specifically out of all the scrawny teenagers it could have picked. He just wants it all to go away.

“Dude,” a voice above him says.

He ignores it.

Bro,” Gary says, more insistently.

“I’m not your bro, pal,” Matt mutters halfheartedly.

“Do you still want me to call you Gratiteios, then? Fine, Gratiteios. One knight of Hirekkyo to another…you let it go or it kills you.”

Matt can’t open his eyes. His head is full of Gary’s grin the day they knelt before the Holy Sphinx, and their mingled laughter under an unfamiliar sky. They’d never paid much attention to each other in school, but inside the apple tree, living three years in a summer afternoon and recognizing only each other, it hadn’t mattered.

It should have changed something, afterwards. There should have been knowing grins, rueful glances, shared secret contempt for how little pre-calc mattered after they’d watched the sorcerer rain fire down the mountainside.

But nothing changed. Gary made valedictorian and stared through Matt every time their paths crossed. Matt quit water polo to hide away reading every pulpy fantasy the library would lend out, desperate to find something familiar.

“I only ever wanted you to admit it was real,” Matt says at last. “You always…always fucking walked around like none of it ever happened.”

“Like it never—”

Thinking he’s finally provoked Gary into throwing the first punch, Matt forces his eyes open. Gary drops onto his heels, putting them on eye level, but no violence is forthcoming: only a soft and terrible gaze. A bloom of purple along his jaw shows where Matt touched him last night.

“You know why I dropped out of college?” Gary demands. “I tried to kill myself. Right here, right where you’re fucking sitting, because I couldn’t get back inside this stupid tree and if I couldn’t live in Hirekkyo I didn’t want to live anywhere. I woke up that night in the hospital because some lady walking her dog found me. They had to pump my stomach. Kept me on hold for two days.”

“But you got better?” Matt says dully. He hasn’t gotten better. He’s not sure there is a better, for him. There might have been if he’d controlled himself, if he’d stopped chasing after Gary and just focused on holding together the normal life he’d been building with Alice, but that version of “better” is out of reach now, and it’s his own fault.

“Yeah. Stopped trying to distract myself by doing everything my parents wanted, stopped pushing myself so fucking hard for nothing, started figuring out what making life worthwhile looked like for me. Learned to cook. Started meditating. Got a job that fit my sleep schedule. Took judo at the Y. I teach the kids’ classes on my days off work.”

“Must be nice.”

Gary lets that one hang until Matt can feel what an asshole he’s being. It’s a heaviness in his stomach, like chalupas when it’s not cheat day.

“How’d you know I was here?” Matt finally asks.

“Your…friend called the restaurant, and they called me,” Gary says, confirming his suspicions. “And I figured, where the fuck else were you gonna go.” He pauses, and then: “Nice gal. Reminds me of the Commander, doesn’t she.”

The words land harder than a punch ever could. Matt flinches, remembering the woman who’d made up for his real mother’s distraction and distance with her careful tutelage. The Sphinx had named them to their posts, but it was the Commander who had made them mageknights.

“Do you remember what she told us about the apples?” Gary plucks one from the ground and shines it up on the leg of his Dockers.

“That’s rhetorical, right? You can’t seriously think I’d forget.”

“Of course it’s rhetorical, dickweed.” And Gary slices the little fruit in half with his pocketknife. Matt wonders if he’d had the knife on him before—and why he’d never pulled it in self-defense.

“‘The star in every apple is the soul of a hero long gone,’” Gary recites, and in that moment his face is almost beatific. “‘With every bite you add their strength to yours. Someday you will be strong enough to withstand everything your heart does to you.’”

The tears are hot on his face but Matt can’t find it in himself to be ashamed for crying. He’s too busy feeling ashamed of everything else about himself. He takes the fruit Gary holds out to him. The star of seeds is intact and perfect. The burst of acid shoots through him like cold sunrise.

“So eat more apples,” Gary says, “and less two A.M. eggs, and be less of an asshole.”

“I’m an asshole? You kept fucking with my food!”

“First time was an honest mistake.” Gary crunches at his half of the apple, looking chagrined.

“Yeah, and after that?”

“You were mad. You needed a place to put it.” Gary stands up, wiping his sticky hands on the hem of his shirt. “And you couldn’t put it in Hirekkyo anymore.”

“So what, it was your idea of therapy or something?”

“Call it an object lesson in not getting what you want out of life.”

And Matt knows it is so much more mercy than he has ever deserved. Every egg he ever eats will turn to dust in his mouth, compared to the memory of this strange grace. Gary turns to leave him.

“Hey!” Matt blurts. “Can I buy you a beer sometime? Call it an apology for the black eye. And the jaw. And, uh, whatever else I did to you.”

“Nah.” Gary doesn’t even look back at him. “Not healthy for either of us to keep rehashing this shit. But if you order ‘em over easy next time I’ll cook ‘em that way.”

 

(Editors’ Note: Iori Kusano is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

What Do the Dying Know?

To be young and whole is to own the earth, to own the story. But the story doesn’t end when we pass peak performance. Where are the tales about what happens then?

Because the body does, indeed break down. I think of the original Star Trek episode, “The Menagerie.” Captain Christopher Pike’s body is so damaged that he can’t move or speak, and he’s in a strange box-like contraption. He’s given the opportunity to live on the planet Talos IV, in a world that allows him the illusion of himself as young and healthy. I have no quarrel with being able to project himself in a better life, but the body in a box always seemed to me to be a metaphor for old age. Old bodies are traps.

Cronenberg has said about his 1986 film The Fly that it is a story of aging, and it gives this to us by the device of an unwelcome intrusion of a foreign body into his own. It overtakes him.

Our fundamental desire, our belief, is that our body won’t betray us, and of course there are many people who maintain a good physical existence to the end. But the rest of us don’t.

I was 19 when I suddenly became partially paralyzed, due to an undiscovered congenital spine defect. It was my first body betrayal, and very far from the last. Over the years, more spinal issues arose, and the memory of moving easily was just that, a memory. It has influenced a lot of my stories indirectly. We love the idea of, say, replacing the parts that stop working—androids, for instance—or moving our aging brains into new bodies. We hope there are cures every step of the way as hearts murmur, and joints lock, as vision and hearing and balance fail. We are fascinated by the idea of growing new ears and organs on pigs, and I’ve used that in a story. Or we twist the concept of body failure by turning bodies into alien beings, as in The Fly.

Because of the numerous replacements and surgeries, people laughingly say, “Oh, you’re bionic.” I actually prefer “rebuilt classic.” Because the mix of old and new suggests restoration. I have willingly incorporated new parts as I go (new knees, new hips), as long as I can continue to move (again, that Star Trek episode haunts me). The mix of parts suggests a scientific solution to aging, as if I could someday acknowledge that I am Borg: a basic human plan with added technology.

As I age, the metaphors for it in my stories lead themselves to contained, distinct alienation of the body. I’ve written about fingers betraying a woman’s hands, perhaps in response to what arthritis is doing to my hands. I wrote a story where a woman’s hair was stolen by a coworker. While the story never suggests it, it referred to how I viewed the hair loss associated with chemo. Stolen. But my body is the true metaphor.

And the body, with all its aberrations, still goes on.

There’s a dearth of great stories about aging, especially about women aging, and aging women, about being left out of most discussions, about accepting and continuing.

I try to include aging and disabled (the two don’t always go together, but sometimes they do) in my stories. My latest novel, The Splendid City, has a senior witch who is increasingly disabled, and we see her go from a cane to a wheelchair. In fact, she flies in a lawn chair. Who can sit on a broom after 30 anyway? She still has power, and she has the added authority of experience and understanding.

By and large, old women don’t have much place in modern society. Aging, of course, is not restricted to women, but women become increasingly invisible.

In “The Space Crone,” Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that if aliens were to ask for a representative individual from our earth, we should consider the ordinary old woman who has worked for her family and who has gone through enormous changes such as childbirth and menopause, things most men don’t do and therefore can’t experience as life changes. These women have seen and done more than men do, and have never been considered important, despite their rather pivotal roles in society. But they have a fuller life than men. This reminds me of Miss Marple, who was acute at divining the criminal because they reminded her of the past criminals she had encountered. She perceived patterns.

One scene that stands out for me is Jet in Alice Hoffman’s The Book of Magic, involving the aging witch Jet, who has just found out that she has only a week before her death. It’s particularly striking that she is a strong woman, in control of her life, though not always effective in the lives of those she loves. Her last days are powerful, not because she wins a ring or a stone or a battle, but because she sees with remarkable sight what the world is, and what she is. Perhaps what bothers me so much about how aging and death are portrayed is that we want a bigger boom than insight and acceptance, and love. But Jet’s death is a powerful chapter, the letting go with love, and the reconciliation with love when her family line has always been cursed to lose what they love. Nothing diminishes her. What she has is the wholeness of life behind her.

It’s this wholeness of life that Miss Marple, Jet, and a host of other detectives earn through aging. Life is both surprise and repetition. We learn from both.

I’m working on a story where the older women in an urban neighborhood have set up their own watch—in touch with each other from block to block, aiding in solving crimes. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but it’s part of a collection I hope to have some day, called, “The League of Invisible Women.” They’re invisible because that’s what women after menopause are: invisible. But they have sharp eyes and enough of a network to function effectively. They are the senior eyes in the neighborhood; they may not have the action scenes but they have knowledge, and by working within the community, together, they pass that knowledge down.

If the end of life is finalizing, letting things go—what do we learn from that? What is the takeaway? We’ve heard so many times that the last regrets are not what we did, but what we didn’t do: where is the way to evaluate that? There are so many things we didn’t do; wouldn’t it be worthwhile to know how to judge them? Wouldn’t there be value in being told what did work in a long life, what they’ve seen fail not only with themselves but with the larger world? What broad wisdom are we letting slip away? What is the underlying pattern?

The questions to the dying of course should be, what have you learned about values? What in the world should be changed? What are the patterns and how do we see them and address them? How can we be better?

So, what do readers like me want to see? I want women of all kinds and ages to take their place in our stories, to face their aging with courage and deal with it. Because we do.

I Am a Little Hotel

and they tell me my body is not

the home they’re looking for,

not the presidential suite—lavish décor,

wine, freshly pressed linen sheets—

but sweat-soaked, blood-stained mattress

in the basement behind locked doors,

covered in dust, abandoned,

by everyone but myself.

But sometimes, even I forget

that beneath withered, wrinkled, time-

stamped hands, there once was a woman,

who loved her guests, those who entered

and left, those who stood guard

at the door, until my floors became empty,

and the only reminder of my guests

are their footprints, first muddy,

then dried dirt, sown across my carpets,

and greasy handprints along the walls—

and no matter how hard I scrub,

they don’t leave unless I rip

out the wallpapers, but even then

I cannot escape because I am a little hotel. I

am a little hotel. I welcome you, I host you,

I cater to you, I tend to you, and you—

are free to leave without payment,

free to leave your shadows

and memories behind, free—

and I—?

I am a little hotel.

Sang Kancil at the Protest

His spirit yet dances

through the crowd. There,

in graffiti refusing grey concrete.

There, in the demonstrator’s eye.

There, in the slogan splitting hearts.

There, in the minister’s tweaked nose.

 

Sang Kancil datang,

Anjing raja ditendang.

Slip bars, scurry from snares, sprint

fine and unseen. No net or cage contains

a trickster of his kind

for very long. His hoofprints

persist to puncture dignities,

remind them

they too are of this dust.

 

Sang Kancil datang,

Anjing raja ditendang.

 

While tigers rage at his laugh

in the twilight, harried and hunted,

good Kancil remains

unafraid, knowing

even a mousedeer has fangs

and a kick for every king’s cur.

 

Sang Kancil datang,

Anjing raja ditendang.

 

 

Across the Afterverse: A Conversation with Afropunk SF/F Author Alex Smith

I first encountered Alex Smith’s writing when we were both published in a tribute anthology for Samuel R. Delany called Stories for Chip (Rosarium Books, 2015). His fiction was dense, anarchic, compelling, and blazed with an overheated sense of wonder. I knew I’d be seeing more of him, and Alex has continued making a name for himself ever since. We recently sat down for a Zoom chat during his successful crowdfunding campaign for Issue #2 of his queer cyberpunk superhero series, Black Vans.

 

Alex Jennings: Your art, writing, and music are deeply connected to Philadelphia. Is that where you were born and raised?

Alex Smith: Born and raised in Greenville, NC, but I’ve lived, loved, and grown here since 2002! Even though I only moved here when I was 26, I’m a lifer.

AJ: What brought you to the SF/F field?

AS: Honestly, I still don’t feel like I’m properly in the SF field. It feels very regimented, very exclusive in a lot of ways. Like, there are too many tiers and hierarchies and sometimes it reminds me of the Church, which makes sense considering a lot of sci-fi stories are structured—usually subconsciously—like some kind of tiered religion; see Harry Potter or nearly any story with authoritative “world building.” I don’t know what cons to attend and how to submit, or any of the protocol, I just try to write wild, explosive, hyperactive stories filled with queers and gays, Black people doing strange stuff, fat people being free. I definitely create speculative fiction across several subgenres, but I am also hyper-aware of my outsider status. I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had, though!

AJ: How do you feel your work fits into the Afrofuturist movement?

AS: Squarely and properly, I think. I’m pretty excited about my association with Afrofuturism and the qualities that it brings to sci-fi and speculative story telling! I’ve been doing Afrofuturist work since 2011, around the time I met my friends in the Metropolarity sci-fi arts collective—Ras Mashramani, Monk, Camae Ayewa a.k.a. Moor Mother and of course, Rasheedah Phillips, who started the Afrofuturist Affair and Black Quantum Futurism. I was always hesitant to align with it at first because it seemed like, on the surface, some head-in-the-clouds, pseudointellectual shit, but really it’s totally punk rock, totally hip hop in its scrappy, DIY nature. It’s a lot more cyberpunk than people give Afrofuturism credit for. Queer Black people reimagining their future is what I’m 100% all about. The definitive book hasn’t been written on the movement, but from my view it’s always represented rebellion married with an appreciation of speculative movements that have come before—African spirituality, the griots, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, Rammellzee, the Detroit techno musicians—all of whom represent that lineage. I’m carrying it on.

AJ: Who are some of the major influences on your work?

AS: I learned how to write reading Sports Illustrated in the mid ’80s, being fascinated with how they told stories about basketball players as if they were both mythic geniuses and regular people whose lives have these epic arcs. Comics and comic writers like Grant Morrison (especially), Samuel Delany, and Octavia Butler of course, especially Delany—his work, his existence, and his poetic, otherworldly writing style and conceptualization, confirmed to me that the themes and subject matter that interests me and how I engaged with them had a place in SF/F. Also, in my late teens and early 20s, I really mostly leaned on Black post-Beat and post-modern Black writers like Ishmael Reed, Walter Mosley, Andrea Lee, Victor LaValle, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (ugh, so many of my early stories were just re-treads of this book!), Percival Everett, Paul Beatty. These writers aren’t necessarily sci-fi, barely speculative, except for some flourishes, but their writing is so powerful that I wanted to bring the things that make their work literary into my SF/F and even into my superhero writing.

AJ: It’s clear from Black Vans and your other comics work that Body Positivity and Fat Positivity are important to you. What brought you to those movements?

AS: So, I’ve never been a fat person, but obviously I’ve had fat friends and fat lovers; it always stuck out to me, even at a young age, that this group of people have been wildly underrepresented in comics, film, television, and literature—except as a villains, tough guys, sad sacks, and representations of evil—and I just never really got why. Activism is important to me, and my activism in the fiction I create definitely extends to fat people. It’s important that everyone can see themselves as powerful, sexy, determined, real, and whole. It’s important for so-called “average” or so-called “athletic-bodied” people to see it too! Small folks need to get over ourselves and learn to appreciate and feel empowered and turned-on by fat bodies! Fat people aren’t waiting around for their/our approval anymore, they will absolutely choose who they want as friends, partners, lovers. James Dillenbeck and I like to challenge people to recognize and observe fat bodies by INCLUDING THEM IN OUR WORK! It’s one thing to be like, “oh I’m not fatphobic,” but we are constantly criticizing our own non-fat bodies in public or excluding fat people from everything from plans to go out by failing to consider whether the environment is friendly to fat folks, or by failing to include them in our creative portrayals. It’s time to end it. Also, I like seeing beautiful, powerful people on the page, so that is why I portray them.

AJ: What was the genesis for your comic series, Black Vans? What sets it apart from mainstream superhero comics?

AS: Black Vans started as one of three synopses I sent to James [Dillenbeck]. I tried to cater each of them to James’s specific style. James chose that one, and I’ve cannibalized some of the material from the others to add a little bit of texture. The idea is what if Marvel and DC did a story about Oracle, Microchip, and Ned from the Spider-Man movies and they were all gay. The Guy in the Chair trope has made its way into mainstream pop culture in recent years, and while they assist the heroes, they’re never the stars of the story. Being used for supporting castmates means they can have all sorts of ethnic/racial backgrounds, different body types, and sexualities from the main heroes, but they’re never the focus of the story. When their heroes start disappearing mysteriously, it’s their time to step up.

AJ: You mentioned that the Black Vans leads have different body types than their heroes. Can you say more about that?

AS: Many of these are fat, queer characters who are the geeks in the van, but they’re not without their own resources and capability. Electros is heavily connected, confident, and could kick your ass. And why shouldn’t he be portrayed that way? Similarly for Bo. These are fat characters, but with dimensionality, and capability. They get underestimated by the villains, and even once the villains realize it, they keep fighting.

AJ: This story takes place in a wider universe called The Afterverse. Could you tell me a little more about that?

AS: The Afterverse is an exploration of the techno-fantastic, a multiverse where unicorns exist alongside advancements in biotechnology; where bio-appropriate nano-tech innovations are run on magical systems, all through a queer, African diaspora lens, centering Black people not just as survivors of possible dystopia, but as continued innovators in an ever-changing world.

AJ: You are active across several art forms. How do you feel these relate to and inform each other?

AS: Deeply and intimately. The music, art, writing, and comics I do are all spiritually connected even though there’s no real through story. I use similar imagery, similar themes, and similar ideas in each medium, just constantly expanding on queer Black futurism through this chaotic, spiritual punk gang feel—chaotic and free. I worked hard to sort of refine a—not a brand, but an aesthetic place in the universe. I feel like my unique take on collage art, storytelling, and song craft all blend together; all represented by a cut and paste futurism that seeks new pathways to total liberation.

AJ: What do you want to see from SF/F in five years?

AS: An integration of our ideas into the real world, into our everyday lives—not just in the form of cool gadgets and robots, but a sense of how to move in the world. That we will start living sci-fi lives, dismantling the systems and attitudes that have held the human race back. I want to see more cooperative business and collective living and working towards liberation—we’re losing our rights! I want SF/F fans to really think about what their favorite characters would do if faced with this kind of heat-death, this kind of cult hellscape—the X-Men, Neo and Morpheus and Trinity, Princess Leia, Harry Potter—fight back against tyranny. I want SF/F to breach the fourth and fifth walls and to truly seep into our minds, and not just be costumes we wear and intellectual property we consume. I want us all to live deliciously, dangerously as living science fiction.

AJ: What do you have coming up in the near future?

AS: My comic company the Afterverse, Unicron willing, will have three books in circulation: BLACK VANS drawn by James Dillenbeck; BETA BOY drawn by Steven Arnold; CHROME AND CHAOS drawn by Shawn Alleyne. My debut short story collection, ARKDUST, will appear from Rosarium Publishing on September 1! I’m also ssssslllloooowwwwllllyyy working on a rap/punk/hip hop hybrid album where I rap as different members of this queer street gang called the Amber Goons. It’s a high-concept LP that I’m taking my time piecing together, still gathering beats and bits and pieces of lyrics for it. After that, I want to start working on a novel based on the characters I’ve rendered using A.I. apps like Midjourney. We’ll see.

Everything Is on Fire Except My Deadlines

My debut novel was signed in 2018 and came out in March 2020—straight into the maw of Ye Pestilence, the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 global epidemic. Since then, I’ve had five more books come out (only some of which existed at deal time) and several more contracted, which I will have to figure out how to write. Out of necessity I have become one of those writers who went from needing to be perfectly in the mood to write to saying, “Well, if everything’s burning at least I can use the firelight to see the notes on this manuscript.”

Which is easily accomplished if I’ve gone dead inside. I cannot verify that I haven’t, but I think I’ve gotten better at deliberately compartmentalizing and here seems like a good place to talk about it!

To start off, let’s picture yourself—your everything, who you are, mental, physical, spiritual—as a country. You have natural resources! You have imports and exports. You have, maybe, a government center—let’s say it’s a castle if you’re in fantasy, and a nice arcology if you’re in sci-fi—and you have neighbors, local flora and fauna, a population of citizens, all that. The goal is to keep your country stable and running.

And now let’s picture all of that on fire.

 

  1. “Everything around my country is on fire and it’s burning up my allies and friends and the flames are licking at the borders!”

 

In the old days you would have known the fires were at your door by hearing the shrieks of the villagers living in the evacuation zones. Now, thanks to the firehose of social media, ads, and every webpage boasting a little box on the bottom saying, “NEW THING ON FIRE,” not only can you not avoid knowing, but you’re now worried about fires burning a thousand miles away. The goal here is to protect your own citizens from real harm, prevent panic and irrational behavior, and help your neighbors—if you can, and in that order.

For me, that looks like muting hundreds of words and phrases on social media and blocking people at will. Enough slips through that I stay informed about wars or climate change or natural disasters or murderous legislation, but instant curation makes me feel less overwhelmed and helpless. When I can, I also boost and donate to the people putting out the fires. I may not be able to send firefighters of my own across the ocean, but helpers always need money and visibility.

This also applies to non-world-changing things like The Latest Outrage About Some Celebrity or Hark, The Town Crier Is Salty About a Publishing Thing. Generally as soon as they come up, if I’m interested, I read one thing from someone who seems like they’ll say something intelligent about it, and then I block and mute. If knowing about it isn’t going to enrich my life but will instead impoverish it, who’s got that kind of money?

If each of us is a nation as I suggested, you’ve got, maybe, a taxpayer-funded Innovators & Changemakers reserve to administer as you see fit. We should definitely fund the groups in your country that are doing good work and keeping the lights on. We absolutely must not fund the useless outrage manufacturers that are just running around screaming, “Everybody, tools down! I just heard that this one director doesn’t like Marvel movies!”

 

  1. “But I don’t have time to both write and run the country!”

 

As writers everywhere keep pointing out, it’s not a matter of just writing the thing, selling the thing, repeat. We also have to scream at our printers (why can’t printers just work?), complete edits, research our stories, organize notes and files, track tax information, do interviews, podcasts, livestreams, charity events, and giveaways, write essays and articles to promote our own books, blurb other people’s books, appear on panels, volunteer for writing organizations, keep up on craft and our fields of expertise, and…somewhere in there…also write more fiction?

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying, “I don’t do all that.” Congratulations, you’re smarter than me. “Write” is a verb that includes about 50 other verbs these days, and a lot of those verbs have significant demands on time and energy. Everyone tells writers, especially newer ones, to learn to say no. Unfortunately, many of us (me) are natural people-pleasers and also live with the eternal fear that the next opportunity we decline will be our last, because someone will declare us uncooperative or grumpy or a demanding diva who doesn’t want to give back to the community, and that’ll be the end of that.

First of all, that won’t happen.

Second, you literally have to say no because writing is more important than any of those other things. (Especially if you have deadlines and people will not give you money if you miss them.) The Word Mines of your country generate all those other industries. If nothing is coming out of the mines, those so-called precious opportunities will dry up anyway. Writing comes first. The time you take away from your writing and give to these other things is time you will never get back.

If it helps, I’ve also made a kind of rubric for saying yes to things myself, in order of priority:

  1. Will I be compensated fairly for my time?
  2. Is it for a friend?
  3. Will I have fun?

With a real job and volunteer commitments and publicity and other demands on my time, I started getting sick of hunting for fifteen-minute scraps in which to actually write. I know a lot of people who can write in those odds and ends, which is amazing! Tell me your secrets! I, sadly, cannot. When I carve out time, I really carve. I turn down things I don’t desperately want to do (or that I can be paid to want to do). I examine my fears of invisibility, failure, letting people down, and I know that I fear the results of not writing more than any of those things.

 

  1. “Speaking of writing, I am serious, how do you write when the world is on fire?”

 

Have a process. Trust your process. Make sure the machinery does not break down when everything is on fire.

Alongside my Word Mines, whether or not there’s actual ore coming out, all the local factories are still running regular shifts using existing feedstock: revising, editing, researching, outlining, submitting. Even if the mines themselves are temporarily dark and silent, that whole little valley is always full of light and industry. If I can’t draft, there’s always something: I take notes and do line edits at lunch because an hour isn’t enough for me to descend to the good word seams; I highlight nonfiction books on my e-reader during my commute so I can use it in stories later on; I keep a trove of craft e-books so I can open the app on my phone and get a quick belt of motivation or do a writing exercise if I find myself with a spare fifteen minutes.

I also, in this metaphor, occasionally block all signals coming in and out of the mines so that people can do focused work—I write in Google Docs so I use the Forest Chrome extension for productivity to temporarily “lock” myself out of my most egregious time-wasting websites. This works for me because I feel too guilty to kill the little trees, and it’s easily customizable in terms of time periods and tagging. It also does what my therapist encourages: puts a pause between emotion and reaction. I notice that when I feel reluctant to do something, my emotion can be “NO TOO FRIGHTENING,” and so my action is “I’M GOING TO GO FIND SOMETHING COMFORTING AND FAMILIAR.” Usually this involves opening Twitter and going to see what my friends are up to. Friends! Good! Safe! Will not hurt me!

But just sitting with the anxiety for the five seconds it takes to show me I might kill my tree is enough to go, “Oh, okay. I could choose a reaction, instead of acting reflexively.” Breaking that cycle never happens automatically for me, so I’m glad I can outsource it.

Ditto with occasionally planting a tree so I can devote it to a “writing stretch” (I particularly like the ones from Cat Rambo’s Flash Fiction class) which keeps all the processing equipment in good repair, helps with everybody’s muscle memory, and can produce great, emotional, unselfconscious writing with no pressure to do anything with it afterwards (although actually I often do).

 

  1. “Okay but none of these workers are paying attention and I feel like that’s totally okay on the one hand because everything is, in fact, on fire, but on the other hand, words are our main export!”

 

Yeah no listen, after my Adult ADHD assessment one of the team members pulled me aside and asked if it was okay to use my data for a research paper. Their verdict was that I had the most severe case of Inattentive-Type ADHD they’d ever seen—the computer test results, in particular, put my attention span at a maximum of two to eight seconds.

“But you’ve exported so many books from Great Country Premonia!” Yeah, and they all got written in five-second bursts. My entire life is a tissue of coping mechanisms to deal with the ADHD that I didn’t know I had; so now that everything is on fire, I’m just leaning harder on them and hoping they don’t collapse.

The main one, as discussed is Forest, which does not force me to focus for 45-minute slots but does prevent me from focusing on anything else. Secondly, I try to automate as much as I can—recurring items in Google Tasks, for instance, so that I don’t fall behind, and reminders in my calendar so I don’t miss deadlines.

I also try to create specific deliverables and make them as binary as possible. For housework this might look something like, “Are all the dishes in the draining board dried and put away Y/N.” Being able to say one or the other is way more motivational to me than some nebulous spectrum of “done-ish.” It also means that each individual thing can be as small as needed, which is useful when trying to write through disaster. “Did I email that one podcast guy back Y/N.” “Did I complete those short story edits Y/N.”

This also, somewhat weirdly, fed into why I taught myself how to outline—with limited attention, time, and energy, I could no longer keep my “I’ll do it when I feel like it” style of writing and still meet deadlines, ditto with “I’ll just pants my way through it and fix it later.”

Fixing a poorly built piece of infrastructure isn’t too bad if you have the time and labor and no one’s waiting for it to work again! Sometimes, though, you’re sitting there muttering about how much easier and faster it would have been to build it properly to begin with, and how you literally can’t do that now without tearing down the whole thing—instead painstakingly extracting embedded wires, laboriously replacing the damaged drywall, dismantling all the shoddy work so you can rebuild to current standards. Some people enjoy this kind of thing! I don’t mind it. It used to be my whole M.O.

But it’s definitely more time-consuming and time is the one thing I cannot afford any more. If changing a major item in the plot affects every scene that happens before and after it, it’s better if that change happens at the low-stakes, quick-to-fix outline stage, so when I’m ready to draft I can do so knowing that I won’t have to constantly interrupt myself to go back and build part of the structure.

 

  1. “Sounds good, but last big thing is that, uh, everything is so much and so relentlessly on fire that the country’s morale is in the toilet, people are too tired to even protest, and I think entire provinces are physically falling apart at the seams.”

 

Nothing I can say about self-care will be anything new to anyone reading this—including the idea that most self-care suggestions are for people who have a lot more free time than I do. We already know different maintenance teams are needed for damage in different regions. I need a two-hour bubble bath like I need a hole in the head—but making popcorn and spending a few dollars to rent a movie is a good way to patch the holes in my soul. Choose what works for you and ignore the generic self-care lists out there!

Other authors have written at length about this problem and going to them for support and encouragement worked for me when nothing else would have. Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders was a favorite recent read, and I cannot recommend it enough both as food for the writerly soul and also crammed with practical ways to write through either personal or global disaster. On the other hand, The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston gave me the priceless gift of a non-prescriptive framework that helped implement all my existing half-baked plans to organize my writing, my process, and my time—it’s full of good ideas that can be picked out and used on their own.

Distraction doesn’t put the fires out. But it is good for the ability to work and for morale; people who feel hopeful about surviving long enough to get one more treat are in better shape than people who can’t even hope for that.

Hope is the one thing. Then there’s all the other emotions…anger, frustration, and righteous lust for vengeance can be treated like radioactive waste and decanted into barrels to be stored in salt mines, absolutely. But they can also be reprocessed into fuel—ask any writer. For me, journaling is the first step of doing something with all that sloshing toxicity. The feelings aren’t gone, they’re just easier to manage when I put them on the page.

It’s the same with venting on social media. It’s good to let off steam, of course, but steam is what runs power plants. Your anger may be generating it, but you get to decide where the steam goes after it’s made. Maybe that can be into stories. Maybe that can be into action.

Everything’s on fire? Not ideal, but let’s burn it under something and put it to work.

Interview: Miyuki Jane Pinckard

Miyuki Jane Pinckard writes fiction about magic and space travel, and nonfiction about games, technology, and culture. Her work has been published in Strange Horizons, 1up.com, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and the Dungeons & Dragons adventure book, Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. She was born in Tokyo and currently lives in Venice, California, where she’s teaching herself piano (badly). In her day job she plays video games. “Radcliffe Hall” is her third appearance in Uncanny, a powerful tale of queer romance, ghosts, mystery, and oppression.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This is a story that deftly combines a lot of elements—queer romance, a wonderfully creepy setting, ghosts, and seances—what was your starting point or inspiration?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: I was doing some research for another project on early women’s colleges, and reading about the white supremacist foundation of so many of them. Places like Bryn Mawr were led by early feminists who were deeply racist, and many of these institutions were founded explicitly to educate and uplift white women who would advance the cause of white supremacy. I wanted to set a story in that kind of environment, and it felt so natural that it should be a Gothic story. I think the Gothic mode is beautifully suited to telling a story of being othered, of being excluded, of systematically being oppressed—and the Gothic house itself becomes such a rich metaphor for that oppression.

Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do as you were writing “Radcliffe Hall”? Did you find anything interesting that you weren’t able to include?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: My main character, Tomoé, is loosely based on a historical figure, Tsuda Umeko, a remarkable woman who, in 1871 when she was eight years old, was sent to study in America as part of a Japanese government program called the Iwakura Mission. It’s remarkable to me that a staunchly patriarchal society like Japan in the early Meiji era would send girls and young women abroad to be educated, but they did! The model for her family was another fascinating historical figure, the scientist and industrialist Takamine Jokichi. The Japanese government sent him to study chemistry in Edinburgh in 1879, and then he founded a chemicals company in the United States. He was an inventor and an entrepreneur. I imagined Tomoé as his (fictional) daughter.

Some of the really fun things that didn’t make it in the novella are details of college life for women around 1908! I loved learning about campus leisure life, dining customs (everyone had to dress for dinner, of course, and the faculty dined at the high table at the end of the room—much as they do in Oxbridge colleges still today), sports, and activities. Many college women at the time were also part of the suffrage movement and held rallies and protests on campus (or near campus, as in some cases the school administration prohibited them from gathering on school grounds). I wish I could have included a scene like that but maybe in the next story!

Uncanny Magazine: What did you most enjoy about writing a novella, as compared to short stories? What was the most challenging part?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: A short story is something I can hold complete in my head as I work on it, and it’s also something you can (given the time) draft in a day or a weekend. A novella requires a lot more sustained concentration and I couldn’t hold all the parts in my head at once, which was a difficult way to write for me. Each time I sat down to work, I had to spend a little time reminding myself what the story was about.

The most enjoyable part was that I got to spend more time with the characters and the world than I usually do in a short story, and allow little story seeds to develop over time!

Uncanny Magazine: If you could be any character in this story, who would you want to be and why?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: I would love to be George! She’s bold, she’s fearless, and she has such an unshakeable faith in herself, even when she makes mistakes. And plus she’s just so cool. I just know she’s destined for a life of adventure!

Uncanny Magazine: “Radcliffe Hall” straddles the genres of speculative fiction, romance, and mystery. Who are some of your favorite authors or literary influences, in any or all of these genres?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: Oh my goodness, so many. I already mentioned my love for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books, especially Mexican Gothic but also The Beautiful Ones and The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. In romance, I adore Alyssa Cole’s The Loyal League trilogy and Courtney Milan’s The Brothers Sinister series, but I think for this novel I was most influenced by the Charm of Magpies trilogy by K.J. Charles, which blends romance, mystery, and magic. I love classic mystery novels too. I’m really drawn to the complex psychological characters in P.D. James’s novels, especially Death Comes to Pemberley, one of my favorite pieces of Jane Austen fanfic.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: I wish I could figure that out. I have a few novels in progress…I have a terrible habit of working on multiple projects at once! I think my favorite idea right now is a spy versus spy, star-crossed lovers romance—Romeo and Juliet on opposite sides of a war, a dash of John Le Carré, and a sprinkle of magic.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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