“Firstborn” by Maria Haskins appeared in Capricious, issue 7. You can read it for free here.
I’m so tired: tired of crying, tired of screaming and begging. The night is cold and silent. It holds no answers, no prayers, no lullabies, no dreams. I am empty, hollowed out, scraped clean. I am nothing: not Em, not mother, not woman, not even human, anymore. I am a smudge of cold and shadow beneath a tree in a forgotten place in an abandoned world.
The best short stories are the ones that take some long-buried part of you, some feeling you forgot you ever felt, and then bring it right to the surface of your heart so sharp and crystallized that it sends you spinning right back in time. “Firstborn” by Maria Haskins did that for me.
Like Em in the story, my kid was born six weeks early. Like Em, the creeping anxieties of new parenthood swallowed me whole. Having a newborn is absolutely terrifying and incredibly isolating, and no one tells you that until it’s too late. For me, I ended up an insomniac who tracked everything in spreadsheets–how much the baby was eating, how often he was peeing, when he was sleeping. All of it. And then my partners intervened and sent me to therapy. And I got slowly better.
This story, about the eerie loneliness and terror of having a new life that only you are caring for, is strange and bizarre and filled me full of old familiar fears.
“Three Points Masculine” by An Owomoyela was published in issue 72 of Lightspeed. It is free to read here.
The damn rev had a point: I got to be a guy because I took a test and it said I got into enough fights, played enough sports, had enough right interests and few enough wrong ones. I got to be a guy because some white-collar jackhole stamped and signed a form. I never would’ve got to be a guy just because I was a guy.
This story hit me hard.
This is some of the realest shit I’ve ever read about what it feels like to be transgender in a ciscentric world. In the context of the story, there are Gender Assignment Tests, and you are rated based on points as feminine and masculine. Certain thresholds of one or the other get you into certain positions and can get you access to certain jobs.
The thing is, this is not that different than the world we live in now. The thrust of the story, the interactions between the trans narrator and John, the trans colleague he works with and ends up depending on, are the kinds of conversations I’ve had with my trans friends. And they boil down to the idea that when cis people are running the show, you’re never going to get those last three points you need. Somehow, that brass ring is always out of reach.
Your identity is never really yours, because it’s always qualified. You have to keep proving it over and over again, justifying it to people who don’t experience gender and life the way you do but serve as gatekeepers anyway.
The story is beautifully written–hard, and sharp, and vicious. The world Owomoyela creates drips with bitter realism just cranked up to eleven. This story gave me all the trans feels and then some.
You can listen to the story for free over at Pocastle, or you can pick up a copy of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History.
I find myself adding it in the margins. There is a strange pleasure in this writing and not-writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion.
If my employer discovered these notes, he would call them impudence, cunning, a trick. What would I say in my defense? “Sir, I was unable to tell you. Sir, I was unable to speak of the weeping mother of Kiptegen.”
He would laugh: he believes that all words are found in his language.
This just a stunning piece of short fiction. Samatar is telling many stories at once here–or, perhaps, a single story stretched across many levels–and she does so beautifully, masterfully.
Alibhai and Mary are hired by a White hunter for a trip to go hunting the ogres of East Africa; that’s the most basic reading of the story on the surface. But every element of the story is in conversation with every other element. Everything is symbolic and not symbolic at the same time. Alibhai is both a representative of marginalized people, a person speaking back against literally hundreds of years of narratives speaking over him, and a finely realized individual. Symbolic, yes, but also specific. Everything works at every level.
And the ending is phenomenal.
She leapt into the luminescence, burying herself in its warmth. It soaked into her skin, saturating her, familiar, loving. No, there was no way she could ever be sad.
And yet we see Tejal be sad throughout the story, because that’s how brains are. Even the best balm doesn’t protect you forever.
I read this story weeks ago, but I keep thinking about it as the sun slinks further away and the days get clipped shorter and shorter. I write this next to a paltry little light box, and what I wouldn’t give for Tejal’s sunshine closet. Not that it solves all of her problems, or her mother’s problems, but, still, what I wouldn’t give for one. Shveta Thakrar tapped into the magic of the everyday and the creeping horror of depression in this story. As someone with seasonal affective disorder, and as someone who’s wrestled with depression otherwise, this story sticks with me.
I know that one day he will ask me to heal him.
The day I heal him is the day I’ll heal myself.
There are some short stories that hit you with their precision, with their brevity. And there are are some, like, this one, that are long, luxurious reads. There is a lot going on in “Geometries of Belonging”–plots and subplots that dovetail and mirror themes back together. It’s an intricate, finely wrought piece about damaged people and the damage people do. It’s a heartbreaking piece about heartbreak. It’s just…it’s so emotionally deep and satisfying, and especially as a non-binary person it is so respectful and affirming. Bittersweet and lovely.
And then what? It is disputed. Is Hwang a force of good? Is he evil? How does he choose which daughters he appears to? Is he a matrilineal family curse? He tries to explain but it is not satisfying to his daughters.
On the first read, this is a bizarre little fable. On the second read, this is an incredible sad story of immense grief and guilt, the story of a man attempting to reconcile his purpose in life once he perceived himself to have utterly, completely failed. Hwang simultaneously erases himself and makes himself foregrounded in the lives of his descendants–all of his billion brilliant daughters. All the daughters except for the ones he actually wants to see again. It is a sly, clever, terrible, heart-wrenching story.
I was your replacement, your stand-in for the survivors, because I was a survivor myself. (And what good are survivors otherwise, but to read our sorrows and grievances against the dead, to listen to what the dead cannot hear?)
Meg Arkenberg’s “All In A Hot And Copper Sky” unfurls slowly; it’s like watching a doctor unwrap bandages on a wound. You catch glimpses of the damage, you know there’s something there, something vicious, but it’s slow methodical work to get to the thing underneath. And like a doctor unwrapping a bandage this story is also deeply intimate–a singular, personal character study of a woman who is not allowed, never allowed, to stop grieving someone she lost because her dead lover is a famous killer (savior? the jury of public opinion remains out) from a failed space colony.
The narrator, Dolores, survived. Dolores survived everything: she survived the failed colony which only had survivors, arguably, due to her lover, Socorro’s, actions, then she survived Socorro’s death, too. But survival is not escape. Dolores lives the rest of her life in the shadow of Socorro’s actions, carrying the weight of her lover’s choices forever.
It’s a haunting story. Like “Dustbaby”1, it’s about grief, but it’s about an altogether different kind of grief–a kind of ferocious and public grief that can’t be escaped.
1I will not deny that I am a sucker for stories about grief. For reasons.
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