“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.
“Maiden, Hunter, Beast” was written by Kat Howard, and was published in Lightspeed, issue 68 (Jan. 2016). You can read it for free here.
She could believe that a unicorn would make its way here, to this city. It was a place made of myth as well as of concrete and steel, and myth called to myth, even when both were tangible.
Kat Howard’s “Maiden, Hunter, Beast” is only 2,500 words long but manages to weave together three perspectives. The story is consumed by a chase: an ancient unicorn pursued by an old hunter, and a young, modern woman who gets caught in the middle. But Howard fills in enough lore that everything clicks into place.
It’s a story about roles and expectations, and about femininity. The unicorn appears to girl maidens. It’s hunted by a woman hunter. And then the unicorn stumbles across the maiden’s path–this nineteen year old girl who just wants some damn takeout–suddenly she knows what the unicorn is and that it is hunted and what she should do. She just knows.
But nothing is inevitable. There are rules, but within those rules there are possibilities. Howard wrings enormous tension out of the possible endings she lays out of this chase. And there is so much agency in this story. All three characters–the maiden, the hunter, and the beast–all three make important choices along the way. The ending that comes would not have formed had these three particular creatures come together, acted this way, chosen to play their roles or not the way they did. Just a masterful story the whole way around.
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I read a great deal more short fiction in 2015 than in years past. Here are the short stories I most enjoyed in no particular order:
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’m starting a new series of posts that I’m calling “debriefs.” In these posts, I’m going to provide some behind-the-scenes insight into how a piece of fiction got published: where did the idea come from? When was it written? How many times did I sub it before it saw the light of day? That kind of thing.
Partly, I’m starting this series of posts because I keep these records for myself anyway. Partly, I’m doing it because I believe radical transparency in publishing is good for all parties involved. Partly, I’m doing it because I’m always fascinated when I read these kinds of things by other authors.
Publication date: 7/30/2015
Number of times subbed: Six. The story was rejected five times, with one of those being a very near miss and one of those actually being from Glitterwolf #8: Identity1. The story also received no response from one market2 before being accepted and published in Glitterwolf #9.
The story of the story:
Like many of my short stories, “The Scaper’s Muse” was written in response to a call for submissions. It was an especially vague call, one requiring only that the work to be tied to a flavor of quark (up or down, strange or charming, top or bottom). I chose strange or charming, and that gave me enough direction to start somewhere. I figured, honestly, strange/charming was the spec-ficcy of the three.
I had, for a couple of years, had half a seed of a story niggling around in my brain for some sort of spec-fic updated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight3 thingamob. This is where most of my short fiction comes from: a weird alchemy of prompts from calls I stumble across and these little unsprung seeds my brain has hidden away. Something about the strange/charming prompt sprouted the Gawain and the Green Knight update, and I was off.
So, there you have it: “The Scaper’s Muse” is, essentially, a sci-fi queer interrogation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all in under three thousand words!
Placing the story:
It was not an easy story to place. It’s odd. It’s mannerpunkish? And queer. And trans*. And sci-fi, but somehow very lit-sci-fi. I remembered as it took shape wondering if it was maybe to literary (not sci-fi enough) for spec markets and if it would be to genre (not literary enough) for lit markets. But definitely super-duper queer, so it would have to be a queer market no matter what
When the place that issued the call didn’t pan out, I ended up subbing to two place I’d subbed to before on the rationale that they’d seen my stuff and liked my stuff before–that’s how odd this little thing was. Usually I strike out into foreign territory because I am unknown with few ready leads, but this time I went to known quantities not once but twice. One of them was Glitterwolf, which ended up being an ideal fit. Look at that cover! Exactly the aesthetic of the piece.
1I subbed to Glitterwolf only once with a note that “The Scaper’s Muse” would be a good fit for either issue 8 or 9, and the editor at Glitterwolf sent me back a single note that did the double duty of rejecting the story for 8 and accepting the story for 9. That’s why the sub count is listed at six although there are technically seven outcomes. I used to teach stats and am an analysis in my day job I am compelled to be this pedantic please bear with me.
2This was the first place I subbed to, and the place that issued the initial call for which the piece was originally written. I don’t think the issue ever came together. Sadly, I think this magazine one up one of the tragic one-issue-wonder lit mags out there.
3The Pearl Poet: some real old school speculative fiction.
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“The Scaper’s Muse” is included in Glitterwolf #9: The Gender Issue (available for purchase here)
Through bad luck and circumstance, Gavin Camayo is very politely exiled to an alien planet. But Stahvi is a fascinating place, and his stipend keeps coming from the corporation back home, so Gavin doesn’t mind the exile so much. There’s plenty of strange wonders around to keep him amused. But what happens when a familiar wonder—the person who lands him in exile in the first place—appears on Stahvi, too?
“The Scaper’s Muse” is a science fiction short story about the interplay between identity and vanity set in an alien landscape.
I’m thrilled to announce that my novelette, “Matters Of Scale”, has been published as a stand-alone work by Inkstained Succubus Press! The issue is available for purchase here, and I encourage y’all to check it out! Here’s a synopsis of the story to whet your appetite:
Moshel has hidden himself away for years, trying to keep the emotions of others from driving him mad. It’s in mechanics alone that he can find relief, the reliable tick of clockwork his escape. It’s only when he meets his counterpart, Tovah, that he realizes all may not be as it seems in his world, and there may be a way to change it. It’s all a matter of scale.
First, many thanks to the lovely folks over at Inkstained Succubus. I was thrilled to work with them again! I wrote this story as a response to a call Inkstained put out for steampunk short stories about a year ago, and when I hear steampunk, I think clockworks, and when I think clockworks, I think about the Semadran elves in Aerdh, my secondary fantasy universe. And no Semadran elf is more Seamdran than Moshel Atoosa’Avvah.
Moshel was formally introduced in my debut novel, Resistance but I have been writing him as long as I have been writing fiction. Moshel is the very first character I fleshed out on my own, and his is the very first novel that I wrote by myself. It was terrible–maudlin and overwrought, and it will never see the light of day. But I cut my teeth on him. Over and over. And he’s evolved as I have evolved.
In his formal introduction in Resistance, readers meet Moshel as a middle-aged man, someone who knows himself well, who has figured out who he is and what he wants. He still has room to grow, to surprise himself, but he is a man in control of himself. In “Matters Of Scale”, Moshel is not there yet. He is young yet, just barely out of adolescence, and still grappling with the weight of his own mind. In Resistance, Moshel is an almost paternal figure for Shandolin–gracious and supportive and competent. But he wasn’t always like that. He chides her for being brash, but I’ve written him so long…I know Moshel. I know he had a brashness, once, too. And I saw a call for steampunk, and thought about clocksprings, and then I thought about Moshel, but young and out of control and struggling.
I’m glad this episode in Moshel’s history has come to light. I wonder what other bits and pieces of him have yet to surface.
I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “The Demiurge”, is included in the inaugural issue of The Wild Ones: A Quarterly Queer Lit Rage. The issue is available for purchase here, and I encourage y’all to check it out! Here’s a synopsis of the story to whet your appetite:
Sometimes a genius biologist needs an entire island to herself. Sometimes she needs to pursue her work away from the prying and judgmental eyes of everyone else. Temperance, a theologian, understands this about her wife. She whisks Vera way to an isolated island in the Hebrides, and there Temperance watches her wife’s holy genius unfold.
“The Demiurge” is a historical science fiction story brimming with big questions and mad science. Where is the line between science and religion? And when you find that line, should you cross it?
The really lovely thing about short stories, from a writer’s perspective, is that they allow you to step outside your comfort zone for just the right amount of time. There are elements in “The Demiurge” that were easy for me—it’s earnest, it’s speculative, it’s queer—but there were other parts that took me decidedly past what I’m used to as a writer. It’s historical and it’s not a secondary world—set in 19th century Britain. The main POV character, Temperance, grew up wealthy. I so often do not write wealthy characters, and she had a particularly restrained way of thinking that I found very interesting and very challenging to write. I like her, though. I like her secret feistiness.
“The Demiurge” has its roots quite explicitly in Frankenstein. But Frankenstein itself was a treatise on the question of religious and scientific ethics, a set of questions that fascinated me enough that I ended up minoring in religion in college almost by accident. This is one of the few times I’ve explored those haunting questions in my fiction. I’m grateful that it found a home with The Wild Ones.