I didn’t mean to take a month off from posting, but life. I’m even late with my solstice post.
I almost never see sunrise but from the wrong side, and the solstice was no exception.
I don’t really know how to capture Kij Johnson’s short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees in words. Her writing here reminds me often of Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath, in its focus on ordinary people and everyday life in extraordinary circumstances.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees is a hefty volume—I read the ebook edition, so I can’t measure its spine, but it spans nearly Kij’s entire career, from 1989 to today, and although it doesn’t do so comprehensively, there’s still a lot of material to present. Moreover, the stories display an impressive degree of thematic unity without ever seeming repetitive.
I have been thinking that writing like this asks me as a reader to slow down and take it on its own terms. Johnson’s prose isn’t lush like Catherynne Valente’s or finely-wrought and occasionally oblique like Elizabeth Bear’s—most of the stories are written in good, transparent plain style, and anyone who has tried it will tell you it’s not as easy as it looks. And the stories never seemed to me to drag—they always had purpose and direction. But they pay close attention to their subjects, and I found it very rewarding to experience the stories at the narrative’s own pace.
This is one for me to reread and study, I think.
I want to feel love
Get caught in the echo chamber
I want to get crushed
In the beautiful machine
This essay of hers is in no small part why I’m writing here and now. There are practical reasons underneath that as well as emotional-symbolic ones, but the point remains. I know who I am here, and I can say things here, in a way I otherwise can’t.
How often do you intend to post?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve written about two stories a year. I’d like to write more, and I think this will encourage me to do so, but I’m a slow writer with a day job. I definitely won’t post more than once a month. (If you’re worried, though, Patreon allows you to set a maximum amount you want to spend per month, for ease of budgeting, and please feel free to do so. I know how that goes.)
Are you posting the stories on your blog?
Yeah, I’m continuing to post the stories for everyone to read here. Right now nobody has heard of me or read my writing, and that’s what I’m hoping you’ll help me change. So to some extent, yeah, you’re supporting me doing something I would have done anyway.
What do I get if I support you then?
Partly faster posts. It’s a lot easier for me to convince myself not to screw around submitting to token markets if I know people care about and read my stories. Also I’m posting outtakes, “demos,” little bits and pieces of really raw behind-the-scenes stuff for backers only here on Patreon—for example, the beginning of an (unfinished) sequel to my “Hitchhiker” story. (I don’t want to seem to slag on token markets here; a lot of them are run by friends, or people who could be. I just don’t think that it’s worth submitting to all of them, all the time.)
Will you mail your stories to my house like Cat Valente did?
Maybe! When I started doing this, I wanted to be really careful not to make promises I couldn’t keep no matter what happened. As it goes along and we all get more comfortable with this, I’m open to new ideas. Would you like me to mail my stories to your house? Let me know!
Edit: TL;DR I’ve signed up for Patreon.
As you know, I write stories. Sometimes they’re science fiction or fantasy, depending on how you squint and turn your head. Sometimes they’re just little bits of life, mine or someone else’s. Sometimes they’re weird and misshapen. Here are a couple:
I submit these stories to magazines (a loose term in the age of e-publishing). Mostly they send them back with polite little form notes. They regret that they are unable to respond to each submission personally, but they are unable to publish my story.
And that’s fine. They don’t owe me an audience.
Every once in a while I get a personal note back saying that the story was strong but not the kind of thing they publish, or that it made them think but didn’t quite work for them, and I cherish those notes. (They’re even from magazines you’ve heard of, statistically speaking. So I can’t be that nuts, right?)
Once I’ve sent a story to all the eligible markets—or at least the markets I would respect in the morning—I usually post it here on the blog. For short stuff (flash-length pieces) or weird stuff (black humor), that’s easy to justify to myself, but I find it hard to post longer pieces.
There’s always another token-paying magazine which might publish them. Although… if a magazine is paying me $5 for a story, how many readers does it really have? Is it worth the heartache to get my work in front of those few strangers?
There has got to be a better way for people to meet my work, and for me to meet them, than this endless low-stakes spaghetti-throwing competition.
While she was doing it, I subscribed to Catherynne Valente’s Omikuji stories. The deal was, you paid once a year, and then every month or thereabouts she would mail an original never-before-published story to you. Real paper, wax seal, with a little note about life and work and the weather in Maine, signed by her.
Everything but the signature was laser-printed, of course—by the time I subscribed, there were enough of us that hand-writing would have about killed her—but even so there was a personal touch about it, and I came to look forward to when the cream-colored envelope with the red border would arrive in the mail.
The stories were usually short, suitable for reading over breakfast. Theoretically each mailing she would choose someone to receive something extra-special, though I never did, and for me neither that nor the exclusivity of the stories was the point. Just that steady contact did more to make me a part of her community than a dozen series could have.
I am not as prodigious a writer as Catherynne Valente, nor am I trying to support myself on my fiction as she does, so I can’t promise stories as often or as regularly, and I don’t want to ask you to pay up-front. Still, I’d like Patreon to be something similar—a little community of us.
I’m still learning how to do this fiction-writing thing. I’ve only been working at it seriously for a couple years, far fewer than I’ve worked at any of the other things that I think I do well. I don’t fit neatly into boxes—my own or anyone else’s. I don’t know how to be approachable yet, how to win the reluctant reader’s trust. I know my reach exceeds my grasp.
Still I can’t shake the conviction that my stories have value. Sometimes they’re the stories I want or need to read. Sometimes they’re the stories I’m too scared to read. I say in them the things I know no other way to say.
Amanda Palmer has a TED Talk on “The Art of Asking”, and I think the idea she espouses is profound, if not always simple to act on. She doesn’t use these words, but I will: as an artist, I exist by the grace of the people who support me—by your free gifts. You don’t owe me an audience. You don’t owe me that support. But if you’re willing, I’ll accept it.
Will you support me?
This story is my ante-up, me putting my money where my mouth is, whatever cliché you want. This is very much the kind of story I want to publish here with Patreon backing.
This is also one of the stories that got me into Viable Paradise. It’s near to my heart in several ways; I think you’ll see.
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.
—David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”
Written in 1990. The whole thing is tight and enlightening. Amazing how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.
There we were—demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance—and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don’t you see?! We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!
–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
…or at least that was how Tam described Onsen.
I should back up. Tam is a friend and classmate from Viable Paradise, and maybe a few months ago she tweeted that she had a book out, which was Onsen, and which she described as “a queer-friendly haunted house fantasy YA novella.” I was intrigued, and the cover was remarkably self-confident, so I picked it up, and enjoyed it.
Once I finished it, I discovered that it was part of a series, which made a couple of the things which had surprised me about it less surprising. I went back and picked up Okatsu, which filled in some gaps. And I saw going over to grab cover images that Anu is now out (yay!), so that’s on its way to my Kindle. I am not much one for series, so that alone should be read as high praise.
In terms of technical skill they’re quite well-done. I can’t speak too much to the veracity of the setting or the characters in the context of historical Japan, but Tam writes both with compassion and a good eye for detail.
The books also fill a great need of mine for smart comfort fiction. (In fact I read about half of Onsen in the ER waiting room at 4 AM—everyone is fine, but taking a friend to the ER is never any fun—and it was exactly what I wanted.) I have serious trouble turning my brain off, and here I didn’t have to, but I was also able to relax enough to enjoy the books without needing to dissect them, and that’s a rare thing for me lately. They are pleasant reading.
Tam does a good job with the central queer relationship. I’ve been mulling a bit over why I relate to some depictions and not others, and I think part of it might be tied up in that lack of demonstrativeness I was mentioning. Jao and Masahiro are conscious of how they are performing their relationship in a way that I recognize.
Very much recommended.
(And the cover design! So excellent! I want to hire her cover artist.)
To assume you can somehow escape ethnocentricity and that there is some objective position that stands outside your culture from which, “freely and rightly,” you can criticize other groups who are “trapped” in theirs is the moment of blindness from which grow all the abuses of the dominant, unmarked state when that particular state, whatever it is, obtains dominance—which, if it is culturally useful enough, it will.
Go read the whole thing.