The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
As I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all iAs I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all its glorious and tawdry flaws. He strips away the veneers we use so constantly - veneers of civilisation and humanity and tolerance - and puts our real selves up on display. You don't have to identify with any of his characters to connect with them, or recognise them. It's not about you, the reader, in a narcissistic way; it's about humanity and all its bullshit. Ironically, once stripped of the façade of gentility, what's left is yet another layer of bullshit.
Take Vince in the title story, "Merciless Gods". This is a story about stories, as a group of friends share anecdotes of when they took revenge. Vince's story leaves the others shocked and sickened, and it's hard to tell whether he's even telling the truth or not. If he is, he's a bastard. If he isn't, he's still a bastard. In "Petals", we are deep within the twisted consciousness of a prison inmate, homesick for Greece, who brings us right into his hell of a life with authentically bad grammar. He is a character who is instantly believable, deeply flawed, full of 'greys' and ultimately more than a bit scary. There's the story of a young man with a girlfriend who lets himself get pulled into a relationship with another man who uses him for sex, money and to enable his drinking habit, who is violent and a rapist, in "Jessica Lange in Frances".
Life is a journey, the old cliché says, but what's missing are the adjectives: violent, brutal, dirty, rich, textured, unpleasant, joyous, disgusting, frightening, paralysing. Merciless Gods has its high moments, but mostly it descends into the underbelly of humanity, laying it all bare without shame, apology or censorship. A few stories touch upon Indigenous issues, like "Civil War" which, scarily, tells us that there are people in Australia stockpiling weapons for some fantastical war against the Aborigines (who are, of course, simply living off welfare etc. etc.), in which they will be wiped out, once and for all.
"There's gonna have to be a war soon in this country." I look up at him and he's glancing over at me. "People are getting ready," he continues, "arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away." He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. "Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars." He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. "It's our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They're cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning." He spits out this last insult. "They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life." [pp.232-3]
What's especially frightening about this is just how prevalent this attitude is in Australian society. In certain parts of the country - Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia especially, where "Civil War" is set - this is the common, mainstream attitude and perspective. You'll find it in other places, too, including my own state, Tasmania. We live in a deeply racist land and have done little about it. Most people don't even bother to hide it.
It would be a shame to be turned off by the strong language, the gruesome scenes of rape, pornography and other sexual acts, as well as the subject matter explored here. Personally, I like confronting stories: I like to have my world shaken up by fiction and non-fiction, along with documentaries, though in order to live my life I have to read the fun stuff too. It's important not to shy away from the truths of our world, or the realistic flaws of human nature. It's also important to, in a way, 'bear witness', to hear and listen and think about and feel, because while Merciless Gods may be fiction, it carries that stamp of 'gritty realism' and the bone-deep knowledge that people have lived this, and more, all the time. These are stories that can deliver a punch to the gut, have you chewing your fingernails in suspense, and even bring out a tissue or two.
Tsiolkas isn't shy of bringing you into this world, far from a cozy middle-class existence. His ability to create scenes, characters and explore, with subtlety, hard-hitting contemporary issues is his greatest strength. I saw that in Barracuda and I see it even more here, in these stories. What saves it from being downright depressing is that sense of his character's fragile, vulnerable quest for beauty in this grim world, that even a wart on a toad can be loveable because it's your toad - like the mother in "The Hair of the Dog", or the father-son relationship in "Genetic Material". Not all the stories are in-your-face or contain vulgarity, or are about homosexuality, violence, pornography. The married couple in "Tourists" feel so familiar because they are so vividly, realistically drawn, and the tense mother-son relationship in "Sticks, Stones" makes me wonder what my own little boy will put me through when he's a teenager - and how I'll react. (On a side note, my son, three years old, found the cover of this book quite scary.)
You never know what one of these stories will bring you, or where it will take you. Each is a surprise, and each is subtle, full of nuance and shades of grey. Tsiolkas' raw and insightful examination of our flawed psyches and troubled relationships is, strangely, a joy to read, not least because of the skill and craftsmanship he brings to each tale. Truly Tsiolkas has become one of Australia's truly great writers for the 21st century....more
Within these fourteen stories, Emma Donoghue traces paths overland and oversea, navigating the different ways we can go astray, journeys of the heartWithin these fourteen stories, Emma Donoghue traces paths overland and oversea, navigating the different ways we can go astray, journeys of the heart and mind as much as the body. Immigrants and the immigrant story feature prominently, but these stories aren't confined to the immigrant experience. Each one is inspired by a real person, a real story - a clipping from an old paper, a museum piece, an incident in someone else's non-fiction work. From England to Canada to the United States, these stories canvass an essential element of the human condition, showing just how familiar and yet dissimilar our experiences are.
In "Man and Boy" (London, 1882), Matthew Scott chats to his charge, Jumbo the elephant, as he tries to get the elephant onto the ship that will take him to America where he will work in a circus. The running dialogue in Scott's voice is yet another showcase of Donoghue's impressive ability to capture the individual and create a distinctive voice.
"Onward" (London, 1854), introduces us to Caroline, a young orphaned woman who was once middle class but has fallen on hard times. To help keep her younger brother Fred and her toddler daughter Pet, she takes in gentlemen callers two or three times a day, trying to protect her child and her brother from the reality of their circumstances. A chance arrives when Fred tells her of an important man who helps people like them emigrate to Canada and Australia, and Caroline must decide whether she will leave the safety of predictability and shelter for the unknown.
The lawyer in "The Widow's Cruse" (New York City, 1735) thinks he's struck gold when a naive, beautiful young widow comes to him for help in claiming her husband's wealth after a report of his death en route to Connecticut. But Huddlestone learns the hard way never to underestimate a woman, or be led astray by his own narrow opinion of their intellect (or his greed).
In "Last Supper at Brown's (Texas, 1864), Donoghue recreates the day when Mrs Brown ran off with the last household black servant, Negro Brown, after Marse Brown, head of the household and a man much disliked, decides to sell him. Mrs Brown sees her own opportunity to leave him when Brown tells her his intention to run away, and is complicit in the plan to make sure Marse can't follow them.
Jane Johnson and her children are on their way to rejoin her husband, Henry, in Montreal in "Counting the Days" (Gulf of Saint Lawrence, 1849). Treasured letters, much read, link them together across the seas, but Jane is unaware that on the day she arrives, Henry fell ill with cholera and she's all alone, again.
Two young, inexperienced gold prospectors in "Snowblind" (The Yukon, 1896), struggle through their first winter in their hut beside a creek, scrounging for gold dust. Stories of people striking big come in often enough to motivate everyone to keep at it, despite the times they nearly die. This story is written without dialogue punctuation, and Donoghue writes so well, I never even noticed till now!
In "The Long Way Home" (Wickenburg, Arizona, 1873), weather-beaten, trouser-wearing Mollie Sanger goes into the bar to drag out Jensen, who left his pregnant wife and children at their dig to spend their meagre gold haul on booze, ties him to his horse and takes him back. Mollie, like all the characters in Astray, was a real woman, and ended up in a mental institute, probably because of her habit of wearing men's clothes.
The plot to abduct Abraham Lincoln's body from his tomb to hold for ransom against the release of a master counterfeiter from jail is the object of "The Body Swap" (Chicago, 1876); little does the small group of men know but not all of them can be trusted. The details of what happened to the characters, in particular Morrissey, after the events of this story are as interesting as the story itself.
If there was one story that made me want to cry more than all the others, it was "The Gift" (Jersey City, 1877). A common practice of the time was to leave young children with the Children's Aid Society when a family fell on hard times; the CAS would adopt the children out to prosperous families in the country, never mind that the parents want the children back. Sarah Bell is a widow struggling to provide for her baby, Lily May Bell. Her attempts to get the child back, especially after she's been farmed out to Mr and Mrs Bassett, a sheriff and his wife, become increasingly desperate as the years go by. Told in letters from Sarah and Mr Basset, the story of Lily May who never knew her real mother really tore at my gut.
In "The Lost Seed" (Cape Cod, 1639), we read the words of Richard Berry, who writes in the margins of his Bible, speaking of the sin and fornication he sees around him in his Puritan settlement, the people he denounces for wickedness, until eventually he recognises that it is he who, sexually repressed, yearns for a man's touch. This is a finely tuned story, another voice cunningly wrought, a place and time skilfully rendered.
Benjamin Hammon said to Teague Joanes that Sarah Norman told his wife I was an old killjoy.
It matters not.
Sin creeps around like a fog in the night. Too many of us forget to be watchful. Too many have left their doors open to for the Tempter to slip in. I puzzle over it as I lie on my bed in the darkness, but I cannot telly why stinking lusts and things fearful to name should arise so commonly among us. It may be that our strict laws stop up the channel of wickedness, but it searches everywhere and at last breaks out worse than before.
I consider it my pressing business to stand sentry. Where vice crawls out of the shadows, I shine a light on it. Death still seizes so many of our flock each winter, we cannot spare a single soul among the survivors. Better I should anger my neighbor than stand by and watch the Tempter puck up his soul as the eagle fastens on the lamb. Better I should be spurned and despised, and feel myself to be entirely alone on this earth, than that I should relinquish my holy labor. They call me killjoy, but let them tell me this, what business have with joy? What time have we to spare for joy, and what have we done to deserve it? [pp.180-181]
"Vanitas" takes us VAcherie, Louisiana in 1839, where fourteen year old Aimée wiles away her days on the family plantation, stealing up to the attic between lessons with her Tante Fanny, where she discovers a trunk of exquisite dresses that once belonged to her cousin Eliza, who died while on holiday in France. The truth of what happened to Eliza and why her aunt never leaves her room is life-changing for Aimée.
In "The Hunt" (Hopewell, New Jersey, 1776), we learn about the practice of the European soldiers of raping - often en masse - the girls and women of the area, through the eyes of a fifteen year old soldier from Germany, who is being forced to prove himself a man by forcing a woman. As one of the soldiers puts it, "I hate the thought of leaving a single maidenhead in the fucking State of New Jersey." (p.219) It's chilling, and as a woman, easily the scariest story here. I had no idea the practice was, well, a practice, and so systematic. The British troops certainly didn't win anyone over.
When Doctor Gallagher dies, leaving his daughter Imelda "Minnie" Hall an orphan in "Daddy's Girl" (New York City, 1901), Minnie discovers that her father is not really her father at all. Perhaps he is actually her mother; they do share some features, after all. What's clear is that "daddy" is not a man, and Minnie is forced to rethink everything she thought she knew.
In "What Remains" (Newmarket, Ontario, 1967), two once-renowned female artists originally from the States are spending their last days in a nursing home in Ontario. Florence Wyle does her best to help her close friend Queenie (France Loring) to remember the past, but the younger woman is senile and muddled as dementia sets in. It's left to Florence to recall their life together, since they met in a modelling class sixty years ago. When she recounted the commission Queenie worked on to mark the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way (a major highway that goes through Toronto), I immediately perked up my mind. She carved a lifesize lion at the entrance - it has since been moved, and is now in the park between Lake Shore Road and the lake, but you can see it as you leave Lake Shore to get onto the QEW - and it is very impressive. I'm even more taken by it now I know a bit about who made it (when do we ever think about the artist behind a sculpture?).
Lastly, in the Afterword, Donoghue takes us through each of the stories and their connection to her running theme, "astray". But at the end of each story is a passage explaining the inspiration behind the story, and filling in some of the gaps - like what happened to the people later.
In each and every story, Donoghue displays her impressive literary talent, her ability at capturing unique voices, at sharing experiences in such a way that the people in these stories could be living and breathing right next to you as you read. Likewise I am impressed with the amount of research that must go into collections like this one, that covers different time periods - the historical details that enrich each story.
Astray is a beautiful collection of stories that are both uplifting and grim - gritty in that way of realism without being constrained by it; showing the true human experience in so many forms, revealing that essential truism that our lives are vivid patchworks of joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Whether you've been an immigrant yourself or not, you will be able to relate to these stories and characters, because threading its way through these stories that are at once familiar and strange, is that fine element of going astray, veering off course either through action or outside forces, of trying to find your way again, or a new way altogether. A must read for anyone looking for exceptional historical fiction by a truly gifted writer....more