The sibling series to my Women to Read: Where to Start series at SF Signal continues! Here are four more non-binary authors whose work you should be reading, and a recommended starting point. As with the first installment of the series, I use non-binary as a title but include androgyne, generqueer, genderfluid, gender neutral, neutrois, and gender non-conforming, among other identities. Now, onward to the authors and their stories!
An Owomoyela is a neutrois author and one of the editors of Strange Horizons. My recommended starting place for se’s work is All That Touches Air, published in the April 2011 issue of Lightspeed. There’s a temptation to call this a first contact story, but it’s really more of a first connection story. At its heart, it centers on a moment between a human and an alien species, and them truly trying to understand each other for the first time. As a child, the protagonist witnesses what is essentially a government-sanctioned execution. A man named Menley is brought to the Ocean of Starve, stripped of his envirosuit, and left to have his body colonized by the planet’s dominant species, the Vosth, a silver swarm-like fog. Eight years later, Menley’s body returns to the colony’s protective shell, wanting to be let inside. While the story isn’t horror, it plays with horror tropes with the image of Menley’s colonized body pressing a hand to the door, and the flat way the Vosth telepathically speak. The Vosth in Menley’s body single out the protagonist among all the colonists as their chosen ambassador, repeatedly attempting to communicate, and insisting they remove their envirosuit and experience the air. There’s an extra layer of eeriness added to this request by the fact that in the years since witnessing Menley’s ‘death’, the protagonist has become a kind of agorophobic – wearing their envirosuit at all times, even indoors, removing it only to shower. The Vosth are not only asking for trust, but asking the protagonist to break themselves down and face their fears in order to move forward. In addition to being an excellent story, this piece if full of elegant and evocative language. The Ocean of Starve, and the Vosth’s repeated phrase “All that touches air belongs to us”, are simple phrases that contain multitudes, building a world and hinting at its history without bringing the story to a grinding halt so the author can explain everything. All of which makes All That Touches Air a wonderful starting place for Owomoyela’s work.
Jei D. Marcade is a Korean-American author. My recommended starting place for eir work also happens to be eir first published story – Superhero Girl, which originally appeared in Fantasy Magazine and was reprinted in Prime Book’s Superheroes edited by Rich Horton. I’m a sucker for superhero stories, and this one effectively packs a punch (no pun intended…okay, maybe a bit of a pun intended) in just a few thousand words. Like Owomoyela’s story, Superhero Girl plays with horror tropes and imagery without being horror. It opens with the eerie imagery of a ghostly woman in the static of a television set, whispering a name and asking the main character to come find her. The ‘ghost’ in question is Ofelia, who claimed to be a superhero, always running off on the main character, her lover, with the excuse of needing to save the world. At its heart, this is a love story. Marcade gives us a main character willing to be completely swept up in their beloved’s world, no matter how unbelievable that world might seem. It’s innocence that manages to avoid naivety; the main character deliberately chooses Ofelia’s truth over other options because the world she paints is better and brighter. Even so, hints of darkness creep around the edges of Ofelia’s tale. There are scars she blames on a battle with ‘robot ninjas with laser-bladed throwing stars’; she shaves her head, and sleeps too much, looking worn-out and frail. Marcade leaves the truth of the story open. The reader, like the protagonist, gets to decide whether they buy into Ofelia’s worldview. I’m also a sucker for stories that do open-ended endings well, and combining that with the superhero genre makes this an excellent starting place for Marcade’s work.
Nino Cipri is a genderqueer fiction writer with a background in theater. My recommended starting place for their work is The Shape of My Name, published earlier this year at Tor.com. It’s a time travel story on a truly personal level, with a time machine passed down through generations of a single family and only usable by members of that blood line. However, time travel is the background here. The heart of the story is the main character’s relationship with his mother, and her seeming inability to accept him for who he is, believing she gave birth to a daughter, not a son. The Shape of My Name is a story of layers – literal layers of wallpaper decorating the main character’s room, layers of time, layers of text written in Uncle Dante’s book, and struck out or erased as history is changed and rewritten. There are textual layers within the story as well, allowing it to be read in several different ways. It is a story about family, about a character becoming who they truly are, and even about pre-destination versus free will. The main character’s mother seems to believe her life is destined to go a certain way, because it’s written in the family book kept by Uncle Dante. The main character makes his own fate, choosing his own name, and in the end, that can be read as the source of the conflict between mother and son as well – one feels trapped, the other makes his own freedom. In addition to everything else going on, the story is soaked in gorgeous sensory detail. Each time period visited is rooted in a particular taste or smell – Rice Krispies in fresh milk, the medicinal scent in the main character’s room post-surgery, the rough feel and musty scent of an old blanket. It is a lovely story, heartbreaking and hopeful all at once, and a wonderful starting place for Cipri’s work.
E. Saxey is a queer Londoner of no particular gender. My recommended starting place for their work is Melioration, from the Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed. At flash length, this is another story that packs a lot into very few words. Jay is an academic in the field of linguistics, but not particularly enamored of college life – the social events, the sports clubs, and those who partake of them. Similarly, Jay is not enamored of the old-fashioned views of others on campus, for example, Pethridge, prone to hurling slurs and bullying his way through life. One of Jay’s colleagues, Morley, comes up with a solution, a little grey box that steals words and prevents a person from saying them again. Morley deploys the box against Pethridge, taking away his ability to use offensive language. While Jay doesn’t approve of Pethridge’s use of slurs, they don’t approve of Morley’s enforced censorship either. Jay briefly experiences the loss when Morley demonstrates the box again, proving that it really does work: It’s on the tip of my tongue, the dark of the moon, the back of beyond. The word’s gone. The word Jay loses comes back to them eventually, but the effect is more long lasting with Pethridge. The end of the story is chilling, shifting to twenty years later when Pethridge has become Prime Minster, much softened from his bullying younger days, but shadowed by the loss of the last word Morley stole from him. It’s impressive the number of things Saxey manages to pack into such a short story – the line between free speech and hate speech, the idea of defending something or someone you abhor for the greater good, the power of language, and the way people’s views evolve over time. It’s an impressive feat, and an excellent starting place for Saxey’s work. As luck would have it, Saxey further explores the academic setting, and similar themes, in their upcoming story in Unlikely Story: The Journal of Unlikely Academia, so keep an eye out for that as well.
Four more stories, and four more fantastic authors. I hope to be back with Part 3 and even more non-binary authors to read soon. In the meantime, keep leaving your own recommendations in the comments!