Welcome to March’s Women to Read! Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so really I should have had this post up yesterday. Actually, I meant to have this post up on March 1st, so I’m really late, but who’s counting? Any day is a good day to discuss work by women, so here we go!
There’s a good chance every one and their mother has already read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, but there are may also be folks like me who are embarrassingly late in reading it. Either way, with the recently-released graphic novel adaptation, now seems like the perfect time to read or re-read the original. Kindred is the sort of book that should be required on every high school curriculum. It’s far more relevant than many of the things that seem to be standard choices, however with the way required reading varies across schools, hopefully at least some teachers are getting this book into their students’ hands. The story centers on Dana, a young woman who finds herself repeatedly pulled out of her life in 1976, and flung back in time. Her fate, it seems, is linked to a white ancestor of hers, Rufus, the son of a slave owner. The first time she meets him, he’s a young child and she saves him from drowning. She barely has time to speak to him, or anyone else, before she’s returned home, dripping wet and confused, where she and her husband, Kevin, try to determine what happened to her. Following this first brief encounter, Dana is pulled back several more times, always when Rufus is in danger. Extreme fear for her own life seems to be the key to sending her home, but beyond that, she has no control over when she’ll travel. From the start, Dana and Rufus have a complicated relationship. If he dies, she’ll never be born. She needs him, but he needs her, too in a way, despite the unequal degrees of power between them. When they first meet, Rufus is a frightened child; Dana is an adult who can protect him, but she’s also a black woman and he’s a white boy. Even though she doesn’t want to like him, Dana can’t help having sympathy for him. He likes and trusts her, and wants her around. But each time Dana is pulled into the past, Rufus is a little older. The older he gets, the more he becomes like his father – a casually cruel man – which doesn’t pair well with Rufus’ natural spoiled, selfish behavior. On one hand, he’s cowed and terrified of his father, on the other, he’s indulged and spoiled by his mother, giving him a conflicted and confused world view. Dana does her best to guide him, but there’s only so much she can do. Things are further complicated when Kevin is pulled into the past with Dana on one of her trips. Now he finally sees the horrors Dana has witnessed for himself, however the privilege of his white skin protects him. They become separated, and Kevin is stuck in the past. When they are finally reunited, Kevin has been living in the past for years, and Butler shows the subtle ways it changes his attitude as a white man. He’s still Kevin, but not quite the Kevin Dana knew before. Every one of the relationships in Kindred is complicated, and Butler never shies away this fact. Dana’s relationship with her black female ancestor, Alice, is particularly complicated. Alice is married to another man, though Rufus claims to love her. When Alice and her husband Isaac try to run away, they are captured, Isaac is mutilated and sold, and Alice is savagely beaten. Rufus is still determined to have Alice, and Dana is faced with the horror of knowing that in order to exist, she will have to facilitate Alice’s rape. The last time Dana encounters Rufus, Alice has committed suicide, and their strange, intertwined relationship comes to a head. Now that he is older and has been fully indoctrinated into the attitudes of his time, Rufus’ love for Dana has become completely twisted. He wants to control her, possess her, and he hates that he cannot. He wants her to love him freely, replacing Alice in his life, but as with Alice, he is willing to break her in order to exert control. Dana ultimately kills him to save herself, breaking their bond, and returns home for the last time. Kindred is a relatively short novel, but it is packed full and feels epic in scope. The arcs Butler takes her characters through are painful, but as an author, she does not flinch away and she asks the reader not to either. Rufus goes from a somewhat sympathetic, scared and lonely child to a grown man who is terrifying in the ways he tries to fill the loveless hole in his life, whose selfishness has grown to the point where he doesn’t recognize the humanity of others. Dana, for her part, must viscerally live through horrors she’s always known about intellectually, and it leaves her scarred both mentally and physically. Kindred isn’t an easy book, but it is an important and worthwhile one, and an excellent place to start with Butler’s incredible body of work.
Next up, my recommended starting place for S.B. Divya’s work is Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story, published at Tor.com. It’s worth nothing that Divya’s novella, Runtime, is nominated for a Nebula Award this year, and would also be an excellent starting place for her work. That said, Microbioata and the Masses is an excellent starting place as well. Moena Sivaram is a brilliant scientist who’s been living in isolation for years in a biodome of her own design. Moena’s immune system is such that she can’t be outside her biodome without getting sick, however inside she’s in perfect balance with her carefully cultivated environment and it keeps her safe. The perfect balance is upset when a crack develops in one of the biodome’s windows. At the same time, a crack develops in Moena’s resolve as the repairman who comes to fix the window is incredibly attractive. In addition to working for the window company, Rahul also works with the Hariharan Ecological Group to clean up the local water systems, which only makes him more intriguing. Even after he leaves, Moena can’t stop thinking about him, but she’s convinced he won’t want her as herself. She’s a living legend in the scientific world, and she’s sick. Despite the risk, she decides Rahul is worth it. She invents a false personality, Meena, and leaves the biodome to volunteer for the water clean up project. Where the story could have easily been about Moena sacrificing her life’s work and her health for the sake of a crush, the story becomes about two people meeting in the middle, and Moena learning more about herself and her humanity. She stays true to her scientific brilliance, working to find a solution for the water problem. While she partially does it to impress Rahul, she also does it for the greater good, and for the love of science. Moena ultimately comes off as a young character, not necessarily in age, but in experience. Circumstances have separated her from the world, and as a result, she is emotionally stunted. She is impulsive, prone to dramatic gestures like the image of teenage love in Romeo and Juliet. Underneath the impulsiveness, though, she is lonely, and part of what she does is out of fear. Over the course of the story, Moena essentially grows up, learning the value of honesty, and learning to let Rahul into her world, both literally and metaphorically. The story presents a satisfying arc for Moena; she grows as the narrative itself comes full circle, back to the biodome. Another of the story’s strengths are the sensory impressions it leaves, contrasting the verdant, idyllic world inside the biodome with the harsh, crowded world outside. Overall, it’s an excellent story, and an excellent starting place for Divya’s work.
There are many starting places I could recommend for Damien Angelica Walters’ work. Her writing is lyrical and poetic, and she has dozens upon dozens of short stories to choose from, as well as her excellent novel, Paper Tigers. However my recommended starting point is Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion), which originally appeared in Interzone, and has since been reprinted in Walters’ collection Sing Me Your Scars, and in Apex Magazine. In addition to being all the things Walters’ work usually is – rich in imagery and full of gorgeous language – it will also break your heart. Andrias Kavaluaskas is the last magician in Lithuania, and his young daughter is dying. There’s nothing he can do but keep her company, tell her stories, and occasionally show her little bits of magic. While Russian soldiers, the same who killed wife, patrol the city, he tells his daughter stories of mermaids, and underwater palaces, conjuring snowflakes and rabbits to distract her from her illness. Inside the world of his stories, everything is beautiful, but outside, there is a sense of the world growing smaller, darkness closing in. Walters delicately balances hope and despair, and she perfectly captures the sense of an oppressive regime – people living in fear in their own homes, watching their friends, neighbors, and even family disappear, and knowing there’s nothing they can do against those in power. At the same time, Andrius does have power, his magic and his storytelling. Elements of the story are reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, and as with the ending of the movie, much of the end of the story depends on the reader’s willingness to believe in magic. Literal magic isn’t the only element at play, of course. Paskutinis Iliuzija is also a story about the power of story itself, the ability of words to bend the world around them. It’s a lovely story, even as it punches you in the gut, and it is an excellent starting place for the author’s work.
To round things out, my recommended starting place for Alethea Kontis’ work is a story that could easily have been goofy and groan-inducing, but ends up packing a surprisingly emotional punch, while being dark and gritty as well – Santa CIS (Episode One: No Saint) from the anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. The trope Kontis tackles is the one of the old pro, long since retired and gone to live a solitary and guilt-ridden life, being pulled back in for one last job. As the title implies, the pro in this case is Santa. The story is a perfect mash-up of crime procedural, and well, Christmas. Kids have been going missing, and Buddy, one of Santa’s former elves, and now a special agent, sets out to find the big man himself as the only one who can help them. He presents Nick with a series of chilling letters from the missing children, all containing a phrase: Dear Santa, Please save me from the bad man. As Buddy is trying to convince Nick to join the cause, an NSA agent, Zhara Munin, shows up to further complicate things. This brings together all the genre essentials – the rival agents/agencies, each with their own priorities, the old pro, and the race against time. The fact that Father Christmas is involved gives it a delightful twist, even as the tone remains dark. Nick agrees to help, and the first step is tracking down the kidnapper via The List (yes, that one), which Santa accesses via a creepy wooden puppet who speaks with the voice of Christmas Future. The team track down their kidnapper, Dwight Griswold, but something feels off about the situation that none of them can quite put their finger on. When they find Griswold, it turns out he was once a frightened and hurt little boy who prayed for Santa to come save him, and when Santa never came, he lost his faith. Here, again, Kontis skillfully wraps the tropes of crime procedurals around a deeper mythology, weaving the guilt of the old pro’s past failures around the idea of belief, its powers, and holiday traditions from around the world. The blend is surprisingly effective, and again, never silly or campy. It works, and the story, while it comes to an end, is left open-ended in a way that perfectly suits the feel of episodic television. Genre mash-ups are always fun, and Kontis’ is one of the more unique ones I’ve seen. I never would have expected Santa Claus in a crime drama but it works, really well. The story left me hungry for more, which makes it a perfect recommended starting place in my mind. I do hope someday in the future, we’ll get another episode of CIS Santa, and perhaps even a whole season even.
That’s it for March’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in April with more recommendations, and hopefully I won’t be so late next time. Until then, please do leave your own recommendations in the comments. Who are your favorite women to read, and where do you suggest starting with their work?