Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Trigger Warning for this episode: Rape.
Welcome to another edition of Women to Read. Hopefully you enjoyed last month’s recommendations! February is a short month, and by coincidence, all my recommendations happen to be short stories. It also just so happens that three of the authors are Canadian (not that I’m biased toward the country of my birth). Finally, all four stories touch on themes of women’s bodies, their uses, and their autonomy. It’s almost like current events have put the topic on people’s minds… but I digress. Onward to the recommendations!
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian author and academic, and my recommended starting place for her work is “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” recently published in Shimmer Magazine. The story is told in interlocking fragments, with a through-line in Mary Toth, a woman who gives birth to something not quite human.
That night her labor begins, and what emerges is not a human child, not exactly. It is unsexed, its eyes sealed, its skin dark gray, like a hairless rabbit kitten, with an open pocket that runs from breastbone to privates, and its lungs and liver hanging outside its body.
Birth and pregnancy are central themes that recur throughout, and Campbell weaves the story’s sections together to explore the idea of potential – that anything can be monstrous or miraculous before it’s born – along with the idea of women as vessels for ushering in new life, with no inherent value of their own. This includes exploration of a “gravid” nuclear bomb awaiting test detonation, as well as the tale of Gaea’s children being forced back inside her body at the beginning of the world.
One section of the story relates the tale of a farmer who faked miraculous prophecies by writing them on the shells of eggs, then reinserted the eggs into his hens. Later, it is revealed that Mary’s sister and her husband have been doing something similar to her, faking the miracle of her rabbit children by inserting actual rabbits into her body. It isn’t clear whether Mary consents to this or whether she’s used, but either way, violence is done to her body. She is a means to an end, as was the hen with her eggs. Women’s potential, their ability to deliver the future through children or through prophecy, is the primary source of their worth.
Campbell also touches on the way women’s medical concerns are often dismissed or misunderstood, and the way their bodies are seen as wild mysteries that defy understanding altogether. Mary’s intuition about her child is ignored in favor of those around her who want a miracle or a scientific case study.
“An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” is a haunting story, full of disturbing and powerful imagery. The structure adds to the story’s effectiveness, the sections illuminating and enriching each other to build a truly unsettling whole. However, amidst the darkness, one of Mary’s rabbit-children does escape, and might be a true miracle, which can be read as hope making its way into the world.
Millie Ho is a Toronto-based author and illustrator. Her story, “Hehua”, recently published at Fireside Magazine,is a chilling tale of medical technology and who has access to justice. Cassandra lives in a world in which parents can pay for their own Wonder Kids–designer babies genetically corrected for disease, but also altered eye, hair, and skin color. (Unsurprisingly, choices tend toward a blue/blonde/white aesthetic.) People can also pay to be Edited in order to forget traumatic events or quit bad habits, though Editing can also be forced onto individuals. Cassandra’s incarcerated father, for example, is repeatedly Edited–a test subject in order to improve the technology for paying customers.
Hehua Cover Art – Fireside
As the story opens, Cassandra learns her friend and co-worker, Hehua, has been murdered. In addition to her grief, Cassandra also feels guilty. The last time they spoke, she and Hehua fought over Hehua’s choice to be Edited in order to lose her accent. They hadn’t spoken to each other since, and now it’s too late. Initially Hehua had been against the idea of Editing as being silly and superficial (or super fickle, as she used to say), just as Cassandra was against it, but Hehua’s new relationship with another of their co-workers, a Wonder Kid named Trevor, changed her mind. When Cassandra sets out on her own to investigate, she discovers Trevor may be the one responsible for Hehua’s death. Trevor is married, and Cassandra suspects he may have murdered Hehua to cover up the affair. But when Cassandra goes to the cops to voice her suspicions, she is told Wonder Kids can’t be murderers.
Akachi stands up as well. “I know plenty, Ms. Xu. You know what people sacrifice to have a Wonder Kid?” He pushes aside his blazer and points to his lower back. “My father gave up his kidney, for one. I know all about the struggles of normal people, but also what it costs to be valuable in our society.” He sits back down, his nostrils flaring. “There’s no way such a heavy price would produce a murderer.”
“Hehua” tackles racism, the justice system, and the sinister side of medical technology. The genetic manipulation and Editing in the story have obvious parallels in the eugenics movement, and in ideas about the ways immigrants should assimilate. Many parents choose to lighten their children’s skin before birth and make their features more Caucasian, and Hehua herself chooses to Edit her natural accent out of existence to fit in. Through the division between Wonder Kids and the rest of society, the story also reflects the all too real problem of justice being reserved for the rich and the white, and often the straight, cis, and male. Trevor is automatically presumed innocent because of his status as a Wonder Kid. Meanwhile, Cassandra a brown woman who hasn’t been modified in any way, has her concerns dismissed, calling to mind real world stories of how much harder it is to get justice for victims of color, queer folks, trans folks, and women.
Through the treatment of Cassandra’s father, the story also touches on the dehumanization that occurs within the criminal justice system. Her father is used as a lab rat, his suffering dismissed as acceptable for the betterment of society, while Hehua herself is used up and murdered by the same society. The story holds up an SFnal mirror to our modern-day world, but also provides hope. Like Campbell’s story, “Hehua” ends on a note hinting that things can, and will, get better.
© 2017 Sam Guay, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”
Senaa Ahmad is also a Toronto-based author, and my recommended starting place for her work is “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” published at Strange Horizons. Like “Hehua”, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is also about the overreach of science, but this time tied to the technology of war. The story centers on a group of girls who are used as living bombs, incinerating themselves and obliterating cities, but without dying. Or at least not right away. The story moves fluidly in time, looking ahead to when one of the girls, Nabeela is dying of radiation poisoning. Her symptoms are horrific: blistering and sloughing skin, rotting (or slowly burning) from the inside out. The girls are all volunteers, but primarily from poor families. Even though they are now treated like objects, Ahmad makes a point of saying the girls initially made a choice to become weapons, in order to give themselves a chance at a better future. While they may have known some of the risks involved, they couldn’t have known exactly what would happen to them until they were too deep to back out. However, even if they knew the full weight of what they were taking on, it wouldn’t make their fate any less horrific.
The story is full of beautiful and evocative language, and the girls are wonderful characters. They are a family; they bicker but love each other because who else do they have? In a particularly lovely moment, one of the girls reads to the others from an old recipe book belonging to her grandmother, bringing home how much they’ve lost – their birth families, their connection to their histories, and even the sensory experience of a delicious home-cooked meal.
At the heart of the story (literally, structure-wise), and running as a theme throughout, is the question of the girls’ agency. They are debated on TV, in the media, and the public eye.
They call us weapons of mass destruction, or military mad science experiments, or a new generation of suicide bombers, or just bombs. They want to know, is this how science was meant to be used. Are we even human.
They are discussed as objects, and rarely given their own voice. Nabeela briefly has the chance to speak for the group, hailed as a hero and trotted around to various talk shows, but even then, it is only the other girls who truly see her. The girls even have handlers, underscoring them as assets, not people. However, the girls never lose sight of their own humanity.
“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a gut-punch of a story, gorgeously told. It examines the cost of war and violence and, like Campbell’s story, the uses and questions of agency for women’s bodies. The obvious comparison made in the story itself is the Radium Girls of World War I, who painted radioactive watch dials and match heads, slowly and unknowingly poisoning themselves. Ahmad’s story also echoes the themes of poverty and justice as seen in Ho’s story. Who is seen as expendable, who is allowed to fully participate in society? Who benefits from war and who is ground up by it?
Lindiwe Rooney is a South African writer, artist, and anthropologist. My recommended starting place for her work is “In Her Bones” from January’s issue of The Dark, a story that follows a character named Ayanda. Ayanda’s father works for the gun-runner Yana Mwani. They are childhood friends, and Joseph is more or less completely under Yana’s thumb. But when a shipment is delayed, Yana’s son, Wekesa, comes to Ayanda’s home carrying the cleaver he supposedly uses to cut down his father’s enemies, bristling with threats.
The first time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he didn’t bother to knock. He stepped through the door way as if it were his own, and wandered through the house until he came upon Ayanda’s family eating dinner.
Rooney evokes the image of an animal stalking its prey. Wekesa doesn’t commit violence at the table, but he makes it clear he could do so at any time. When he returns to the house a second time, he brings gifts, is full of cajoling flattery, and is invited in as a guest, leaving him protected by the rules of hospitality. Wekesa’s attitude in these two encounters reveals his personality – he believes himself untouchable, will bully or buy his way into whatever he wants, and feels the world is his for the taking. He assumes Ayanda is his for the taking as well, raping her once, and attempting it a second time. However the second time, Ayanda is ready with a kitchen knife, and cuts off Wekesa’s penis. As Jama Ibor, the medicine woman, is summoned to tend to Wekesa’s wound, Ayanda’s family wonders why she didn’t let justice take its course. She knows that even if Wekesa was cast out for his crime, he would still come after her, and after her family. By taking justice into her own hands, and violating the rules protecting Wekesa as a guest, she has exiled herself, but will keep them safe.
Meanwhile, Jama Ibor offers Ayanda a hefty sum if she will sell her what she cut off Wekesa. She can use it to make powerful muti, even if it is considered the forbidden kind. Ayanda decides she would rather take a lesser sum, but let Jama Ibor train her as an apprentice. Thus she reclaims her life, transforming herself from an object used and abused by Wekesa into something she can use herself. After tearing herself out of the tapestry of her family history, she allows herself to become a vessel for the gods. She will be barred from the afterlife and joining her ancestors, but she will be long-lived and powerful while she is alive. “In Her Bones” isn’t an easy story, given the subject matter, however Lindiwe handles it with grace. Nothing is gratuitous, and the narrative is centered firmly in Ayanda’s point of view. Her world is one of violence, from her father’s association with a gangster-king, to the physical violence done to her personally. It is with spiritual violence that she reclaims her life, but once her destiny is her own again, she turns to healing. Even her choice to wound Wekesa is about protecting her family more than it is about revenge, making this a powerful story on many levels.
That wraps up February’s Women to Read. Hopefully you’ve found some new-to-you authors to enjoy. Tune in next month–same Smuggler time, same Smuggler channel–for more recommendations.