Non-Binary Authors To Read is a quarterly column from A.C. Wise highlighting non-binary authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to another edition of Non-Binary Authors to Read. This month’s recommendations include two novels, a short story, and a piece of flash fiction, running the gamut from fantasy to mystery, and science fiction to fairy tales. Happy reading!
A.E. Prevost is an author of fiction, non-fiction, comics, and poetry. My recommending starting place for their work is “Sandals Full of Rainwater” from Capricious #9: Gender Diverse Pronouns: a lovely story of immigration, language, chosen family, and finding a place in the world.
Despite the roofs, there was water everywhere: splashed up by carriage wheels and the jostling steps of strangers, pouring out of the rumbling and broken-open sky, rushing down cast iron eavestroughs and churning white in the grate-covered gutters by Piscrandiol’s feet. It was an excess, an exuberance of water, enough to fill every well in Salphaneyin. It sloshed through Piscrandiol’s sandals and weighed down the hem of their skirts like it had nowhere better to be.
Piscrandiol Deigadis, an immigrant from drought-stricken Salphaneyin, arrives in Orphanthyre, a land of seemingly never-ending rain. Piscrandiol is supposed to meet their cousin Geluol, however Geluol has left town on a mining contract and won’t be back for months. There’s an apartment waiting for Pisc, but other than having a place to live, they feel utterly adrift. While they have a decent grasp of Orpan, they aren’t comfortable speaking it, especially as Orpan has 45 pronoun variants whereas Pisc’s language and culture has no gender at all.
As they’re trying to orient themselves, they encounter a family escaping from the flooded regions of Orphanthyre. Pisc offers to let the Eibas family of three adults–Gislen, Refe and Annat–and two children–Appi and Tafis–stay with them. The temporary solution soon becomes permanent, but even as they share household duties and develop an intimate relationship with Gislen, Pisc still feels like an outsider. As an immigrant, Pisc faces discrimination that leaves them unable to find work, and despite the Eibas’ acceptance and love, Pisc still feels like a burden, uncertain of where they fit in. This is underlined by the fact that Orpan’s pronouns are entirely situational and depend on the relationships between individuals, leaving Pisc to wonder who they are and who they can be within the family structure if they have no words to define themself.
The story offers a lovely and sometimes painful exploration of what it feels like to be an outsider. The themes of inclusion and exclusion are explored primarily through language–its ability to bind people together, to intentionally or unintentionally exclude others, to create a sense of place and belonging, and to create a sense of self and identity. Prevost also creates a beautiful visual metaphor for the simultaneous feeling of belonging and being an outsider through the succulents Pisc brings from their home. In Salphaneyin, these succulents work together to provide moisture, but they also tell a personal history, with plants passed down among family members, or gifted by lovers and friends. Traditionally, the plants are displayed as a living memory quilt, telling a person’s story. The plants are pieces of Pisc’s home, light enough to carry, but in Orphanthyre they will be forever kept in jars, unable to flourish on their own in the rainy climate, and thus never truly part of the native soil. Like Pisc, they are caught between worlds, and removed from their original context. They no longer tell the same story that they once did, but in their new home, they’ve added a new chapter to their tale.
“Sandals Full of Rainwater” is full of heart, tenderness, caring, and also pain. It’s about feeling disconnected from your roots, but finding a way to flourish nonetheless. Growth and change are hard, but ultimately worthwhile, and the story captures this perfectly.
Rivers Solomon is a self-described dyke, Trekkie, wannabe cyborg queen, trash princex, communist, butch, femme, she-beast, rootworker, mother, daughter, diabetic, and refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. My recommended starting place is their incredible debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts.
This is one of those books where the experience of reading it is hard to describe. Enjoy is not the right word; An Unkindness of Ghosts is a beautifully written book full of pain, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend, only with the caveat that the subject matter is brutal. (I suggest that people should read it anyway, if they’re able.) The novel is set on the generation ship Matilda, which functions like a plantation, strictly divided along racial lines. Black people work the ship’s field decks, maintain the engines, and care for Baby Sun, which powers the ship’s flight. White people occupy the upper decks and benefit from Black people’s labor.
Aster works the fields decks, but also maintains a secret botanarium where she grows medicine plants and tends to the sick. Much of her medical skill is self taught, but she also learned a great deal from Theo–the ship’s Surgeon General, who also happens to be the mixed-race son of the former Sovereign and a low deck woman. Theo is white enough to pass and believed by the people of Matilda to be a prophet and the chosen Hands of God. Aster and Theo have a complicated relationship–sometimes they are like siblings, sometimes like friends, sometimes like colleagues, and sometimes like teacher and student. They both have feelings for each other that go beyond any of those descriptions, and neither are able to articulate them. And even those feelings shift throughout the novel, and are further complicated by their relative stations in life.
Even so, Theo does what he can to support Aster. He respects her intellect, and is drawn to her, even though his devout religious nature and complicated relationship with his own sexuality keep things from being easy between them. Aster herself is not the easiest person to get along with in any situation. She is brilliant but her literal mind, which reads neuroatypical, frequently keeps her from understanding others on own their terms and vice versa. As a result, she often seems abrupt or cold when she is neither of these things. The closest people to her besides Theo are Giselle, Aster’s best friend/roommate/chosen sibling, and Melusine, the woman who raised and nannied many children on Matilda including Theo and Aster.
Aster’s mother disappeared when Aster was a child, leaving behind journals and scientific notes. Aster initially takes them at face value, but Giselle helps her realize they’re written in code. As Aster works to uncover the truth she discovers there’s much more to her mother’s disappearance–which may be linked to Matilda’s mysterious blackouts and the strange illness afflicting the current Sovereign.
“I read that note, Aster. All it said was that she had to leave you. What if she didn’t kill herself like you always thought? What if she was planning escape? Something bigger than you or me or Matilda?” Giselle put her palm out, predicting Aster’s protest. “We’ve all spent our whole lives believing this ship is it. If you knew it wasn’t, wouldn’t you give up everything too? I would cut my own heart out and throw it into the beyond for the split second it would beat somewhere other than this cursed fucking cage.”
For all its pain, An Unkindness of Ghosts is gorgeously written. Several passages took my breath away and left me dazed. At the same time, due to its subject matter and themes including slavery, racism, violence, and abuse, among others, it is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one. Solomon’s world building is meticulous, giving readers a generation ship that feels fully lived in. There is language drift, evolution of thought and knowledge, and both change from deck to deck, taking class and race into account. Matilda is a living, breathing ecosystem, and that comes through on every page. The characters are brilliantly drawn as well, their layers and depths slowly revealed with perfect pacing. The novel tackles science, love, race, gender, class, violence, language, family, and more, and delivers a fully satisfying plot at the same time, one driven by the characters, their passions and their goals. I truly can’t wait to see what Solomon does next.
Marieke Nijkamp is a YA author whose novel This Is Where It Ends hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. That said, my recommended starting place is their second novel, Before I Let Go , a haunting mystery set in Alaska.
Corey lived most of her life in Lost Creek, a tiny town of 247 people. One of those people was her best friend, Kyra, but seven months after Corey’s family moves away, her mother calls Corey at her new boarding school to tell her that Kyra is dead–found under the ice in an apparent suicide. Kyra was bipolar, but with medication, therapy, and art as an outlet, she was coping. Corey refuses to believe Kyra would kill herself, especially when she knew Corey was coming home to visit her.
Grief-stricken, Corey returns to Lost Creek, but instead of reconnecting with Kyra, she’s attending her funeral and searching for answers. What Corey finds is a town completely changed. While she was alive, no one in town was comfortable with Kyra. They were afraid of her episodes and wanted her gone. Now everyone in Lost keeps telling Corey how much they loved Kyra, how she belonged and was one of them. When Corey challenges them, they treat her like an outsider, telling her she doesn’t understand, that she wasn’t here and didn’t really know Kyra, or how she gave Lost hope and made their lives better. Corey discovers that Kyra had been making paintings for the people of Lost depicting moments of happiness and prosperity. The people of Lost had come to believe Kyra was a prophet, and if she painted something for them, it would come true. But to Corey, Everything feels haunted. There are flowers blooming in the dead of winter, and every house and business has one of Kyra’s paintings on the wall. Worst of all is the picture in Kyra’s parents’ home, painted by Kyra just before her suicide, clearly depicting her death. Instead of seeing a girl crying out for help, the townspeople saw Kyra as a saint whose death was inevitable and did nothing to save her.
The constellation of Orion reflects in the surface. The brightest red star – Betelgeuse – shines like the supernova it’s turning into, and it lights up the painting. It lights up the ice. It lights up the body beneath it. Kyra had painted herself floating under the translucent ice. Her brown hair is spread out around her, and her hazel eyes are opened wide. Even as she sinks into the dark abyss of the lake, she smiles.
The novel is structured in sections that cover six days as Corey tries to uncover the truth and come to terms with Kyra’s death. Flashbacks reveal Kyra and Corey’s history together, their hopes, their dreams, and Kyra’s struggles. Nijkamp does an excellent job of creating tension through atmosphere. Lost Creek is claustrophobic and haunted, but there is beauty as well. The setting perfectly mirrors Corey’s journey through the story as she comes home to a place that is both familiar and strange, lovely yet hostile.
Deep friendship lies at the novel’s heart. It also deals respectfully with mental illness, grief, and guilt, and touches on sexuality and the desire to be seen. The story effectively plays with memory and perception and the imperfect nature of both, asking whether we can ever truly know even those closest to us. Kyra struggles to be seen and accepted for who she is, as a whole person, but even Corey sometimes fails her, painting an accurate picture of the complexity of human beings, the messiness of our relationships, and the many faces of love.
Shweta Narayan is an author, poet, and the co-editor of Stone Telling. My recommended starting place for their work is “The River’s Children” from An Alphabet of Embers . This is a lovely flash fiction fairy tale about a genderfluid prince who is unable to find a place to belong but finds solace in spending time with the river.
Now rivers are sometimes girls, quick as lightning; and they are boys sometimes, speeding like arrows. And they are gravid women sometimes, and sometimes they are men, full of poetry and slow as scripture. Most of the time, you simply cannot tell, though storytellers will try.
When it comes time to the prince to marry, the river manifests a human form so the prince may marry his best friend. They are happy together, sometimes as man and woman, sometimes two men, or two women, and sometimes both or neither. Initially, the kingdom is delighted with their union, but when the river becomes pregnant with twins, those around her begin to fear what will happen to the children if she shifts forms. At the urging of her women, the river agrees to remain female for the duration of her pregnancy, but it weighs on her, and eventually costs her life. Shortly after the children are born, her human life ends and she returns to her form as a river. In the wake of her death, the prince dies of grief, becoming a tributary of the river. The orphaned twins are as fluid and shifting in their identities as their parents, but their one constant is each other, and they stand together against the world.
“The River’s Children” is a beautiful story, gorgeously written, and Narayan does an excellent job of depicting the challenges a genderfluid person might face due to societal attitudes. However Narayan also shows multiple genderfluid characters navigating the world in different ways, with love and acceptance. The prince, the river, and the twins are confronted by people who question their identity, but they know who they are within themselves, and never feel that they are wrong to be male, female, both, or neither, which is a lovely thing. The world lags behind them in understanding, but they still find a way to live in it while staying true to themselves with the support and love of family. “The River’s Children” does a lot for its short length, and the fairy tale structure and feel not only suits the story perfectly, but makes an important statement. Myths and fairy tales are fundamental stories, passed down through generations to help audiences understand the shape of the world. By telling their story in this format, Narayan reinforces the universal truth that love is for everyone, and it’s not only straight, cis, gendernormative relationships that deserve a happy ending.