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 December’s Non-Binary Authors to Read! Before I jump into the recommendations, a minor housekeeping note. In 2019, Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read will become quarterly at The Book Smugglers, alternating between the two columns. That may mean I highlight more titles with each installment, I’m not sure yet, but what I do know is I love writing both columns, and they will continue, just at a slightly slower pace. Now, on to the reviews!
Lane Waldman is a short fiction author, and my recommended starting place for their work is “Tam Lim” published in Capricious 8. The story re-imagines the classic ballad of Tam Lin, who is stolen away by the Faerie Queen and must be won back by his lover, Janet. Waldman sets the story in the world of dreams. Instead of Janet trying to keep a grasp on the shifting forms of her lover, the unnamed protagonist is caught in a series of twisty and shifting dreams, trying to keep a grasp on reality and find the man she loves. Waldman perfectly captures dream logic, where settings change without warning, people transform, and the dreamer knows things without being told.
I’m in a room made of glass and a hurricane is coming. I look around for something to use as a weapon. Iron. He told me she doesn’t like iron, or was it rutabagas? The door is green, but I can’t get out that way. There are three tigers in the room, crawling around the ceiling and shedding fur everywhere.
The story is fragmentary, with no attempt to impose waking-world logic, which fits the tale perfectly. Like the original ballad, the endless cycle of dreaming and waking is a test of faith, a test of resilience, and of the willingness to believe the fire you’re holding onto will turn back into your lover, despite what your eyes show you. The land of Faerie and the world of dreams are not so different. Time behaves differently, illusion rules, and normal rules do not apply. Waldman weaves together striking imagery, nods to the original ballad, and allusions to classic nightmares like teeth falling out and running late for school while having forgotten to study for a test even though you graduated years ago. It’s effectively done, touching on themes of love, faith, trying to seize control of one’s own life and destiny, and remaining steadfast in one’s own beliefs despite the truths others try to apply to your existence.
My recommended starting place for the work of Ryley Knowles is “Death You Deserve” originally published in Nerve Endings: The New Trans Erotic and recently reprinted in Transcendent 3: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. “Death You Deserve” is not an easy read, centering largely on fear, anxiety, violence, and trauma. At the same time however, it is a story about learning to cope with those things day by day.
Addy is afraid of dying. In order to deal with her fear, she imagines her life as a horror movie, and herself as a character in a said movie, trying to abide by a specific set rules in order to stay alive. She can smoke weed, but not with others. She can go out during the day, but not at night. She’s less likely to be killed in a grocery store than a corner store. As a trans woman, she is all too aware of the real-world danger that comes with her existence, of hateful people who would kill her just for being herself. She uses abiding by horror movie rules, and imagining worse-case scenarios, as a kind of ritualistic magic, keeping her safe. If she can think through every possible plot twist, and pick the safest path to the film’s end, she just might survive.
I don’t know how long I was asleep. It’s dark now. Twilight. Not dark enough to die, usually, but dark enough to signal death. I try to remember if anyone has ever been murdered going to the corner store in a horror movie. There was using the ATM in ATM, but that was past midnight in the middle of urban nowhere. Maybe the corner store will get robbed when I’m in there, and everyone will be murdered. Or maybe the longer I stay at home, alone and vulnerable, the more I am tempting fate to turn my life into a home invasion movie.
Another kind of magic keeping Addy safe is her girlfriend, Eve. Eve makes protective salt circles around Addy, but more importantly, she listens to her and supports her in a way that is reminiscent of the relationship in “The Way You Say Good-Night” by Toby McNutt’s, which is highlighted in March’s Non-Binary Authors to Read column. As McNutt does, Knowles touches on the importance of consent and underlines it as something to be constantly sought and negotiated in a relationship.
The treatment of consent in “Death You Deserve” is paralleled by the treatment of anxiety and fear; both are things to be revisited and navigated constantly, not confronted once and considered dealt with forever. With Eve’s help, Addy is able to act on her feelings of desire, however this isn’t a “magical cure” story, or a story about the power of love to change a person. Addy grows confident enough to kiss Eve, and to be physical with her, but only within a specific moment and only within the bounds of Eve’s salt circle.
Addy finds a way to feel safe for now, but safe once isn’t safe always, just as saying yes once isn’t the same as saying yes always. As in horror movies, and the final girl trope that Addy herself invokes, she has found a way to survive for another day. Tomorrow may be a whole different battle, but Addy’s moment of survival is still a moment of triumph and personal victory. Despite the painful subject matter, Knowles writes the story beautifully, and the hope they offer through Addy feels realistic in a way that makes it more valuable than a simple, neat happily ever after.
Annalee Flower Horne is an author, web developer, and co-editor of the feminist geek culture site, The Bias. My recommended starting place for her work is “Carborundorum>dev/null” published in Fireside Magazine. The title evokes Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Nolite te bastardes corborundorum, or don’t let the bastards grind you down), which is apt as the story offers up a similarly chilling vision of girls’ freedoms being curtailed and controlled, this time with the help of technology.
Sandra’s mother, with the help of their smart house, keeps a close eye on all her daughter’s actions. Sandra’s communications are logged, the house tells on her when she tries to leave, and it has the ability to lock her in. Sandra’s brother, Kyle, is not subject to the same restrictions. He and his friend Jack can come and go as they please. Despite Sandra’s protests, and her pointing out the double standard, her mother insists these measures will keep her safe. However, the house only offers the illusion of safety to soothe her mother’s mind.
I almost laughed. “Safe.” In the house where Jack had raped me earlier that year. Three hours of my life even the house couldn’t remember.
After raping her, Jack erased a portion of the house’s memory, ensuring there would be no record of the event. Knowing she’s likely to be doubted and disbelieved, Sandra chooses not to tell anyone. Meanwhile, she’s stuck with her mother rules, and she still has to deal with Jack on a constant basis. However, Sandra and her best friend Tish have ways of circumventing the rules occasionally, communicating without being tracked, and even managing to sneak out now and then. With the help of some handy code written by Tish, they turn the house’s restrictive technology back on itself, reclaiming some measure of their freedom, and keeping themselves safe in more than just appearances.
“Carborundorum>dev/null” does an excellent job of exploring the limits and uses of technology, and particularly highlighting the gap between theoretical design and practical use. On paper, a smart house might be a great weight off a parent’s mind. In practice, however, technology is only as good as those who use it. Technology alone cannot fix the underlying problem of the way society views rape, sexual assault, and discounts women’s stories. To Sandra’s mother’s mind, “other” boys are the problem, strangers she might meet out in the world. Rape committed by someone Sandra knows doesn’t cross her mind. It may be a comforting idea to think criminals can be easily identified, and truly bad people must strangers that can be kept outside by following certain rules, not friends who have already been invited in.
The story reflects current attitudes about rape, and takes current technology to its logical conclusion. Without a culture change, technology will continue to be abused by those in power, and leave those already marginalized further on the margins. Just as our social media platforms can equally be a tool for communication and a platform for abuse, so too could a smart house be used to protect an abuser while still working as designed.
For all the bleakness and the difficult subject matter, the story still offers up hope. Sandra takes control of her own destiny. She doesn’t let her rape define her, and she makes her own choices about how she wants to handle it. She and Tish not only find a way to circumvent her mother’s useless rules, but they have each other’s backs, and the story shines bright with powerful moments of friendship.
Ani Fox is an Amsterdam-based short fiction author. My recommended starting place for their work is “Coyote Now Wears a Suit” published in Apex Magazine. I’m a sucker for good trickster tales, those involving Coyote particularly, and this story does not disappoint.
The story opens with Kupua at the Honolulu Police Station at the request of his family, because according to his family, he’s the best at talking to white people. He’s there to bail out Coyote, who everyone else in the family seems to think is a distant cousin no one can quite remember, but certainly related to them somehow, thus owed their help. Only Kupua seems to see the trickster for what he is.
Meanwhile, I’m checking out Coyote. Seriously, the dude’s not even trying to hide. To me, he looks like an actual dog dressed in an Armani suit. Brah got some style. With these outlandish three-color brothel creepers and a tacky American Eagle belt buckle with rhinestones—both kind of kill the fancy.
Despite knowing Coyote isn’t what he claims – or what his family members want to believe him to be – Kupua helps him out. Coyote repays him by immediately causing chaos, digging out a bag of drugs from Kupua’s cousin’s glove compartment on the ride back from the police station, causing them to scatter all over the truck’s cab, and causing the truck to go off the road in the process, landing them right back in jail. As if getting Kupua arrested wasn’t enough, Coyote goes right on causing trouble in other areas of Kupua’s life, including seducing his boyfriend, and bringing him into conflict with his family.
As with all the best tricksters, Coyote has motives of his own, and there is good mixed in with the bad. Even though his actions seem random and cruel, they ultimately lead Kupua to confront aspects of himself he’s been keeping hidden from his family. Kupua is mahu, a third, fluid gender who identifies with both traditional male and female characteristics. He’s funded much of his life through illegal activities, such as gambling. He’s also been accepted to Harvard for grad school, but he’s afraid his family will accuse him of wanting to be white, abandoning them and his home, and of not considering them and their heritage good enough. Through Coyote’s meddling, Kupua is finally able to have an honest conversation with the people he loves, and work through his fears and doubts.
The language Fox uses is captivating and rhythmic, lending the story a strong voice. Kupua is a wonderfully flawed character, and his growth by the tale’s end is satisfying. Coyote, too, is delightful – chaotic to the greater good, with motives that are utterly his own. The story resonates with themes of family and acceptance, and a character finding peace with multiple aspects of their identity. Kupua’s fear keeps him from being honest with his family, and it takes a trickster to shake him out of his assumptions and see the real truth that’s been in front of him the whole time. His family sticks together through everything – jail bailouts and all. They will love him no matter who he is, or where he goes in life.