Non-Binary Authors To Read is a regular column from A.C. Wise highlighting non-binary authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to another Non-Binary Authors to Read! This time around, I have four short stories to recommend by four wonderful authors. By coincidence, all four stories deal with longing, loss, and pain, and the way we find and make meaning in our lives.
Go-Eun works at the Six Resplendent Suns Funeral Palace and House of the Dead, a containment facility designed to ease people’s minds so they can rest assured their beloved family members and friends won’t return as vengeful ghosts. The world Go-Eun inhabits has a post-apocalyptic feel, a world of scarcity plagued by ghosts who are torn apart by giant mechs if they get out of hand. This creates a vicious cycle, as sometimes mech pilots die in the line of duty, ultimately returning as the very thing they fought in life. It’s a bleak life, one that doesn’t seem to offer much hope, but it’s all Go-Eun has ever known.
All that is about to change though. Go-Eun only has a few days left on the job. She’s given her notice, and is prepared to move on, even though she has her doubts. Those doubts only increase when she meets the ghost of a former fox mech pilot. He attacks her, but she senses more in him. Maybe ghosts aren’t the mindless monsters everyone thinks them to be, she just has to find the right means to reach the ghost and form a connection.
The first time she saw a ghost that was not in a training video, pamphlet, or out of control and tall as a building being subdued by a mech, it was in the F2nd bathroom and something kept playing with her hair. A girl dressed in white rose behind her in the mirror like a dark star, cracked lips daring Go-Eun to look at me.
Yuschik’s world-building is fantastic and their language evocative. They paint a picture of a broken world where there are few options and the things that used to matter, like getting a good education, mean nothing. The building Go-Eun works in is described as covetous, hungry, gathering in ghosts and those who are lost but still alive. It is a desperate world, and Go-Eun’s loneliness against this backdrop is palpable. She’s searching for meaning and connection, but at the same time, she pushes away anyone who tries to get close to her.
The one area where she finds connection is through fandom, though even the fics she writes tend toward loss, reflecting her belief that happiness never lasts. Fandom is an important part of the story. It becomes Go-Eun’s key to reaching the mech pilot ghost, underlining the way fiction and storytelling brings people together and the way expanding canon narratives lets people see themselves reflected in what they love where traditional narratives don’t always make space for them. Her experience with fan fiction also gives Go-Eun the ability to see the narrative around ghosts, mechs, and her own life in a different way. There are more possibilities than she’s been led to believe, and she can rewrite her world, make her own meaning, and find what she values rather than what others tell her is important.
Raymond Miranda is an author and biology teacher. My recommended starting place for their work is “Two Yearnings” published in Vulture Bones, another ghost story, which as the title implies also explores themes of loneliness and longing. The protagonist lives with a ghost, a silent roommate who accepts their offerings of food, but otherwise remains unknowable.
I see its silhouette when I blow smoke towards the laundry room. The figure hunched down between my dryer and the wall, its head to its knees, sobbing without a single sound. Sometimes when I check, it is lying on the dryer, its head and limbs uncomfortably hanging from the sides. Sometimes it’s crawling, like it’s considering whether to get out of the laundry room. Sometimes it’s standing up, balancing itself on the washer for the offering of bread and fruits I’ve left on there.
A girl the protagonist brought home once warned them that the spirit was a hungry ghost and dangerous. She also advised them to move, and left them a number to call someone who might be able to help. But they ignore the girl’s advice, choosing instead to feed the ghost, even though it only grows larger and hungrier as they do.
“Two Yearnings” isn’t a happy or an easy read, but it does serve as a kind of bittersweet metaphor for, and a window into, an experience of depression. Multiple people reach out to the protagonist to try to help them – friends, family, even their boss – but they find themselves unable to accept that help. Sometimes, depression is too overwhelming, and there is no easy cure. Like the ghost, there is nothing in particular the protagonist wants. Depression is a formless haunting, a vague lack, and in that way, the ghost becomes their closest ally, something almost like a friend. They can’t banish their haunting, or leave it behind. As dangerous as it might be, they continue to feed it, because it is a part of them – they don’t know who, or how, to be without their depression, and their ghost.
Even though the story isn’t an easy read, it is well-written, using the idea of the supernatural to tell a profoundly human story. It provides a window into the interior landscape of its main character, and reminds us that not all problems have easy solutions, and even in fiction things don’t always wrap up neatly. Sometimes there are ghosts, and you have to learn to live with them, or not, as the case may be.
Karolina Fedyk is a Polish poet, author, and academic. My recommended starting place for their work is their unsettling story, “Seams”, published in The Dark. Alina steals other people’s skin in order to feel like herself, grafting it onto her body as a kind of disguise or amour that allows her to move about in the world. Their features are part of it – cute ears, smooth shoulders – but mostly it’s confidence that draws her to certain people, their comfort in who they are. She wants that for herself.
All this heat, and I’m shivering. It’s an almost pleasant kind of shiver, and I take my time admiring the goosebumps that run all the way down my arms and legs, uncovered by the tiny sleeveless shirt and knickers. The fever takes some of my soreness away. I glance at the rack again; the skins look so inviting. But today I have to stick to my own.
By day, Alina is a scientist, a specialist in skin grafts. She hopes one day her work might truly help people, that she might find a cure for some fatal disease. However that doesn’t stop her from committing atrocities.
Even though Alina’s acts are monstrous, Fedyk manages to create a measure of sympathy for her. She is a brilliant scientist, but uncomfortable in her own skin. She sees the ease with which others move through the world – whether it’s through the privilege of their sex, by virtue of being conventionally attractive, or that they’ve simply found confidence Alina herself is unable to tap into. While some people might turn to acting, roleplaying, or a social media persona to hide behind, Alina takes a darker and more literal path to becoming someone else. It’s a motivation that is wholly understandable. Most people want to disappear at one time or another in their lives, become someone else and hiding their true selves behind a mask. Fedyk takes this concept to its extreme, giving readers a tale of horror, but one with a human and relatable core.
Jordan Kurella is an author who has also worked as a DJ, a barista, and a social worker. My recommended starting place for their work is “Jewel of the Vashwa” published in Apex Magazine. While this story isn’t as dark as the other three discussed here, it still deals with violence, and ghosts in the form of memories. The story opens with Awanshe relating the death of her lover at the hands of a Scorpion Man.
I watched my love die in the claw of a Scorpion Man. I watched him sever her in half; watched as her long hair dripped down to the ground; watched as her hand let go of her spear; as her long legs folded under her; as the Scorpion Man’s tail rose in triumph. His chitin carapace shone in the dwindling sunlight. So did my love’s armor. Her armor that had served her so well until the end.
Almost immediately, Awanshe tells us this story is a lie. She proceeds to unfold alternate versions, overlapping and interlinking. Both the queen and the Scorpion Man were her lovers. They worked together to broker peace between their people. They betrayed her. She betrayed them. Somewhere in-between all these versions may lie the truth, but now that Awanshe has established herself as an unreliable narrator, can we really be sure?
Like Yuschik’s “The Girl with All the Ghosts”, in “Jewel of the Vashwa” Kurella gives us a story about the power of stories, how the narratives we weave inform our view of history, and thus the shape of things to come. It’s also about the stories we tell ourselves. The narrative Awanshe crafted about her own life, her role in the events unfolding around her, and her importance in her lovers’ lives may ultimately have led to their downfall, depending on which version of her story you believe.
Kurella’s writing is rich and evocative, and they do an excellent job of building a fully-realized world in just a few thousand words. With the varying versions we get something that feels epic in scope, and has a sense of weight and history. The world itself is fascinating, populated by hard-carapaced Scorpion Men, and armored women, and the children of their unions who are often something in-between. It’s a world where the two sexes live largely separate lives, warring with each other, but coming together in love as well. As a result, Awanshe, much like Go-Eun in Yuschik’s tale, carries a sense of melancholy, loss, and searching for meaning and her place in the world. Like the other stories discussed here, Kurella uses a speculative lens to explore the human condition. When we’re all alone against the weight of history, sometimes all we have is our stories and the meaning we make for ourselves. Our tales are our legacies, and they will carry us forward into the future.