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 edition of Non-Binary Authors to Read! While we’re all stuck inside, we need excellent things to read, no? Here are four wonderful stories that speak to themes of family and home for your social distancing reading pleasure!
Sam Kyung Yoo is a queer non-binary writer of speculative and literary fiction. My recommended starting place for their work is “Even Robots Can Cry” published in Fireside Magazine, which straddles the line between both of those genres.
Simon faces incredible pressure from his parents to be the perfect student. He applies that same pressure to himself, studying at all hours of the day and night to the point where his roommate, Gene, accuses him of being a robot. In truth, Simon is beginning to feel a bit like a robot, programmed to become a doctor, every minute of his life scheduled with some input that will help him achieve that goal, with little thought to what he actually wants in life.
Simon thinks being a robot would make everything so much easier. Streamlined data retrieval, able to recharge whilst remaining operational. Not needing sleep would be a wonderful reallocation of time.
Simon’s sister, Sun-Hee, refused the med school path their parents tried to set her on, following her dream to become a musician, which essentially led to her being cut off from the family. Simon feels even more isolated with the loss of his sister, the one person who might understand him. The problem is, unlike Sun-Hee, he doesn’t know what he would want to do with his life instead. He’s been programmed for one thing for so long, he isn’t even certain of his own dreams.
The story does a wonderful job of exploring the cultural and parental pressure put on Simon as a Korean child, now considered by his parents to be their only hope. Simon’s breakdown over the course of the story is paralleled with the breakdown of his laptop, showing how even machines can be pushed to a limit where they can’t physically function anymore. Simon’s thinking is even mechanical. He constantly does calculations of how much time he’s spent on certain tasks, or how many days left until this test, or that essay deadline. He views his parents’ love as a conditional relationship – if he doesn’t provide the appropriate input in the form of good grades, he won’t get the desired result. When the situation finally reaches a breaking point, it is both cathartic and heartbreaking for the journey Simon takes to get there.
It’s a beautifully-written story, which uses the science fictional trope of artificial life to great effect. There are no actual robots in the story – it is fully grounded in the real world – but as the best science fiction does, this story gives us a lens through which to explore the main character’s emotional life and their humanity.
Where Yoo’s story skirts the line between speculative and literary fiction, Uzumé is firmly in speculative territory with a weird western where the sins of the father literally become the sins of the son. Palla is a lawman and her husband Kitche just happens to be a criminal. She’s tasked with tracking him down, which she does, shooting him in the process, and then she must do everything she can to keep him alive in order that his spirit doesn’t pass into their son and turn him just as bad as his father.
“I chose, you chose. It’s done,” she said. Same thing she said when he’d walked out on her and the baby, sixteen years ago. It had made it easy to sell him out, along with all the other thieves she knew how to find. “We’re gonna do this lawful. Go to trial, they’ll execute you proper, and get your soul sealed away. Tie up all the loose ends of your frayed, sorry life.”
Of course, Kitche has other ideas about securing his legacy and continuing with his criminal career. He’s just too good at thieving to give it up, even if it means sacrificing his body, and taking over the life of his son.
Uzumé gives the story a distinctive voice that captures the Western feel, and does an excellent job with worldbuilding to inject it with a sense of the weird. The story is stylish with an emotional core that makes it pair well with Yoo’s story. Despite the authors’ very different approaches, both stories explore parents living vicariously through their children. While one does it more literally, both instances leave scars, and reading the stories together makes for an interesting study of the way parents and children perceive themselves in relation to each other, and where their responsibility to each other lies. One story is told from the child’s perspective and the other from the parent’s, but in the end, many of the questions they ask are the same – how much am I allowed to be my own person, how much do I owe to those who came before me, or who come after me, and what impact do my choices have on others?
Matthias Klein is an author and collector of dead things and my recommended starting place for nir work is “The Art of Quilting”, which first appeared in the anthology Survivor edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and JJ Pionke and reprinted in Transcendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by Bogi Takács.
Vin is far from home, living on Venus, but that doesn’t stop nir parents from tracking nem down. It seems no matter where ne goes, nir parents find nem, following nem to Mars, Venus, Pluto, the Moon, and beyond. They claim only to want what’s best for nem, expressing concern and the desire to bring nem home, which ultimately drives Vin farther away.
Ne didn’t want to leave. Not yet. Not ever. Ne was just building a life, a real existence here. No rules, no frames, no requirements. The world was not what Vin was raised to believe it was, and ne didn’t want to live in that other place, that unquestioning, dutiful place where ne had no power, no agency, no self.
As Vin continues to flee from place to place, ne quilts, rescuing scraps of fabric and beads and stones that speak to each place ne settles, no matter how temporarily. Deep black-blue for Venus, cool blue-grey for the moon, and crystals for Pluto, stitching them together into a gorgeous work of art they carry with them from place to place. Nir parents remain relentless, insisting they love nem, even as they refuse to acknowledge nir identity and call nem by the wrong name, trying to fit nem into a box of their own perception, rather than seeing nem for who ne are.
Like Yoo and Uzumé’s stories, Klein also explores the fraught relationships between parents and children, and the damage parents can do – wittingly or unwittingly – by refusing to see their children as people of their own, and not merely extensions of themselves. “The Art of Quilting” is a heartbreaking story, but one that also offers hope. On top of the exploration of family, the story also explores the concept of home. Tired of fleeing from place to place, Vin finally finds nemself on a ship traveling between the stars. Rather than treating the ship as yet another means to get to a place ne will eventually have to leave, ne realizes the ship itself can be a home. Home does not need to be the place you come from, or the place you’re going – it can be the place you create and carry with you, as Vin creates nir quilt from pieces of the places ne has been. The ship, like the quilt, is a home that can travel with nem, and the crew a family built from seemingly disparate and overlooked pieces into a beautiful whole.
Oak and his husband live on the margins of society, among the have-nots, invisible to the haves on the other side of the wall. Those beyond the wall are the ones who could afford the vaccine during the plague, while Oak and those like him, had to come up with their own vaccine, but not before many lives were lost. Oak is a chemist, providing much needed drugs and medicine for his community, putting him on precarious legal footing with those on the other side of the wall.
Mathias, Oak’s husband, comes up with a plan to blockade the rail line, forcing those on the other side of the wall to finally acknowledge the less affluent community that they left to their own devices during the plague. The action is successful, and Mathias escapes with only a broken arm, but Oak’s assistant, Vera, a trans teenager, is caught up in the aftermath and arrested, even though she wasn’t involved. Since Vera and her brother have no parents, some other adult must collect them, or she will be assigned a guardian – one who may or may not respect her identity and allow her access to the hormones she needs. No one else in the community has a valid government ID, except for Oak.
What my ID says—what I hate most about it—is that I could walk right through that gate right now if I chose to. I don’t, and I won’t, because it’s all fucking bullshit. The only reason I’m allowed inside is because my family bought me the vaccine. I let them do it because I hadn’t realised then what it was going to mean.
In addition to misgendering him, Oak’s ID is a reminder of where he came from, and the people he’s ashamed of now for their callousness during the plague. For Vera’s sake though, Oak must face his past, and take the risk that he will be lumped in with the agitators and be arrested.
While Oak’s parents are not a physical presence in the story, the echoes of their lifestyles and choices speaks to the some of the same themes seen in Yoo, Uzumé, and Klein’s stories. Oak is set apart from his family and his roots, building a new family of choice on the other side of the wall. A different facet of caring and guardianship is explored as Oak is forced to take responsibility for Vera on paper at least, though their relationship remains one of teacher and apprentice. Contrasted with the parent-child relationships explored in other stories, Kemp offers a relationship built on respect and freedom of choice. The themes of economic disparity and the invisibility of those living on the margins of society are also powerful ones. Each of the stories discussed here stands perfectly on its own, but they are all also given extra layers of meaning when read together for the variety of ways they understand family, home, community, and the relationships between the people that make up each of those concepts.