Collective, Not Plural: POV in “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls”

Yes, I continue to be woefully behind in my reading. And yet I still have feels and WordPress hasn’t cut me off, so I persevere in spilling my brain-insides onto the interwebs when said brain-insides begin bubbling. This time, a fairly spoiler-lite discussion about Izzy Wasserstein’s use of POV in her March PseudoPod story, “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls.”

A little setup just for context: the story concerns a group of girls being “cared for” (scare quotes entirely called for) by the Mothers, misshapen psychic creatures who are ostensibly keeping the girls safe from unnamed terrors outside their walls, but whose security comes at steep personal cost for their wards.

As stories often do, this one starts with a new arrival to the existing status quo. It would have been natural to choose that new girl (Bel) to be the story’s POV. Or, really, any of the other girls. What I find fascinating is that Wasserstein decided to do all of those things by giving us a collective first person POV (“we”).

I say collective rather than plural because it becomes clear as the story unfurls that who we’re hearing from both is and is not the girls. The first person aspect gives us a close POV, wherein we’re privy to emotions, but the collective aspect simultaneously distances us from any given girl whenever she acts as an individual. Bel, Jaq, Kate, Miranda, and Molly are only part of the POV when they are not taking action, or when their actions align with the group.

In a story where standing out seems to universally result in pain and torment, this inclusive yet exclusive POV is a constant addition to that tension. Whenever we see a name, that person is at risk, because for however long we see them, they’re exposed. In a horror story, there’s a secondary benefit in that the POV ensures no one is safe via metafictional armor; no one is required to continue telling the story, after all.

“We” also underscores the ways this story turns on group choices. Yes, individuals do and say things (often to their own detriment), but the crux of the story, the point of no return of it, is a moment wherein an individual action turns the collective will of the group. What “we” think and do is what changes the world for good or ill.

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“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

Swagger vs Swish in Luke Cage S2

For the most part, I’m not the person to be diving into the cultural explorations at play in Luke Cage‘s second season. Issues of colorism, black exceptionalism, and cultural tensions within the black community are all woven into a strong second season, but they’re also explorations a white dude shouldn’t be judging the success of.

One of the other themes of the season is a recurring motif on what it is to “be a man,” a theme which interacts (intentionally or un-) with the show’s decision to reveal and introduce gay men in the cast. On that score? I have Feelings.

Spoilers for season two follow. Fairly significant ones. If you prefer to watch the season un-spoiled, you can always bookmark this and come back later. The internet remembers everything, but you’ll only get a fresh watch once.

Back to it, then.

It’s not illogical for a story concerned with the amorphous concepts of manhood or masculinity to feature queer characters. To be sure, excluding them is a base level fail. I’m not sure, though, that the writers room at Luke Cage managed anything particularly next level, either. They got as far as “what about gay dudes,” but didn’t / couldn’t conceive of even the barest mention of trans and nonbinary characters. I’m not even sure how much they really thought on the subject of gay cis men, either.

Credit this much: we discover more than one man on the show has explored homosexuality. In a world where queer inclusion is usually limited to The Gay One, plurality is a plus.

Alfre Woodard’s Mariah reveals that her late husband was a gay man. She traded being his beard for the chance to change her name and her own circumstances. Of course, that revelation comes as part and parcel of a gut punch Mariah delivers to her daughter on her true parentage. In that context, what might have been an insight into the various ways in which we hide and negotiate our identities turns into not only was he not your father, but he was (gasp) gaaaaay.

While that particular reveal was frustrating for its context, it’s a blip compared to the other gay subplot of the season, when Theo Rossi’s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Thomas Q. Jones’ Darius “Comanche” Jones spend an evening standing watch for enemies, literally back to back. Their conversation is itself coded, but it becomes clear that Hernan and Darius weren’t just close friends, but in fact had an intimate relationship during their time in prison.

I found the scene itself powerful. Hernan repeatedly attempts to brush aside the past, claiming it was just a thing that happened. A thing, it’s nice to note, he thinks is not to be ashamed of, but also a thing bounded by time and place. It’s the past. It’s over. Darius refuses to take the outs Hernan gives him, however. For him, what happened there wasn’t an exception, it was a truth. And, for Darius if not for Hernan, it’s not something he’ll forget or abandon.

The conceit of the scene means that neither actor can look at the other, and yet their faces carry so much emotion and subtext. Whatever else I have to say abou the season, that scene really is an amazing piece of work.

And then in the next episode, Hernan murders Darius.

I can only assume that moment is meant to be as powerful as the night in the barber shop, standing guard. As Shades, Hernan has spent a season and a half murdering people without remorse in pursuit of his loyalty to various mob leaders. The ultimate show of his love and loyalty for Mariah, now, is that he’s wiling to murder a man he’s loved like no other man in his life when he finds out Darius is reporting to the police.

You shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t work like that for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is trotted back out more than once as the season concludes as a means of first enraging Hernan, and then, later, so that Hernan can compare the relationship to the Gay Until Graduation paradigm. Hernan only had those feelings for one man, and that man’s dead, so.

Let’s be clear: I think a lot of definitions when it comes to sexuality are unreasonably intractable. I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom, reflected in everything from pop culture to blood donation guidelines, that a single sexual encounter between two men Makes You Gay. I’m more than willing to concede that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is a thing he feels no need to recreate going forward.

What that leaves us with, however, is a season in which straight cis men learn to stand up for their morals, to take fatherly responsibility, to look for balance between rage and restraint, to compromise for the sake of their community. They fall from grace and rise to the occasion. When it comes to them, the show has a whole host of answers to its central question of “how to be a man.” The only gay men, however, are either dead or have renounced their identities. It’s a scenario suggesting that Luke Cage‘s answer to “how to be a man” when it comes to also being gay has a single answer: be buried.

New Story: If Only Kissing Made It So

“If Only Kissing Made It So,” my story about boys kissing and possibly time travel, is live at Cast of Wonders today, narrated by Max Gladstone.

Yes, that Max Gladstone. To say this was a pleasant surprise would be whatever is more under than under in understatement. I’m just saying: the email listed the narrator, and then I did a few double takes and at least one “wait, for real?” I did not do a spit take, because I am professional and have composure. And also I wasn’t drinking anything.

Also also: Gladstone knocks it out of the damn park. So.

It’s appropriate to get an awesome surprise as this story finally makes its way in the world, since that’s what this story was.

I’ve talked before about my decade and change of writing nigh-on-nothing. “If Only Kissing Made It So” is the primary exception. Before I finally managed to drag myself back into the thick of things, I made a largely abortive attempt several years prior.

Attempt is probably a mischaracterization. It suggests there was a lot of maturity and willpower. The first draft of this story was more what happened when my story brain crossed its arms and refused to eat anything because oh my god that is so groooossss, and I told it dessert was available if it would just try one bite of everything on the plate.

I pretty much never go into a story without expectations for what it might be, but this time I did. I sat down, set a timer for twenty minutes each morning, and wrote whatever the hell came out. I think the first day or so wasn’t even narrative. I vaguely recall things like “what am I even doing this is stupid” and “you will never write anything else, no you shut up” on those pages. Eventually, after much eye rolling and sighing and assorted other protestations from my story brain that it hated all of this and I couldn’t make it change its mind, we got to “If I’d known Lucas Medina had rung the doorbell, I would have thrown on a good shirt.”

No, that isn’t the first line of the story now, but part of that is because I had no idea what the first line was, because I didn’t even know what the story was. Lucas showed up, and there was awkward interaction and trying to tamp down on crushing and then, eventually, story brain looked up and said oh wait, what if we did this. And I tried not to smile visibly when story brain started eating like macaroni and cheese wasn’t the only acceptable meal.

As I mentioned, this wasn’t the triumphant return to regular writing it sounds like. When I finished the first version of this story, I subbed it to exactly one market. When that editor failed to marvel at the wonders offered, story brain went to its room, slammed the door, and sulked for several more years while Lucas and Marty sat abandoned on my hard drive.

Though, obviously, we did eventually reach a day when story brain came back out to play. And when it did, and Submit All The Things Dammit brain joined in, “If Only Kissing Made It So” got to see daylight again, and now it’s made friends with the lovely folks over at Cast of Wonders.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s not too late. click on over and join the loop.

Story About Not Letting Go Returns

Hey, so happy surprises in the new year. “Blood and Water,” my story that dropped from Cast of Wonders in May of last year, is back again as a 2017 Staff Pick. It’s always nice to get another spotlight, and Marguerite Kenner’s new commentary is the kind that gives me all kinds of writerly warm fuzzies.

If you didn’t have a chance to read / listen before, now you’ve got a second chance and more options. Huzzah!

Monsters On the Internets

So I fell off the wagon with doing story posts, but in a turn of good luck, “Drowning Joys,” from the second issue of Aliterate recently made its way to the Aliterate site, so for anyone who didn’t buy the issue, it’s new to you, which is an excuse I’m fine exploiting for some new wonk.

The origins of this one are, honestly, pretty simple: I wanted a story where no one wondered for a minute if that jerk who walks around telling people to smile was, out of the gate, the villain, because fuck that dude. The problem is that the story I started with wasn’t much of anything: smile-guy wound up eaten after asking the wrong person to smile, the end. Cathartic, sure, but it didn’t really serve as much more than some dark wish fulfillment.

But then I thought, well, what if smile-guy is the monster? I mean, all the smile-guys are monsters, but I mean the kind of monster entire cultures write warning stories about. A vampire seemed obvious (smile = teeth = fangs, you get the idea). And since smile-guys are a breed one hopes is maybe dying out, I wanted a monster that didn’t get quite as much pop culture play.

Enter Callum the Kelpie, sexy murder horse with more swagger than he deserves and a history of judging humans for failings he may be just as full of:

Still, when a wild stallion’s coat and mane are fine and strong and carry a whiff of the river far from shore, you’re courting death to touch his hide as well you are to eat dark berries when you can’t tell black nightshade from deadly. If you’re eager enough to survive, you learn the difference. If you’re not, then it’s hardly fair to ask the world to write clearer signs for you.

And by maybe I mean pretty much guaranteed. He’s still opens up with that damn “give us a smile” line, after all.

On Well-Wishing: A Parable

Imagine for a moment that you’re a personal assistant, and further, that you share the same birthday as your boss.

You’re totally excited for your boss’s birthday. They’re a wonderful person. They pay you well. They even give you your joint birthday off.

But every year in the days and weeks leading up to your birthday, every call, every office visit, every delivery comes with someone saying “Tell your boss Happy Birthday!” There’s nothing wrong with it, though after a few years of it, you do feel a bit invisible.

So you decide, hey, it won’t hurt, so when people say “tell your boss Happy Birthday,” you good-naturedly respond. “Of course I will. It’s my birthday, too!”

Some people say happy birthday back to you.

But then you get that person who snipes back, “I’m RSVP-ing to your boss’s party, not yours. What, am I supposed to go to a birthday party for you, too, at the same time?”

And you calmly tell them, “Well, no. You should go to the party for the person you’re celebrating.”

“Do you hate your boss?”

“No, they’re great.”

“But you need me to wish you a happy birthday, instead.”

“No. I don’t want to take away. I just figured, in addition, since we were in a celebrating mood–”

“Why does this have to be about you?”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Tell. Your. Boss. Happy. Birthday.” And they hang up.

You mention this to your boss, who brushes it off. “Honestly, you should just assume that anyone wishing a happy birthday is wishing it to both of us.”

“Even when they say it’s just for you?”

“Totally. That’s what I do.”

“Do people tell you to wish me a happy birthday a lot?”

“Not really.”

After this, there are people who remember, who say “Happy Birthday to you both,” which is not only just as easy to say, it’s a little breath of fresh air in the flurry of the other people. But when people only wish your boss the happy birthday, you know, thanks to your boss, that it’s really for both of you.

Kind of. But not really.

What’s this little parable got to do with anything? Probably nothing.

In any event: Happy Holidays.