magic realism

I’m part of “Women In Genre”? Yay! Have some free fiction.

Several people are writing about their favorite “Women in Genre” this month. There’s even a hastag for it on Twitter if you’d like to see more of the discussion. Haralambi Markov (a Bulgarian writer, editor, pop culture geek, and avid reader) is writing a blog post each day, featuring his favorite women working in speculative fiction.

Today is Day 9 on his blog. Today, he wrote about me.

It basically says that I edit as well as write, and that with both of those together I’m putting out short fiction he thinks people need to read. He also recommends my blog, since I post about being a writer and editor in the midst of a change in how genre – and women in genre – is perceived Plus, you know, trying to balance my career with everything else.

Markov says that when you read my work, you can tell that:

Cuinn lives for genre and Dagan Books is a direct reflection of her passion and love.

That’s true, and I’m tickled that other people can see it. I know I’m at the beginning of my career. I have only put out a handle of books as a publisher, and have maybe twice that number in fiction sales myself. But – I do love what I do. I love spec fic. I love reading it, and I love being a part of where it’s going.

Markov mentions that he hasn’t read very many of my stories, coming to me instead as a reader of the anthologies I’ve edited, so here are links to where you can find a couple of my favorites online:

Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance” published by Red Penny Papers in their Summer 2012 issue.

Call Center Blues” published at Daily Science Fiction. Sent to subscribers Nov 2, 2011; posted to site Nov 9, 2011

Monsters, Monsters, Everywhere”, published by Crossed Genres Magazine in issue #34 (MONSTERS), October 1, 2011.

Annabelle Tree“, published in the Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction anthology to benefit tornado relief efforts, May 13, 2011.

Click on the story name to read it. “Mrs. Henderson” is playful fantasy bordering on horror without actually being scary. “Call Center” is science fiction, and short – a little less than a thousand words. “Monsters” is sci fi but much creepier than the others. “Annabelle” is magic realism, and is sad but – I hope – beautiful, too.

Please let me know what you think, or if there’s anything you want to see more of. And thank you for thinking of me when you think of Women in Genre.

Books You Should Read: Etgar Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT

I got loaned a copy of this book last week, and since its owner was a little nervous about parting with it (not that I would damage it, but that I might love it and not ever want to give it back), I moved The Nimrod Flipout to the front of my queue and read it right away. It took most of the week, since Keret’s stories seem innocuous enough but have an odd depth that rises up to smack you a few minutes or a few hours after you finished each one, so I couldn’t read the collection in one sitting.

There is no complexity to his word choices. There are a few fantastic elements, enough to get him into the “magic realism” genre label, but even when they appear the story isn’t about the thing that happened as much as it is about the people it happened to. The collection is full of tiny stories, short stories, moments in time that span a page or three and no more. Keret tells you everything you need to know in simple words, short sentences, and normal-seeming anecdotes. Yet his writing is so moving, so emotionally true.

The secret to his power as author is that he tells stories a certain kind of person will resonate with. Disconnected, sad, lost, unloved, or unloving? These stories are for you. That isn’t to say that a person who was genuinely happy and had always been so wouldn’t be able to grasp the beauty of Keret’s work. At least, I think they would still get it. Since I don’t know anyone who’s never been hurt, who’s never wondered if the relationship that they were in was really love or was it instead a matter of convenience for one of them or the other … I feel safe in recommending this book to everyone.

Most of his main characters are male but not exclusively and when Keret writes women he does so with the understanding of a man who’s known real women, loved them, and saw their good qualities, rather than a man who’s writing only the fantasies of women he wishes he knew or the worst-quality nightmares of women who wronged him. There are more than a couple of men who’re in marriages that aren’t quite working for them, or watching their friends about to get married to women they wouldn’t have picked, but even then Keret shows where these women were loved, once, before things went sour, and you can usually see where the husband plays a major part in the failure to stay in love. He writes mostly men, it seems, not for any reason other than he is one, and he has male friends, and he knows their stories.

There are cab drivers honking at young women in order to not think about what they’re really afraid of, and men in love with women doing odd things they don’t quite understand (like sunbathing nude on the lawn or turning into a hairy fat guy at night) but who nonetheless love them. There are talking fish – who, granted, might talk more if they weren’t so depressed  – and love dwarves and suicidal soldiers and shrinking parents that fit in your pocket, but the stories never seem to be about that. They’re always about the people these things happen to. They’re about us, really, deep down, and the things we see after Keret reminds us.

You Should Read: Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS

The 33 stories in this collection are bite-sized samples of weird worlds we never quite inhabit but suspect are out there. The style has much in common with the Karen Joy Fowler and Aimee Bender collections I recently reviewed, but Vukcevich has a tendency to break the story down further, stripping away all of the befores and afters until only the singular moment remains. He does the Gallagher thing with the sledgehammer and the watermelon but only actually shows the wet, pink, bits dripping off the plastic-covered woman in Row 2, Seat 6. All of the rest you have to guess at, but given the parts we do see, the context is clear and the rest of the audience can be imagined, if necessary.

Some of my favorites from the collection are:

  • “Grocery List” – this is nothing more than a hand-scrawled grocery list for things like tofu and beer and blunt objects and poison and apologies. Wait, what? Read it again. Somewhere in between those words scribbled down the page is a story.
  • “Over Here” – the author notes that this story was originally written for an anthology. The structure of the book was that it was entirely made up of stories to honor a little girl who’d been hit by a military convoy truck in Iraq. The editor of that antho was a soldier who’d been there when it happened, and wanted to find a way to bring some closure to event. Vukcevich responded by giving us his trademark weird self, talking about anime characters and clavichords, but also turns the dead girl’s ghost into a superhero and gives her a best friend. The story is kind and affectionate and more than a little sad.
  • “Human Subjects” – what if aliens took over our brains and made us do stuff? You know, in the name of science. And what if you had met a girl that turned your head inside out and made your heart dance and she had an alien too? This story is the answer to that question.
  • “Wages of Syntax” – Vukcevich plays with PoV here, showing us three different main characters in a single short story, but it works. Fate, language, romance, and rubber ducks.
  • “Cold Comfort” – It takes a certain kind of lonely to pretend to be a freezer.
  • “Fired” – Vukcevich writes as much science fiction as he does anything else, but this is one of the few set in the far future. Space liners, augmented dating, and alien fire women, all making it very hard for one man to get lucky.
  • “Gas” – It’s hard to fit into society when your breath can actually kill people, but when your choices are “give up” or “make it work”, what can you do? Mixes in music, gas mask performances, and the things we do to find the right husband for our offspring.
  • “Glinky” – I loved this story. Noir and children’s television and the ability to change your world one step to the left at a time.
  • “Love Story” – one of my favorite pieces. I, too, want to have lived a good, long, life, be old with someone I adore, and scandalize the children.
  • “Some Other Time” – Again, Vukcevich shows you the results of a tragedy, the effects it has as the sorrow leaches into your daily life and the things you do to forget the pain. The story just happens to take place on an alien world, with a handful of colonists struggling to survive, but the act of being a parent – even a bad one – remains the same.
  • “Strong Suits” – Ah, traumatic brain injury, and the relationships we have with our lover’s clothes. Read this, and then think about what your significant other’s wardrobe means to you.
  • “Tubs” – Strip a man’s life down to one room, some torture, and a bathtub full of cold water, and this might be what you end up with.

The stories in this collection are short, quirky, quick to read, and almost all of them will make you think sideways for a moment. I’m so glad I read it.

You Should Read: Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT

I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.

Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.

There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.

I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.

A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.

In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.

Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.

I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.

* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.

You Should Read: Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES

I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.

I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.

There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.

Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.

According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.

And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.

I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.

“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.

My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.

Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.

Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.

* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.