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Sirens at Home: Murder Mystery

MINUTES

Of the Arcanum Committee

October 24, 2020

The meeting was called to order by Committee Chair Hulda at 11:30 a.m., over the online voice, chat, magic, spells, and video platform Broom.

Present: Committee Chair Hulda, Secretary Najwa, and committee members Rhinedd, Sybil, Elam, and Griffin

Absent: Vice-Chair Calypso, Sergeant-at-Arms Sereia, Treasurer Jareth, Parliamentarian Dariyah, and Archivist Nari

Approval of Agenda: Committee Chair Hulda asked the attending members for comments on the agenda. Sybil said they had not received the agenda. Griffin mentioned that Secretary Najwa sent it at 9:16 a.m. Secretary Najwa asked if Sybil had checked their bulk email. The meeting was delayed while Sybil located the agenda. Griffin moved that the agenda be accepted as distributed. Seconded by Elam. (Elam sang their second.) The agenda was unanimously approved as distributed at 11:36 a.m.

Following the motion, Sybil asked if one agenda point, “Items to Be Tabled,” could be tabled until next week. Committee Chair Hulda opened the floor for discussion. All members stayed on mute. There was no motion; Hulda mentioned their approval of no motion.

Approval of the Minutes: Committee Chair Hulda yielded the floor to Secretary Najwa for presentation of the minutes. Sybil said that they had not received the meeting minutes from October 12, 2020. Secretary Najwa noted that they distributed the minutes by email attachment, and in the same email with the agenda. Rhinedd moved to accept the minutes as distributed. Elam seconded. Hulda, Najwa, Rhinedd, Elam, and Griffin voted yea; Sybil voted nay. Sybil had no specific additions to the minutes, so the minutes were accepted as presented at 11:43 a.m.

New Business: A transcript follows.

[11:44]

HULDA: All right, let’s–

SYBIL: Can I just ask–

HULDA: Go ahead.

SYBIL: Sorry, sorry, go ahead.

HULDA: Sorry.

SYBIL: Sorry.

HULDA: What did you want to ask?

SYBIL: Can you hear me?

HULDA: Yes, we can hear you. Griffin, since the vice-chair is absent, would you please report on–

SYBIL: You’re muted.

ELAM: She can’t hear us all of a sudden.

NAJWA: It’s in the chat. Oh, sorry.

GRIFFIN: Let me share my–

RHINEDD: It’s in the chat. Sybil can’t hear us.

SYBIL: I think you’re still muted.

GRIFFIN: I think you have to make me moderator? I can’t share my screen.

ELAM: ::raises hand::

NAJWA: Go out and come back in.

HULDA: Sybil, close the program and–they’re gone.

RHINEDD: You might have to restart Broom! Oh.

HULDA: We’ll wait. Griffin, let me see if I can share my screen. Your screen.

GRIFFIN: Okay, I have the report up–

ELAM: I can’t see it yet. Can you see it? Oh, Hulda, is that your cat?

HULDA: Yes, my cat likes to–

GRIFFIN: Can you see–

RHINEDD: I can see it. It’s a dragon!

GRIFFIN: No, no, that’s–

HULDA: I don’t think–

NAJWA: I think that’s the wrong screen, buddy.

GRIFFIN: I’m not sharing that screen, I’m trying to share–

SYBIL: I think I fixed my problem. Hi, everyone. I wanted to ask if–

ELAM: Oh, I can see it now! Wow, is that even legal?

RHINEDD: ::applauds::

HULDA: I’m turning off screen sharing for everybody, including you, Griffin. Can everybody…not…see that yet?

NAJWA: No, you can’t have cookies right now–oh, sorry everybody. I thought I was on mute.

SYBIL: I didn’t see anything. Can you please re-share?

GRIFFIN: Um, I–

SYBIL: Oh, so–r–r–r–r–y–

RHINEDD: You’re breaking up.

SYBIL: I thought I heard someone outside, but I guess it’s nothing.

ELAM: Who’s there? I think someone’s behind you.

RHINEDD: Sybil, you’re muted.

HULDA: Sybil? Did they just fall out of their chair?

ELAM: Sybil? They’re coming closer.

NAJWA: Sybil–oh–oh no.

ALL: screaming

RHINEDD: Wow. I didn’t know you could do that with a five-foot trident.

[11:48 a.m. End of transcript.]

Other Business: Committee Chair Hulda reported the murder to the Department of Magical Online Investigations. They noted that five potential suspects were members of the Arcanum Committee, and each held an elected position–and each had a spurious reason for their absence. All of the suspects were seen somewhere away from their keyboard in the minutes just before Sybil’s murder with something that could be used as a weapon.

Adjournment: The meeting was adjourned due to lack of quorum at approximately 11:51 a.m.; no one was keeping track at that point so we’re really not sure.

Action Items:

  • Attend the Sirens Ball from 7:00–9:00 p.m. Mountain (9:00–11:00 p.m. Eastern)
  • Collect clues, distributed via online platform throughout the evening
  • Work with up to three others to come up with the name of the killer, who was absent from the meeting
  • No hints will be provided
  • Email the name of the murderer to help AT sirensconference dot org before the end of the ball
  • Make only one guess–incorrect answers will be disqualified
  • The first email received with the correct answer will be declared the winner, receive a single box of surprise books at a single address to share among your team, and be allowed to gloat shamelessly for the rest of the weekend

 

Sirens At Home: Women of Feral Souls

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Women of Feral Souls
by Artemis Grey

If you prefer, we offer a video of Artemis reading this essay:

There’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually. Our strangeness might be worn like armor, an overt dare to all around us, or it might be sheltered deep within, a coveted sanctum, only truly understood by those who hold it. Some of us embrace the variance from our first understanding of it, while others war against it, ferociously struggle to destroy it, despite its perdurability. But however it exists, there’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually.

We circle things metaphorically and sometimes physically. Ideas, causes, theories, relationships. Even things we love with absolute adoration from the moment we’re first exposed to them. Often, we circle those things even more warily than the things we inherently dislike, because it’s not easy to be trapped by something you don’t care about, not the way it is to be captured and bound by something you love. When you give of yourself in such ways, you also give away a margin of power over yourself. For most people, this is an unconscious act, the bindings associated with it unnoticeable and negligible. But for the feral souls, each and every thread of attachment is a brand across our awareness, some of them wonderful and amazing, others damaging and prohibitive. The delineation between those two extremes are what we endeavor to gauge when we assess the world around us.

When I was asked if I would be interested in writing an essay for Sirens, I leapt at the chance. And then proceeded to begin circling the task, unsure of what to do next. An essay is a very different creature than a novel, a short story, or even an article. It requires the writer to document their own impressions, opinions, experiences, to convey their own ideas and emotional responses to the subject addressed. Many seem to find essays liberating, a way of making their inner voices heard in an outward fashion. It’s an opportunity for them to expound upon something they’ve experienced and to convey that experience outside of themselves.

But I have no inner voice, no inner dialogue, no spoken words inside my mind at all. I inhabit a rich, endless, and ever-changing world of images and diegeses. However, all of it exists in utter silence. I do not hear music, or spoken words, I possess no internal dialogue of my thoughts. Viable plans play out in my mind’s eye, moving scenes I’m able to observe from any angle, and follow through to either fruition or ruin, scenarios that I can alter and replay, or rebuild entirely. But I don’t discuss options with myself, I don’t internally talk through possibilities, and even when I read something written, I do not hear those words inside my head. It’s as if, between the moment of visual perception by my eyes, and the reception of recognition by my brain, the written text dissolves into imagery and emotion. I feel words, I witness them, but I don’t hear how they sound or flow.

These peculiarities make considering what to write an essay about, how to discuss it, and the actual writing of it, rather difficult. I’d been thrilled to be offered the chance to write an essay for Sirens, but successfully creating one that did justice to the conference and the community— the people who created it, and have long upheld it, championed it, and attended it—was, and remains, something I’m not sure I could manage, or indeed have managed.

Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.

We remain connected to everything, yet apart from it, and to engage with the world beyond ourselves is to descend that allegorical, yet not entirely figurative, terrain so that we might slip into the waves and currents from which we’ve been so long secluded. Just as one can be pummeled, and injured, or even killed by the unforgiving swells of the ocean—sometimes against the very rocks and reefs they’ve only just left the safety of—so too might the introverted and feral suffer for their efforts in venturing into humanity. Thus we remain circumspect when it comes to attempting such journeys and the wilder of us might never entirely descend from our protected skerries to mingle with the human seas around them.

I had never ventured more than halfway down the slopes of my own wild isle before I chose to cliff dive into the ocean current of the Sirens conference. So forbidding and treacherously steep are the borders of my solitude and introversion that there were no paths, even narrow ones, that I could climb down. There was only the impulse to swim, and the determination to reach that tantalizing current of others who felt safe, somehow. I submerged into Sirens not knowing what would happen, but the outcome was both unexpected and wondrous. I surfaced again surrounded by entities who were like me, and yet completely different from me, who embraced me, yet never tried to restrain me, never tried to follow me when, overwhelmed by their presence, I swam back to the safety of my isle.

Again, and again, I left the shelter of stony coves to swim in this current of souls belonging to writers and readers, artists and introverts, then retreated to consider them from afar, unsure, even as I felt drawn to rejoin them. They gently held whatever pieces of me I awkwardly and hesitantly offered to them, but they never clutched them, never snatched at them, and never clung to them when I stole them away again as my feral wildness drove me back to a safer distance from which I could watch in solitude.

As literal ocean currents do, the swirling eddies of Sirens soon shifted away from my metaphorical island, splintering into multiple tendrils of current, each a person with their own primary course, weaving through the rest of the human oceans. Its departure left me exhausted, my tolerance for sharing myself with others entirely spent, and I withdrew into myself satiated and inspired, and wilder than ever, even more powerful in my feral aspects. I had never been lonely, and I still was not, but I was empowered by engaging with like energies and spirits on a physical plane in a way I had only rarely experienced with humans before.

Solitude and isolation are constructs, not realities.

The energies of our souls and minds are connected to the energies of all other natural entities everywhere, every time and on every plane. We are never alone, and never truly disconnected, despite that some—increasingly more, it seems in these times—suffer from a keen and devastating loneliness, and subsequently in many cases, depression and melancholy born of those senses. Through no fault of their own, these souls are not able to perceive the connections their own energy shares with all the other energies. That they cannot feel this bond is an inexplicable unfairness, and the emotional turmoil it causes them is as real and tangible as the connection they’ve been precluded from experiencing.

Then there are those devoid of any perception of kinship in the innate bonds they share with all the natural things around them. Rather than embracing the world around them as an extension of themselves, they seek only to profit from it. They sense nothing beyond their own needs, their own wants, and their own energy. For them, all the energies of existence flow around their own, and serve only to feed and buoy theirs. With a wanton disregard, they draw in the energies of those around them like a black hole devouring light, turning it to their own ends, exploiting it, and leaving behind the offal of other lives, from the smallest, unnoticed lifeforms, to human brethren. All abuses can be, in their own minds, justified by their needs and wants.

Such entities are consumed by meeting the expectations and predesigned aspirations of avarice-driven socioeconomic structures; they are garroted by the associated perimeters of that socioeconomic plane, their beings restricted until any residual empathy they might have felt for the energies beyond their own has been destroyed. This unbearable constraint is what the feral ones rail against, what we scorn, even as we often repeatedly try to breach it in our hope to free those trapped within. We prowl the precipice of this domestication, simultaneously loathing any connection to it, while using the same to maintain our own freedoms, and help others escape, temporarily or permanently, through our existence and our creations, be that writing, or artwork, or songs, or other skill.

The feral ones will never successfully be rendered docile, never be tidily packed away into pleasantly spaced boxes of preformed notions. Even those of us who successfully lock away their divergency behind a permanent aspect of mediocre platitude in daily existence will always carry the buried seed of wildness. They need only to give it room and it will flourish once more. And for many, the facade of uniformity with societal expectation isn’t a denial of their wilder nature, but merely a segregation of their facets, a way of simplifying themselves so as to more easily interact with average society. Like donning business attire, they’re able to slip into a domestic mindset and presentation, and embrace that part of themselves, then toss it off in favor of their feral selves once the workday is done. For others of us, there is little or no truly domestic segment to utilize, and we struggle to adopt one long enough to engage with the mainstream for any reason, work or otherwise.

Yet all of the feral ones share this innate feature, and even when we interact with the larger, obliviously conventional majority, we remain agrestal. And our souls reach out to each other, sometimes without our minds immediately understanding why, ever searching for like kind despite that we perversely enjoy our solitude. As lightning unerringly seeks opposing charges, so too, are we drawn to one another. Our wildness might manifest itself in a hundred thousand different ways, in forms that do not induce relationship, love, or even friendship, yet still it recognizes its own. We still understand we are alike, in that primeval way, and thus more kin than not. We all possess our own islands, as it were, our own preserves, where we are safe at least in some ways, from the bombardment of mainstream society with its rigid, invariable angles and lines.

And when women of feral souls come together, we create our own currents wending through the ocean of domesticated humanity.

We might be forced to submerge, on occasion, but beneath the blandly docile waves, we grow only stronger, a riptide gathering its own as it goes; a danger to those unlike us, and a respite for those who are. This fearsome wildness has seen us hunted, persecuted, and even massacred throughout history, in attempts to domesticate the very oceans of humanity the world over, yet we flourish again and again. Our tides and currents might be interrupted, but they can never end entirely. Members may only leave their isles for a short time, but their joining with others provides strength that continues on, long after they’ve retreated again— and that strength and protection, in turn, offers a buoyancy and shelter to the younger of our ilk as they explore our currents for, perhaps, the first time. The residuals of our own souls might well be the incentive that calls them to leap from their own metaphorical cliffs of solitude, to mingle and learn, and find a home and hope beyond their own spaces.

Such is the nature of what I found when I dove into the currents of the Sirens conference when it first passed my indrawn bastion so many years ago. And so will I always merrily fling myself into the rushing flow of my feral-souled Siren Sisters, whenever they pass me by in their endless trek though the oceans of life. And when they move ever onward, again beyond my realm, a part of me will go with them, never lost, never separated, regardless of time and space, until we’re rejoined once more.


Artemis Grey

Artemis Grey was raised on fairy tales and the folklore of Appalachia, taught from an early age to embrace the unknown, and unexplained, rather than fearing it. She never stopped hopping into faerie rings and exploring possible portals to other places, and can often be found roaming the woods and wild. With a passion for capturing that elusive moment when it’s possible to choose between leaving the wonderment of childhood behind and carrying it with you throughout life, Artemis primarily writes books for young adults, with occasional jaunts into the more esoteric. Her debut YA, Catskin was published in 2016, and she is currently working on Pohickery Girl, which is set in the West Virginia mounts of her beloved Appalachias. She seeks to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

Artemis’s author photo was taken by the late Sabrina Chin, co-chair of Sirens, 2013-2019, whom Artemis loved very much. Although unconventional in format, it remains Artemis’s favorite photo of herself, as it captures her in an utterly natural state, in one of her favorite places (by a warm stone hearth) and surrounded by her Sirens Sisters. In honor of Sabrina, Artemis uses this photo as her author photo whenever possible.

Sirens At Home: A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction
by Ren Iwamoto

In 2012, the movie Chernobyl Diaries hit theatres. Its most distinctive feature is that, objectively, it’s terrible. Its director, Bradley Parker, had never directed a feature film before. It’s ninety minutes of mutant threats just out of sight (presumably because the movie was produced on a budget of only US$1 million), and a drab, emotionless script. Jesse McCartney is in it, but did not sing “Beautiful Soul” even once.

Chernobyl DiariesWhat can be said about Chernobyl Diaries is its awareness of Chernobyl in the western mass consciousness. Chernobyl hangs like a cloud of “what if” in North America: What if our own nuclear projects go terribly wrong, too? What would the fallout look like? What creatures would it create? Nuclear radiation is a deep source of both anxiety and narrative imagination in North America.

When Americans are exposed to radiation, they become heroes. When foreign bodies – the Russians, the Japanese – are exposed to radiation, they become monsters; true “foreign bodies.”

Bradley capitalizes on this unconscious assumption, and the uncertainty of what these un-American monsters might be or do, and does so well enough to generate a sharp disparity between critics’ and regular consumers’ reviews of the film, which were notably more favourable.

Voices From ChernobylFifteen years before Chernobyl Diaries, in 1997, the first edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster was published in Russian. Alexievich was a journalist living in Minsk under the Soviet Regime in Belarus at the time of the accident, and her efforts in recording the aftermath of Chernobyl, amongst other wonderful writings, including her first monograph, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which lay just outside the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. Alexievich, in the opening pages of her novel, shares a transcript of a monologue given by the wife of one of the first responders at the plant:

He [my husband] started to change. Every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. (Alexievich, 1997, 11-12)

We can clearly see here the transformative aspect which is so prevalent in nuclear fiction—the literal, grotesque shedding of the old self.

But the body is not a cocoon meant to be shed to give way to heroism, to something stronger and more complete. A body is a body; we belong in it and to it, and when it is stripped away, we die.

This story, which is only twenty pages long, moved me to tears three times. I put the book away for a while. But I could not stop thinking about it, and with my thinking, I recalled Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries. It seemed unbelievably ugly to me, that an American film maker could use Chernobyl as a springboard for a horror movie, and have not even the decency to make it a good horror movie. The young husband in the passage above died an ugly death – an objectively ugly, bodily death – and when he died remained nonetheless human. To seize upon the remainder, which is not the corpse, but the story of his life, and twist it into a B-list horror is a quiet and long-reaching appropriation difficult to see unless one thinks to look for it.

It would be extremely disingenuous, however, to say that all horror, sci-fi and fantasy “inspired” by real-life events are poorly done or made to capitalize on cultural trauma. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018) engages directly with the horrors of the Sino-Japanese conflict during the twentieth century, particularly the infamous Nanking Massacre. The Poppy WarIn the Western mass consciousness, Japan has been rendered impotent. Its military, under the post-WWII constitution, can only exist for defensive purposes. Its global exports include franchises like Sanrio (the parent company of the ultra-cute Hello Kitty), anime, video games, and instant noodles. Stereotypes of meek, submissive women and quailing men run amok. But Japan committed some of the worst war crimes ever prosecuted, many of which are continually disputed by Japanese nationalists, who simultaneously wish to erase Imperial Japan’s atrocities and reinstate Japanese supremacy.

As a diasporic Japanese person, this knowledge was not readily available to me. Japan’s role on the global stage included: Pearl Harbour, the atomic bombings, and the North American concentration camps. I knew nothing about Nanking until I was in post-secondary, and took an introductory history class on the World Wars. Even then, Nanking was only mentioned in passing. The Poppy War has intrinsic value purely for bringing attention to the Nanking Massacre, which has dodged a deserved place next to the Holocaust in the western mass consciousness. (Why Chernobyl, widely accepted as a genuine accident, supersedes Nanking as an atrocity in the minds of many is an entire paper unto itself.)

That said, Kuang is herself a Chinese person. The Rape of NankingThe novel’s mere dedication – “This is for Iris,” referring to the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the first monograph published in English that truly exposed the details of the Nanking Massacre to a broader Western audience – implies a closeness to the subject matter, a personal entanglement I can confidently guess Bradley Parker lacked with the Chernobyl incident. It may be argued it is her prerogative to internalize, reshape, and share a version of the Nanking massacre and the less obvious, but nevertheless present and important broader strokes of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including human experimentation and forced prostitution. My love for this book stems, I think, from this: the villains from the Federation of Mugen are human beings. They are not Parker’s mutants, rendered physically monstrous and mindlessly malignant.

In being “inspired” by atrocity, Kuang has maintained the most crucial aspect of the Nanking Massacre, which is that it was perpetrated by humans. It was humans who slaughtered and raped and stole and then tried to pretend it never happened, and it would be a disservice to reality to absolve human beings of that.

Anyway.

There is an unending supply of fiction “inspired” by real events, but speculative fiction in the posttraumatic context holds a particular place in this category, made famous by such literary giants as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. The fantastic has long been a way writers can access atrocity without necessarily reliving it: Ghosts allow the dead to speak, allow forgotten and repressed memories to come to the surface. Beasts and monsters make convenient stand-ins for real-life oppressors, internal disorders of human empathy rendered bodily: fanged, clawed, winged and horned. A secondary-world brimming with magic obfuscates how closely faceless militaries mimic their real-life counterparts. South and Central America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and even the former Soviet Union have all produced novels engaging with the unreal as analogue to oppression, and in doing so legitimize speculative fiction as a genre capable of contending with and representing the real, and do so even more effectively than a genre like historical fiction. Historical fiction is, after all, a mirror, distorted, or perhaps a superimposition. In order to be “good,” the narrative must hold tightly to “the facts,” diverging only slightly, quietly and plausibly.

To be “inspired” by real-life events in speculative fiction is often to be in dialogue with conflicts both lesser and greater, and all the various manners in which humans are deficient in empathy and sagacity. That’s okay, I think. But some events feel like they belong to some people more than others – Chernobyl, Nanking, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, residential schools, and on and on.

But is it fair to ask the colonized, oppressed, traumatized to rehash the details of their suffering over and over, just so western academics like me can be pleased with how knowledgeable and introspective we are? So we can look down on people who don’t know, because they were never taught, and say, “How can you believe colonialism is over? Racism is over?” Even in the speculative context, to recreate a trauma for consumption is a deeply unpleasant and deeply vulnerable position. I can only imagine myself in, for example, Kuang’s place: carefully demarcating the violence and dehumanization endured by the Chinese people and re-contextualizing it in a fantastic setting, a simultaneous reliving and distancing not everyone can or wishes to do themselves.

To tell a story is to be responsible for its effect, regardless of whether or not said effect was as intended. To tell a speculative story is the same, but with an added layer of nuance afforded by the fantastic.

When your trespassing American tourists are hunted by Russian mutants, whose real-life counterparts were good people who lived and died as human beings, what are you saying? When your villains mirror quite exactly the villains you know to exist in reality, despite the magic of the world around them, what are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?


Ren IwamotoRen Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.

 

Sirens At Home: The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store
A Treatise in Support of Calling Out Every Single Act of Petty Sexism in Your Life
By Robyn Bennis

If you prefer, we offer a video of Robyn reading this essay:

I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

This is one of those things, I suspect, that cisgender folk don’t even think about, but it’s a background concern to most transgender people. My every interaction with a stranger starts with the unspoken question, “Does this asshole think I’m a woman or a fruitily dressed man?” There’s also the possibility that they read me as nonbinary, but if I’m in that sort of company, I can let my guard down. Otherwise, knowing a person’s read on me can make the difference between a pleasant interaction, an awkward ordeal, or even assault.

The Guns Above

Which is why there’s a silver lining to the gendered treatment I notice at the hardware store. Sure, I have to exert a supreme effort to keep from rolling my eyes while the orange-shirted sales associate explains that gypsum is not a type of plaster (it is) and that I probably mean drywall (I don’t), which is the ideal repair material for my vintage lath and plaster walls (it isn’t—that would be barbarism). And yes, it ends up taking five minutes for the guy to say, essentially, “No, we don’t carry that,” but at least I know he reads me as female. If, on the other hand, we have a pleasant interaction during which each of us learns something about building materials and home repair, I know he’s read me as male, and I know that I should take care to not disabuse him of that notion, lest things get weird.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with my life?”

The key question I’m interested in, however, is what the hell does it NOT have to do with your life? I’m not trying to be funny. (I don’t have to try.) I’m legitimately asking you to look at the difference.

The answer is, when you’re trans at the hardware store, you know when you’re getting hit with low-key sexism. In most other situations, you never quite do. I mean, maybe that reviewer on Amazon was disappointed by your book’s “YA writing” because of subconscious sexism, or because the last young adult book they actually read was in the Hardy Boys series, or both. Maybe your boss pitched your own idea back to you because he’s so used to taking women’s ideas that he doesn’t even notice anymore, maybe he’s merely oblivious, or maybe he’s just an asshole. The point is, you don’t know, and given the perverse way burden of proof works against the victim rather than the purveyor of bigotry—even when the purveyor is safely anonymous—you can’t even bring up everyday sexism in mixed company without risk of a high roading from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd.

By Fire Above

This, despite humanity’s ten-thousand-year legacy of subordinating and devaluing women. This, despite countless studies showing persistent bias all across the globe, even today. Seriously, do a Google Scholar search for gender bias and start counting. And while you’re counting, notice how many studies suggest that even the pettiest acts of everyday sexism can add up to fewer options, fewer opportunities, and fewer women in any number of fields.

Yet the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd acts as if this data was gathered in an entirely different universe. Sure, sexism is ubiquitous, but your specific complaints are invalid because you can’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And, besides which, Creeper Larry is probably just socially awkward.

And hey, no one is denying that Creeper Larry is socially awkward, but that only forgives, like, four or five questions about your boob sweat. Six, maximum.

In defending Creeper Larry against your complaints, the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd is appealing to the fact that even a well-controlled scientific study can only tell us the aggregate effect. It can’t tell us whether any individual act is motivated by bias. Even within the study itself, any single observation can be put down to chance. And that’s true for Creeper Larry, too, even though—come on—it’s right there in his name.

So, if you can’t even call an individual act biased when it’s part of a study demonstrating bias, how is one to know? Without, you know, being trans at the hardware store.

The Devil's Guide

The answer, sadly, is you probably don’t. Cis folk lack my superpower, and as the Xanders to my Buffy, you’re just going to have to do what you can with your meager gifts. Which means you’re going to be wrong about some people. At some point, you’re going to think “sexist” when the person in question is actually just “Mr. Oblivious” or “Sir Random Variance the Third, Esquire.” And, given the fact that you’re going to be wrong some of the time, when should you call a putative sexist a sexist, if only with his name changed to protect the creepy?

The answer is related to the very same variance the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd wants to use against you: the law of large numbers. That is to say, the more often you speak up about everyday sexism, the more apt your hit-to-miss ratio is to approach its expected value. If you’re 90% likely to call an instance of everyday sexism correctly, then over time you’ll call 9 out of 10 instances correctly. Indeed, the appeal to variance from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd leads you inexorably to the conclusion that you should ignore the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd entirely and speak the hell up. Not only that, but your horrible friends and co-workers will have a hard time rationalizing Creeper Larry’s behavior as the incidents pile up.

So talk about everyday sexism, even if you lack the certainty of a trans person at the hardware store. Science compels you.


Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis is a writer and biologist living in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams. She has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. She is the author of The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People (2019) and the Signal Airship series (The Guns Above (2017) and By Fire Above (2018)) from Tor Books and wrote her debut novel within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield.

 

Sirens At Home: Fantasy Literature as Epistemological Frontier: Inclusion and Centering of Marginalized Voices as a Laboratory and Library of Experience

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Fantasy Literature as Epistemological Frontier: Inclusion and Centering of Marginalized Voices as a Laboratory and Library of Experience

by Shaista Fenwick

Nonbinary understandings of sex, gender, and marginalized identities including gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race and ability (among other flavors of difference) must be represented in fantasy literature in order for us to build an intersectional lens of sufficient complexity to imagine a future that has the possibility of approaching functionality for our real contemporary and future world. As Franz Boas held in the early days of American anthropology, psychology, not race or environment, was the core driver of culture and development. He also argued strenuously that differences in socioeconomic development were not indicative of cultural complexity and that cultures could not effectively be compared to each other in terms of relative development. This understanding is inherently oppositional to the idea of cultural hegemony and its related ideas of hegemonic masculinity as characterized by violence. The tool of fantasy literature is a natural home to explore complexities of nonbinary sex construction, gender, and intersectionality inclusive of historically marginalized cultures, specifically because it is unfettered by historic constructions of power. The power to reframe history outside traditional hegemonies is necessary in creating the language capable of imagining a future similarly unbound by limited understandings and perspectives of power. We cannot imagine a new way of thinking, feeling, and being without a place to explore that newness. Fantasy texts provide that space.

Sex is the biological construction and secondary sex characteristics of an individual, and provides a canvas for how gender is expressed in society. Sex and gender are two different things, but they inform one another. Sex and gender expression have a long history of being recognized as nonbinary in various cultures globally. The hijaras of India, the two-spirit people in indigenous Americans, and the Guevedoces in the Dominican Republic all occupy complex spaces between polar binary understandings of sex and gender. However, nonbinary understandings of sex have become controversial in the Euro-American context despite a long history of normalized nonbinary sexes in nonwestern and indigenous western cultures. The normalizing of western structures in fantasy and literature therefore reduces the complexity of lived gender and sex to an absurdly incomplete story. The dangers of a single story, as Chimimanda Adiche codified, is that the story becomes a vehicle for essentializing cultures and is never wholly complete. Single stories are rarely capable of containing the complexity of human experience and pluralism. On the rare occasion that they do, it takes a lifetime to tell and live them. Where fantastic literature enters the fray is through its flexibility of worldbuilding and norm-setting. The hegemonic forces of prescribed identity allow power to be designated as inherently restricted to specific social locations and siloed away from nonconforming social locations. This interlocking of siloed power and prescribed understandings of sex goes a long way to explaining the resistance to accepting sex nonbinaries as normal despite the well-documented failure of the dual-sex construct. Guevedoces (literally translating to “penis at twelve,” which is a form of androgen deprivation that leads to male sex-differentiation being delayed until after puberty) are accepted as unusual but still within the realms of normal development in the Dominican Republic, where a statistically significant percentage of children change sex at the secondary influx of hormonal development. Guevedoce kids who present as female prior to puberty develop a penis during puberty. Similar conditions have also been documented in Papua New Guinea. Pediatric urologists document that over one in a hundred babies present as intersex, and over one percent of those children are indeterminately sexed long after infancy. These numbers are hardly rare or inconclusive, and they have been obscured primarily as a reflex to the constructed need for siloed legitimacy of institutional power because those silos have been almost exclusively male, white, and cisgender. Any deviation allows power to leak, and that is dangerous for the status quo. The idea of a safe transgression of these norms is similarly dangerous.

Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media. The portrayals of science are, like other cultural products, couched in the language and trappings of power. The voice of science is couched in the power to change the face of the planet, our knowledge of the universe, and the long held understandings of what that power should look like. Art based on our understandings are themselves products of our culture, created to dig further into those constructions and nuances. Even when we reach for the sublime, we bear the burden of our years, and the softly repeated rivulets of history create channels through which our minds pass. DaVinci’s old bearded white male god dispensed knowledge and anima to someone cast in his image, just as the construction of that image is based on what we understand about power, inheritance, and what transferring power looks like. Fantasy itself is constructed on the differences between what we understand about how the world works and the way we believe it could work.

Fantasy not only plays on what we have understood and known to be real, but goes beyond the construction of our current world, delving purposely into the realm of the exoticized other and bringing it into the normalized now. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity for a reconceptualization of normal. Fantasy offers the opportunity for discovered histories to become forever-known histories. The worlds we find in fantasy offer power, reason, and the immanentization of what could always have been powerful in our own world. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity to try on futures and discover where we truly fit in the world that could be, and then migrates those possibilities into the world that is. Once they are there, those experiences aren’t exotic or other or different any longer. Instead of coding for otherness, the stories become touchstones that offer the opportunity for parallax shift. This shift in perspective from one social location to another isn’t a simple shift between what was and what is, but allows growth incorporating old understandings and blending them with new ones. One of the compelling ideas about sex is that it is reassignable against the interpretation and identity of an individual. That idea was based upon a study conducted by Dr. John Money, based on the Reimer twins. [Content warning: The linked article contains disturbing material.] That data was misreported, and the twins were unable to conform to sex reassignment contrary to their own sex identity as was reported, despite excessive and forceful compulsion by adults around them. The importance of non-sex binary thinking directly impacts survivability of adolescence, policy construction, and justice frameworks.

***

Gender is frequently thought of interchangeably with sex, despite being a wholly different construct. Gender is the expression of sex through the lens of culture, resulting in a vast array of practices and interpretations of what normalcy is for different sexes. What is “inherently male” changes vastly with location, class, security, and time. Even during western history, cultural markers like heel height, hair length, color choice have moved from being restricted to cismales to exclusive coding for cisfemales, to the point where transgression of those expressed gender norms is met with ‘corrective’ violence. Fantasy literature provides a mechanism of exploring different ways of being within one’s sex, no matter what it is, in a normalized context. The burden of history is particularly relevant here as women, nonbinary individuals, and nonconforming individuals of any sex have been consistently hamstrung and dehumanized in western colonial cultures. Fantasy allows for those differences to be explored, deconstructed, lauded, and overcome as limitations.

However, there is a strong dissonance between observed experience and shared experience. Cultural exchange where marginalized voices tell the story and are centered within it show an entirely different realm of established and possible histories to everyone who comes into contact with it. Joseph Campbell believed stories were at the heart of the human experience. Although those ideas of universal story are constructed in the very specific language of colonial classed masculinity, Campbell found archetypes, constructions, sequences of events that spoke to many people and revealed things we all hope for even across cultures. Although Campbell’s voice is limited, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women who Run with the Wolves” picks up on similar parallels. When voices speak with authenticity and equal respect, the shared experiences common to humanity speak with them and are similarly heard.

Including marginalized voices in not only the story, but also as storytellers provides all audiences the richness of human experience and histories of multiple interlocking cultures to draw from. Centering those voices in their narratives and in genre similarly offers a more nuanced view of their stories for all readers. There is a qualitative difference to the experience a person within their identity can relate versus that which a person witnessing an experience relates. Both perspectives may be equally valid, but the lived experience provides a textured and nuanced richness relating directly to the experience that someone witnessing it cannot absorb in the same way. The bystander or witness experiences can be equally rich, but not equally related to the central concerns. Proximity matters. And the idea of being “a voice for the voiceless is bullshit,” as Indigenous American activist, Sarah Adams-Cornell said. Don’t speak for others, but use proximity to audience to instead pass the mic to marginalized people so that they may effectively represent themselves, then use privilege of social location to legitimize their viewpoint. Fantasy literature is doing a much better job of centering marginalized voices in publishing, even among the larger houses, and especially at events where those voices and their perspectives are being normalized. Like feminism, a rising tide does tend to lift all boats. The increase in representation and legitimization of marginalized voices can help many intersections of marginalization. The stories told by Native and Indigenous cultures of two-spirit people and other nonbinaries intersects with Indian subcontinent stories of hijaras and the Guevedoces of the Dominican Republic to provide historical context for the holistic legitimization of nonbinary people in the West. We turn ultimately to the fantastic to tell stories that speak to real experiences we feel unsafe telling in their original frame. Just as Sherri Tepper and Margaret Atwood told their feminist dystopic stories using real experiences while setting them in speculative worlds, fantasy allows us to skip some of the steps, and move directly into the whole ‘what if’ of alternate constructions. Fantasy allows us to center the margins from inception, instead of in apocalypse, and on a scale as grand as is needed to encompass the whole.

Sex and gender nonbinary persons are far from the only marginalized identities experiencing erasure. The process of radical inclusion involves the deliberate seeking out and centering of those with differing experiences. Underrepresented differences include differences in nationality, ethnicity, ability, class, and security. These intersections also need to be represented by those who understand the nuance of lived experiences. Although authors follow story, even to discussing and representing experiences they have not personally had, the risk of inaccurate representation my result in essentializing and a story which is less-complete and complex than the actual experience. Stories that misrepresent experiences of marginalized populations not only detract from the appeal to authentic audiences, but also absorb market share and may depress business prospects for authentic voices in publication if they fail to connect with audiences. In any case where marginalized experiences are incorporated or represented in a cultural text (movies, books, plays), the use of beta readers is extremely helpful to critically engage with the narratives and help point out significant areas of concern. It is potentially a higher bar than is frequently expected, but the payoffs are equally powerful. Purposeful representation matters. Moreover, powerful, purposeful representation matters. And it matters even more when marginalized identities are centered, made powerful, and portrayed with integrity.

Centering marginalized populations, plural gender, and sex nonbinary voices forms the beginning of another way of reading, experiencing, and speculating about the world. There are many voices which look at the newer policies of inclusivity in publishing and entertainment media, feel a loss of their previously unquestioned ownership of primacy, and are compelled to say, “This is enough, haven’t we ceded enough ground already?” These outcries are normal and unsurprising, because the loss of privilege feels like oppression. They highlight that the work of plurality and inclusion will never be fully done because of the shifting ascendancies of political power within society, but it is critical for the ongoing improvement of our literary body of work, and for our development as reasoning social primates that we think and process incrementally better and deeper with each iteration of examination and improvement. As we work to mitigate erasure of voices of color, gender, sex, security or class marginalization, it seems inevitable that we will identify new areas of difference. Change, it seems, continues to be the only constant. Difference is not any person’s central and unyielding story. Instead, difference feels internally normal. It feels holistic. The problematizing of difference through the smaller normal lens is what turns difference into marginalization. Fantasy gives us the power to normalize a whole history, reframe identities, and form new normals. Ultimately, that is what we strive for as readers, writers, editors, and thinking humans. We do not want an end to difference, but to move to a social space where difference is respected as a needed additional perspective. The goal is not an end to questions, but the advent of an incrementally more interesting set of questions and a broader toolset and horizon from which to explore answers. Fantasy thrives in that unknown universe, allowing us to create the language we need to create alternate epistemologies, and import those frameworks home.


Shaista Fenwick was born in Trinidad and Tobago to two economists who spoke nine languages between them, and has been involved in both politics and education since she was a toddler. She serves on the board of the Future Society of Central Oklahoma and is hotel liaison for SoonerCon. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, her master’s in professional writing, and is currently pursuing her PhD in instructional leadership and curriculum. She is a founding partner of Cobalt Prairie Consulting LLC in Norman, working to elect progressive, justice-oriented candidates to public office throughout Oklahoma. She is an author, spouse, educator, student and adoptive mom to many furbabies, plants and wayward students. Her favorite hobby in addition to consuming and making stories, gardening, cooking, singing, sewing, and kayaking…is sleeping.

 

Sirens At Home: Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature
By Amy Tenbrink

If you prefer, we offer a video of Amy reading this essay:

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw is premised on a legend—and because this is fantasy literature, the legend is true. In 1822, three white sisters—Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel—moved to Sparrow, Oregon. The sisters were charming, witty, beautiful—and available. The men of Sparrow were entranced; their wives, less so. The three sisters were accused of witchcraft and drowned in the harbor—only to rise again, endlessly sexy, in order to drown three boys of Sparrow in that same harbor every year thereafter.


The mean-girl trope is so common that it hardly necessitates a description: A thin, beautiful, sexy, rich teenaged girl terrorizes her high school’s students through meanness, manipulation, and back-stabbing—and despite this, or perhaps because of it, everyone clamors for her attention and approval. As Roger Ebert said in his 2004 review of Sleepover, “I take it as a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blond, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation. This character is followed by two friends who worship her and are a little bit shorter.”

Why are you so obsessed with me?

Once you begin deconstructing the mean-girls trope, however, you quickly realize that there’s a girl-power version: The entire trope—the entire casting of powerful girls as superficial, catty, and mean—is nothing more than a heteropatriarchal construct designed to villainize teenaged girls who have discovered how to seize power from within the system.

But continue with that deconstruction and you’ll find that a white women’s feminism version exists as well: A mean girl is ultimately a white teenaged girl who is willing to not only conform to the restrictions imposed by the white heteropatriarchy, but to weaponize her conformance against those girls who are deliberately excluded—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—in order to gain a limited amount of power from the white heteropatriarchy itself.

So let’s start at the very beginning: What is a mean girls story?

  • Aspiration: An ordinary teenaged girl aspires to be part of the popular clique of mean girls at her school. In fantasy literature, this clique is often the school’s coven.

  • Opportunity: For some relatively random reason, our ordinary girl has a chance to join the mean-girls clique—but only if she transforms herself. She becomes a dangerous, dragon-lipstick-wearing, miniskirt-sporting hot girl. In fantasy literature, if she is successful in her transformation, she’ll also acquire magic.

  • Achievement: Our ordinary girl becomes a popular girl: Everyone knows her name, everyone thinks she’s hot, and she might be nominated for prom queen. She might be a witch or otherwise monstrous. Except for her queen-bee mean girl, she’s invincible.

  • Villainization: Our ordinary girl becomes a mean girl. Spending time with mean girls both normalizes their behavior and demonstrates the power inherent in such behavior.

  • Girlfight: The queen bee stabs our ordinary girl in the back, generally over a boy.

  • Victory: Often, our ordinary girl rises to the top of the mean-girl food chain, dethroning—and replacing—the queen bee.

  • Loss: As part of this process, our ordinary girl loses all her old friends, but doesn’t really care because her new status feels like friendship.

  • Redemption: Someone upholding the heteropatriarchy inevitably intervenes and convinces our ordinary girl that she’s no longer “nice.” Our ordinary girl is devastated and, in her devastation, redeems herself. She gives up her dragon lipstick, her miniskirts, her magic, her power, and goes back to being an ordinary girl. In other words, she again subjects herself to the rules and structures of the heteropatriarchy.

Upon first glance, mean-girls stories seem immensely problematic: A nice, ordinary girl transforms herself into a skinnier, blonder, sexier beast in order to access the most exclusive club at school: the circle of hot, rich girls, with dangerous tongues and gorgeous boyfriends, who terrify everyone and stalk the school hallways while people scurry out of the way. Our heroine becomes powerful by becoming, definitionally, mean.

From the moment our heroine completes her transformation, we—the reader, the viewer, the consumer—inherently know that she’s no longer someone to root for.

We are the heteropatriarchy, judging our heroine for her failure to conform to heteropatriarchal standards: of niceness, of passiveness, of civility. To again like our heroine, we have to wait for her redemption—but that redemption invariably comes only after she’s given up her new look and her dangerous tongue, renounced her mean-girl friends, and again a nice-and-not-at-all-dangerous girl, subordinated herself the heteropatriarchy. The threat of powerful girls has been removed, balance is again restored to the heteropatriarchal universe, and we are again allowed to like our nice-girl heroine.


The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers

The best example of the mean-girls trope in fantasy literature is perhaps Lynn Weingarten’s The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, where white heroine Lucy, just dumped by her boyfriend and crying in the school bathroom, receives the chance of a lifetime from white mean-girl witch, Olivia: break a boy’s heart in ten days and become a witch. Lucy does, accidentally and almost apologetically, and achieves her heart’s desire: magic coursing through her veins; a new, gorgeous look; formidable friends; and the power to do virtually anything she wants. All of this is true until the sequel, The Book of Love, when Lucy is sorry she ever lusted for power and gives it all up, wanting to be a “normal,” powerless girl once more.


Apologia

Despite the obvious problems with a trope centered around meanness, mean-girls stories are fundamentally about female power: what it takes to get it, what it takes to keep it, and just how unseemly it is to want it or wield it. These stories are simultaneously a massive interrogation of and a massive failure to interrogate feminine power structures.

In Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace posit that every child wants three things out of life: connection, recognition, and power. Fundamentally, teenaged girls also want what everyone wants: connection, recognition, and power—and enough of each to feel both in control and less insecure. But teenaged girls run into an unfortunate intersection between their brains’ stage of development and relentless messaging from heteropatriarchal agents that what they are isn’t good enough. The quest for control and security is seemingly impossible.

So if you’re a teenaged girl, you’re at a time in your life when you’re emotional, but your brain hasn’t yet learned not to be reckless. You’re susceptible to other people’s opinions of you, especially your peers’. You have no control over huge aspects of your life. You want to have exciting experiences. You want drama, you want relationships, you want kissing and maybe sex. Your brain is primed for you to made bad decisions, in the direction of excitement and new things, based on peer pressure.

And then you add in the messaging of the heteropatriarchy.

Our heteropatriarchal society values good girls: Girls who are nice, passive, silent, and polite. Girls who defer and submit. The true purpose of a girl under the heteropatriarchy is, first, to be a breeder for the heteropatriarchal family unit, and second, to support her husband’s aspirations. This is, of course, antithetical to any dreams or aspirations or even thoughts that she might have—all of which are cast aside in response to the heteropatriarchy’s demands that she adopt marriage to a cisgender man and having children as her own dreams and aspirations. As political scientist Angie Maxwell has said, “Modern sexism describes feelings of resentment and distrust towards feminists and working women. Rather than believing that a woman cannot do a particular job, folks who express Modern sexism resent a woman for wanting to do that job.” To avoid upsetting that particular apple cart, teenaged girls must not want a goal, a job, or really anything that isn’t focused on a boy.

Rather than diving into the rabbit hole of the heteropatriarchy’s expectations of women, let’s focus on the degree to which teenaged girls have internalized this messaging. We teach them to live up to an impossible, exclusive physical standard. We teach them to diet, to lighten and straighten their hair, to whiten their teeth, to wear a face-full of make-up, to ruin their bodies with high heels, to enlarge their breasts. We teach them that expensive clothes are a must-have and if those clothes are revealing, so much the better. We teach them to smile, to be “happy,” to never rock the boat. We teach them to be dependent and helpless because boys don’t like girls who don’t need them. We teach them to be sexually available to boys, even when they aren’t feeling it or aren’t even interested in boys. We teach them to give in to sexting demands and sex demands and to not make a big deal about assault or stealthing or rape because to do so might ruin a boy’s life.

We teach girls to be everything that the cisgender men running our heteropatriarchal culture want in a woman.

Because of these endless strictures, teenaged girls—like so many women under the heteropatriarchy—are obsessed with conformance. Who has the right hair, the right make-up, the right clothes? Who is the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest? All with an eye toward attracting the right boys because the ultimate question—the ultimate status symbol—is: Who is dating the right boy—and here “right” is also defined according to heteropatriarchal standards, this time in terms of performative hypermasculinity.

Which becomes, very quickly, a question of competition. Girls have internalized American cultural messages of rugged individualism and meritocratic advancement just as much as their male peers, but we teach girls that these traits aren’t for them, that girls should be nurturing and kind, and that female competition is unseemly and unacceptable. We don’t want women competing for jobs, for venture capital, for elected positions because then they’d be competing with men. Girls are left with conflicting messaging: Be all that you can be—within the limiting confines of what the heteropatriarchy permits.

Which means that, after the heteropatriarchy has torn them apart and rebuilt them, the only competition left to girls is who can best succeed at playing heteropatriarchy. So girls compete within the confines of the heteropatriarchy—and when they win, when they succeed and are the thinnest, the blondest, the richest, when they’re banging the most masculine boy in school, there’s power in that success. Even if you’re playing a rigged game—and teenaged girls are—there’s power in winning the game.

But again, mean-girls stories are necessarily premised on the heteropatriarchy. Mean girls derive their power, directly and solely, from romantic and sexual exchanges with cisgender boys: dating boys, fucking boys, controlling boys’ attention, satisfying the male gaze, and denying other girls access to boys. While mean girls’ power might initially seem satiating—being a girl with magic and enough power to be immune from most consequences—that power is ultimately derived from men and ultimately requires pleasing men: Mean girls have power only because of the nature of the heteropatriarchy and only because men allow them limited power within those confines. If men were uninterested in sharing those romantic and sexual exchanges with mean girls, mean girls would have nothing.

Rather than attempting to find power in rejecting the heteropatriarchy, mean girls ultimately find power in embracing it.

While this power might look minimal to us, in high school, where so much of your life is in someone else’s control and when your brain feeds you daily doses of insecurity and desire for exciting experiences, this power is everything.

To achieve that success and that power, as part of that competition to see who can play heteropatriarchy best, teenaged girls not only build themselves up—for some value of “up”—they tear each other down. Which begs the next question of why girls, unlike boys, don’t simply fight like boys? Why don’t they just punch each other? Why the meanness, the manipulation, and the back-stabbing?

The inevitable answer is, of course, because those are the only tools society allows them—and frankly, girls weren’t allowed those tools at all. They just took them.

Odd Girl Out

As Rachel Simmons notes in Odd Girl Out, “Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms.” Our society teaches girls that aggression and anger are for boys, not girls. We teach them to cry, not rage. And not only are girls prohibited from fighting, they are taught not to speak up or speak out—not only vis-à-vis boys, but vis-à-vis everyone. They are taught to be “nice” and “perfect,” which are too often synonyms for “silent” and “passive.”

But none of that makes the conflict disappear; it just makes girls find another path: Since they aren’t permitted to address the conflict head-on, they come at it sideways with back-stabbing, lying, whisper campaigns, icing, “jokes,” and slurs. As Anne Campbell has noted in Men, Women, and Aggression, men tend to use aggression to control their environment, while women believe aggression will ruin their relationships. Rather than ruin those relationships, girls simply use the relationships themselves as weapons.

But the mean-girl isn’t all manipulation and back-stabbing.

So often, women have to take their power where they can find it. While it’s easy to read a book about a girl who transforms herself into a witch by stealing the only power the heteropatriarchy allows her and to criticize her for doing so—perhaps because we fail to recognize the nature of her subversion, perhaps because her subversion makes us uncomfortable, or perhaps because we expect her to recognize and sacrifice her own support of the heteropatriarchy itself—it’s also hard to fault a girl for taking one of the few sources of power available to her. Our society allows girls so little power, finding endless fault in how they look, how they dress, how they speak, the things they like, and even their market power; why not applaud them for taking some in the form of lipstick, miniskirts, and magic?

Because the heteropatriarchy would have us position the mean girls in these stories—with all their power—as a villain, an adversary, or even a joke:

  • Villainy: We position her as a villain, nominally, because she’s mean. But that’s just a convenient excuse. In fact, we find her to be a villain because she defies stereotypes.

  • Adversary: We position her as an adversary of the protagonist. They can’t share a boyfriend. They can’t share the top of the food-chain. It’s one or the other, so to achieve her ultimate dream, our ordinary girl has to knock the mean girl down—which perpetuates that pervasive heteropatriarchal desire for girls to compete for boys’ attention, ceding ultimate power to boys and men.

  • Joke: Even worse, the mean girl is often the object of ridicule or scorn, either canonically or by consumers. We love Mean Girls. We love to mock Regina George. Karen can’t even spell the word “orange.” But these girls are everything we deride as a culture. They’re into clothes and makeup. They’re shallow and vapid. They’re boy-crazy. They upspeak and use vocal fry. They wear pink, yes, on Wednesdays. When we mock teenaged girls—and we do—we mock mean girls. But we don’t mock them for their meanness; we mock them for their femaleness.

If you interrogate this trope from a slightly different perspective, however, the mean girl is not villain, adversary, or joke, but the devil who offers an ordinary girl a deal.

She’ll give you what you crave—popularity, magic, power—but at what cost? Defiance of expectations. Is our ordinary girl willing to give up being nice, being obedient, being subordinate to the endless structures of the heteropatriarchy and claim her power?


Sawkill Girls

In Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand, two white sisters move to Sawkill Rock in the wake of their father’s death. The younger sister, a worrier, befriends Zoey, a black, asexual girl determined to discover what happened to her missing best friend. The elder sister, a soon-to-be victim, befriends blond, white Val, the rich girl with the hot boyfriend who lives in a mansion. As the book progresses, you realize that Val is the latest accomplice in her matriarchal line’s violent service to the male monster of the island—Val is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy’s appetite incarnate.


Indictment

When you examine comparative power, and girl-on-girl policing of that comparative power, mean-girl-ism goes from something almost empowering to something much uglier. In On Call: Political Essays, June Jordan says, “Patriarchy too often throws women crumbs in return for a limited form of power. Women who accept those crumbs are expected in return to uphold patriarchy, internalize its dictates, police other women and never forget that power bestowed is power that can be retracted.”

When researchers, among them Rachel Simmons (Odd Girl Out) and Rosalind Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), asked girls which characteristics were desirable in girls, the answers were predictable: pretty, thin, tall, big boobs, blond hair, blue eyes, trendy, expensive clothes, smiling, happy, fake, stupid, helpless, dependent, and sexually experienced, among others. Conversely, when asked which characteristics were undesirable, girls answered similarly predictably: ugly, athletic, fat, dark features, masculine, queer, disabilities, wrong clothes, poor, serious, brainy, opinionated, pushy, independent, egocentric, passionate, inexperienced, and promiscuous.

Teenaged girls have weaponized conformance.

When teenaged girls weaponize conformance, that is what it looks like: racist, sizeist, homophobic, ableist, classist. Hotness, popularity, and success—winning at playing heteropatriarchy, if you will—requires internalizing the rules of the heteropatriarchy and then policing those rules with respect to others. As with so many things, those rules are rigged so that many girls—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—cannot even play. While on the one hand, we might applaud the mean-girls trope for portraying girls seizing power from the heteropatriarchy itself, on the other hand, that seeming girl-power is nothing more than skinny, rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied girls weaponizing conformance to white heteropatriarchal standards in exchange for an iota of power, all in service to the perpetuation of the white heteropatriarchy itself.

As you might imagine, mean-girl-ism is a largely white middle-class construct—because the white middle class is where the confines of the heteropatriarchy are most rigid. Unsurprisingly, almost all books on mean girls are virtually silent on the construct of race or class, assuming rather that the white, middle class is an appropriate microcosm from which to extrapolate universal truths. But in Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons delves into this in some detail, noting, inter alia, that “For some girls, silence and indirection are neither attractive nor an option. They are instead signs of weakness. I found this to be true especially among the girls I met whose lives were marked by oppression. For them, assertiveness and anger were tools of spiritual strength.”

Simmons’s research shows that communities of color—and here, the research generally fails to differentiate between different races and ethnicities—raise their girls differently, as do lower-class families. They raise them to be authentic in a way that white, middle-class communities don’t. They raise them to recognize all of their feelings, not just those prized by the white heteropatriarchy. They raise them to stand up for themselves and even sometimes to physically fight.

This Will Be My Undoing

For a number of reasons—racism, classism, the fact that these girls are less susceptible to the messaging of the heteropatriarchy, the fact that these girls cannot even achieve the prized traits of the heteropatriarchy—these girls are also frequent targets of mean girls. Morgan Jerkins in This Will Be My Undoing tells a heart-rending story of being a black girl who just wanted to make the cheerleading squad. After practicing and practicing, perfecting her voice and nailing her jumps, she was devastated to learn that she didn’t make the squad—and to learn that she was never going to make the squad because she couldn’t achieve those white heteropatriarchal standards for women: thin, blond, hot, white.

To maintain their power in the heteropatriarchy, mean girls must police conformance. They must bully girls who cannot or will not conform. Without conformance, the building blocks of the heteropatriarchy start to crumble—and again, the immediate and direct source of these girls’ power is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy itself. Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields note in The Long Southern Strategy, “[Y]ou do need to protect men if you’re completely dependent on them financially and economically.” Maxwell and Shields said that in the context of dismantling the Southern Strategy, but it’s applicable here as well.

Moreover, the proximity and tokenism forms of power that are evident in hundreds of years of white-women’s history and power structures are evident here as well. By crafting conformance standards that black and brown girls cannot meet and then granting white girls power—through proximity to white men and the tokenism inherent in those standards—in exchange for ruthlessly policing those standards, the white heteropatriarchy perpetuates its own power, with only a minor, limiting sharing of that power with only white women.

Women, Race, and Class

This looks—unsurprisingly—similar to the history of white-women’s feminism in the United States. As Angela Davis explores in Women, Race, and Class, with the advent of industrialization, when the home was no longer the manufacturing hub of the community, when “woman” became closely aligned with “wife” and “mother,” when white women lost much of their power, economic and otherwise, to factory foremen (who then oppressed the white women’s working class), white women began to organize. But in many cases, that organization—sometimes negligently, but often intentionally—excluded women of color. From the First Wave’s compromises with white supremacists to the lynchings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were justified as protecting the white woman from the black man, to the Second Wave’s assertions that feminism must be about gender to the exclusion of other oppressions, white women’s movements in the United States have a long and awful history of specifically gaining power by oppressing others.

Mean girls—with their white skin, their blond hair, their blue eyes, with their willingness to uphold the white heteropatriarchy in exchange for the tiniest bit of power—are perpetuating a long history of white-women’s feminism in the United States.

So while you might assume that mean girls are awful because they are mean, the truth is that mean girls are awful because they are in the master’s house, using the master’s tools.

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, like the NAWSA’s silence on lynchings despite the groundbreaking work of Ida B. Wells, like the women who listened to Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union in 1906 and heeded his warnings about race suicide, like the Southern white women who demanded that the Republication Party drop the ERA from its platform in the late 1970s, and like the white women today who continue to support and reinforce exclusionary beauty standards.

Like their white foremothers, mean girls cause cascading damage. Like their white foremothers, mean girls’ power is premised on both proximity and tokenism. Like their white foremothers, mean girls have ascended to a rather limited form of power by policing girls of color, working class girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, and others. Like their white foremothers, the longstanding exchanges between white-women’s feminism and the white heteropatriarchy are all too apparent in the transactions in which mean girls engage in order to establish their power.


The Lost Coast

In Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, white, queer Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods. Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays: queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status. The Grays need Danny. They summoned her to California to help find their missing friend, whose body is still going about its quotidian routine, but without any spark of the girl herself. This story of witchy, queer girls, who are perfectly comfortable being witchy, queer girls, who welcome another witchy, queer girl easily enough, is remarkable in what’s not there: any form of mean-girl-ism. Except for Black, bisexual Hawthorn, these girls have little interest in romantic or sexual exchanges with boys, and in its absence, they have little interest in competing for boys, conforming to heteropatriarchal standards, or even the heteropatriarchy itself.


In the end, if we want to dismantle teenaged girls’ meanness and the accompanying back-stabbing, lying, and manipulation, we need to dismantle so much more: the white heteropatriarchy. We need to remove the societal strictures that grant girls such limited forms of expression and power. We need to permit them hopes and dreams that don’t revolve around cisgender boys. We need to encourage them to compete in many arenas and to resolve their conflicts openly and honestly, without fear that their relationships are not perfect. We need to permit them full humanity.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

Sirens At Home: On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
by S.M. Mack

If you prefer, we offer a video of S.M. reading this essay:

Content warning: references to and discussion of rape in general terms, mention of dissociation

I don’t like reading rape scenes. They are almost always gratuitous, and almost always unnecessary to the plot. (“Almost always” here means 99.98 percent of the time.) Explicit rape scenes, no matter how well intended the author might be, are voyeuristic. Give everyone—the character and the reader both—a break, will you? We don’t need to see it happen. If an assault is unavoidable within the confines of a story, it’s the aftermath of the assault that is important for a character’s arc—how they respond to it and how it shapes their decisions going forward. Also, the aftermath is traumatic enough for both the character that has been assaulted and for the reader.

The Silence of the Girls

By the time I was mature enough to realize I could curate my reading preferences, that I could set boundaries and decline to read stories with rape or other exploitative events and themes, I was in my mid-twenties. It was such a relief to quit consuming these stories, to teach myself that rape scenes were misused in the vast majority of the fiction they appeared in, and to seek out stories with better avenues for narrative tension and character growth. In the years since then, I’ve tripped over exactly two books that fall under the begrudging “I’ll allow it” category: The Devourers by Indra Das and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. (In both novels, it should be noted, the persons being raped are ciswomen and the rapists are cismen.) In The Devourers, the explicit rape is, thankfully, only a one-time event. However, I’m going to focus (in very general, non-explicit terms) on the abuse suffered by the narrator and the women around her in The Silence of the Girls. The rapes themselves were not explicit, but we stay with our narrator throughout the scenes. We’re shown the before (“He didn’t speak—perhaps he thought I wouldn’t be able to understand him—just jerked his thumb at the other room.” [page 23]) and the after (“What can I say? He wasn’t cruel.” [page 24]), and that is more than enough to tell the story.

At this point, I’d like to reiterate my earlier statements: It is a chilly day in hell that rape scenes are necessary.

But what happens when an author builds a world in which rape is a daily event for their characters? When the narrator is kept as a slave to warm her owner’s bed? What if the cast of a novel becomes the spoils of war?

We could, collectively or individually, refuse to tell or read those stories. I wouldn’t judge anyone if they took that course—no one should traumatize or re-traumatize themselves if they can avoid doing so. But in The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker gives voice to a woman who has been silently borne along within the confines of Homer’s The Iliad for literally thousands of years.

The novel’s premise was enough to get me to pick it up, but the promise the book makes—that we will hear the words of a silent woman given a voice—became a burden and a responsibility I couldn’t put down.

The novel follows Briseis, a Trojan noblewoman given to Achilles after he sacked her town. It opens as she and the rest of the women from her town hide in the citadel as the Greeks overrun their home, then the citadel itself. Briseis watches as Achilles kills her three brothers and husband, then as the rest of the Greeks kill all of the male children hiding with their mothers and sisters in the citadel. Achilles picks Briseis out of a lineup as his prize for killing sixty men that day:

“‘Cheers, lads,’ he said. ‘She’ll do.’
“And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.” (page 19)

Clearly, The Silence of the Girls is heavy on multiple fronts, but Briseis is the primary narrator. Hers is the only first-person point of view, and The Silence of the Girls is her story. Looking away, despite the assaults that were clearly on the horizon from the first page, felt like an unworthy and overly privileged decision.

The Iliad’s inciting incident centers around two Greek men squabbling over two captive Trojan women. Agamemnon, who was in charge of all the Greek forces, was forced to return his “bed-girl” to her father, so he took Achilles’ own prize woman, Briseis, as his own. Achilles then threw a hissy fit and refused to fight anymore.

Neither Briseis nor Agamemnon’s bed-girl, however, speaks in The Iliad. They are objects, not characters.

The girl freed from Agamemnon was named Chryseis, which means only “daughter of Chryses.” But in The Silence of the Girls, Chryseis is more than just the daughter of a priest. She is fifteen, with a “formidable reserve,” and she nearly shatters under the weight of her hope that Agamemnon will send her home to her father. (page 42) Chryseis is a person, as is every other woman she and Briseis spend their days with. And it is worth noting that, while the majority of Briseis’ narration is exposition, the few times that dialogue runs the length of a page or beyond are when the women gather and speak. It’s ordinary conversation—what the men are like in bed, how to make their new lives bearable, who serves which meals—but it’s theirs.

Outside of speaking to the women around her, Briseis speaks almost exclusively to the reader. She exchanges only a handful of sentences with Achilles over the entire course of the novel, but constantly argues with herself:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.” (page 82-83)

This is how she survives the nightly rapes, by disassociating herself from her personhood. She’s not explicit in her descriptions, but we frequently return to the narrative immediately afterward. The only time that we return specifically to Achilles’ or Agamemnon’s bedrooms (Agamemnon’s because Achilles did indeed let Agamemnon take her) is when something changes. For example, Briseis walks into the ocean one evening, then is summoned before she has time to clean the salt from her skin, and she and we are both treated to an uncomfortable display of passion by Achilles. That is the beginning of her and our shared understanding of his many, many mommy issues. (His mother is a sea goddess.)

Briseis is more interested in the rest of the world around her than in the men who own her. Even when Agamemnon takes her in anger, all she tells us is, “So what did he do that was so terrible? Nothing much, I suppose, nothing I hadn’t been expecting.” She watches those men—not like a hawk, but like a mouse in fear of its life—but she doesn’t speak to them. She speaks to us.

It felt like the height of cruelty to put down The Silence of the Girls even for an afternoon’s rest because I, as the reader, controlled when and how loudly she spoke more than Achilles ever could.

It seems like such a small thing in the middle of the real world’s myriad crises, to bend my own proscription on books with rape in them. But I can’t go to the racial justice protests. I can’t help the individual people who are suffering and dying from the coronavirus pandemic, and I can’t do anything more than stay home and wear a mask when I absolutely must go out. And I can’t save Briseis from Achilles, or Chryseis from Agamemnon, or Hecamede from Nestor, or Ritsa from Machaon, or Andromache from Pyrrhus.

But I can watch and not look away.


S.M. MackS.M. Mack is a 2012 Clarion graduate with an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her short story, “The Carrying Beam,” was the 2017 first place winner of the Katherine Patterson Prize for Young Adult Writing and was published in the VCFA’s Journal for the Arts, Hunger Mountain. Other stories have been published in Fireside Fiction and Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s “Best of 2015” anthology, among others. For more information visit her website or her Twitter.

Sirens At Home: A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma
by Meg Belviso

If you prefer, we offer a video of Meg reading this essay:

There’s something enduring about a haunted house. For centuries, it’s called up images like the Gothic family manse crumbling from the inside, passed from one heir to the next, or the duplex on the corner where families come and go a little too fast. The whole idea of a house suggests a place to put down roots, settle down, grow up, over and over through many generations. For centuries—from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ann Radcliffe to Emily Brontë to Barbara Michaels—when we talked about a haunted house, we meant a place where remnants of the building’s past affected the people of its present, threatening or influencing their future.

So goes the traditional haunted house story.

Modern horror, however, has begun to focus more on the haunted house as a transitional space. That is, a dwelling without a fixed position in time. A decaying building, for instance, that no longer functions in its original capacity, but has not yet become a ruin with a fixed place in the historical or mythical past. A Roman Colosseum that has lost its meaning as a working arena, but not yet found its meaning as evidence of an ancient empire.

Sometimes the modern ghost story emphasizes this idea further by giving the space other “in-between” qualities as well. The mansion in Alejandro Fernando Amenábar Cantos’ 2001 film The Others takes place on the Isle of Jersey, a self-governing possession of the British crown off the coast of France, in 1945, a time between WWII and what we’ve come to recognize as the post-war period. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables has a firm historical and legal history. By contrast, Amenábar has intentionally set his story in a place that does not belong to WWII, the post-war period, Great Britain, or France, but lives in a transitional space at the center of all of them.

In The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, Jessica Balanzategui links this shift to twenty-first century anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future and a feeling that the foundations of society that had once seemed solid are now vulnerable. Today’s young—and even not that young—adults, for instance, are often accused of immaturity when they fail to hit landmarks by which life was measured in the past. One of the most obvious examples of this is home ownership.

These accusations of personal irresponsibility often flat-out deny the financial instability faced by so many young adults who, unable to follow the path their grandparents did, threaten critics by not only choosing to forge their own path, but questioning the value of paths in general.

The children at the center of postmodern stories are often young people who “will never fulfill futurity’s promise of becoming an adult…but instead linger at a point of continual transition to a corpse, dust, a ghost, a memory.” The settings of modern haunted house movies reflect this “unsettlingly liminal space of transition between states, with no triumphant end state.” Not becoming adults, but simply becoming.

Adolescence, that period of life between childhood and adulthood that’s center to YA lit and its intended audience, is also a transitional space. Today’s YA audience has grown up in the twenty-first century. Most YA heroes, like fictional heroes in general, exist firmly within fixed, linear time. They are no longer the children they were and not yet the adults they will be. Even in the bleakest circumstances, they move towards the future, figuring out what kind of people they are going to be, what values they will live by, how they will change the world. Sometimes they’re motivated by the fear of growing into the wrong kind of adult—of selling out, giving up on their dreams, perpetuating the unjust system they live in now. But even then, and even if they develop into what we would call a villain, they will be part of the future. They’re making choices, developing, moving forward.

In her two post-modern haunted house books, The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, author Nova Ren Suma connects these two transitional spaces, the haunted house and the adolescent. In doing so, she creates a new—one might even say revolutionary—bildungsroman for the twenty-first century.

Suma’s haunted spaces are not traditional homes, but temporary housing populated not by families but inmates and tenants. Specifically, young women between childhood and adulthood. They are places to reflect on the past and prepare for the future before aging out and moving on, rejoining the normal progression of life.

The Walls Around Us

In The Walls Around Us, Amber Smith and Orianna Speerling are sentenced to do time at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. When she reaches eighteen, a prisoner is sent either to a jail for adults to finish her sentence or released. Either way, according to Amber, she ceases to exist in the world of Aurora Hills, not just physically, but in the memories of the other inmates. “We’d recite [a former inmate’s] stories until the names and specific characteristics faded away…until it was somegirl, which may as well have been any of us.” When Amber glimpses a spectral girl in the prison who doesn’t belong, she’s not the ghost of a girl who once served time in the prison, but a vision of a girl who has not yet arrived. The inmates regret the past and acknowledge no future. There is only now.

A Room Away From the Wolves

Bina Tremper, the heroine of A Room Away From the Wolves, also checks into a temporary place. In this case, an old-fashioned boarding house that doesn’t seem to belong in modern Manhattan. At first Bina worries that she won’t be able to pay for more than one month at Catherine House, but she soon realizes that she’s no more able to leave it than the inmates of Aurora Hills can walk out of their prison. The staircase walls are lined with decades of annual photographs of former Catherine House residents, but the young adult lodgers themselves don’t seem firmly attached to any single time period at all. Bina herself carries bruises that still look fresh weeks later, as if no time has passed. Although her mother left New York decades earlier, Bina finds her belongings in her room. The house, too, seems to exist in a state of suspended decay, shabby and threadbare, but still habitable for now.

Where many YA stories take place in environments that explicitly measure physical development and count the passage of days, months and years, such as schools or camps divided by age, Aurora Hills and Catherine House have both, in their own ways, extracted themselves from the normal progress of time.

Suma’s girls are physically trapped by their surroundings, yes, but they also fear leaving them.

Both Amber and Bina begin their narratives watching another girl attempt a desperate and potentially deadly escape. They watch and choose not to follow. Amber admits, “No matter how I may have pictured myself leaving this place—face-first or feet-first—truth is, I can’t leave it. I would never. That’s my real secret.”

When told she’s being released from the prison, Amber’s attitude is similarly reluctant: “[The guard] was walking me down the corridor, confused maybe as to why I wasn’t leaping around for joy….We passed the window…and the blue sky flashed, and I turned my face away.” No matter how much she hates the prison, the outside world has betrayed Amber too much for her to want to return to it. She no longer trusts that she can restart the process that was cut short when she was convicted.

To emphasize this point, Suma creates a villain who moves in only one direction, forward, like a shark. Vee can’t wait to leave behind her hometown, her boyfriend, even her best friend, to reach the future she’s planned for herself since she was eight. Her best friend Ori, by contrast, voluntarily postpones her own pointe training to wait for Vee to catch up and is said, by Amber, to live in fear of “the halfway mark of anything.” That hesitation costs Ori dearly when Vee’s plans are threatened.

Wolves’ heroine, Bina Tremper, has her own reasons to fear the future. She’s been raised on her mother’s stories of the summer she spent in New York. The summer she paid for a room of her own, went on auditions, collected postcards, was cast in a short film. The summer that came to an end when she returned to her abusive boyfriend and got pregnant with Bina. Over and over, it seems to Bina, her mother plans an escape, only to wind up once again in a life that isn’t her own. Over and over she entices Bina with optimistic plans, only to betray them.

That one summer in New York becomes, to Bina, the only time her mother really had a life at all. When her mother kicks Bina out of their house for a month, she understandably decides to run there herself.

Bina’s initial escape masquerades as forward movement—she vows to succeed at the New York life that her mother gave up by returning to her boyfriend, to live the future her mother didn’t. But once she’s in Catherine House, her life does not move forward at all. Where the traditional bildungsroman would focus on Bina making friends, finding romance and getting her first job, Suma’s story barely touches on these things. The people in Bina’s new world are too hazy and mercurial to be actual friends. Her search for a job consists of walking the entire length of Manhattan for days without result and without seeing or doing anything worth noting. Her actual experiences are more focused on trying to understand her present than to build any future. “Some girls wanted to leave Catherine House,” Bina says, “and I couldn’t fathom why…it felt like nothing bad could happen within these walls, beneath this roof, to me.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps and completing the journey her mother started was an excuse for running to Catherine House. But her mother’s dreams were never Bina’s. She didn’t want to be an actress. She was never really running toward an imagined future. She just wasn’t wanted enough in her present. When her relationship with her bullying stepsisters got too bad, her mother chose to send Bina away to keep the peace. Amber’s mother, likewise, doesn’t write or visit while Amber is locked up and won’t receive her phone calls. Amber knows without a doubt that her mother loved her husband—Amber’s abusive stepfather—more than her. Bina wonders if her own inconvenient birth was what ruined her mother’s life.

Neither Amber nor Bina is interested in fighting for a place in the world they left behind.

They’ve internalized the things they’ve been implicitly told about themselves: That Amber is guilty. That Bina interferes with the life her mother wants. Neither girl is freed from these notions in death. Rather, she accepts them. She embraces her life outside society and once she’s done so, she finds power and space she couldn’t see before. It’s not paradise, but it’s no worse than the life she left. At the very least, it’s not a world she’s allowed into only if she meets the demands of others, or accepts being loved less than anyone else. In these new worlds there are no guards, punishments or rules at Aurora Hills, no curfew or contracts at Catherine House. Like the founder of Catherine House herself, Amber and Bina jump off a roof to escape a trap and fly.

Amber and Bina aren’t figuring out who they are going to be or preparing to take their place in society. They are coming to understand what they are now, learning to navigate the spaces they have both chosen and had chosen for them, spaces outside linear progress and the world that failed to protect them. Not growing up, but becoming. They are not traditional ghosts, tied to a specific historical moment or event, but post-modern spirits that have opted out of the historical narrative entirely. They are a past that can’t be changed and a future that will no longer be.

But they are still here.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. During the week, she chronicles angel encounters as Staff Editor of the bi-monthly magazine Angels on Earth and she loves a good haunted house story. As a freelancer, she has written for many different properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s “Who Was…?” series.

Sirens At Home: “Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

“Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince
by Nivair H. Gabriel

If you prefer, we offer a video of Nivair reading this essay:


The Summer Prince

Asserting that “literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see,” Rob Nixon defines the concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries.” He laments the challenge of crafting narratives that make slow violence apparent in a fast-moving world of immediacy, but notes that “writer-activists in the Southern Hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.” Rebecca Evans discusses “cli-fi” as a literary response to this challenge, defining “cli-fi” not as a single genre but as “a literary preoccupation with climate futures that draws from a wide range of popular genres.” Cli-fi, she argues, via its use of multiple genres, “narratively conjures the future—a conjuring that inflects the representation of climate justice and the queer politics of futurity itself” (95). A stellar example of cli-fi for young adults is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which blends the science fictional and the fantastic to depict an ecofeminist vision. Rooted in a specifically urban sense of place informed by slow violence, and centering a queer, polyamorous relationship, The Summer Prince represents a climate-concerned future that resists both colonialism and heteronormativity. Its ecofeminist critique of the past, informed by indigenous histories, and its open-ended vision of the future bring it into the realm of indigenous futurism.

Palmares Três, the sparkling, futuristic matriarchy where The Summer Prince takes place, is a city of escapees from a plague- and war-ravaged Northern Hemisphere. The foundational belief of Palmares Três echoes Vandana Shiva, who contends that environmental destruction is the fault of capitalism, and cannot be alleviated—let alone reversed—by any solutions conceived within the limitations of modern, Western, patriarchal, capitalist thought. She writes that “all past achievements of patriarchy have been based on alienation from life, and have led to the impoverishment of women, children, and the environment” (88). Hence the matriarchal society of Palmares Três, in a speculated future four hundred years after Shiva’s present: women rule 90% of the time, and when men rule it is only as “summer kings,” figureheads who face inevitable martyrdom to Palmares Três when their term ends. “Kings are men,” June’s mother tells her, “and they can’t be trusted to give up power once they have it” (197). The mandated murder of male rulers exists to remind citizens that patriarchy caused the environmental devastation that turned places like Rio de Janeiro into ruins that humans can only visit in a contamination suit (47). The Queen who founded Palmares Três “put [her king] on a pedestal and … cut him down. A man, like the ones who ruined the world.” To “remake the world,” the story goes, the Queen took “from the world [she knew]”: “Candomblé, which always respected a woman’s power. Catholicism, which always understood the transformation of sacrifice. And Palmares, that legendary self-made city the slaves carved themselves in the jungle, proof that a better world can be built from a bad one” (Johnson 19). The cyclic ritual of king-killing ensures that colonialist patriarchy is perpetually named and condemned for the world’s destruction. Queen Odete, devising a new civilization “in a country that had once been Brazil,” might well have been reading Shiva’s ecofeminist call to action: “Putting women and children first needs above all, a reversal of the logic which has treated women as subordinate because they create life, and men as superior because they destroy it” (88). Aunties, women of advanced age, rule Palmares Três, and they insist that the city remain in isolation from the rest of the colonialist, patriarchal, destroyed world. Johnson’s speculated future makes visible the consequences of the slow violence Nixon observes, and points out “the way that climate change is disproportionately caused and disproportionately experienced along lines of privilege” (Evans 95).

The centrality of Palmares Três and its founding ideology in the text encourage an environmentalist and feminist reading. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas points out that “texts that present urban geographies provide an opportunity for young readers and the stakeholders in their lives to consider the present and future states of our cities wherein the privileged and the challenged meet” (20). Urban geographies “provide orientations and grounding in specific places,” she notes, and “are as diverse and interconnected as that of any natural biome” (14). In the glowing pyramid tiers of Palmares Três, bolstered by its slums of “concrete and algae” (Johnson 112), the story of June—a privileged artist from upper-class Tier Eight—and her love for Enki—a poor dancer from the verde at the bottom of the city—quickly becomes the story of “the politics of the visible and the invisible” (Nixon). June notices her privileged experience of the city when she ventures to the stadium in the lower tier to see the presentation of summer king contenders: “Growing up on Tier Eight, I’m used to seeing the glowing pyramid lattice of Palmares Três from a loftier position” (9). In this particular urban landscape, Enki’s neighborhood carries clear markers that indicate both low class and strong connection to the environment; “we call it the catinga, the stink,” June reveals, “but they call it the verde. Green” (13). The city’s automated voice technology sounds different in June’s top tier than it does in Enki’s bottom one, a difference that surprises the privileged and selectively ignorant June when he tells her (104). Enki’s controversial kingship, his deliberate sacrifice of his own life for the power that fame brings, is his project to illuminate the “hypocrisy of Palmares Três” (64). He insists on dressing in a way that identifies him with the oppressed lower classes in old-Brazil’s history, and reminding the Aunties every chance he gets of the people in the verde who enable their comfortable top-tier lives while struggling to survive storms and floods (34). The old pipelines in the verde recall the environmental destruction of another age whose detritus still stifles the poor (232). June and Enki’s art collaborations draw attention to the struggles of the verde, and to accomplish them they must travel intimately through the city. Regarding Palmares Três’s power grid, June muses, “Energy at no cost, some would say, but Enki and I know better. The cost is the verde, the catinga, the several hundred thousand souls who live at this literal bottom tier of society” (90). June thrills to Enki’s every callout of the Aunties, creating art that underscores his message of environmental justice. June and Enki’s are “intersecting trajectories that blend urban landscapes of privilege and challenge” (Thomas 18). They show that even in a futuristic world founded on apparently ecofeminist principles, Nixon’s “environmentalism of the poor” is still necessary.

The way June uses old-Brazil’s history in her and Enki’s art positions her as an indigenous futurist heroine. As Lynette James writes, “Indigenous futurist heroines cannot be casually ignorant of the circumstances that led to the collapse of major governmental, social, or environmental systems and created the worlds they inhabit. They live in communities in which this information is everyday knowledge” (159). Palmares Três is designed as such a community; grounded in Afro-Brazilian history, it also extrapolates into a future decimated by climate change, in which our Brazilian contemporaries are distant ancestors. June’s narration pulls together ecofeminism and indigenous futurism when she recounts, “It’s as though I can feel the strength of all our ancestors bearing us up. They are the heavy trunk and thick boughs of a tree on which I am only the tiniest budding leaf” (23). June’s revolutionary art grows naturally from her community, which is deeply informed by the history of her people. James describes indigenous futurist heroines who “cannot be whole persons without the relationships that tie them to communities” (171), just as June’s self and her art are defined by her relationship with Palmares Três.

As Evans writes that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of climate justice,” she contends also that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of resisting heteronormative systems” (95). The Summer Prince resists heteronormativity not only in June’s mother and stepmother’s relationship, but also in the love triangle between June, Gil, and Enki, which is queer both in terms of sexuality and in terms of resisting definition and closure. Throughout the novel, Enki insists that he is in love with both Gil and June, and Gil and June, in turn, love him back without attempting to claim him. Gil and June, too, share love, then grief when Enki dies. Enki instructs June not only to preside over a more just society as the new Queen, but also to take care of Gil (286). Unlike many love triangles in young adult fiction, The Summer Prince’s is open-ended, portraying a way that many truths that would appear contradictory by heteronormative standards can all exist at the same time in this queer futurity: Enki loves Gil, June loves Enki, Enki loves June, Gil loves June. Meanwhile, June reckons with the truth that her mother loved her late father and loves her stepmother; neither relationship takes priority, or has more validity, over the other. Complexity, rather than closure, is a primary value in the story; even the culminating symbol of June’s resistance art is “ambiguity” (224). The text’s prioritization of visible queerness, in tandem with its ecocritical resonance, casts resistance to heteronormativity as an essential part of a movement for environmental justice.

June’s movement for environmental justice, spurred by the loss of Enki and her father, reveals the flaws of any society that is built on power, privilege, and oppression. While Palmares Três resisted the specific Western colonialist norms that Shiva condemned, it still reified an unequal power structure: it created the classes of privileged and oppressed. Neither Enki nor June seem to know the ultimate solution to this quandary, but the search for an ultimate solution is itself a quest flawed by the idea of normative certainty. James notes that “too often YA dystopian franchises assume that a final battle decides all questions of the protagonist’s life in clear terms of irrevocable success, where all threat has been quelled forever. But … remaining negotiatiors and defenders is not a failure; failure would mean there was no community left to save. . . . In all healthy, living communities, there is more work to do” (172–3). The ending of Johnson’s text seems open on purpose: to encourage its young readers to imagine the future for themselves. James sees her indigenous futurist heroines as inspirations to “help us see the best possibilities, to imagine the what-ifs, to build the skills of dreaming the future in a grounded, rooted, and located world” (174). As Johnson’s heroine in Palmares Três, who becomes Queen because of the personified hopes of the younger generation, June’s mission is exactly that.

Nixon cites the unique challenge of addressing environmental justice in narrative, proclaiming, “To confront slow violence is to take up, in all its temporal complexity, the politics of the visible and the invisible.” In this way environmentalism, feminism, and postcolonialism are all inextricably linked. Evans’s ecofeminist reading of cli-fi underscores the temporal complexity of these particular politics: “Expanding our understanding of cli-fi’s generic wheelhouse … helps us see how the genre does more than extrapolate into the future—indeed, how it helps connect present and future, rather than posit a radical break between them” (104). In The Summer Prince, Johnson uses urban geography to explore all of these ideas, presenting a boldly extrapolated far future in which the injustices of its present-day ancestors are always visible. Its ecofeminist vision tells its readers, “When the world is destroyed, someone must remake the world. I think you’d call that art” (19). And art, as June would define it, is sacrifice—the disregard for self and the ecofeminist call to collective action. Such a call to action is foundational in the indigenous futurism that James discusses, which is “more than a name; it is an orientation, one meaningful not only to Indigenous peoples but to anyone hopeful or terrified about the future” (174). Drawing from existing discourses of environmentalism, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism, Johnson’s art of the imagination makes cli-fi for young adults that grapples with the temporal complexity of environmental justice and provides not answers, but open-ended questions that serve as foundations for indigenous futurist thought.

 

Works Cited

Evans, Rebecca. “Fantastic Futures? Cli-fi, Climate Justice, and Queer Futurity.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, no. 2–3, 2017, pp. 94–110. Web.

James, Lynette. “Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA.” Extrapolation, vol. 57, nos. 1–2, 2016, pp. 151–176. Web.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince. Scholastic, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence: Literary and Postcolonial Studies Have Ignored the Environmentalism That Only the Poor Can See.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 57, no. 40, 2011. Web.

Shiva, Vandana. “The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last.” Ecofeminism. Ed. Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva. Zed Books, 1993, pp. 70–90.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature.” The ALAN Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2011, pp. 13–22. Web.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Sirens At Home: Autism in Seven of Nine

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that showcase the brilliance of our community—and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Autism in Seven of Nine
by Mette Ivie Harrison

If you prefer, we offer a video of Mettie reading this essay:

When I throw my autism diagnosis into a social situation like a bomb, which is apparently the only way I know how to offer it, the most common response is “You can’t be autistic.” I’m too empathetic. I’m too successful. I’m too smart. I’m too, well, normal. But all of that is “masking.” If you were told for so many years that it’s mostly boys who are diagnosed with autism, it turns out this was only because girls weren’t being given attention. Just like women with heart attacks, the symptoms present differently, and that means that a lot of so-called “high-functioning” autistic women are now being diagnosed in our forties and fifties, after we figured out for ourselves why social interaction is so difficult, why we’re accused of being “cold” or “unemotional” or “masculine,” what meltdowns look like for us, and why we’re always apologizing for everything as we’ve been trained to do both as women and as autists.

Traits of autism include:

  • Lack of social reciprocity
  • Repetitious behavior
  • Intense focus on unusual subjects
  • Difficulty with change/rigidity
  • Unusual use of language
  • Blunt honesty
  • Lack of eye contact/facial expression/body language
  • A sense of apartness from the rest of society
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with touch and other intimacy

When I first went in for an official diagnosis, the assessment from the clinician was incredibly painful to read over. Here is what she said of me:

[Mrs. Harrison] described a need for solitude as she can become overstimulated with sounds and smells. She takes earplugs with her everywhere and has always hated perfumes and common cleaning products. She also described a sensitivity to medication, for example, she has tried antidepressants, but experienced vomiting after taking them. She also cannot tolerate Novocain and becomes overly ill with any use of prescription pain medications. Additionally, Mrs. Harrison described a dislike for touch and noted that this can make relationships difficult as she feels she needs a concrete rule for the frequency of things like holding hands or hugging her husband.

Mrs. Harrison demonstrated the following concerns in her social affect:

  • Rapid speech with limited variation in pitch
  • Formal use of words and phrases
  • No response to examiner’s social leads
  • Limited or uncomfortable response to examiner’s comments
  • One-sided conversation
  • Inconsistent eye contact with difficulty modulating with other means of communication
  • Limited range of facial expressions
  • Reduced integration of gesture, gaze and facial expression
  • Reduced demonstration of shared enjoyment
  • Somewhat awkward social response
  • Reduced amount of reciprocal social communication

As I’ve tried to deal with what I now realize is society’s disgust with autism, I’ve recognized a lot of self-hatred in my autistic traits, despite the fact that they are, in fact, what has led to being as successful as I am.

If I didn’t have an intense focus and a lack of interest in social interaction, I wouldn’t have graduated with an MA at age 19 nor would I have gotten a perfect score on the GRE and gone to Princeton for a PhD, where I graduated at age 24. I wouldn’t have been able to manage a writing career with five children in which I’ve published fifteen books since 2002. I wouldn’t be an All-American triathlete.

Part of my self-healing has been going back to my childhood heroes, among them Spock from the original Star Trek series, who is, in my opinion, a hidden depiction of autism. Later in life, I found Seven of Nine, who, whatever the intention was, interacts in the world in a particularly autistic way. I love her characterization, even if I struggle with people who say that she is “learning to be human again.” No.

Seven is already human. Autistic people are human. I am human, and I’m on a quest to make the world accept autism in all its variety as fully and authentically human.

Go back and rewatch any episode with Seven of Nine from Voyager and this time think of someone you know who is autistic. Notice the similarities? Like Spock, Seven seems uncomfortable in her own body. She has an uprightness to her posture, a lack of facial expression other than a minimal curiosity. She doesn’t do Spock’s raised eyebrow, but something more like a tilt of her head. Look at the way she walks, as well. It isn’t very feminine, with much hip sway. She walks in a rather masculine way, which reminds me of the many times I’ve been told to act more feminine in one way or another. I do not understand gender and it seems Seven of Nine does not either.

Notice also how Jeri Ryan holds herself apart from the other actors on screen. When she’s in a scene, she tends to take it over. The camera focuses on her. But it’s rarely a warm, emotional moment. Occasionally, she has something like that with Captain Janeway, but even then it tends to be understated. There’s no hugging, weeping, or other obvious displays of emotion.

Watching her, I feel very much like I’m seeing myself on the screen. I have emotions, but they don’t appear in ways that other people recognize as emotional. I might shake slightly or start to sweat when I’m sad or angry. Other people would shout, and their faces would show emotion. It’s also true that Seven, like me, tends to misread or misunderstand people’s expressions or body language. It could be argued that this is because she’s never had a reason to learn to read that, because she’s connected to the Collective and gets direct information that way. But it’s also a kind of unconscious depiction of autism.

I was surprised at what I thought was an autistic response when Seven tasted food for the first time. I don’t like trying new food (I don’t like surprises in general), but when I do try new food, my first reaction is often a visceral one like Seven’s disgust. Then, perhaps, it moves to an analytical one, where I try to explain to myself how the food tastes. It’s also clear that Seven is struggling to be inside her own body, as I often feel inside of my body. Of course, there’s no way to be outside of her body, but Seven has long seen her body as a tool, a machine, and not as herself. It’s hard for her to stop thinking that way.

Whereas McCoy plays the part of the denigrating human who doubts the autist’s humanity in the original series, B’Elanna Torres, the half-human, half-Klingon engineer, plays that role in Voyager. She presses Seven to express remorse or guilt about her experiences killing others or assimilating them while she was part of the Borg. Seven says “no,” and B’Elanna says, “That’s it? Just no?” Seven asks, “What further answer do you require?” And then she says, “Guilt is irrelevant,” which incenses B’Elanna but from my perspective is just the reality. Guilt will not change what happened when she was a Borg.

Seven says of humans, “You are erratic. Conflicted. Disorganized. Every decision is debated, every action questioned, every individual entitled to their own small opinion. You lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” I’m reminded of this every time I’ve tried to work with a committee. What Seven says is exactly how I feel about “talking” things over. It’s inefficient, a waste of time. Snap! Can we move to the part where we have a list I can focus on?

As for Seven’s sense of humor, it is also very autistic by my reading. Seven says, “I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior.” Seven is outside of normal society, which enables her to see things in some ways more clearly. She also sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves at her acute but quirky realizations, such as when she says, “Love bears a striking similarity to disease. A series of biochemical responses that trigger an emotional cascade impairing normal functioning.”

Seven struggles also with how to be “human.” It seems she wants a rulebook, something that I have often wished for. If you could just explain all the rules to me, then I could follow them. But the rules are always changing, and no one wants to admit they are what they really are, because they make no sense and they’re different for everyone. I love that in one of her first episodes, Seven says to Janeway, “I don’t understand the rules and procedure for this type of social occasion.” The audience laughs because there’s no book on this. Of course there isn’t! But in fact, most of my life has been taken up with trying to create just such a book. That’s what a lot of my writing is, my analysis of how humans interact.

I love the scene where Seven is trying to be social with the other crew members by simply asking them a list of questions, letting them have a very brief response, and then moving on to the next question. If the point of asking questions is to get answers, then she is doing it exactly right. But the point of asking questions in social situations is something else, something far more difficult to explain. There is also a fine irony in the Doctor, who is a holographic computer program and no more human than Seven is, being the one to try to explain humanity to her, because he is apart from it, as well. Being removed actually does make us acute observers. We’re the only ones who can explain the rules because they don’t make sense to us, either.

Being autistic is a wonderful variation in humanness, not something that makes us different or in need of teaching to be human.

Seven learns things, but is she ever less herself? I would argue not. And in the same way, I have no need for a “cure” for autism. I have always lived in the world in this way and I think it’s a good way. I think I have things to teach the rest of you about yourselves, and about me. I think all autists do.

 


Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison (she/her) has published numerous YA fantasies, including the award-winning and acclaimed Mira, Mirror, and The Princess and the Hound. In 2014, Harrison began to publish mysteries for adults with Mormon amateur sleuth Linda Wallheim in The Bishop’s Wife. She continues to publish the Linda Wallheim series while also publishing essays on Mormonism and the post-Mormon life on Huffington Post, Religious News Service and Medium. She currently works as fiction editor for The Exponent II. She was diagnosed with autism in January of 2017 and writes about autism.

 

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