Your Second Shift at the Factory

Once the doors shut behind you,

shift to saving yourself.

Try steam and chest percussions

to chase factory smoke out of

your lungs, you need to be a human

still. Which is hard to do with dioxin,

so get that out too, with ghee.

If it goes as far

as your liver

 

then a long shot is to blast

it by eating dandelion buds.

Also asbestos comes in like

a cloud of unseeable needles

and won’t like to leave but

while you are learning how long

you have left to live and they are pulling

the professional

 

smile down over their lips

at the clinic, look up

hydrogen peroxide

and hum that to yourself

along with vitamin C

 

until you can find a doctor

who doesn’t want you dead.

Oh, and Atlantic dulse,

a seaweed that strips out mercury, so

you can start filling up with it

all over again in the morning.

Alive Between the Bands

In a twenty-year temperature inversion

California walks in to me through

the windows of a hot car with no

air conditioning, it’s summer and

the heater is full-blast, it’s a hundred-

degree day, I am younger and California

is cleaner, the engine doesn’t self-

 

eject and it jets out oil all across

the country. This awful air of

ourselves, we have nowhere to drive

 

but down into it, the freeway

folding over and under, everything

settling which also means seething,

the old rocks with all the time

in-between them and the road

 

only a ribbon of exhaust

held harmless between the jaws

of a geologic age.

Protecting Edges

I’ve been thinking about saltspray roses, rugged and adaptable, clinging to dunes, strengthening coastlines, hardier than their blossoms suggest. I’ve had trouble writing, lately, because I don’t want to expose myself, don’t want to publish anything that I might regret, and yet (for me) writing demands vulnerability. I turn my flaws to the light, hoping that I might be human, and so I’m always risking regret when I write. It’s impossible to stay safe. I risk it, though, because writing carries possibilities of alchemy and growth, of salted flowers in unexpected places. I see writing as an ecotone, a liminal space in which it feels possible for anything to change, all violence and fertility, elemental and charged with flux.

My favourite outcome of alchemy is intimacy. I am motivated by the conversations, the relationships, that build through writing. In isolation, though, connection is intangible, and there’s strength in staying quiet, protecting oneself. I was, when I was younger, guarded and resilient, like a sea wall, made of stone, but I’m trying, now, to be sustainable, integrated, like a saltspray rose, gathering strength through entwining roots with others, leaning into the wind. It takes work to stay tender.

I’ve found other creative activities, though, that soothe me. I’ve been learning about tarot cards, shuffling them so often that my thumb has a small blister. I sleep with a sachet of lavender, wake up clutching amethyst, and write down my dreams. I blow on the stems of my indoor plants so as to simulate the air outside, dye my hair with honey and beetroot. I’ve remembered, like many, that I’m good at cooking. These practices emphasise process and intuition, rather than a finished product, and this feels healthy.

I don’t know, when I list these things, if I’m romanticising domesticity. I am lucky to have the time and space for such activities. It feels heartless to witness personal growth against this backdrop of devastation, but it’s disingenuous, when asked about creativity, not to acknowledge it. I won’t credit it to coronavirus. I was, right before the pandemic’s scope became apparent, finally learning to accept loss and uncertain futures, changing in ways that surprised me. I can’t separate my response to this pandemic from everything that preceded it.

I’m still trying to write on the edge of my own knowledge, to stop sand from slipping into water. I don’t want to soften things with simile, with saltspray roses, and yet we need beauty, or we will. We’re at the beginning, still, and I’m expecting grief, anticipating so much loss that mourning is subsumed, death left unprocessed because it’s quotidian, everywhere, affecting everyone. I don’t feel good. I could write of how the world might change, but trying to smooth the passage into the future can destroy our capacity to cope with the present. I’m struggling to write, but that’s fine—growth is difficult, but saltspray roses manage it, in their wild ecotone, and all I need to do is stay inside.

 

—April 13, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

Last night, I dreamt that a campsite I stayed at during a cycle tour was barren, as if there had been a terrible drought. I touched the wall of a house and rubble cascaded down. Then I was walking up a narrow staircase with a man who was escorting me to a job interview with his boss. The staircase wound up and up, getting tighter, until I couldn’t go any further.

A few weeks ago, saturated with anxiety, I could hardly concentrate, and repeatedly broke my rule of not looking at the Internet while writing, to obsessively read the news. After a while, I banned myself from reading news in the mornings until I’d done some writing.

At first, I did feel that writing was unimportant, in view of what’s going on. Then I thought: you were always going to die and so if writing is meaningless now, it always was. Or wasn’t.

Writing is for me a comfort and an affirmation of living, like playing sport or painting or making music, or doing just about anything you enjoy. You’ve got to love it to do it. Or, you do it because you love it. That doesn’t change.

I’ve just finished the final edits for my short story collection and I’ve written a number of stories about ecological collapse. I’m now starting work on a cli-fi novel, which inevitably involves some form of apocalypse, whether slow or sudden.

All of my recent writing has ended up being about what’s happening to us now. The only difference to my previous writing is that I now have the additional immediate perspective of how I feel—I am, like everybody, directly involved. I’ll have to wait and see if this changes how I write.

Writing and being published creates a connection, a communication, with the reader, a telling of your story and everyone’s stories. Stories are about understanding life: about suffering, struggle and new possibilities, and simply about what it’s like to be alive.

In recent weeks, my love for and anger at my fellow humans has grown. Anger as people break social-distancing rules. Rage at the government response. And love for people as I read their particular stories of suffering, or losing somebody they love, or the unfairness of unequal exposure to risk caused by economic inequality.

But also, I’ve had a new feeling that judgements won’t work. I don’t mean not holding power to account, but rather not blaming people on an individual level for not doing everything they can. Ranting at each other seems less important than trying to listen to each other and think about what really matters. It means changing our doomed consumerist cry from: I deserve it, to: what can I do to fight for everybody?

Good writing is always complicated. Already we are listening more than usual to other people’s stories. I just hope there’ll always be ways to keep writing and people who will want to keep reading.

 

—April 12, 2020

A Rare Hybrid of Dung Beetle and Lion

The only television shows I cannot bear to watch are nature documentaries. I see them and am reminded that the animals in the titular roles are dying, will be dead before I get to travel and behold them. Their Latin names spoken in gravelly voices are almost obituaries by now.

“There goes Panthera leo, stalking its prey. Too bad it’ll be gone by 2050.” The narrator seems to say: “Such a wonderful beast that you’ve never seen and never will! Won’t you miss it?”

Of course, the sad thing is, I will miss it. I’ll probably even cry over the damn thing. Every time an exotic creature takes its last breath, I find myself wishing I was at its deathbed. The day I heard six vultures were poisoned to death just a few hours north of me, making them almost certainly extinct under my country’s skies, I thought of the lions that used to walk the soil under my feet, soil turned to concrete. As a child, when I heard that lions used to wander not so far from my house, I was filled with wonder. Now, I think of how I’ll tell my children there used to be vultures here, too.

There is nature in the city I call home, hidden in between crushed soda cans and drifting plastic wrappers. The river that used to be a liquid graveyard is slowly healing. There are the sparrows and the wagtails, birds to which songs are dedicated, patchworks of what came before the city. One could say: they are the protectors, they were here first, we love them for it. Opposing them is a long, decorous line of creatures, living litter, dropped just as carelessly as soda cans, and equally appreciated. The jellyfish invade the beach once a summer. They aren’t supposed to be there, but nobody told them the Suez Canal is for human use only. The bright green parakeets that fill the skies escaped from the zoo. The angry-eyed mynas that fight them for territory did as well. It isn’t their fault they’re here, and that the vultures up north are nearly gone, but it’s hardly a fair trade.

Walking the city, I look up between the buildings that act as shutters between me and the sky and curse every bright green flash I see. Only now does it occur to me that we may be under custody as much as the parakeets were. The city around me is a quarantine. Homo sapiens in, wildlife out. We keep it so, with poisoned corpses left for birds of prey and tawny skins stretched out for our rugs. If we leak out of the city, as we are prone to do, we will ruin what is around us just as the parakeets and mynas slashed apart the biological web of the recovering river. The invaders flock around us. After all, we brought them here, into the concrete jungle.

I imagine that I want to live in the country, amongst the pristine nature, without our new addendums, or at least, with fewer of them. But then I think of the felled trees for my home and the split habitats for my roads and consign myself to the unforgiving concrete and the towering buildings. We humans deserve being confined in our urban prisons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend my days dreaming of escape, dreaming of being not quite human.

I like to imagine myself the subject of a nature documentary, with a grim narrator reporting my plight. Perhaps overpopulation will kill me; maybe climate change will destroy my home. Maybe a photograph of my suffering will win someone a prestigious prize. Maybe there will be a fund in my honor, a picture of my genus on a popular website.

I try not to kid myself. I am not a rare bird or lion. I am not royalty. I don’t have the heart of a Panthera leo, like a certain King of England. I do not fly a crest of arms emblazoned with a vulture. I am far from being the last of a genetic line. I am no Salome, last independent ruler of Judea and last female leopard in that same desert, queens of dwindling hope. If I were an animal, I wouldn’t be shown struggling in the jaws of a polar bear or torn open by a gunshot. I’m not an unwelcome newcomer, either, not a bright green parakeet or angry myna, roosting in places I shouldn’t be. If I were an animal, I would be a dung beetle, strolling along under a scorching sun, uninhibited by the falling birthrate of lions.

After deciding this, I was informed, although not on a nature documentary, that the dung beetle rolls its crap in a line of cosmic significance, following the Milky Way. A dung beetle must roll his ball of dung away from the rest of the dung beetles, in a straight line. He cannot falter, or he risks the ball being stolen by others, and he, a creature smaller than the palm of my hand, can see starlight that I cannot begin to grasp, and he follows it. Perhaps this should not surprise me, for he was once an Egyptian god, rolling the sun across the sky. That was when he was a scarab, incarnate of the sun god Ra, but Ra has long faded away from most of us, and what is left is a dung-rolling creature, travelling through insignificant wastelands. Scarab and lion used to be king and protector. Mighty Sekhmet the lion goddess, guarding the dung beetle’s slow walk across the heavens. She was so powerful her breath created the desert.

The two have separated since the ancient Egyptians. Lions on every coat of arms, in every tale, while their king is burrowed into the obscurity of the desert, and perhaps it is in the best interest of the latter. Richard the Lionheart came to the Holy Land when lions still lived near my apartment, but they left when he did, hunted by the Crusaders. The lions that now roam the desert, the same desert Sekhmet formed with a single breath, are scarce; they no longer have to protect Ra, but rather themselves. I wonder if the dung beetles would be on endangered watch lists if their glory continued after Ra, if killing them was a conquest. Maybe I would be watching them on a nature show as they rolled one last ball in a heavenly line.

Once, as I deplored the state of the world, I thought myself far more puny than majestic. The city can do that to you, but even the mass of buildings doesn’t compare with the news piling up around me. The streets I walk are nothing compared to the data I scroll through each day, weather reports, knowledge crowding up like cars in traffic. The sheer information about nature used to dwarf me. Every percentage about the climate, every new disappearing species, every sign I held and every lecture I listened to hammered in my insignificance. I became sure I was a dung beetle, with only the power to push my own dung as the few lions that walk among us burned my future.

I didn’t know where those lions—oil giants, company owners, billionaires—lived, but I often assumed they must be far out in the country, away from the skyscrapers hemming the rest of us in. I thought that perhaps they did not understand, these predators, what they were doing. One of the stories about Sekhmet tells of her going into a blood frenzy, destroying all in her path. She was calmed only by Ra tricking her into drinking red beer, sending her into a drunken stupor. I did not think anyone was capable of subduing our lions, our world leaders, and was certain we were failed dung beetles, merely insects and not kings. Bloody report after bloody report, I wished the world could fall asleep so we could start afresh.

Only lately, walking down cracked sidewalks, pushing my own ball of shit in front of me, have I started to realize how much bigger I am compared to a dung beetle, and how much smaller compared to a lion, and started to consider that perhaps I am a combination of both. As I read reports about trees being planted, plastics being banned, schools striking, I no longer feel so small. A teenager may be a dung beetle, but a group of them is something entirely different, something that has grown a pair of claws. Dung beetles know to follow the stars, the scarab used to be king, after all, but the lion is the fighter—and fighting we are. My generation, and others, fighting for the vultures and the lions and most importantly, ourselves, and I fight along with them, part lion, part dung beetle.

My inner nature show narrator, studying the hybrid I’ve realized is me, is at peace as he babbles on about eventual extinction. I’m a specimen approaching endangered status, apparently, but I’ve also rolled a ball of shit across the desert, no simple feat. I push my ball of thoughts in front of me as I stalk fallen pieces of litter. I realize there is a strange sort of balance inside me. I am aware of climate change, of ecological breakdown. I know the ramifications: the heat, the cold, that we will have to adapt to later if we don’t change now. But I also choose to hope that no matter the damage we do to our planet, it too will adapt. There will always be life: the jellyfish, the parakeets, the dung beetles. We are murderers, we have killed vultures, lions, but we have invited in the bloodthirsty mynas. The mynas will ruin the current order and create a new one, one in which we, along with many others, may be left behind. It would serve us right. If we, Homo sapiens, had a nature narrator, he would be speaking of the long period we must prepare for. “They can save themselves,” he would say urgently. “But they are too foolish to do so.” Then he would continue to talk about all the other wonderful animals, adapting, evolving, in ways it would be wise for us to do too, as humankind carries on hunting stars.

My imaginary hybrid self, the beetle lion, has come to the conclusion that living things will always remain, even if they’re an awkward sort of compromise between an Egyptian god and the king of the savannah, or a quickly disappearing species and a dung beetle. It’s true that the vultures up north are nearly gone, that the parakeets are biological invaders, the ecological system as we know it is falling apart. It’s true I may never get to see a lion in person, definitely not anywhere near my house, but the jellyfish will keep coming to hunt my bare legs instead. Our world is falling apart, but maybe we’ll be able to put it together again.

Despite my newfound hope, of myself and of our planet, I still cannot bear to watch nature documentaries, but when I walk down the street in the shade of the skyscrapers, I know I too have a path of cosmic significance, a fair shot at survival.

Despite both these things, I’ve already started to miss the lions.

A Memory of the Future

“Mom? Why does this freeway have so many lanes?”

“Well Tom, remember when you were six, and the schools were all closed, and you did all your schoolwork as homework? And your teacher came on Zoom every day?”

“Er . . . yes?”

“Well . . . remember, before that time, that your Dad and I went away to work at the office every weekday?”

“What? No. Why would you?”

“Good question, Tom. Why did we? Why did everyone?”

“Dunno. Makes no sense to me. I mean, you only go to the office when you have to be there, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of the whole communism?”

“Commute.”

“Yeah, yeah, the commute. What’s the point of commuting if you can do . . . whatever it is you do, from home?”

“Thing is, people used to think that was necessary to come to the office every day before nine, and work from there, and hold meetings with everyone in the same room. People were convinced—your dad and I were convinced as well, that all of us gathered together in the same building was the only way to have a productive workday.”

“But . . . that’s weird. Didn’t you have internet? Couldn’t you Zoom? Or Teams, or whatever?”

“Oh no, we did have internet, and Teams, and everything. But we only used those for people who couldn’t come in to the office.”

“So everyone else would drive to the office every day? That’s . . . like . . . thousands of people, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Wouldn’t they fill up all these lanes, then?”

“Yep . . . more than fill.”

“What do you mean?”

“There would be so many cars every morning that they’d all get stuck. And this traffic congestion would mean they’d all be crawling along. This whole stretch of freeway, from where we got on, to the exit for my office, takes about twenty minutes by car. But mornings, your dad and I both spent at least an hour in our cars here.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Not kidding. And all those cars would belch out exhaust fumes.”

Tom mulled this over for a while.

“Boy, I’m glad everyone came to their senses,” he said. “Do you want some water?”

He stopped walking and shrugged out of his backpack. Pulling the water bottle from the side netting, he handed it to Mom. Just ahead, road workers were tearing out the tarmac of the fourth and fifth lanes. Further down the freeway, they could see where the two lanes had already been turned into a strip of greenery, a bike path and a walking trail.

On the three remaining lanes, a steady stream of cars made their way to the commercial district on the horizon. Tom tried and failed to imagine all five lanes jammed with cars. He shrugged and looked to the side. In the distance, the North Sea sand dunes shimmered in the growing summer heat. Mom grabbed his arm.

“Look!”

She was pointing at the nearest field, where a doe was calmly grazing.

“Me too,” she said. “I’m glad too.”

 

—April 11, 2020

Interview: Soumya Sundar Mukherjee

Michael: How has your creative practice changed as a result of living through this pandemic?

 

Soumya: The pandemic has changed mainly two things about my writing.

Firstly, I was more like a nocturnal creature, hunting words upon the keyboard at the dead of the night. My job as a school-teacher never allowed me much time during the day to write strange and fantastic yarns – the kind of things I love to read and write. But as my only connection now with the outside world in this lock-down period is the window beside my bed and the balcony facing south, I’ve developed a deeper relationship with my keyboard during the daytime. Yet, God knows how much I miss my children at the school. And I hope to meet them again when this is over and tell each other stories about winning a battle against the lethal little monsters we can’t see with the naked eye, just like a thing from a sci-fi or fantasy movie. And I really, really hope that all those happy faces will be with me again – all of them. ALL OF THEM.

Secondly, summer days have become lengthy in India, and the nights seem lengthier now. But, you know, though I’m very much afraid for my family, I think this situation has brought us closer. We know that soon there may come a time when we would say the final ‘goodbye’ to the ones we love, and there is every chance that that moment is just invisibly hanging overhead to crush us down, yet I feel that I’ve never before experienced the affection of my parents, the love of my sweet wife, the naughty, smile-magnet deeds of my little son with so much proximity to my heart. This gives me a maturity – both as a family-man and a writer – to feel that the world remains beautiful as long as we love each other, even in hard times like this.

 

Michael: How do you think the world will change?

 

Soumya: In the long run, it will be a better place. There will be death, there will be hunger, there will be unemployment. But earth has its own healing process. And we’ll live to tell the tale. But what happens for now? In my opinion, this is a lesson for us all. If we fight together, we will win. But after that? Corona will go away, and with it, our common sense, too. Human beings can’t stay satisfied without inventing enemies. Newspapers will again be full with the news of ‘us’ and ‘others’. So, we will fight each other again; we will blame each other again; we will plunder the earth again; we will destroy the environment again. There is no end of human stupidity and egoism which will very possibly lead us to a gradual doomsday – a point of no return. But, I’m sure, one day the earth will heal – with or without the humanity. The choice is ours to make.

 

—April 11, 2020

Interview: Weird Dream Society

Weird Dream Society is an anthology of weird, dark stories put together by editor-in-chief Julie C. Day and co-editors Carina Bissett and Chip Houser. It’s due out May 26th; preorders are available now. All proceeds go to benefit RAICES, the Texas org dedicated to defending immigrant children, families and refugees. Reckoning Press is acting as a parent press and nonprofit umbrella. (And I also contributed a story.) So I was lucky enough to get the editors together virtually, along with social media coordinator Steve Toase, to answer some questions about the intersection of literature and activism.

 

Michael: Why an anthology of weird fiction to benefit RAICES? Do you see an inherent connection between the weird and immigration justice, or is it about doing something you love to help a cause you care about, or both?

 

Julie: I’m tempted to give a blanket yes and be done with it. But this is a yes with perspectives and layers. A yes to both questions. I love fiction that sings at the line level, that surprises emotionally, that carries nuance and the unsettling sense that nothing is simple and everything—even what we consider positive outcomes—comes at a cost. So, yes, bringing this sort of fiction to the fore and mixing my interests with this project made sense. This book is very much a labor of love.

I also think that a specific sort of strange fiction—the moniker others apply to the stories I write and to the stories that I’m often drawn to—is all about inhabiting what we considered the everyday world, but with the perspective so skewed it feels alien, like an entirely different land. Using fiction to pull us into a place where we can actually connect and empathize with experiences unknown to us in real life is the gift of such fiction.

In general, genre performs such a function well. There are markers of class, accepted logic trees, gender, sexuality, romance, and all the rest, that we recognize no matter what the setting. In fact, genre is often the most powerful lens to examine our cultural and personal assumptions by overlaying them—in some way—on another setting. But this sense of otherness I’m most especially drawn to—that goes a step further. It bypasses the analytical brain and taps into our emotional memories.

Jenefer Robinson in her book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and it’s Role in Literature, Music, and Art discusses two different pathways in the brain: declarative memory and emotional memory. Well have emotional responses that bypass the cognitive process, what we call gut responses. This emotional response is based on a type of scenario/set of learned stimuli with no conscious memory attached. We layer the reasons on after the fact. This is why logical arguments don’t sway people’s opinions, but rather entrench them further. Logic doesn’t address the emotion-learned stimuli connection.

Strange or weird fiction with its visceral emotional hooks and dream logic connects directly with our emotional realities.

We are at our core ruled by emotional responses—attempts at logic don’t change minds—experiences expand understanding. And fiction, strange and unexpected fiction, when successful, takes a reader on an emotional and hopefully mind-expanding journey. It’s why strange fiction is naturally drawn to inequities of power in all its forms. It plays with our emotional patterning. What makes it magic is that it’s not a type of moral fiction; it’s not trying to teach a lesson. Instead, it simply lays out personal situations in a way that makes it able to expand or adjust the patterns our emotional memory relies on.

 

Carina: Weird fiction often exists in a dream space. By viewing social justice through a speculative lens, writers can explore multiple facets of the issues at hand. It also creates interstitial pathways to new experiences without the need to follow the rigid structure so often imposed in more traditional formats. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the elegant lyricism and amorphous nature so often prevalent in strange fiction. The connection to poetry is intentional; it opens opportunities for an emotional experience through the play of language. The stories in this anthology connect in a fluid and unnerving way. Rarely do they spell out a specific argument, yet they link to endless possibilities of the ways we can challenge the inequalities that surround us.

 

Chip: At the moment, the United States is far weirder than the fiction in this anthology. That we’ve been able to focus our attention on something positive, something to benefit those who are in desperate need of just a modest fraction of the attention being commandeered by a certain limelight-mongering politician, has been a much-needed reprieve.

 

Steve: As someone who is an immigrant to another country, (although I’m in a very privileged position) the experience is often surreal and can be unsettling, especially as you try to grasp language and social conventions. This creates situations that definitely feel weird, and highlight the weird of everyday life.

 

Michael: How do you see the interplay between art and activism? In these astonishingly fast-changing and accompanyingly terrifying times, I’ve felt a strong temptation to give up writing fiction and go chain myself to an old-growth tree under threat by a saw, or to some train tracks where fossil fuels pass through sovereign Indigenous lands, or etc. I’ve felt, and thus far resisted, the temptation to shutter Reckoning and donate its whole budget to RAICES or Sunrise Movement or the SPLC. Helping support Weird Dream Society has played a significant part in helping mitigate that feeling—thank you very much for doing this! Any other words of support for people choosing to make art in these hard times?

 

Julie: Can I just say, see my answer above? No? Okay. Michael, we need to engage with life and with our selves. We get a short span of years and if we’re very lucky we find passions that give it meaning. Creativity isn’t an indulgence. It’s the way in which the world turns and transforms into something better and new. Or doesn’t. But at least you tried and you fought and you did some good just by trying. Reckoning and this project will speak to people in a different way than if you chained yourself to a tree—though both definitely have their place. Which I guess means I’m suggesting you add tree-chaining alongside publishing, rather than choose one over the other….

 

Carina: In my role as an educator, I emphasize the connection between art and activism on a regular basis. There is a rich history of the ways protest art and music have changed the world. I believe that art and activism are intrinsically linked. I can’t speak for other authors, but every story I’ve ever written has some aspect of protest in it. Some of these might be more personal than others, but my stories are always about exploring the ways in which the world can be changed. How do we stop the prevalence of domestic violence? How do we challenge cultural norms that dismiss the needs of our most vulnerable populations? How do we shift societal values from cultural consumption and materialism to interpersonal relationships and a sense of community? Art challenges these ideals in ways that other forms of rhetoric often fail, and I think that’s because art opens avenues of emotion. What is more persuasive than that?

 

Chip: Your support has been essential for this anthology, which illustrates the effective interplay of art and activism. For me, this anthology seemed like the perfect way to help do some real good in the world and give a little scratch to the creative itch as well.

 

Steve: I was kicked out of home at 16, spending three years either No Fixed Abode or vulnerably housed. In 2016 I was lead writer (alongside Becky Cherriman who has also experienced homelessness, and Imove Arts) on a project called Haunt, working in my hometown to highlight hidden homelessness. We started by working with people experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories, put that work in an anthology, and finally brought the stories together into a promenade theatre performance. What that taught me about art and activism is art is incredibly effective at disruption. By disrupting people’s everyday routine, it’s possible to bring their attention to situations their eyes would normally glance over. Art can humanise, and art can enlighten; even if just seeing ‘RAICES’ brings someone to google the term, it disrupts their day and gives some time to a perspective they may not have acknowledged otherwise.

 

Michael: You’re the Weird Dream Society. I love weird dreams! I practiced lucid dreaming for awhile, and my story in the anthology is based on a dream I had. So: pitch me a dream you’ve had, if you were to turn it into a story? Bonus points if it has an immigrant justice angle!

 

Julie: I rarely remember my dreams. And when I do they quickly slip away and all that’s left is my partner’s expression of bemusement after I’ve finished describing what has been going on in my mind. However, daydreams are an entirely different type of story. I have all sorts, some of which are moments I relive again and again. They all seem to include worldbuilding. Something I hadn’t considered until just now. Huh…. Some of these worlds have been with me for decades, along with some of the versions of “me.” There are a couple of soft-science-based portal daydreams. At least one is centered on a city populated by people displaced via such portals who then have to deal with a system in which they 1) have no power and 2) are seen as no more important than the service they provide. Plus a sky city. It has that as well. I guess a number of my daydreams are rather classic sf!

 

“The Flayed Angel” is an anatomical drawing (1746) from Myologie complete en couleur et grandeur naturelle by Jacques Gautier d’Agoty.

Carina: Next to reading and writing, my favorite activity is sleeping. I tend to have vivid dreams, and they often play out in a serial manner. For me, dreaming is a lot like binge-watching on Netflix. I love it. My brain usually plays out whatever story I might be working on at the time. It’s a way for my creative self to fill in plot holes, develop characters, and examine themes. Right now, I’m working on a novel, so my dreams are deeply rooted in that world. However, if I go back to an unconnected dream, the most recent one in my journal was about a haunted library filled with books bound in human skin. I tend to get riled up when I read about historical accounts of women locked up in insane asylums, and even angrier when I think about how the flayed skin of some of these discarded women were used to create covers for books written by male medical professionals. No immigrant justice angel in this one, but there is definitely a pissed off ghost involved and quite possibly an incident involving spontaneous combustion.

 

Chip: Well, there’s another reason to be jealous of the fertile mind of Carina! Like Julie, I’m not gifted with dream memories—maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the stories in this anthology. I love that Amanda Invades the Museum is based on a dream, it definitely channels the peculiarity and vividness unique to dream logic. It hadn’t occurred to me before in this way, but I’m sure all of the stories in the collection have dream fragments woven into them.

 

Steve: I used to have a lot of ‘waking dreams’ where I woke up during the night to see faceless figures standing in the room, which would be terrifying until I became aware enough for them to fade. While this hasn’t led to a single story, it’s definitely influenced the sense of something just out of sight in our world. I think it encapsulates the lack of security both people experiencing homelessness and immigrants feel; the sense that someone can appear at any hour of the day and any vague sense of safety will be lost in a moment.

 

Michael: Thank you all very much for these profound thoughts, it’s been a pleasure!

Great Auk

Pinguinus impennis

 

Once, flocks of great auks nested on the rocks

off the coast of the North Atlantic. The first bird

 

to be called a penguin, they were built to swim,

but slow, defenseless on land. Pairs mated for life,

 

nesting shoulder to shoulder in dense rookeries,

laying one egg on bare rock, taking turns tending

 

the egg until it hatched. Devoted parents, they cared

for their young even after they’d fledged;

 

adults were seen swimming, chicks perched

on their backs. In those days, a sighting of great auks

 

quickened a sailor’s heart, signaled landfall ahead.

Their end came when the Europeans’ love for featherbeds

 

brought hunters in search of down (after every eider

had been plucked, gone). To loosen their plumage,

 

auks were boiled in cauldrons over fires fed with the oil

of auks killed before them, since there was little wood to be found.

 

In 1830, a volcano erupted off the tip of Iceland, submerging

the last nesting colony on Geirfuglasker, great auk rock.

 

Refugees, the auks moved to the island of Eldey. There,

on July 3, 1844, the last pair was killed by hunters

 

gathering specimens for a museum. Here’s how one hunter

described the scene: I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings.

 

He made no cry. I strangled him.

 

 

Note: Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Sigurour Ísleifsson described the act; the words in italics are his.

 

“Great Auk” originally appeared in Passings, first published by Expedition Press in 2016 and reprinted by Wandering Aengus Press in 2019.

A Predicament

Editor’s note: In the submission call for this series, I asked everybody to answer two questions: how has the pandemic affected your creative practice, and how will the world change?

 

The short answer, Michael, is that I will change nothing and I doubt the world will change. The slightly longer answer is that the world has always been unravelling: in our lifetimes, there have been multiple genocides and there hasn’t been a single day without apartheid or war. As I’m fond of saying, the apocalypse is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.

A predicament many writers are suddenly facing, staring into the white eye of pandemic, is this: how can we write something that feels true if what’s true keeps being beaten, burnt up, disappeared, diseased, disintegrated, dissolved, eviscerated—gutted like a fish, pulled away from under us, quarantined, quashed, revealed to have been lies and slander? How can we write something real? How can we put pen to paper to lovingly describe the deck chairs on the Titanic when the ship is sinking and they won’t keep still?



First, reader, if this is the first time you’re feeling this particular feeling of the world being sucked into the drain, vorticing your words away and mixing your metaphors with sewage water and rising bile, and I say this without meaning to be flippant or to dismiss the very real panic, congratulations. Up until now you, somehow, had comparative stability. You were, somehow, not living with the threat of climate change that keeps thrumming the threads of all our lives vibrating right next to your ear. Or a myriad of the other things that threaten to devour us. You were making sandcastles at the top of the hourglass. You may have known about the threat of literal apocalypse, but you didn’t feel it bodily. That’s good, for your life. That’s good.



At some point in the history of literature, the horizon crashed into the International Date Line and all fiction that was being written turned into speculative fiction. I don’t know exactly when that was, because the International Date Line is imaginary, but maybe it was the day after the Berlin Wall was razed. Maybe it was the day before Iceland fined and imprisoned its bankers that had caused the economy to collapse. Maybe it was yesterday, but I doubt it. More to the point, there is no longer such a thing as fiction that is not speculative. 



Normally, in the world you thought you lived in before, speculative fiction was the catch-all term for a specific market of fiction dominated by science fiction and fantasy, but where other genres such as steampunk, horror, alternate history, and the like also resided. In this definition, writing with strong similarities to speculative fiction but which comes from a tradition of more literary or mainstream elements, such as slipstream, magical realism, modern fairy tales and technothrillers, has usually not been included under the umbrella. This division is purely market-based, as all genres are. What defines speculative fiction is a point of departure from our world: a man with giant batwings under his suit, telekinesis, a portal through a mirror to another world, the continents on Earth itself being arranged differently, the year 3001, Napoleon victorious at Waterloo. The points of departure are different in nature, but they are all flipped variables. 0 to 1. In our world, the one you used to live in, the Soviet Union did not put a man on the Moon before America did. In the world you used to inhabit, freak storms did not sink all of Columbus’ fleet. In that world, Neanderthals didn’t evolve parallel to us. But what if they did? And so on. 



Some variables are more influential than others; some changes cascade other changes. What you’re experiencing is whole arrays turned into garbage code, though, and it’s natural to not be able to parse this. Some of you have felt this before, and maybe the only thing that made you able to create art again was manually going down to the fuse box of your life and flipping the variables one by one: not homeless anymore, not in love with that asshole, five thousand kilometres away from family, eleven days without skipping a meal, twelve days without skipping a meal, thirteen days without skipping a meal.

You’re not going to have that much access to that fuse box while the societal web is tearing. But the principle remains the same.

This is not a controversial statement: all fiction is based on points of departure from the world you believed yourself to be a part of, because otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. So the thing that separated speculative fiction from the other fiction, disregarding the market argument, was the nature of the variable. The point of departure was such that the world felt like a different place, right? And now, when you think back on a working class novel from the 1980s that you’ve read, it uncannily feels like it was written in a different world. But it hasn’t changed. It is merely speculative, and you’re seeing it.

So, you don’t know which variables do what in the web you’re seeing unravelling. You’re standing in your indoor sandals in the basement, flipping light switches and trying to get the floor to stop yawning open. If you’re a speculative writer already, you might have an advantage here, because you already know how to scout for the variables. If there’s no ink when you try to type, you probably need to imagine the world you’re writing in first. You don’t have to write what you know, you can take one variable at a time. (It’s always like that in trying to make the world better than it is, which is what you should be trying to do.) Speculate. Rinse, repeat. Depart.

 

April 5, 2020