Short Bread – January 2015
Ogres of East Africa by Sofia Samatar, originally in Long Hidden (Rose Fox and Daniel Older eds, 2014)
I read this in Cicada Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2014 issue, and was in love with it from the first sentence. This is a story narrated in the margins (literally) of a catalogue of fantastic beasts, protected from the eyes of Alibhai’s racist and boorish employer by the serendipity of the latter’s bad eyesight. ‘Ogres’ is a perfectly executed musing on the way cultures and religions meet, and how power resolves at the intersections. And also, most delightfully, it’s a musing on where the mundane and the unexplained meet.
The thing is: in Samatar’s story, the mundane and the unexplained are twined together, fastened by the melancholy of hardship. This hardship wears different guises for each character, but is felt by our protagonist Alibhai; the curious, mysterious Mary, his primary source of information; and the ogres of East Africa themselves:
[Kisirimu] will be betrayed by song. He will die in a pit, pierced by spears.
I said ‘perfectly executed’ – ‘Ogres’ really feels like a master at work. The style is clean and limned with poetry, the words are neither too few nor too many, the pacing is flawless, and the story itself is one of the best I’ve read in ages.
A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei (trans. John Chu) in Clarkesworld #100
Man, Tang Fei’s stories are weeeird.
This is the second of her pieces I’ve read in Clarkesworld, both translated by John Chu. The first I read, ‘Pepe‘ (Clarkesworld #93), about two kids in an amusement park, was weird like a sensation you can’t decide whether you’re enjoying or hating–of a tattoo gun grazing skin, or a muscle stretch the moment it starts to burn. ‘A Universal Elegy’ is a completely different story to ‘Pepe’. It’s a far-future sci-fi, told in letters from the narrator to her brother back on Earth, but that same almost-uncomfortable weirdness permeated my reading.
The narrator drops hints about her mental health, is unreliable, and herself often confused; she meets an alien called Hull, who becomes her lover and convinces her to travel to his home planet, Dieresis. Here, she’s convinced to stay indoors and is fed a special diet to encourage her body to evolve. All is shadowy; conspiracy and foreboding seem to lace every word. The central mystery–of what it is that the narrator will become under Hull’s sculpting/tutelage, and what it is that everyone else on Dieresis already is–resolves in probably the strangest way of any published story I’ve read in the last two years.
At heart, this dark, discomfiting story is a story about relationships, and compromise, and falling in and out of love. Sound blahblah, rehashed? Believe me, it’s not.
It’s not just Tang’s weirdness I love though, because it turns out I do enjoy the weird sensation of reading her stories. It’s also the memorableness of her writing. I thought about ‘Pepe’ for months after I read it, and there is a particular scene from ‘A Universal Elegy’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget (no spoilers!).
Another Mouth by Lisa L. Hannett in The Dark #1
Every now and then, The Dark thinks it’s SFF Christmas and hands out digital subscriptions for free. I snagged one, and have been making my way through the issues, starting from the beginning. Hannett’s story in the very first issue, ‘Another Mouth’, was the first standout I hit: a dark, desperate horror story set in what feels like a rural eighteenth century Scottish coastal town.
Can I just say this about Hannett: I’ve heard her read a different story (‘Sweet Subtleties‘) and have now read this one, and based on this small sample, I’m building a hypothesis that food-slash-eating descriptions are a powerful device in Hannett’s stories. And it’s kind of awesome that she can make eating broth a mega-creepy plot device in a horror story.
Another thing I loved here was that the narrative moved beautifully even though the setting never changed from the protagonist’s small kitchen. Neat trick.