A review of The Women’s March by Jennifer Chiaverini

Published July 27, 2021 by William Morrow

As a lover of historical fiction and a feminist, I was so excited to read this book. The Women’s March: A Novel of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession was thoroughly researched and well-rounded—a total pleasure to read. Though I’m Canadian, the American suffrage movement helped pave the way for my own right to vote, and so much of our countries’ histories are intertwined. While I’d heard stories about suffragists before, I’d never been able to get inside their heads and experiences—until I opened this book.  

Jennifer Chiaverini has given readers an excellent story depicting the nuances of the suffrage movement, intersectionality, and the different challenges various groups of women faced while achieving the right to vote. So often, the American history that is taught in schools excludes women of color and their stories, yet they played a crucial role in shaping the rights we have today. By portraying characters’ intersectional experiences with sexism, racism, and classism, the book is not only richer but more historically accurate. Chiaverini didn’t shy away from depicting the hard truths and rougher parts of the suffrage movement. I learned a lot from reading the book, which is exactly why I love historical fiction. I appreciated how the book gave readers a glimpse into the nitty-gritty details of planning the march (right down to the colors of individual marchers’ uniforms), and the drama that went on behind the scenes of such an event.  

I also admired the variety of perspectives offered throughout The Women’s March. Ida, Maud, and Alice give readers a unique insight into the frustrations, mundane elements, setbacks, triumphs, and range of emotions experienced during the women’s suffrage movement. Alice’s experience fighting for suffrage in Great Britain—facing imprisonment and hunger strikes—colored her approach to suffrage in the US. Maud’s experience as a working woman and her notoriety for interrupting politicians’ speeches with pointed questions gave readers insight into the working-class fight for suffrage. Ida’s strength and determination as someone born into slavery and fighting for both racial justice and women’s suffrage added complexity to the conversation that history classes so often gloss over. The stakes of women’s suffrage are different for all three women, and we see them pave the way for a movement that includes people of many backgrounds and experiences united against a common goal. The book brought to light many details that we don’t discuss anymore, such as how suffrage movements were originally state-by-state and that a vote on women’s suffrage could only occur every ten years in some states. It also depicted challenges that, unfortunately, still largely persist today, particularly when it comes to racial injustice. The book was empowering, insightful, and interesting. Though the action is more of a slow drip than an intense battle scene, I would recommend it to historical fiction buffs

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Women’s March, there were a few elements of the novel that needed refining. At times, the narrative felt a bit choppy as the story pulled readers in three different narrative direction. But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on Maud, Alice, or Ida’s perspectives. However, I did find myself skimming earlier passages to remind myself where each character’s storyline was at. The suspense was so great that I wasn’t as interested in the smaller details on the page—I found myself wanting to skip ahead or skim pages to get to the action. That being said, I appreciated the lasting tension Chiaverini created—clearly, she had me hooked! While melding the three stories together did cause some confusion at times, their story arcs were well-rounded and exciting. Each woman’s story could have been a stand-alone piece, but weaving them together allowed readers to understand the complex fight for women’s suffrage. By following these three characters for so long, and getting to know them intimately, it becomes even more exciting for readers to see them eventually meet at the march.  

One of the most striking layers of complexity in The Woman’s March was learning how various Suffrage groups disagreed on the approach they should take as advocates—disagreements that ranged from what level of government to target, to class divisions, state divisions, and racial injustice. Ida’s story was particularly outstanding to me, and I appreciated the care the author took with her narrative to show readers how much harder she had to fight, the discrimination she faced, and how the stakes for women’s suffrage differed for Black and other marginalized people. This perspective adds weight to the cultural understanding of our shared history. The more society unpacks concepts of intersectionality, racism, sexism, and elements of identity, the more we also need to look into the past and add to the edited version of history taught in schools.

Overall, The Woman’s March was a rich, complex glimpse into the women’s suffrage movement. Upon closing the pages, I saw history from a different perspective, and I appreciate the opportunity to step into Ida, Alice, and Maud’s shoes for a few hundred pages. I’d definitely recommend the book to anyone interested in historical fiction, social justice, or women’s rights, particularly if you’re looking for an intersectional way to consider history. Each of the three protagonists were relatable—even though I’ll never share some of their experiences, getting to walk in their shoes for a while was incredibly moving. I appreciate the opportunity Jennifer Chiaverini has given me and other readers to take a march through our predecessors’ stories, giving us powerful moments to consider along the way.  

A Review of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

Published June 15, 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Liselle Sambury’s debut novel, Blood Like Magic, combines the allure of hidden magic and advanced technology set in a not-so-distant future. The story revolves around Voya, a witch tasked with finding and destroying her first love in order to receive full witch power from her ancestors. This book promised an engaging plot via a Black-witch fantasy, LGBTQ+ representation, strong family focus, and a unique hate-to-love romance, but it doesn’t quite deliver on most of these promises.

The book aims to bring marginalized identities to the forefront with a Black-girl protagonist and a myriad of LGBTQ+ characters. But the way Sambury talks about certain identities, especially the transgender community and Asian community, seem to perpetuate microaggressions that these communities already face daily. For example, one scene in the book revolves around Voya wanting to avoid a conversation about her Calling (the revelation of what her task is) by deflecting the focus away from her and towards Alex, her transgender cousin, and Alex’s “Bleeding” (the initial onset of witch powers via literal bleeding), even though Alex obviously does not want to be the center of conversation nor want to share. This kind of microaggression pits a hyper-focus on the stories of trans and gender-expansive individuals, using their personal stories as ways to avoid uncomfortable or unwanted conversation without the consent of the individual themselves.

Another scene shortly after involves Voya assuming the genders of three people she sees on a stage, blatantly labeling them as boys or girls. Yet, in the very next sentence, she wonders if the emcee will reveal their pronouns so that she can “adjust” her language. The irony in this is that she’s already assumed these characters’ genders and yet still half-heartedly attempts allyship by hoping to use the correct pronouns. These moments of flawed allyship, moments that don’t directly affect the plot trajectory of the novel, could have been easily avoided.

Additionally, the novel’s language surrounding Asian food perpetuates Asian culture and food as foreign. This is most explicit when the book doesn’t find the need to explain the origins of certain foods like pelau, but the need to do so with Asian dishes like adobo.

The pacing of the novel was also affected by arbitrarily thrown-in details that seemed unrelated to the plot. Not only does the book explicitly tell the reader the characters’ feelings rather than showing them, it also tosses around details about race and gender that serve no point in the story other than to mention it. The mentions of these identities seemed to be diversity fodder—a way to check off and ascertain marginalized identities in the novel. This does a real disservice to the profoundness of these identities by not giving these characters more substance than just a name and identity label.

All of this builds into the book’s problematic themes, two of which this review will briefly discuss. The first is the idea that painful experiences build character, which can be completely true—unless this involves watching a child relative drown in a freezing lake and lose two toes for the sake of “building adversity.” Or, forcefully (without deliberation or consent) taking away any chance a beloved cousin has at being able to fulfill her dreams because the characters know she has the strength to create a new future. This is supposedly the novel’s promised “strong family focus—instead, it screams of a family that very aggravatingly refuses to communicate—a damaging family trait that causes and perpetuates about 80 percent of the plot points in the story.

The second theme regards the intent vs impact discussion throughout the book. The story somehow focuses on intent being most important. Voya, at the end of the novel, says, “We decide who we are, not the magic we practice. And I need to trust myself enough to know, however I choose to use my power, it’ll be for the right reasons.” So this leads the reader to the problematic conclusion that . . . it’s okay to kidnap and kill people in rituals? Or, it’s okay to use magic to chain a person to a house? Or, it’s okay to brush off the fact that a family needlessly participates in a murder ritual because of the family’s poor communication? The answer to all these questions is yes, because it’s for the family’s sake and safety. And while the end of the book tries to focus on how “being [pure] or [unpure] doesn’t preclude you from being morally right or wrong otherwise,” it also entirely contradicts that point by very clearly painting specific characters as morally wrong and others as morally right – for example, the book condemns those who commit murder for science but doesn’t for those who commit murder to save the family’s magic. This could just be a great build-up for an extremely satisfying redemption arc in the confirmed sequel—but as it stands, the book paints Voya and her family more as antagonists.

With all that said, Blood Like Magic does have its upsides. The magic and worldbuilding are extremely compelling, particularly the ways that magic and technology coexist in this advanced society. The author also chooses not to front-load readers with worldbuilding information and slowly reveals new gadgets, new inventions, and changes in this world one by one in an extremely captivating way. And the magic/technology theme isn’t without nuance. Sambury skillfully incorporates examinations of class and socioeconomic status into her novel, highlighting the ways in which advancements might further certain inequities. Interwoven into this is an analysis of immigration and international adoption, shining a light on the multiple perspectives involved in such policies.

The flaws in Blood Like Magic don’t outweigh the positives, but we can look forward to Sambury’s future work. Sambury isn’t afraid to explore topics that other authors often sideline, and while there may be fumbles at these attempts, these attempts also leave the reader with great anticipation of the growth that we will see in her sequel and subsequent novels.

The Depressed Person Leaves the Zoom Call

I remember one time sitting across a table from a woman telling me a story about how her dog ate a roof tile. My job requires me to listen patiently, even to stories I’d rather not, and so I sat there, making my best effort to look concerned and not interrupt.

I feel as though clarification is in order: I am not a monster, and anyone who knows me will readily confirm that I love dogs. Give me your spaniels, your greyhounds, and your pugs and I will cuddle and fawn over them to the point of ridiculousness.

Not this time, though. Listening to a woman’s account of a story of her newly acquired dog— a puppy, to make things even worse and to make me look like even more of an asshole—choking on a piece of tile, I felt as if her words were washing over me, leaving me intact, unbothered.

In other words, I was numb.

Before you ask, the puppy was fine.

But now, with the typical self-centeredness of our age, let me get back to my point. Which is me.

I was going through some personal stuff myself back then. Many months and multiple therapy sessions later, I realized that I had, in fact, been depressed, although if you’d asked me back then, I would have shrugged, brushing it aside with some sardonic punchline, and then changed the subject altogether. I have never been a big fan of the “It’s okay not to be okay” pastel-themed mantra that Instagram shoves down our throats, to the point where it makes me feel a bit resentful. Deep down inside, I have always felt that it actually isn’t okay not to be okay; after all, isn’t that what the whole point of not being okay actually is?

Anyway, what I did not, back then, want to identify as depression registered instead as numbness. I was numb when this nice, worried woman told me about her dog ordeal. I was numb watching a massacre unravel on one of the Netflix shows I mindlessly binged, though I admit puppy-suffering numbness does make me feel slightly more ashamed looking back. I wasn’t just willfully ignorant of what was going on in the world. The gravest toll that my depression took on me is that it made me feel numb to the suffering of others. Depression and empathy don’t go hand in hand.

I look back at that period now, when I ponder whether or not it would be appropriate to read “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace (DFW) with my students. The young people who attend my book club are so brilliant—sensitive and aware in ways that it seems only Gen-Z, in its best version, can be. The age gap between us doesn’t seem so big, except that it is—identifying as the youngest of Millennials, I already feel tired and somewhat washed-up. While it seems like their open approach to depression and mental health makes them feel at once more vulnerable and in touch with the world within and without, all mine did was render me numb.

(Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I am a boomer.)

So, there is this dilemma whether we should even read this short story in which depression is approached ironically. For most social media inhabitants, irony seems now increasingly problematic, perhaps at times hardly palatable. Irony requires us to diminish our suffering and distance ourselves from it, and sometimes it takes a while to unpack and absorb. All of these requirements condemn it to failure in the scrolling system, the quicksand of easily offensible.

The main character of DFW’s story acquires this tunnel vision of depression that prevents her from regarding the pain of others as anything else than a segue into her own doom and gloom. The author covers this pity party with a mercilessness indicative of something much more profound: the kind of hate one usually reserves only for oneself. In fact, Wallace himself famously struggled with depression, which led to his suicide in 2008. And so, we arrive at the crux of the dilemma: if you’re the one dealing with something, is it okay to make fun of it? The question is not apparent or readily available; after all, self-ridicule has had a tough time recently as well. In times when righteous indignation abounds and apology videos are legion, irony is in short supply—but whether rightly so is a different question. It may leave you wondering whether we actually lose something in this tedious process of rectification.

Reading this (admittedly hilarious) piece today, I can see how parts of it have not aged well. Putting aside the question of irony for just a moment, consider the phone! Nowadays we are more likely to associate depression or anxiety with dreading any conversations that involve listening to another person’s voice and having to respond to it in real-time. Perhaps the harrowing sound of the “empty apian drone of the dial tone” that left the protagonist feeling such a sudden blow of loneliness could now be replaced with that feeling you get after a Zoom meeting when, suddenly, after excruciatingly prolonged goodbyes and due amount of over-earnest waving, faces disappear from your screen one by one, and then there is just you, staring at your own pixelated features, face muscles gently relieving from all the smiling, as once again you register the emptiness of your apartment—or is it just me?

I recently came across a New Yorker cartoon of a raggedy young woman, sitting in sweatpants in front of her laptop, which is resting against her PC screen, which is right next to her tablet, which is right above the phone she squeezes in her hand while listening to her therapist impart kernels of wisdom: “I recommend less screen time,” albeit with a few caveats of common sense: “Except, of course, for our therapy sessions, school, work, staying connected with loved ones, dating, telehealth, yoga instruction, and searching for vaccine appointments.” A page I follow reposted it with a single “Ouch!” as a caption.

“Ouch!” indeed.

As in: Ouch, I guess I am spending fifteen hours a day in front of my laptop these days, and I guess it’s not going to change any time soon, and it’s not like I have a choice to do anything about it at this point.

But also: Ouch, that person looks familiar. I feel like I have already seen her somewhere; she looks at me with the same air of fatigue after the Zoom parties are over and everybody else has left the call.

And it sucks to be her. It sucks to be The Depressed Person (TDP).

Which brings me to the point that I would surely bring up at my book club meeting should I choose to discuss the text, which is: who do we identify with while reading this story? Who do we root for? DFW’s merciless sarcasm (in a perhaps too obviously self-loathing way) invites us to distance ourselves from TDP’s never-ending landline pity parties. So maybe we sympathize with TSF (The Sick Friend) or TST (The Suicidal Therapist), both of them quietly, tactfully, offering their attention to the pathetically clingy person in need. The friend whose not-so-vibrant and not-quite-active life is being, as we can imagine, marked by the rhythm of chemotherapy sessions. The tacitly suicidal therapist whose death Karen (because, honestly, can we just call TDP Karen at this point? You can fight me on it, but I know you won’t) manages, somehow—at the same time, both amazingly and unsurprisingly—to appropriate, turning the woman’s deliberate overdose into this grand discourtesy on her part.

I know how it feels to numbly listen to stories you’d rather not, while at the same time quietly processing something much graver. And I certainly know how it feels to feel suicidal. And to be perfectly honest with you on some deep, personal level, I do feel like The Depressed Person at times. (Sometimes. Sometimes not. But these zoom-filled days increasingly so.) Does this mean that I should not laugh at her?

We live in times of numbness and often-professed empathy. Even though I have experienced my fair share of numbness, I remain a die-hard fan of empathy; perhaps not the often-professed kind, but the quiet kind, the kind that makes you stay on the phone or look at your screen, taking in your friends’ stories of woe, even when you feel really, really tired after spending fifteen hours in front of your laptop, because they need you right there, right now.

And yet, at the same time, I also consider myself a die-hard fan of irony. The way it helps us to let go of things. The way it puts those things into perspective. Are these two qualities mutually exclusive? It may seem like it, especially judging by our all-or-nothing social media attitudes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps we could be tender to ourselves and to each other and allow irony to enter our discourse once again—not the scathing sarcasm, but the gentle irony, a smirk, a sigh, a sign letting you know that maybe, just maybe, even the grave things don’t need to be taken seriously all the time.

I feel like I have yet to find out, and the best way to do that is by bouncing these inconclusive ideas off those brilliant people who attend the book club (the therapeutic quality of which is, by the way, invaluable). Because, after all, this is what studying the classics is supposed to be about— holding them up to scrutiny to see which parts of their work have not aged well and which parts can still afford us some insight, the kind of which has lately been overlooked. We can empathize with them and/or ironize about them—and there is no better way than doing it together; ideally not over the phone, but at least for now a Zoom call will do.

Bookmarks, Pulp Fiction, Paved Roads & Lovecraft Country

Not having a hometown bookstore growing up, I always pull the car over to hit the local independent bookstores when traveling as an adult. I turn a deaf ear to the repeated question of travel companions asking, “Aren’t all bookstores the same?” Whether the city is big or small, I’ve found that bookstores capture the identity of a place and diverse books on their shelves have the power to open worlds. Browsing the shelves of a local bookstore may reveal the close-mindedness of residential views in a town and whether a reader needs to travel to other cities to find their book nook. Once working as a bookseller in Chicago, I even saw a young woman from out of town moved to tears in our bookstore, struck by a sense of belonging caused by seeing her own identities and experiences reflected in books before her. So, to answer my travel companions of the past: No, not all bookstores are the same, and that is a wonderful thing.

One of my favorite bookstores is Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (now Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room). This bookstore is not only the oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the United States but is named after the James Baldwin novel of the same name. Both the store and the novel place identity at the forefront of their mission, as Baldwin’s novel was about a man finding himself in Paris, mirroring Baldwin’s own journey of self-discovery as a gay black man. When Baldwin came back to an America caught in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, his words would help many find their own sense of identity, a legacy they still carry, continuing to influence the idea of self-exploration in modern media. The HBO Max show Lovecraft Country is a great example of this legacy as it uses a James Baldwin speech in Episode One to not only illustrate the racism that the characters experience but to emphasize the central theme of identity in the show. And so I’ve found myself looking at how Lovecraft Country drives through its antiquated pulp novel inspiration and onto new highways, uplifting diverse voices within speculative fiction and developing into Afrofuturism.

Books from our past inspire Season One of Lovecraft Country, both the shared fantasies found on wire spinner racks and those that explore the unknown. The series—based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name—features a cast of black characters and deals with forbidden magic, white supremacy, and stories both pulped and personal. The show draws inspiration from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne and sets itself in 1950s America, where Jim Crow laws segregated much of the country. It is in this setting that Lovecraft Country draws its most important inspiration from another book: The Green Book, an annual guidebook for black motorists by Victor Hugo Green, published from 1936 to 1966. In the show, the characters travel across the country on a mission to publish their version of the book, researching safe establishments for black travelers. The map of any black motorist traveling through “sundown towns” in Jim Crow America could read “Here Be Monsters,” as depicted in the show’s first episode, “Sundown.” A sundown town was a segregated municipality that did not allow for any non-white residents; if your business in town was not done come sundown, your safety was not guaranteed. Lovecraft Country captures the anxiety incited by these laws, showing us the characters in peril, driving to reach the county border before sunset without speeding as the racist sheriff—looking for any excuse to pull them over—follows closely behind them. The purpose of The Green Book was to find a safe haven from this monster of racism in America. Just as the content of the fiction books that Lovecraft Country is pulling from as source material is not just their use of monsters, magic, and mayhem, but to show that by blending the fantastical with the factual, we forge a roadmap from mindsets of the past. A better identity for the genre has now unfolded, with modern work opening up into diverse narratives, like those found in Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is about collecting the images of African diaspora culture to rocket them forward into a high tech, science fiction setting (as seen in the blockbuster success of Black Panther), as opposed to carrying on the traditional space colonization path from the pulp magazine days of science fiction and fantasy in the 1950s. Spoiler Alert: In talking about how Lovecraft Country links to Afrofuturism within this essay, you find some surprises from Season One spoilt, for anyone who hasn’t first watched the show.

The most overt fantastical inspiration for Lovecraft Country is contained within the show’s title, which links it to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). Lovecraft’s work brings to the show the ideas of warlocks, elder gods, and unnamable horrors but also racial influences beyond The Green Book, as it is through the use of Lovecraft’s work that a direct examination of racism comes into play. It is here that I would mention that H.P. Lovecraft was an amateur journalist and self-published The Conservative, which touted his personal anti-immigration and pro-segregation views. Even with his problematic politics, Lovecraft saw power in books (they are a source of magic in his works), and the theme of identity is central to his writing. The key difference between Lovecraft Country and H.P. Lovecraft being that loss of identity is the notion behind Lovecraftian Horror. When “man” confronts a cosmic terror that he cannot understand, he is inevitably driven to the brink of madness; Lovecraft’s work is about man not being able to be at the center of his own universe.

We see the differences in the theme of identity between this pulp inspiration and the television show best when comparing Episode Five, “Strange Case,”to Lovecraft’s story “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1937). In “Strange Case,” the character of Ruby, played by Wunmi Mosaku, wakes up as a white woman after sleeping with a white man, who turns out to be a sorcerer. This episode examines white supremacy and racism in one of its most systemic forms as Ruby uses her new body to get the job she’d always wanted at the downtown department store. Ruby not only gets the job she has repeatedly been turned down for because she was black, but in this new body, she even becomes a manager. In “The Thing on the Doorstep,” the story’s execution is more about Edward Pickman Derby, a male student of the dark arts, being rendered powerless as his wife switches minds with him because “a man’s mind is superior” for certain rituals. Witnessing magic and seeing how small they really are in the universe drives Edward mad in the end; Edward came to magic for the power but can’t deal with the changes that come with it. But Ruby comes into her own through her experience: she faces something bigger than herself—in this case, magic—and to not be limited by the society around her, she uses it. Ruby’s story eventually shows us that she doesn’t need the false self to be at her most powerful. Ruby’s true power comes in learning how to stand firmly in her own form, whereas Edward cannot stand powerfully in his own form alone, and it is up to others to use that form where he is unable. What Lovecraft Country shows us is the power of personal growth and coming to know oneself, regardless of the bigotry of others. The show grows beyond its source material through its characters finding inner strength and growth when facing the cosmic unknown. In juxtaposition, Lovecraft’s writing remains centered on a fear of the growing unknown, haunted by his politics and evident in his treatment of identity.

Lovecraft Country also sees inspiration in the work of Jules Verne (1828–1905). Jules Verne, along with writers like H.G. Wells, established what we know today as the genre of science fiction in the late 1800s. The Verne novel that inspires the characters to dig deeper into identity in Lovecraft Country is Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Journey to the Center of the Earth is the story of a professor and his nephew coming across ancient runic instructions that tell of a pathway to our planet’s core. The journey takes them across Europe, down a volcano, and into a pocket prehistoric world lost to time. We see Journey to the Center of the Earth as inspiration in the show not only with the uncle/nephew mentorship between George and Atticus Freeman, played by Courtney B. Vance and Jonathan Majors, but in the deciphering of runes, this time of a magical origin. And just as in Verne’s book, the characters spend time researching, logging hours in the library, and learning by “reading a damn book” as stated by Atticus’s father, Montrose Freeman, played by Michael Kenneth Williams. In Episode Four, “A History of Violence,” we see the characters taking that research and exploring underground tunnels beneath a museum that is full of deathtraps. When the characters go underground, they are free from the confines of the racism living above them and we see them in full adventure hero form. The inspiration of Verne’s work is not something for the characters to overcome, as with Lovecraft’s work, but for them to embrace.

Verne didn’t see himself as a science fiction or speculative fiction writer, but as a “probable” fiction writer. His work would go on to give future generations inspiration and hope for future discoveries and adventures. For example, his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon told the story of an inventor that shot a projectile off from Florida, not unlike the first manned Apollo rocket launched in 1968. Through Verne, we identify with the wonder of our world becoming smaller, travel becoming quicker, and a celebration of scientific achievements that unite us all. Probable fiction is a precursor to the hope and change we look towards in the future, such as what can be found in the diverse works of Afrofuturism.

Season one of Lovecraft Country uses dime magazine time travel stories of the 1950s to best illustrate characters finding their identity and in doing so, takes the show beyond its pulp inspirations into the empowerment of Afrofuturism. The theories and practices behind Afrofuturism become the secret weapon for the Freeman family in Lovecraft Country. The main character of Atticus Freeman goes from reading and dreaming of pulp heroes in the show’s opening to becoming the mysterious stranger memorialized in family stories, and through time travel, rescuing younger versions of his father and uncle during the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Episode Seven, “I Am”, takes the concept of travel and identity one giant leap forward. In it, the character of Hippolyta, played by Aunjanue Ellis, time travels to become whomever she wants to be in history, with her first stop being 1920s Paris to meet Josephine Baker. She travels to many time periods and lives many personas, but eventually learns to live as herself, gaining the courage to confront the obstacles of her own time: only after traveling through time and coming into her own can she tell her husband, George Freeman, how he has always seen her as a wife and not an equal partner. Hippolyta faces vast cosmic uncertainty but is never driven to fear by the unknown—in fact, she finds her identity and name through it. The final image of the series Lovecraft Country is symbolic of this Afrofuturisistic triumph over adversity, crafted with the future technology from Hippolyta’s time travels, standing victoriously over pinned and defeated Lovecraftian wizardry.

For an onramp to read more Afrofuturism and build your library of diverse voices in the speculative fiction genre, I would say How Long ‘til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemisin is as good a place on the map to start as any. I also mention N.K. Jemisin because of how her record-breaking, three-time Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth series represents a time in the Hugo Award voting when a right-wing group called “Sad Puppies” was campaigning against diversity in the genre. The argument Sad Puppies gave for their campaign was that older guard writers who had “put their dues in” were being sidestepped by newer writers. Some of the writers they mentioned as examples more deserving of a Hugo were writers who tended to write more in the vein of classic pulp fiction writers, a genre historically represented by white men. I will make my point on the whole matter by quoting James Baldwin from a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook:”

“ . . . the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame . . . Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of own reality.”

James Baldwin traveled and lived in Paris for a time to find himself before coming back to the United States and inspiring the Civil Rights Movement with his writing. Like Verne’s work in probable fiction and Baldwin’s work in identity-centered narratives, Afrofuturism is a beacon and a road sign letting individual readers know that there is room for everyone when they arrive home from their travels the long way around and that it is possible to envision a better future. Lovecraft Country shows us throughout the season how there is power in owning our personal journeys and finding hope in books, especially those that embolden us to pave new roads for ourselves and those after us. Books that move the reader forward can inspire those who put the first footprint on the moon or a foot forward when marching for civil rights. And, as we’ve seen, they can even provide a pathway toward self-discovery. Just as a bookstore can be a chain catering to consistency or an independently designed warm welcome, allowing any and all travelers to find a place on the shelves. Come inside with me and cast away the unknown, or—to borrow from Lovecraft Country’s Montrose Freeman—“Read a damn book.”

A Review of Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun by Jeff Chon: SPOILER WARNING!

Published May 1, 2021 by Sagging Meniscus Press

Let me preface this review by giving a major trigger warning. Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, while fiction, references cults, sexual assault, gun violence, racism, and trauma. If you aren’t in the headspace to dive deeper into any of these topics, I don’t suggest reading the book.

As someone who’s worked in publishing for years, I’m rarely surprised by books. Enter Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun. Jeff Chon has created a truly unique text. I’m blown away by how much research must have gone into creating this depth of character, this chaotic plotline, and at times, my visceral reactions. The book begins with rich references to a Korean folktale and returns to the story periodically to underline key themes. Chon seamlessly integrates a variety of literary references, character backstories, and public events into an impressive mosaic of a story. And somehow it all works.

The structure of the book is confusing and messy—but that’s how trauma is, isn’t it? Nothing is clear-cut; nothing makes sense. Chon makes readers feel like we’re constantly searching for answers. The shifting time period was disorienting at first but ended up providing a comprehensive overview of the story. It felt like the flashbacks one might associate with childhood trauma. Jeff Chon balances intense, life-altering events with nitty-gritty details of mundane life (Scott checking his email, taking a shower, scrolling on Instagram, etc.) in a non-cumbersome way, making the story more rich and real. I especially appreciate how these everyday actions end up being more meaningful than they first appear, such as when we see Scott missing Lisa by watching him scroll through old photos on her Instagram.

Chon keeps readers hooked by slowly revealing elements of character backstories. These elements come together as a mosaic of identity and experience. Despite the extreme circumstances under which we meet the characters, Jeff Chon portrays them sympathetically. Though their actions deeply disturb and disgust me, I sort of understand why they end up where they do, thanks to the author’s attention and thoughtfulness.

Readers see the way Scott Bonneville’s trauma has shaped him. We see the relationships throughout his life, his bizarre fascination with violence incited by Catcher in the Rye, and how he relates to his surroundings. And we learn all of this about him while knowing that he will later go into a Pizza Galley and kill someone. We already know the conspiracy theory that led him there and how things didn’t go according to plan. This hindsight allows readers to process Scott’s past in a unique way that lets us think critically about how these experiences shape the man he grows up to be. This story is complex for readers to unpack because we have to sit with what didn’t happen, what did happen, and all the surrounding unanswered questions.

Part of what made the book so startling is the idea that coincidences, non-coincidences, and a combination of timing, conspiracy theories, and personal trauma all lead up to a moment that can change everything. The fact that Scott only becomes the #GoodGuyWithAGun because he got there second—not because he had good intentions—is chilling. He’s the “good guy” because the man he kills was about to kill someone else. This media attention shows how other people can misinterpret a situation and in doing so they project a false “truth” that will be remembered. It’s chilling because it has, does, and will happen.

The whole book makes readers feel complicit in the hurt, bigotry, and violence that happen throughout the story—and it all feels so familiar as we reflect on recent history. The fact that Scott’s actions could have led to tragedy but instead he ends up a hero is both shocking and incredibly believable given recent political events. Jeff Chon shows how someone’s beliefs, their past experiences, and societal interpretation can all blend together in a perfect storm to stir up hatred, passion, and societal upheaval. I don’t know what to think about this book. I know it’s confusing. I know it has deeply unsettled me. But I also know it’s one of the most well-thought-out books I’ve read in a long time. I can see the artistry that went into creating this non-linear, complicated story. Though the content and plot aren’t really my cup of tea as a reader, I can recognize skill when I see it. I’m deeply impressed by how Chon put this book together.

“Woo-Who am I?: Ducktales & Identity

In my sophomore year high-school yearbook, there is an inscription “keep watching DuckTales.” The person who wrote it sat behind me in geometry class. He had long hair, wore heavy metal band T-shirts and sleeveless jean jackets. He would watch the show, too, when looking after his younger brother and respected that I found my own connection to it. As a quiet kid who dealt with depression, sophomore year was a time when I came out of my shell. Back then, geek culture was not on the front lines like it is today. Watching shows like the original DuckTales—and vocally defending it—helped me find my identity in high school. I loved the fact that the original DuckTales celebrated animation in all its forms and history. Leaning harder into animation, I thought I was finding myself at the time. In actuality, I was painting a protective view of the world and avoiding true self-discovery. Later, I would find out that this was a manic stage of what would be officially diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Given my recent work in therapy, viewing the reboot in 2017 on the Disney XD channel through a new lens thrilled me. This new perspective does not mean that I watch animation to wall off reality but instead allows me to appreciate how the DuckTales reboot goes into longer season-spanning storylines, facilitating deeper dives into the characters of Huey, Dewey, and Louie and the mentorship of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Looking at the season-long storyline approach of the DuckTales reboot—as well as what I personally took away from each Duck triplet regarding my own mental health awareness—I found a lot to be said on individual adversity and how it relates to developing self-identity.

The Disney comic book work of Carl Barks is the basis for both DuckTales cartoons, original and reboot. Barks created the character of Scrooge McDuck, the settings, and many of Scrooge’s allies and adversaries that both cartoon adaptations pull from. In the cartoon, Scrooge McDuck goes on globe-hopping adventures with Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The only way to tell the difference between the Duck nephews, since they are triplets in the original series, was that they wore matching red, blue, and green hats and shirts. And it’s that feeling of indistinguishability that I wish to focus on.

At the time I was watching the original DuckTales, I was living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The feeling of being animated/manic freed me in high school from feeling powerless and indistinguishable in the hallways. I did not know who I was, and since I wasn’t in therapy at the time, this mindset helped bandage my mental health. At this age, the stigma around reaching out for mental health therapy kept me from accessing the help I needed. Before my need for help outgrew that mindset, I found myself without a map for a few years, wondering who I was and my place in the world—which brings me back to the reboot of DuckTales.

The first difference we see and hear in the reboot is that the Duck nephews all have individual actors voicing them, while in the original cartoon, they were all voiced by Russi Taylor (who voices young Donald Duck in the reboot). By having different actors as the Duck nephews in the reboot, DuckTales makes an effort to distinguish and develop the individuality of Huey, Dewey, and Louie through its three seasons. The reboot brings characters, not caricatures, to the Duck family. Even Donald Duck’s famous temper is not a defining personality trait in the reboot, but through a number of season-long arcing storylines, we see that Donald (voiced by Tony Anselmo in both DuckTales series) struggles with anger management and learn more about why he does so in the episode “What Ever Happened to Donald Duck?!” From the very first episode, the Duck nephews recharge a set-in-his-ways Uncle Scrooge (voiced by David Tennant) back to the great adventurer he once was when he built his fortune. In turn, Uncle Scrooge guides them in their individual skills and interests to build them into a family of adventurers. 

Going in naming order, Huey (voiced by Danny Pudi) at first glance seems the most by the book of the Duck nephews in the new series. That book is the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, which Carl Barks created in the comics as a version of the Boy Scout Handbook. Huey is extremely left-brained and logical, happiest when the mysteries found on adventures have an explanation, and finds that the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook is chock-full of answers for every situation. Huey falls at the feet of the scientist characters who work for Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Some of these characters are not the best people, and the show has a running theme of logic and science trying to control the chaos of emotion and magic of adventure.

Logic trying to control chaos is something I can appreciate. In fact, my O.C.D. (obsessive-compulsive disorder) flaring up—when I need to repeatedly check and double-check everything—is a warning sign of my bipolar disorder. For me, this “by the book” trial and error affirmation process moves past thinking logically. It feels like writing out all the computer code in your head before leaving the house but mistyping something so the program doesn’t process. I know what needs to happen next but am stuck on a previous step in the process for minutes to half an hour. After hospitalization, trusted family and friends helped me slowly get back to living a grounded life through exposure therapy, which allowed me to move past a loop of reassuring behaviors and to start living in the real world.

In the episode “Astro B.O.Y.D.!”, fellow Junior Woodchuck B.O.Y.D. tests Huey’s ability to not live by logic. After finding out B.O.Y.D. is a robot, Huey helps him tap into the personal experiences he has had in order to prevent B.O.Y.D. from being turned into a weapon by his former creator. B.O.Y.D. succeeds because of his time with Huey, taking in and appreciating the small personal moments. In turn, Huey’s character growth throughout the seasons is about seeing people as they are and not the science they are working on. Over time, Huey learns to not be ruled by logic but to use it as a guide for living off-book.

Dewey (voiced by Ben Schwartz), on the other hand, shoots from the right side of the brain. He is the type who uses his name as a verb as he tries accomplishing things, or “Dew-ing it.” Where Huey filters everything through facts, wild possibilities blind Dewey’s efforts regardless of his training. Dewey’s positivity is a mask at times. In the episode “Last Christmas!” Dewey goes back in time to meet their mother, Della Duck (voiced by Paget Brewster). At the beginning of the episode, we see that Dewey is hit the hardest by the loss of their mother as he feels he is the only one who still misses her.

 I will admit that I have a sweet spot for Dewey. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and get the manic version of myself grounded earlier. Then, I center myself and realize it’s all part of my ongoing process. Every step leads to a place of getting help. The manic high schooler was once the depressed middle schooler, and the pendulum swung wildly as my teenage brain was developing into an adult with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Eventually, I stopped trying to chase the bliss of manic swings and found out why I act the way I do. The important thing was that I got help and didn’t stop looking for answers.

Della Duck provides guardrail guidance for Dewey’s can-do-anything attitude, helping him not only focus on one interest but to learn focus at all. As much as I enjoy Dewey’s talk show Dewey Dew-Night and his yo-yo tricks, those moments help pay off in his character arc when he finds a true talent in airplane piloting, as seen in the episode “The Lost Cargo of Kit Cloudkicker!” The manic mindset is put to the side and Dewey succeeds by focusing on flying steady. He learns he doesn’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades to stand out in a famous family and lands his place while honoring his mother, who is also a pilot. Dewey’s character journey is one I personally appreciate since I started making true progress in therapy when I stopped thinking about what I missed or what I could have been and instead learned to steady myself and focus on where I presently landed.

Louie Duck (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) is different from his two brothers. Unlike Huey, he has a calming center—to the point of being lazy at times—and unlike Dewey, he has one focus—making money. The show makes a point of saying his gift is “seeing all the angles.” I appreciate Louie for having something that centers him. For myself, it has been developing my awareness of my mental health. In the beginning stages of therapy, I learned to see the angles of the triangular relationship between behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Learning the difference between these three reactions helped set the groundwork for my ongoing work in therapy. It also helped me gain foresight about the outside influences that others, who weren’t part of my recovery team, may have on me.

Out of the three nephews, Scrooge McDuck takes Louie the closest under his wing. Uncle Scrooge, being the “richest duck in the world,” earned his fortune from nothing. In fact, the reboot carries over the Carl Barks mythos of Scrooge’s number one dime—the first dime he actually earned through hard work. From there, Scrooge McDuck built a fortune fair and square by “being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties!” Scrooge sees Louie is on a path to make money without breaking a sweat, even if it isn’t through the most honest of means. Because of this, Uncle Scrooge sees sparks in Louie like his longtime adversary Goldie O’Gill (voiced by Allison Janney), so he sits Louie down to hear about an old adventure in the episode “The Outlaw Scrooge McDuck!” Instead, Louie seeks out Goldie O’Gill to learn from her. The two pull a con together in “Happy Birthday, Doofus Drake!”, trying to steal all the spoiled rich kid’s gold and jewel filled party gift bags for his guests. Louie’s actions cause Doofus Drake (voiced by John Gemberling) to return in one of the final episodes of the series in “The Life and Crimes of Scrooge McDuck!” In this episode, Doofus Drake recruits all of Uncle Scrooge’s rivals to weigh against the Hall of Two Truths from Egyptian mythology, on the charge that Scrooge McDuck turned them all evil. Viewing moments of Uncle Scrooge’s past, Louie sees his own path before him defending Scrooge McDuck against his rivals in cosmic karmic court. With Uncle Scrooge’s eternal fate in the literal balance, Louie learns that he can’t talk his way out of some problems and learns to apologize to the one person at the court that he personally wronged, Doofus Drake.

As someone who works daily on their own mental health awareness, I can appreciate that the DuckTales reboot shows characters finding their individuality. So, I have developed the anagram Q.U.A.C.K. as part of my mental health toolbelt. Donald works on his anger management to stay “Quiet” in his thoughts. Huey learns that there is a difference between “Understanding” meaning the noun (comprehension) as compared to the adjective (sympathetically aware). Dewey finds “Attention” and focus to obtain his goals. Louie learns “Caring” and empathy, because if he spends a life watching his back, he’ll miss what’s waiting up ahead. And Uncle Scrooge realizes he needs to rely on his “Kin” McDuck and not turn his back on family.

Through all the hurricanes of adventures, the central theme of the DuckTales reboot is the individual members of this family. That is the biggest difference between the original and the reboot. In my twenties, as I was eating in the cafeteria at the corporate job, I ran into the old DuckTales fan from geometry class. He gave me his card, and I called him that weekend to see if he wanted to grab a drink and catch up. We didn’t hang out in high school, so he declined. I guess I was looking for a magic relic at the time, like in the episodes from the original DuckTales, a touchstone to help me find myself in my new corporate setting. But there is no instant change, as I am still learning through my years of therapy, and progress didn’t happen until I stopped waiting for magic, science, or a rich uncle to fix my problems. So, I appreciate the growth individual characters have in the DuckTales reboot. With season-long storylines, the reboot can focus on the Duck family, and we have time to watch them grow, where the original just focused on their adventures each episode. Each season ends with a finale in which the Duck family goes against what has been building against them all season, which makes for a more successful conclusion. The Ducks succeed because they flock together and put their individual selves and growth in motion as a solid family unit. As the show says perfectly “family is the greatest adventure of all,” and it’s been my experience that the most adventurous family experiences are full of birds of a different feather.

Horrid: An Interview with Katrina Leno

Horrid opens with the titular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Did you build a story off of that poem, or did it come to you later as inspiration?

You Must Not Miss, the book I wrote previous to Horrid, opens with a poem called “One for Sorrow.” It’s another creepy nursery rhyme and I used it to format the sections of the book, much the same as in Horrid. When I came across the Longfellow poem, I had this memory of my mom reciting the poem to me. She’d also told me a very gross true story of a classmate she’d had that used to eat her own hair . . . The plot of Horrid developed quickly after that!

Mystery novels play an important role in the story. Jane talks about Agatha Christie in particular. What are some novels and authors who influenced you within the genre? What did you pull from to create Horrid?

One day early on in the brainstorming process for Horrid, I visited my local library bookstore and found a giant pile of old Agatha Christie novels. When I saw them, it just clicked for me that Jane was a big mystery fan. I read a bunch of Christie novels, then branched out to Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, and the queen of all haunted house books—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. All of these books sort of smashed together to create the character of Jane (and the character of North Manor), and one of the main plot points of the book is lovingly lifted from one of Christie’s novels, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

In Horrid, the house is as much of a character as Jane and Ruth. How did you create a place like North Manor? How did it take shape throughout the writing process?

I grew up in New England and New England is just chock-full of creepy old houses. I’ve been a fan of the haunted house trope for a long time because there’s always something more happening beneath the surface. The Haunting of Hill House is the perfect example of this, and Shirley Jackson really makes you question everything by the end of the book. I wanted North Manor and Jane’s journey to be like that. I think the most interesting kinds of endings are the endings that aren’t handed to you. You have to work together, you and the book, to uncover the truth there. I wanted North Manor to feel real but also impossible, stable but shifting and uncertain. Of course, the house itself is only part of the equation—there’s also Jane, who is constantly shifting and uncertain and very much an unreliable narrator. In that respect, she has a lot in common with North Manor, and the two of them really helped shape and inform each other.

I’m pulling a quote from Barry Curtis’s Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film: “All explorations of the haunted house involve a kind of archeology, the uncovering of an occluded narrative that constitutes the exorcism in much the way that Freud or Marx understood the substructure as providing the key to understanding and redemption.” In order to understand the house, the characters have to understand the past—the two are wrapped up in each other. Which came first when you were designing the story? The events that took place on the grounds and inside North Manor, or North Manor itself? How did the two influence each other?

I had a vision of North Manor really early on in the brainstorming process. I’m not an artist at all, so I’m sure I’d draw a truly terrible rendering of it, but I can picture it perfectly in my head. Without giving too much away, the longer version of the Longfellow poem was very inspiring to the backstory of what happened in that house—so I knew both things almost simultaneously, both what the house looked like and what terrible things had taken place there.

Horrid deals both with generational trauma and hereditary mental illness, and a great deal of it centers around the family home. The past repeats in important ways throughout the story, but there aren’t any direct flashbacks. How did you balance a story set in the present with the weight of the past its characters are influenced by?

I love a good flashback, but I think there’s something inherently creepy about not getting too much information. Memory is unreliable and becomes even more unreliable when mental illness and generational trauma are involved, and I wanted to lean into that unreliability. I don’t necessarily think anyone’s version of the past is quite what happened. But their motivations are a direct result of that same past—so how are we to trust anyone’s motivations?

Roses, hair, and books are all repeating motifs within the story that the characters have great personal attachment to (and, at various times, find themselves compelled to devour). How did you choose these symbols? Tell us about the thought process there.

A large portion of Horrid deals with a psychological disorder known as pica, which causes people to ingest things that are non-nutritive. A lot of these things aren’t even necessarily bad for you—I remember an episode of “My Strange Addiction” in which a woman ate chalk. She visited her doctor, who basically said “Yeah, it’s not really harmful, so while I don’t recommend it, it could be worse.” The same goes for paper and rose petals—you’re not supposed to eat them, but neither is poisonous and most likely will not harm a person who ingests them. Jane eats books because I loved the idea of wanting to consume one’s favorite story. I like subverting the role of roses, too. Most people think they’re beautiful and sweet, but I actually don’t like them much, and think it’s more interesting if the very smell of them becomes sinister . . .

Stories are notorious for changing and evolving as they go. What was the biggest change from the first draft to the final? Is there anything that would particularly surprise your readers?

I remember the ending changed a bit and became much more fleshed out and developed—I think I have a tendency to rush when I see the finish line in sight! The beginning of the book also changed; originally there was a lot of backstory there that really slowed down getting to North Manor and jumping into the creepiness of that setting. Toward the end of the editing process, I wrote scenes down on note cards and spread them around the floor. This was a great way to see the entire arc of the story and what scenes just didn’t need to be there. I’m definitely an over-writer and tend to cut a lot of out my books as I edit them.

Writing teenagers takes a different skill set compared to writing adults. How did Jane’s voice influence the shape or telling of the story? Was it harder to get into that mindset?

I feel very connected to my teenage self. It’s an easy place for me to access, I think because it holds a lot of my own trauma and experience with mental illness and mental health. Jane and I have a lot in common, but I think our biggest difference is Jane’s anger response—whereas I tended (and tend!) more toward sadness, Jane is quick to anger, and that really causes her to make some interesting decisions. Especially toward the end of the book . . .

There seems to be a tendency in YA fiction at the moment to focus on the “right” kind of representation when it comes to talking about mental illness. This can have the side effect of pushing more complicated characters to the side and eliminating the messier storylines. Jane is a complicated protagonist. Beyond her family history, she deals with anger and paranoia that negatively influence her life. How did you approach this as a writer?

The way I handle this is always to talk about things I have direct experience with, at least in some capacity. If I’m being true to my own representation, there are bound to be people out there who relate to that. Jane has pica and a compulsion to eat paper, which is something I wanted to write about because as a child I would also eat small pieces of paper. While I do not have pica and no longer experience that impulse, it definitely existed for me in my past, or I wouldn’t have chosen to write about it.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? What projects are you currently working on?

My next book, Summer Reading, comes out in 2022, so right now I’m deep in edits for that! It’s a much different story than Horrid and I think that’s how I constantly try and grow as a writer—to explore different stories, not stick to one genre, and challenge myself with different tropes or ideas or characters I haven’t explored before. I’d love to one day venture to middle grade novels and explore different mediums for storytelling—graphic novels, TV shows, movies. My main goal is to never stop writing, never become complacent in my craft, and always look for the next challenge. And to keep writing and exploring my own truth.

9 Classic Stories That Would Be Better with Trans Characters

1. Pinocchio

All moralizing aside, Pinocchio is a story about honesty and performativity. Is Pinocchio’s “I’m a real boy!” a deflection of questioning about gender identity or a declaration of it? Maybe in this version, Pinocchio’s nose doesn’t grow when he says it, and the Blue Fairy doesn’t have to change a thing to make him a boy—he already is one. Or perhaps it takes Pinocchio saying “fine, I’m a boy, then,” in defeat and her nose extending out a foot for people to believe her about her gender, because too many put their faith in bodies to judge what’s true. Either way, I’d much rather read a complex story about truth than a tall tale about morality.  

2. Dracula

Okay, but consider . . . Quincey. He’s just a random cowboy who helps take down the Count, and that’s pretty rad. That’s all the reasoning I need, to be quite honest—and cowboys were super queer to begin with, so why not? 

3. The Wizard of Oz

This series actually has a trans character, sort of. I just wish we saw more of her in popular culture. As a baby, Princess Ozma was assigned male by a witch (which we call “the gender binary” in real life) and discovers she’s a princess much later. Eventually she learns how to navigate her true self in a way that makes her happy and turns out to be a pretty rad ruler. Also, Ozma of Oz was the only Oz book I read as a kid, but I read it many times and I turned out trans. Coincidence? I think not. 

4. Cinderella

Cinderella gets dressed for a party and her family doesn’t recognize her there. She has to take off the dress before her stepsisters see her. The person she spent all night with didn’t recognize her in her own house. Maybe it’s because she’s not out—she presented differently at the ball and at home, and neither her stepmother nor her prince knows what she looks like another way! Besides—believe me, I would know—it’s a lot harder to find size 12 heels than size 6, so it only makes sense that it’s harder to find a woman that a bigger shoe would fit. 

5. Frankenstein

Honestly, I already read this story as somewhat of a trans/non-binary narrative; there’s something so relatable to me about being considered monstrous because of your physicality, about people seeing you as not only undesirable as a partner but undesirable in society. In this novel, the mob is the bad guy and the Monster isn’t quite what he’s made out to be.  

6. Rapunzel

Here I think about the Prince—perhaps Rapunzel’s Stockholm Syndrome adopted mother is angry about her having met the prince because she wants Rapunzel to keep believing in gender essentialism and binarism. Which sucks for her, because Rapunzel tracks down her Prince and they live happily ever after and Rapunzel becomes a huge advocate for trans rights. The End. 

7. Hamlet

This one takes a little more finagling; to be honest, we have enough stories where LGBTQ+ folk die, and—spoiler alert!—pretty much everyone dies in Hamlet. Only Horatio survives—and perhaps in this version, Hamlet and Horatio were in a serious relationship in college, but Hamlet has to start dating Ophelia after Horatio starts to transition (because Hamlet is still working out his sexuality and isn’t ready to tell his family). Despite being on the DL, the boyfriends’ love for each other mostly thrives. However, Hamlet still strings Ophelia along, because he’s a jerk in every possible variant of this story. Horatio deserves better.  

8. Winnie-the-Pooh

I hate wearing pants and am nonbinary, so clearly—by the law of syllogism—Winnie-the-Pooh, who also hates wearing pants, is nonbinary.  

9. Any other story: 

Look, I know I promised a listicle with 9 stories and so this may feel like a cop-out. But I mean it: all stories would be better with one or many trans characters. Maybe they’re not always the main character—I’m not sure that I want to read A Clockwork Orange through the point of view of Alex as a trans person, for example—but trans folk are real and we deserve to be in books!  

We deserve to be heroes and love interests and side characters and people mentioned in passing. Hopefully one day there’ll be enough books that embrace us that we can start finding ourselves throughout the narrative, as good guys and neutral guys and even bad guys. We deserve to be normalized, because we’re ordinary. But we also deserve to be celebrated, because we’re extraordinary, too. 

5 Quirky Stories to Spice Up Your Spring

The flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping, and we’re finally entering the defrost zone. What better thing to do with this newfound springtime warmth than to sit down in the park with a good read? Here at F(r)iction, we love a wacky story that gets our imaginations whirring, and so we’ve collected five of the most unusual we could find. The somnolence of winter is behind us; it’s time for a new season. Wake up your literary senses with one of these quick and quirky reads:   

Goblin” by Rachel Harrison

The world’s newest dieting app quite literally comes to life in this magical short story by Rachel Harrison. When a woman attempts to slim down for her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, she gets far more than she bargained for. The goblin on her phone, meant to encourage her weight loss journey, jumps through the screen and turns real. Following her everywhere, raiding her pantry of its junk food, verbally abusing her when she fails to stick to her regimen—the creature is relentless. While it is certainly not easy to write about eating disorders, Harrison does this mental health struggle justice in this touching and disturbing piece. Read this piece right now on Electric Literature.  

Children in Alaska” by Zach Powers

If you love it so much, why don’t you just marry it? A popular joke among middle schoolers for decades, but in this short story by Zach Powers, it seems to ring true. A man marries—we kid you not—a lightbulb. As impossible as it sounds, Powers pulls the story off with humor and grace. Pick up a copy of his collection, full of other strange yet intricately woven tales, to find out this sweet couple’s fate. 

The Semplica Girl Diaries” by George Saunders

In this haunting tale by George Saunders, suburban families decorate their lawns not with plastic flamingos or painted rocks, but with actual human beings. Told through a series of journal entries by a poor father desperate to please his family, the story deposits the reader right into the heart of this dystopian society. Tackling topics such as social class and immigration, this story couldn’t get any timelier, despite the eight years that have passed since its initial publication. Read it here and now on The New Yorker website.  

How to Live Your Best Life” by Peter Kispert

What if you had the opportunity to start life afresh, move to a new city with a quarter of a million dollars lining your pocket? How much would you risk just for the chance? These questions and more are explored in the recently released collection by Peter Kispert, I Know You Know Who I Am. In this particular piece, characters participate in a game show in which the penalty for incorrect answers is the instantaneous death of their loved ones. Maybe it sounds crazy. But it just might work? Find out by picking up a copy of this fantastically bizarre collection.  

Parakeets by Kevin Brockmeier

We live in a world of noise, but imagine a world of eternal song instead. This is the world that Kevin Brockmeier creates in this remarkable short story. Everyone sings, everywhere, all the time, spreading happiness throughout their quaint city. Or nearly everyone. One man is mute, having lived his entire life as the odd one out in this town full of musicians. His most valuable connection is not with other people, but rather his own pet birds. Read more about these beloved parakeets by reading the story now on Granta or by ordering his whole collection, full of equally moving pieces.  

We hope this list successfully shook off any lingering winter blues, but if you’re hungry for more, have no fear. F(r)iction has got all of your wacky story needs covered. Browse through our fiction here or check out our latest literary commentary here. Keep writing and reading weird! 

7 First Drafts Every Writer Writes

Putting together a first draft can be an exercise in both patience and urgency. We would all love to be that writer that can finish a whole novel in less than a month, but more often than not, a first draft doesn’t come easily. No matter where you are on your writing journey, here are a few types of drafts you’re sure to encounter.

1. The draft thrown together in the hour before your writing workshop

Last week, your instructor told you that you would need to write one flash-fiction piece to go over in small groups for today. That’s easy, you think, I can do a five-hundred-word story by then. So you put the assignment off and read literary journals at your leisure, patiently waiting for just the right idea to come to you. But then a whole week goes by and you’re left with two hours until workshop. Scrambling, you grab your laptop and write a quick story about the hair in the bathtub drain and your last relationship. Usually, this kind of draft needs some love, but there are a couple of salvageable ideas that can jump-start your writing in future drafts—it’s definitely one you will keep coming back to.

2. The draft that was meticulously put together on a long-term writing schedule

Your mentor suggests writing on a schedule. You find you’re most productive between two and three in the morning, so you tell yourself you’ll write for one hour every other night. You start off unsure, but then you start to really like your ideas. One paragraph turns into three pages, then ten and yes! You finally have a complete first draft—and you’re exhausted. You love the final product, but you’re not sure when you’re going to be able to follow a writing schedule again. You keep this strategy in mind for the next time you have a long-term writing project.

3. The draft that came from freewriting

Potentially the most elusive type of first draft, you’ve done dozens, even hundreds, of freewrites by now based on countless prompts. But when will you finally have an original idea? Although it’s a tedious endeavor, you manage to find a gem among the piles of notebooks—and hey, you can’t help but fall in love with it! You even have some pre-written material that you want to try adding to the second draft.

4. The draft you wrote while watching Netflix

Sometimes the background noise of a show helps you focus, and it’s fun to look up to from time to time while you write. This is a high-risk strategy, and before you realize it, you have finished season one of a K-drama while absentmindedly typing on your laptop. You have definitely spent more time watching a love story than looking at your Word doc. You take a closer look at your writing—wait, did you just copy that dialogue word for word? And this other scene looks awfully familiar. Maybe you need to look this draft over again, and this time, add some unexpected twists into the narrative.

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5. The draft that’s a mashup of random ideas from your notes app

You have a dedicated tab in your notes app for all the ideas that come to you throughout the day. These come from dreams, spontaneous shower musings, or even mindless tasks at work—all of which leave you too busy to dwell on any idea for too long. You open your notes to search for some writing inspiration, but you’re not sure you’ll find the answers you’re looking for. Exploring the ocean beginning, finding blue cheese, forgetting about chickens—what do these even mean? Although they’re abstract, you use these ideas to produce a surprisingly mysterious and lyrical new draft. You think this story has real potential for some poetry/prose hybrid elements in future drafts.

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6. The draft that’s a hybrid of several other first drafts

You couldn’t bring yourself to let these drafts go, so why not combine them to make an ultimate chimera draft? You thread favorite parts of previous drafts into one story, and while the end product isn’t quite what you imagined, you think the different pieces play off of each other nicely. If you work on focusing the narrative in future drafts, you think you could end up with an amazing story.

7. The draft that ends up being a final draft because you’re writing it just before a submission deadline

You only know it’s the last day of the month because you have to pay rent tomorrow. This also just happens to be the day the submissions window for one of your favorite literary magazines closes! You stay up all night reading some of their recently published stories and writing your own. Does this narrative seem like something they would want to publish? But you don’t have time to think too hard about it—the deadline is in thirty minutes. In a leap of faith, you upload your draft to Submittable. Now, you only have to wait for eight to sixteen weeks for a response.

No matter how you get around to writing it, a first draft is a first draft, and you should be proud of what you’ve done. After all, having something written is better than having nothing—and first drafts are the only way to eventually get to that perfect final draft. Once you’re satisfied with your revisions and ready to send your piece into the literary world, you could try submitting your work for publication in F(r)iction!

Late to the Party: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve been an avid fan of speculative fiction for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always tended to stick to rereading my favorites. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are massive, and I have decades—if not centuries—to catch up on. Sure, I’ve read TheLord of the Rings, but what are the other foundational books in this realm? The game-changers? The “classics” I ought to have read by now? I’m clearly late to the party, but hey, at least I’ve made it, right? Now that I’ve arrived, here are my thoughts on the classics.

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“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” – A Wizard of Earthsea

I knew nothing about this series before I picked it up, and little more about Le Guin herself. I’d read one of her series—Annals of the Western Shore—too long ago to remember properly, so I went into this with no idea what to expect. All I did know was that Le Guin was considered a brilliant, boundary-pushing legend in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genres. So, I may not have known her work, but I certainly knew her name.

A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968, launching a series and career that has had a profound impact on SFF literature over the past fifty-three years—and it’s hard to believe I knew so little about it for so long, given that Le Guin’s influence is so prevalent. For example, some critics credit her for popularizing the “magic school” story long before Rowling. So many of my favorite authors, influencers of my own writing—Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman—have acknowledged Le Guin and her Books of Earthsea as favorites of their own. And, in science fiction, Le Guin was a pioneering voice for women; The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is considered a “breakthrough for female authors,” offering a revolutionary perspective on gender roles and cementing Le Guin’s place in the genre. She amassed a stunning oeuvre of novels, short stories, poetry, translations, and essays that won her dozens of awards, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea, among many other prestigious honors for SFF writers.

Le Guin’s seminal fantasy novel opens on the island of Gont, in the Archipelago of Earthsea, the birthplace of a boy destined to become the great wizard Sparrowhawk. The boy, whose true name is Ged, discovers his powers at a young age and seeks to realize his full potential, first under the tutelage of the wizard Ogion, then at the school on the island of Roke. In an impulsive display of his prowess in front of a rival student, Ged inadvertently lets loose a malevolent shadow into the world. The shadow knows him intimately and will pursue him to the ends of the world to possess and destroy him. Ged is the only one who can confront and defeat this unnameable evil, and no place will be safe for him until he does.

On the surface, this is a timeless epic tale, a classic Hero’s Journey through the dichotomous battle of good versus evil, light versus dark. A little formulaic, perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a criticism; there are reasons the hero’s journey appears here, not the least of which being that Le Guin was intentionally subverting some of the fantasy conventions she grew up with—as she explains in her afterword to the 2012 edition of the book. Specifically, she says, she questioned the conventions of featuring a white hero—which Ged is not—and using a grand battle to define and defeat the story’s villain. Le Guin pushed past those conventions in A Wizard of Earthsea, adding an unexpected (and thoroughly welcome) nuance to that traditional light versus dark formula: namely, that light and dark exist in balance with one another, and that a person cannot be whole without elements of both.

Such introspective subversion drives the narrative, offering unexpected complexity and realism to this children’s book. Power ought not to be wielded for its own sake, nor is mastery of anything achieved through shortcuts—these lessons are impressed upon Ged as he struggles to control his impatience and pride during his magic studies. But what resonated most strongly with me is the value repeatedly placed on apparent mundanity, and the respective roles all things play to balance the world. Altering even the most trivial of things disrupts the equilibrium and may have untold consequences, and for that reason, everything—rocks, sand, even silence—is equally important. This lends a fascinating dynamic to Le Guin’s world: it is at once complex and simple, huge and small. We learn of the legendary power of dragons and the ancient magic of true-names, but so too do we spend time walking in silence and enjoying fellowship. The quiet, contemplative moments in Ged’s life are just as profound as the grand epic unfolding around him.

As a result, Le Guin does not sacrifice attention to her characters for the sake of the plot—something she discusses at length in her essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.”  At the heart of this fantastic narrative is a very human story. Ged is impulsive, proud, and prone to jealousy, much of which arises from his humble upbringing and desire for his peers to value him as an equal. He makes a cataclysmic mistake in boastfully attempting magic beyond his abilities, letting the shadow and its evils loose onto the world. The incident leaves him scarred and shaken to his core, and we watch as he must choose between securing his own safety and that of others, pushing him to the brink over and over again. He struggles, triumphs, fails, and doubts. Like the heroes we love in our stories today, when he is rocked to his very foundations, he finds within himself the strength to rise, and grow, and overcome.

I was pleased to find that most of the characters, and the rest of the Archipelago, are not white, which was a welcome surprise from a book published in the mid-twentieth century. I was much less pleased to discover that very few of those characters are women, and fewer still have any significant role in its unfolding—and I’m not the only one. The women of Earthsea remain in their homes, away from the happenings of Ged’s adventures, so I’d hoped to encounter more dynamic women as the narrative progressed. Thankfully, we meet Yarrow of Iffish, the precocious and witty younger sister of Ged’s closest friend Vetch, but even she appears late in the story and stays behind as her brother and Ged depart for his final confrontation with the shadow.

The words “Le Guin” and “Feminism” had always hovered close together in my mind, and I wondered, disappointed, why A Wizard of Earthsea did not seem to meet those expectations—even if the following novel, The Tombs of Atuan, switches to a young woman’s perspective. But I found the answer from Le Guin herself. At the time A Wizard of Earthsea came out, fantasy stories written about women—and unapologetically by women—were unprecedented. As Le Guin explains in her 2012 Afterword, she had to be “deliberately sneaky” with her subversions of the conventional fantasy narrative.

However, as Le Guin explained in a 2004 interview with The Guardian, she was able to bring a new perspective to the later Earthsea books because of her growth as a writer during Second Wave Feminism: “One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.” And, she has said in an interview with Karabatak, reclaiming her own voice in a male-dominated genre enabled her to explore her Archipelago more deeply and thoughtfully, seeing the world through the perspective of “the powerless.” I’m eager to see how the women of Earthsea appear and develop in the rest of the series, as I now feel certain they will.

Reading her interviews and essays, I’m increasingly delighted by Le Guin’s wit, her passion, and her sagacity. She was a remarkable and talented woman, and it’s no wonder her work has had such an impact on SFF literature. After finishing A Wizard of Earthsea, a pleasant enough read that continues to resonate after setting it down, I’m left wanting to read more of her work. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Annals of the Western Shore, or delve into the ground-breaking The Left Hand of Darkness—or stay in Earthsea for a while longer, which promises to get even better as the series progresses. Regardless, I now have a much longer reading list.

A Review of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Published September 22, 2020 by Gallery Books.

Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems is the highly anticipated follow-up to the genre-busting, art-blog-turned-New-York-Times-bestseller Hyperbole and a Half (Gallery Books, 2013). Think of it as the narrative-comic equivalent to Alanis Morisette following Jagged Little Pill or Fiona Apple following Tidal. Called “a connoisseur of the human condition” by Kirkus Reviews, Brosh’s autobiographical prose mixed with simple Paintbrush drawings—what Brosh herself has called “stand-up comedy in book form”—is silly, insightful, and poignant. Brosh’s graphic proxy borders on stick figure, with big eyes and a yellow ponytail, and usually wears a vivid pink onesie or, if depressed, a gray hoodie. Indeed, part of Hyperbole’s appeal is Brosh’s candid, humorful, and refreshingly spot-on depictions of her paralyzing anxiety and depression. Solutions and Other Problems is full of Brosh’s trademark whimsy and wisdom and yet is somehow more daring and vulnerable.

I was rereading Solutions while waiting at the doctor’s office purposely ignoring the man who, sitting as close as COVID-possible, kept alternately sighing and commenting about HGTV. I shifted ever-so-slightly in my seat to make eye contact impossible. I didn’t care for the shade of blue they chose for the renovation either but knew better than to say so aloud. I had, after all, just finished Chapter 3, the one about Neighbor Kid, who “gets up at 5 in the morning and hangs out directly in front of [Brosh’s] door like a bridge troll—all who wish to pass must answer her riddles, and the only riddle she knows is Do you want to see my room?” Neighbor Kid does this for “7 consecutive months.” “I have never met anybody,” Brosh writes, “who is this determined about anything.” Anybody, that is, except for Brosh herself. For 7 consecutive months, Brosh avoids, refuses, and outright lies to Neighbor Kid so as not to see her room, no matter how many lamps are in there.

Brosh’s work isn’t just for introverts. However, she makes those of us who’d rather not engage in small talk and have resultantly developed a hard exterior as a coping mechanism, feel a little less alone in the world, and, if I’m honest, a little less guilty. Brosh knows that engaging with others leads to more engaging with others, which is the thing she’s trying to avoid in the first place. Sometimes it’s okay not to engage, even, or maybe especially, in the face of a “5-year-old social juggernaut”: “I mean, what’s going to happen? I go look at her room and then she leaves me alone forever?”

To be fair, Solutions and Other Problems is its own kind of unstoppable force, an unconventional, often nonsensical battle wherein cartoon drawings battle real and imagined fears. I’ll admit that, at first, even though I knew it unfair to immediately start comparing the two, I thought Solutions wasn’t matching up to the brilliance of the sidesplitting Hyperbole. The pacing is different, the tone more somber. Despite both being deeply personal and true about life in ways that only Brosh could illustrate, Solutions isn’t a simple sequel. In one of Hyperbole’s most memorable moments, Brosh compares depression to her fish dying, while her friends keep offering useless advice, like “why not just make them alive again,” or meaningless platitudes, like “fish are always deadest before the dawn.” “Let’s keep looking,” one drawing says, “I’m sure they’ll turn up somewhere.” “No, see,” Brosh’s proxy retorts, “that’s a solution for a different problem than the one I have.” We might, then, reasonably expect Solutions and Other Problems to show us the solutions to the problems Brosh does have. And yet, although Brosh may have created her own rules for Hyperbole, she doesn’t stick to those rules in Solutions.

Maybe Brosh “can’t be contained by the rules” because the rules never made sense in the first place. Heck, Solutions doesn’t even have a Chapter 4, “because sometimes things don’t go like they should.” But that statement turns out to have more significance than a mere explanation as to why she skips Chapter 4.

Brosh’s signature art and philosophical narrative have an effect that’s difficult to capture. The combination of oddly appealing drawings interrupting unique but nevertheless strangely relevant experiences is also profound in ways few authors can achieve. If I were to describe Neighbor Kid, for example, I could say she resembles a skeleton with too many teeth and a lot of brown hair and is wearing a purple t-shirt with a heart on it. While that’s not remotely adequate, it’s not entirely off. How do Brosh devotees explain the hilarity of random “fun facts” during the “serious parts”? Fun facts like, “the Orcish word for hospital is ‘GOREHOSPITSTROON,’ meaning place of one thousand tubes and no answers” or “in a world where fruit was money, it would cost too many grapes to buy a giraffe.” Or consider how Brosh tells us about what she had to do to the 2-year-old who’s “apocalypse-level scared of dandelions”: “I trapped her under a towel and dragged her into the woods.” And, well, we get it.

Brosh has a distinctive way of making you laugh out loud one minute and hold your hands over your mouth with despair the next. In the title, solutions comes before, not after, problems, because nothing is resolved. Some things can’t be resolved because, as Brosh writes, “sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.” From childhood kleptomania to divorce to mutually beneficial hostage situations to unfathomable grief and loss, Solutions and Other Problems may have felt like a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait.