Friday Fictions: “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge

This week’s Friday Fiction is the terrifying and beautiful “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You know the Rilke quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”? This. This is what he was talking about.

So let’s jump into the plot. Zéphine is the crown princess of Retrouvailles, a nation guarded by an army of magical unicorns who have a contract with the queen, the Reine-Licorne. Zéphine, whose title is Demoiselle la Plus Pure, must perform the unicorn dance on her nineteenth birthday, when she begins to look for a suitor. And at the unicorn dance, she presents a suitor to the army of unicorns. If they like him, the two can wed and one day Zéphine will become the new Reine-Licorne. If they don’t approve … they run the man through on their horns. Repeat every full moon.

That’s a pretty good taste of the aesthetics of this story. And it only escalates from there, and I loved every bloody minute of it.

I love stories that takes the beautiful and make it terrifying. In fact, l generally love stories with a little bite to them. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the occasional happy ending where everyone wins, but my favorite stories all have some sort of sacrifice. Some sort of unfathomable choice being made. I’m sure this speaks volumes about myself and my worldview.

(Or, let’s bring in guest lecturer Edward Elric: “A lesson without pain is meaningless. For you cannot gain anything without sacrificing something else in return, but once you have overcome it and made it your own, you will gain an irreplaceable fullmetal heart.”)

And this is true of the story. Zéphine loses everything she loves over the course of the story, but she does gain something too: self-determination. In the beginning of the story, she’s hating herself for being too weak to commit suicide. By the end of the story, she’s surveying the wreckage of her life and kingdom and helping rebuild both. And she is willing to fight for herself. Bleed for her people. And the others around her learn from her lesson as well, and take their own steps. She has a hard-won, clear-eyed understanding of her world and how to work within it. She doesn’t hide from the beautiful terror; she embraces it and makes it her own.

Long live Zéphine, la Reine-Licorne.

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Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

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The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

I’m so happy to say that my story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”, is out today in both audio and text form at Escape Pod!

What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message?

And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost?

Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls …

This story contains: life, death, love, sacrifice, linear algebra, electricity & magnetism, particle physics, and a very small smattering of quantum mechanics. You know, all the usual Kara obsessions.

Of note, the audio is narrated by the amazing Katherine Inskip, whom I was lucky enough to meet at Worldcon in Dublin. If she had delivered my college physics lectures, I might have gone to more of them.

As the Homunculi say: Thank you for reading. Or listening!

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Worldcon 2019: Scribblings

I almost didn’t go. At some point in 2019 the Dublin government quite understandably put in some new regulations on AirBnBs in Dublin. I was one of many people unceremoniously booted from their reservations. I had at this point bought a full membership but not booked plane tickets. I was also going solo, and going through some personal stuff, and just thinking about Worldcon made me want to curl up in a ball. And so staring at the cancelled booking I thought, well, that’s a sign …

… and then I got the acceptance email from Escape Pod, which was both my first pro sale and my first sale of any kind in years, and I thought, that’s a bigger sign! (It was.)

So I booked new accommodations and Swiss Air tickets*, and I am super glad that I went. I had a fantastic time!

I attended with the mindset of “I’m here to make new friends” which is sometimes tough because I am an introvert, but one thing that helped me be quite social the entire time is that I had just come off two solid, exhausting weeks of stay-at-home-parentdom and I was DYING for grown-up conversation.

I arrived later Thursday afternoon and after registering, I wandered around the Convention Centre Dublin feeling quite lost–I had made a few plans to meet people but they were all for Friday or later–and then I remembered that SFWA had a reception going on. Which I only knew about/could attend because the Escape Pod sale qualified me for membership. (A sign.)

I later heard that past receptions weren’t always so well attended but this one was great. There was finger food (awesome because I hadn’t eaten for hours), free drinks with and without alcohol (I had two glasses of red wine and some water), and a good number of people. Some of whom are now Facebook friends! I also met some people I had only seen before on Twitter and they turned out to be awesome. All of them. I personally didn’t meet a single jerk at Worldcon.

After the reception and an impromptu dinner off-site, those with more energy and perhaps more jet lag returned to CCD, but I went to my accommodations (I got a dorm room at Hashtag Dublin), did some barre exercises while hanging on to my windowsill, and then slept quite well. It turns out it’s lovely to travel close to your time zone.

Friday afternoon I attended a live Escape Pod recording, which was really cool to experience. I also met the narrator of my story! After that I met some friends in the hotel bar. This was awesome not only because the bar had IPAs, which I have been missing really hard living in Lager Land, but because they introduced me to some more awesome people. I meant to hit a 3 PM panel on neuroscience but, ah, was too busy talking, oops. I made plans with a new Codex acquaintance (also was able to join Codex because of the sale–a sign), to get dinner. We later walked back to the CCD together where she attended the concert, and I went back to my hotel room to do more barre and rest up.

Saturday morning began with the Codex breakfast meetup. I had woken up pretty early and already eaten so I just brought coffee and chatted with loads of awesome people. Then I went to Ballet Áthas for a wonderful adult beginner ballet lesson–more on that in a separate post. After that I tried to get lunch with others but had missed the boat because it was already 2:30 pm. Understandable. I ate a chocolate muffin and then went to a panel on going from fandom to prodom (featuring a hilarious story about a BBC interview) followed by a panel on tales from the laboratory (featuring too many hilarious stories to count but my favorite was the “Johnson’s Leap” at the Observatory). It also reminded me to finish reading “Excuse Me, Sir, Would You Like To Buy A Kilo Of Isopropyl Bromide?” (free pdf featuring absolutely hair-raising stories about chemistry in the pre-EPA/OSHA days, told by a very funny narrator, although beware period attitudes toward women)

I tried to hunt down dinner after that but forgot Dublin is in Europe, so everything closed at 5. With M I was able to hunt down some pita pockets at a convenience store near The Point. We ate on the way back to the CCD where I attended one reading and M attended at least two. I was fortunate enough to chat with the author afterwards.

I then went back to my room to prep for leaving early Sunday morning. I planned to take a bus to the airport, I was out of cash, and I hadn’t bought an extra Leap Visitor Pass. So I went to an ATM … to find that I hadn’t brought my debit card. (I’d been using credit card this whole time.) After a brief panic, I then went to buy a Leap card and loaded it up with 15 euros using my credit card. Feeling good about myself, I went to sleep.

The next day, the bus DID NOT COME. I huddled with 7 other people waiting and waiting … and then a random bus whose number was not on the bus stand showed up. We shrugged and went in. And I found out they did not take Leap cards. And I had no cash. They only took contactless cards–very fortunately, I had my shiny new Swiss credit card on me, so I made it to the airport. I had no problems flying home, in apparent contrast to TONS of people.

This was my second Worldcon and I spent most of it thinking “ah, this is why people go to conventions, I must do more of these …” We’ll see what the budget has room for. But right now, I am just grateful for the wonderful experience that Worldcon 2019 was.

I was too busy unpacking to stream the awards when I returned but it was so awesome to wake up to see the news. So many congratulations to all the winners, but of course I have a special spot in my heart for the AO3 win, because I am one of the many people who sharpened their skills in fanfic before making the leap. But that’s a story for another day.

* Have I mentioned that I moved to Zürich in August, which is one of the many reasons that things are in disarray in my life? And my apartment?

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Story Sale Announcement

Photograph by Bucketsofsnow. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

I am super happy and mildly in disbelief to announce that I’ve sold a short story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts,” to Escape Pod. This is my first ever sale to a SFWA professional market, so, I’m kind of quietly imploding. The story features souls lurking in telephone lines and magical electromagnetism*, and will hopefully appear sometime in fall 2019.

*My research for this story consisted of pulling out my college E&M and quantum textbooks, which I somehow still have. It’s good to know that the very expensive education I received finally went to an appropriate use.

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Friday Favorites: “Dancing on my Grave” by Gelsey Kirkland

Today’s Friday Favorite is “Dancing on my Grave,” a memoir by Gelsey Kirkland, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas who joined the New York City Ballet at 15. She was also something of a notorious (but reformed) bad girl figure in the ballet world. If you know anything about her it’s probably that she 1) danced with Baryshnikov on TV in “The Nutcracker” (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube) and 2) did a lot of coke on top of starving herself.

If you know anything more, it’s probably that she was a unique, brilliant, expressive dancer. I’m painfully crushed that we didn’t have today’s cameras in the 60s-80s, because I wish I could see her in HD, but even looking at the blurry videos that do exist, you can get an idea of her brilliance. She cultivated an airy, innocent yet knowing, childlike and delicate quality to her movement. And she expressed with every cell in her body.

Kirkland is probably my favorite dancer of all time. Her movement aesthetics are the same as mine, and I really connect with how she discusses ballet. I have often said that what I love about ballet is the shaping of space with your body. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Kirkland expressed it far better:

Many dancers think of performance as the audience… and themselves, that is, two-dimensional. They need to build a three-dimensional world and draw the audience into it. When you radiate épaulement, let’s say in croisé, you are opening up a whole arc of light with your body. You have to open this circle constantly, so that when you move through space you create a state of wonder and the audience discovers this with you.

But the absence of light is darkness. The book is an extremely unvarnished retrospective, penned while she was—as the end of the book describes—getting off coke and Valium. In addition to the drug abuse, she dealt with eating disorders. It really does fall into the “tortured genius” category which really makes me wonder how much better she might have been if she hadn’t hated herself for most of her life. But she also claims, and I see no reason to disbelieve her, that all that hatred meant she focused and obsessed on making her dance better because it was the one area of life where she could control. Obsession leads to practice, and practice approaches perfection. So perhaps if she had been born into a healthier family, Kirkland’s career would have ended young when she decided that Balanchine was an asshole and walked out of the School of American Ballet. No doubt it would have been healthier for her. The paying public admires achievements, but doesn’t like to think about the cost, unless it’s also shown as a performance—a grotesque one, especially.

That aside. The book is a fascinating look for me, as a person who enjoys dancing ballet, into the unbelievable amount of work Kirkland put into her dancing. We’re talking all-night practices. She was a complete perfectionist. The book doesn’t really linger on her studio time, but there are others who were there with a camera. Kurt Froman got his hands on some footage of Kirkland (among other things) practicing the famous Kitri jump for 50 minutes, over and over.

She paid for it financially, too. She found her own coaches, not just in ballet but in kinesiology and mime and other types of dance. She was learning nonstop for her entire career … although I suppose the cocaine didn’t help.

On that note, I can easily see why cocaine was so attractive to her. My understanding (never having tried it) is that coke, aside from the euphoria, makes you feel really confident in yourself. If I hated myself as much as Kirkland describes hating herself, I too would be instantly hooked on being free of that feeling. Speaking as one who drinks alcohol to occasionally stop the noise of a mind that sometimes just won’t shut up, I understand self-medication completely, without necessarily promoting the act. I should also mention that (as described both in and out of this book) plenty of other dancers at the time were doing various drugs for various reasons. The dancer whom Kirkland said introduced her to cocaine died a year after her book came out, probably of an overdose.

For those of you worried about a sad ending, I have good news. Kirkland did get away from drugs and returned to the stage. She discovered teaching while at the Royal Ballet, and today helms the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. She gives beautiful, frank interviews and is all about coaching the next generation of dancers. She’s an artist still, and she’s even happy. May we all come to that point, but hopefully with far less trouble.

P.S. Kirkland wrote a second memoir, The Shape of Love, which is also on my to-read list.

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Friday Favorites – Selections from Clarkesworld Issue #151

The original internal purpose of Friday Favorites was, s2g, to get me to read more short fiction. So let’s get back to it! This week I read issue 151 of Clarkesworld (note to self: update link when it is taken off front page), which had lots of good stuff. Here are my two favorites:

“Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang. Like the song*, “Skyscrapers in the Sand,” at the fulcrum of this story, it’s a short, pretty, wistful, deceptively light-touch tale. In a post-climate-apocalypse future, an old woman named Xuming buries a time capsule in the desert that used to be Shanghai**. The capsule is the opposite of the Golden Record sent out into space; it plays one song for humans who will one day resurface to their own planet.

I love cities and I love memories and I love the people caught in the web of those things. I’m thinking again about Borges and his Book of Sand and its infinities. Love is like that, isn’t it, fractal like coastlines–one unstoppable force against another, along with the erosion it brings. Ask Xuming, if she ever makes it out of the desert.

*Also, I really want the song to exist! It comes as no surprise to me that Pang is also a poet.

**I especially love the setting of this story not only because we don’t get to see enough mentions of Chinese cities in Anglophone SFF, but because Shanghai became a desert, which is a great word joke. For the non-Mandarin-speakers, Shanghai translates to something like “on the sea” or as I prefer, “embark upon the sea,” but now that the port city is buried under sand, its name is an artifact, a fossil in the desert.

Social Darwinism by Priya Chand (NSFW). I’m not sure how to best describe or summarize this story, but let me first say that it is extremely Sign Of Our Times, even though it is set in a far flung future, the kind where you can pop a pill and then tentacles will temporarily replace your hair.

Ishtar Kim is a synthcode cam girl, servicing clients with her extremely changeable body (see above re: tentacles). But it’s not just her body. Her mind is modified too: her mother gave her the “need-attention mod” when she was a child. As a result, Ishtar literally, sexually, gets off on attention, which drives every second of her life and her work. Yes, internet, Chand wrote a story taking the concept of attention whoring seriously.

When I say Sign Of Our Times I mean that such a story couldn’t have been written pre-Mark Zuckerberg, even though the human need for attention has always existed and there have always been people whose need was a few standard deviations from the norm, which probably goes a long way toward explaining some of the more flamboyant mystics and such in ancient times. It’s just easier to recognize now and we’ve even put a name on your success rate, “analytics.” And you know, I’m calling myself out, too. I’m typing this in between refreshing my Instagram and my Twitter and of course I’m going to be checking how many people read this blog post. Some days you watch the cam; some days the cam watches you.

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Friday Favorites: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m reposting a review of Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” (free to read online) that I wrote years ago, with a few updates. Wow, I used to write longer reviews back in the day …

“Blindsight” is a first contact story in a technologically advanced future, where humans have finally gone where they aren’t biologically meant to go, which is to say, they are generating and discovering more data than their brains and meat can handle. Cybernetically augmented people act as the conduit between the technology and the people. One of these augments is the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who had half his brain removed as a child, resulting in losing much of his capacity for emotions and empathy. As an adult, Siri specializes in interpreting incredibly high orders of data and patterns, thereby acting as a middleman between humankind’s incomprehensible technology and humankind itself.

Sidenote 1: this book was written in 2006, predating Apple’s Siri, but you could take it as an accidental prophecy.

Sidenote 2: I’m not super on board with how Watts talks about autism in this story. It’s not my place to talk about it, so I’ll point you to Ada Hoffman’s commentary.

One day in 2082, Earth is visited by a group of projectiles that flash over Earth and then vanish, leaving no clue behind. Siri is sent with a similarly enhanced five-man team towards the unknown, in order to investigate. The crew is incredibly complicated and interesting, all manifestations of the author (a professional marine biologist) exploring a number of neurology, biology, and cognitive science theories such as manufactured multiple personalities, sensory augmentation, and even resurrected vampires.

The first contact is a harrowing one, and as incredible discoveries about the aliens come to light, we find ourselves asking along with the protagonists the big question of the book: what good is consciousness? It’s a risky proposition for an audience that is only able to process the story through consciousness. The titular real-life condition of blindsight–in which a person with blindness resulting from brain damage to their visual processing center, can nevertheless respond to visual stimuli, such as catching an object that they are unable to see–is used to convey to us how it “feels” to be a creature with intelligence but no sentience. Uncoupling “intelligent responses” from “sentience” is an interesting move, because that is one enormous question of AI: at what point could humans make a sentient machine? Can we ever tell if it is a sentient machine, due to the fact that we can never see from the machine’s “mind”? “Blindsight” makes the argument that it doesn’t matter. “Blindsight” says: we don’t really know what thinking is, or what a soul is, or what it really means to be a sentient thing. Therefore the only logical response is to use the only measure we have of intelligence, which is that the entity is capable of learning, of pattern recognition, of improved performance, at which point this begins to sound very familiar to computer science folks.

Many people act as if the be-all end-all of machine learning, of making a “thinking machine”, necessarily ends in sentience. The hypothesis posed by “Blindsight” is that such a statement is being human-centric, perhaps even sentience-centric. Rather, it is entirely possible, and perhaps evolutionarily favorable, to become extremely intelligent without developing sentience. Such organisms would not so much think as calculate, sifting and gathering through patterns and then reacting. Living in the void of space as they have for ages, crunching the pure hard data of natural physics and mathematics, they have perfected themselves. But human data is infinitely messier, often purposeless, stuffed with what entertains a sentient mind but is meaningless to a data processor.

So–who’s going to win?

In the book, the reader is invited to “pretend you are Siri Keeton” and if you do so successfully, then you might end up rooting for the aliens made of pure data. And I actually did briefly, which is perhaps the highest praise a book like this can receive, and which is why I put this down as a favorite. I wouldn’t say it was a fantastic emotional experience reading this book, but as a conceptual exercise I found it incredibly well executed.

We never actually find out who ultimately wins–Siri isn’t there to see it–although he closes the story with a hypothesis … which I will not spoil, but which I disagree with.

The book (or Siri) posits pretty hard that humans are cognitively weaker than aliens made out of pure data, because we have the useless middleman of a consciousness slowing things down. Last I checked, humans have built some pretty spiffy machines that can crunch data at incredible speed, and in Blindsight it’s advanced beyond what we can imagine today. So I truly see no reason that humans are inherently disadvantaged.

I feel like the battle of the races in Siri’s mind is a metaphorical one, and ends the way that he–nearly an alien himself–finds the most comforting.

Then again, perhaps I’m doing the same thing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.

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Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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