I believe in the disabled future.

Excerpt from The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Photo by Rasmus Gerdin on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

I believe in the disabled future.

This is a radical statement. Disabled people aren’t supposed to be alive, take up space, exist—joyfully, complicatedly, thrivingly, ornery-ly—in the present. But the future? Nah. Double nah.

In the Bad Future of all kinds of dystopian imaginings, disabled people are either everywhere, with our pathetic, pain-filled, dysfunctional, broken bodyminds. We’re the tragic autistic son in Children of Men who can’t look up from his devices, the “disfigured” ugly babies produced by toxic waste and climate change. We’re a cautionary tale told to children, warning them to fight climate change and fascism or just look what will happen. On the other hand, in so much utopian social justice–oriented science fiction, it’s unquestioned that in the good utopian future, disabled people don’t exist. Everyone eats organic, and disabled babies are eliminated before birth through genetic selection that no one ever calls eugenics. In the happy future, we’re all dead. And isn’t it better that way?

Fuck that.

“Crip bodies were built for space travel. Crip minds already push the outer limits,” Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, tweeted in 2016. “We already master usage of breathing apparatuses and can handle challenging situations.” A 2020 Wired article wrote about the buried history of disabled and Deaf people selected as some of the earliest astronaut trainees, because Deaf people were less likely get nauseous and used sign to communicate; because pooping is a major problem in space and it’s easier when you already have a colostomy bag. Disabled and Deaf gain—the brilliance within our divergent bodyminds—help us take root amongst the stars, to paraphrase Octavia Butler. As white Jewish queer disabled writer Carrie Kaufman recently wrote, “Where do you (the abled) go when you leave us behind? Is it worth it?”

At the core of my work and life is the belief that disabled wisdom is the key to our survival and expansion. Crip genius is what will keep us all alive and bring us home to the just and survivable future we all need. If we have a chance in hell of getting there.

Yet a major way ableism works is to erase us from ideas of the future. The science fiction future, sure, but also the everyday future of having any idea of what a disabled adulthood or elderhood could look like. Ableism isolates and keeps disabled, Deaf, and neurodivergent people from finding disabled, Deaf, and neurodivergent communities. It’s common for parents or teachers to tell some disabled children they’re “not like the others,” for parents of autistic, Deaf, or disabled kids to deny our identities. Sometimes, especially for BIPOC people, this can be the best survival strategy we know, but being kept from each other also kills. Most people still draw a blank when you say the words “disabled community”—like, what is that? Autistic and disabled special-ed student Cole Sorensen writes, “Until I started college, I had never met an adult who was like me. I had other disabled friends, sure, but with no model of what my life could look like after graduation, I couldn’t imagine much of a future for myself at all.”

This is why I believe some of disability justice’s most important work lies in how we’ve created space for BIPOC people (and, secondarily, Others) to identify as disabled, chronically ill, Deaf, or neurodivergent, through our creation of Black- and brown-centered disabled, sick, Deaf, and neurodivergent communities and politics. Community building isn’t always seen as “real activism” (whatever) but the work we do to create disabled Black and brown community spaces, online forums, hashtags, and artwork is lifesaving because it creates space for disabled BIPOC to come out as disabled. I mean big organized spaces, parties, and cultural events, and I also mean the disabled BIPOC version of “Hey, do you want some of my fries?”: one disabled BIPOC person being friendly and Initiating Hangout Space with another, who might not be ready to be out yet. It’s very difficult to organize for survival, power, and pleasure when people can’t even admit they go to this school, you know?

Disability justice (DJ) spaces filled with disabled Black and brown people are crucial spaces for disabled, sick, Deaf, and neurodivergent BIPOC people to witness possible futures for ourselves, as we take in other Black and brown disabled people as possibility models and friends. I could do it like that. I could have a life like that. I could expect my access needs be met like that. I could just say, “Hey, I need a chair or captions,” easy like that. I could be disabled like that.

Many Black and brown disabled people have been gatekept from claiming disabilities and excluded from mainstream disabled spaces for years by blatant and covert racism perpetuated by white disabled people and/or by the idea, Yeah, I know about that group but they’re all white people, making it not safe or not worth the risk to go through the door. I’ve witnessed a fair bit of resentment and anger over the past decade from white disabled groups/people at the success of disability justice groups to attract masses of disabled BIPOC and ally BIPOC people. White-majority and -lead disabled groups’ racism and lack of intersectional analysis and leadership, in tandem with the general ableism of the world, prevented that kind of community buy-in for decades. I didn’t make the rules, though, and it’s just a fact that racism is an impediment to movement-building and activist wins.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha follows up their incredible book Care Work with The Future Is Disabled. Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about the last two years of surviving COVID-19 as a disabled femme of color in an ableist world that isn’t interested in protecting disabled folks. They also discuss mutual aid and disabled joy in the face of isolation and discrimination.

The pandemic has been incredibly difficult for disabled people who have been asked to “take one for the team” by wider society. Piepzna-Samarasinha writes encouragement to disabled folks, relishing in our community’s creativity in our fight for survival. They also mourn those lost in the pandemic and the care crisis so many of us still face.

Copyright © 2022 by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Decidedly red hair

Excerpt from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Photo by Tobias Negele on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

She had been watching him ever since he had passed her and she had her eyes on him now. Matthew was not looking at her and would not have seen what she was really like if he had been, but an ordinary observer would have seen this: A child of about eleven, garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish-gray wincey. She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, which looked green in some lights and moods and gray in others.

So far, the ordinary observer; an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced; that the big eyes were full of spirit and vivacity; that the mouth was sweet-lipped and expressive; that the forehead was broad and full; in short, our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman- child of whom shy Matthew Cuthbert was so ludicrously afraid.

Matthew, however, was spared the ordeal of speaking first, for as soon as she concluded that he was coming to her she stood up, grasping with one thin brown hand the handle of a shabby, old-fashioned carpet-bag; the other she held out to him.

“I suppose you are Mr. Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables?” she said in a peculiarly clear, sweet voice. “I’m very glad to see you. I was beginning to be afraid you weren’t coming for me and I was imagining all the things that might have happened to prevent you. I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me to-night I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry-tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think? You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls, couldn’t you? And I was quite sure you would come for me in the morning, if you didn’t to-night.”

Matthew had taken the scrawny little hand awkwardly in his; then and there he decided what to do. He could not tell this child with the glowing eyes that there had been a mistake; he would take her home and let Marilla do that. She couldn’t be left at Bright River anyhow, no matter what mistake had been made, so all questions and explanations might as well be deferred until he was safely back at Green Gables.

“I’m sorry I was late,” he said shyly. “Come along. The horse is over in the yard. Give me your bag.”

“Oh, I can carry it,” the child responded cheerfully. “It isn’t heavy. I’ve got all my worldly goods in it, but it isn’t heavy. And if it isn’t carried in just a certain way the handle pulls out—so I’d better keep it because I know the exact knack of it. It’s an extremely old carpet-bag. Oh, I’m very glad you’ve come, even if it would have been nice to sleep in a wild cherry-tree. We’ve got to drive a long piece, haven’t we? Mrs. Spencer said it was eight miles. I’m glad because I love driving. Oh, it seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody—not really. But the asylum was the worst. I’ve only been in it four months, but that was enough. I don’t suppose you ever were an orphan in an asylum, so you can’t possibly understand what it is like. It’s worse than anything you could imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn’t mean to be wicked. It’s so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn’t it? They were good, you know—the asylum people. But there is so little scope for the imagination in an asylum—only just in the other orphans. It was pretty interesting to imagine things about them—to imagine that perhaps the girl who sat next to you was really the daughter of a belted earl, who had been stolen away from her parents in her infancy by a cruel nurse who died before she could confess. I used to lie awake at nights and imagine things like that, because I didn’t have time in the day. I guess that’s why I’m so thin—I AM dreadful thin, ain’t I? There isn’t a pick on my bones. I do love to imagine I’m nice and plump, with dimples in my elbows.”

With this Matthew’s companion stopped talking, partly because she was out of breath and partly because they had reached the buggy. Not another word did she say until they had left the village and were driving down a steep little hill, the road part of which had been cut so deeply into the soft soil, that the banks, fringed with blooming wild cherry-trees and slim white birches, were several feet above their heads.

The child put out her hand and broke off a branch of wild plum that brushed against the side of the buggy.

“Isn’t that beautiful? What did that tree, leaning out from the bank, all white and lacy, make you think of?” she asked.

“Well now, I dunno,” said Matthew.

“Why, a bride, of course—a bride all in white with a lovely misty veil. I’ve never seen one, but I can imagine what she would look like. I don’t ever expect to be a bride myself. I’m so homely nobody will ever want to marry me— unless it might be a foreign missionary. I suppose a foreign missionary mightn’t be very particular. But I do hope that some day I shall have a white dress. That is my highest ideal of earthly bliss. I just love pretty clothes. And I’ve never had a pretty dress in my life that I can remember—but of course it’s all the more to look forward to, isn’t it? And then I can imagine that I’m dressed gorgeously. This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn’t sell it, but I’d rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn’t you? When we got on the train I felt as if everybody must be looking at me and pitying me. But I just went to work and imagined that I had on the most beautiful pale blue silk dress—because when you ARE imagining you might as well imagine something worth while—and a big hat all flowers and nodding plumes, and a gold watch, and kid gloves and boots. I felt cheered up right away and I enjoyed my trip to the Island with all my might. I wasn’t a bit sick coming over in the boat. Neither was Mrs. Spencer although she generally is. She said she hadn’t time to get sick, watching to see that I didn’t fall overboard. She said she never saw the beat of me for prowling about. But if it kept her from being seasick it’s a mercy I did prowl, isn’t it? And I wanted to see everything that was to be seen on that boat, because I didn’t know whether I’d ever have another opportunity. Oh, there are a lot more cherry-trees all in bloom! This Island is the bloomiest place. I just love it already, and I’m so glad I’m going to live here. I’ve always heard that Prince Edward Island was the prettiest place in the world, and I used to imagine I was living here, but I never really expected I would. It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it? But those red roads are so funny. When we got into the train at Charlottetown and the red roads began to flash past I asked Mrs. Spencer what made them red and she said she didn’t know and for pity’s sake not to ask her any more questions. She said I must have asked her a thousand already. I suppose I had, too, but how you going to find out about things if you don’t ask questions? And what DOES make the roads red?”

“Well now, I dunno,” said Matthew.

“Well, that is one of the things to find out sometime. Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive— it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn’t talk? If you say so I’ll stop. I can STOP when I make up my mind to it, although it’s difficult.”

Matthew, much to his own surprise, was enjoying himself. Like most quiet folks he liked talkative people when they were willing to do the talking themselves and did not expect him to keep up his end of it. But he had never expected to enjoy the society of a little girl. Women were bad enough in all conscience, but little girls were worse. He detested the way they had of sidling past him timidly, with sidewise glances, as if they expected him to gobble them up at a mouthful if they ventured to say a word. That was the Avonlea type of well-bred little girl. But this freckled witch was very different, and although he found it rather difficult for his slower intelligence to keep up with her brisk mental processes he thought that he “kind of liked her chatter.” So he said as shyly as usual:

“Oh, you can talk as much as you like. I don’t mind.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I know you and I are going to get along together fine. It’s such a relief to talk when one wants to and not be told that children should be seen and not heard. I’ve had that said to me a million times if I have once. And people laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

“Well now, that seems reasonable,” said Matthew.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Anne of Green Gables – Summary

This heartwarming story has beckoned generations of readers into the special world of Green Gables, an old-fashioned farm outside a town called Avonlea. Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan, has arrived in this verdant corner of Prince Edward Island only to discover that the Cuthberts—elderly Matthew and his stern sister, Marilla—want to adopt a boy, not a feisty redheaded girl. But before they can send her back, Anne—who simply must have more scope for her imagination and a real home—wins them over completely. A much-loved classic that explores all the vulnerability, expectations, and dreams of a child growing up, Anne of Green Gables is also a wonderful portrait of a time, a place, a family… and, most of all, love.

Copyright © 1908 by L.M. Montgomery.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

You can read it for free here on Project Gutenberg.

I, who had been erased by fire

Excerpt from The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood

Photo by Jay Patel on Unsplash

These are three poems from the poetry book The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air,
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently-
shaped ears

though I tried to adapt

(the girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeered at me for my burned bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude:
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. the forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder:
the branches quivered.

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible

Departure from the bush

I, who had been erased
by fire, was crept in
upon by green
(how
lucid a season)

In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me,

first one
by one, stealthily
(their habitual traces
burnt); then
having marked new boundaries
returning, more
confident, year
by year, two
by two

But restless: I was not ready
altogether to be moved into

They could tell I was
too heavy: I might
capsize;

I was frightened
by their eyes (green or
amber)glowing out from inside me

I was not completed; at night
I could not see without lanterns.

He wrote, We are leaving. I said
I have no clothes
left I can wear

The snow came. the sleigh was a relief;
its track lengthened behind,
pushing me towards the city

and rounding the first hill, I was
(instantaneous)
unlived in: they had gone.

there was something they almost taught me
I came away not having learned.

Thoughts from underground

When I first reached this country
I hated it
and I hated it more each year:

in summer the light a
violent blur, the heat
thick as a swamp,
the green things fiercely
shoving themselves upwards, the
eyelids bitten by insects

In winter our teeth were brittle
with cold. We fed on squirrels.
At night the house cracked.
In the mornings, we thawed
the bad bread over the stove.

Then we were made successful
and I felt I ought to love
this country.

I said I loved it
and my mind saw double.

I began to forget myself
in the middle
of sentences. Events
were split apart

I fought. I constructed
desperate paragraphs of praise, everyone
ought to love it because

and set them up at intervals

due to natural resources, native industry, superior
penitentiaries
we will all be rich and powerful

flat as highway billboards

who can doubt it, look how
fast Belleville is growing

(though it is still no place for an english gentleman)

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Journals of Susanna Moodie – Summary

Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), regarded by many as her most fully realized volume of poetry, is one of the great Canadian and feminist epics. In 1980, Margaret Atwood’s longtime friend, the distinguished Canadian artist Charles Pachter, illustrated, designed, and published a handmade boxed portfolio edition of 120 copies of the poem with silkscreen prints, created as an act of homage to the poet. Atwood herself has said of Pachter’s work, His is a sophisticated art which draws upon many techniques and evokes many echoes. The poem and the prints inspire one another. This is the first facsimile edition of the original, as well as the first one-volume American edition of the poem, with an introduction by Charles Pachter and a foreword by David Staines.

Copyright © 1970 by Margaret Atwood.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

These women and their underwater lair

Excerpt from Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield.

Have you ever heard of the Tektite habitat? This was an underwater laboratory and living station designed and built round about the late 1960s as a base from which to study marine life. Closely resembling a pair of connected grain silos, it sat at seabed level at Great Lameshur Bay and was used in preparation for NASA’s Apollo missions from early 1969, when the moon landing was just months away. In the main, NASA used the base to study the behavior and psychology of small crews living in extreme close quarters and the biomedical responses to long stretches spent in oxygen-controlled conditions, not unlike those of a spacecraft. Several teams were sent down to live for ten- or twenty-day stretches underwater, though my favorite among these has always been the team led by Sylvia Earle—a renowned biologist and explorer—which also happened to be the first all-female saturation dive team in history. I read about this in my father’s diving almanac and again in a book I once stole from his study called A Hundred and One Deep-Sea Dives of Note. In a team consisting of four scientists and one engineer, Earle’s crew spent two weeks underwater, documenting marine plant life while at the same time being studied themselves, both for their behavior in isolation and, in a frankly unavoidable way, for their choice of swimwear. They called us the aquababes, Earle said once, in an article I cut out and kept, the aquanaughties, all sorts of things. On emerging from the water, they were an immediate media sensation, with the focus squarely on their wet suits and bikinis and really the inescapable Bond girl–sexiness of the whole thing, of these women and their underwater lair.

Among the many things my father collected, he had a stash of old New Yorker magazines, dating back as far as 1972. He kept these in a series of old wine crates that he stacked in his garage and periodically allowed me to root through, I assume to get me out of his hair. I was thirteen when I found a copy from July 1989 that contained a profile of Sylvia Earle. Entitled “Her Deepness,” it was a detailed rundown of a long and wildly impressive life of deep-sea exploration, and I immediately whisked it away to read. One of my favorite parts of the article, the whole of which I read seven or eight times in the space of one weekend, was when Earle talked about the Tektite habitat, explaining that the Washington review committee in charge of selecting teams to man the station hadn’t actually expected women to apply at all. There were still some remarkably prudish attitudes in Washington in those days, she said, and the people in charge just couldn’t cope with the idea of men and women living together underwater. It was seemingly for this reason, really more than any desire to push the envelope, that the first female dive team was born. It makes sense when you think about it, my father said when I brought the article to him, actually a pretty neat solution to a problem. Really they should take this into account with space exploration, too. No chance of crewmates getting involved with each other when it’s all women—no distraction, no nookie, no silly buggers. Clever in its way.

I said nothing to this, although later on I lay and thought about these women, imagined myself a crewmate aboard the Tektite—the ghostly shoals of fish beyond the bubbled portholes, the tangled kelp, the stillness, the sudden scuds of light.

Now, on the floor of the main deck, I thought about this again, tried to remember the longest any team had submerged on the Tektite, the longest it was advisable to submerge.

“Do you smell it?” Jelka said, and I looked down at her, unsure of how long she had been awake.

Smell what?” Matteo said, though his expression did not match the question, as though he already knew the answer. It was the smell of something burning, of meat straight off the bone.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Our Wives Under the Sea – Summary

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of Salt Slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

Copyright © 2022 by Julia Armfield.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Who has the right?

Excerpt from Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO WRITE ABOUT SUFFERING?

I once went to a Korean War exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with Athena, back when I was still fooling myself that we could be good friends. I’d just moved to DC after my stint with Teach for America, and I knew Athena had moved there a few months prior for her fellowship at Georgetown, so I’d reached out breezily to see what she was up to. She responded that she was working in the morning, but doing a museum visit in the afternoon, and would love if I came along.

Wandering about an exhibit on the Korean War wasn’t my first choice for how to spend a Friday afternoon, but Athena wanted to hang out with me, and back then I still felt a little thrill every time I received any shred of Athena’s attention, so I met her at the front doors at three.

“I’m so glad you’re in town!” She hugged me in that light, detached way of hers, the way that made it seem like she was a supermodel who’d hugged a line of a hundred fans and now no longer knew how to put real emphasis into this action, hugging. “Shall we go in?”

“Oh—yeah, sure.” That was it; no small talk, no how have you been? Just a brief hug before we walked straight into the museum’s temporary showcase of the experiences of American POWs in North Korea.

I thought this was a joke at first. Oh, silly, you didn’t think I’d want to stroll a stuffy old museum instead of catching up with you, did you? Or that perhaps, hopefully, we’d spend a few minutes here while she saw whatever she wanted to see and then remove ourselves to a cool, air-conditioned bar where we could sip fruity drinks and talk about, you know, life and publishing. But it was quickly apparent Athena wanted to linger here all afternoon. She would stand for ten minutes or longer in front of each life-size, black-and-white cutout, whispering under her breath as she read about the subject’s life story. Then she would touch her fingers to her lips, sigh, and shake her head. Once I even saw her wipe a tear from her eye.

“Imagine,” she kept murmuring. “All those lives lost. All that suffering for a cause that they didn’t even know if they believed in, just because their government was convinced domino theory was true. My God.”

And the whole thing would start again as we moved on to the next. Here we could read the last known letter from nineteen-year-old draftee Ricky Barnes, who’d asked his friend to bring his dog tags back to his mother when he caught diphtheria along the Yalu River.

Athena could not stop talking. At first I thought that maybe she was incredibly sensitive, that she couldn’t hear about someone else’s suffering without experiencing it acutely as her own. Fucking saint. But as we moved through the exhibit, I noticed she was scribbling things into a Moleskine. This was all research for some writing project.

“Just awful,” she whispered. “His widow was only seventeen—only a girl still. And she was pregnant already with his daughter, who would never know her father’s face.” And on and on. We inched down the exhibit while Athena examined every placard and cutout, announcing every so often what it was that made this particular story so very tragic.

At last I couldn’t take the sound of her voice anymore, so I wandered off to get a closer look at the uniform displays. I couldn’t find Athena when I exited the exhibit, and for a moment I thought she’d ditched me before I saw her sitting on a bench next to an old man in a wheelchair, jotting things into her notebook while he talked at her boobs.

“And do you remember how that felt?” she asked him. “Can you describe it for me? Everything you can remember?”

Jesus Christ, I thought. She’s a vampire.

Athena had a magpie’s eye for suffering. This skill united all her best-received works. She could see through the grime and sludge of facts and details to the part of the story that bled. She collected true narratives like seashells, polished them off, and presented them, sharp and gleaming, to horrified and entranced readers.

That museum visit was disturbing, but it didn’t surprise me.

I’d seen Athena steal before.

She probably didn’t even think of it as theft. The way she described it, this process wasn’t exploitative, but something mythical and profound. “I try to make sense of the chaos,” she told the New Yorker once. “I think the way we learn about history in classrooms is so antiseptic. It makes those struggles feel so far away, like they could never happen to us, like we would never make the same decisions that the people in those textbooks did. I want to bring those bloody histories to the fore. I want to make the reader confront how close to the present those histories still are.”

Elegantly put. Noble, even. When you phrase it like that, it’s not exploitation, it’s a service.

But tell me, really, what more right did Athena have to tell those stories than anyone else did? She never lived in China for more than a few months at a time. She was never in a war zone. She grew up attending private schools in England paid for by her parents’ tech jobs, summered on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and spent her adult life between New Haven, NYC, and DC. She doesn’t even speak Chinese fluently—she’s admitted in interviews that she “spoke only English at home in an attempt to better assimilate.”

Athena would go on Twitter and talk about the importance of Asian American representation, about how the model minority myth was false because Asians were overrepresented at both the low and high ends of the income spectrum, how Asian women continued to be fetishized and made victims of hate crimes, and how Asians were silently suffering because they did not exist as a voting category to white American politicians. And then she’d go home to that Dupont Circle apartment and settle down to write on a thousand-dollar antique typewriter while sipping a bottle of expensive Riesling her publisher had sent her for earning out her advance.

Athena never personally experienced suffering. She just got rich from it. She wrote an award-winning short story based on what she saw at that exhibit, titled “Whispers along the Yalu.” And she wasn’t even Korean.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Yellowface – Summary

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

Copyright © 2023 by R.F. Kuang.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

The portrait had altered

Excerpt from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Photo by Shuttergames on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

He got up and locked both doors. At least he would be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame. Then he drew the screen aside and saw himself face to face. It was perfectly true. The portrait had altered.

As he often remembered afterwards, and always with no small wonder, he found himself at first gazing at the portrait with a feeling of almost scientific interest. That such a change should have taken place was incredible to him. And yet it was a fact. Was there some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas and the soul that was within him? Could it be that what that soul thought, they realized?—that what it dreamed, they made true? Or was there some other, more terrible reason? He shuddered, and felt afraid, and, going back to the couch, lay there, gazing at the picture in sickened horror.

One thing, however, he felt that it had done for him. It had made him conscious how unjust, how cruel, he had been to Sibyl Vane. It was not too late to make reparation for that. She could still be his wife. His unreal and selfish love would yield to some higher influence, would be transformed into some nobler passion, and the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him would be a guide to him through life, would be to him what holiness is to some, and conscience to others, and the fear of God to us all. There were opiates for remorse, drugs that could lull the moral sense to sleep. But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.

Three o’clock struck, and four, and the half-hour rang its double chime, but Dorian Gray did not stir. He was trying to gather up the scarlet threads of life and to weave them into a pattern; to find his way through the sanguine labyrinth of passion through which he was wandering. He did not know what to do, or what to think. Finally, he went over to the table and wrote a passionate letter to the girl he had loved, imploring her forgiveness and accusing himself of madness. He covered page after page with wild words of sorrow and wilder words of pain. There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution. When Dorian had finished the letter, he felt that he had been forgiven.

Suddenly there came a knock to the door, and he heard Lord Henry’s voice outside. “My dear boy, I must see you. Let me in at once. I can’t bear your shutting yourself up like this.”

He made no answer at first, but remained quite still. The knocking still continued and grew louder. Yes, it was better to let Lord Henry in, and to explain to him the new life he was going to lead, to quarrel with him if it became necessary to quarrel, to part if parting was inevitable. He jumped up, drew the screen hastily across the picture, and unlocked the door.

“I am so sorry for it all, Dorian,” said Lord Henry as he entered. “But you must not think too much about it.”

“Do you mean about Sibyl Vane?” asked the lad.

“Yes, of course,” answered Lord Henry, sinking into a chair and slowly pulling off his yellow gloves. “It is dreadful, from one point of view, but it was not your fault. Tell me, did you go behind and see her, after the play was over?”

“Yes.”

“I felt sure you had. Did you make a scene with her?”

“I was brutal, Harry—perfectly brutal. But it is all right now. I am not sorry for anything that has happened. It has taught me to know myself better.”

“Ah, Dorian, I am so glad you take it in that way! I was afraid I would find you plunged in remorse and tearing that nice curly hair of yours.”

“I have got through all that,” said Dorian, shaking his head and smiling. “I am perfectly happy now. I know what conscience is, to begin with. It is not what you told me it was. It is the divinest thing in us. Don’t sneer at it, Harry, any more—at least not before me. I want to be good. I can’t bear the idea of my soul being hideous.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Summary

In this celebrated work Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind.

Copyright © 1890 by Oscar Wilde.

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My most insidious Blue

Excerpt from This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone.

My most insidious Blue,

How does one begin this sort of thing? It’s been so long since I last started a new conversation. We’re not so isolated as you are, not so locked in our own heads. We think in public. Our notions inform one another, correct, expand, reform. Which is why we win.

Even in training, the other cadets and I knew one other as one knows a childhood dream. I’d greet comrades I thought I’d never met before, only to find we’d already crossed paths in some strange corner of the cloud before we knew who we were.

So: I am not skilled in taking up correspondence. But I have scanned enough books, and indexed enough examples, to essay the form.

Most letters begin with a direct address to the reader. I’ve done that already, so next comes shared business: I’m sorry you couldn’t meet the good doctor. She’s important. More to the point, her sister’s children will be, if she visits them this afternoon and they discuss patterns in birdsong—which she will have done already by the time you decipher this note. My cunning methods for spiriting her from your clutches? Engine trouble, a good spring day, a suspiciously effective and cheap remote-access software suite her hospital purchased two years ago, which allows the good doctor to work from home. Thus we braid Strand 6 to Strand 9, and our glorious crystal future shines so bright I gotta wear shades, as the prophets say.

Remembering our last encounter, I thought it best to ensure you’d twist no other groundlings to your purpose, hence the bomb threat. Crude, but effective.

I appreciate your subtlety. Not every battle’s grand, not every weapon fierce. Even we who fight wars through time forget the value of a word in the right moment, a rattle in the right car engine, a nail in the right horseshoe… It’s so easy to crush a planet that you may overlook the value of a whisper to a snowbank.

Address the reader—done. Discuss shared business—done, almost.

I imagine you laughing at this letter, in disbelief. I have seen you laugh, I think—in the Ever Victorious Army’s ranks, as your dupes burned the Summer Palace and I rescued what I could of the Emperor’s marvelous clockwork devices. You marched scornful and fierce through the halls, hunting an agent you did not know was me.

So I imagine fire glinting off your teeth. You think you’ve wormed inside me—planted seeds or spores in my brain—whatever vegetal metaphor suits your fancy. But here I’ve repaid your letter with my own. Now we have a correspondence. Which, if your superiors discover it, will start a chain of questions I anticipate you’ll find uncomfortable. Who’s infecting whom? We know from our hoarse Trojans, in my time. Will you respond, establishing complicity, continuing our self-destructive paper trail, just to get in the last word? Will you cut off, leaving my note to spin its fractal math inside you?

I wonder which I’d rather. Finally: conclude. This was fun.

My regards to the vast and trunkless legs of stone, Red

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

This is How You Lose the Time War – Summary

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.

Copyright © 2019 by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Watch. Just watch.

Excerpt from The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Photo by dirk von loen-wagner on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo.

It took another two days’ walk through the birch barrens before they came to the narrow beach of Lake Scarlet at dusk. The lake itself was almost perfectly circular, formed from the death of a falling star, and farther down the beach Chih saw the low green-tiled roof of the former empress’s compound. To their surprise, there was a lantern lit on the porch built over the water.

“Don’t tell me it’s looters already?”

As they watched, however, an old woman came walking out of the house with a smart step, and when she reached the railing, she stared out over the water and at the indigo sky above, where the stars were stepping forward. Chih was just wondering what to do when the old woman caught sight of them.

“Come over! You can see the lake better from here!”

Almost Brilliant kept her own counsel, so Chih picked their way along the rocky shore of the beach, coming up the shallow steps to the porch just as the last salmon light was leaving the sky. The old woman gestured for them to come closer.

“Come, you’re just in time.”

She indicated that Chih was meant to help themself from the small dish of sesame crackers on the railing, but she herself looked distracted, gazing over the black water and holding one cracker in her hand. After a few moments, she turned down the lantern wick until it emitted only a sullen glow.

“Grandmother, I’m here to—”

“Shush, girl, it’s happening.”

Above was the rapidly darkening sky. All around them was the darkness of the birch barrens, and spread out before them was Lake Scarlet, like a mirror reflecting nothing but night. At first, Chih thought it was their imagination, nothing more than a mirage that came after staring at something too hard, but then they realized that it was real. There was a faint glow coming from the water itself, something like the very last gleam of a dying hearth fire.

“What—”

“Shh. Watch. Just watch.”

Chih held their breath as the soft red glow brightened, sweeping across the lake like the sparks of New Year fireworks. It was brilliant, too hard to look at so very closely, and it flooded the water, enough so they could make out individual trees on the beach, the black silhouette of the night birds on the water, and the seamed face of the woman standing next to them, creased in pleasure.

“I was hoping it would go tonight. It’s still a little cold yet, but it has come even earlier in some years.”

Chih stood side by side with the woman, staring out over the pyrotechnic display before them. Just a short while after the red lights came up to their full brightness, they started to dim again. Chih counted in their head. When they had reached one hundred, there was only a faint reddish glow to the water.

The old woman sighed happily as she turned the lamp back up.

“Every time, it is like the first, and I have not seen it in sixty years. Come inside; it’s still too cold for my brittle bones.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Summary

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Copyright © 2020 by Nghi Vo.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

At the very beginning

Excerpt from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book of short stories called The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith.

I WILL START at the very beginning—the beginning we all were taught as children.

Thousands of years ago, a dragon prince and a fairy spirit fell in love. They married, and the fairy bore one hundred eggs, which hatched into one hundred beautiful children. However, the dragon lived beneath the sea, while the fairy’s home was in the mountains, and they could not be together. Fifty of the children went to live with their mother in the high hills of the North, and fifty of the children went south to the coast, where they learned to fish and make boats while their father watched over them from his palace beneath the waves. These children were the first people of Vietnam.

There is a place very close to the center of my country where the green fingers of the southern mountains almost touch the sea. The water there used to be the loveliest in all of the country—warm, clear, and teeming with fish. The buildings of the fishing hamlet by the bay were painted pink and green and turquoise, and the crumbling remains of a Cham temple overlooked it all from the hills. On the outskirts, where the town began to give way to jungle, in a yellow, colonial house, Vu Nguyen’s wife was giving birth. Huong came from a long line of beautiful and tempestuous women, and she thrashed and let out long, guttural screams while Mrs. Dang, the midwife, tried to calm her. Vu was pacing out by a bamboo grove in the yard, trying to ignore the sounds from inside and occasionally looking up at the rainclouds curdling in the sky. It was the beginning of the monsoon season.

Eventually, there was silence from the house. Vu drew in a long breath, looked up at the dark sky, exhaled, then turned and went in. He came across Mrs. Dang first; she was in the kitchen making a pot of tea, and Vu blanched when he saw that she had not washed her hands. He was a very slight man, and at the sight of her fingers and forearms stained with red he almost fell over.

“Anh Vu, congratulations! I’ll bring you a chicken for supper.” In addition to being the local midwife, Mrs. Dang bred noisy brown chickens that were always escaping from their pen and running loose in the streets. “Now go in and see your children!” She grinned at him with betel-nut–stained teeth.

“My children?”

“Ai-ya!” Mrs. Dang exclaimed, striking her forehead with her hand and accidentally smearing it with red. “How stupid—I spoiled the surprise!”

Vu rushed into the bedroom, where he found Huong and his surprise. His wife’s hair was matted and sweaty, and she had a cigarette in her mouth and two little bundles in her arms. Twins. Timidly, he approached their little trinity.

“They’re girls, Vu,” said Huong, exhaling a gray ribbon of smoke. “I know that’s not what you wanted. And there’s two of them.”

Vu came over and sat on the edge of the bed, carefully avoiding the soils from the birth on the sheets. The babies were awake and blinking their eyes—blue eyes in dark faces. Milky blue eyes, like those of Siamese cats. Outside, the distant rainstorm rumbled. Vu shuddered.

He named the girls Vi and Nhi.

Have you read any short stories by Violet Kupersmith? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Frangipani Hotel – Summary

From the story about a beautiful young woman who shows up thirsty in the bathtub of the Frangipani Hotel in Saigon many years after her first sighting there, to a young woman in Houston who befriends an old Vietnamese man she discovers naked behind a dumpster, to a truck driver asked to drive a young man with an unnamed ailment home to die, to the story of two American sisters sent to Vietnam to visit their elderly grandmother who is not what she appears to be, these stories blend the old world with the new while providing a new angle of insight into the after-effects of the war on a generation of displaced Vietnamese immigrants as well as those who remained in Vietnam.

Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Greatness / Nothing

Excerpt from She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Photo by Matt Zhang on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.

They turned from the main road and saw a pinprick of light ahead, no brighter than a random flash behind one’s eyelids. It was the fortune-teller’s house. As they went inside, the girl realized why her father had cut the melon.

The first thing she saw was the candle. They were so rare in Zhongli that its radiance seemed magical. Its flame stood a hand high, swaying at the tip like an eel’s tail. Beautiful, but disturbing. In the girl’s own unlit house she had never had a sense of the dark outside. Here they were in a bubble surrounded by the dark, and the candle had stolen her ability to see what lay outside the light.

The girl had only ever seen the fortune-teller at a distance before. Now, up close, she knew at once that her father was not old. The fortune-teller was perhaps even old enough to remember the time before the barbarian emperors. A mole on his wrinkled cheek sprouted a long black hair, twice as long as the wispy white hairs on his chin. The girl stared.

“Most worthy uncle.” Her father bowed and handed the melon to the fortune-teller. “I bring you the eighth son of the Zhu family, Zhu Chongba, under the stars of his birth. Can you tell us his fate?” He pushed Chongba forwards. The boy went eagerly.

The fortune-teller took Chongba’s face between his old hands and turned it this way and that. He pressed his thumbs into the boy’s brow and cheeks, measured his eye sockets and nose, and felt the shape of his skull. Then he took the boy’s wrist and felt his pulse. His eyelids drooped and his expression became severe and internal, as if interpreting some distant message. A sweat broke out on his forehead.

The moment stretched. The candle flared and the blackness outside seemed to press closer. The girl’s skin crawled, even as her anticipation grew.

They all jumped when the fortune-teller dropped Chongba’s arm. “Tell us, esteemed uncle,” the girl’s father urged.

The fortune-teller looked up, startled. Trembling, he said, “This child has greatness in him. Oh, how clearly did I see it! His deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name.” To the girl’s astonishment he rose and hurried to kneel at her father’s feet. “To be rewarded with a son with a fate like this, you must have been virtuous indeed in your past lives. Sir, I am honored to know you.”

The girl’s father looked down at the old man, stunned. After a moment he said, “I remember the day that child was born. He was too weak to suck, so I walked all the way to Wuhuang Monastery to make an offering for his survival. A twenty-jin sack of yellow beans and three pumpkins. I even promised the monks that I would dedicate him to the monastery when he turned twelve, if he survived.” His voice cracked: desperate and joyous at the same time. “Everyone told me I was a fool.”

Greatness. It was the kind of word that didn’t belong in Zhongli. The girl had only ever heard it in her father’s stories of the past. Stories of that golden, tragic time before the barbarians came. A time of emperors and kings and generals; of war and betrayal and triumph. And now her ordinary brother, Zhu Chongba, was to be great. When she looked at Chongba, his ugly face was radiant. The wooden Buddhist amulet around his neck caught the candlelight and glowed gold, and made him a king.

As they left, the girl lingered on the threshold of the dark. Some impulse prompted her to glance back at the old man in his pool of candlelight. Then she went creeping back and folded herself down very small before him until her head was touching the dirt and her nostrils were full of the dead chalk smell of it. “Esteemed uncle. Will you tell me my fate?”

She was afraid to look up. The impulse that had driven her here, that hot coal in her stomach, had abandoned her. Her pulse rabbited. The pulse that contained the pattern of her fate. She thought of Chongba holding that great fate within him. What did it feel like, to carry that seed of potential? For a moment she wondered if she had a seed of potential within herself too, and it was only that she had never known what to look for; she had never had a name for it.

The fortune-teller was silent. The girl felt a chill drift over her. Her body broke out in chicken-skin and she huddled lower, trying to get away from that dark touch of fear. The candle flame lashed.

Then, as if from a distance, she heard the fortune-teller say: “Nothing.”

The girl felt a dull, deep pain. That was the seed within her, her fate, and she realized she had known it all along.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

She Who Became the Sun – Summary

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.

Copyright © 2021 by Shelley Parker-Chan.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.