Short fiction recs! April and May 2019. Also 2 book recs.

Midway through June and I’m behind on my fiction reading (and writing!) as usual. Still, here is some of what I’ve read in the past few months.


Necessary Reading

Riverbed” by Omar El Akkad at Terraform (reprinted from the anthology, A People’s Future of the United States”)

In a future America ravaged by climate change and decline, Dr. Khadija Singh has returned to Riverbed, an internment camp in Billings, MO where Muslim-Americans were interned purely for their religion. Singh and her family were Sikh, not Muslim—yet that matter was overlooked in light of their complexion and appearance, and they were rounded up and held there as well. Now it’s decades later; Dr. Singh has Canadian citizenship and America is ashamed of what it did—the old internment facility now houses a museum, tours are given, and events planned for the 50th anniversary of the facility. But Dr. Singh has not come back to participate in commemoration events. She’s not in a mood for forgiveness. She’s seeking answers about the brother she lost.

This is no sensationalistic piece of political dystopia, no easy oppression porn. This is the quiet, bitter aftermath of injustice, in which America’s fortunes continue to decline. This is a world in which the camp guards were neighbors and regular men, a world in which Muslim-Americans were rounded up and told that “it’s for your own safety, it’s to protect you.” This is a future that draws upon our contemporary politics but also very clearly on America’s past—the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II is the most obvious model, but this piece also echoes a longer history of fear, injustice, and belated regret. This piece is beautifully grounded in setting and character, and it is chilling for precisely for how very, very real it feels. So much of what’s described in this story is happening right now.

And for me, so many, many moments hit hard on a personal level. I am neither Muslim nor of Middle-Eastern or South Asian background. But any American who is not of white European background—any American who has been seen as un-American due solely to the color of their skin, who has been asked, “No, where are you really from”--will be hit hard by the following exchange, where Khadija Singh speaks with the white director of Riverside years after her imprisonment.

 Where are you from?” Khadija repeated. “Where do you come from?”
“Billings,” the director said, uncertain.
“No, I mean where are you really from?” Khadija pressed. “Where are your parents from?”
“Also Billings.”
“And their parents?”
“I … I suppose they settled in Wyoming somewhere. They came from Norway. I don’t see how this is relevant, Dr. Singh.”
“It isn’t,” Khadija replied. “For you it isn’t. But for every single person who ended up here, it was. They were made to carry every last ancestor. They carried it in the color of their skin and the flaws in their accents and in their foreign-sounding names and their strange and dangerous religions, and you have no idea—you have no idea—how heavy a weight that is.”
Omar El Akkad has crafted a sharp, stunning, and quietly devastating piece. Required reading.

More Stories: Crisis, Resistance, Family, Horror, and Hope

"Chiripas" by José González Vargas at Fireside Magazine

The chiripas came with the rain season. They were small, bean-sized insects the color of coffee that ran and hid whenever they felt seen and followed. At first, nobody paid any attention to them. Why would we? They were bugs.
A surreal, Kafka-esque tale that captures current political reality (in more than one country) in a very different way. Strange insects have invaded a country; they’re in all the food, the clothes, the bed sheets. And yet the government insists, over and over, that there are no bugs—that reports of such are literally fake news. What does it mean, how does it feel, when your own government tells you to disregard the evidence of your own eyes, your own senses? Unfortunately, this is not an academic question. Vargas captures the disorientation, the gaslighting, the sense of madness that so many of us around the world feel today.
“The One Before Scheherazade” by Bianca Sayan in Augur Magazine Issue 2.1 
Everyone knows the story of Scheherazade—that brave, clever young woman who married a murderous king and saved herself and the rest of the kingdom’s women with her enchanting tales. But what about all the ones who came before? This is the story of the last bride before Scheherazade—a bride who isn’t even a woman, but a poor peasant girl of only twelve, a child enchanted when she sees a mirror for the first time and dazzled at the palace’s riches. A little girl who knows her fate, and also knows that she is not one who will escape. This is a quietly heartbreaking story, a remembrance of all those who are not remembered.

“Probilitea” by John Chu in Uncanny

Katie is the daughter of the manifestation of Order and Chaos. She can subtly manipulate the physical world, calculate probabilities, set up conditions. . . But she can’t be sure of the outcomes. When she meets the son of Life and Death in a coffee shop, her long years of training are finally put to the test. She has to decide whether and how to intervene for what’s right; she has to take a chance. This is a story about risk, about the tiny acts that set up conditions that can have huge and unexpected consequences. It’s a story about evil and good and hope in human decency. It’s also a story about family, about parents and children and growing up. A layered, thoughtful, and fresh tale.

“Your Inheritance Will Taste of Salt” by Karolyn Fedyk at Fireside

You have to guess who she was, there’s no way to know, histories shifting through your hands, and the unknowing is your phantom pain.

The protagonist’s grandmother was a sea witch, a selkie, trapped on land when the grandfather took her skin. Or was she? What really happened between the grandparents? Why did the grandmother disappear? The tides of history and war entangle with a search for personal roots. This is a gorgeous, yearning tale of loss, inheritance, memory--and what cannot be remembered or recovered.

“A Salt and Sterling Tongue” by Emma Osborne in Uncanny

In the aftermath of war and great loss, a Bard has come to a village to help heal wounds. She brings practical help—organizing the grief-stricken villagers, helping to reopen trade with other villages, planting seeds in the earth. And she brings her songs. This is an absolutely gorgeous, magical story of loss and healing, of shared grief, music, and community.

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen in Nightmare


I adored this just-above-flash-length story so much. It’s gleefully subversive, dark, and darkly delightful. A tale about imperialism, diaspora, alternative history, and yes, cannibalism—all told in the form of an annotated academic bibliography.

“Corzo” by Brenna Gomez in The Dark

One day when I was in the seventh grade, I came home to my father--Eduvigo Herrera III--cutting his heart out with a steak knife. 

A dark, dark story about a family that is unable to communicate, a family falling apart. Viscerally painful and haunting.  

The Deer Boy” by Micah Dean Hicks in Nightmare

I never had a place. A girl, and the oldest of five. Two brothers and two sisters with howling mouths. Mother sleepwalking from home to work and back. Father was nothing but a flat hand and restless, punishing eyes.

Another haunting story, surreal and so very dark. The protagonist—lonely, out-of-place, desperate for love—latches onto the deer boy that her father cuts from the body of a pregnant doe that he’s killed. The deer boy is hers, the narrator thinks—hers, hers, to love and to raise. A fierce tale of possessiveness, of twisted love born from pain that inflicts pain in its turn.

“Blur” by Carmen Maria Machado in Lightspeed

I can barely see without my glasses; in the absence of corrective lenses, my vision is a blur. And so what happens to the protagonist of this story is a true nightmare to me: she loses her glasses when she sets them down for a moment in the bathroom of a highway rest stop. And then she’s helpless, far from home, alone.

Until a man approaches, offering help. . .

Carmen Maria Machado invokes the initial nightmare scenario perfectly, and then the story dives into increasing levels of surrealness. This is a nightmare road journey that slowly reveals itself as a different kind of nightmare altogether, a journey to a terrible end. Machado’s prose is taut and compelling; a story that’s strange and utterly immersive.

“A Lady of Ganymede, A Sparrow of Io” by Dafydd McKimm in Flash Fiction Online

An utterly beautiful flash piece of horror and hope, torment and escape, set in a far-future science-fiction/fantasy world.


Arctic Adagio by D.J. Cockburn, published by Annorlunda Books (novella)

If you’ve read Cockburn’s other work, particularly his previous novella from Annorlunda Books, Caresaway, then you know that he excels at fast-paced, twisty plots and sharp, black humor. Arctic Adagio finds him showcasing those same strengths, this time in a murder mystery set aboard a luxury cruise ship in the Arctic ocean.

As protagonist Rex Harme puts it, his job is to “babysit the richest people in the world.” Rex Harme is head of security for a cruise ship that houses the ultra-rich—people who escape national jurisdictions by living in their own floating luxury world in international waters. The ship is named the Ayn Rand, and that’s just one example of the black humor in this bleak dystopian near-future world.

Harme’s job isn’t to investigate his clients. It certainly isn’t to quibble with his clients’ ethics (or lack of), or the ethics of the world at large. His concern is to stay employed, support his son who is still in school, and simply survive in a precarious world. But that all becomes more difficult when someone aboard the Ayn Rand is murdered, and it’s a race against time as Harme works to solve the mystery. . .

Cockburn’s wicked humor and sharp dialogue are at their best here. This is a greatly entertaining, fast-paced whodunnit, with twists and turns and even a hint of poignancy at the end. This is a bleak, black world Cockburn conjures (and all too chillingly plausible), but in the end there’s also a suggestion of warmth and hope, as his ultimately decent protagonist closes in on his case. As a novella, Arctic Adagio is a quick read—perhaps just an hour or so-- and a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, edited by Sarah Read and published by Pantheon Magazine

This is an anthology of flash stories of emergence, of transformation—of people transformed into birds, tigers, snakes, monsters, gods, flowers, and even a boat. People who have powerful encounters with transformation. People who emerge into something new. People who experience emergence and transformation on a profound psychic and spiritual level, if not always physically.

It’s a gorgeous collection of tiny stories, sparkling with vivid imagery like jewels. Some of them are tiny pieces of horror; some are hopeful, and some are sad. Nearly all are filled with longing and strangeness. With 42 stories in this collection, many of them by some of my favorite writers, choosing favorites is difficult. But in a collection of strange and lyrical beauty, some of the standouts were J. Ashley Smith’s wonderfully mysterious “The Face God Gave,” a story of an airplane flight that ends most unexpectedly; Alex Shvartsman’s “The Goddess of Birds and Wind,” and A.T. Greenblatt’s “Gods of Empty Places,” which both speak of yearning and a journey into empty, wild places; the amazingly creepy “Only the Mirrors Tell You,” by Rhonda Eikamp; the poignant “She Shells” by Eden Royce; Eugenia M. Triantafyllou’s story, “Her Blood Like Rubies in the Ground,” which is both creepy and heartbreaking; Maria Haskin’s gorgeous, luminous piece of loss and heartache, “Bioluminescence;” and Sharon Jimenez’ strange and lovely tale of sisters, snails, and a peacock in “Green.”

Flash fiction (that is, very short fiction—usually defined as 1000 words or less) lends itself to the experimental, to unconventional forms, and Gorgon showcases that here. Though there’s a range of tones and style, the stories are united by their lyricism (although it takes different forms) and, of course, by the theme of transformation. It’s a collection that I read slowly, a few stories at a time, treating myself to bite-sized pieces of beauty before bed and in snatches of time. This collection reminds me strongly of another anthology of strange and lovely flash pieces: An Alphabet of Embers, edited by R.B. Lemberg (although Gorgon has a stronger leaning toward horror). Both anthologies present stories that glow with mystery and beauty, pieces that often read like prose-poems. Both are highly recommended.  

Oh, and the interior illustrations for Gorgon (and An Alphabet of Embers as well) are also gorgeous and truly enhance the stories. These are both physically beautiful books (I encourage getting hard copies if you can).


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