Autistic Book Party, Episode 31: Marginalia to Stone Bird

Today’s Book: “Marginalia to Stone Bird”, a poetry collection by Rose Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I am going to try to write this review in a way that isn’t just jumping up and down and squeeing, because quite apart from the issue of being autistic, Lemberg is one of my favourite speculative poets ever and “Marginalia to Stone Bird” is their debut collection. And although I write poetry I do not think I am very good at reviewing it in detail, but I will try.

“Marginalia to Stone Bird” is a collection of speculative poems (almost entirely fantasy, with a single sci-fi scenario thrown in). The topics of the poems progress from magic realism firmly set in the real world, to folktales and love stories in fairytale-like settings, to the mythic, epic Journeymaker Cycle that dominates the last third. All of them are written in the lush, ornate language that is Lemberg’s trademark:

Give me of these fine threads that sing with indigo and weld,
I’ll make them into a carpet of my hurts,
knot them into a desert alive with Bird’s burning,
I’ll weave—with undyed wool and spidersilk—
the bones out of their hiding places.

This kind of language will not be to everyone’s taste. But I love it, and the ornateness is never at the expense of making sense. The poems also play off each other well enough that reading some will provide useful context for others; many, for instance, are set in the same world, Birdverse (also the setting of “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, “The Book of How to Live“, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, and “Geometries of Belonging“).

Lemberg’s poetry is very socially aware. The first third of the book, mainly magic realism, is centered firmly in the experience of oppression in the real world: immigration, faith and doubt, war, a failing marriage. The middle section translates these oppressions to the fantasy realm: its heroes are exploited peasants, abandoned women, unwanted people whose surroundings and cultures never treat them particularly well. (At least one is trans.) The Journeymaker Cycle, in the final third, makes this awareness both larger and more inward. It’s a winding story that unfolds across multiple lifetimes, in which its reincarnated heroes struggle with the use and abuse of their power, taking refuge in powerlessness and then eventually needing to reclaim power; in which they try to use their power to help, and help many, but also run up dramatically short against the limits of that ability. (Readers who liked the healing-and-consent themes in “Geometries of Belonging” will be fascinated by the additional complexity that they take on in the poem “Long Shadow”.) The shorter, more magical realist poems of the final third also play off of these themes, presenting a narrator who is afraid of their own power, afraid to speak or create, and yet who feels inevitably drawn to creation.

There is a theme of doubling that recurs throughout the work, most obviously in one of its early poems, “The Three Immigrations”. While a real-world character moves from country to country in fraught and desparate circumstances, other characters in a surreal and mythic world do the same. Characters in “Marginalia to Stone Bird” are mirrored by their counterparts in other worlds, by ghosts, by other identities with other genders sharing their body, by the people they were in past lives. The fantastical is always present, even in what would seem to be a very unvarnished real-world scene – and the difficult, complex social and emotional webs that constrain people’s actions in the real world are never quite absent, either, even at the collection’s wildest and most mythic.

If anyone tells you that autistic people cannot imagine whole worlds with attendant mythology, or create beautiful phrases, or imagine other people’s lives, or write about complex social situations movingly and with empathy – point them at this poetry collection, please.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a fairly close friend. I asked for an electronic review copy of this collection and was given one for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord – Award Edition!

Today I’m going to do something a little bit special. I worried that, by separating my Recommended stories into Recommended-1 (for stories with autistic characters, regardless of author) and Recommended-2 (for stories by autistic authors with no autistic characters in them), I would be somehow ghettoizing the work of autistic authors. Instead, I feel freer and more excited about reviewing stories that would go in the Recommended-2 category. I’m no longer putting pressure on myself to justify why these works are as relevant to Autism Issues as the Recommended-1 stories; I can let them be their own, good, thing.

In this spirit, I want to review four short works by autistic authors that are up for awards this year. Let’s celebrate some autistic award nominees!

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Ash Manifesto” (Strange Horizons, October 10, 2016)

[Autistic author] A powerful poem about personal strength (and un-strength), written in gorgeous, mythic words. “The Ash Manifesto” was one of my favourite speculative poems of 2016, and is one of two poems of Lemberg’s to be nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-2]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door” (Fireside, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A 2016 Nebula finalist, this is a subversive take on portal fantasies in which two friends in different worlds attempt to fix the malfunctioning portal that is keeping them apart. It’s a short, sweet tale with a firm emphasis on the value of community and connection, and some gorgeous, surreal descriptions. There is also some minor, but nice, queer content. [Recommended-2]

*

A.J. Odasso – “Nothing Goes Away” (The New England Review of Books, November 30, 2016)

[Autistic author] A poem that uses beautiful language to describe a moment of inaccuracy by a doctor, and the sheer density of thought that can occur in a moment in response. I don’t know if this poem is autobiographical, but it is certainly meant to be read as the experience of an autistic person who is similar to the author, and it succeeds at that. It is one of three poems of Odasso’s that are nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-1]

*

Bogi Takacs, “Marginalia on Eiruvin 45b” (Bracken, issue ii)

[Autistic author] A poem about a character, like some of Takács’ fictional protagonists, who accumulates intense levels of magical power in their body and has to learn to let some of it go. (Eiruvin 45b is a verse from the Talmud, which, as far as Google can tell me, has to do with movement and water – but you don’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to understand the basic events in the poem and appreciate the way they are described.) “Marginalia” is a Rhysling nominee this year in the short category. [Recommended-2]

*

Of course I cannot review my own work, but just to round out the set, I will note here that my own short poem, “The Giantess’s Dream“, has also been nominated for this year’s Rhyslings.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 27 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Kythryne Aisling, “quiet hands” (inkscrawl Issue 10, August 2016)

The title of this poem is a catchphrase commonly used by educators who try to stop autistic and other special needs children from moving around. The poem will be relatable to autistic people who have experienced coercive medication and attempts to extinguish stims. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Bogi Takács, “Toward the Luminous Towers” (Clarkesworld, August 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a non-neurotypical person with immense magical power who is coercively drafted into a war effort. (Bogi’s story notes confirm that the protagonist is autistic.) This is a well-written but difficult story; there is a great deal of abuse and coercion, and the ending could be mistaken for suicide by a careless reader. Readers who are put off by this content might want to wait for later installments in the series, which according to the story notes will be more cheerful in tone, and in which autism will play a greater role in the plot. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Book of How to Live” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #209, September 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a magicless autistic artificer in a magical world, and the beginnings of a revolution. Efronia’s autism is downplayed but recognizeable, particularly in her confusion over people’s motivations and in a period of sensory overwhelm she has towards the end of the story. She is a patient, steadfast person, which is a nice thing I don’t see often enough. The story overall is political in a very good way. [Recommended]

*

Julie Nováková, “Becoming” (Persistent Visions, October 21, 2016)

A story about a woman who becomes the mind of a space station, then is “rescued” and pressured to assimilate back into normal human life by other humans. Ana’s neurotype is written to closely resemble autism, although it’s unclear to me if she was always autistic or if this is somehow a consequence of having been a space station for a long time. (Her synesthesia and physical disability certainly predate her transformation.) Neurotypical society never really gets around to respecting Ana’s autonomy or ability to choose, even when they offer her old position back to her again – but Ana still triumphs by staying true to her own chosen values. [Recommended]

*

Amanda Sun, “What Harm” (Strangers Among Us, August 2016)

A non-speaking autistic boy named Colin is sold to an evil overlord and unexpectedly becomes the overlord’s undoing. This is a cool idea for a story and might have been enjoyable in different hands, but I was very distracted, alienated, and frustrated by the writing style. Colin is constantly othered by the narration in a variety of ways, even when it makes no sense to do so. I suspect that this may have been intentional on the author’s part, an attempt at ironic contrast between the way Colin is described and what he is actually capable of, but it really didn’t work for me. Colin’s deeds effectively undermine other characters’ claims that he is incapable of intentionally affecting anything, but many other ableist aspects of how he is described in the narration remain unchallenged. A well-intentioned attempt that left a bad taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 26 and a Half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Gabriela Santiago, “They Jump Through Fires” (Black Candies: Surveillance, April 2015; reprinted in GlitterShip, September 2015)

A horror story about an autistic woman mourning the death of her girlfriend. The protagonist’s grief is described in a way that, to me, feels both distinctively autistic and realistically nuanced. There are sensory aspects, analytical aspects, philosophical aspects, and a strong undercurrent – implied more than explicitly described – of immense confusion and distress. This distress only intensifies as the horror plot progresses and the scene becomes a surreal nightmare: a nightmare which is no less haunting for its mathematical aspects. [Recommended]

*

Lynn Kilmore, “By the Numbers” (Crossed Genres Issue 31: Novelette, July 2015)

A story about a math-obsessed autistic professor who discovers that she can communicate with equally math-obsessed aliens. The story makes a point of including realistic details, such as the protagonist (Mel)’s sensory sensitivities and her anti-cure perspective. It also makes a point of sharing and validating Mel’s experience. That said, a few things about it didn’t work for me. Mel is portrayed as a very disagreeable person (and, frankly, a bad professor) in ways that have little to do with autism, but that could easily be conflated with it by an outsider. I’m not opposed to writing autistic protagonists who are disagreeable, but I don’t think this one is handled well. Additionally, mathematical sequences are thought to be one of the easiest ways for two sentient species to establish communication over a long distance, so it feels like a stretch when the other characters (including a physics professor!) conclude that the aliens must be “annoyingly obsessed” like Mel, rather than performing a logical and necessary first-contact protocol. This one tries, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “Skin the Creature” (Through the Gate, Issue 9, December 2015)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about seizing hold of life. While it’s not “about” autism, mentions of flailing movements and sensory intolerance suggest that its vivacity is a neurodivergent vivacity, one unbothered by its own intensity and oddness, unafraid of standing out, and eager for the next experience. [Recommended]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” (Uncanny Magazine, Issue Eight, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A light, warm, and rather flowery long-distance love story set in Lemberg’s Birdverse world. I read one of the lead characters, Vadrai, as perhaps on the spectrum. She has anxiety, fear of crowds, preference for solitude, aptitude for work involving tiny details, and admitted lack of understanding of how to deal with people. (I also read both characters as demisexual.) These elements are backgrounded and perhaps debatable, which only makes the story more charming to me: we need more love stories involving (arguably) autistic people in which autism is not presented as a major barrier to the characters’ happiness together. [Recommended]

*

Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria” (Fireside, Issue 34, July 2016)

[Autistic author] I read the protagonist of this story, Kyru, as autistic because of his expressive speech difficulties and sensitivity to noise. Kyru also gets to be the typical bildungsroman-fantasy protagonist, leaving a home where his relatives underappreciate and misgender him, and traveling to a magical mountain where there are problems only Kyru’s abilities can fix. I especially appreciate the way Kyru’s sensory sensitivities and his magical abilities affect each other, without being at all conflated. An ominous but hopeful story in which an autistic trans hero comes into his own. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 19 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Jim C. Hines, “Chupacabra’s Song” (Kaleidoscope anthology, 2014; also available by itself on Amazon and Smashwords)

A story about Nicola Pallas – a minor character from the Libriomancer series – her father’s veterinary clinic, and her discovery of magic. Nicola is visibly different, humming, waving her hands, and going nonverbal under stress. She’s also shown as significantly more human, and more compassionate, than the apparently NT wizards she encounters, and she ends up outsmarting them. There’s a theme of acceptance here, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. [Recommended]

*

Bogi Takács, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” (Capricious, issue 1, September 2015)

[Autistic author.] Autism is not foregrounded in this story, but I did read the narrator as autistic due to eir sensory seeking, intense anxiety when confronted with uncertain/unfamiliar things, the use of a weighted blanket, and other things. Regardless of whether you read it that way or not, it’s a nice story of a nonbinary-gendered person in a queer D/S relationship on a magical spaceship, who gets swept up in events when a political dignitary abruptly requests passage on eir ship for mysterious reasons. I enjoyed it. [Recommended]

*

Addison Trev, “The Beachcomber of Dong Hoi” (Breath & Shadow, volume 12 issue 4, fall 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is the story of a mentally disabled beachcomber and his weekly routine; a speculative element emerges only near the end. It is a story which is told with precise detail and empathy, and which takes the title character’s concerns seriously. Many developmentally disabled people do end up in life roles like this one, in which they vaguely eke out an existence on the margins of society. It’s important that these characters be portrayed with the kind of dignity that Trev’s narration provides. I did find the ending a bit facile, and some of its implications unfortunate – but it’s the ending that hammers home that yes, this really IS intentionally an autism story. [YMMV]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye” (The Journal of Unlikely Academia, October 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is a sharp and biting commentary on Western academia which will have academic readers glumly nodding their heads in recognition. An autistic student, or perhaps the ghost of an autistic student, plays a brief but pivotal role. It has to do with the politics of who is and is not welcomed in academic spaces, rather than with who the student is as a person – but is still, I suspect, of great interest to the kind of person who reads Autistic Book Party. [Marginal, but I liked it]

*

A.C. Wise, “And If the Body Were Not The Soul” (Clarkesworld, October 2015)

I, for once, was dense and did not read the protagonist in this story as autistic – but his asexuality and unusual sensory/bodily experience are impossible to miss. A lot of commenters, including autistic commenters, did see autism. (It could be because my own experience as an autistic person does not include Ro’s kind of touch-phobia – but it is a real and common experience for many!) Whatever you want to call Ro, he’s portrayed with nuance and respect. He is not protrayed as broken or less than the characters who enjoy touch, even if he is insecure enough to feel that way at times – and his insecurity, while providing background tension, is not the driving conflict of the story. Instead, Ro gets to do cool things, make decisions with agency, get involved in racial politics, and figure things out about aliens. [Recommended]

Short Story Spotlight: “Geometries of Belonging”

The Story: Rose Lemberg, “Geometries of Belonging” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 1, 2015)

A year and a half ago, when I reviewed “Twelve Seconds” by Tina Gower, I commented on how the story surprised me by subverting the cure decision narrative when I didn’t think that was possible. “Geometries of Belonging” subverts it in yet another way – or, perhaps more accurately, averts it.

In “Geometries”, Healer Parét, the protagonist, is a mind-healer who can magically cure people of all sorts of mental ailments. But Parét’s cures are imperfect, and impermanent, and often have to be repeated – and, most importantly, Parét never heals without the patient’s consent.

This gets Parét into trouble when he meets a genderqueer autistic teenager named Dedéi – a patient whose parents and grandparents want a cure (both for their gender and for their neurotype), but who desperately and emphatically does not want to be cured, and is capable of saying so, loudly and repeatedly.

Approximately zero story time is spent on the decision of whether to perform or not perform a cure. It is obvious to Dedéi that they do not want to be cured, and it is obvious to Parét that he will not perform mind-healing on a patient like Dedéi who does not want it. The conflict in the story comes, not from agonizing over what it would be appropriate to do with Dedéi, but from the fallout and social consequences of Dedéi and Parét both sticking to their principles. Dedéi’s grandfather is powerful, and the suggested cure is actually a proxy for political machinations which turn out to be quite complex, devious, and sinister indeed.

Aside from the bones of the plot, it’s worth studying the way Parét talks about Dedéi, as a narrator who sees much more about minds and the brokennesses of minds than most people, and who accurately assesses Dedéi’s abilities and differences, yet remains respectful in his descriptions:

She is not calm—her hands shake a bit on the vine, but she is strong, and she maintains her grip. Her speech is mostly flat, but there is intonation. She speaks clearest when she is uninterrupted, and says the most about a topic she loves. She repeats, yes—it seems easier for her to repeat than to make new sentences—but it is not nonsensical. We are having a conversation. She attends to my words and responds in turn.

I see nothing in Dedéi that would merit shame and secrecy and threats of remaking. And just how isolated has she been?

(Note on out of context pronouns: Parét refers to Dedéi as “she” because the language in which Dedéi and their family speak lacks gender-neutral pronouns; later in the story, this decision is reversed, and Dedéi is referred to more properly as “they”.)

Parét himself is not exactly neurotypical (probably allistic, but deeply depressed, reluctant to heal himself, and in need of prompting from his romantic partner in order to take initiative in most matters). His thoughts on minds, magic, and brokenness in general are very interesting. This is a good story on its own merits; but it’s especially worthwhile reading for anyone who is playing with magic systems and wants to understand how mind-healing magic and acceptance of neurodiversity could respectfully coexist.

The Verdict: Recommended