The Femdom Felony by Thomas Moffatt, self-published, March 2020, 277 pp., $9.99 (paperback) / $4.25 (ebook).Buy.
By day, Jay Mitchell is a computer technician for the city of Calgary. He keeps his lifestyle as a live-in submissive to a dominant mistress separate from his work life. But when his mistress, the Catwoman, is found murdered, Jay’s lifestyle becomes public knowledge as he turns into the police’s top suspect. Desperate to find the Catwoman’s killer even while being pursued by authorities himself, Jay plays amateur detective as he questions various members of the BDSM community about the last people seen with the Catwoman. But he soon discovers that the crime is bigger than he could have imagined, going far beyond one subculture to involve corporations, nonprofits, and even ecoterrorists.
The Femdom Felony is a fun, richly rendered mystery that is sensitive to the communities it portrays. Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is its deep understanding of BDSM culture, norms, and safety procedures. Although there is some conflation of kink and sex, Moffatt does a great job of explaining BDSM in a way that’s accessible to vanilla readers who might not understand the philosophy behind power exchange. For readers involved in the community, The Femdom Felony is a refreshing escape: Jay’s deep experience with BDSM community shows through in the way he takes safety and consent seriously, allowing the reader to relax and not have to worry about insensitive portrayals of a community that often faces heavy stigma. Additionally, Moffatt’s decision to add a parallel story about Terry, a trans woman, helping Toni, a young queer man, escape from his abusive situation worked well for the narrative. In showing the horrific abuse Toni endures, Moffatt is clear to distinguish how such abuse is antithetical to the tenets of Safe, Sane, and Consensual BDSM. When those tenets are violated later by the villains, the reader has a full sense of why that violation is egregious.
Moffatt’s characters are richly rendered. I wish I knew more about the Catwoman and was unhappy that she was fridged for the story, but the other characters had well-developed backstories and felt like real people. Jay doesn’t appear to be LGBTQ, but he allies with the community because of the overlapping stigmas they both face. The LGBTQ side characters feel multifaceted, and Moffatt does a wonderful job of providing backstories that involve abuse, homelessness, and other difficult situations without lingering on them as tragedies, or as titillating, voyeuristic looks into people’s lives. Rather, Moffatt’s characters are people who have survived those experiences. They have stories other than “issue stories,” and they all have their own interests, motivations, and personalities outside of the subcultures they’re involved in. Even when they engage in kinks I don’t share, I can appreciate why they gravitate to them, as the characters’ psyches are well-defined. Moffatt not only humanizes people who are often marginalized, but also shows that those facets of a person’s identity are only a small part of their complex lives.
I found myself totally engrossed in the worldbuilding of The Femdom Felony as well. The novel is set in present-day Calgary, Alberta. I use “worldbuilding” here not to mean divergences from our real-life world, as in a secondary world, but rather all the efforts the author has put into establishing a sense of setting. Moffatt’s descriptions of Calgary are vivid and show a deep understanding of the city. I often have difficulty following characters’ geographical and spatial locations when they’re involved in a chase or other action scenes, but Moffatt has no trouble orienting the reader. The details are specific, creating a lived-in sense of place. Even bits of infodump-like exposition were fascinating and showed a love for the city.
The plot itself was easy to follow and well-paced for a thriller. The ending is fairly open, but it suits the narrative. There were only a few things that detracted from the narrative for me. One was that I didn’t appreciate the ableism in the moment when Miss Stacey apologizes for Trixie Torment’s threatening behavior by saying, “She’s bipolar and she doesn’t always stick to her meds.” Moffatt tries so hard to depict the BDSM community as made up of a lot of individuals, including individual bad actors, that it feels jarring to see an entire group of people marginalized with such a dismissive statement. The second issue I had was one that I often run into in real-life BDSM spaces: almost everyone is White. I would have been able to set that aside and ignore it for the sake of the rest of the story, but I was then disappointed to see subtle stereotypes about Asians, first as a group of tourists, then as exploited housekeepers, and finally as servers speaking nonstandard English. Of course, there are indeed Asians who meet all those descriptions, but the overall effect felt like having a few extras in the background of the movie who are thought of as little more than props. Again, a gap that seems incongruent with Moffatt’s otherwise sensitive portrayal of many other groups.
Overall, The Femdom Felony is a fun mystery novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the repercussions for each character’s actions. The world and people are excellently written, and I love that I now have a great example of a work that respects BDSM and is accessible to both vanilla and kinky readers. I hope to see more erotica mysteries from Moffatt soon.
Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson, Pitchstone Publishing, April 2020, 135 pp., $14.95 (paperback) / $6.99 (ebook), ISBN 978-1-6343119-8-4 (paperback) / 978-1-6343119-9-1 (ebook).Buy.
This book made me a humanist.
Back in 2009, I co-founded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Secular Students Association (SSA) with Mike Deigan, Kris Wold, and Joy Nichols. Although we didn’t use the term at the time, our mission was a humanist one. We consciously chose to have the “A” represent “Association” instead of the national organization’s “Alliance,” as we felt “Alliance” embodied a sense of conflict that didn’t resonate with us. Instead, we wanted to dedicate the organization to interfaith dialogue and service to fill a gap not only on campus, but in the surrounding community. We promoted events on campus that engaged with secularism, such as a student production of The Spinoza Project, which discusses religious freedom and the separation of church and state. We contextualized events with open dialogue, including an “Ask and Atheist” event across from the “Pit Preacher,” aka Gary Birdsong, who is known for fiery fundamentalist speeches and condemnations that even many Christian students found extreme. We were also aware that new atheist movements were doing very little to provide a social safety net for communities, especially when compared to religious groups like churches and faith-based resource centers, which offer a strong alternative to government assistance. We sent out information about anti-oppression volunteer opportunities and charity events to our members so they could participate as representatives of SSA. In doing so, we hoped to improve the reputation of secular people in an area known for its dogmatic religious beliefs, and to provide an alternative to houses of worship and faith-based organizations.
Gradually, though, my studies took on more priority, and my worsening mental health made participation in student organizations more difficult. As I evaluated which groups I still wanted to go to, I made the difficult decision to stop going to SSA meetings, which I had worked so hard along with the others to establish in the first place. There simply came a point when I felt too alienated as a person of color to keep participating in White spaces that often devolved into attacks on religion. Many atheists at Carolina were formerly involved with Southern Baptism and its rigid dogma; however, many of them did not examine how they replicated the very same dogma, even if they switched their terms and targets. The Whiteness of those spaces and the Whiteness of secularist philosophy ended up making me feel drained rather than restored. So I left.
I’ve never stopped identifying as atheist agnostic1, but, while I found the term “humanist” while I was in college, I never used it for myself. Perhaps it felt too frou-frou for me. It was absent of any framework of radical dismantling of oppression. Sure, there were lofty ideals, but I didn’t see much about actual praxis. And what organizations there were felt so overwhelmingly White that I didn’t even feel like going.
It’s been 11 years since the founding of Carolina’s SSA. In that time, only Humanists in the Hood has managed to reach me and convert me to humanism, precisely because Hutchinson’s intersectional analysis made me feel seen for the first time in a secular space. I’ve been active in various anti-oppression circles, including those fighting racism, cis/sexism, ableism, sizeism, and heteropatriarchy, yet this was the first time I felt acknowledged as a secular person in a religious context. My prior frustration wasn’t an individual one-off that happened at one single university, but was a manifestation of a systematic disparity.
Hutchinson outlines a powerful and compelling argument that humanism cannot be divorced from real-world oppressions, such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Modern secularism does itself a disservice when it focuses on reactionary politics and only mobilizes to fight religious encroachments on the state. Instead, Hutchinson argues that humanism must be proactive and stand behind its belief in the equality and value of all human life. Instead of paying lip service to representation and diversity, humanists must invest the actual work in dismantling the institutions that keep humans unequal.
Hutchinson outlines how religion, particularly Christianity, has worked its way into American politics. Through a lens that examines a Black and African American experience of religion and secularism, Hutchinson breaks down how Christianity has allied with the state to perpetuate violence, such as by normalizing violence against women of color. Hutchinson highlights how religion offers a safety net for communities of color that have been neglected by the government. But too often, that safety net often comes at the price of accepting the abuse of powerful figures, particularly men, in the church.
Furthermore, because religion often fills the gap of providing mental healthcare to communities of color, secular people of color are often forced to choose between an ideology at odds with their very identity or getting the help they need. Especially for Black and African Americans, religion has historically and continues to be a way to cope with trauma, including intergenerational trauma. Humanists in the Hood is a difficult read at times, if only because Hutchinson doesn’t whitewash the reality of what people of color, particularly Black people, face in the United States: depressing rates of sexual violence, criminalization, pathologization, poverty, and the psychic toll of navigating interlocking oppressions on a day-to-day basis. Even as she highlights religion’s role in perpetuating injustice, Hutchinson is careful not to attack religion or faith itself, instead focusing her arguments on the praxis, or concrete action that is taken. In fact, Hutchinson includes suggested steps at the end of each chapter to help the reader see and challenge the failings of White secularism.
On top of being an excellent manifesto for a radical vision of humanism, Humanists in the Hood is also one of the best, up-to-date references on Black feminism that I’ve come across. As a millennial who came to a lot of consciousness about oppression through the internet, I’ve often been frustrated by how the history behind ideology gets erased online, most visibly in the lack of citations for the originators of terms and concepts. Those ideas then go on to be co-opted by White feminism, such as what has happened with the #MeToo movement, which Hutchinson uses to illustrate this very dynamic. Humanism in the Hood provides the citations, links, and references to the original sources where concepts like “intersectionality” and “respectability politics” came from (Kimberlé Crenshaw and Elizabeth Higginbotham, respectively). In a society where Black women’s labor is so often devalued and co-opted, Hutchinson’s thorough timelines and meticulous citations offer an invaluable record of history and a roadmap away from that erasure.
Even though Humanists in the Hood is a mere 135 pages long and written in non-academic, accessible language, I still found myself taking a while to read it, simply because Hutchinson expresses so much in such a compact space—it’s truly a marvel; I’ve read books over 400 pages as long that weren’t even half as informative. Rather than try to sum up every one of Hutchinson’s arguments, I’d like to expand on her analysis by providing decolonial and Chinese-American additions.
Hutchinson touches on how Enlightenment-era philosophy shaped contemporary humanism and how ideologies of racial difference are used to justify inhumane acts on people of color; she also notes how the mind–body division found in Christianity undermines the mission of improving the human condition on Earth while one is alive. Hutchinson dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the economic injustice of capitalism and income inequality. Yet, while Hutchinson does mention imperialism in a few places, there is a notable absence of critiques about coloniality. Many of the myths people in the United States have about progress and modernity, including beliefs about the infallibility of science and the vision of the “American Dream,” are rooted in colonialism’s spread over the globe. Capitalism was not always the status quo; racial difference was not always codified into institutional power differences. The United States is not unique in its oppressive beliefs, as the United States is deeply shaped by the same coloniality that took over the world. A thorough understanding of coloniality and decolonization would only advance the cause of an intersectional humanism.
I would also like to expand on Hutchinson’s comments about mental health and religious organizations’ exploitation of worshippers. Mental health is a critical issue in Asian-American communities, where language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, faith, pseudoscience, and distrust of Western medicine combine to create low rates of people seeking help for psychiatric issues. Financial exploitation of worshippers is not unique to Christianity, either. No more than 20 minutes away from South LA, where Hutchinson’s work is centered, is Rowland Heights, an Asian-American hub. The city is host to one branch of a religious group called Bodhi Meditation.
I can’t claim to know all their inner workings, as I only went to one of their sessions. I found myself disturbed by the focus on the (male) leader Grandmaster Jinbodhi. His words seemed to be sacred in themselves as a video played of worshippers who claimed that various physical ailments had been cast out of their body via meditation, almost like a Christian exorcism: one person claimed that, as she meditated, a ball of energy burst from her body, ridding her of her chronic pain. There was an extensive gift shop attached to the meditation center. Buddhist institutions are no stranger to hosting lavish displays of wealth as religious offerings, and can exploit religious ties to economic injustice just as readily as Christians. Furthermore, while I recognize that the full benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are not yet fully understood, the fact remains that many of the tinctures and remedies are not as efficacious as Western drugs. Still, many immigrant communities, including Asian ones, are suspicious of Western medicine because of its reported side effects. Furthermore, mental health intervention, whether or not it includes medication, is often stigmatized and considered something only White people seek. This web of pressures is yet another manifestation of how religion and faith can be used to control and deprive, and another manifestation of where secular humanism can provide immense value to a community.
Humanists in the Hood is a stellar piece of nonfiction, one that I’d hold up as a prime example of how to make something purportedly high-concept accessible to the masses. For White people wishing to work together toward a humanist vision of the future, Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D.2 is an excellent companion to expand this dialogue. In the introduction, Hutchinson notes, “With Humanists in the Hood, I’m writing not only the book that I’ve wanted to read but also the book that I (to quote [Alice] Walker) should have been able to read.” (24, emphasis in original) This is also the book I should have been able to read while organizing in college, the book that would have provided the tools I needed to critique and resist the discomfort I felt in White secular spaces. But Hutchinson notes in the conclusion that it will be Millennials and Gen Zers of color who will change the discourse around humanism in the United States. I’m proud to say that, as a Millennial of color, Humanists in the Hood has resonated with me. I will be sure to pass it on to others so they, too, can be seen and work toward a better future for all humankind.
1 Which is not a contradiction. For me, “atheism” means a lack of belief in a god or gods, while “agnosticism” represents the belief that human beings are inherently limited and cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods, thus a- and gnosis, for “knowledge.”
2 Interestingly enough, Dr. Jay Klusky credits Dr. Joy DeGruy as one of his closest friends and as an invaluable cultural consultant. Sikivu Hutchinson cites Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing in her analysis. Small humanist world.
First Instance by David Gowey, self-published, July 2016, 118 pp., $0.99, Kindle edition.Buy.
Tony Vasquez is a junior lawyer eager to prove himself to his terrifying boss. When an electrician on the Moon punches someone and sets off an unprecedented legal case, Tony gets the chance of a lifetime. Along with his coworker Kavita, Tony visits the Moon to take on the case. With growing anti-UN sentiment characterizing the political turmoil of Earth in the 2100s, Tony and Kavita have to navigate the touchy subjects of national sovereignty and jurisdiction while fighting for their client’s fundamental human rights.
I loved the concept of First Instance, as I have a soft spot for science fiction that is actually a deep dive into a mundane Earth profession. The legal and political intrigue piqued my interest, and Tony’s voice was fun to follow along throughout. I particularly liked the focus on the consequences of the ruling—what kind of precedent will this trial set for humanity’s budding expansion into space?
Much as I enjoyed the concept and characters, my main issue with the story was on a worldbuilding level. I got tantalizing hints of what kind of future setting the story is in and what kind of changes have happened, but I didn’t get a solid grounding of that when the story opens. There’s decent description of the physical territory on the moon, but little about temporal setting or atmosphere. The talking heads floating in white space problem, essentially. The character voices also tend to blend together when discussing legalese, but I suppose that’s to be expected to some degree.
A sequel to First Instance is in the works. I’m curious to see how the open ending will be resolved.
has emotions so big they have to shout about it (“¡ay!”, “aiyah!”, “ai-yai-yai”…)
can be codependent or symbiotic
thank you, thank you, if you enjoyed this thread, please find your local linguist and tell them you don’t judge them for making strange sounds while sitting alone with their brow furrowed. it means a lot.
The Doctor as Empire: “the doctor always comes” :: “the sun never sets on the british empire”; “harbinger of death” as the genuine belief of the colonized; The Doctor as the White Man’s Burden; the trauma of Companions as the trauma of assimilation & coloniality;
the power of the Empire to keep Companions dependent on it; the reliance of the Companion on the Empire even though the Companion is disposable to the Empire; the utter INSISTENCE that the doctor be white;
donna noble as the colonized who has learned the secrets of the colonizer; donna noble’s fate as punishment for daring to ascend;
this weird thing about time lords and humans not being able to have viable children; how that has darker implications for the idea of the Doctor as the last of his kind; how the Doctor is perhaps a manifestation of anxieties over the end of the Empire;
hoo boy, unpacking my favorite doctor who episode, 4×10 “midnight”, through the lens of the Doctor as Empire: the Doctor’s worst fear is being outsmarted, having someone *anticipate* him before he articulates himself—the silent, the marginalized, beating him at his own game;
the funny thing is that they try to lampshade this by having dee dee & the professor be ABSURDLY racist, but the metaphor is still there, if not even stronger: the manifestation of “individual bigotry” contrasts against the institutional bigotry that’s never called out
ooh, and now the doctor shuts everyone up and demands that they all listen to dee dee. what a generous gesture from the Empire, to uplift Diverse voices while maintaining the status quo;
fascinating how the narrative implies that the Doctor is doing her a favor, building her confidence even by asking her to speak publicly and Overcome the image others have of her of being incompetent—but of course, it’s the Doctor who saves everyone
FASCINATING how they lampshade the fact that no one asks the hostess’s name despite the fact that she saves them. is it a coincidence that she’s black? at this point, I’mma say No; it’s a Symbol of sacrifices for the Empire, so noble, these nameless masses & their loyalty
I cannot believe donna noble is the companion and there is STILL a flash of rose on the TV. I’m going to interpret rose as the nobility of white womanhood that is to be protected and desired, and I’m gonna go so far as to say donna “noble” lampshades that she’s NOT “womanly”
donna as a companion is defined by her “incompetence,” which isn’t actually incompetence, it’s the fact that the status quo does not value her skills and labor. her whole character arc is “I AM good enough, aren’t I,” and when she transcends her position in life, she’s punished
it’s quite fascinating that she’s absent from this episode, actually; the whole uncanny thing about sky is that she has knowledge that only the doctor should have. sky has to be destroyed as a “monster” despite, objectively, only being a sentient force that wants physicality
when ANYONE gets knowledge that’s supposedly privileged to the Empire, that person is targeted and destroyed. cf. organizers, activists
the whole episode is supposedly an exercise in mob mentality—nothing more than LORD OF THE FLIES set in the doctor who universe—and the most telling thing of all is that the “monster” is even perceived as a monster at all—it is *the doctor’s* panic that incites violence
the crowd only says “let’s throw her out” after the doctor gets nervous about sky. and he gets to play the white knight saying “no one will be killing anyone”—he lampshades that they get to decide whether or not they’ll, functionally, commit a hate crime on a new life
everyone turns on the Doctor after realizing that he’s suspicious; they start realizing he’s not human. when he’s cornered, he replies, “because I’m clever!” “you’ve been looking down on us since the moment we walked in.” here is an actual uprising against the Empire
and the narrative paints it as the unreasonable thing to do. even though, quite honestly, the Doctor *is* the most suspicious one on board
“we all have to calm down and cool off and think”—the Empire using “rational debate” as a tool—emotions are considered “weak”, ESPECIALLY when an emotionally driven argument is against the Empire, even though the experiences of the subjugated COME with fear & anger
“you need MY voice in particular, the cleverest voice in the room. why? because I’m the only one who can help. oh, I’d love that to be true, but your eyes, I can tell you want something else. … you don’t have to steal it. you can find it without hurting anyone. & I’ll help you”
this is STRAIGHT UP projection from the Empire, particularly when the doctor says “do we have a deal.” exchanging power with the Empire requires a covenant (cf. BENEATH THE RISING by premee mohamed)
decolonization is taking the colonial framework of the Empire and subverting it to give full agency to the marginalized. “look at me, I can move, and now he can’t move. help me, professor. get me away from him”
“It was so cold. I couldn’t breathe. I’m sorry. I must have scared you so much”
why is this perceived as deception instead of the genuine confession of the marginalized?
the whole conceit is that the Doctor “can’t move,” i.e., his agency has been taken from him. at this point, sky is the only voice speaking, and the Doctor is literally voiceless. this is the nightmare of the Empire: having its discourse taken to “turn the tables”
of course, this is another manifestation of the Empire’s zero sum perception of the world. why did sky “steal” his voice? why isn’t the doctor simply frozen with fear, and sky simply growing to fuller sentience?
“that’s how he works. creeps into your head, and whispers. just listen. that’s him, inside.”
sky is straight up calling out the Empire’s coloniality as a mimetic perpetuation of itself (i.e., you learn the logic of coloniality that subjugates you)
when sky says “allons-y,” the hostess claims that she has “stolen the doctor’s voice,” simply because she used a catchphrase that’s “his.” why couldn’t she have been quoting him? mocking him? no, the use of language privileged to the Empire is a transgression in itself
the Empire can now breathe, knowing that the loyal sidekick has sacrificed herself, taking away the threat to the Empire’s status as exceptional (“because I’m clever”). the last note of the episode is donna imitating the Doctor, which severely unsettles him
yes, the narrative contextualizes it as evidence of the Doctor’s traumatic experience, but the overall effect is: this moment foreshadows Donna’s downfall, as she has uttered the Doctor’s catchphrase and “taken” his voice. he quickly puts her back in her place.
anyway. now I can’t ever watch doctor who again, thanks self
*pinches bridge of nose* the male gaze on f/f content is not the same as the female gaze on m/m content, can we stop pretending they’re completely equivalent
yes, both can be fetishistic, but that’s… a part of sexual and romantic gaze in general? patriarchy and misogyny really unbalance the scales here
the more interesting question to me is why m/m content occupies a niche where it can be safe entertainment for straight women and safe sandboxes for queer people. why doesn’t f/f have the same status? maybe they’re born with it, maybe it’s Misogyny™
and when it comes to queer women, why is it that m/m offers a safer sandbox than m/f, even? to me, the question is not “is this practice fetishistic,” but rather, “why does m/m, but not m/f or f/f, offer a blank slate of power equality on which fantasies can be built?”
I’ve seen a fair amount of input on how straight men : f/f :: straight women : m/m erases nonbinary & trans people, and how it suppresses the fact that many queer people discover their queerness through such exploration. but I’d also like to add another dimension: race
in western media, OVERWATCH is literally THE only fandom I’ve encountered where the main m/m pairing includes at least one man of color (hanzo/mccree, mccree is often interpreted as a moc but afaik it hasn’t been canonically confirmed). I have been in fandom for 18 years.
go to any of the top western fandoms on ao3—marvel, harry potter, star wars, star trek, sherlock, doctor who, supernatural, to name just a few I’ve personally been in!—and I will guarantee you that the most popular pairing is two white men.
as a queer poc who isn’t a cis man, I’m left with a deep impression on the psyche that, when we explore media to escape, we still can’t escape the power structures that we’re embedded in. yet the beauty of fandom is that all these characters & symbols can comment on anything
so you’ve got this other dimension, not only of m/m being a blank slate of power equality based on gender, but also of popular m/m being a blank slate of power equality based on *race*. it’s also a place where you can subvert racism in the source material.
I’d literally just commented on this earlier when it comes to OCs:
@icedcitruss poc artists if a majority of your ocs started off as white when you were incredibly younger raise your hands.
@sqiouyilu idk if they were white per se, but they were so fuckin anime and light-skinned that they entered this liminal unmarked state anyway. but the first and only nanowrimo I completed originally started as a white dude (final short story version centers on an asian girl)
I am not actually joking when I say that my entire career comes from dissatisfaction with how others handle concepts. and about 80% of that is driven by my origins in fandom and specifically fanfic.
I was forced to paint on m/m canvas primed with white. but now that I’m able to get my voice out more, I’ve scrapped that canvas entirely for the tapestry that is my actual background.
and by the way, if anyone’s opening the argument with equating f/f porn made for the male gaze with m/m porn for the female gaze, I’d just like them to show their work and send me a list of f/f fic written by straight men. I’ll wait. please, I’m desperate for femslash
(sidebar: the former is often visual production with actual people. the latter is usually written solo with the intent to explore a psychological aspect or imaginary situation. let’s talk differences in production value and agency for women involved too, hmm?)
Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D., Uptone Press, December 2017, 310 pp., $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9634011-4-4.Buy.
I am a writer. I am also a person of color. All of my work, whether fiction or nonfiction, touches upon race in some way. I explore race in my fiction because the concept holds so much power and is fascinating to reimagine, subvert, and deconstruct, particularly through science fiction, fantasy, and horror. At the same time, in my very mundane day-to-day life, race is something I can’t escape. As I’m writing this review, COVID-19 has spread around the world, and distrust of Asians, particularly Chinese people, is at a peak that I’ve never experienced before in my life.
But I believe that we can dismantle racism through a concerted group effort. Part of that effort includes compassionate education. Reverse Integration stood out to me as I was browsing Reedsy Discovery because it promises fill a notable gap within the conversation: how White people can do their part to undo racism. I’ve spoken on convention panels about how to write with diversity, how to sensitively represent a culture that isn’t your own, and why we need consultants to vet our work, among other topics. While I enjoy educating, I no longer have the time to revisit introduction-level topics when I want to explore more advanced questions in my own work. Over and over again, I’ve wished that I had a single book I could hand to well-intentioned White people who simply have no idea where to start in their journey to confront and end racism.
I was delighted to find that Reverse Integration is indeed that manual that I’ve been waiting for all these years. The book consists of eleven chapters arranged into three parts: Laying the Foundation, Understanding: The Psychological and Sociological Forces Behind Disconnection, and Connection: Reverse Integration and Joining the Village. The clarity of Klusky’s writing is a gift. From a pedagogical point of view, the scaffolding is excellent. Klusky presents a solid foundation onto which he introduces more and more complexity until, in the end, the reader feels equipped to think critically in response to their own experiences around racism. However, Reverse Integration is not a textbook, nor does it present racism in detached terms: Klusky never glosses over the ugliness of racism and its history. At the same time, he also brings in humorous examples of dealing with the topic of race drawing from his own experience as a White man working closely with African-American communities, showing that conversations about race don’t all have to be doom and gloom.
Reverse Integration is a combination of well-cited research, psychological self-help manual, and memoir. Klusky’s background in education and psychology, as well as his understanding of sociology, synthesize well into a guide that is approachable, interdisciplinary, and personable, all while teaching the difficult skill of thinking critically. Our public school curricula purport to teach “critical thinking,” but the truth is that, in the age of fake news, science illiteracy, and social media, it can be all too easy for us in the United States to stop thinking for ourselves and fall prey to propaganda.
Klusky’s psychology background is absolutely critical to why his approach works. Instead of chastising White people for their ignorance or privilege, Klusky is careful to acknowledge the very real psychological struggles that all people face when we confront and change our paradigms about the world. We may joke about “White women’s tears” or “White fragility”—terms that are important within the conversation—but when we bleach those terms of their specific meaning, we’re left not only losing powerful words to describe unique experiences, but also reifying disconnect by glossing over the real psychological toll of decolonizing. The defensiveness that White people display is a manifestation of privilege, but it is also a manifestation of cognitive dissonance and various psychological mechanisms at work. If we deny the psychological journey involved in decolonizing, we only end up turning people off the path when they ask themselves why they can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps—one of the very fallacies we want to dismantle in the first place.
Of course, as with any primer, there are places where Reverse Integration falls a bit short. The language is very binary, with use of phrases like “brothers and sisters,” “s/he,” and “men and women” throughout. While I understand that Reverse Integration isn’t a work on gender, it still feels as if gender-neutral language would’ve streamlined the prose (“siblings,” “they,” “people”) and taken out the possibility of alienating people from the book simply over a stylistic preference. Additionally, while Klusky mentions other races and accounts for the genocide of Native Americans in his timeline of racism in the US, ultimately, the racial framework presented is a strongly Black/White one. As Klusky developed this book based on interactions and work with African-American communities, and given the history of the United States, I understand why the framework is presented as it is. I do feel that it’s appropriate for a 101-level approach. I simply present the binary as a caveat.
Overall, I was very satisfied with Reverse Integration as a primer for how White people can begin to question, challenge, and change their assumptions about race. Klusky’s scaffolding naturally leads the reader to the understanding that they are complicit in racism as an institution, but doesn’t linger on whether that’s something to feel guilty about—instead, Klusky focuses on how people can reconcile that knowledge and move on to more productive action. As Toni Morrison once said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” I will no longer have to sink my time into explaining the same basic concepts over and over; instead, I will be recommending this book in the future as my go-to “Racism 101 for White People” primer. In writing this excellent guide, Jay Klusky has given people of color the greatest gift of all: time. And for that, Dr. Klusky, I thank you.
Author’s Note: Normally, I wouldn’t preface a story with anything about authorial intent. But this piece is different: I wrote it in conversation with “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Falls, first published in the January 2020 issue of Clarkesworld. I do not intend this piece to be “the correct subversion” of the attack helicopter meme, nor am I commenting on whether Falls succeeded or failed. I believe that there’s room for more than one understanding of gender, that trans and nonbinary people can have complicated and conflicting experiences, and that you don’t have to ascribe to any one set of politics for your gender identity—regardless of what it is—to be valid. Instead, I simply offer this piece as my own elaboration on what exploitation of gender in a MilSF context might look like. Additionally, I have chosen to self-publish “My Gender Is Classified” to minimize cis gatekeeping and validation of the response to an intra-community conversation. Thanks for reading, and I hope this conversation proves fruitful.
I am a Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk. Mouthful, I know. Just call me Pave—too many Hawks out there. Before I joined the unit, my name was Rita Chen, and that’s still what all my documents show. But only my parents ever call me that anymore, and I’m seeing them less and less these days. I’m deployed eight out of twelve months of the year, and sometimes I choose to stay the rest of the time anyway. What would be the point of going back to some place nominally called “home”? War is localized to my person, not to where I am; so long as I represent the state, I will never know peace.
The US Air Force’s Tactical Gender Program (or TACGENPRO for short) is headquartered at Osan Air Base in South Korea. TACGENPRO grew out of late 21st century social instability brought on by increasingly militant bands of TERFs. Let’s be clear, what you call them and what they call themselves doesn’t matter. “TERF” is the most politically correct term anyway, if you’re trying to be polite: “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” states nothing but the facts. Point is, TERFs were out there trying to bar anyone who isn’t cis from civil engagement and doing their best to repress our species’ tendency to defy all simple binaries. Their tactics ranged from subtle and insidious, like framing hate speech as nothing more than “critiques” of gender, to outright bigotry, like rollback after rollback of laws meant to protect people of any gender identity.
And where there are people to sow the seeds of chaos, there is the US military ready to reap any discord that can be used to destroy in the name of the state. I know, incredibly jaded perspective for someone who’s a part of the Air Force. But I can simultaneously need the military to survive while also hating the fact that it exists—like I said, our species will complicate any binary.
In any case, TACGENPRO is a formalization of TERF tactics and ideology. Gender has a biological basis that can be mapped onto specific genes and neural paths, which can then be manipulated. Pattern-recognition skills for classifying people into different gender categories also have a neurobiological basis that can be repurposed for warfare. And, though the US will never admit it: Gender is the strongest vehicle to propagate the empire’s hierarchy of the world.
Project Meridian, the applied branch of TACGENPRO, isn’t named after the geographical term like most people think. Its name is a total ripoff of China’s neural overlay program, Project Jingluo. Project Meridian was built on its skeleton like a small animal taking shelter in the complex burrows left behind by a larger animal. Project Jingluo focused only on how to create a neural overlay that interfaces with existing neural pathways in the mind. Bad habits, for example, are notoriously automatic and hard to break, in part because the automatic neural circuits are so deeply ingrained. But take that infrastructure and replace the response with something tactical, like quicker identification of threats and faster deployment of defensive maneuvers, and you’ve got a more dangerous soldier on your hands with minimally invasive neural rewiring.
Project Meridian narrows the focus of Project Jingluo to just gender-related neural pathways. Since gender imprints on the body so deeply, defining details ranging from gait to what sensory input we recognize in active conflict situations to how we respond to unknown people, the channels form a vast and potent network that can be harnessed for more complex responses than other pathways.
So that’s where I come in. First-wave group of recruits for Project Meridian, where the tactical modifications to our neural nets see battle. We’ve got people of all genders here, including nonbinary people like me. Figures that the DOD can put aside its bigotry long enough to allow us in and call us “assets” when it comes time to propose personnel to join Project Meridian. But hey, it’s a smart move. If you’re going to weaponize gender, weaponize it all.
“You ready, Pave?”
I flash a grin at the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot beside me. Martin, call sign Lambda Boomer. Yeah—you think all those call signs in the movies sound cool as hell, until you get piss-drunk at a naming ceremony and realize that they’re all just terrible in-jokes. As a bi guy, he wears the “Lambda” part with pride, but he’s less willing to claim “Boomer.” Contrary to what many people think, “Boomer” isn’t a jab at his age. He’s a little older than the rest of us, sure, but we’re all Generation Delta, long past the Boomers of yore. No, “Boomer” refers to the time he was a complete fool on one of his first training exercises and broke the sound barrier over a tiny town that hardly even saw commercial planes overhead.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I say, strapping my helmet and goggles on. Lambda’s got a five o’clock shadow going on even though it’s the crack of dawn, and his dark brown eyes capture the golden hour sunlight in a charming way that’s downright unfair. He is exactly my type, which is unfortunate, as I don’t date coworkers, and I especially don’t date fighter pilots. No one lasts long under the regimens and demands of TACGENPRO, but the fighter pilots burn out fastest, and they often take others with them.
We’re running our first training exercise today, now that the last round of mods, supplement adjustments, physical therapy, brain scans, and benchmark tests is complete. They call it “transitioning into” TACGENPRO, a term which manages to be both incredibly apt and incredibly tasteless. When it comes to my actual gender, I never medically transitioned, nor do I intend to. My passport and driver’s license both show an X. My gender has never been visible from the surface. But it’s only now with the US military that my gender is actually classified information. If only my twenty-one-year-old self could see me firing that back now at people asking, “If you’re nonbinary, then what’s in your pants?”
As we’re getting into position and have our orders called out, we’re reminded of our objectives: Calibrate your physical responses to sensory inputs. Monitor your emotional reactions. Solve any issues that arise, or make note of them if you can’t solve them. Remember to work not just as an individual, but also a team.
With an airhorn blast, the exercise begins. Lambda’s part of a fleet of F-16s carrying out airstrikes on identified hostiles and hostile bases; he sweeps away with the others, threading a dark line through the sky before splitting off with a couple other pilots to skirt closer to the ground and carry out a methodical assault. As the HH-60, it’s my job to break past the lines of defense and carry out a swift evac of our people while the hostile forces are engaged elsewhere.
I’m used to flying. I’ve done it since I was twelve. I learned from one of my mom’s former real estate clients—I don’t know his real name; we just called him Mongoose. We’d go over to the Chino Airport every weekend. He started me on Cessnas before we moved on to different airplane models. He was the one who first got me interested in helicopters, too. We’d float over the Los Angeles skyline in one helicopter after another as if we were somehow detached from the rest of the world.
Too detached, maybe. He got handsy when I turned sixteen, and by then I knew well enough what was going on. Lucky for me that I have a good relationship with my mom. She believed me, and I’ve never seen Mongoose around since.
I’m thankful that that incident didn’t take away my love for flying. If anything, I wanted to fly more on my own. Still, that unease, that invisible tension that whispered to me predator, predator, seeking prey, make yourself smaller, make yourself invisible; prepare for fight-or-flight, check your exit routes, predator, predator, so long as you survive, that is enough—the instinct cuts fire through my every cell, even as I’m flying over rice paddies in South Korea, half a world away from the everyday evils of civilian life. I’m stronger now, more trusting of my ability to fight back when cornered. I know I’m not stuck there in the past with Mongoose. I know, too, that I’m not with my back pressed up against the polished wood of a dimly lit bar, unable to do anything but smile as another man tells me he finds Asian girls cute, how he wants to take me home—ignoring the fact that I’m not a girl, nor some kind of pet to adopt. I know I don’t have keys that I’m sliding between my fingers so the jagged teeth are like brass knuckles. It doesn’t matter if nothing happens in the end: the vigilance is still carved into my neurons like floodwaters through silt, leaving path after path of conflict that I have shaped myself around. I know that my heart is racing regardless, using that vigilance to check my exit routes, to catalog my allies, to calculate what paths I can take from here, to camouflage myself in the face of danger. To evade and mask, to feel the pulse of time and select the right moment to break free.
To know exactly when to give in and tell myself, So long as you survive, that is enough.
We complete the exercise successfully, but I’m left shaking. I outline my heightened vigilance during the after-action report and find that the other pilots have similar experiences. For men, the vigilance often manifests as a heightened awareness of their own strength, as if they’re on the brink of a manic break, of losing control: boxes reinforced by years of conditioning, telling them to swallow their emotions, their truths, until the very force of that energy teeters on explosion. Exhilarating when combined with the focus and tech that can rein in and tame that energy. For women, the hypervigilance borders on omniscience, awarenesses spread far to take in every detail and filter it through instinct. The top strategists in the exercise are two women whose quick reads of capricious situations secured early completion of the mission.
But everyone’s reports vary, and there isn’t any experience that can be pinned to only one gender, to say nothing of the vast range of experiences along the nonbinary spectra and the variations between trans and cis members of the unit. And there are misfires: people’s individual baggage and backgrounds can muddle inputs. One of the other F-16 fighter pilots mistakes engine fumes for the smell of ozone and loses focus as Meridian sends him down the wrong channels to the moment after he was raped, when he stood on the porch of a cabin deep in the woods, weeping quietly to himself as ozone from an oncoming storm diffused through the air. He has to bail out of the mission early, his freshly unearthed trauma triggering an anxiety attack deep enough that he’s assigned to the med wing for stabilization and 24 hours of observation.
All things considered, though, our training exercises proceed smoothly. We’re able to address most of the hiccups that occur and smooth our way through bumps. The Air Force is confident enough to deploy us into active war zones. Soon, the lines between my body, my gender, my HH-60, all blur into one machinery of war. The blades of the helicopter and its arsenal become an extension of who I am. The feeling is more visceral than driving a car. You can pull a car over; you can touch your feet to the ground and remind yourself of your humanity.
When you’re in the air, though, only the aircraft keeps you alive. You can almost believe that gravity doesn’t exist anymore. Especially as an HH-60—a helicopter can hover, frozen in spacetime, a constant force on the horizon. Here, with my senses enhanced biomechanically, I can truly be without gender. The borders of the self disappear. Many of the trans and nonbinary members of TACGENPRO have experienced gender euphoria—moments when our genders (or lack of genders) are affirmed; moments when we take another step toward self-actualization and peace. And that’s what I feel when I’m Pave. For as long as I’m in the air, I am nothing but a weapon pointed at an objective. I transcend gender, just as I transcend race, class, religion. I am seen for some value of the “true” me, my life as equal, as dispensable, as anyone else’s. The only body that provokes response here is the aircraft. My Asianness, my nonbinariness, my queerness, my biopolitics, all shift from being a front open to assault, to being as irrelevant as the ether in which I’m suspended. I don’t ever have to think about what I am, only why I am.
But it is not euphoric circuits that find the most use in war. Everyone in Project Meridian may report different outcomes and experiences, but one pattern remains certain: the gender pathways easiest to exploit are those involving defense mechanisms against fear, shame, abuse, and our own emotional fragility and vulnerability as human beings. The machinery of empire doesn’t depend on the subjugation of any one gender, but on using gender to subjugate. Even though I’m agender, the empire’s understanding of me as someone feminine, as someone read as a woman, as someone read as an Asian woman, is what has etched an exploitable neural network into me.
Lambda and I work together more than I expect. The closeness and proximity don’t help to ease my raging attraction to him. Sometimes, right after we land, my body’s still racing with adrenaline, but my mind no longer has a mission to hold on to. So Meridian reverts to its base pathways, and I’m left with a heightened awareness of everything that Lambda does to show that he’s a man. I take in his dark brown hair, wavy and textured with pomade, soon to have grown out long enough from the standard crew cut to earn a disciplinary remark. I take in his stubble, the deep notch of his cupid’s bow, the fullness of his lips; I take in the heady scent of his sweat and musk and pheromones. I take in the breadth of his chest, the way he angles his shoulders compared to his hips, the way he distributes the weight on his body. I can’t say that there’s any one body type that signals “man”; I can’t even say that I’m reading him accurately. After all, there is nothing I manifest to mark my lack of a gender. But with the pathways open, I revert to my more basic social training. I can only say that the way he moves through the world, the way others see him, the way he speaks and present himself, all signal man and stir that part of me attracted to people like him.
“Good job today,” Lambda says, flashing me a grin. His smile crooks up to one side, making him look nonchalant and full of bravado—though I’m beginning to see that he’s masking shyness most of all. “Couldn’t help but notice you out there.”
“Thanks,” I reply. Lambda has stepped closer, his bubble of personal space brushing up against mine. I can’t help but feel his heat against me, can’t help the way my hand quivers at my side, wanting to reach up and take hold of his.
“I, uh…” He looks away. I catch another glimpse of the shyness he’s been masking, revealed for just a moment before he puts on his masculine affect again. All his signals are still pinging me madly: the way he squares his shoulders, straightens up, reapplies his confidence, and says to me, “I just realized that I don’t actually know that much about you. I’m headed to the DFAC. You wanna maybe…?”
Nope. Nope, brakes on now, keep your distance, part of my mind says, while the other part shrugs and says, He’s just being friendly. Men are allowed to have friends, you know. Just humor him. The latter part wins out in the end, egged on by the lingering scent of his cologne and the way his shirt reveals a sliver of his bare throat, just enough vulnerability to be enticing.
I smile back at him.
“Sure, why not.”
We tell each other about ourselves. I notice that he asks around my intimate life, his questions settling closer and closer until I chuckle and tell him outright, “I’m single. But I prefer to go on dinner dates with people who I’m reasonably sure will survive day after day. And this unit…”
I try to play it off as dark humor, but a weight settles on both of us. Still, he understands, and he backs off—this time, at least.
I learn that he’s Californio, descended from people who were on the land before it was the United States. When the border crossed them, they found themselves saddled with a new nation and in service to a new empire. Me, I’m descended from a Paper Son who immigrated in the early 1900s while the Chinese Exclusion Act was still going on strong. We both grew up in shadows and legacies of racism, and that racism, in turn, has shaped our neural maps. The choice to join the Air Force was the same for both of us, too: it was the only pathway out of the half-lives we’d been cornered into. That’s how it is more often than not. The quickest pathway to inclusion in the empire is by serving it, your body and blood an exploitable resource, your mind a field into which doctrine can be sown and reaped.
War never ends. We have ample opportunity to work alongside each other. Project Meridian has a few more narrow misses, but we’re starting to pull together as squads and as units. We’re deployed into war zones in several continents, and we have higher success rates than non-TACGENPRO squads—the stats back us up now.
I spend more time with Lambda even when we’re not on a mission together. Every now and then, his hand comes close to mine, as if he’s asking permission to hold my hand; every now and then, he asks me if I’ll go out on a dinner date with him. And although the ache deepens every time, I turn him down.
“I’d rather spare us the hurt,” I respond.
Then, the attack on Los Angeles happens. It doesn’t really matter who we’re fighting, but for the record, this time, it’s China. Surprise sea and air strikes leave Santa Monica and Downtown LA in smoking shambles. Chinese Americans grieve doubly, first over the Chinese government carrying out an attack on its own overseas population, then over the specter of the motherland’s annihilation as the US authorizes Project Meridian to carry out a retaliatory strike. I tell everyone else my allegiance is only to the United States and that I fight only on our behalf, but privately, I resent that my allegiance still comes under question at all.
I’m flying in close formation with Lambda, our comms cutting in and out with banter as we make our way over the Yellow Sea, the water beguiling with its shimmering tranquility. We’re to extract a few pilots who were shot down over a rural stretch of coast near Tianjin.
“All clear ahead. Move in.” The comms crackle with the squad leader’s voice. “Remember, stay alert.”
We spot our targets. I’m on high alert, but I’m only taking into consideration hostile threats.
So when everything goes to shit within our own ranks, we’re all caught completely off guard.
Turns out one of the F-16 pilots, call sign Hammer, had come in late and missed the part of the briefing where the pilots to be extracted were identified. He’s already been chewed out for being late, and he’s not about to put his pride on the line by asking someone to fill him in, not when he’s got to focus on the increasingly hostile situation in front of him. So he’s putting his life on the line going into enemy territory, where guerrilla forces have been lying in wait to ambush us, all while he’s still in the dark about who we’re here for in the first place.
Then, Hammer finds out that one of the guys we’re rescuing is the lying son-of-a-bitch who called himself his best friend while fucking his girl behind his back. He’s furious. Meridian absolutely crashes on him. With the floodgates in all his channels open to an unyielding tide of betrayal and hurt, anger and grief, Hammer’s tactical overlay malfunctions and starts identifying friendlies as targets.
Before the rest of us realize what’s going on, Hammer’s gunned down his former friend and has opened fire on fellow members of his squad. Calls go over to medical to disable Hammer. A safeguard has been built into the structure of every Project Meridian pilot’s jumpsuit; in the event of a disruptive episode, medical can remotely inject a pilot with a dose of haldol that can bring a pilot down to a psychiatric baseline quickly enough for further triage.
But Hammer’s a big guy, and the haldol doesn’t do enough to stabilize him. On top of that, the guerrilla forces have called in backup, and we’re dealing with two, three times as many bombers as we expected. I’ve spent my arsenal, and I’m having to use evasive maneuvers with lines of fighter pilots as shields in order to protect my medical equipment and other cargo. No point rescuing people if they’re only going to die in my hold later.
My comms crackle. I curse under my breath—the hostiles have shifted their priorities from taking out the front line to laying waste to any recovery capabilities.
“They’re coming for you!”
“Thanks, I’m well aware!” I yell back at Lambda. The mics are good enough to pick up any volume of speech, and the signal is strong and reliable over a distance, making yelling into the comms completely unnecessary. But yelling is my only state when there are bullets whizzing by and missiles cutting through the air. I may be an HH-60, I may be a Pave Hawk, I may be a machine calibrated for war, but I am also still human, and still prone to very human terror.
“I’ve got your six!” Lambda says, his voice like a scratched record over the speaker. He’s panting with exertion. I can imagine his dark eyes darting to and fro, wild like a cornered animal’s, even as he performs flawlessly. He sucks in a deep breath, then rattles on: “Viper’s leading a squad to flank from one side, and Zero Bolt’s going to lead on the other. We should be able to break through hostile ranks enough to get you out there to assist with Hammer. We’ll figure out how to handle the bombers later.”
There’s an elegance to the way someone from Project Meridian pilots an aircraft through active fire. The machine doesn’t lumber; there is no slow swing of the center of gravity as the aircraft goes around turns. Instead, aircraft piloted by Project Meridian personnel respond instantaneously to fire like dancers pirouetting through streamers and confetti. But even as Lambda and the other fighter pilots weave around me, I still struggle to break past enemy lines, where Hammer’s aircraft has been grounded and disabled. I can see him as I sink closer to the ground: he is locked in the cockpit, his hands balled into fists as hot tears stream down his face. Veins bulge on his forehead and against the muscles of his neck. It’s the oldest story in the book, revenge between men where the woman is exchanged like nothing more than a MacGuffin, and yet the humiliation of it, the significance ascribed to it, is still enough to spark such wanton destruction.
“All right. I’m going in.”
“Stay safe, Pave.”
“Thanks. Be a lamb, will you?”
“Hah. Like I’ve never heard that one before.”
A compact transport chopper lands just before I do. Medical personnel hop out and activate the emergency release on Hammer’s cockpit to inject him with another dose of haldol, though not before Hammer knocks out a doctor and a nurse with the sheer torrential force of his fists. With his agitation contained, Hammer is strapped down and loaded into me with a team of paramedics. I shudder. The sight of restraints, especially in a psychiatric context, makes me ill with the rot of memories I’ve suppressed too far down to dig up now. I can’t afford to trigger my own episode in an active battle ground.
My chopper blades pulse like a heartbeat as I take flight again. The danger’s not over—the guard of F-16s around the rescue helicopters has been keeping us safe from incoming fire, but they can only last so long. In the distance, halfway to the horizon, I spot a plane going down in a blaze, trailing black smoke as it nosedives toward the coast. I clench my fists, my mind flashing to the sight of Hammer clenching his own fists; I wonder if I, too, will become like him, my own mind betraying me, my own circuitry working against me.
“Hey,” Lambda says suddenly, hauling me away from the looming spiral of my thoughts. The sound of artillery fire bursts through the speaker, clipped and distorted at such a great volume. Lambda’s panting harder now with the strain of surviving the assault, but I can still hear the smile in his voice, especially when he shocks me by saying, “If we survive this, will you join me on a dinner date?”
Dating within the ranks is a terrible idea, I tell myself. I think about how we could be ripped from each other at any moment, about how he could disappear in hostile terrain, his body never even recovered for us to mourn; I think about how all of this—Project Meridian, TACGENPRO, our entire purpose for existing—could collapse in an instant if the rest of us have malfunctions like Hammer and people the horizon with targets. I think about how the missiles are already whooshing past us, about how I can only provide aerial reconnaissance now, helpless to intervene between the bullets and Lambda; I think about how my reconnaissance is the only thing keeping him alive.
I think about how we’re always about to die, if not now, then later. I think about how weaponizing the core of us means we’re always disposable as casualties of war, how we will always be more tool and data than human.
I think about creating a demilitarized zone, just him and me, where we can slot into each other as the flawed people we are, and not as the weapons we’ve become.
I think about the day we’ll be decommissioned and might finally know peace.
You’ve had the Nightmare app installed for months, but all you’ve ever done is create an account. It’s not that the service is pricey, even though it is.
It’s because you haven’t needed to use it.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths. You have to do this tonight, before you can face your family tomorrow. Before you can spend a day trapped with them. You tap the black-and-white icon. The screen fills with a map, a blue dot pulsing over your apartment. Arcane symbols drift around in a five-block radius of your location. Your thumb hovers over the single button centered at the bottom of the screen.
It’s 3:12 pm, an awkward time for us to be preparing food. I’m not sure if we’re making a late lunch, an early dinner, or just afternoon tea. I’ve been struggling to open a plastic case of Granny Smith apples; meanwhile, he’s been slicing some tomatoes to add to the salad. I pause as his words finally register in my mind. I glance up at him, my fingernails still jammed between the sheets of plastic. He’s calmly slicing those tomatoes. Chop, chop. Meticulous. The V of every wedge of tomato looks like it measures the exact same angle. The afternoon sun is radiant, turning his dark brown hair almost reddish-brown in its golden light.
Marie was thunder and lightning, a tornado tearing through the plains, weaponized rage consuming everything in her path. And I was a mouse clinging to a stalk of grass in the distance, watching her, trembling in the wake of her glory.
Envy swallowed me. I wanted to be her, a force of nature instead of this borrowed shape; I longed to be anything but what I was inside.
The sun bears down hot and twisted against the nape of Ellen’s neck. She wades into the muddy waters, slick yellow-brown silt clinging to her worn rubber boots. The rotten scent of fish hangs heavy in the air, which is loud with the buzz of iridescent flies and the shrieks of cicadas.
Summer here is an oppressive season, sick with humidity. The river floods, then washes back sewage and garbage. As the water recedes, the muddy pools evaporate. Any fish able to survive the reek of dank, infested waters die by suffocation on dry land. Then the gulls, the crows, the carrion-feeders pick at the corpses until they’re nothing but bones bleaching in the sun.
The fans Ellen keep running in her house-on-stilts do nothing to calm the heat or drive out the stink. The most they do is add a low, humming drone that keeps the whine and buzz of insects at bay. Still, Ellen never begrudges the flood season. She knows where the cleaner waters are, where, with her hands covered by thick gloves and holding a pail full of bait and a net, she can seed the shallow waters and catch fish without even needing a line. The fish are enough to keep her fed. The work leaves a sheen of sweat on her that traps every sour, marshy scent of the river to her skin.
Ellen drops a catfish into her bucket, where it thrashes for a few moments before going still and playing dead, the only movement the whisper of its gills opening and closing like butterfly wings. Before she can turn and trudge back to the shore, something catches Ellen’s eye.
There, beyond the leaves, half-hidden by the thickets of mangroves rooting the path of the river, lies a shining, smooth fish tail—a massive fish, larger even than the sharks sold at the wet market. And, as she watches, the tail twitches once, twice, before beating against the muddy bank, a wet slop-slop sound, the earth doing nothing but slither and squelch.
I am angry with myself for wanting
for being a heliotrope who turns to the sun,
believing it to be weakness,
an admission of failure,
as if the blood that the light creates
does not thrum through my veins.
I am eligible for Best Fan Writer. My reviews and talks are eligible for Best Related Work.
Tarot can be a great tool to get unstuck when writing. Not only do most decks have vivid imagery that can spark the imagination, but the openness of card readings can lead the creative mind to create unexpected associations and consider new options. This post includes a few simple three-card spreads that I often use, as well as a couple writing-specific approaches I take to tarot reading.
“Fat, And.” The (Other) F Word, edited by Angie Manfredi, September 2019 from Abrams/Amulet Books. 2,000 words.
Please note that this essay is not genre-related.
Take the constant: fat.
What does it mean to be fat? Being fat just means you have one of a range of body types carrying some amount of adipose tissue above an arbitrarily determined average point.
That’s it. Being fat doesn’t have anything to do with character, health, personality, attractiveness, or worth.
All translation is both an act of interpretation and an act of judgment. The translator has the power to adapt and edit texts for their target audience, and there is no such thing as a “perfect” translation that will convey every semantic nuance between languages.
Most of my characters are Chinese-American like me. They usually have a Western name, a Chinese name, and a Chinese surname. I’ve always loved naming characters, and this structure gives me opportunities to explore both branches of my heritage. (I use modified or other methods for non-Chinese characters and characters in secondary worlds.)