I am a first generation Japanese Canadian immigrant. I gratefully reside on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples: the Musqueam, the Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil Waututh Nations.
It was an unusually warm night for mid-March and I had left the glass patio door open to let in the fresh air. I’d already heard the person from across the back alley release their pet—the dog’s gleeful nails rapid-clicking as it pelted up the paved laneway. From the distance a set of jangling keys drew closer. An urban seagull, buoyed by city lights, screeched even though it was almost midnight. I glanced outside.
A brightly lit object fell across the sky. A steady white light, as bright as three Venuses, it arced downward for several seconds until it flared brighter, a green surge, an emerald flare before it extinguished.
It was stunning.
Had anyone else seen it? The digital clock on the stove said 12:01 AM. I did a cursory search online but I couldn’t find anything on Twitter or Facebook or local news sources. I stayed up for a while, reading articles and watching a few YouTubes. My daughter hadn’t returned from her late shift at the restaurant. Tired, I went to bed.
Representational narratives have us experience stories in many different ways. Some stories rely heavily upon expository prose and the primary engagement is intellectual. In contrast, a highly subjective narrative can have us virtually assuming the visceral, psychological, and emotional life of a fictional character, feeling their “reality” with an empathetic intensity we may not even have for our loved ones. A kind of temporary intimacy can be constructed in the bubble world where the writer’s words and the reader’s engagement distill an imagined reality. Much can happen in this fabricated space. The writer brings her culture of imagination with her. The reader brings their culture of imagining with them. Story content is imbued by values and beliefs held by the author. Stories are ideologically saturated sites. Not just the content—but also in its making. In the lattices of the structure. The architecture. It’s not just what we write, but how it is written and in what form.
A fuzzy sleep coalesced into waking. Something smelled tinny and slightly sweet—a strong chemical burning was in the air. I glanced at my bedside clock: 9:17. I swung my legs off the bed and rushed to the kitchen in my T-shirt and underpants.
There was nothing burning on the stove. I looked up at the smoke alarm in the ceiling. The green eye glowed—presumably it was still working. Kanami! Maybe some electrical cords had caught fire in her room!
I ran to my daughter’s closed bedroom door. The sweet metallic tang in the air caught in my throat and I began to cough. My eyes burned. “Are you okay?” I asked.
After a few seconds Kanami mumbled.
I opened the door to peek inside. The blankets were pulled over her head. There was no smoke in the air. I sniffed. It didn’t smell any stronger than what I’d smelled in my room and the rest of the apartment. She sounded sleepy and crabby, her usual morning self, so I closed her door and went to inspect the outer hallway of the apartment building. No visible smoke, no increase in odour. I went back inside and slid open the glass door to the patio.
The sweet chemical smell was stronger outside. The wind was calm. The skies were clear—no sirens or columns of smoke. But my eyes burned. I blinked rapidly and began to slide the door shut when something thudded near my feet.
It was a crow. One wing outstretched, its eye was half-closed and dull. The toes curled loosely. Dead. A few feet away was a Stellar’s Jay, and a chickadee. All dead. I crouched down to cup the crow’s body. It was still soft and slightly warm. Death had been recent… I closed the patio door. I washed my hands with antibacterial soap.
Stories are cultural forms of social engagement. When I write I’m not only thinking about what will make a “good story” (which is often culturally defined)—I’m also thinking about how a story works within culture and what it is that I’m folding back into the mix. My subjective reality would not be held up as “representative” of “the norm” by the majority of Canadians. I have no longing to be part of normative systems nor replicate this world in my writing—it is already much-represented everywhere in popular culture. But I recognize that cultural normativity holds a great deal of power—it positions my subjectivity as marginal while simultaneously refusing to recognize its own power. This informs my writing in a fundamental way.
It wasn’t until I read Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, when I was in my early twenties, that I saw Japanese Canadians as central to the text. That’s a long time to wait before seeing a face like one’s own in a nation’s literature… Obasan left a big impression upon me— it contextualized a history in a personal way, it had political intentions toward social justice yet it was also art, and it also figured cultural practices/gestures as familiar (to me). To find a part of oneself in this way was a revelatory moment. It was also a moment of intimacy. Obasan was written in a literary realist tradition. Much of the Canadian canon is books of this nature. Yet I’ve also always been drawn to speculative fiction, legends, and folk tales. I think that it is here where I find stories of not only what is, or what was, but, also, stories of what may be.
My hands. A memory sensation of the crow’s feathers was soft and lush upon my palms. The soft dead weight of it. Warm and limp. It reminded me of something… but it vanished like my dreams upon waking. The heavy glass patio door rumbled on its track as I slid it open again. The tinny smell in the air. I clamped my inner elbow across my nose and mouth as I crouched to retrieve the dead crow. Its body was still warm.
“What are you doing?”
My daughter’s voice was silver razors.
I looked down.
Black feathers covered my bare feet, were forming soft mounds upon the kitchen floor.
When had I come back inside…?
My thumbs. They’d split the crow’s chest open, cracking it wide like a boiled crab. The entrails glistened. And nestled inside the red and pink and grey was an orb of bright green, as fresh as a new spring leaf, speckled with small flecks of black.
“So beautiful…” I said. “I think it’s a gift.”
I’m not certain if it’s a symptom of sloppy thinking, or if it’s an aspect of the human tendency to create associations between not entirely dissimilar things, but somewhere along the way I’ve begun thinking of traditional realist fiction as straight literature, and speculative fiction as queer. Of course there are queer texts that are written in a realist modality, and I would certainly not wish to “unqueer” them just because they do not inhabit or interrogate the speculative… Maybe what I mean is that my idea of the queerness of speculative fiction gestures to the possibilities beyond the normative in exciting ways.
“Oka-san, put down that crow. It might be dirty.”
She can hear things in her daughter’s voice. Her fear, disgust, panic, resentment. Her love. She can hear Kanami’s desire to cup her arm and lead her to the kitchen chair. She can hear her revulsion.
“Let me explain,” Eiko says. If only she could share with her the clarity inside the dead crow’s entrails. But the understanding she feels so keenly cannot be shaped by words. “The green. Only this green… There’s a chickadee for you. And a Stellar’s Jay for Lori. On the patio. I found them. Three birds, for the three of us.”
Kanami’s eyes widen. She backs away from her mother.
“No!” Eiko says. “Listen to me. It makes sense! Last night there was a comet.”
“I’ll call Lori.” Her daughter’s voice is pitched low. “You can tell Lori about the birds, Oka-san.”
I don’t wish to suggest that all speculative fiction is inherently interesting or inherently transgressive. Fantasy and science fiction is also rife with texts that reinscribe familiar narratives; colonization, ecological destruction, genocide—these are human stories albeit on a different planet. Strip the magic from Rowling’s Hogwarts and it’s just another private school for children. Although engagingly imaginative, the magical world that Rowling describes has a firm foundation in a very familiar world.
Literature based on representing realism is bound by the world that we know. It creates a semblance of familiar subjects and situates them in dramatic moments. It may be that there are almost an infinite number of ways to regale us with new stories in this fashion, but the paradigm is bound in the material “reality” of the world around us. But, to my mind, the best of speculative fiction is not bound by the mechanics of the systems we’ve developed to date, nor confined to the limits of our bodies and social and historical forces. Speculative fiction allows for paradigm shifts that can have us begin experiencing and understanding in new, unsettling ways. They can disturb us, and can propel us beyond the conventions, complacencies, or determinedly maintained ignorance of the ideologically figured present into an undetermined future.
The middle-aged woman tilts her head. Her daughter takes another step backward. A gust of wind blows through the open patio door, the mound of black feathers scattering across the kitchen floor. Behaviour is a pattern, the woman thinks. She stares at the open carcass of the half-plucked bird. At the shiny organs revealed in its ruptured cavity. Behaviour spilling outside of narrow confines is deemed disturbed. This idea disturbs her. When have our lives become so narrow, she wants to scream. But screaming will not serve her now. Is knowledge also a feeling, she wonders. She plucks the green orb from the entrails of the crow. It is smooth, has the solidity and give of an eyeball. She pops it in her mouth. She closes her eyes. She swallows.
Before the term queer was reclaimed by the gay community, before queer was used as a pejorative toward gay persons to other and dehumanize, its uncertain origins include a possible Scottish source via low German with a denotation of “strange/peculiar” and maybe this is one of the permutations of the term¹ that nestles into my appreciation of writing and reading from literature of the fantastic. That it can inspire and inhabit a liminal place—a site of uneasiness and destabilization that can have the reader engage in unexpected and uncomfortable ways. When writing is strange and peculiar it invokes an aperture that leads me toward thoughts and feelings unfamiliar… Uneasiness triggers a different frame of perceiving and understanding. There is no comfort in uneasiness. The pulse quickens. A sense of dread may press heavily upon the chest. Thoughts may divert from logic and reason. It may cause the subject to shut down. But uneasiness has the power to linger. Even if the subject’s first instinctive response is rejection (or suppression or denial) uneasiness has the capacity to persist. And in its persistence, demand that it be reviewed and reconsidered, again and again. When we experience uneasiness in our fictional worlds there is room and space to explore the myriad sensations without fear of annihilation of our core selves. It is this aspect of the fantastic that speaks to me as both as reader and as writer.
I must hurry. There’s no explaining the urgency. My daughter didn’t see the comet last night and cannot know its connection with the birds. If I were to try explaining it to another me I would laugh in my face and walk away. When my ex’s father spoke of Atlantis and Mayan pyramids in one breath my cheeks burned with embarrassment for him. I still don’t believe that “the aliens” who “built Atlantis” also taught the Mayans to build their pyramids. But I believe in Cassandra. I believe in the ghost maid who counted dishes beside the well. I believe in the women who have been ignored, been told that their tales are falsehoods or stupid.² My knowledge is as real to me as the crow’s gore drying upon my skin. If I don’t act upon my own knowledge…
Representational fiction is a kind of written embodiment. When characters are placed before me I ask of the text, who are the embodied? Whose bodies are these? Who is subject? Who is object? Which bodies are missing? Additionally, not only what’s being marked upon the page—the body that makes the markings is also a matter of critical engagement. The body of the one who marks matters to me—because we are still creatures with bodies. We do not exist in the Singularity. Our bodies matter… Our subjective realities are not all treated equally. I’m keenly conscious of the long history of erasure or acts of distortion to be found in literature. And equally aware of the limitations of representation—there are no measures that will confine a reader’s perceptions to that which the writer desired. I have seen how limitations of reading the body plays out in my own life.
Oka-san’s always been so much stronger than me. Oh, Mummy. I can’t stop her. She ate that thing, that green guts of the crow! What if it makes her sick? Why is she doing this? Has she gone crazy? She’s going out on the deck again. She has two more dead birds… Ripping the feathers off the bodies. Brown and blue feathers cover our bare feet. I should lock myself in the bathroom. But what if she hurts herself? “Oka-san… Stop it. You’re scaring me.”
She doesn’t say anything.
When will Lori get here! Oh my god…
Her fingers. Covered in gore. Feathers. She’s forcing her thumb into the bird’s chest.
Did Lori call the ambulance? Please, someone hurry.
She’s pulling something out from the bird’s body. A piece of its guts. Disgusting. Something round, green, the size of a small marble, rolls in the palm of her hand. She looks at me and tries to smile.
“I—” She shakes her head.
She jumps on top of me and we fall to the ground. My head klunks on the floor. Noise gongs inside my ears, a burst of light behind my closed eyelids.
Oka-san’s knees pin my shoulders the floor.
“Stop it,” I groan.
She shoves her fingers inside my mouth.
I bite down on her, but she’s yanked her hand away.
Something bursts between my teeth. More bitter than matcha, the sweetness of rotten lilacs. I gag.
My mother clamps her hands over my nose and mouth.
Until I swallow it all.
I identify as a feminist queer woman of colour: this self-naming serves as a core to my personal identity construct and as a guideline to how I expect to be understood when I share this information with others. Yet there exists a kind of liminality to my own sense of subjective self because of the constant subject/object shifts I have experienced and continue to experience in unmediated shared public spaces. While walking in Tokyo on my way from the subway to a university, a small child asked their mother if I was a gay man. As an adult, riding the tube in the UK, a primary school-aged child called me “Chinese boy.” In Spain, adult soccer players felt compelled to yell, Chino! from across the field. Then self-corrected to China! At the border between Germany and Denmark the guard stared at my passport and then at my face and asked with incredulity, “Frau?” Walking from the library to my car, as I pushed the stroller on the ice-rutted Calgary sidewalk, a man overhead me speaking to my child in Japanese. He strode past us, a little too closely. “How would you like to suck my nice white dick?” he hissed. Abiding at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class means at any given moment my personal sense of centrality inside my own life can be destabilized by the uninvited readings of other people. My writing is informed by all of these experiences.³
Eiko releases her daughter’s mouth so Kanami can take one big gasp of air, then she clamps her hand upon her daughter’s face once more. Eiko leaves uncovered Kanami’s nose so that she can breathe. Her daughter cannot be allowed to bring up what she’s swallowed. Eiko knows that if she releases her, Kanami will stick her finger down her throat. I’m sorry, Eiko thinks. I love you, she thinks.
Her daughter inhales, exhales, too rapidly. Tears stream from the outer creases of her eyes.
Eiko hears Kanami swallow. “There’s a reason,” Eiko babbles. “This looks bad. I’m so sorry, darling. I’m only doing what I did for myself. I’m not trying to hurt you.” Eiko bites her lower lip, and hot tears fill her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.
Her daughter begins twisting her hips—tries to knee her mother in the back.
An arm comes down around Eiko’s chest and pulls her away from her daughter.
Kanami rolls onto her side, onto all fours, to crawl toward the wall. Sitting, she leans against it, her eyes wide with accusation and outrage.
“Lori?” Eiko sobs. “Is that you?”
Lori releases her lover and Eiko crouches on the ground for a moment before rising and turning to press her face against her partner’s chest.
“You’re here,” Eiko whispers, relief in her voice. “You’re here.”
Lori, taller than Eiko, looks down at Kanami with worry in her grey-blue eyes. “You okay?” she silently mouths, as she gently circles her arms around Eiko’s shoulders.
Eiko’s own arms are behind her back, her fingers working furtively.
“Lori,” Eiko’s daughter croaks. “Watch out!”
The idea of representation is a slippery one—identity is not static, nor do people decode identity in a fixed way. I would never wish to be a “representative,” for instance, because it can toss you very quickly onto an essentialist track. But fiction is a great place to embody diversity, in characters as well as in story structure and form, because through language the writer can arrange the context of and for the representational moment. As a writer I can contextualize the specific parameters of what I am seeking to represent and how. Doing so enables me to direct attention to systemic power imbalances and try to unsettle normative practices. This is the difference between being erased, being written about, and being the one who does the writing. How enormously empowering. And it also serves to have readers expand upon their contexts of perceiving. A little like what I seek in truly expansive speculative fiction… Like how Le Guin had us reimagining gender and its firmly entrenched place in human behavior/interaction in Left Hand of Darkness. How Butler had us rethinking human biology, reproduction and sex in Bloodchild. Or her exploration of a complex biological colonization and miscegenation in the Xenogenesis trilogy. The represented body in narratives like these creates moments of generative slippage—the ground beneath us, what we thought was bedrock, is actually a moving skin… Only we never knew until now.
The world becomes a different place.
“The ambulance will be here soon,” Lori says calmly. “I know you’ve been under a lot of stress. I’ll stay with you the entire time. I’m on your side. You understand that, right?”
I shake my head. Oh, she is lovely. She is such a good person. She is also physically stronger than me and I can’t force her like I forced my daughter. The final gift for her, the green orb is slowly losing its potency. I can feel it waning against my skin.
“Lori,” I stare up at her face. “Lori, look at me.”
Lori’s forehead is wrinkled with concern, but her eyes are true.
“I haven’t lost my mind. I need you to believe me. It’s so important.” Tears roll down my cheeks and tears begin streaming down Lori’s face as well.
“I believe you,” Lori says.
“Don’t believe her!” Kanami cries.
Oh, daughter. I have broken trust with you. Please forgive me. We don’t have time…
Male voices in the hallway. At the door. They are knocking. “Ambulance,” they call out. I can hear one of them tread toward us with heavy shoes.
Kanami scrambles to her feet, scurries to the foyer.
“Lori!” I pull her down, to the floor, so that we are eye to eye. “Nothing I try to explain will make any sense. But you have to do this one thing for me. This one thing. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t the most important thing in the world. Please believe me!” I sob. I can hear Kanami’s voice murmuring hard and fast. The rattle of the ambulance stretcher trying to get in through the doorway.
“I believe you.” Lori’s voice is calm. Her eyes hold fast to mine.
I open my closed fist to reveal the green orb in the middle of my gore-crusted palm. Clumps of matted feathers stick to my skin. I stink of dried blood.
My vision blurs as tears start filling my eyes again. “You—you have to eat this. The message was clear. They were given to us. To help us. Please.” It’s hopeless. It’s so disgusting. Even my eyes can see how outrageous my request is. “You have to eat it!”
I pick the orb out my fingers and hold it out toward my love.
“Looks like another MO.” The paramedic’s voice is impatient. Dismissive. “That’s three this morning! Christ!”
“We’re here to help you,” his partner says to me. He rests his blue-gloved hand upon my upper arm.
“No! Not yet!” I grit my teeth. The tendons stand out in my neck. “Get your hand off of me!” Non-consensual touch, especially by a man, is something I cannot bear.
The paramedics draw closer. Encroaching upon my space. “Miss,” one of them says to my daughter. “We might need you to call the police with a Mental Health Act request.”
I will punch their faces in if I have to.
Lori reaches for the orb. Her fingers close over it. Carefully. “I have it, Eiko,” she says. She smiles. “You go with them for now. It will be okay. If you go with them I will eat this for you.”
The fight leaves my body. Even if she’s lying to me, so that I won’t struggle with the paramedics, I can’t force her to listen to me. It’s all too late.
“Eiko,” Lori says.
I look up at her.
Lori smiles. She places the orb inside her mouth. She can’t stop a grimace from forming on her face. She shudders. Closes her eyes and swallows.
I smile. Tears stream down my face.
From a great distance I can hear the coming roar of wings.
Kanami and Lori’s eyes widen as they turn toward the patio door. They can hear it, too! A smile breaks across my face.
The paramedics look at each other and then at my daughter and my lover, their eyebrows raised with skepticism. The gruff one rolls his eyes.
The glass in the door bulges outward, as soft as a bubble of soap. The glass pops with a crash of a thousand shards.
The air roars.
I reach for Kanami and Lori’s hands. We squeeze tightly. With love. With certainty. We take to the skies.
Speculative fiction can be a remarkably generative site from which we can deconstruct, agitate, investigate, and extrapolate. A queer place where dreams and visions can be actualized. Alongside speculative fiction’s potential for critical and transformative engagement, there remains, at its core, the possibility of engaging with a sense of wonder. Even as we need to be able to call attention, to dismantle and deconstruct, it is necessary for us as a species to be able to imagine. To imagine things that are not, or are yet to be, we need, first, to be able to imagine the impossible. When we imagine the impossible it is only then that it becomes possible. To my mind, the best of speculative fiction takes us from a familiar place, to the unfamiliar. Enter this other space, it invites us. Explore it. Imagine yourself and your world, better…
(Originally delivered as a keynote speech at the 2015 Academic Conference of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy.)
(Editors’ Note: Hiromi Goto is interviewed by Julia Rios in Issue Sixteen of Uncanny Magazine.)
¹ For further etymological reading on the possible origins/meanings of “queer”: “More Than Words: Queer, Part 1 (The Early Years).” Cara. Autostraddle. January 9, 2013.
² How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Joanna Russ. University of Texas Press. 1983.
³ The limbs of the liminal
body are fully detachable. Look
what happened to Sedna. Every
little bit counts. It wasn’t her mother
who betrayed her. Not all of our stories
are pretty. We’ll name our own
violence. Take the venom
that will cure your illness.
© 2017 by Hiromi Goto