Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we discussed a book in the PM Press Outspoken Authors Series, Report from Planet Midnight Plus… by Nalo Hopkinson, and this week, I’d like to consider another small collection: With Her Body by Nicola Griffith. This book was the second installment in Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces series—a series now consisting of more than thirty volumes—and it contains three previously published short stories by Griffith, as well as a short essay by L. Timmel Duchamp.
The three stories that make up this short volume were all published initially in the early 90s: “Touching Fire,” “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” and “Yaguara.” L. Timmel Duchamp’s afterword, “A Word for Human is Woman,” addresses one of the threads she sees running through these three stories: the re-centering of woman as a term containing “full humanness,” and a reconsideration of the human/nature/culture relationship.
I agree with that reading—certainly, nature and humanity are major issues in With Her Body—but I also find other constellations arising from the juxtaposition of these stories, particularly with regard to embodiment. The collection’s title, With Her Body, could refer to many things; yet, it seems to me, one of the most significant is the erotic potential of bodies—that things can be done with them, and that a woman—a her—can do those things. Each story is driven by a central woman; each of these women has physical and sexual relationships with other women. (It’s a very queer book, to my distinct pleasure.)
The body is sometimes taken for granted in science fiction—often it’s just “the meat”—but Griffith’s stories, here, centralize the body as a human organ, as an irreplaceable part of experiential life. These women do lots of things with their bodies: fight, work a job, run, be amongst nature, get hurt, fuck, adventure, give, and take. These bodies are also gendered and occupy a gendered social world. As an audience, we encounter these active bodies as readers in a culture that over-sexualizes women while simultaneously refusing to view as authentic the personal sexuality of a woman who occupies a physical space. In short: we see quite a lot of “women are sexy objects” and not much “women are people who have sexualities.” In this collection, that’s reversed. Sexual autonomy and agency is a primary factor in each of these women’s narratives. Their sexualities, in a sense, take up space in a way that is taboo.
Griffith’s stories here represent—in the “full humanness” that Duchamp refers to in her afterword—the range of a woman’s sexuality as a simple and vital part of her life, her being, and especially her sense of embodiment. After all, in each of these stories the erotic is a driving factor. In “Touching Fire” it is the sort of passionate, dangerous yearning that can burn like the flame in the title; in “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” it is the longterm sensuality of a partnership that survives only in the bodily memory of the protagonist as she surrounds herself with the nature her dead partner loved; in “Yaguara” the erotic is repressed, leaving the protagonist hungry for its ultimate release, which comes in an animal and intense experience.
I find it interesting, too, that Griffith does touch on such a range of potential erotic acts with bodies between women. Each story has an entirely different tone from the one preceding it; the sex and sexuality in each also differs drastically, as described above. But, overall, With Her Body depicts erotic physicality chosen, driven, and realized by women—and also explores the politics of loss. This is the second interesting bit. While these women form intense erotic bonds, all of those bonds dissolve in their ways by the end. And yet, it’s not tragic; I didn’t get the sense of reading a series of lesbian mistakes.
In fact, what I appreciate most is that these stories do not attempt to shelter the reader with “love conquers all” or the idea that sex is a magic fix. Having agency over one’s sexuality means the freedom to make decisions about it—and sometimes, those decisions don’t pan out. Nadia, in “Touching Fire,” is too unstable; Cleis, in “Yaguara,” becomes part of something different with her physicality instead of remaining a woman with Jane. Molly, in “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” loses her lover to the plague that’s wiped out the majority of humanity. And yet none of these three protagonists is ultimately unhappy or destroyed by their loss; they recover, they assert their embodied agency again, and they continue to live, perhaps richer for the experiences they had earlier chosen.
And one last thing about these intense, intriguing stories: the problem with saying that it’s great when a story shows a woman as embodied is, of course, that women are often seen or represented as all body and no mind/culture. Griffith avoids this trope—I suspect without ever having to try—through her development of these women as whole people, with their own needs, fears, and personalities. As Duchamp’s afterword notes, these stories do not try to illuminate the “human condition” universally but to represent instances of being, living, loving, and existing with full humanity. They are stories about women doing things, needing things, and being entirely self-coherent as characters and individuals in the world. (And, honestly, that’s something I still don’t see enough of.)
There’s a lot more we could talk about here because of the complexity of these stories—like the cultural conflicts in the last story between a Latina academic, a white photographer, and the native Mayans that they are studying/documenting—but for now, this will have to do. With Her Body is a provocative collection of pieces that explore the bodily potential of women to occupy their world with full human agency, and I suspect it’s no surprise that I enjoyed it. The depictions of unashamed, unabashed physicality—the refusal to pretend that bodies don’t matter—make it stand out, and I appreciated doubly that it deals in terms of queer women’s sexuality. Three stories, three loves; it’s plenty to flesh out a hundred pages, and more than enough to make the time fly while reading them.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.