Innumerable Voices: The Short Fiction of JY Yang

Innumerable Voices is a monthly column profiling short fiction writers and exploring speculative fiction themes in their many permutations. The column will discuss stellar genre work from both fresh and established writers who don’t have short fiction collections or novel-length works, but who actively contribute to anthologies and magazines.Links to magazines and anthologies for each story are available as footnotes. Chances are I’ll discuss the stories at length and mild spoilers will be revealed.

If there’s one thing to unite all sister genres of the speculative—each vast and unknowable in the entirety of its domain—it’s the human body. Flesh and blood, bone and muscle. The simplest of ingredients, containing all the power to decipher the world and an undying preoccupation with storytellers. In growing up and growing old, we learn that our bodies are mutable things, if only by the smallest of degrees. We fear the day we fail to recognize our bodies; exert careful control over appearance and performance; dread the possibility our bodies might betray us, as they often do in small or large ways. For all we’ve achieved, bodies remain the final frontier.

JY Yang recognizes the potential in the human body as a vessel for storytelling and with a background in genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology, sets forth to seek her own truths.

Tiger Baby” provides a perfect entryway into the overarching theme of bodies in Yang’s stories and serves as a meditation on the multitudinous facets of the human condition and its complexity. Here Yang shows how the thinnest sliver of separation between identity and body can render them incompatible, resulting in a life of yearning for a home that does not exist. Such is the case with Feli(city), who exists outside the structures of human society and has learned to perform her humanity, all the while waiting for a transformation to usher her in her true life.

The concept of being imprisoned in your body echoes loudly in “The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One,” as the alien narrator, strapped to an operating table during autopsy, thinks:

“Again and again I mourn the constraints of these terrestrian forms we mimic, these weaknesses we constantly recreate. The reediness of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, the clumsiness of pressure, the reliance on frequencies of air compression. Such a narrow way to see the universe.”

Yes, the human body must be such a constraint to shapeshifters who can curate the entire universe in their ever-changing bodies. What I admire most about this story is how effortless Yang condenses the vast, impersonal realm of space into flesh, into the realm of the concrete, interpersonal, and intimate. In changing the focus from outwards (the cold expanse) to inwards (the limitless potential of organics), Yang reframes how we think about science fiction and points to our bodies as the new hyperspace. Here scientists seek answers not amongst the stars, but in tissues under a microscope’s lens, admitting their loss for answers and understanding.

Flesh as the great frontier echoes in “Secondhand Bodies,” where the technology to grow viable bodies ready for use reexamines human nature via its vices and power structures. It comes as no surprise to see the upper echelons of society abuse this tech, and Yang readily demonstrates how having the freedom to slip into a body grown for you, or simply switch into a stranger’s, commodifies life. When what was previously unique and singular is subject to commodification, depersonalization is quick to follow. In Agatha’s descriptions of Maryam, the girl whose body she’s agreed to buy for her striking beauty, I was left with a clear impression Maryam was nothing more but a luxury item—an accessory to flaunt and put on display.

As beautiful as Maryam is, as presented through Agatha’s eyes, she has chosen to give up her identity to find better professional prospects as a Chinese woman, rather than a Filipina of mixed-race heritage. Her survival depends on her erasure. In this, Yang highlights just one of the numerous ways society exerts control over women and I instantly think of “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” (a flash piece that touches on issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights through the introduction of an alien pregnancy virus) and “Red Is the Color of Mother Dirt” as companion pieces that further this particular conversation about women and the physical and societal restrictions they face.

The latter is especially powerful as it sees women quarantined on a Martian colony during their menstruation out of fear of contamination. Period blood has mutated into a biohazard and to enter a sterile area in a state of “uncleanliness” is a punishable offense. Salway Mayakovsky does exactly this by visiting her sister in a hospital at the start of her cycle and her subsequent trial challenges the entire structure on which her entire society operates. Yang realistically approaches the fight for long-term societal change and the counter-processes it launches: a smear campaign against Sal’s character and her low-class background; a slow judicial process riddled with stalling judges; an engineered media circus striving to sway the public opinion. Yang teases hope and possibility that Sal’s trial may undo all, but in the end, she knows better and remarks, “Things had changed. Things remained the same.”

One of my favorite stories by Yang also deals with institutional power by creating a one-sided narrative intended to influence public opinion and present history in a fabricated, favorable light. “Re: (For CEO’s Approval) Text for 10th anniversary exhibition for Operation Springclean” skillfully addresses these issues through indirect storytelling. By reading the proposed texts and materials for the anniversary of the aforementioned Operation Springclean and suggested edits, the reader experiences both the nuanced history of the rat infestation that hit Singapore as it occurred and the sanitized version of events aligned with the government’s agenda.

In searching for answers in body modifications, permutations, and power structures, Yang broaches the subject of our human nature. How far does the biological extend? At what point does it surrender—and in its defeat, where do we ultimately cease to be humans? Do we continue to be the same species or have we severed this link in an irreversible way?

The artist in “Letter From an Artist to a Thousand Future Versions of Her Wife” writes in the aforementioned letter ‘You are not dead, my dearest, but it feels like you are.’ She exists in a paradox, both addressing her wife’s consciousness aboard a ship traversing the cosmos and having to distribute her bones as gifts to friends and family. We transcend our biological limitations and achieve a sort of immortality on our way to deep-space exploration. A similar concept manifests in “Storytelling for the Night Clerk”, but presents an opposing viewpoint—not one of immortality or transcendence, but an approximation of the deceased and a sort of commemoration for those entered into the National Archive Complex.

Augmentation is viewed as potentially harmful in the long run, and Yang differentiates with clarity between the baseline organic self of Wei En once her shift ends and her augmented self as the physical avatar of the Archive’s security system, Night Clerk. The dichotomy between how both experience the material world—one as quantitative data and one as interpretations of few narrowly perceived physical phenomena—poses the question, “Can the inorganic, manmade contain the soul?” The answer—No.

Conceptually, Yang’s vision is plausible, imaginative, and ambivalent—beneficent, but also not without its shortcomings. Her ideas, however, truly come to life through her characters’ hurtling through life, seeking meaningful connections or trying to keep what they’ve already won for themselves. For those of us who crave queer representation in genre fiction, Yang’s writing is an oasis where you see a spectrum of lesbian relationships.

There’s the deep, aged love in “Letter from an Artist to a Thousand Future Version of Her Wife” of a woman saying goodbye to her wife of many years as well as the devoted, satisfying partnership in “Storytelling for the Night Clerk”, wherein Wei En has taken the risk-filled position of Night Clerk to secure her lover’s medication. In “Secondhand Bodies,” we see how a warped desire can be mistaken for love in Agatha’s callous obsession with Maryam. We witness the overwhelming grief a lover’s death in “Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points” where the flashes of the relationship between Tempo and the now-deceased Avalanche burn bright and inform the unique family they had formed for themselves, resulting in Starling—a self-aware AI, who must learn to grieve a parent’s death though woefully ill-equipped to do so on her own.

Grief and mourning often appear as themes in Yang’s fiction since death remains the final limit, an inseparable function of life, its final permutation. The entirety of “Letter from an Artist to a Thousand Future Version of Her Wife” serves as a mourning ritual. Paying honor and respects to the deceased overtakes the narrative of “Temporary Saints,”—a single scene depicting the preparation of a saint’s body for burial. Yang couples extreme tenderness with a fascinating, bizarre worldbuilding to create a flash piece that embeds itself in the memory.

Little Phoenix’s traditional fairy tale narrative to save her sister from a dragon prince in “A Sister’s Weight in Stone” stands for a much more heart-stricken personal journey, while Anja in “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt” mourns not so much her husband’s death, but what she has denied herself instead. Closure arrives in the form of a mysterious apparition answering her call. Perhaps the most intricate and nuanced story that presents the many-faced nature of grief is “A House of Anxious Spiders.”

The concept here is truly startling, given the fear and repulsion arachnids tend to arouse. Each person has a spider living under their tongue, which is the physical manifestation of their voice; thus arguing transforms into a death match. One spider eats the other. One person loses their voice until a new spider hatches. This biological peculiarity delegates severity and importance to quarrels, since it can take weeks for the loser’s voice to return. To argue, even as part of a minor spat, is an act of violence, both explicit and public. Introduce this scenario during a funeral and you have an instant recipe for drama and high tensions.

The concept serves to illuminate the finer, complicated, and contradictory emotional responses during mourning for a loved one. Grief takes the form of Kathy’s wrath at losing her stability and the familiarity of her life, laced with her fear for the future. The funeral stress exacerbates Sook Ye’s frustration at having to fight her husband’s battles for him, but still obliging out of love. Grief also manifests as John’s fear he’ll be pushed out of the family by Kathy. Having faced their mortality through the death of John and Kathy’s mother, each turn to aggression and machinations to cope, rather than an open discourse. Vulnerability is hinted at only at the end, when the dust settles, a winner emerges and a spider is torn to pieces.

JY Yang is a voice well worth your time and attention. In the entirety of her work, there is subtlety, clarity of intent, and a strong yearning. Her stories consistently make a lasting impression and, upon viewing them as a cohesive body, the cumulative effect leaves me greatly satisfied and fulfilled as a reader.

Note: JY Yang has published far more than these 13 stories. The entirety of her publication list can be found on her website. In regards to keeping the profile within reasonable length, I chose to restrict the reading list to her most recent publications of greater length.

Tor.com has also recently announced the acquisition of Yang’s The Red Threads of Fortune and The River Runs Red, two interlinked novellas publishing in the summer of 2017.

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, he enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, Tor.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, Uncanny and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.

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