Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Though the majority of the magazines whose stories I’ve discussed here so far are semiprozines, I also read a variety of smaller publications—usually digital—that consistently offer unique and provocative stories. One of these little magazines I enjoy is Expanded Horizons; their tagline is “Speculative Fiction for the Rest of Us.”
Driven by an editorial philosophy expressly devoted to diversity of all types and honest, productive representations of that diversity, Expanded Horizons tends to publish works that I find intriguing on a variety of levels. Their new issue (April 2013) has recently been released, and so that seems like a good place to focus this week’s installment of the Short Fiction Spotlight. The issue contains three stories and a poem. As for the fictional pieces, they are: “From the Book of Names My Mother Did Not Give Me” by Christine V. Lao, “Waiting for Agua de Mayo” by Mia Tijam, and “Calling Oshun” by Shannon Barber. The first two are reprints from the Philippine Speculative Fiction series, while the last is original to this issue.
“From the Book of Names My Mother Did Not Give Me” by Christine V. Lao is a reprint from Philippine Speculative Fiction VI, though this is the first encounter I’ve had with it. The piece itself consists of a series of fantastical shorts, connected to women’s names, each offering a portrait of a given woman during a time of metamorphosis—sometimes caused by grief or pain, other times by voluptuous joy. Though the transformations are fantastical—one woman grows wings after an encounter with aliens, another turns into a puddle of tears—they are also all too literal. Chantal cannot allow her lover to plant a garden on her heart and so he leaves, but when he begins dying of a similarly metamorphic disease as he turns to rock, she allows the flowers to blossom throughout her body; Arsenia is different and never quite fits in, until she discovers her element, As, on the periodic table and transmutes into another substance entirely. These are not difficult to unpack with a moment’s consideration: the significance of loving and loss, the pressure to conform meeting the freedom of self-recognition.
I appreciate the lyrical quality of these shorts, as well as the food for thought each offers on the changes, good and bad, in the lives of these women: how culture and society place their own pressures, and how women can connect, or lose connections, with each other (“Barbara”), are themes that interest me. This story is a handsome, small thing, made of parts smaller still, that does the majority of its work on the allegorical level rather than that of plot. As such, it’s the sort of piece that lingers, though it may not at first make a drastic impression.
“Waiting for Agua de Mayo” by Mia Tijam is also a reprint, in this case from Philippine Speculative Fiction 2. This piece is familiar in theme (the magic of youth, making mistakes, loss) and structure (the little girl happens upon a magical creature whom she befriends, but makes the mistake of breaking its one rule about secrecy so it stops visiting her, and as she grows older she slowly forgets), certainly. The story itself, however, remains engaging thanks to its execution: Tijam’s attention to detail renders the protagonist, her “dragon,” and the setting vividly. The added tension of cultural conflict—where the idea of the “dragon” even comes from, and why she thinks of it primarily as that before thinking of it as the bayawak—is a further note that the story sounds, giving it a fresh take on a common theme.
The relationship between the young girl and the bayawak is simple and deep, and the story skims through her life on that thread—from year to year, until she finally remembers in the city that her friend is, possibly, still waiting for her out in the country. I enjoyed the emotional resonance of the piece, in particular the ending; it’s difficult to tell, ultimately, if the girl has lost her relationship with the bayawak forever, or if she still has a chance to return to her childhood river and meet the creature again. I suspect that the answer is no—she can’t go back—but her own moment of hope, her question of belief, offers the bittersweet touch of possibility.
“Calling Oshun” by Shannon Barber is a short piece—flash fiction, arguably—that offers a vivid illustration of a moment of connection and spirituality for a group of black men in the South, seeking back to another time and faith. The piece works primarily through the visual and auditory senses; sound and sight are lushly rendered through the narrative voice of the visiting deity, and the story itself has a tonal resonance of triumph and beauty. It’s brief but memorable, part of a tradition of similar stories working through issues of ancestry, history, and faith—in some ways as much a prose poem as a story, employing resonance and the imagery in the prose to evoke a series of emotions more than to structure a plotted narrative. I would also note that, much like Tijam’s piece, though the ground being treaded is familiar, the execution here remains intriguing and engaging. Individual voices can often make a familiar story fresh again, and Barber does the same work, here, in offering another angle on the scene she puts together for the reader.
Overall, the stories in these sorts of publications tend to be more raw, like an uncut diamond, but that’s where much of the pleasure of reading comes from: they’re exciting, they push boundaries, they go into territory or experiment with style in ways that might not be welcomed in a more mainstream venue. Publishing, after all, has a damn long history of experimental little magazines—just ask the modernists—and contemporary speculative fiction is no different. They deserve critical attention, too. While this issue of Expanded Horizons consisted more of reprints than originals, I’d highly recommend going back through their archives to check out more of the unique voices that this magazine has supported.
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.