Happy Lunar New Year, readers! This week’s rich, strange story briefly features the event, which is actually a very happy coincidence, as I was reading the most recent issue of Lackington’s for this column anyway.
Full Disclosure: JY Yang was almost completely unknown to me before I met her at LonCon3, shared a panel with her on Writing SF/F in Non-Western Modes, and listened to her say super smart things. Now I follow her on Twitter so as to see her saying more smart things.
“Tiger Baby” is the story of Felicity, a woman in her mid-thirties who is haunted by dreams of being a tiger. She is, in fact, convinced that she’s a tiger, and a very specific sort of one: the story’s threaded with Felicity’s recollection of William Blake’s “The Tyger”:
Sometimes, not always, she forgets she is human. Especially on mornings like this, with her mind’s eye still burning bright, breathing forests of the night. The taste of her true form lingers: not this body with its rock of pain nestling in between neck and shoulder and the blood pounding in the head and the rancid feel of its dry mouth. Feli closes her eyes, hoping to slip back into the wonderful light darkness, into her true flesh, dread hands dread feet running across warm concrete, searching, singing, wind sluicing through striped fur as she streaks through the neighbourhood.
The story is mostly slice-of-life, the stylized prose calculated to make you feel the weight of Felicity’s unwanted, unlived every-day: she goes to work, where everything is always the same; she endures her family, with whom she has nothing in common; she talks to her Otherkin friend on the internet, who thinks she understands Felicity but ultimately doesn’t. But what struck me most about this story was the way I was reading it, potentially against its grain, as a story of colonization and betrayal by one’s literatures, to be failed by stories.
HUGE SPOILERS THAT WILL FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGE YOUR READING EXPERIENCE FOLLOW.
She can’t remember when it started. Which came first, the dreams or the realization of what she was meant to be? How many youthful hours did she spend in corners, softly reciting Blake and feeling a weighty truth?
I, too, spent many a youthful hour softly reciting Blake and feeling weighty truths—that I was unique, special, and part of that special uniqueness came from those recitations, from having rhymed secrets to hold to my heart like a shield against the iniquities of highschool, of being an awkward, friendless, too-loud girl, against being two languages removed from the one I wanted to speak.
But my sympathy for Felicity, throughout, was bewildered: surely that pain is a teenage one. Surely as our contexts expand, we re-examine the truths they house: that perfect poem that said everything to you about your life becomes, perhaps, as small and embarrassing as the resin-cast dagger-shaped incense holder with the snake-headed hilt that once made you feel like a badass. Surely Felicity, in her mid-thirties, ought to be shedding such odd certainties in favour of more age-appropriate existential angst?
And then the ending hits you like a ton of bricks: Felicity, losing her home, her job, feels the unwelcome life she’s only diffidently inhabited burning away. This is her moment, the moment she becomes the Fire Tiger she’s always known she is but has oddly never sought to become—and the change happens. She gives up on being a girl, commits herself to being a tiger—and finds that she’s actually a cat.
She opens her mouth, pushes air through her larynx, tiny chest constricting—instead of a roar, there is a meow. The lump in her throat, the hyoid bone, is small and stiff and makes little noises. Meow. Meow. In the glittering eyes of the orange moggie with its tail-flicks she sees a lifetime of stalking through gutters, fighting with rats, and finding quiet spots under stairs to nap.
This is it. This is who she is. Not a dread terror of the night, but a small supple being that slips through the cracks like water.
There it is: the loss of self that comes from the loss of story. In Felicity’s case, the loss of self promised by Romantic English Literature, that mass export, that sweet nothing murmured into your reading ear by the global imperial equivalent of That Guy in Your MFA. Felicity loses Blake, loses the fantasy of being hundreds of pounds of dangerous, stalking, hungry hunter muscle, but gains a freedom of movement, of being, that she’s craved her whole life—and a community of other cats, other supple beings more water than fire.
Amal El-Mohtar will not confirm or deny whether she owns a resin-cast dagger-shaped incense holder, nor whether she can still recite pages of over-anthologized poetry. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, and has thrice received the Rhysling award for best short poem. Her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Uncanny; in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue; and in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.