Queering SFF

Far Apart, Close By: Homesick by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri’s debut book of fabulist queer stories, Homesick, won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize in 2018—and now the collection has been released, just in time to be an ideal (and mildly haunting) October read. The pieces included are innovative and introspective at turns, often open-ended but evocative in their exploration of liminal spaces in homes, families, and the world at large.

Eight of the nine stories in Homesick are reprints from various publications, including magazines like Tor.com and Nightmare, while the final novella, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff,” is original to the book. Cipri’s fiction takes on questions of nationality, neurodivergence, and gender in the context of connection and estrangement, and in doing so, approaches the emotions surrounding complicated and complicating problems in contemporary life.

“A Silly Love Story” is, as the title implies, a silly love story featuring a poltergeist, a bigender romantic interest, and words—whether we can trust them, and when, and how art trades in emotive communication. I appreciated the frankness with which Merion communicates about gender (“male some days, female on others, sometimes neither”) and also the frankness with which Cipri confirms the poltergeist at the close of the piece. Though it hovers, “ignored but insistent,” as Merion and Jeremy fall together after Jeremy paints the apricots, it does not directly act on them. Pinning down the meaning of the poltergeist isn’t the point, for me as a reader; it’s more about the sense of hovering, of the thing out of reach but constantly present. In a piece about romance and gender, many other things are hovering out of reach but constantly present as well.

As for a piece with stylistic variance, there’s “Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You?” The story takes the form of a Buzzfeed-style personality quiz about a faux YA property involving the stories of dead girls (and a werewolf)—how they died, what motivates them, what links them in death and how the surviving world treats them. The piece drags us through the experience of trauma and existence after trauma as a creature altered fundamentally: it might mean you found your sisters and a community, it might mean you’re in a rage all the time, it might mean you want to die for good. It’s non-narrative, but it has a powerful emotional effect.

“Dead Air” is also stylistically different from the rest, as it’s told entirely through “recorded” dialogue. It’s also haunting (and haunted) as hell: the presence of other voices on the tape, the implications and images about Maddie’s family and their hometown as some sort of Silent Hill-esque trap of a place, all of the unanswered but horrifying questions raised by Maddie’s traumatic past. The ending is unresolved except that Nita is still recording, still seeking, and is perhaps now also marked by the town and whatever happened with Maddie on the final drive. The story provokes a deep and pervasive unease in the reader that lingers after finishing.

“Let Down, Set Free” gets a brief ping from me as it’s set in Kentucky and is told in a short epistolary format, which is fun, dealing with women aging and freedom via the vehicle of alien (possible animal?) floating trees/seed-pods, one of which our protagonist saddles up to ride to freedom post-divorce.  I had previously discussed “The Shape of my Name” in a review of the first Transcendent anthology, and I still enjoyed it as it looks at transition, time, and identity for a transgender time traveler.

“Presque Vu” was another stunner in terms of its handling of human trauma, queer communities, and survival. The ride-share work during the soft apocalypse, the dissolution of social orders into people tormenting the ghastly shades wandering the landscape, and the possibility of physical/emotional intimacy despite it all were balanced perfectly. Cipri rendered the intense awkward realness of the post-hookup situation where it turns out a friend has been trying to introduce you to someone you already slept with and ghosted, thinking you to be strangers, but maybe you liked the person anyway… it’s a homely bit of queer drama melded with a terrifying, isolating, collapsing world. We still have to make ends meet, even as the gears grind down, and we still have to meet each other somewhere in the middle to find belonging until it ends.

The original novella, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff,” delighted me. It’s got academia, it’s got queer and trans friends/lovers who have their issues with each other but can also work them out (the wine-drunk pillow fight scene was perfection). And, importantly, it also delves into questions of archeology, preservation, respect for the land and for remains, and cultural appropriation versus education versus access. Cipri digs through these hard questions through three quite different points of view: Damian, the trans guy who took initially shared research and ran to press with a pop sensation book without his fellow friends; Min, who is also trans and completing her dissertation revisions on the linguistic aspects of their archeological find at the opening of the story (and who’s known Damian since a teen trans acceptance camp); Ray, an indigenous scholar and activist who is furious with both of his friends for their refusal to consider reinterring the bones they found out of appropriate respect instead of displaying them in museums to be gawked at (and who’s also Damian’s contentious ex).

Their arguments and appreciations and love for each other is not forgiving, and it’s a model of ways to work through complicated issues of ethics, power, and viewpoints on topics that all have valid contributions but cannot agree—and also, how to accept (in Damian’s case) that you’ve been a total asshole. Plus, there’s something about the deep-dive into academic politics, weird funding for public science, and the Smithsonian’s “space weasels” angle (because they do need the money and for the documentary to be made, so ultimately, fuck it?) that I absolutely adored. Cipri writes deeply human people with deeply human flaws, foibles, and pleasures. That’s especially true in this slice-of-life novella featuring debates around the bones of sentient, self-aware ancestors to weasels.

As for the pieces I was less impressed by, “Not an Ocean But the Sea” and “She Hides Sometimes” both had moments of lyrical prose or imagery that appealed to me, and both did accomplish a certain form of affective labor, but were a bit opaque in their uncertainty. These two stories felt a bit unfinished or lean in spots that would have borne a touch more elaboration; neither was totally satisfying.

Between all nine of these stories, to varying extents, themes of haunting and belonging appear: threaded through disappearing houses, floating trees, ghastly phenomena, and time traveling families, there is a constant question of who belongs and when and where? And perhaps more troubling, what do they leave behind and how do we interpret those artefacts? Cipri does not offer pat or solid answers, for the most part, instead approaching the affective/emotional dimension of the problem—what it feels like, what it smells and sounds like, what it provokes in us to experience as a reader within a protagonist.

While this approach to narrative, fabulist and often resistant to the expectation of “closure,” offers and asks certain work of the reader… it’s remarkably good at setting a tone for a collection, a shared liminality and uncertainty that borders (in the spookier stories) on the uncanny in a way I appreciated. While not every story stands powerfully on its own, the ones that do are stunning, and the others serve more to weave a sensation or expectation of the overarching vibe. All the pieces serve a purpose, despite or because of their individual wonders and flaws. This sort of strange, calm, meditative work is something I like to sip from and I like to see exist in the field, filling out the shadowed edges of how we talk about belonging and being together in our stories (and who gets to belong: in this case, queer folks across the board).

Homesick is available from Dzanc Books.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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