I read two novelettes last week. “Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma is a grim fairy tale about a snake-girl held captive in generational violent entrapment; Andrea Hairston’s “Saltwater Railroad” is a Caribbean historical fantasy about the matriarch of a community of people who have fled slavery and other forms of violence. Both develop a fairly large handful of characters with depth as well as a really fucked-up family system (the former), with all its attendant relationships, and a community (the latter), with all its attendant relationships. And these are not just direct relationships between characters, but, for example, the internal mythology of a family and the local folklore about a community of escapees.
It’s in that — community — that I find so relevant about Hairston’s story. A rant for another day is how appalled I’ve become at the linguistic drift of the word community, which has become so broadly applied as to have been rendered functionally meaningless (and which I suspect is employed to serve obfuscatory purposes such as, for example, obscuring the dynamics of labor and capital). The community in “Saltwater Railroad” is such, and is actively built, by and for the benefit of its residents.
And the protagonists in these stories don’t waste any time being “likable,” a metric that is applied to female characters virtually exclusively. (It’s a metric that has always puzzled me, but I’ve learned that my “fierce” is more often than not some other readers’ “unlikable.”) So much patriarchal garbage is brought to the text that female characters are expected to perform extra emotional labor for the reader instead of, y’know, getting shit done — and in fact it’s no accident, I think, that in each of these the female main character is described in the first couple of paragraphs as being physically unattractive:
She had a gap in her front teeth, droopy eyes, and high cheekbones holding up tired skin. Always dressed in black, she blended into the gloomy ledges day and night.
And in Sharma’s story:
Eliza’s odd looking but she has something, don’t you think? Une jolie laide. A French term meaning ugly-beautiful. Only the intelligentsia can insult you with panache.
Essentially, these declare right up-front that these protagonists are not here for the male gaze, and neither are these stories.