Trigger warning: Infant loss, miscarriage, domestic violence, violence against women.
I enjoyed reading Zoo City by South African author and journalist Lauren Beukes so much that I jumped at the chance to read this new collection of her short stories and essays.
I don't normally read essays, but I found those in this collection fascinating, in part because they show where some of the ideas for Beukes' fiction stories come from. In All the Pretty Corpses she talks about the deeply personal inspiration for The Shining Girls, a novel I have so far avoided because I suspected I would find the subject matter upsetting. It is the story of a serial killer who murders women, but in her novel Beukes' aim was to take the focus off the killer and make the story about the victims; their lives, hopes and what they could have been, emphasizing that they were people, not just corpses.
“This is what is important: what was done to her. Passive voice. Because there's no subject anymore. Only object: the dead girl; the body. And a body doesn't mean anything. It's an empty snail shell. It's okay to look. There's no one in there now. But there was once.” - All the Pretty Corpses
Beukes was inspired by the tragic death of a family friend, 23 year old Thomokazi, whose abusive boyfriend stabbed her, poured boiling water on her and left her for dead. She died four months later of an infection from her burns (written down by the hospital as “natural causes”) and her killer was never convicted due to inadequate investigation by police. Beukes used her influence as a journalist to have the investigation reopened only to be told by the young woman's family to stop because they couldn't bear to go through it all again. So she channeled her anger at the death of Thomakazi and so many women like her into fiction.
On Beauty: A letter to my five-year -old daughter talks about the fears familiar to me as another mother of a daughter, wanting to somehow protect your girl child from the double standards and judgment the world will throw at her without stifling her natural emergence as her own person.
“I say: “Baby, do you know you're beautiful and smart and funny and kind?”...And you say, “I know, Mama,” with tolerant impatience. Not because you are vain, although you like to wear colourful clothes and a mermaid tail and a fairy princess dress and a tiger hat, and you have already decided that you like your hair to be brushed in a particular way. But because this is not especially interesting to you. It's a self-evident truth, like saying that mountains are high or tadpoles are wriggly.”
The fiction stories in the collection were quite a mixture of different genres and varied in tone. The following are some of my favourites;
Slipping- A cyberpunk story about a future in which an international sporting event called the + Games take a different tack from the Olympics. Instead of restricting the use of things like performance enhancing substances athletes may use whatever technology is available, be it drugs, mechanical armour or extreme body modification, to gain an edge over their competitors. The narrator, Pearl, lost her legs in an accident, and now has prosthetic blades (similar to those worn by Oscar Pistorius), and also other physical modifications such as removable organs. The story touches on themes of transhumanism, bodily autonomy and the way poverty can negate real choice. Pearl's exploitation at the hands of her sponsors reminded me of the way paid surrogates in developing nations are used by wealthy foreigners.
The Green is about a member of an expedition to a colony on another planet. I found it refreshing for two reasons. Firstly because it was a story about ordinary people thrust into this situation. The narrator isn't a scientist, or highly qualified to do anything glamorous or exciting. She is just someone who was poor enough and desperate enough to chance life on another planet to escape the everyday violence of her own poor neighbourhood on earth. Secondly because it emphasises how alien the new world is and how ridiculously dangerous it would be to humans. It reminded me of Joanna Russ' novella We Who Are About To, in which the characters' space ship crash lands on an alien world and the narrator immediately recognises that she and the other survivors are all doomed to die. So far from anywhere familiar that they can't see any recognisable stars, in a world where the vegetation is possibly not just poisonous, but perhaps literally inedible, the water is undrinkable and anything could cause a fatal allergic reaction. So many science fiction stories present strange planets as improbably forgiving environments, despite the many places just on earth where an unprepared human would freeze, be poisoned, die of exposure or be consumed by some other life form. The Green is about a team attempting to explore and harvest plants from an alien jungle under constant threat of death from stings, spores and parasites. It's sci fi intermingled with horror and despair, and an underlying theme of the struggle to overcome poverty and powerlessness.
Smileys is about an old woman in Johannesburg trying to make a living selling cooked sheeps heads, or “smileys” at the market, who is shaken down for money by an ex soldier turned vigilante. I don't want to spoil the story, so I'll just say that it didn't go where I thought it was going.
Ghost Girl is quite a sweet ghost story about a young architect who is haunted by the ghost of random 14 year old girl, whose shade follows him home from the cemetary as he passes through it one day. It's warmer and gentler in tone than most of this collection, almost like a Nick Earls story.
Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs- This story has been featured in audio format on the Drabblecast podcast, read by the author herself. It's a bizarre and funny mashup of various tropes of Japanese culture that is bound to appeal to any Otaku or Haruki Murakami fan.
Slipping is a diverse and fascinating collection of stories and essays. It contained some of the most thought provoking pieces I have read in a long time. It made me impressed with Lauren Beukes' range as an author and I will definitely seek out more of her books.
Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy of this book by Tachyon Publications via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review