“White Bone” Excerpt

Excerpt from my novelette, “White Bone,” published in the Fantasy short story anthology 9Tales From Elsewhere #7. This is a tale of revenge and romance, inspired by the Chinese myth of Bai Gu Jing, or White Bone Spirit, in which a king storms into the woods to slay a beast, and there encounters a woman whom he falls in love with. But she is dead unless he comes face to face with his troubled past.

He had been nearing the temple, but first he had decided to stop by the river for a quick rinse, to wash the grime off his face and hands before entering his ancestral abode. Now, weary though he was, he felt the familiar stirring in his blood, and was glad he had stopped. There by the river where the wild peony grew, where its thousand-petalled blooms dripped their heavy inflorescences from their arcing branches, there a slender arm lifted languidly and lowered, trickling diamond water; and the shining wet ebony sheet that was her hair rose with it to reveal just the barest sliver of hip, then rose some more to uncover, just for a moment, the perfect, shadowy dent in the small of her back, whispering secrets.

His heart quickened; his blood sang fire. Desire strained his will, shackles of decency ringing a low note against the burn.

Water lapped, black and lustrous, against her hip, indistinguishable from her floating hair. Sinuous curves melted into it, pink-tinted, like the colour of snow under an alpenglow of dawn. His foot crunched on the forest bed.

Startled, she paused, then turned curiously to peer over her shoulder. Dark eyes lifted, uncertain, round shadows cast like clandestine meeting places in an exquisite face that, unveiled of her hair, blossomed out before him like petals of a moonflower, opening one by one.

For a moment, he saw his own reflection in them. Such a powerful, striking figure he cut, in those deep pools silvered like mirrors. Above them, her eyelashes lightly quivered, like the shadows of flickering candle-flames, shivering though untouched by wind. Then the petals lowered again over her eyes, and her moon-washed hair cascaded back over her shoulders; she had not seen him.

He snapped. All at once he was an animal—and like an animal he took her, from the back, just out of sight of the temple by the river where the wild peonies still grow.

She moulded herself meekly to his rough hands, silent and acquiescent as river water shaping itself around the hard, feverish body of a man cutting through it. Forward and speedily he propelled himself, his arms knifing through the waves, crushing with the weight of the world; but the water dispersed around him, and drifted at his touch, so that though he swam through it he could not grasp a single, sliding drop in his hands.

You can get the full story from the Amazon Kindle store. Comments / reviews welcome. 🙂

Advertisements

A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham‘s A Wild Swan is a collection of short stories that give the classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm a grittier, modern twist. I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker ones, and this innocent-looking little white book didn’t disappoint. With prose as stark and disturbing as its illustrations by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu, Cunningham’s stories undercut the simple idealism of such traditional tales as Rumpelstiltskin” and “Snow White.” Sometimes he places a tale in a contemporary setting, leaving characters like the tin soldier and the ballerina to fend for themselves after marriage in our imperfect world; sometimes he writes from the perspectives of forgotten or villainised characters, fleshing out their complexities to depict them as scarred and lonely beings plagued with existential anxieties.

I especiaharp.jpglly like the way some of the stories portray love. We’re all used to, and perhaps a bit weary of, the conventional ideas of love as this grand, self-sacrificial thing. But some tales, like his fractured version of “Snow White,” remind me of the flawed and selfish nature of human love, which often requires an ideal image of the other to be sustained. So Snow White must be kept behind glass, still as a corpse and framed with a rose, in order to be beautiful. Rapunzel’s lover must remain blind in order to revel in the locks that were chopped off before his eyes. And the tin soldier loves the ballerina because she had one leg out behind her and he thought she was deformed, just like him. This last story I especially love, because of its realistic optimism: though the couple’s idealised image of each other dissipates and their initial, passionate fairy tale love unravels, over the years this love dulls, or perhaps grows, gradually into a steady acceptance of each other’s distance and differences. Cunningham is careful to remind us that this doesn’t mean complete understanding; yet both of them ultimately arrive at some sort of contented equilibrium. And unlike some preachy old folks I sometimes meet in church, he doesn’t try to paint this latter sort of love as better or stronger in any way, but seems to be merely stating life as it is, how married life is like. It leaves me wondering whether I’d like it.

Cunningham’s Rumpelstiltskin adaptation’s is another one of my favourites from the book; great characterisation, with the dwarf being hideous yet kind-hearted yet lashing out in jealousy, and the queen beautiful and pleasant, feeling some moral obligation yet ultimately acting self-centredly. Same storyline, but suddenly the characters come alive, and because of these depths of character revealed, suddenly there’s no longer a happy ending, just a heartbreakingly plausible one. The dwarf, the Beast, is rejected by Beauty and refused of a child. So refused of love, in bitter rage he breaks in two, and is doomed forever to live with that handicap of self struggling against self. It’s a feeling that not just all who have been rejected can identify with. It’s a feeling of bitter isolation, impairment, and alienation from the self.

I’m hungry for more contemporary fairy tale adaptations. Does anyone have any recommendations?

Fear

Stumbled on this Free Style Writing Challenge from Kyrosmagica. I’m supposed to write something on the prompt “Fear, An Adrenaline Shot.” This was fun!

Fear is eccentric. A madman, running through my veins. Sometimes he barges through, and sometimes he hides, but he’s always there. In the back of my head, seething. Even in the happiest moments, when I’m wrapped in the blankets of your smile, when the grass breathes and the trees breathe their silk scents over me and I am safe, I know I am safe, even then fear lurks in the underbrush, with his silent warning; that soon it will be over. Tick tock, tick tock. Soon it will be over.

Sometimes I try to reason with him, but madmen feed off a different logic. An alien logic, more closely related to death, which maybe is no logic at all. It rambles on, incomprehensible and relentless and boundless, stretching its tentacles out to every nerve and synapse, invading, even forming new ones. And it fears. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The madman seeks the adrenaline shot that will keep it going, because even fear fears that soon it will be over.

Word count: 179
Time taken: 10 minutes (and 7 seconds, to finish up the last sentence)

I am trying not to be too harsh on myself, but I cringe when I reread what I just wrote. My fingers itch to edit!

Now I’m supposed to nomiate bloggers to complete the same challenge on another topic, but I’m so new to this blogging thing that I don’t know many people, so I just picked a few writers / blogs at random from the blogs I’ve read recently. These are the most memorable ones–you guys rock:

  1. Charli Mills, who has a lovely collection of flash fiction
  2. Enkin Anthen, whose flash fiction managed to move something in me with just 99 words, 99 harshly beautiful words
  3. Gah, whose ‘About’ page charmed me and whose writing struggles I totally get
  4. Isabel Caves, who caught me with this cute little vignette, “Chasing Sleep”
  5. S. S. Hicks, whose short story “Blink” opened my eyes to the importance of overlooking differences
  6. Joy Frida, whose short story “He Texted Me” made me think about the fine line between duty and love
  7. The Darkest Fairytale, which has a nifty little recipe for coffee I should like to try, starting tomorrow morning
  8. Serpentine is Here, which has some pretty cool free writing–I like the blog’s dark tone and that he wants to build a community 🙂
  9. Sophie Ludgate, because I too have a mess in my head (plus I like her writing prompts)
  10. Jade M. Wong, because her heaven looks like mine (well, sort of–mine’s up in a tree 🍃   🙃  )

The Free Style Writing Challenge Rules:

  1. Set a stop watch or your mobile to 5 minutes or 10 minutes whichever challenge you think you can beat.
  2. Your topic is at the foot of this post BUT DO NOT SCROLL DOWN TO SEE IT UNTIL YOU ARE READY WITH A TIMER.
  3. Fill the word doc with as many words as you want. Once you began writing do not stop even to turn.
  4. Do not cheat by going back and correcting spellings and grammar with spell check in MS WORD (it is only meant for you to reflect on your own control of sensible thought flow and for you to reflect on your ability to write the right spelling and stick to grammar rules)
  5. You may or may not pay attention to punctuation and capitals. However, if you do, it would be best.
  6. At the end of your post write down ‘Word count =_____’ so that we would have an idea of how much you can write within the time frame.
  7. Do not forget to copy paste the entire passage on your blog post with a new topic for your nominees and copy paste these rules with your nominations (at least 5 bloggers).

Anyone else who wishes to participate, do so! Just give me a pingback by linking back to this post in your blog, so I can read your works. Can’t wait to see what you people come up with!

And your new topic is …

BLUE FIRE

Island

her hand in mine
little fish slipping
into coarse sand of my palm

sun-tanned palms
caught in golden net
sand-cast duet
shored against time

in relentlessly flowing brook
laced leaves
slowly tear. 

This is a response to a dVerse prompt on Impressionism.

Was thinking of my sister, and remembering when we were younger. Kind of miss her.

On Bullshit

As a hermit whose first step out of her shell was partaking in social media poetry, I was instantly made aware of how much bullshit there was in the world. The scary thing was, I was also made aware of how susceptible I was to it. So, at a recommendation from my boyfriend (if writing is my whetstone, Keith is my blacksmith–and it often hurts), I read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit“.

What Frankfurt’s trying to do here isn’t to give a decisive definition of what bullshit is but rather to distinguish between some common modes of misrepresentation, so that we may be wary of them. Frankfurt identifies, inter alia, two ways in which truth can be misrepresented: 1. through lying, that is, communicating something false, and 2. by ‘making assertions that purport to describe the way things are’ (15), without caring about whether these assertions are true or false. The second mode of deception is what he calls bullshit.

In normal contexts, of course, as Frankfurt recognises, we use the term far more loosely. (My boyfriend likes to snap, “Bullshit!” whenever he thinks I’m lying to him. I’m not a very good liar, so he’s usually right. 🙄 ). But for communication purposes it helps to think of bullshit and lying in separate terms.

Bullshit is much more dangerous than a lie, Frankfurt says (I think they’re both equally dangerous), because underlying a truth or lie is still the assumption that there are facts that can be known, and hence communicated or concealed. But bullshit has no concern for the facts at all. It may be true or false; it doesn’t matter, because what the bullshitter is concerned with isn’t truth or its concealment, but the promulgation of a certain image of himself. The essence of bullshit is its ‘indifference to how things really are’ (8).

In his book Lean Logic, under “How to Cheat in an Argument”, David Fleming lists out some hazards, or fallacies, that often misguide or confuse thought. ‘Bullshit’ is one of them. This he defines generally as the act of ‘talk[ing] at length about nothing’ (xxiii), and more specifically as

  1. The waffle produced by someone who is expected to know what he is talking about, but does not
  2. An accusation thrown at a person who is attempting to lift the discussion from the reductionist torpor into which it has sunk
  3. Brief description of a content-free argument.

The first one echoes Frankfurt. The second, dry humour notwithstanding, shows just how hard it is to tell a bullshitter from someone with good intentions. When we think about what it is about bullshit we need to be wary of, though, I find the third definition most enlightening. After all, I wouldn’t know if a person doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about, unless I can identify that his argument has no content, or is, in other words, unsubstantiated.

Well then, what makes for a content-free argument? Petter Naessan, quoting from Grice’s Logic and Conversation, suggests a number of conditions that would sufficiently qualify something as bullshit, in addition to the necessary condition of its speaker’s indifference to the truth: 1. conveys not enough information, 2. conveys too much information, 3. lack evidence, 4. are irrelevant to the topic at hand, or 5. are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly. Some of the fallacies Fleming lists are also useful in identifying content-free arguments: ‘assertion’, for example, which is to ‘simply assert your case, without any argument’, or ‘counterexample: cite one instance which disproves the other side’s entire belief system: “But I have a friend who …”‘

Oh good, I thought. So now I can more justifiably say that something like

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 17.49.19.png

is bullshit (I won’t identify the ‘poet’, if she can be called that, but for some reason it’s got 227 likes on Insta so far, and it’s worthwhile to consider why). Boy does it fulfil condition 5.

And yet–can I discount the fact that this unfathomable combination of words may mean something, may even shed light on some truth, to some people? Here’s what someone commented:

… it’s a beautiful and haunting way to explain what could be considered a higher being or the meaning of life itself–the human mind cannot fathom or comprehend the beauty and the destruction … that can bring forth existence and then tear it down.

I have no idea how this person derived this meaning from such a pleonastic text flooded with ‘unintelligible murkiness’, but wouldn’t it be presumptuous, even egotistical, of me to dismiss that person’s view entirely, just because I didn’t get that meaning (or any meaning whatsoever) from the text myself? Doesn’t the beauty of poetry stem, at least in part, from its potential to generate infinite meanings, so that a single image can take on several meanings to different people? But if this is the case, if the very art of poetry lies in its use of figures of speech, metaphors etc. that deliberately obscure meaning or leave it ambiguous, how can you tell bullshit from truly profound art?

Frankfurt might say that the difference between poetic bullshit and art lies in the intent of the speaker, but practically, how can one tell what someone else’s intent is? Even if a computer can sound like Deepak Chopra, I can’t in good conscience judge beyond reasonable doubt that Deepak Chopra as a phony unconcerned with truth, especially when I don’t even know him in person.

Even a poem that simply makes a statement about the poet’s subjective view would by Frankfurt’s definition be considered bullshit. Because he doesn’t even believe one can make any genuine claim about oneself!

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial–notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit (16).

What Frankfurt seems to be suggesting here is that even if we think we’re being sincere, telling a truth about ourselves through our art, we’re actually just bullshitting. Ouch. So much of art is an expression of the artist’s mental or emotional state, it really makes me wonder if bullshit in art can’t be helped.

I’m not saying that all poems necessarily make ambiguous or unsubstantiated claims, although a lot of them certainly seem to. (Just think of haiku, which by the very nature of its form implies some sort of ‘enlightenment’, some truth or insight about the poet’s internal or external reality.) But if there’s any substantiation to be found in the sparse words of a haiku, it would be more likely found in the reader’s experience and not in the poem itself as clear and objective evidence.

So now I’m starting to think that, although when reading poems we often assume, if not expect, that the poet is sincere or genuine, perhaps that shouldn’t affect our value judgments at all. Perhaps poetry can be fake and still be good–that is, can still be art. Frankfurt does recognise the mode of creativity behind the notion of the ‘bullshit artist’ (13). Why should we judge the poem produced by the insincere poet to be of any lesser quality than that produced by the genuine one? What is their comparative value, especially if they both use language in equally esoteric ways? ‘Bullshit’ implies worthlessness, and Frankfurt certainly seems to think society would do better without it, but someone’s bullshit may just be someone else’s elixir.

That seems intuitively wrong to me, though. If Wordsworth were to rise from the grave right now and announce that he’d created all his poems with a bullshit generator using algorithms and buzzwords, I don’t think I’d ever read a line of his again. I’ve always felt that art should reveal some kind of truth, that we ought to get from art some sort of revelation and not just pleasure from its beauty, or there’d be nothing distinguishing Van Gogh from a flower or a friendship or my sister’s pretty mass-produced teddy bear.

And now I find myself deleting draft after draft of Twitterpoetry, my thumb hovering, constipated, over the Tweet button. The already formidable task of poem-ing now appears even more difficult. If I can’t make any sincere truth claims about myself, how can I express myself poetically without bullshitting? Must I resign myself to the fact that ‘[e]ach of us contributes his share [of bullshit]’ (1); that I can’t ever be wholly genuine due to the vast portions of myself hidden from me, and so every statement I make about myself is bullshit?

Maybe I’m missing something here. I’m probably unwittingly making some unwarranted assumptions. Comment below to to let me know what you think! Any recommendations for further reading would also be appreciated. 🙂

“Mountains in Shadow” by Lois Patiño

This came into my inbox just this morning: A short art film by Lois Patiño, entitled “Mountains in Shadow“. It’s chilling. It’s dreadful. It’s stark and sublime. Patino’s monochrome hues and extreme wide shots, his depiction of humans as little ants traversing a cold, colourless mountain-scape of endless snow and shadow, reminds us of our insignificance. The film charts, poetically, man’s journey through earth and time. It begins with our labouring breaths, the slow, painstaking scratch of skis on snow, the ominous magnitude of the mountain stretching before us; it climaxes in the glow of technology, when knowledge tints the world in parts, though much of it is left in darkness, and ethereal music gives the moment a sense of fragile hope. We hope that it will last, this moment when man slides smoothly down the slopes, when we take lifts through the mists and our colony grows; but of course it doesn’t. Again silence resumes. We are immersed in darkness. Techne has come full circle and now obscures instead of illuminates. Still we carve the slopes, resolute in our own unnatural, blood-red light. And trail off, finally, into the dark.

It was painful, watching this. The long waits, the hope and the hopelessness. The yearning to hold on to that mystical time when man trod the delicate balance between knowledge and mystery, technology and nature. Can we return, or is it already too late?