Yee Heng Yeh on the magazine of speculative fiction and migration
We often take for granted the fact that a story is made up of words, but the stories in khōréō 3.1 (edited by Aleksandra Hill, Kanika Agrawal, Zhui Ning Chang, and Rowan Morrison) do not let us forget this fact – they turn a mirror, or perhaps a microscopic lens, upon their very own DNA, the strings of text that strive to become more than the sum of themselves. Besides common themes such as community and grief, what underlies each work is also a preoccupation with language – both how it fails us and how we fail it. Like paradoxical little puzzles, they explore the limits of linguistic systems, yet, by virtue of their own storytelling devices, demonstrate the very power of placing one word after another.
‘The Field Guide for Next Time’ by Rae Mariz is an ambitious, sprawling narrative that plays beautifully with form. Presented as an archivist’s ‘translation’ of a fictional textile, it is less a story than a thought experiment, an extended thesis of a future where humanity has radically altered their way of relating to the world and to each other. Hyperlinks, endnotes, and imageries are woven cyclically through the text, cleverly capturing the non-linear nature of how we might approach different sections laid out across a textile. This, of course, parallels the central thematic conceit: each element of the world (including humans) has to be considered in the context of its place within the bigger picture. This is a society that eschews the egocentrism inherent in today’s capitalistic and hierarchical systems. The archivist, however, is concerned that his translation is inadequate. We see that communication is not just words; it can be pictograms, fabric choice, needlework. Then we get the profound revelation that this textile is, in fact, a blanket – how much information might just be gleaned from the everyday objects we use?
Thomas Ha’s ‘For However Long’ has a simpler premise – a mother on Earth misses her son, who is living on Mars. It opens with her receiving a holographic birthday card from him, but of course, no amount of well wishes can compensate for the fact that he is absent from her life. Words, again, are never enough. Being a writer, she is tasked with spinning all this into a feel-good piece, but language can only be stretched so far. As she reflects on her own relationship with her mother, we realise this is a tale as old as time: children ultimately leave their parents to forge their own path in life, and we never seem to have enough time with the people we love. Couched in the metaphor of interplanetary distance, however, the effect is devastating and incisive; the thought of separation becomes more horrifying, visceral, and final. But the point is that we put up with these kinds of separations all the time: ‘When there’s a distance there’s a distance and there’s no getting back from it.’ The story polishes a cliché into a truth, one that we already know, but might not always fully grasp.
The next story, ‘The Land of Happiness’ by Laura Wang, grapples directly and imaginatively with the idea of language: specifically , the language of happiness. The descriptions here are gently surreal and whimsical – speech in this language evokes flocks of birds, bursts of flowers, aromas of spices and tea – but the rules of the language are never made clear. After all, that is how it is with happiness: its beauty is immediately apparent, but mastering it seems a frustrating, cryptic process. Still, this language has its drawbacks; it is incapable of expressing certain emotions, or encodes them in a different understanding. For we invent only the language we need. So the traveller in this story turns to making art to express herself (one exhibition comprising tear-stained tissues is both poignant and humorous). This is also a tale of assimilation, offering the insight that happiness can sometimes be alienating, because the human experience consists of more than just joy. We wonder: Can happiness really be learned? Does it come at the cost of ignoring certain realities, or simply engaging with them on different terms?
The theme of avoidance is taken to an extreme in ‘The Shadow and the Light’ by Su-Yee Lin: here is a city where people do not speak to each other, do not even look each other in the eye. Each inhabitant lives their life on a separate track, together but in isolation. Each, presumably, has their own reason for choosing this life, but the core motivation is a belief that human contact is more a burden than a blessing. Language has vanished, in this case, save a signboard in the city square. The protagonist, a street sweeper, leads a comfortable if monotonous existence, not quite misery and not quite joy, until strange messages appear inexplicably on the signboard. This prompts a gradual city-wide awakening – language striking back in retaliation, or perhaps planting the desire for communication once more. The gaze of the other returns in full force as the silence melts away between people. The protagonist, unsettled by this turn of events, tries to run away, but the ending suggests that the human need to connect will catch up to all of us eventually.
The final story, Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘In April, the Dead’, is the shortest work in the issue, but manages nonetheless to capture the complexities of grief and family dynamics. One month a year, the dead walk out of the ocean and spend a brief period with their loved ones. A daughter waits for her dad, in vain; her mother has given up on waiting, or so she says. The story reminds us: we don’t always say what we mean. Language here falters for the dead: one’s mouth is ‘filled with sea salt and he can’t speak’. Words stumble, too, between the living: faced with her mom’s refusal to indulge in hope, the daughter’s ‘words drown before they leave [her] mouth.’ When it becomes clear that some people won’t be seeing their dead loved ones this year, they only have to glance at each other and nod wordlessly. Disappointment is a language in itself. But then, the last, startling flash of beauty: the sight of a shooting star causes the daughter to blurt out her hopes, foolish though they may seem. Our words often betray us. The mother knows this well – she remains silent until the end.
As much as these stories are about language, they are also about distance, whether it’s the physical or emotional distance between us and our loved ones, or the detachment we might feel from the people we live side by side with. Language, then, becomes a metaphysical bridge: it can construct a world, shape the self’s relationship to others. True, it has its imperfections, its failures – but that is why communication is a game played by two. We can make up for each other’s shortcomings, if we try. In their own use of language, these stories indicate that the answer, indeed, must be in the attempt. ∎
Yee Heng Yeh is a Malaysian writer and Mandarin-to-English translator. His work is featured on adda, Strange Horizons, Nashville Review, Guernica, and Apparition Lit, among others. He also writes for Penang Art District and Penang Monthly. He is on Twitter as @HengYeh42
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