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Illustration of a girl suspended in the sky above tall factory buildings. Her hair and skirt are on fire, and her head is bowed. She holds a long piece of red thread in one hand.


In America, they don’t let you burn. My mother told me that.

Jodie: Ana, you read "Burning Girls" a while ago and then suggested it might be a good piece for us to discuss together in a Short Business post. Was there one aspect of this story that you were excited to talk about first?

Ana: First of all, I thought that like me you might be interested in the way "Burning Girls" combines history with fairy tale elements. Reading The Girls at the Kingfisher Club recently was a reminder of how much I love that sort of thing, so it was great to revisit a story that does something along the same general lines.

Also, recently we were talking about how we both appreciate stories that make room for conflicting simultaneous truths; I thought "Burning Girls" managed that quite well when it comes to Deborah and Shayna's experiences as immigrants. The two sisters leave Poland after the rest of their family is brutally murdered in an anti-semitic attack. They had been planning their journey for quite some time, as things became more and more difficult for Jewish families like theirs, but they had hoped that there would be five of them making it across the ocean to America, instead of just two.

After their parents and baby brother are killed, the two young women head to the land where "they don't let you burn", as their mother promised — except unfortunately they do. After what initially seems like the story's main threat is defeated, there's a heartbreaking twist: Shayna becomes one of the 123 mostly immigrant women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I suspect that this ending might strike some readers as unnecessarily bleak, but I thought it was crucial to what "Burning Girls" is doing thematically. Yes, America gives Deborah and Shayna an escape from the violent overt prejudice that killed their family, and this is an immensely important thing; at the same time, this is also the land where unsafe working conditions disproportionately affect poor immigrants, and cost women like Deborah their lives. So instead of a linear progression from a broken old world to the land of equality and opportunity, we have something more complicated: conflicting truths. I really liked that.

Jodie: I didn't pick up on that theme when I was reading, but now you lay it out I can see how it runs through the story. Do you think the story uses magic and the appearance of supernatural beings to further this theme?

Ana: I think that's a likely interpretation: for example, the lilit follows the sisters from Poland to New York, even though they hoped that the distance would get rid of her forever. Not everything stays behind, and their old lives are very much a part of their new ones. What do you think? I'd also love to hear your impressions of the story overall.

Jodie: I think the second paragraph of "Burning Girls" nicely expresses what you say about the sister's old lives being part of their new ones:
When we came to America, we brought anger and socialism and hunger. We also brought our demons. They stowed away on the ships with us, curled up in the small sacks we slung over our shoulders, crept under our skirts. When we passed the medical examinations and stepped for the first time out onto the streets of granite we would call home, they were waiting for us, as though they’d been there the whole time.

The story is always caught between these paradoxes. Shayna and Deborah's fear some of the new world, like the sharp Johnny Fein, but love their new freedoms. They fear the old demons like the lilit, but the women Deborah works with trust in the magic of their home country, for example Rose lights up when she sees the familiar shape of an amulet.

Ana: The amulet detail you picked up on is so lovely and so telling. The story is not only about how the shiny new world comes with its warts after all, but also about how the violent prejudice the two sisters needed to escape in the old world doesn't mean they reject it wholesale. It means something to them, this place they grew up in and this community they left behind, even though it's also where they were hurt. The intricacies of leaving make for an interesting fictional theme, and it's one I'm constantly drawn to. I see it in immigrant stories and other stories of exile, and also in stories about relationships broken beyond repair. I find it in Friday Night Lights, in The Scorpio Races, and, well, in my own life. It's unique in each case, but there are points of contact too. Leaving is hard and it strains the heart, even when it's the right thing for you. And sometimes our everyday lives are all about learning to navigate paradoxes and striving to remain whole despite them.

Jodie: And it's interesting how Deborah's work spans magic and medicine, which are often set up as polar opposites - the old, unenlightened way vs. the new, progressive scientific way. I think the descriptions of Deborah and her grandmother's work sound close to 'hedge witchery'. I was always taught that historically hedge witches provided magic charms, but also herbal medicine when there weren't any formal medical practitioners to provide it/when male doctors wouldn't provide a solution. Even Deborah's work could tie in with the theme you've identified and remind readers to be careful of automatically praising the new above the old.

Deborah and her grandmother's work was probably what drew me into this novella. "Burning Girls" is a story largely concerned with women, and it describes a female world of work and commerce - the workers are women and so are most of the customers described. I can think of a few examples of pure historical fiction which concentrates on women's work and female trade - Call the Midwife, The Paradise and The Bletchley Circle - but it feels like a less common subject in historical fantasy. I really enjoyed seeing a community of connected working women in the background to the sister's story. The more women the better.

Ana: Like you, I loved how the work Deborah learns from her grandmother was so often centered on midwifery, abortion, and contraception — and therefore on giving a whole community of women options when so few were available to them. It was also about care and compassion in a patriarchal world where single women who were known to have had sex (or have been assaulted) were likely to be ostracised. The scene where Deborah's grandmother confronts her about her lack of compassion for a pregnant maid was crucial, and I appreciated how the story made room for its narrator to be wrong while clearly not aligning itself with her wrongness. See, people, it can be done!

Now that we've discussed the historical elements of "Burning Girls", I'd love to talk about the fairy tale ones. "Rumpelstiltskin"! I totally didn't seen it coming the first time I read it.

Jodie: Nor me. I think it was such a surprise because the lilit, which I'm guessing are like the lilim, seem so much a part of religious magic. It's only at the end that it turns out that the lilit which follows the sisters to America belong to fairy tales. I see that Schanoes has written another story, which she calls an answer to an anti-semitic Grimm fairy tale called "The Jew in the Thorn Bush". I wonder if she included a Rumpelstiltskin-like story in "Burning Girls" because that fairy tale has been criticised for being anti-semitic by Jane Yolen.

Ana: That's an intriguing idea, and not something I'd have known enough to pick up on. I do like the idea of recontextualising a hostile Jewish figure within a story full of Jewish myth and magic, and where the people who outsmart and defeat her are Jewish themselves.

Jodie: It sounds like an interesting take, and I'd like to hear more about that aspect from people who've read "Burning Girls" and know about the Rumpelstiltskin story - *puppy dog eyes at the internet*.

By the way, any idea why Rumplestiltskin characters are always so interested in taking first born children? What exactly do they plan to do with them - having a baby around seems like it would be a huge inconvenience when you're getting down to evil business. I wondered if, in this particular story, the lilit's desire for babies made some kind of comment on Deborah's work, but I couldn't make any kind of analysis quite fit. Did you have a theory on why the Rumpelstiltskin tale appears at the end?

Ana: I'm not sure — I think it might be in part because it's an effective bit of trickery. Like, it's easy to persuade people to agree to give up something abstract and far off in the future like "your first born", especially when under duress. At the time, they don't realise that this abstraction will become a human being that they'll love, or they hope they'll find a solution before the day when they have a first born comes. I always saw this fairy tale trope as similar to the "you must give me the first thing you see when you get home" bit in "Beauty and the Beast", where Beauty's father agrees because he doesn't realise that what he'll see first is the daughter who'll come to meet him.

I'm interested in the women and babies angle you raise, though. For the trickery to work, it's necessary for the target of the Rumpelstiltskin-like figure to become a mother one day, and the trope seems to assume this is an inevitability (I like how Schanoes' take almost seems to comment on this, with Deborah and Shayna making very different choices in life). On the one hand, I understand that the context of these stories is one where women weren't in control of their own fertility, and where opting out of marriage wasn't always possible for social and economic reasons. On the other hand, now I desperately want a badass retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" where the heroine triumphs by using heteronormative assumptions against the villain and then going on to live an awesome and fulfilling childfree life.

All this talk is making my long for my copy of From the Beast to the Blonde, as well as for the Maria Tatar books I have back home. I spent a fair amount of time in my very early twenties gobbling up this kind of contextual information about fairy tales, but it's been a while now, and so whatever knowledge I acquired has receded in my mind. All this to say that I'm joining you in making puppy eyes at the Internet to come talk to us.

Jodie: Imagine Rumpelstiltskin trying that trick on Katsa? Suck it - no babies for you!

Speaking of 'fic I would like', can we just talk quickly about Ruthie, Deborah's partner? I was chuffed to see that although Deborah faces a lot of tragedy none of it centres around her relationship with Ruthie. And, how cool does Ruthie, the Marxist writer, sound? I wish there were a bit more about her, but sadly there just wasn't room in this story.

Ana: Ruthie sounded amazing! I'd so love a whole story about her. And yeah, I liked the fact that although "Burning Girls" is a tragic story with a queer women at its heart, the tragedy has nothing to do with Deborah's sexual orientation. On the contrary, Deborah and Ruthie's relationship was a source of joy and comfort in a harsh world that was often difficult to navigate.

Jodie: I kind of wish the story had more explicitly said they were lovers… It's really obvious to me, and will be to a lot of people, but I'm always mindful of how easy it is for people to write off the suggestion that characters are lesbians unless it's stated in big capitals in canon.

Ana: Yes, I'm sure you're right. To me there were two things that made it specially obvious: the scene where Shayna calls Deborah and Ruthie "unnatural" in an outburst of anger, and one little moment where Ruthie addresses Deborah as "my love". But it would have been nice to have a more overt romantic scene between the two, even if it was a brief one — not only to make it harder for people to erase this aspect of the characters, but also because lesbian love scenes in SFF are still a rarity and it always makes me happy to stumble upon one.

Hopefully our chat has convinced some of our readers to give "Burning Girls" a try. If you need further persuading, it won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Horror Novella and it can be read for free at Tor.com.

Date: 2014-08-15 04:21 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (reading)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I was totally sold, and then I got to the free link, and I am very, very sold!

Date: 2014-08-15 06:53 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
yay! Let us know what you think.

Date: 2014-08-16 03:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
This sounds wonderful and I LOVE that cover! Apparently it's the same illustrators who did the cover of The Goblin King. I love everything those women do, I have discovered.

Date: 2014-08-16 08:12 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Oh wow, didn't realise that. I'll have to look into the rest of their work.

Date: 2014-08-16 09:55 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Yes! They're amazing. They were among my Hugo nominees for Best Artist - they didn't make the finalists, but hopefully in future years.

Date: 2014-08-17 03:58 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
WE JUST HAVE TO KEEP TRYING. ...do you have access to the 2015 sheet yet??

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