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The first strange thing Nadia pulled from her pocket was a piece of fudge. It was a perfectly ordinary piece of fudge. But Nadia hated fudge, and couldn’t imagine how she’d come to be carrying it around. She remembered this in particular because it was a bright, cool autumn day and she’d dug into her jacket pocket instinctively, looking for change to leave in a busker’s open violin case, and had come upon the piece of fudge instead. After staring at it awkwardly for a moment, she dropped it into the violin case and hurried away before she could see whether the busker was scowling at her or not.

After reading Amal El-Mohtar's "Pockets" and "The Truth About Owls" back to back I suspect I'm going to spend June cramming all of her work into my eyes. Although very different in tone, both of these stories appealed to me for similar reasons. Both display a concentration on the pace and flow within individual paragraphs, show off El-Mohtar's sharp eye for detail, and manage to hit my feels by leveraging just the right amount of melancholy optimism. If loving "The Feels" is wrong I don't want to be right (also it's not wrong).

"Pockets" is a quirky portal fantasy about Nadia, a woman who suddenly finds herself pulling strange items out of all the pockets of her clothes. She's perplexed by the objects and wonders if someone is playing a trick on her. Eventually, as the items become stranger, she feels 'more and more helpless' until finally she pulls out a gun, 'a flintlock pistol, its lobed stock of dark wood ornamented with chased brass mounts. The gun smelled strongly of having just been fired.' Nadia realises the appearance of the items is no baffling, benign game and that her pockets have the potential to produce dangerous objects. She keeps her hands out of her pockets, sews them up and tries to ignore what's happening.

Luckily, Nadia eventually finds herself able to confide in her best friend Tessa - a scientist who applies herself to working out what Nadia has got in her pocketses. "Pockets" is a light story more concerned with plot and its SFF set up than character development but the reader can still get a feel for the friendship between Nadia and Tessa. El-Mohtar creates their relationship from small nuggets and details that she leaves for the reader to gather and build into a full picture. Their friendship is long standing - Nadia knitted Tessa gloves over a year ago. And the reader gets the sense that they're close because when Nadia is sharp with her Tessa appears very upset; she 'looked like she’d been slapped'. These women are important to each other which is why, even though Nadia worries that Tessa's scientific background will make her sceptical about what's happening, Tessa is the person she turns to in her time of crisis.

It would be difficult to say that our world is dominated by stories centred around female relationships or friendships. However, stories featuring important female relationships are far from rare. That's part of what we set out to prove by creating The Friendship Zone - our Tumblr that collects instances of female friendship in one place. This month I'm planning to write a recs list for stories about significant female friendships. I can already see I'm going to have to be selective or go under from the weight of what I'm trying to create because there are SO many stories about female friendships. The list gets even longer when you include other significant but complicated female relationships. The Bechdel Test may still be an incredibly necessary tool (especially in discussions about film and TV) but there is also a growing range of stories which emphasise the existence and importance of female relationships.

Still, when I look at our culture as a whole it often doesn't feel like these growing pockets of female media space actually exist. Sometimes, despite the reality, it still feels like each new story about female relationships is the first of its kind; an isolated incident we crowd around and celebrate as a "first". The existence of these stories, this whole culture of stories, feels drowned out by a deliberate ignorance; the patriarchy screwing its eyes shut and wishing really hard. I guess it makes some people feel safer to believe that women hate each other so much they barely talk because when women are unnecessarily divided we're less threatening. It's easier to ignore or squash the one woman in the room than it is to ignore a hundred. And if a hundred show up? Well, it looks like society has decided that the easiest work around is to make them feel like they're alone. Put each woman in a separate room and tell her she's the only little lady at the party.

Kameron Hurley wrote her seminal essay "We Have Always Fought" to highlight just how long women had been fighting, talking about fighting and writing stories about fighting. I feel like we need a similar essay about female friendship. These stories are out there and these kind of relationships exist in the real world. It's just sometimes it feels like male tastemakers don't want to acknowledge them.

Anyway, I'll get down off my soap box and back to the story. "Pockets" also includes Warda - a librarian who turns out to be connected to Nadia's gift giving pockets. While Warda is introduced towards the end of the story, and her background is summed up in a quick piece of exposition, the story still manages to quickly make it clear that she is an important person by including the very simple and poignant line 'Neither could imagine the library without her in it.' Later, it's revealed that Warda has a relationship with Tessa even though they've rarely spoken and that Warda is central to the story's SFF device. Warda is even given the last word in the story and this ending makes "Pockets" feel like a very egalitarian, supportive story which allows all its characters to be of great importance, even though the reader learns little about them outside of the confines of this story. El-Mohtar has an eye for minimalist selection, and makes great use of few details.

Reading "Pockets" sent me rushing back to re-read "The Truth About Owls", which I read earlier this year. My strongest memory of that story was enjoyment tempered by a sense of confusion about its publication in Strange Horizons. Now, having finally excised any concerns about 'real SFF' by writing my post about Sofia Samatar's "Walkdog", I approached "The Truth About Owls" with much less genre weight on my back and fell mildly in love with it. Have I mentioned how interesting it can be to re-read short fiction? "The Truth About Owls" is also shaped around female protagonists and female relationships: the growing friendship between Izzy, an owl handler, and the young protagonist Anisa; Anisa's bond with a female owl, Blodeuwedd; the difficult relationship between Anisa and her mother. Ladies to the front - it's so great!

And so "The Truth About Owls" is the story I'll be talking about in my next Short Business post. Stay tuned for a lot of quotes, flailing lit-crit and babbling about just what makes this story perfect. But before we get into that make sure to read "Pockets", wallow in female relationships and the romance of this story's finale. I dare you not to get goosebumps when you hit the delicate and kind fourth wall breakage at the end.

"Pockets" by Amal El-Mohtar is available to read for free at Uncanny Magazine.

Date: 2015-06-21 04:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
When will she write a novel however? My library has many Nebula anthologies with her stories in them, but I desire a novel. I love novels better than short stories.


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