Utopia, Forgiveness and Freedom Explored in Femspec

The Cauldron, January 27, 2003
by Sarah R. Jaquay, Contributing Writer

Femspec is a crisp literary journal that focuses on science fiction, fantasy, surrealism, folklore, myth and other supernatural genres from a feminist perspective published through the department of English at Cleveland State University. The three short fiction pieces in the latest issue of Femspec (Volume 3, Issue 2, 2002 Edited by Prof. Batya Weinbaum) are all appealing. Two of the three positively transport the reader to another time and place.

"Protection," by Tananarive Due, explores the way a society cares for its children. Mothers are chosen by the state, and they give their children over the raised in a collective environment called "Protection." In this story a women spot a small, unattended boy outside a grocery store, and decides to take him home even though the penalties for such behavior are severe.

What makes "Protection" effective as a utopian society tale are the format and the use of a female to espouse the state's propaganda about motherhood and child-rearing.

Ms. Due tells the story in flashback via letter to the editor. The format allows her to deftly weave in the political system that considers staring at a child illegal, kidnapping okay if the kid gets put in ?Protection? and infanticide as possibly justifiable. In this skewed legal system, the narrator?s actions make perfect sense -even though they might take the reader?s breakfast less pleasant.

One can argue that criminalizing motherhood goes back to Medea, and the state raising its children still happens in Easter Europe if a child somersaults well. To have a single woman, however, complying her barren lot in life, and promoting ?the only good child is a collectively-reared one? to such an extreme is ironic, to say the least. I could not help thinking of the Vietnam-era expression, ?In order to save the village, we had to destroy it!? If Ms Due?s works are as pithy and succinct as this one, I can?t wait to read them.

Ms. Due is the author of four other novels, most recently ?The Living Blood.? Her short story, ?Patient Zero,? has been included in two Best Science Fiction of 2001 anthologies.

The second piece of short fiction in this issue of Femspec is the enigmatic ?Love Story With Living Ghost,? by Carol Guess. It is and allegory about two female lovers, Patience an unnamed narrator. The memory of a former lover, Ghost, haunts the narrator. Most of the story is devoted to a conversation between Patience and the narrator throughout which they try to determine whether Ghost is dead. Patience knows this former lover is alive and infringing on their current relationship. She encourages the narrator to forget and forgive Ghost, to come to peace.

The imagery around another character Forgiveness, was remarkable. In one passage, the narrator describes seeing Forgiveness rush by on a train. The narrator is convinced Forgiveness has eluded her, but Patience suggests this is not necessarily the case. ?Here?s the schedule of trains that circle the city. One of them is Forgiveness, one of them is Self-Pity, but no one will tell you which is which.?

The image resonates because to forgive someone requires fully acknowledging the pain that person caused. If the one who forgives does not get past the pain, it can turn into self-pity, to wallowing.

The idea of trying to find the right vehicle, going in the right direction toward forgiveness, is an effective analogy. Carrying the analogy a step further, the narrator states, ?Forgiveness is a local. It makes all the stops.? Truer words about forgiving ourselves or those we?ve loved have not been spoken. Complete forgiveness is a lengthy, arduous process of acknowledgment, accountability and letting go. It is a lot like getting on a train, getting off, and back on again. Premature forgiveness -the illusion of forgiveness- creates distance in many relationships. Perhaps some new characters in Ms. Guess?s sequel could be ?Acknowledgement? and ?Accountability.?

Guess is the author of two novels: Seeing Dell and Switch. Her memoir, Gaslight, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

The third short story is a surrealistic piece, ?A Dream-Question for the Angels,? by Rebeca Lesses. Dream-Questions are a Jewish tradition from the Middle Ages. Jews believed they could dream true dreams by asking angels to appear ?at the border of sleep, and give answers to their questions.? The narrator has lots of questions about dreams.

Most of this story is the narrator?s dream of being prisoner on a detention home. The house is bleak and cold, and odd for a prison. Life goes on almost normally except for guards locking prisoners in nightly, and the specter that prisoners can be killed any day, at any time by the guards or Director.

The prisoner lives with her love and her lover?s son in a dank basement cell. A wall separates the detention home from the rest of the town. One day the narrator is summoned to the Director?s office. This is a truly frightening experience since many prisoners leave the office tortured; many do not leave at all. Strangely, the Director asks the prisoner to deliver a package to a house in the town. The prisoner will receive extra food in exchange. Although she doesn?t know the contents, she leaps at the chance to go beyond the wall and the potential reward for extra food. The rest of the dream comprises the prisoner?s journey and the horrific contents of the package.

When the narrator then wakes up crying secure and warm in her own bed, she asks: ?Who or what am I morning??

Lesses teaches Jewish Studies at Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY.

This story?s success lies in its examination of universally-held assumptions about waking and dreaming life, about entrapment and freedom. Are we free when we are awake, or is it our daily life that imprisons us? When we dream, are we really free to go to another time or existence? Are we imprisoned for life with the knowledge of our own mortality? Anyone who has ever had the desire to know or live another existence can relate to the narrator?s questions for the ages and angels.

Jaquay is a freelance writer in Shaker Heights, Ohio.