It was a great class, but I have some thoughts about literary double standards.
Category: social justice
A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story
I’m honored to have an essay in one of my favorite online magazines, Cosmic Double. “A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is about how I discovered the joy of queer transformations in HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”
“A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is free to read on the Cosmic Double website here:
I originally created this essay as something of a writer’s statement for a short story called “Don’t Eat the Fish.” The story is about the uncanny space at the intersection of queerness, disability, and economic precarity, but I also think it stands on its own as an unsettling work of body horror. I workshopped this story for years as I slowly developed my skills, and I worked hard to polish the narrative voice and sharpen the genre effectiveness while also being as honest as I could about the nuances of my own personal experience.
I generally try to keep overt identity politics out of my writing, which isn’t a value statement as much as it is a personal preference. It’s not as though my stories aren’t informed by my identity or social environment. Rather, both my identity and my environment constantly shift and change, and my stories generally aren’t about myself to begin with. Still, because this particular story was so strongly informed by my positionality, I spent more than a year submitting it a series of literary magazines dedicated to raising the voices of queer, disabled, and economically precarious writers.
Unfortunately, every single magazine I submitted the story to was like, “Oh damn, that’s truly upsetting, and this story is not Positive Queer Representation™ enough.” Usually, when I have a story rejected, I’m lucky enough to get a personal note from an editor along the lines of, “This isn’t a good fit for us right now, but we all enjoyed this piece and would love to see more work from you in the future.” With this story, the response was inevitably: NO.
I therefore wrote this essay as a way of processing what my story and its literary influences meant to me. I’ve long since accepted that the story itself will never be published, but I’m truly grateful to Cosmic Double for being willing to publish an essay that may not be Positive Queer Representation™ but still attempts to represent what I believe is a very real aspect of nonbinary (and trans!) queer identity. That takes courage, and the essays I’ve been reading on the site led me to believe that the editors are open to an earnest investigation of what it means to feel “monstrous.” If you’re interested in well-crafted essays from unexpected points of view, please check them out!
Cosmic Horror and the Ruins of Capitalism in Night in the Woods
I maintained my sanity during the pandemic by spending time outdoors in abandoned places. Some of these places exist in the real world, but most were virtual. One of my favorite haunts has been Possum Springs, a depopulated town in western Pennsylvania that serves the setting of the 2017 story exploration game Night in the Woods.
In Night in the Woods, you play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who has dropped out of college and moved back to Possum Springs to live with her parents. With no job and nothing better to do, Mae decides to investigate the disappearance of several local children. It turns out that there is a monster living in the abandoned mine tunnels under Possum Springs, and a cult of town residents has been feeding young people to this creature in return for a promise that it will prevent the town’s economic decline. When Mae and her friends catch the cult in the act of sacrificing one of its own members, its leader tells the group of teenagers that these rituals aren’t easy for them, especially now that they’re getting older. It’s time for a new generation to take over and ensure the prosperity of Possum Springs, however modest this prosperity might be.
Mae and her friends don’t join the death cult, of course. They escape from the monster, and the mine tunnels collapse and trap the remaining cult members underground. At the end of the game, Mae reflects that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in a hostile universe, then she and her friends will have to help each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.
The elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods are genuinely creepy, especially during Mae’s interactive nightmare sequences, but the purpose of the cult is to serve as a thematic juxtaposition to the true terror of Possum Springs, a large and impersonal set of interlocking systems that collectively exploit hardworking but vulnerable people – namely, capitalism.
Mae’s parents are afraid of losing their house to the bank because of an usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s college tuition, and entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs are filled with repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. The pastor of the local church wants to open a shelter for the newly homeless and the railroad drifters who camp out in the forest next to town, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council due to concerns that lowering the property values in the neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.
The horror of an absurd and uncaring universe in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the unfathomable monster lurking in the mine tunnels, although the cult of older people who sacrifice members of younger generations for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living comes uncomfortably close to allegory in the wake of the 2016 American presidential election. Forces beyond our control and comprehension are indeed destroying individual lives and modestly thriving communities, but these forces are nothing as quaint as a stygian tentacle beast that eats children.
According to Scott Benson, the lead writer and artist of Night in the Woods, Possum Springs is located in western Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. This situates the town in the Rust Belt, an economically depressed region stretching around the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Detroit. The cities in the Rust Belt were centers of American manufacturing until the 1980s, when international free trade agreements incentivized companies in sectors like natural resource extraction and the automotive industry to outsource materials and labor. Formerly bustling mines and factories closed, resulting in a dramatic decline in population that in turn resulted in the bankruptcy of many smaller businesses.
It’s currently possible to accrue a sizeable following on social media by posting urban exploration photos of shuttered factories and other ghostly relics of infrastructure, such as empty schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and shopping malls. There’s a certain poetic charm in high-contrast photos of healthy green weeds stretching up through the cracks of ash-gray concrete and leafy vines twining around rusted iron support pillars. Images of the remains of modern civilization devoid of human presence provide fertile ground for the imagination to run wild.
Night in the Woods denies its players the solitary pleasures of urban exploration, however. As a dialog-driven game, its story can’t be advanced unless the player participates in conversations with various people around Possum Springs. As the you learn more about the town, you begin to understand the problems experienced by its inhabitants, which range from poverty to alcoholism to severe depression. At the same time, you come to appreciate the people who care about each other and want to do right by their community even despite the financial and emotional burdens they carry.
Night in the Woods suggests that the fractures in the community cannot be repaired by any given individual action, like “going to college” or “owning a home.” Rather, the problem lies in the larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the characters Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them don’t have the agency to make any real choices about their lives.
Night in the Woods features a number of optional sidequests that tell an ongoing story about the historical tension between the former mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the working conditions for miners were deplorable. The mines closed at least a decade before the story begins, but the labor of the workers in Possum Springs is still exploited. Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job at a small factory, now works at a large supermarket by the highway that forced the local grocery store in Possum Springs to be shut down. At the end of the game, Mae’s father considers starting a labor union at his workplace, which pulls money out of the local economy without benefiting the town or its people.
The game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive, however. As Mae’s friend Bea explains, the unions are male-dominated, and homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry for the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills while working at the local pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.
Night in the Woods is ultimately about accepting uncomfortable realities while moving forward and finding friendship and community in difficult times and circumstances. The game isn’t just a protest against the violence of the global neoliberal capitalism that destroys local economies; it’s a model of resistance on a small and personal scale, as well as an argument for the quiet beauty of allowing outdated structures to fall gently to ruin.
Small town life isn’t for everyone, but neither is building a community from scratch in a big city. If nothing else, it’s good to have choices. The gameplay of Night in the Woods is centered around making choices, and the choice Mae and her friends make is to bury the monster in the mine, sacrificing short-term gains for long-term stability.
Although Night in the Woods is set in the days leading to and following Halloween, its advocacy for regrowth and positive change is a welcome message as society gradually begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic. If nothing else, Possum Springs is a great place to find surreal and spooky chills, and Mae’s homecoming is a crash course on how to make conversation with other people in real-world places that will be hopefully be not so abandoned in the future.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This essay was originally published on May 18, 2021 in Entropy, a digital magazine about the fringes of art and culture. Entropy closed its website in late 2022, and I am reproducing this publication with the kind permission of the editors.
League of Enthusiastic Losers
League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.
As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.
The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.
There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.
Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.
Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.
League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.
The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi
I’m delighted to announce that my short essay “The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi’s ‘Summer Break'” was just published in the 21st volume of the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies. Here’s the abstract…
“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.
From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces.
In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.
…that’s a lot of material to cover in such a short essay, but I think I did a decent job of contextualizing the story. This piece of writing was intended to serve as an introduction to my translation of the story itself. Unfortunately, despite almost a year of constant work and the assistance of multiple high-profile translators, we weren’t able to secure the publication rights. It’s a disappointment, but I hope the silver lining is that there are plans for the full God of Bears short story collection to appear in translation soon.
My essay is available on JSTOR; but, since I understand that not everyone has institutional access, I’ve also made a copy available on my website (here). Although it’s unofficial, you can download a PDF of my translation of the short story “Summer Break” (here). Years ago, I translated all of the stories in The God of Bears, and the illustrator I was once planning on working with to create illustrations is Maru, who you can find on Twitter (here). And finally, you can learn more about the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies on their website (here).
Be Green, Do Crime
Despite my interest in horror and dark fantasy, I’m very normcore in real life. Still, I am willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to touch grass. If I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood with flowers, then I’m just going to have to plant them myself.
This comic received a lot of support when I posted it on Tumblr, by the way. (This) is one of my favorite responses. Kudos to my fellow urban gardener for the addition!
The Capra Demon Is for the Gays
While waiting for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel, I started playing Dark Souls on my Nintendo Switch. I’m not into character customization, so my Chosen Undead is the basic male character. I named him Tulip. I am very bad at this game, and Tulip has been having a rough time of it. Yesterday evening, for example, Tulip fell down some stairs and died.
Tulip is currently spending a lot of time with someone called the Capra Demon. The Capra Demon infamously functions as a gatekeeper who blocks the player’s access to the majority of the game. It’s impossible to beat him without knowing exactly what you’re doing or getting help from real-life friends, and the game makes getting help difficult for reasons that are complicated to explain. Everything about this game is complicated to explain, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at “it’s just very hard to beat this boss.”
The Capra Demon exudes Pyramid Head energy in that he’s extremely fit, shirtless, and carrying two heavy meat-cleaver swords in such a way that his shoulders are pulled back, his chest is thrust forward, and the muscles of his arms are bulging. I made a stupid pastel-colored sketch of him and put it on Twitter, and I immediately lost five followers. I lost five more overnight.
When I say that I hate Pride Month – and sometimes I do hate Pride Month, kind of a lot – what I mean is that I hate the commodification of queer identity, and I hate how this commodification necessitates the sanitization of queer sexuality. Everyone is happy to see cute Disney animals dancing with hearts and rainbows, but nobody actually wants to see gay people being gay. And the Capra Demon is just about as gay as gay can be, which I think is charming and delightful.
I know the history of Pride Month, and I know why it’s important. Still, I wish people were able to accept difference not because it’s fun or attractive, but because… I don’t know, because it’s the right thing to do? Because we’re not animals? Because we’re capable of moral reasoning and extraordinary flexibility concerning what we’re able to accommodate into our worldview? And I just don’t feel that corporate rainbow merch and police-sponsored city pride parades are really helping people outside the community understand that being gay isn’t like Christmas, meaning that it isn’t a “special” thing that we collectively tolerate because it only happens once a year.
Like, being gay is being thirteen years old and playing Dark Souls because your friends are playing it, and then you get to this one boss, and you don’t know what’s going on but there’s just something about him, and the next thing you know you have your pants down and a wad of tissues in your hands, and then when you go to school the next day, maybe the way you talk about this video game character is a little weird, and your friends would never say that they’re homophobic, because of course they aren’t, but there’s just something about you that they don’t like, so they stop talking to you. You’ll make other friends as you find your community, but now you’ll have to live with the anxiety that there’s an element of who you are that a lot of people are always going to understand as being bad and wrong. Just like the Capra Demon is bad and wrong… but don’t his legs look fantastic in that cute little skirt?
I don’t really have a thing for the Capra Demon myself, to be honest, but as soon as I saw him I knew what was up. The Pride Month version of “this is for the gays” has become whatever sweet and wholesome child character is trending from whatever sweet and wholesome children’s cartoon is popular at the moment, but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the reality of queer identity and sexuality. The Capra Demon is for the gays.
The Life-Changing Magic of Just Letting Things Break
Solarpunk Is Not About Pretty Aesthetics. It’s About the End of Capitalism.
Many solarpunks agree that the “punk” element becomes clear when they go past the movement’s visuals and into the nitty gritty. Solarpunk is radical in that it imagines a society where people and the planet are prioritized over the individual and profit. Of course utopian visions of the future aren’t new and art and technology have long drawn from nature: Just take the example of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, whose drawings and buildings often employ biomimicry, where the form and function of organic elements influence design. The movement gained traction in progressive circles on early 2010s Tumblr, but as its popularity has bloomed over the past 10 years, early Solarpunks fear capitalist co-option. Flynn calls it “fake Solarpunk urbanism,” luxury condos with a green roof that price out existing communities and might end up doing more environmental damage.
This is a lengthy article with a lot of interesting links, and it’s worth checking out solely for the beautiful embedded video.
I think the emphasis on “radical action” might be somewhat misguided, though. My concern, as always, is the way anti-capitalist movements are embedded within the language of capitalism. Like, we have to be active! And go out and do things! And harness our energy as our best and most productive selves! I think this neoliberal emphasis on individual agency and power strays a bit too far into the territory of ecofacism, which holds that people who don’t have the skills or resources to survive environmental catastrophe deserve to die.
For me, the appeal of solarpunk is that you don’t have to do shit. You don’t have to work. You don’t have to make money. You don’t have to buy things. You don’t have to participate in “community improvement” projects. Instead, leave your job early and turn off your phone. Stay at home and chill out. Sit out on your porch and have a drink with your neighbors. Grass and flowers will grow in the cracks of the concrete without your help. All you have to do is literally nothing.
One of the reasons I enjoy living in Philadelphia is that it’s a very compact but very green city. The great thing is that it’s not green because of city planning or district gardening budgets, but rather the exact opposite. The city just lets plants grow, and nobody who lives here does anything to stop them. The Amish set up farmer’s markets on the weekends, and nobody bothers them. People sell fresh fruits and vegetables out of the backs of U-Haul trucks in parking lots on the weekdays, and nobody cares. Nobody chases away the urban outdoorspeople who plant gardens in the larger public parks. The city is covered in folk art, from Isaiah Zagar’s broken glass murals to the work of street artists whose tags are elaborate illustrations of Studio Ghibli characters. This aesthetic exists because nobody “did” anything to “fix” it, and it makes Philadelphia a comfortable and interesting place to live.
At the same time, a cleaner and more carefully managed solarpunk aesthetic would make much more sense for a place like New York, where “just letting things break” would result in most of Manhattan Island flooding in less than 48 hours. The sea level is rising, and I assume that the flooding is going to happen eventually, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have stylish vertical gardens while the city is still above water. People have to eat, and people have to live somewhere, so your rent might as well pay for community deck gardens and solar panels.
Solidarity with the Etsy Strike
The Etsy Strike isn’t just about the platform increasing its fees for sellers, although that’s a wild move for the company to make after bringing in record profits for two years straight. Rather, it’s about how these fees are structured to hurt small businesses.
In essence, Etsy is forcing independent artists to operate according to the same business model and practices as Amazon. The most egregious instance of this is the platform’s insistence that we offer free tracked shipping.
Shipping costs rose steeply during the past two years. The pandemic also resulted in significant delays, and the new regulations regarding shipping packages to and from the UK haven’t helped. To ensure “customer satisfaction,” Etsy now penalizes sellers who don’t include tracking on every order, even if it’s just a single sticker. In addition, Etsy is aggressive about its policy of burying the listings of sellers who don’t offer free shipping.
What this means is that sellers are expected to absorb the rising costs of shipping. We are encouraged to purchase mailing labels through Etsy, which generally overcharges and also levies additional shipping fees on the seller. To give an example of what this looks like in practice, an artist would be expected to pay about $4 in order to mail a $3 vinyl sticker. This is exponentially worse when it comes to international shipping.
In other words, this protest isn’t about paying a few more dimes to Etsy for storefront rent. Rather, it’s about how Etsy is forcing small businesses to choose between losing money or raising their prices to levels that would substantially decrease sales. Artificially inflated prices also effectively shut out artists and crafters who don’t already have substantial online followings.
This is only one of many instances of how Etsy’s recent policies and fee structures hurt small businesses and independent artists. The situation is especially upsetting because it doesn’t have to be like this. Although Etsy was never without its flaws, the platform was relatively welcoming to part-time and amateur sellers, and this inclusive environment resulted in record-breaking profits for the company.
Unfortunately, this profit has led Etsy to consider licensing itself as a storefront for large international distributors such as AliExpress and Rakuten, who are already operating on the same scale as Amazon. This is especially unfortunate because Etsy forbids independent sellers from reselling professionally manufactured goods, thus creating a double standard that puts actual artists at a distinct disadvantage.
Etsy is a major platform for independent creators, especially as competition to table at in-person conventions is at an all-time high and platforms like Gumroad and Kickstarter are quickly losing their viability. Even if you doubt the efficacy of a grassroots strike against a giant multinational corporation, I think it’s still important to stand in solidarity with the artists, crafters, and other creators who are taking a stand against the entire online marketplace becoming like Amazon.
You can learn more about the strike here:
You can read and join the strike’s Reddit group here:
You can sign a petition to Etsy here:
ETA: I want to acknowledge that it is in fact possible to send tracked first-class letters through Pitney Bowes, which has partnered with Etsy to offer tracked shipping directly through the seller interface.
That being said, there are two problems with using the Pitney Bowes letter tracking offered by Etsy, both of which have been well documented, even on Etsy’s own forums. The first is that this option is difficult for many sellers to access, and Etsy Support doesn’t help with troubleshooting. The second is that letters mailed via Pitney Bowes aren’t directly trackable via USPS (or via the Pitney Bowes site) and seem to have a higher instance of becoming lost, thus resulting in sellers having to refund orders.
The Reddit group for Etsy is constantly filled with variations on this second issue. One of the more common of these variations is that tracking never updates beyond “pre-transit,” making it seem as though the order was never mailed. Another common variation is that first-class letters aren’t actually tracked, with the “tracking” being more of a delivery estimate. This means that letters and packages are frequently marked as “delivered” even though they haven’t been. Because sellers are penalized for not responding to complaints within 24 hours, the easiest course of action is to apologize, refund the order, and hope that the buyer doesn’t leave feedback saying that there was a problem.
In addition, the Pitney Bowes labels are larger than regular first-class envelopes. More “professional” sellers therefore use stiff cardboard mailers even for first-class shipping, which is an additional expense, as is a label printer. What I wanted to argue is that sellers shouldn’t be penalized for simply using a stamp and an envelope to mail small paper goods, and that we weren’t penalized for this until very recently.
I understand that this may look different from the perspective of a store with thousands of sales and a smooth workflow, but my sympathies lie with artists and other creators who aren’t operating on a large scale and don’t yet have the experience (or personal connections within the community) to be able to understand things that are easy for more established sellers.
There are a lot of nuances to this argument that I simplified in order to provide an accessible summary for why so many smaller storefronts went on strike. The point I want to emphasize is that there’s no need for Etsy to be so hostile to amateurs.