Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Organic SFF of Sridaungkaew

First, a caveat… Okay, in more than one post made in the past four months I’ve discussed, mentioned, and reflected upon Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work so this one might seem like overkill. To put it in perspective, though, since summer is when I get the time to focus on reading fiction in a manner that is more serious than using it to fill in the spaces of my commute to work, I often end up discovering that one author’s work dominates this reading experience. For example, last summer was dominated by my experience of reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The experience was so singular, and absorbed me so wholly, that I’ve pretty much forgotten what other novels I read in the Summer of 2015. Sriduangkaew’s short fiction did the same to my Summer of 2016: although I had read her novella and some of her “Hegemony” short stories in the past, upon reading some of her recent 2016 fiction (beginning with The Beast At The End of Time) I was so taken by the experience that I went back and read a number of her past short stories I hadn’t yet read as well as followed much of her 2016 fiction – some of which was being released while I was being absorbed by her authorial imagination. I bought an ebook of the Flesh anthology so I could read her contribution to that book; I concluded my summer reading as my teaching semester began by purchasing the most recent Apex Magazine so I could read what would be her last work of 2016 before it was released online.

As my close friends will be aware I tend to focus on the fiction I love to the detriment of conversations about literature, turning everything back unto what I’ve found the most evocative in my recent reading history. In 2015 they wondered why I was going on and on about a book written in an approximation of old English about the Norman Invasion of the British Isles. In 2014 they were most probably rolling their eyes whenever I said the name “Sofia Samatar”. In 2012 at least one person must have complained that I was figuratively beating them over the head with the heavy tome that is Bolaño’s 2666. In 2008 I kept trying to lend people my copy of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and someone who finally relented still has it and has not read it (come on, it’s amazing!). In 2004 more than one of my friends/acquaintances was most likely exhausted by my blather about China Mieville. None of these names go away because I remain a devoted fan of these books and their authors, and I consistently bring them up again and again (seriously if you have not read 2666 or A Stranger In Olondria then what are you doing with yourself?), but it is true that I tend to be singularly focused on whatever fiction marked my summer reading to the detriment of everything else. So at the moment, yeah, it’s the name “Benjanun Sriduangkaew” that I keep feeding into conversations about SFF or literature in general with my friends and colleagues; most of them are probably annoyed that I keep sending them links to her stories with repeated invectives to “read this now.”

Normally I don’t do much about this habit aside from a review and various mentions in other posts (i.e. in 2012 and 2013 references to 2666 found their way into multiple posts on my other blog) so this time I thought it might be interesting to say a few things about my impressions of the fiction that seized my imagination this summer. Moreover, in the case of Sriduangkaew I think this is important because of all the backlash she has received since Mixon’s article, and the people mobilized by this article, because I fear that this reprehensible affair might further marginalize the voice of an author whose contributions ought to be treated as significant.

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There is something entirely organic about Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction. On a surface level she crafts stories that evoke fantastic depictions of the organically weird. “Within her the next batch of bees is fruiting,” she writes in The Bees Her Heart The Hive Her Belly, “and each of their small hearts flutters in time to the monkey chants… She can hear them between her ears, in her stomach, secret communication through the hive that is her torso.” In The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire the author describes a temple gate composed of eldritch limbs that require the protagonist’s flesh in order to open; before that a birth in a womb grown from resin. In In Them The Stars Open Up Like Doors she writes of women who conceive universes in their wombs. In Under She Who Devours Suns the protagonist is introduced as a strange mutated organism that drips with “meteor blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints.” And in nearly everything she has published to date there are lush moments of the organic weird, descriptions that fuse technology or magic with the body, the landscape, the visceral fauna of her fantastic landscapes.

But her work is organic in a sense that is larger than these stories that are burgeoning with the incredible imaginations of organs and organic matter thriving or decaying. Indeed, when I reflect on my experience of reading Sriduangkaew’s work a passage from Antonio Gramsci comes to mind: “millions and millions of social infusoria building up the red coral reefs which one day in the not too distant future will burst forth above the waves and still them, and lull the oceanic tempest, and establish a new balance between the currents and climes. But this influx is organic, it grows from the circulation of ideas, from the maintenance of an intact apparatus.” Although the apparatus Gramsci is describing is an ideal communist party, the passage reminds me of Sriduangkaew’s best fiction where the “intact apparatus” of the story unleashes a circulation of ideas that is analogical to organic life. Reading a good Sriduangkaew story is like experiencing the development of a “coral reef” upon which the waves of a raging “tempest” crash. In her best stories (of which there are many) one feels inundated by multiple interweaving ideas, so many concepts and wild conventions, that are focused upon a story that is revealed, at the end, to possess the same elegant contours as a coral reef.

With an attention to style that is reminiscent of Angela Carter, and that is only equalled in genre fiction by Sofia Samatar’s brilliant novels, Sriduangkaew drops the reader in the middle of a thick forest, slowly guides them unto a path, and demands that they find their way through the winding trail that will lead them to the wilderness that awaits at the conclusion of every good story––the feeling of wanting it to go on forever. In novels this wilderness is delayed by hundreds of pages (and the aforementioned Samatar even wrote a lovely exposition of this wilderness experience at the end of A Stranger In Olondria) which is why Sriduangkaew’s stories are more terrible: we are only given several thousand words before we’re met with the wilderness.

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Many years ago when I was reading a lot of Angela Carter I was struck by how Carter spent so much time on every single sentence. No word was out of place but, at the same time, she did not sacrifice beauty to the kind of mechanical precision demanded by that terrible George Orwell essay that high school creative writing classes shove down the throats of their students. Sriduangkaew’s prose left me with the same impression: the nature of her style was such that it felt natural while also being complex. Again: organic.

While some nay-sayers (generally those mobilized by the Mixonites who are trying to find reasons to dislike Sriduangkaew’s work) complain about “purple prose” the unfortunate fact is that there is vocal group of SFF fans who despise anything that appears even remotely literary and would most likely complain about the literary skill of Roberto Bolaño or even Joseph Conrad (but not the latter’s colonial affectations). It is interesting how the backlash against SFF’s current new renaissance, best represented by the “Puppy” attempted take-overs of the Hugo Awards (a group in which Mixon and company should rightly belong), is opposed to both literary and progressive expressions of the genre. They want everything to be simple, boring, derivative, and retrograde… But, as Samir Amin once remarked, ideas that are connected to transforming society are generally superior to ideas that seek to preserve society as it is – this is because, he argued, societies do change and transform and thus any idea that denies this is, by its very nature, banal. Perhaps we can extend this logic to creative expressions such as literature: any story or novel that seeks to challenge and transform the genre, whether in form or content, is superior to those that are the same old, same old.

It is not that SFF hasn’t lacked literary and/or avant garde voices in the past (an example that immediately springs to mind is Delany’s Dhalgren) but that the past two decades have given us evidence of a new renaissance that seeks to institute a genre transformation. China Mieville’s so-called “new weird”, with Perdido Street Station and the other “Bas-Lag” novels, was an early signal of this transformation: it was not only an epistemic break with traditional fantasy, a rupture in continuity with various past elements, but betrayed a progressive political commitment (hell, in Iron Council Mieville straight up quotes Rosa Luxemburg), and became stylistically more interesting with every successive work. Add to this, for example, the work of Jeff Vandermeer, Cat Valente, Hal Duncan, Steph Swainston, and K.J. Bishop… it is clear we have an example of an actual SFF literature that is not stylistically boring or derivative in the process of emergence. But most important to this new renaissance are the voices of the traditional margins that would spread so much angst amongst the ranks of genre conservatives: Sofia Samatar, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, etc. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work belongs to this sequence, though the genre conservatives and gate-keepers have worked to prevent her recognition because she had the audacity to challenge their game. But yes, she deserves to be recognized as part of this renaissance. In fact, she was being recognized as part of it and probably would have found herself in the company of Samatar had she not been doxed and re-marginalized.

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The organic nature of Sriduangkaew’s work, with its narratives that stretch out through multiple complex sites of story, is the kind of lush terrain that twists and interweaves parallel to political non-fiction because, like the best fiction, it evinces (but without being didactic, thankfully) a progressive political sensibility. This is why, because Sriduangkaew’s fiction dominated my Summer 2016 reading experience, these stories ended up infiltrating my own non-fiction work. In an article intended to promote my upcoming book I used a Sriduangkaew story as an analogy, an avenue into a discussion about my narrative backdrop. Or why I used another Sriduangkaew story as the analogical opening of a draft for future publication. Because every one of her stories, organically deep in the sense of a coral reef, lend themselves to analogical appropriation by progressive non-fiction works while, at the same time, being eminently quotable due to the beauty of the prose.

As I mentioned above, Sriduangkaew’s style is reminiscent of someone like Angela Carter. Where you look at a single sentence and wonder if the author spent an hour working to make it a perfect construction. There was a time when I hoped to publish fiction and spent a lot of time writing novels that nobody would read except for my closest friends. In that time whenever I read the work of someone like Carter I felt that I had no right to publish because my attention to formal detail could never be as good. This was not jealousy but simply a moment of being in awe of an author who truly represented the craft of the written word. Sriduangkaew generates the same kind of awe-inspiring feeling, making me feel that maybe I should remain in the realm of non-fiction publishing because no fiction I’ll craft will ever be as good as hers. Because, let’s be honest, the ability to construct a complex story that is organically connected to an equally complex style is something that is rarely achieved, particularly in the SFF genre. There are very few stories that are “organic” in the manner of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”; often style is sacrificed to story and even the story is mechanical and formulaic.

Hence, I truly look forward to the future stories published by Sriduangkaew and hold my breath for a novel. Mainly because I want to dwell in her fictional universes longer than 7000 words – I want 10, 20, 30, 40 thousand or more words! And if you have taken the time to read any of her stories you should as well because it is impossible to read a Sriduangkaew short story and not want it to go on for longer, to not wish to delay the wilderness that awaits the end of the dense forest of each and every narrative she produces.