Nefarious Intentions and Devastating Lines

Sharanya Manivannan

Publisher’s note: It’s a challenge to describe “The High Priestess Never Marries”—there are simply too many quotable lines. Suffice it to say that the narrator introduces herself as “a woman who wears altogether too much metal, on the interior as much as on the outside. I jangle like a poltergeist.” Here the author, Sharanya Manivannan, celebrates Chennai/Madras, the setting of and inspiration behind the story (also included in our anthology The Female Complaint).

Allow me to introduce you to the city in which I live. You’ll know of it as (a likely mispronounced) Chennai. “Chen-naai” is what you may have heard, but unfortunately, “naai” in Tamil means “dog”—and may be used in a pejorative and not puppylicious sense. The airport code is MAA, which sounds like a grown man whining to his mother—an abbreviation for the city’s prettier, older name: Madras. Madras as in Madras checks, the handwoven plaid that takes its name from the area in which it was first produced. The textile is also known as “bleeding Madras,” for its unruly dyes despite its neat checks—which sounds a bit like another pejorative, the kind that’s bled its way into standard Indian English (which is to say, a post-colonial relic).

This is the city in which “The High Priestess Never Marries” is set, and this is also the language in which it is written. English and Tamil mixed in unequal but sensible proportions, like a nice cocktail. Except that the protagonist prefers her drinks straight. As she says in my favourite line—a line I loved so much that it’s in the blurb of my new book, which shares its title with this story—“I like my fights dirty, my vodka neat and my romance anachronistic.”

This is the city in which the young woman protagonist of “The High Priestess Never Marries” can, in the same day: pretend to be married in an elaborate favour while also pretending not to care about the reward, be chastised by a random older woman invading her privacy, get deliciously drunk and ride a bike side-saddle in a saree—and ultimately still make the choice that, despite the society she lives in, she’d rather be silly and free than safe and suffocated.

The man—known only as the Lucky Bastard—who was her lover and seems to have come back for an encore is so very lucky to have known her.

Sharanya Manivannan‘s new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016), has been described in The Establishment as “a tour de force of language, desire, and ancestral heartbeats.”

One Story in Which You Are Vindicated

Heather Fowler

Publisher’s note: Abusive men get a well-deserved but bizarre comeuppance in Heather Fowler’s short story “A Big Girl Has a Good Time with Small Men.” Here the author describes what inspired her to write it and discusses the advantages of using dystopic fiction to analyze very pressing real-world issues. The story, originally published in Fowler’s collection This Time, While We’re Awake, is reprinted in our anthology The Female Complaint.

I wrote “A Big Girl Has a Good Time with Small Men” as a response to news stories about repeat abusers, often malignant narcissists, who go unpunished by mainstream society and U.S. courts for their crimes. These perpetrators, particularly wealthy men, are often exonerated or given light sentences for violence against women.

Even in America, it seems, there is a blind quality to democratic justice, or an active blind-eye turned, in a society where rapists and child molesters are still lauded for athletic or cinematic feats in the same articles that gloss over criminal charges. Why are women in this day and age still second-class citizens when it comes to equal civil rights?

“A Big Girl” struck me as a perfect sort of feminist commentary to engage, via sci-fi dystopia. If I made the women larger, I thought, would they be safer? What was a viable solution to the problem of abusive narcissists/sociopaths, cerebral or somatic, who so often evade punishments doled out to others for equivalent crimes?

“Welcome to biological warfare of the largesse variety.”

The story’s protagonist, Melinda, is a genetically modified woman, more than eight feet tall, who works at a rehabilitation island where men with wealth but abusive histories are sent for behavior modification therapy. After some time, Melinda loses faith in the possibility of rehabilitation and develops a strategy of debilitation. Some could call this murder.

I wanted to write something where the gross inequities were balanced, something that said, in no uncertain terms, I am a woman/author who understands: Abusers have no reason to change when coddled by a system that privileges their protection.

I wanted my story to play with reversing the power dynamic, which is why Melinda is capable, for example, of juggling men on her feet and kicking them up thirty feet in the air while they “squeal like pigs.”

In my story, there’s a new court system: a Man Throw court, where the women aren’t small and weak, where the women are in control—and where the women make the call whether an offender lives or dies. In “A Big Girl,” Melinda is punished with light exile for making the “dies” call too often. But light exile is already a place powerful women in this society inhabit daily, already their space of other in a world that does not accept female power as natural or self-evident.

So many things related to power, money, and privilege came to mind as I wrote this piece—how it was necessary for me to create women capable of physically overcoming abusive men to even begin to conceive that cruel men’s behavior could be corrected; how the double-standard still exists that unfairly burdens the victim (What was she wearing before, or any time, in her life? What was her sexual history? etc.); and how my awareness that pathological abuse is serial comes to light in so many cases but is often a story with a short shelf-life before the media moves on. Gross abuse, in my view, is never isolated to one woman or one event, as we see so abundantly in the Cosby case (and almost every case where an offender is identified for rape and other violations).

It could be said I wrote this story to soothe a heartsick soul, to forget, for just one moment, how many offenders receive no punishment at all—and maybe I wrote it mostly for the women who have seen lapsed justice in our courtrooms and endured abuse both during their maltreatment and later in courtrooms, wrote this piece as if to say: I could not protect you there, but here is one story, one narrative in the world, in which you are vindicated. Here is a place where your abuser is punished for being a vile criminal, where crimes against you will never be silenced or erased.

I am so pleased this piece found a home in The Female Complaint, because that is exactly what it is: a complaint. It was first published in a feminist dystopia collection called This Time, While We’re Awake.

It’s hard to reconcile we are often living a dystopia, even now. Exaggeration in fiction only serves to magnify the truths that are already extant in real life.

Heather Fowler is a novelist, a poet, a fiction writer, a librettist, and a playwright. She is the author of the novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby (2016) and the story collections Suspended Heart (2010), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We’re Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). She is also co-author of a collaborative book of poems called Bare Bulbs Swinging with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale. Her work has appeared in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, Feminist Studies, and more.

Discretion and Honesty Are Voluntary

Jennifer Baker

Publisher’s note: Jennifer Baker’s short story “Discretion” (in our anthology The Female Complaint) features an up-and-coming power couple (the husband is a gubernatorial candidate) who protect each other’s secrets from the outside world. Here Jennifer writes about the moral ambiguities involved when a person decides to hide their truth for the sake of a larger goal.

The story started from a prompt years ago in Writer’s Digest. But the material that fleshed out the prose came from the day-to-day, which I guess is where all stories come from. I’d probably heard about several United States politicians getting caught in sex scandals from the time I first drafted the piece to when it found a home. By then Anthony Weiner was in the running as the democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, and just as quickly another scandal hit him. Funny enough, he reacted as though the public especially shouldn’t have been that surprised.

When politicians (most often hetero men) are found out in this instance, there’s an automatic wave of pity for their spouses. The woman is expected, and possibly ordered, to stand right beside the martyred man with a face molded in place, though it doesn’t hide the truth. The wife is there as representative of the temporarily broken but preternaturally happy family as well as a symbol of enduring support—because that is her place, right?

One such woman who pops into my mind is Silda Wall Spitzer, former wife of New York governor Eliot Spitzer. How hardened, bored, and resentful she looked during his press conference after it was revealed he used taxpayer money on prostitutes. How stiffly she walked in and out of that room as bulbs flashed around her. And, if you recall, at no point did she and her husband touch. She was a dutiful soldier in that moment. It was only a matter of time before that marriage ended.

I also thought about former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who felt he had to resign from his post more than a decade ago so that he could come out and live as a “gay American.” I thought about the conservative mindset that dominates Congress, the Senate, and until recently the Supreme Court. Perhaps this all percolated in my head when the first line of the story came to me swiftly, and from there it all took shape.

“Discretion” is meant to play against expectation in some ways while also reflecting a truth that anyone may feel an inability to be honest, whether it be with yourself or others. What’s it like to be someone with noble intentions who also has to hide their truth to do the good envisioned? Is what the characters in this story do as bad as what anyone aiming to make a better world would do? When you deny who you are, does that also mean you’re denying your beliefs? Or is it necessary and okay to have those moments where you truly live before returning to the structured home you’ve built?

As someone who has had her own indiscretions I’ve asked this of myself. Should I feel guilty? Why don’t I feel guilty? What’s more important: my happiness or being a good person? To that last question, I’d say both. When it comes to the woman who’s expected to stand by her man after his indiscretions, what if she were the one who had to explain her own when a chip in her armor appeared? And when that break in character does occur, is that the gut telling you that happiness is an achievement yet to be unlocked? That this feeling of being content is actually a smokescreen?

I wouldn’t say I’m aiming to answer all the questions I proposed in this piece; however, writing it—writing anything—encourages me to drill so deep I may find myself on another continent. I think the best fiction makes you think about the reality versus the fantasy. And my goal with “Discretion” was encouraging that thought of how at any age we can be lying to ourselves even when we think we’ve got a hold on the tale we’re telling.

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, panels organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Poets & Writers magazine, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to and Bustle, among other online publications.


The Hidden Power of Women behind Pontificating Men

Kathleen Alcalá

Publisher’s note: Set in 19th-century Mexico, “Bringing Down the Clouds” is Kathleen Alcalá’s contribution to our short story anthology The Female Complaint. The protagonist, Estela, is invited to a mysterious party where all the guests are “women who answer to no men.” Here Kathleen describes the story’s historical background: Mexico’s early feminist movement.

“Bringing Down the Clouds” is an excerpt from my 2000 novel, Treasures in Heaven. One of three novels set in 19th-century Mexico, it traces the feminist movement that was under way in Mexico at the same time that the country was grappling with its colonial history, leading to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which was really a civil war of the poor against the rich.

“Bringing Down the Clouds,” however, is a chapter that allowed me to explore the hidden power of women behind the stomping and pontificating of the men. It was well known that Porfirio Díaz kept a mistress, Juana Cara, just outside Mexico City in her own mansion; it had its own platform served by the train from Mexico City, although the train did not officially stop there. La Doña Catarina, as I call her, was known to entertain her friends, and I alternated scenes at her place of rich and powerful women with scenes of indigenous women performing their traditional dances to try and break the drought that gripped Mexico for several years in the late 1800s. Some women dance at La Doña’s place as well, but to entirely different ends.

The feminist movement in Mexico was interesting in that women schoolteachers allied with factory workers and women of the streets to try and better all of their conditions. As in much of the United States, schoolteachers were expected to remain single as long as they taught, be of upright and moral character, and perform other duties such as chopping wood for the stove and keeping the classrooms clean.

At the same time, there were over a million prostitutes in Mexico City, as the countryside was eaten up by big companies taking the communally held lands of the people, and Díaz’s attempts to industrialize the country came at great pain to a largely agrarian society. A naive domestic worker from the countryside who got knocked up by her employer soon found herself doing what she needed to do to support herself and her child or children. An official church marriage was so expensive that most working-class couples had common-law marriages.

The feminists were supported by the male governor of Yucatan, Salvador Alvarado, who agreed that education for all was the only way to break the class structure still holding Mexico back today. He offered to host a conference and picked up the expenses for it. It was a rare show of idealism and forward thinking. Women in Mexico did not get the vote until the 1950s.

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, forthcoming from the University of Washington Press. She lives on an island near Seattle, and until recently, taught in a graduate program in creative writing.

Outside the Greyhound Station

Maureen O’Leary

Publisher’s note: In “How to Save a Child from Choking” (in our anthology The Female Complaint), a woman who has decided not to have kids must fend off hostile questions from her in-laws, but she forms an unlikely alliance with a member of that family. Here the author, Maureen O’Leary, discusses her inspiration for the story.

The seed for “How to Save a Child from Choking” is rooted in a moment when I was seventeen years old, standing outside a Greyhound bus station in San Jose. I had missed my bus. The Greyhound people kicked me out of the station as it closed and left me on the sidewalk at night in a pretty desolate part of town.

I was in a hopeless situation, and a dangerous one. All I’d wanted was to visit someone I deeply loved who lived hundreds of miles away. It hurt to be so young, to be so in love, to be in all ways in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My characters Beth and Nadia are wild-hearted, perceptive, deeply intelligent people who find themselves at different moments in their lives among people who would make them feel wrong in their making. I’m interested in the stories of women who still face traditional mores that are impossibly limiting, even in modern society. Even now.

I also wanted to explore the ties that bind along an in-law relationship, even after the marriage that originally formed it has ended. The marriage ends, but not the loving relationship it introduced between an aunt and a niece.

In “Choking,” a young woman finds the perfect support she needs in another woman who has been looking after her in one way or another since she was a baby. With one another, Beth and Nadia have always been just the right person at just the right time. I think there are people like that for all of us. Sometimes that support is in someone who has been present all along.

Maureen O’Leary is a writer and educator from Sacramento, California. Her most recent novel, The Ghost Daughter, has just been published by Coffeetown Press. She is also the author of the novels How to Be Manly and The Arrow; her short stories have appeared in Esopus, Night Train Journal, Revolution John, and other publications.

A Series of Odd Impulses and Inspirations

Gina Ochsner

Publisher’s note: Avis, the protagonist of Gina Ochsner’s short story “Break” (in our anthology The Female Complaint) works two jobs—as a school librarian during the day, and a worker at a retirement home on evenings and weekends. Her life offers her moments of perfect beauty amidst much longer stretches of tedium and frustration; and the many possible meanings of the simple word “break” resonate throughout the story. Here Gina discusses what inspired the story.

“Break” was a the result of a series of odd impulses and inspirations. The northern Oregon coast is often dark, wild, treacherous. The wind howls through the trees and the rain lashes at windows and batters houses.

Just north of Warrenton, the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The collision between the currents creates a cauldron at the mouth of the Columbia that is known as the Pacific Graveyard. Two thousand vessels have sunk on or near the shifting sand bars at the mouth, and during the heyday of gillnetting and canning in Astoria, at least forty fishermen a year were lost.

And yet this is a place of exceptional beauty, attracting weekenders and holiday visitors.

The story is lodged in the viewpoint of a woman who harbors a great deal of resentment over the poor hand life has dealt to her. She’s a woman working in a world of men and children, and her position of power is questioned by both. How women navigate the currents of power and authority in their working lives and relationships interests me a great deal.

Likewise, the power adults wield over children, whether unwittingly or with great calculation (and cruelty?) also fascinates me. I volunteered in a third grade classroom and could detect within five minutes which children the teacher liked and which she did not.

I imagine children find adults wildly capricious, arbitrary and bewildering. Ditto for those dependent upon others for their bodily care. In the smallest of gestures caregivers show love and mete punishment. I wanted to create a character who experiences an unflattering revelation about herself and her own motivations.

Gina Ochsner is the author of the story collections The Necessary Grace to Fall and People I Wanted to Be and the novel The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, which was long-listed for the Orange Award. She lives in Keizer, Oregon, and teaches writing and literature at Corban University and with Seattle Pacific’s Low Residency MFA program.

On Being Kind to Characters

Dawn Knox

Publisher’s note: A thoughtless cad gets his comeuppance in “Revenge on a Plate,” Dawn Knox’s story in our anthology The Female Complaint. The punishment, however, comes not from the woman he jilted, but from her mother, a woman with a flair for the theatrical and a handy way with a carving knife, whose threats are both subtly gruesome and horrifyingly funny.

While I recognise that not all stories should have a happy ending, I find it hard to convince myself of this when I’m writing. To create a likable character and then plunge him or her into misery seems rather harsh, and I usually find, despite my best efforts, that I want to divert the plot from where I intended it to go, in order to rescue them. Quite often, I find that as the plot veers off its original course, it acquires an air of absurdity, which often lightens the bitterness even if it doesn’t solve all the characters’ problems.

“Revenge on a Plate” originally started life as a horror story, but as I progressed, I began to find the subject matter unpalatable (sorry—couldn’t resist the pun), and when the plot swerved to avoid the obvious conclusion, I found myself heading toward an ending that was very different from the one I’d first imagined. But ultimately, I think that all the characters in the story got their just desserts (sorry—couldn’t resist that one either!)

Dawn Knoxs first novel, Daffodil and the Thin Place, was published in 2014. She has also published several short horror, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and romance stories. She lives in Essex, England, with her husband and son.

A Story’s Miraculous Life

Katherine Vaz

Publisher’s note: In Katherine Vaz’s short story “Our Lady of the Artichokes,” 17-year-old Izzy and her Tia Connie try to fend off an eviction notice by staging a “miracle”: an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the wall of their apartment building. Here Katherine discusses the inspirations for the story and its many manifestations (included in our anthology The Female Complaint).

I wrote the story “Our Lady of the Artichokes” over a dozen years ago, after a great-aunt, Conceição Valladão—Tia Connie—learned that the apartment building where she’d lived for decades in San Leandro, in the San Francisco East Bay Area, was being converted into condos that would cost more than twice her modest pension per month.

She was originally from the Azores, as was my father and all his family, and most of the other residents of that building were elderly Portuguese (Lusa) and Latina women. “Huh,” she said, “maybe if I paint the Virgin Mary on the wall, they’ll call it a miracle site and not throw us into the street.”

Of course this didn’t happen, but I thought it would make a funny idea for a story.

I had another, more uncanny impetus: My Tia Connie had married very late in life, at around age fifty, most likely a virgin, and her Tony (also Portuguese) was a lovely man whom I recall fondly. (I was always amused by a photograph of them sitting with glasses coated with the buttermilk they’d drunk—almost all Azorean immigrant men in northern California worked in the dairies.)

He died after only ten years, of leukemia. Their love, of course, his care and sweetness and hers toward him, was the great miracle of her life, what C. S. Lewis would call “surprised by joy.”

The idea, too, that older women, many of them widows, could not afford to stay in their homes, was a driving force in my writing, and alas, this gentrification, this careless way our world shakes the foundations of the most helpless among us, has worsened.

The story itself has had a miraculous life: It first appeared in Pleiades in 2003, and I included it in a collection of Luso-American stories that won the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Originally I had suggested Stories from the Portuguese as the collection’s title. The editors felt that a little literary wordplay using Elizabeth Barrett Browning was all well and good, but Our Lady of the Artichokes was far catchier. I agreed.

Fast-forward another six years, to a bit of a stunner. Right after my beloved father, August Mark Vaz, died in 2013, I received a phone call telling me that my one-page idea to convert “Our Lady of the Artichokes” into a screenplay was one of eight national winners of a contest sponsored by the Writers Store and the New York Film Academy. During one of the worst winters in the history of New York City, where I live with my husband, Christopher Cerf, I went to Los Angeles for a six-week boot camp to write the script. (I am still revising it.) I swam outdoors while Christopher sent me amusing photos of him bundled up, shoveling the snow on our sidewalk.

That was the miracle (and miracles are always the deepest thing we need, but they prefer to take the form, always, of a surprise) the story gave to me: In that balmy southern California air, in the intensity of learning a challenging new form of storytelling, my grief over my father softened and converted itself into something perfumed, the honeysuckle bushes and gardenias outside the patio of my long-stay lodgings in Burbank letting me pretend that he was right outside, tending to his spectacular garden. He was a history teacher and painter known for having a magical skill with plants.

And then I heard from Rosalie Morales Kearns, whose passion for magic and writing and women writers gave the story yet another breath of life in The Female Complaint, from her Shade Mountain Press.

The original story is fictional, but the true-life kicker was that when my father and his sister had to take their Tia Connie to the retirement home where she would finish her days, they were distraught with worry that she would be upset.

What happened was that she heard a woman’s voice coming from one of the rooms. It would turn out to be not only someone originally from the Azores, but someone from the same village where she’d been a girl. “I’m home, I’m fine,” she told my father and aunt, because she immediately understood the accent, the cadence, the music; she could pinpoint it that accurately, and with a wave of the hand dismissing them, down the hall she went.

Katherine Vaz is the author of the novels Saudade and Mariana and the story collections Fado & Other Stories and Our Lady of the Artichokes. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a citation as a Portuguese-American Woman of the Year, and other honors.

Our Newest Title Releases Today!

Today is the official release date for Shade Mountain’s newest title, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, the debut novel by Yi Shun Lai. It’s earned pre-publication praise from Booklist and applause from advance readers, who are calling it “funny and gut-wrenching” and “a fast-paced, rollicking ride.” The novel “juxtaposes the lyrical and the guffaw-worthy”; its narrator is “a heroine for a new era, a wacky, wistful, hyped-up version of our own inner anxieties.”

Available at bookstores, online retailers, and directly from us.

And look how pretty it is!

Don't stop at one. Buy a whole carton and read it 32 times!

Don’t stop at one. Buy a whole carton and read it thirty-two times!