May 2016

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Into Hope

There is a moment in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke, when the two magicians of the title attempt to gain the attention of the founder of English magic, the Raven King, thought lost to history. The moment comes late in the book, when the conflicts and actions of the characters have spun far beyond their intentions. By gaining the Raven King's attention, they hope to set things right and, perhaps, have their achievements recognized. But the attempt doesn't go as planned: they are confronted by a confusing series of images, ending with "a black stone [...] mounted upon what appeared to be a black hillside." A raven's eye, they determine, which means that either the raven was very, very large, or they were very, very small. With that realization, the perspective shifts. The characters' wants, desires, and actions -- of immense importance to them and to us as readers -- slide into a tiny corner of the frame, smaller even than a raven. The world grows ten times bigger.

Two and a half years ago, I gave this column the slightly silly title "Facing the Raven's Eye" as a reminder of that scene. My favorite moments in literature, the ones that fill me with the joy of being alive, are those in which a similar shift occurs. The limits of the world change. Walls fall. Alternatives are revealed. On the delightful blog, Onion & Artichoke, the pseudonymous Artichoke recently expressed a similar appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin. In "The Author of the Acacia Seeds," for example, Le Guin extends the borders of poetry to include an arrangement of acacia seeds by an ant, the movement of penguins underwater, and the growth of plants. Artichoke writes, "Le Guin is interested, always, in looking outward and beyond, inclusively [...] I am always grateful for her commitment to empathy. To the hard work she engages in, for the sake of empathy. And to the alternatives it proposes." Empathy is an excellent term for this move. When we exercise empathy in our daily lives, we remind ourselves that we are not the center of the world. The importance we grant our own experience is not granted by others. There are always alternatives -- to our feelings, to our culture, to our customs, to our languages, to our everyday.

The joy I find in stories that evoke a larger universe is rooted in my experience of a world, our world, crossed by intentional and unintentional harm. Every day we hurt each other, deliberately and not, through institutions, social customs, and individual actions. Literature can dissect those hurts and reveal their inner workings, but in doing so it risks reenacting the harm in written form. Rather than critiquing, literature may simply re-create. But when literature includes moments of empathy -- of growing the world, fictional or otherwise -- it offers hope in the midst of pain. In this sense, Rose Lemberg is among the most hopeful authors currently writing.

Lemberg is a coeditor for Stone Telling, the speculative poetry magazine discussed in the March 2015 entry of this column, but what I want to discuss now are the Birdverse stories and poems, published in various venues since 2011. In the Birdverse, a magic loosely based in geometry is a source of craftsmanship, art, protection, and healing. Multiple cultures and countries engage in trade relationships and political alliances. Cultures make use of magic according to their own traditions and rules, and worship the deity Bird, in whichever feathered form Bird takes. And within these countries and cultures, individuals hurt and are hurt, heal and are healed.

One of the often-used tools in the Birdverse box of empathy is the perspective of a trader, who shifts between their own culture and the culture of another, trading not only physical objects but traditions and ideas, too. This is at its purest in "The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar," which appeared in Uncanny Magazine. The story takes form as a series of letters between Vadrai (the jeweler of the title) and Maru (the glassmaker). The letters of jeweler and glassmaker are carried across long distances, taking six months or more to travel between the wooded Berevyar and the Great Burri Desert.

Neither correspondent has visited the land of the other, but their magic and their words provide entry at a distance. Crucially, they begin by describing the other's home, rather than their own. For example, Vadrai, who lives in the woods, writes of the unseen desert:

Desert glass, said the traders, shaped from the desert sand by your fiery magic. It speaks to me. No, more than speaks -- it sings -- of dawns in saturated orange and lapis lazuli; the notes of it, resonant and flaring, unveil from the palm of my hand outwards when I hold the vial to bounce off the heavy log ceiling of my house.

And Maru responds, speaking of the unknown forest:

A jewel of deepest blue, a sapphire. Small though it is, it is precious beyond breath, for when I brought it closer to my face I saw shapes, golden and severe, arise from the depths of the stone and travel towards my eye -- trees that grew out of deep ground, out of those cold and clear wells of your home I had never before had reason to imagine -- luminous trees of light that grow from sapling to youth to a hundred-year majesty; and then they fade again into the nightfall inside the crystal. I will never tire of looking at it.

Through their gifts, each correspondent imagines into the other's life, engaging their own empathy as well as that of the reader. The letters shift slowly from revealing their homes to revealing themselves, exchanging explanations of the magic they use to craft their glass and jewels. They speak to each other as equals, enjoying the shared discovery of the commonalities beneath their different terms and crafts. With each letter, the world grows bigger -- for Vadrai, whose "world is small," and for Maru, from whom "all but the boldest turn away." Though discussed only briefly, it is clear they have experienced the failures of human connection and take even more joy in each other because of that knowledge, as do we.

Unlike most stories, "The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar" offers nearly undistilled empathy. Lemberg doesn't need to dissect harm and hurt in order to demonstrate the importance of joy. A few sentences are enough to remind us of smaller, more painful worlds, and to offer this story as an alternative. An expansion. A glimpse of beyond.

In other Birdverse stories, Lemberg combines empathy with more detailed views of those small, painful worlds. In "Geometries of Belonging," published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the narrator, Parét, uses his magic to heal minds. He addresses the traumas that become visible as loss of memory, anger, fear, and so many other forms of unhappiness and unease. Like his patients, he is beset by doubts carried over from past traumas:

When I was younger, fear was all I knew of life. The fear of beatings, ridicule, of helplessness, of cold, of hunger. The fear of never earning attention, the fear of losing it. That fear has lasted and lasted. Two decades after my lord took me in, that fear is still with me -- an old friend, an acknowledgment of my emptiness.

The particularities of that fear are revealed slowly, and carefully, throughout the story, intimately tied to Parét's personal history, to the culture of the country of Katra, and to the political situation between Katra and others.

The catalyst for memory is Parét's encounter with a young person named Dedéi, who is living in the midst of their own trauma. As the grandchild of one of the lords of Katra, Dedéi is the focus of a prominent family's unfulfilled hope. Parét is called upon to heal Dedéi, but what he sees is very different from what the family sees:

If I could take a look, I would see nothing wrong with the shape of her mind. A different shape than usual, of course, but whole within itself. No, whatever is wrong with Dedéi Brentann has nothing to do with her mind, and everything with the world.

Where the family insists there is insanity, clumsiness, and an inability to communicate, Parét sees a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world. (The word autistic is not used in the Birdverse, but appears elsewhere in descriptions of Dedéi by Lemberg and others.) In addition, the family insists that Dedéi be a granddaughter, while Dedéi is insistent otherwise. Lemberg carefully dissects these hurts, showing that the trauma is not in the differences, but rather in the family's reactions, which involve insults, secrecy, and assault.

Because Lemberg is also a writer of hope, though, these traumas do not fill the entire world. Alternatives exist. As an alternative to Dedéi's family, there is Parét. As an alternative to Katra, there is the Coast, Araigen, Laina, and the Great Burri Desert. In some of those alternatives, life for Dedéi and Parét could be better. (In others, life might be worse.)

Lemberg applies this widening of the world to Parét, as well, who contrasts his own weakness with the strength of his lover, the Lord Tajer Kekeri. Parét insists that his lord is much stronger and better than himself, but the events of the story undercut his claims. His tendency toward stillness and inaction are a balance, in their way, to his lord's tendencies toward action, even overreaction, and movement. His lover yearns for him, just as he yearns for his lover. It is not that some are broken and some are whole: "We all are vessels of our brokenness, we carry it inside us like water, careful not to spill. And what is wholeness if not brokenness encompassed in acceptance, the warmth of its power a shield against those who would hurt us?" Empathy is applied inwardly, as well as outwardly. The story opens again, and again, into hope.

There is so much more that could be said about the Birdverse stories and poems. The intricate geometry of the magic system -- its arrangements of polysyllabic "deepnames" -- seems to be mirrored in the relationships of the characters, which often appear in groupings of three or more. Both the characters' relationships and the magic system emphasize coexistence and support, often involving a mix of what is considered strong and what is considered weak. And every story holds a deep and painful honesty about the harm we cause each other through fear, the "vessels of brokenness" we become under our own actions and the actions of others, and the warmth and wholeness that can be found through acceptance of one another.

In that warmth, the column with a silly title comes to an end. As I move on to other adventures, in reading and life, I am grateful for Rose Lemberg and the Birdverse, and all the other strange and fantastic stories which look outward and beyond, making the world a little bigger, one word at a time. May it grow.