I grew up confused by words. When I was a little girl, I read everything I could find, regardless of whether it was age-appropriate or not. My small town's one-room library had the classic Assorted Blend: a few shelves each of mysteries, science fiction, romances, poetry, belles lettres. The largest section (insofar as it was a full bookcase or two) was "Literature," an odd mix of canonical works and light adventure novels by H. Rider Haggard, E. M. Hull, and the like. There was no distinction between Sabatini and Austen, Hardy and Glyn. These books were all equally fantasy. When one lives in rural Iowa, Russia and the asteroid belt were equally improbable unknowns; the words "grok" and "concatenation" could mean anything and be from anywhere.
I loved them all, even when I found nothing I could understand in a work much too sophisticated for my nine-year-old sensibilities. It was words I loved, words themselves. They were like Legos; they were better than Legos. People could build anything from them. It didn't matter that I had no idea what Moby Dick was about: all those words, all in a glorious row! And I read them all, even when I didn't understand the words themselves (I was convinced that "misled" was the past tense of "to misle"), or what they added up to.
Perhaps learning to love reading is the same for others. We feel a delighted frisson at the momentary confusion of an unfamiliar word, the longer confusion of an unfamiliar world. We solve the puzzle of an elaborately organized sentence or an improbable—yet inevitable—resolution. But as time goes on, it gets harder to find works that startle us like this. As with the rest of life, we start to assume that we've seen it all—or at any rate, all of whatever we're willing to look at.
For West Branch, I have picked two previously unpublished short stories by new writers, stories that remind me of the delights of this confusion, in the best sense. One is a formalist and the other a speculative-fiction writer, and as such their intentions, strategies, and practices are utterly different. But they are both surprising me, both making me read carefully to catch it all.
Marc Berghaus is a conceptual artist and sculptor from somewhere in the same heartland I grew up in. My responses to his art are not trained (I am no art critic), but I find them fascinating: the tricky painstaking precision of his craft; the intelligence of his concepts; the strange mechanisms that physically and metaphorically drive his work. He has recently turned to fiction, and applies the same interest in structure and precision to words on the page. Footnotes are—literally—subtext, and "Handshake" understands this: one of the few formalist stories that doesn't feel to me like an elaborate game of Look At Me.
Chinelo Onwualu is a young Nigerian writer of science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) and a passionate proponent for African speculative literature. American editors and publishers dominated SF/F for many years, but the real energy in the field right now is coming from elsewhere—everywhere else. While "The Night Market" is classically told speculative fiction, Chinelo's characters, situations, worldbuilding, and definition of genre are neither American nor Anglocentric. Part of my pleasure in her fiction is trying to clarify how much is the estrangement at the heart of all SF/F, and how much the estrangement of her new-to-me perspective.
As I grow in my own craft, words confuse me less. I know more of them than I did at nine, for one thing. By now I have seen why authors pick this word instead of that one; this sentence structure instead of another. I have made the same hard decisions: wrong and then, in revision, slightly less wrong and then, finally, right—the exact unconfusing perfect this-is-what-I-meant moment. It's been my pleasure to watch these writers go through some of the same progression—and to find myself nevertheless surprised at the end of it, surprised and delighted that I have understood and solved their puzzle.
Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards and author of several novels and a short-story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she is also the associate director for Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
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