This month’s fodder for the Crucible is Sofia Samatar’s Selkie Stories are for Losers. This was originally published in Strange Horizons and was, incidentally, the very first story I podcast for them. I recorded five versions of this story and I’m pretty certain I read it more than Sofia did in writing/revising it. Consequently, I was very happy when lots of people liked this story, because even after a month of staring at it constantly while I put recording technique etc., through its beta phase, I wasn’t bored.
For this story I want to talk about something I’ve touched on in other essays here but which is massively important here: the negative space. I’ve seen commentary decrying this story as not speculative because there’s no conclusive proof the mom was a selkie, she might have just walked out and the selkie thing is a coping-myth. That is a valid reading of the story, that’s actually a less interesting story. What isn’t talked about explicitly, what lies between the lines but exists all the same, that’s the meat of this story.
I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.
First line of the story and we have everything. We know the backstory – Mom was a selkie and has left; we have the character – sarcastic and angry; and we have a decent sense of setting and place – sounds like a modern Western teenager to me. We have that without the narrator saying she was the one who found the coat, or that it was her mom who left. We just know that because why else would that particularly descriptive point be her understanding of selkie stories? This opening is deliciously assertive, in part because it refuses to make an explicit statement about what happened. The problem is selkie stories, not her life. It’s not even selkies, just the repeated plot arc of “they were happy and then they left.”
I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.
Samatar could have written, “After mom revealed herself as a selkie and abandoned us, I had to get a job. My first night there sucked.” It would convey the same info and share the same tone and be a completely different character in a completely different story. There is no explicit commentary about how that night went. She just related a series of events and you know exactly, in your bones, how bad that first night was. By the time she’s left her keys behind it’s no wonder – she had to be so frazzled it’s surprising she didn’t leave everything there. But this is a story about what we don’t talk about, what we don’t say, and it wouldn’t work the same way if we didn’t have a narrator who won’t talk about things. We the audience are getting the information we need, but she doesn’t have to tell us.
I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.
She doesn’t describe Mona herself at all. She doesn’t say anything about what she thinks of Mona then or now. She’s just there, with a cigarette, and you know it’s all saving angel/white knight/this is love.
Do we get told they become fast friends? Nope. Instead we get some information about Mona, we get all kinds of explicit information about Mona’s situation and Mona’s family because those are safe topics. The closest to a description of thier current relationship we get is this.
After work Mona says, “Got the keys?”
Mona’s still taking care of her, they’re friendly, and the moment with the keys is one that’s shared and salient between them. For Mona that might just mean our narrator is always the frazzled girl who stumbled into something she wasn’t ready for, but that means that Mona is still chronically in the rescuer/saviour mode. That impression we got at her introduction is still relevant to the narrator because that moment is a crux of their relationship.
I tell her they’re not my selkie stories, not ever, and I’ll never tell one, which is true
This line here is important because at this point in the story, it’s true. She’s not telling a selkie story. Even if we get more details about that day, a more explicit acknowledgement that the theoretical girl going to the attic is our narrator, and proof that she didn’t see her mom become a seal. And in case we didn’t know that the surface level meaning of the narrator’s words weren’t the whole picture, she immediately tells us a selkie story. Not hers, somebody else’s.
when his wife washed the clothes, she found it.
Even when she’s telling us a selkie story, though, she doesn’t quite tell it. She stops before the ending. She finds the key and then…section break. We know she unlocks the chest and leaves, but we don’t get told that. This is a bit of a primer on how to read the story. All the facts are here, but the narrator isn’t going to give them to us or organize them for us. We’ve got to do that ourselves.
people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go
This is a really critical final line to the story. Because we’ve had our narrator asserting who she is and what she is and isn’t doing, and we’ve got a pretty clear idea on where the truth lies in that, and then this. “People who leave keys around,” we know is her. “People who tell all.” That’s….she claims she won’t tell the story, but she did, didn’t she? It’s pretty clear that she is the person described in this line. Which is heartbreaking! Because, yes, it means she’s people “who let go.” But it also means that she’s “on the wrong side of magic” and that selkie stories are for her. It’s her acknowledging what happened and finding the very edges of how to cope with it. This is a coming of age story told in the subtext, and it’s gorgeous.
Next month: “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013). Sometime between now and then I’ll announce the next batch of stories we’re going to do. Drop me line if you have something you’d like.