Friday, September 11, 2020

Kern, Depart, Depart! (2020)

Sim Kern, Depart, Depart! Stelliform Press, 2020. Pp. 88. ISBN 978-1-7770-9170-5. $14.99.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

In their debut novella Depart, Depart! Texas-based speculative fiction writer Sim Kern uses the backdrop of a catastrophic flood in Houston, Texas to explore a variety of issues including gender identity, Jewish culture, and notions of redemption. Kern’s short stories have appeared in Wizards in Space Magazine, Metaphorosis, and The Colored Lens. They are also working on a YA novel, Sand and Swarm. Depart, Depart! is published by Hamilton, Ontario’s Stelliform Press, which focusses on science fiction, fantasy, and horror revolving around environmental and climate change issues. Stelliform puts its money where its convictions lie. In addition to producing environmentally-conscious works, the small press also takes measures to reduce their own environmental impact where possible, through use of organic inks and other measures.

Depart, Depart! depicts the experiences of a trans man named Noah in the aftermath of a flooding event caused by Hurricane Martha. Rescued from the roof of a building when the waters rise, Noah is bussed, along with other evacuees, to the Dallas Mavericks’ Arena in Dallas, Texas where a temporary shelter has been established. Right from the opening paragraph, Kern thrusts us into the action (3):
A wave of humanity flows onto the court of the Dallas Mavericks basketball arena, wearing the clothes people wear at 3:00 AM, clutching the things people grab when they have seconds before the world ends.
The crisis, which throws together a mass of humanity from all walks of life, is uncomfortable territory for Noah who, for the past year, has “hardly left Montrose, Houston’s queer neighborhood, where it’s easy to forget he lives in Texas.” (3) Figuring there is safety in numbers, Noah chooses a cot near people who look like allies. He befriends Elena, a trans woman of color in her mid-40’s, and Malone, a queer 19-year-old. Joining the group are David and Michael, an affluent white couple; a pair of women with a surly feline in a cat carrier; and assorted other parties.

The flooding event in the novel is caused by the failure of the Addicks Dam in Houston, which “had held two hundred million cubic meters of water back from the city until Martha had overfilled it, and its walls had crumbled.” (16) This scenario is not so far divorced from possibility as one might hope. In the “About the Author” section, Kern notes that “in 2009, the Addicks and Barker dams and reservoirs to the west of Houston were named by the Army Corps of Engineers to be at ‘extremely high risk of catastrophic failure’.” (81)

The Houston flood isn’t the only issue plaguing the United States in Depart, Depart! There are fires in the western US, the Mississippi River is experiencing its worse flooding in a century, and food shortages are rampant. By extrapolating the impacts of climate change—alluded to elsewhere in the book as the cause for all this mayhem—Kern gives us a vividly believable scenario of how all this might play out. It’s one thing to listen to vague predictions of climate-change-caused disasters, and another to visualize concrete examples of how they might impact people—including marginalized populations—at the individual level, which is what Kern provides in Depart, Depart!

The heat soon ratchets up on the refugees. While David and Michael, once they get access to their financial assets, are able to leave the shelter, many others who lack financial resources cannot. Though there was an initial outpouring of support for the evacuees on social media, the mood swings to something uglier. Negative memes crop up, some of them targeting the “Austin queers.” (64) Within the shelter, someone paints anti-gay slurs on the door of the family bathroom near the area where Noah and his friends sleep and store their belongings. Noah gets the impression that some of the police hate him and his associates just because of who they are. When Noah and Elena try to access health care at the shelter so they can obtain hormone prescriptions, they are dismissed by the doctors, as though their medical needs are of no consequence. Even in small gestures, there is the sense of otherness and exclusion. Agatha, a school principal, recognizes that the mother of some restless children standing in line needs private time to make some phone calls. She starts singing the “Baby Shark” song with the kids to distract them. Kern notes, “It’s a tidy song for teaching all kinds of things about how families and genders are supposed to work.” (22) Malone makes a comment to Noah, who laughs, though “part of him is annoyed by this reminder of their otherness—how neither of them belong inside the neat constructs of children’s songs.” (22)

On all sides, Noah and his friends face a lack of support and reminders of how they differ. In spite of this, they still try to contribute to the betterment of the situation they find themselves in. Agatha spearheads an initiative to provide schooling for the children at the shelter, while Noah volunteers to support the Red Cross efforts.

Overlaid onto the day-to-day events at the shelter are Noah’s experiences with a ghost, who appears in times of crisis to warn him of impending danger. Noah develops a theory that the ghost is actually his great-grandfather Abe, a dishonored family figure. It was a visit from this ghost that first prompted Noah to leave his apartment to move his car to higher ground before the flood, which is the sole reason he survived Hurricane Martha’s wrath in the first place. At first, Noah is tempted to dismiss the ghostly visions as “some kind of stress-induced hallucination.” (17) But as time passes, the visions become more powerful, sometimes causing him to faint, and at other times warping reality—for example, making Noah see Nazis instead of police, a reflection of both Abe’s experiences in World War II and Noah’s sense that many of the police hate him because of who he is. The scenes with the ghost make an interesting contrast to the fact-based portions dealing with the flood and the shelter. The struggle to come to terms with these visions creates one of the opportunities for the character growth Noah demonstrates in the course of the book.

Noah’s sense of otherness does not end with his gender identity. There is also the Jewish side of Noah’s background. Though he admits to being raised “in a family of proud atheists” (17) the events following the flood prompt Noah to delve into his Jewish heritage. In the course of that investigation, he completes internet research on dybbuks, a type of Jewish ghost, who are “just like, real people. Sinners … [who] have to come back to the world of the living as punishment.” (50) But the dybbuks’ return to the world also provide an opportunity for redemption. This understanding helps Noah come to terms with Abe’s sometimes-unwelcome appearances. Noah also comes to understand more about Jewish beliefs around trans people, coming across the term gilgul and discovering “a Jewish spiritual framework for transness, dating back five hundred years.” (51)

The author’s portrayal of Noah and his reactions to the events of the novella felt deeply genuine. Perhaps part of the reason for the sense of authenticity is the Kern’s willingness to share, and to draw upon, their own experiences. Kern grew up Jewish in St. Charles, a town outside Chicago, where they were “definitely the only queer Jewish kid in school.” (79) Kern noted that “although Noah’s feelings and gender struggles echo my own, I do not live as a trans man.” (81) To support the accurate portrayal of Noah’s experiences, Kern used a sensitivity reader. In terms of the description of the flooding, Kern has lived through hurricanes, tropical storms, and floods, so that part of the book is based to some extent on experience. Kern also drew upon family history to create the character of Abe.

The Advance Reader Copy I received to review was a mere 88 pages, including the introductory and about-the-author sections. Given that, it’s almost surprising that Kern is able to explore so many issues—the effects of climate change, the queer and trans experience in a crisis situation, the protagonist’s struggles to better understand his Jewish heritage, and, to a lesser extent, race and class issues—in so little real estate. There’s a lot going on here, and the author’s ambition in tackling so much in a small space is admirable. The saving grace of the novella is that it keeps the time frame and location fairly constrained. All of the events, aside from the protagonist’s reminiscences and reflections, take place in the weeks after the flood, and the bulk of the action takes place within the confines of the arena and the surrounding neighborhood. This keeps the background manageable so we can focus on the inner as well as the outer journey of the protagonist without being overwhelmed.

In Depart, Depart! Kern provides a thought-provoking read that is both enjoyable in and of itself, and also left me thinking about the ways in which a crisis situation like the flooding might become more difficult for queer and trans people if their needs are not taken into account. For understandable reasons, Noah and his friends experience a sense of great vulnerability at times. Hopefully, Kern’s voice in concert with other climate-fiction writers may awaken us to the need to do more to save the planet. Otherwise, we may see scenarios like the one depicted in Depart, Depart! played out for real all too often.

1 comment:

SuJ Sokol said...

Sounds super interesting. Thanks for the thorough review. I will try to get myself a copy!