Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Arsenika #8 (2021)

Arsenika, ed. S. Qiouyi Lu. Issue 8 (Spring 2021). Online at arsenika.ink.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Arsenika is a small, very personal, even idiosyncratic zine that ran for eight issues over five years, edited by S. Qiouyi Lu, who started the zine in 2016 “to find work that called out to” aer, and by all accounts did so very successfully (and found work that called out to many other readers besides). As well as a personal aesthetic, the zine came to showcase flash fiction and poems with “queer elements … steeped in non-White cultures … that experiments with form and narrative.” This final issue of Arsenika is no exception, and makes no apologies—if you have enjoyed the work that has appeared here over the years, you will love this one. The issue contains two pieces of flash fiction and three poems (one of which is very long), and a hot tonne of creativity.

The first flash piece, “What the Humans Call Heartache” by Jiksun Cheung, is a beautiful science-fictional story of indentured labour and human-like love; the protagonist is treated as an object, but from the very start it is clear it is the owners whose behaviour is inhuman/inhumane. Like the best flash stories, this one does not rely on a twist or a punchline, although there is a revelation and a bit of a heartstring-pull in there. In contrast, Sophie Sparrow’s “On the Getting of Husbands and the Spawning of Children” is a terrible, mythical story filled with beautiful paradoxes and hideous monsters, and yet there is a beauty in the telling, and whiff of hope in the rosemary, and an exquisite originality in this rewriting of fairytale and legend and remixing of tropes and characters. Powerful and disturbing in equal measure.

The poetry, as is to be expected, is a more varied collection, and harder to review, since the medium is more than half of the message, and you really should read it to decide what it says to you. “The Early Teleporter: A Successful Use” by Kimberly BMW Wade is on the surface about experimental teleportation on a tiny scale (or is it the errors and imperfections resulting from teleportation that are on a tiny scale?); transposition of atoms, neurons, arteries, make only imperceptible differences, nonetheless changing a person completely. The format of the poem is important: the spacing of words on the page helps to echo chaos and unpredictability of the content. (From a distance the words could almost be an image of a misshapen, huge-headed humanoid figure?) P. H. Low’s “Princess” is also a poem whose page layout and word-spacing tell part of the story; “that storm was no accident,” it begins. This is a dark and twisted fairy tale, full of overtones of abuse—that of course always exist in undertone in this genre of story. The spacing and layout on the page give the words a staccato rhythm, unsettling the reader as the words themselves refuse to settle down into anything comfortable or easy.

Finally “To Seek a Fairy Sovereign [Diptych]” by Xuan Nguyen is a poem in two parts: “On a Night Alone, I Have Nothing But My Own” and “Do You Know What Happens When You Cannot Find the Kingdom of the Divine.” A long and challenging piece (or two pieces?), that makes use of a commanding choice of language, along with strings of all-caps, brackets, italics, nested indents to layer on slabs of atmosphere and shadow. You will read sentences that don’t always complete, or make sense, but instead contribute to the fractured mood and fey imagery of the piece. Even for a fairy story, this was a wild ride: I felt I was missing the cultural capital to pick up on intertext and backstory, but perhaps the confusion was also part of the intent. In some ways this piece is more music than story; you don’t need the words to be carried away by it.

This issue has more than lived up to the promise of Arsenika, and the editor’s goal of uplifting marginalised voices and experimental forms and narratives. While we may be sad that this zine has now come to an end, we continue to look forward to what Lu takes on next.

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