Sisters of the Revolution is a book about the chains that hang around us as women – about attempts to break those chains, or to slip out of them into other worlds. It is a collection of 29 vibrant short stories written by feminist authors who have asked ‘what if…?’ and turned their questions and answers into fiction – most notably by Angela Carter and Ursula K. Le Guin.
During an English Literature degree, I read dozens of books that used only two types of female character: the Madonna and the whore. The Madonna is beautiful, quiet, chaste, kind and intelligent – desirable but inaccessible, sucking women readers into self-critique and alienation. The whore is loud, sexually confident and ultimately disposable, populating the spare moments in plots as a symbol of men’s frailty before their eventual reformation.
Neither of these women are women; they are projections, passed through the literary equivalent of Photoshop. In Sisters of the Revolution, I found an escape from this distorted mirror in the form of new and complex representations of daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, but also warriors, hunters, professors and theatre directors, explorers, merchants, and protestors – women who reminded me of myself and of people I would like to be.
Sisters of the Revolution is a liberating collection, partly because of its diverse content and characters, but also the freedom that the short story form affords to writers. The standard novel tends to resolve in a fairly conservative way: its key characters are generally assimilated into society to give the recognised ‘happy ending’, or killed off because they cannot be incorporated into the novel’s social world. Therefore, the novel form provides a challenge for anyone who seeks to write positively about freedom or resistance, and has posed a problem for feminist radical authors for centuries. Sisters of the Revolution has bypassed this difficulty by using the short story form and the loose, broad label of ‘speculative fiction’ – these writers do not need to force their characters to false resolutions for the sake of realism and convention, and so the stories retain a radical spirit and outlook.
My favourite stories in the collection are those which see women resisting both the bounds of their lives and the constraints of realism. When Vandana Singh’s protagonist decides she is a planet, for instance, her embarrassed husband cannot stop her from developing native wildlife and orbiting the sun. In Hiromi Goto’s tale, a new mother teaches her partner a well-deserved lesson by transferring all breastfeeding duties to him, including the milk from her own breast. These stories reject the physical limitations that are used by society to bind us to gender roles, resulting in humorous and inspirational moments of imagined freedom.
There is no doubt that the editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have a sense of humour. Nevertheless, they do not shy away from including more harrowing stories as a reminder of the harms caused by patriarchal systems. The opening story of the anthology, L Timmel Duchamp’s ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A’, considers the lengths to which states go to repress dissent and the difficulties of challenging such concentrated power. Like a nightmare that strays uncomfortably close to reality, Duchamp imagines strategies of control that directly mirror those used by media moguls and corrupt politicians today. The story, like much of the collection, is politically astute and consistently relevant to our own struggles.
Susan Palwick’s ‘Gestella’, too, is a wonderful but disturbing read. Palwick imagines the life of a woman who spends one week of every month in the form of a wolf. When she marries, her husband agrees to take care of her during her monthly transitions, but she ages, he finds her less beautiful, and so loses the impetus to look after her, with disastrous consequences. Many of the stories in Sisters of the Revolution question the boundaries of the human in this way – throughout the anthology, women are compared to (and turned into) wolves, planets, insects, trees and androids, forcing us to ask why we so often treat women like animals, and indeed why we treat animals so cruelly.
Sisters of the Revolution is bound together by this animal theme, alongside several others. Virginia Woolf says ‘we think back through our mothers if we are women’, and this collection seems to reflect that preoccupation with motherhood and how it can affect our lives, both as daughters and as parents ourselves. In Leena Krohn’s ‘Their Mother’s Tears: The Fourth Letter’, a woman visits a human beehive with a giant queen, who boasts ‘I am the great hole out of which the city grows!’, and then begins to weep, caught up in the ambivalence of her role – the grandeur and horror of being a mother, and only a mother.
This anthology can act as a kind of mother, too, spawning new interests for its readers and providing a much-needed boost to the lesser-known writers whose work it showcases. Also like a mother, it is full of content in itself, rich with extraordinary ideas and thoughts on the nature of womanhood that refuse to constrain themselves in the banality of realism.