Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Airbody by Sameem Siddiqui

“Airbody” caught my eye this month with its narrative voice—warm, cynical, self-reflective, and sweet—its careful attention to the impact, good and bad, of its science-fictional element on everyday lives, and the simple, humane lines of the story it’s telling. I love stories that take a less-worn approach to who would use science fiction technologies, why, and how, and take questions of a technology’s implications further. I do think, though, there’s room here to tighten, polish, and focus—it is an early draft! So this month, I’d like to discuss how to figure out what advances the narrative and what unfocuses or slows it in the kinds of stories that are about the power of smaller moments.

This story is deeply rooted in recognizing humanity, and it starts early and deploys that growth carefully. The line of travel from the first paragraph’s archetype-driven “Amazing how all Desi aunties are basically the same”—and a list of personalities that are mostly about really about the children, really about Arsalan—to a complex, whole person saying, “When you could live foolishly thinking you’d turn out to be something other than what you became in the end” is well laid out, and bolstered by subthemes and small details: the whole question of food and authenticity and memory, what the hints Arsalan drops about his habitual self-neglect, his childhood, and the roots of his habit of putting everyone else first say about care, caring for oneself, and being cared for.

There are deep waters being explored in “Airbody”, and what’s exciting is how well they all fit together—and fit the choice of science fictional element. The journey of “Airbody”—which is really thematically appropriate for a story about borrowing and commodifying bodies—is a journey from seeing people as things, people as how they’re useful to someone else into seeing people-as-people: unique, complicated, important. What Arsalan needed from others, and needs now; what Meena needed, and what Haniya needs.

The science-fictional metaphor being rolled out here absolutely fits, and “Airbody” is smart to not clutter that arc with digressions about the technology itself. It’s leaving room for the most powerful element of the story to shine, and that’s a real strength even though this is an early draft.

The voice is engaging from the first sentence, but it’s tangible how it softens near the end, as Arsalan recognizes his hunger and Meena’s as something the same, and the Urdu dialogue’s nested in such a way that what explanation is there feels organic, and a good deal of it is clear from context. Overall, this is deeply affecting, and has the potential to sharpen into a really powerful story.

The suggestions I have are mostly about pacing and focus: finding the places where the piece lags a little, or information doesn’t yet connect, and working out those rougher spots. This is something that might be a little more difficult in a story that isn’t aggressively events-driven; for those, the question “does this move the plot forward?” can get us most of the way there, but in a story that’s grounded in thematic questions, intimacy, character moments, and atmosphere, it can be trickier to step back and evaluate which of those moments are serving the overall piece better than others.

The method I would try would be to think about whether a line or moment works well by finding the centre of the story—in this case, I think, food, memory, the difference between using someone for something and loving them, sacrifice, and care—and seeing how strongly or weakly that line or event relates in any way back to the centre. Think of this as revising by Venn diagram! The stronger the tie, the more that line or scene is rounding out the whole of the story; the weaker the tie, the more it might need to be bolstered or trimmed. This is a bit like topiary, or trimming trees: the feeling of readerly focus in a short story isn’t too different from looking at a tree or shrub that’s kept in a tidy, cohesive shape—versus one that still has bits sticking out.

So specifically, I’d suggest attention on tightening up the middle of the piece. Meena and Arsalan’s banter and the whole cooking process note the passage of time and process, but they aren’t always feeding that complex nest of thematic questions, and where they aren’t touching at least one, the story feels a bit like it’s briefly spinning its wheels.

Likewise, the memories of Hafza and Karla aren’t tied as solidly as they could be into the question of Arsalan’s mother, of intimacy and what he’s after; all of them aren’t reflecting Meena and Haniya’s relationship all the way just yet. I can tell that parallel is important, but it’s not fully on the page for me yet, so the conclusion I’m supposed to draw—about what happened, or how I should feel as a reader—isn’t yet in focus for me.

I’m pretty sure once those things are snapped together, or brought out more, “Airbody” will be a really sweet, powerful piece—and I’m looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

 

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