We’ve come a long way since the unjust imprisonment of Edmund Dantes. For one thing, we no longer frame political imprisonment as an individual problem – a stroke of awful luck that the prisoner needs to cope with – but as a social problem. Fiction that turns the pen on the system rather than the prisoner has the opportunity to explore how the most oppressive regimes are vulnerable to cultural resistance.
“The Ways of Walls and Words” by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Tor.com) is the story of a young prisoner befriended by an employee of the dungeon, and how their tiny, illicit exchanges of food, poetry and culture lead to even bigger defiances. The prisoner, Anica, is Jewish; Bienvenida, who cleans the dungeons, is Aztec; and they are both under the threat of the Inquisition in New Spain, 1562.
Bienvenida recognises in Anica’s prayers the same beauty of devotional poetry that she knows from her spirituality. Though Anica is offended, at first, by Bienvenida’s “terrible, false gods” and unfamiliar customs, their exchanges give them both the opportunity to enjoy what the Spanish are trying to deny them in order to subjugate their cultures: magic. Bienvenida brings hopeful dreams of flight and freedom, where Anica offers beauty to the gods with prayers and poetry. Feeding each others’ spirits lets the magic in.
Through simple contact, the two girls undo everything the Spanish mean to supress. Both recognise that conversion by force – cultural erasure – is a superficial and ineffective thing. Bienvenida gets around it by “mouthing the words” and Anica is imprisoned because her “forced conversion is not faith.” Of course, in history, erasure was completed through genocide and violence. In Vourvoulias’s telling, magic allows some other alternatives. Faith and culture are slippery things that can pass beyond prisons. Though the Spanish are the dominant power, we’re shown their fundamental impotence in accomplishing their ultimate goals. “Magic” is art and culture. It lends the strength and power to persevere and preserve. Though Bienvenida reflects the gods “make cages of our lives”, words can be keys. There are always more cages, but there are always more keys – no power is ever complete. A great read.
“The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips (Octavia’s Brood ed. Brown & Imarisha, AK Press 2015) is another interesting piece that uses its speculative devices to emphasize the power of protest in the face of state power. Cy is a Memorial: a sort of Bene Gesserit librarian tasked to hold all the memories of their people and act as counselors to the state. Of course, memory can be inconvenient when you need to displace a people, and so the powerful Councilman Holt has pushed through a law and restricting the influence of Memorials in the name of progress.
Cy is young, but talented. Abducted and imprisoned, she searches the Long Memory for a solution not just to her imprisonment, but to the problem of the Memorials’ disenfranchisement. Holt’s motivations are transparent to her – without the Memorials speaking inconvenient truths in Council, they can colonialize new lands at will. But the magic that bound the Long Memory to the Memorial bloodlines also prevents those memories from being held by the rest of the population – so by imprisoning rather than exterminating the Memorials, Holt is able to keep inconvenient history and culture caged.
Though Cy thinks about escape and flight, she knows the problem she faces is bigger than just her distress. Without Memorials to remind them, the people won’t remember what has been done to them. How to give memory back to the people – and thus the power to make informed decisions of their own – is the story’s central problem.
Peaceful resistance often lacks the drama that full-on conflict holds, but its effectiveness is emphasized by Phillips’s worldbuilding. The people may not have access to cultural memory, but by reminding them of the events in their lived memory, Cy brings about change. The story is a little over-long, but it resonates especially in an age where social change is being catalyzed by the ubiquity of media and the power of video and image. Speaking to the people and reminding them of their history is more than “just words” – it is power.
“Moving On” by Diane Cook (Choose Wisely ed. Nelson & Merriam, Upper Rubber Boot 2015) brings us into the worst prison of all: the prison that is taken for granted. The protagonist is a widowed woman, young enough to be deemed re-marriageable, who has been institutionalized in a “women’s shelter” until she is chosen by another, richer man to be his wife. Though she is still grieving for her husband, she dutifully completes her “Moving On” exercises and workshops from within a facility indistinguishable from a prison.
On the one hand, this is the story of a woman trying to get over her dead husband because everybody says she must. She is allowed to grieve only in a subtle, dignified way, but to dwell too long on her past relationship would sabotage her chances at hooking a good husband the next time around – and that’s what really matters. Women – and men – who do not have the money to support themselves can only be released from these facilities when they have attracted a spouse to provide for them. When they are chosen. Her subtextual grief prickles beneath the surface of the story, hooking the reader and lending sympathy to a character whose obstinacy in the face of her fascist society might otherwise be frustrating.
There are women who try to escape. They run under cover of darkness, always to be retrieved by the dogs and the guards. The protagonist is not very sympathetic towards them. She has bought into the system despite her grief. She “betters” herself with facile housewifery classes and tries genuinely to be what the system wants her to be. When the horror of her situation starts to get to her, she “allows herself” small acts of rebellion, but ultimately, this character is not a fighter. She is complicit, one of the cogs in the machine. The system makes sense to her, even if she is not currently enjoying it. She cannot imagine a better future.
So on the other hand, this is a story about what happens – to all of us – if we don’t push back. Most people are not fighters and most oppression falls just short of pushing us into desperation. The power hardest to subvert is the invisible power of the status quo. Individuals might have leverage, but they’d have to realize it to make use of it. It’s too easy not to see the necessity.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.