stolen continent

The stolen continent, in the center of the map
Now that we have destroyed it, can we give it back?
You heft your bag, wish you could flag a taxi cab
It's not so, not so bad, but man, does it make you mad
We solved these problems all before, or so it had seemed
History's just a window glimpsed in a dimming screen
We whisper, never again, but there was so much of it
Will it chase your touch? Will it rise from the place your fingers split?
Crave isolation, tape each wintry window shut
And praise stagnation until your shook hands spill the cup
Can there ever be months or years of a blissful, safe routine
Or must we never let our sharp edges grow less keen?
Waste not, want not: desolate homelands fill each shelf
What you pay for, say, what you bought, may as well have done yourself
That apartment you can't afford is built on a pauper's grave
And your sleek new outfit reeks with the stitched-in sweat of slaves
How can you carve out rot when the tools you've got are smeared
With the blood on the hands that made them, marinaded for years
Where there is oxygen, there's fire, though it burns us slow
When every inch of soil is ash - tell me where we'll go
This is the old world now: not even the lies are new
All the truth I know is I don't know what I have got to do

Trust and the Other: A review of "The Occidental Bride" by Bee Sriduangkaew

Warning: Many spoilers. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, I encourage you to encounter this plot in its original habitat at

Having read a few of Bee's stories, I am at last moved to review one, in part because its love interest is a character with whom I find it easy to identify. There is a selfishness in this, but at present the only thing I know how to do with that fact is to acknowledge its place in my motivation and move on.

The heroines of those of Bee's stories I've read so far have been (with allowance for space travel) southeast Asian lesbians whose choices are constrained by vast, impersonal systems of authority, striving to navigate relationships of authentic trust in the aftermath of war. She anchors their lives in richly detailed environments which answer to their own narrative histories. Though each storyverse is fascinating in its own right, the inner experiences of the protagonist are always the driving force. Instead of walking us through familiar plot tropes which dictate what a character of a given "type" should do, Bee deftly creates a world which presses in upon a character, who then reveals her individuality in discovering what she must do.

The titular character of this story is a cyberpunk twist on the concept of a "mail order bride". The protagonist, Heilui, agrees to marry a woman she has never met as part of a plea bargain to expunge her own record. Heilui had previously become involved with a woman who, unknown to her at the time, was associated with terrorists, and as a result fell under suspicion of being a political dissident herself. Heilui's new bride, Kerttu, was conscripted by the same terrorists to design the very weapons which destroyed the never-named, now uninhabitable continent of Europe."Kerttu" might be an Easternized pronunciation of the German name "Gertrude" which means "strong spear" - an apt name for a person whose most notable achievement is the perpetration of mass murder.

Thus, though the basis of their relationship is transactional, it is born out of necessity rather than whim. Heilui is faced with a Devil's bargain. She can either accept this dictation of her personal life, or be forever hounded by official censure because of actions in which she played no part. Yet she recognizes that Kerrtu exists under similar, even more draconian constraint. Though factually a war criminal because of the weapons she helped to create, Kerttu had been purchased as a child and brought up by a ruthless organization for the express purpose of weapons design. The characters discuss, late in the story, what might happen if they severed their own relationship; Kerttu would return to the Institute which, so to speak, rehabilitated her, and be assigned to another spouse. In other words, she is serving a life sentence of marital servitude without possibility of parole. Kerttu reveals early on that although she herself had not, many others in her position attempted suicide but were not permitted to succeed.

Although Heilui's family is not aware of her bride's criminal past, they are familiar with the organization which provides exotic occidental spouses to the discerning customer. In ways large and small, the story takes the everyday facts of othering experienced by a marginalized person and demonstrates how they would play out in this context. Heilui, as the spouse who belongs in her family, must mediate each facet of Kerttu's otherness. She must answer for the strangeness of her bride's pale skin, her accent, her table manners, at one point saying in as many words; "She's not a that, Mother." All of these characteristics are met with disapproval not because the foreign woman performs poorly, but because of the underlying fact of her foreignness. Though couched in outward politeness, this othering reflects the reality of 'minority respectability' everywhere: an elaborate farce in which perfection itself is the only forgivable form of failure. Kerttu is not truly a participant in this process. Instead, its continuation reifies the family's unwillingness to accept her as part of themselves.

Heilui is thus expected by her family to regard her bride as a novelty, an object filling in the functions of a spouse but intrinsically unsuited to do so. She was similarly commanded by her government to take Kerttu, dangerous war criminal, into her life as a patriotic sacrifice to preserve the integrity of her own citizenship. Her personal desire is to reject both sets of instructions entirely. Heilui wants to connect with her wife as a human being. Unfortunately, the demands of the roles in which their world has cast them make that next to impossible. The strategy Heilui employs to circumvent these expectations is twofold.

First, she gifts Kerttu a computer simulation which virtually recreates her lost homeland. This simulation becomes the primary place the foreign woman chooses to spend her time, when she can. Within it, both women are able to converse with one another more freely than they normally do face-to-face. By granting active existence to this aspect of her wife's identity, Heilui aims to supplant the destruction of othering with tangible understanding and respect. The measure of her success is that it becomes possible for the women to relate, within the simulation at least, as peers. Kerttu's first set of owners made her complicit in the physical destruction of her homeland. The constraints of arranged marriage, as their society dictates, would have required her to complete its cultural destruction as well. Only Heilui's unlooked-for compassion makes it possible for Kerttu to avoid that fate.

Second, she both actively and passively refuses to assert personal ownership of, or direction over, Kerttu's life and choices. She refrains from assigning her bride any duties. She invites her to choose her own clothes - a form of self-expression, and thus potential vulnerability, the foreign woman adroitly minimizes by choosing black, to signify mourning for her many losses. Heilui does not pass on her family's criticisms to her wife. On the contrary, Heilui both shields her and offers reassurance that her family elders are hard to please - which amounts to encouraging Kerttu to think of the two of them as being on the same side. She politely, but firmly and on more than one occasion, refuses Kerttu's offers to please her sexually. Each time Kerttu makes this offer, she does so explicitly in the context of a transactional relationship, as a service to which Heilui is entitled as her owner. When Kerttu asks with subtly apparent dismay if Heilui has rejected her intimate services from lack of attraction, we see for the first time that the desire for a genuine romantic relationship is mutual. Heilui offers a compromise: that they share a bed without sexual contact. Kerttu's expression grows cold, reminding her wife of a predatory mythical creature, when she briefly fears that this means Heilui is not romantically interested in her - that she only wants to embrace "like sisters". But here, and every turn, Heilui is careful to make it clear that she does not want to reject Kerttu herself, that she does indeed want to be her wife. She merely refuses to define their relationship in terms of the power imbalance which frames every interaction as an entitlement of Heilui's ownership rather than a gift of her bride's free will.

Kerttu's continued political entanglement becomes clear as the story goes on. As one of the few surviving members of the group which destroyed Europe, she is perfect bait to draw out a high-profile target. She asks Heilui for permission to explore the city on her own, and is quickly contacted by one of the terrorists with whom she had previously been associated. Heilui feels conflicted about stalking her wife, yet because it is the fulfillment of the government's intention in arranging their marriage, she doesn't really have a choice. In this, uniquely, Kerttu does have a choice. During a conversation which Heilui overhears, Kerttu's former associate confirms that he has the ability to free her from the tracking and behavioral implants binding her to the service of the Institute which arranged her marriage. He presents her, in effect, with her own Devil's bargain. She can either remain in relative physical comfort, confined by the necessities of marriage and assimilation, or reach for the dubious freedom of life as a fugitive.

Later, Kerttu describes her decision in terms of the kind of life she would have led, but as I read it, the more fundamental question was, under whose authority does she prefer to live? Her unnamed former co-conspirator offers only a simulacrum of freedom. He originates from her homeland and could break her out of an imprisoning marriage - a narrative convention all too familiar to readers of Western romantic stories. But what he and his group had done with her life, when they had power over it, was to use her for their own destructive ends. By contrast Heilui, who can appreciate Europe itself only indirectly through a simulation, has steadfastly presented Kerttu with the opportunity to define herself and to desire for herself, as much as is possible within the confines of their shared existence.

It is through this expression of love - her absolute refusal to wield oppressive power - that Heilui wins the trust and the heart of her occidental bride. And that, to me, is what makes this story so excellent and so deeply human. The characters model a rare and precious kind of devotion, from which is it all too easy to fall short in an unjust world.