Cast of Wonders 375: Reclaiming Our Narratives (Banned Books Week)
Our Skin Will Now Bear the Testimonies
by Innocent Chizaram Ilo
“Nduka, you better hurry or you’ll be late for school! Your breakfast is getting cold and you know you don’t like when curds form in your pap!” Aniele calls from the kitchen.
“Yes Mama,” Nduka answers from his bedroom.
The boy tiptoes to the door and gently bolts it before unbuttoning his school shirt. He stands in front of the mirror and looks at the string of words that snails along his belly.
“The resistance will no longer be written in books, it will be written on our skin.” He says this slowly, as if he is tasting every word. He knows where the words are from; a book of poetry his mother used to keep on the center-table in the parlor. It was the last gift Nduka’s father had given to his mother before he died. After Rev Mujojo’s latest sermon about the evils of subversive texts on Monday evening, Uncle Nnamdi had followed them home and taken the book despite Aniele’s pleadings that she would never open the book, that she would stash it away at the bottom of her late husband’s trunk, that the book was the only thing her husband left that Uncle Nnamdi had not already taken away.
Nduka runs his hand along the words. It tingles.
The resistance will no longer be written in books, it will be written on our skin.
The words appeared on his body the morning after the latest towering pile of books had been burnt in front of the library. He did not tell anyone. He stopped playing football at the open field near St Dodo’s Chapel, lying to his friends that he sprained his ankle, and started tying his towel a little below his chest when he went to bathe. Nduka knew what would happen if he risked letting anyone know about the words that had appeared on his body.
Diola was the first person to have words appear on her body. Everyone in class saw them crisscrossed across her arm when Ms. Ibura insisted she remove her cardigan because the classroom was stuffy and Diola was soaking sweat. Before the class could recover from the shock, soldiers had swarmed in and taken her away. This happened three full-moons ago. They never saw Diola again.
But the words on Diola’s arm stuck with Nduka. The resistance will no longer be written with ink. It will be with our blood.
“Nduka!” Aniele is banging at the door now. “You’re running late.”
“I’m already done, Mama.”
Nduka hurriedly buttons his school shirt before scampering out of the bathroom. He wolfs down the now cold pap and akara before dashing off to school.
Classes flit past Nduka in a blur. His mind keeps wandering back to the words on his skin. He rushes to the bathroom as soon as the bell for recess goes. There, he turns on the tap to create an illusion that the toilet is in use, stands in front of the mirror, and unbuttons his shirt.
“The resistance will no longer be written in books, it will be written on our skin. The resistance will no longer be written with ink. It will be with…”
Nduka freezes as he hears the words and the sound of a door bolt clicking shut. He turns around to see Anyi standing beside the door and his heart skips a beat.
Last year, before the book banning, Nduka had told his mother that he liked a boy in his class after he and Aniele finished reading a book about a man who was in love with another man, his next-door neighbor, but could not tell him. Years after his neighbor died, the man would find his neighbor’s diary where he wrote about being in love with him. “When you love someone, make sure you tell them when they can hear you say it,” Aniele had whispered before kissing her son goodnight. The next day, Nduka had written I love you, Anyi and wanted to pass it to Anyi during Integrated Science class, but Ms. Ibura intercepted it and forced him to read it, aloud, to the whole class. The whole class had laughed and Anyi had burst into tears.
“What are you doing here?” Nduka asks.
“You should make sure you lock the door, Nduka. You know the soldiers will take you away if anyone sees you.” Anyi says and goes over to the sink. He shuts off the tap and removes his school shirt.
Nduka comes closer to see the words that ran the whole length of Anyi’s spine clearly.
The resistance will no longer be taken away from us because we have become the resistance.
“I noticed them this morning. I tried to read them but I couldn’t no matter how I twisted myself in front of the mirror. What does it say?”
“The resistance will no longer be taken away from us because we have become the resistance.”
“Have you told anyone else about it?” Anyi asks before putting on his shirt.
“Same. Now let’s get out of here before people notice we’re alone together.
“Femmo,” Okey, the burly boy who sits at the last row in class shouts as soon as Nduka and Anyi walk out of the bathroom. He is standing at the end of the hallway with a bunch of his friends.
“Who is he calling femmo?”
“Me,” Nduka says and grabs Anyi’s hand and starts pulling him to the other end of the hallway.
“Hey, Anyi, why are you holding femmo’s hand like that?”
“Maybe he and femmo got cozy in the bathroom,” one of Okey’s friends cuts in.
“Just keep walking, Nduka,” Anyi says but it’s too late, he has lost grip of Nduka’s hand and Nduka is facing Okey and his friends.
“My name is Nduka!”
“I’ll call you whatever I want to call you,” Okey says and thuds his balled fists against Nduka’s chest. Nduka retaliates with a punch on Okey’s jaw. By the time the soldiers come to separate the scuffle, Nduka’s school shirt has been ripped into pieces and Okey’s face looks like it has been pummeled by rocks.
“He has the words on his body,” one of the soldiers says. “See it, right there below his ribcage.”
The soldiers scoop Nduka off his feet and begin to take him away. Anyi runs after them. He catches up with them just before they get to the school gate.
“Wait, I also have the words on my body. Take me, too.”
“He’s lying,” Nduka tells the soldiers. “Anyi, tell them you are lying.”
“I’m telling the truth.” Anyi removes his school shirt and turns his back for the soldiers to see. “The resistance will no longer be taken away from us because we have become the resistance,” he says.
By now, all the teachers and students have gathered at the school gate.
“I also have one,” a voice in the crowd at the school gate says. It is Simi, the bespectacled girl who sits next to Nduka. She spreads her palms to reveal the words.
“The resistance will scald your tongue until you spit it out.”
“The resistance is the moon; gentle light but fierce at manning ocean tides,” another student says as he removes his shoes and socks to reveal the words on the soles of his feet.
“The resistance is now. The resistance is here ”
“The resistance can never be stopped.”
“The resistance is a woman in a red dress dancing in front of soldiers sent by Town Council to dispel riots “.
“The resistance is every time you have chosen to love knowing you could be killed for loving the way you do.”
The soldiers stand stapled to the ground, not knowing what to do. The voices grow louder, past the school gate, until they wrap around the whole town like gauze.
by Maya Prasad
The neutrality of the algorithms of the Grid is a lie.
The words I’m writing are practically heresy in the Inner Galaxy, where the artificial intelligence of the Grid directs every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our production patterns to our partners.
AI led me to my boyfriend Krishna. AI led me to gardening, a meditative hobby with underlying physical science. AI even offers me therapy, statistically accumulated advice on how to handle my overbearing mother.
Said overbearing mother pokes her head in my room. “Kavya, how’s the thesis coming along?”
AI Interpersonal Counselor: Don’t lie, but don’t give unnecessary details.
“It’s great, Ma. Working on it now.”
Her forehead crinkles with worry. “I thought you’d be done by now.”
AI Interpersonal Counselor: Appeal to the other person’s values.
“I just want it to be perfect.”
She nods in approval. “You remind me of myself when I was your age: first in my class, determined to get the best assignment after graduation. Just remember, efficiency is also important.”
AI Interpersonal Counselor: Give gratitude where it is due.
“Thanks, Ma. I’ve learned a lot from you.”
In the plot I’ve overtaken on the south end of the property, I measure the minerals in the soil mixture, add fertilizer here, adjust the irrigation system there. I could use a robot Gardener for this work, but it’s so much more satisfying to get my hands dirty, to inhale the mingling fragrances of earth and flowers and fruit, to pop a taste of cherry tomato in my mouth. Ma doesn’t approve of hobbies, but she relented because the garden planning algorithm I wrote will serve as an important centerpiece for my thesis.
All the relevant factors were injected into my code: location, season, humidity, temperature, sunlight access, soil content, water purity, and more. To give the garden a personal touch, I uploaded Cook’s frequently used recipes to prioritize the most-needed ingredients.
Thus we have plenty of cilantro for chutneys, lychee for Papa’s sweet tooth, okra for Ma’s favorite fried dish, and a particularly pungent chili that’s perfect for the spicy pickled mangoes that I pair with anything and everything. Catering to our tastes isn’t inherent bias, however. It’s a purposeful input of data that yields highly satisfactory output.
Almost as satisfying as the boy waiting for me under a lemon tree.
Krishna grins. “Are you still obsessing about that weed?”
“I don’t obsess. I ponder, I question, I investigate.”
No need to mention that the curious, thorny vine in question has been keeping me up, haunting my dreams.
“Right.” He offers me a bicolor rose, sunny yellow petals with fiery red tips.
“Did you just pick this from my garden?”
“It’s from my mom’s, I promise.” His impish smile is infectious, and whether he’s telling the truth or not doesn’t really matter. I pull him down beside me, into the dirt between the cilantro and the sweet bay. The damp soil and the late afternoon sun and Krishna’s lips on mine are intoxicating.
A weed in my garden indicates a bug in my code. Scouring each line, I search for what went wrong. At this level in my studies, any deficiencies in my algorithm—no matter how small—will impact my job assignment after graduation.
Yet simulation after simulation indicates there is no bug, implying a discrepancy between the simulator and the real-life conditions of the garden. However, this particular simulator has been rigorously tested, and I verified all the data inputs myself.
The app that tracks my menstrual periods alerts me that something is off.
“You did this on purpose.” Ma says.
“Why would you think that?”
She crosses her arms. “Nobody gets pregnant by accident anymore.”
My pills are pre-formulated, my hormones regulated, my vitamin intake medically balanced by Cook. The algorithms are infallible, unwanted pregnancies unheard of. I think back: did I do this on purpose, subconsciously? But why?
Papa sighs. “It’s time we consulted the Matchmaker for your long-term plans.”
I’m instantly annoyed. “I’m happy about the baby. I want to marry Krishna. I don’t need AI to tell me that.”
“The algorithm is thousands of years old. It brought me to your mother. We will consult it.”
I like to grow things, to nourish them into fruition. To watch them bloom and surprise me with a particularly fragrant note. I even admire my little weed because it slipped into my garden with a will of its own.
These are my preferences, my inherent biases. Did they lead to my pregnancy? Even now, I can’t put my finger on the moment that went wrong. The moment that ultimately went right.
My parents put too much stock into advice given by machines. The equation should be simple: me + Krishna + baby = we’re all fine. Yet the AI Matchmaker has other plans—plans that have nothing to do with marriage or babies or family at all. For I am a willful weed in the Grid’s meticulously tended garden, and it seeks to swallow me, to transmogrify me into something else entirely.
I spill my frustration into my thesis, shining a light on the subtle censorship and manipulations of our utopia, the inevitable human fallibility of our algorithms:
The Grid was created by people. Thus, it has inherited their biases, which took root in our algorithms in unexpected ways. They privilege certain plants, while others are classified as undesirable, even invasive…
Screw the Matchmaker’s thousand-year-old thoughts on my future.
The network search engine yields zero results for ways out of the Inner Galaxy. Yet when I manually comb through newsfeeds, I discover a job ad for a botanist needed in Tri-Rock, an outpost in the Beltway outside the reach of the Grid.
Was the discrepancy a deliberate manipulation? Or was it simply a bug, an untested query? After all, why would anyone want to leave?
I’m on a cargo shuttle, ready to flee. The Grid can’t have me, and it can’t have this seed I’ve planted. I’ll find it a new plot of earth—soil and sun and minerals from sources outside the Inner Galaxy. Outside the ordered utopia that my parents and Krishna are content to remain in.
As I prepare to self-disconnect, I notice in real time that my professors are deleting my research from the university drive. Fair enough, if they no longer need to grade it. Yet my work cautions against the swelling power of the Grid, how our reliance on its neutrality has grown.
Now each file, each word, each byte is being released into free memory, making space for more suitable data.
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The neutrality of the algorithms of the Grid is a lie.
The neutrality of the algorithms of the Grid
The neutrality of the algorithms
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Metal Can Lanterns
by Joyce Chng
Zhen dodged through the heaving crowd. It was early evening and the main street had filled with sweaty bodies, walking legs, and rude exclamations. Zhen gripped his sister’s hand tightly, slipping past the guards, and ducking into an alley. He smiled as they skirted past the huge metal dumpsters and the bags of disposables. He didn’t need to scavenge any items from them for reuse. He was already holding a bag of small aluminum cans in one hand. They jiggled. It was a reassuring sound.
At last they reached the abandoned watchtower that had become their special hiding place. Nobody bothered them there, not even the factory supervisors who made their lives difficult and called them names. Pa said that it was a relic from the last war. Most people, especially the elderly, avoided the watchtower. Po Po wouldn’t even talk about it, no matter how much Zhen and Ziling tried to tease information out of her. Their grandmother’s usually cheerful eyes would cloud over when they broached the topic. “Don’t go there,” she would warn. “Bad things happened there.” Then she would tell them about the gwai, the ghosts whose undead spirits lingered on to torment the living.
Zhen and Ziling had spent days, weeks, in the dusty rooms now cobwebby and heavy with memories. They gazed at the skies often. High up, the air was cleaner. Some nights, they could even see stars. Pigeons roosted in the watchtower, molting white-grey-black-brown-speckled feathers, which Ziling gathered to use as decorations in one of the rooms.
The watchtower had a spiralling staircase which Zhen loved. They ran up, racing to the top, where the silence of the place filled Zhen, punctuated only by the crooning of the pigeons and the flap-flap-flap of their mottled wings.
The moment passed. Zhen reluctantly tore himself away from the parapet. Ziling was waiting for him in the spot they had privately christened theirs. Stones, strings of feathers, leaves from ancient books and colorful glass shards hung from the ceiling, festooning the area. The room was their sanctuary. At home, they jostled for space. Communal habitats were crammed. There was no privacy, no joy.
Zhen entered reverently and placed the bag of cans on the floor. Ziling was already sitting down, taking spools of string and white wax candles from her pockets.
Zhen took out a penknife he had taken from Pa’s pile of tools. Pa never noticed. His junkyard mechanic shop was a messy treasure trove. Quickly, silently, Zhen cut slits on one can. He examined his handiwork and then pressed down hard the top of the can. The incisions bulged outward and formed the shape of a Chinese lantern.
Ziling copied her brother. They did this yearly, always on the 15th day of the 8th month by the old calendar—the official date was not the same. Zhen knew that Ziling was too young to remember why, but she liked to make Older Brother happy.
When they had made five or six lanterns, Zhen glanced at the window. “Quickly now,” he said in pidgin Cantonese, Po Po’s language. “The moon has risen.”
Flashes of firelight illuminated the room, a sudden burst-smell of gunpowder. Zhen had salvaged matches from the bags of disposables.
They dipped their flickering matches into the cans and lit the candles. Immediately, the metal can lanterns came to life, throwing patterns onto the glass shards that in turn sparkled like semi-precious stones.
The moon rose, a large orange-yellow cratered orb. It was not the moon their ancestors, the elders, knew. It was a new moon for a new place. But still a moon nonetheless. Pa, Po Po, and the other adults never spoke about the old calendar anymore. Sometimes Po Po lit candles, burned incense, and placed plates of sweets at the window of their tiny flat. For the gwai, she said. But if Zhen asked her to say more, her eyes would cloud and she would continue no further.
Zhen knew they had traditions. Festivals. Yet now, they were fading away, like the torn pages of the books he collected from the disposables. He read them in secret, and learned about who and what they were.
He didn’t want to become a faint memory like distant Earth.
Ziling rummaged through the pockets of her grey smock. Girls of her age had to wear smocks. It was the rule of the new government. They worked in the factories in the day. Grey Girls, they were called. She fished out a small parcel wrapped in crinkly silver foil. Carefully, she peeled the foil open, exposing a small circular disk of baked pastry.
“You managed to get one?” Zhen whispered. “How?”
“They throw away things at the Upper shops,” Ziling said. “Even whole boxes. I grabbed one before the rest got to it.”
Mooncakes were sold at a very high price and considered an item of nostalgia. The government didn’t care—food was inconsequential, and the rich ate them mostly because they were expensive.
The siblings broke the mooncake into smaller pieces and savored them: sweet, creamy with hints of lotus seeds and nuts.
Ziling brushed the crumbs off her smock, watching as Zhen went over to the remnants of books he had lovingly kept. There were pages missing, bits torn, whole paragraphs blanked out by black ink. The works of the censors.
“See this? People used to celebrate this openly,” he said, showing Ziling a treasured page. Yellowed with age, it had a large picture of lanterns in many shapes and sizes. Roosters, spaceships, superheroes, flowers, fishes, dragons, phoenixes.
They all looked new, the lanterns. And the children carrying them looked happy.
“I don’t like celebrating it secretly. It’s so wrong,” frustration made Zhen’s voice hoarser, urgent.
“Shhh, not so loud, the imperial censors will hear you,” Ziling hissed.
Zhen gazed at the lanterns, unable to speak further.
“What can we do? We are children. They are adults.” Ziling continued.
Zhen recalled an incident in his childhood, before Ziling was born. Imperial censors and soldiers tore the paper lanterns from the windows and streets, throwing them into bonfires. People huddled in groups, terrified. Pa pushed Zhen back, as if to shield him from the sight. Ma was crying. Ma was still alive then.
They sat in silence. Ziling got up, brushed her smock again, and walked around their sanctuary, touching each item as if to commit them to memory.
“We can make everyone remember, Older Brother,” she said softly.
“How” Zhen asked, but hope filled his chest like a warm fire on a cold night
“By planting seeds with metal cans.”
Zhen laughed. “It sounds like you have a plan.”
In the months that followed, Zhen and his friends scavenged more aluminum cans, white candles and matches. The teenagers formed whisper chains, passing messages, filtering news. It was their act of resistance.
With the Grey Girls, Ziling marked the refuse bins of the Upper shops, noting when the shop assistants threw things away. It was their act of rebellion.
When the next 15th day of the 8th month arrived, cans started appearing on window ledges and in dark corners of the communal habitats. All across the city, in households and in cramped apartment blocks, away from the Upper houses and shops, lights flickered as the full moon ascended. Whenever anyone asked why, the children and teens simply said, “I felt like it.”
Paper lanterns could burn. Paper lanterns could be torn apart. Metal can lanterns would last longer.
As for Zhen and Ziling, they carried on their celebration in their little watchtower, carving the metal cans and eating mooncakes. Their word had spread and many had taken the challenge. They had planted seeds of rebellion and resistance for the future.
Together, they lifted their metal can lanterns to the sky, joining a network of fervent hearts and memories.
About the Authors
Innocent Chizaram Ilo
In between receiving tonnes of rejections from cat adoption agencies, Innocent finds time to read, write, tweet, and nurse his fragile ego. His works have been published or are forthcoming in Fireside, Reckoning 2, A Beautiful Resistance, Brittle Paper, SSDA, and elsewhere. He lives in Nigeria.
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Their fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Their recent space opera novels deal with wolf clans (Starfang: Rise of the Clan) and vineyards (Water into Wine) respectively. They also write speculative poetry with recent ones in Rambutan Literary and Uncanny Magazine. Occasionally, they wrangle article editing at Strange Horizons and manages Umbel & Panicle, a poetry journal and ezine about and for plants and botany (which they also founded). Alter-ego J. Damask writes about werewolves in Singapore. You can find them at http://awolfstale.wordpress.com and @jolantru on Twitter. (Pronouns: she/her, they/their)
Maya Prasad is a South Asian American writer, a Caltech graduate, and a former Silicon Valley software engineer. She now resides in the Pacific Northwest, where she enjoys hiking, canoeing, and raising her budding bookworm daughter. A recipient of the 2017 We Need Diverse Books mentorship program, she writes stories featuring unwieldy technologies, Indian culture, and subversive STEM girls.
About the Narrators
Solomon Osadolo is a UX Writer and Product Experience specialist based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Athena Haq is a high school writer and dancer in Houston, Texas.
John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Tor.com among other venues. His translations have been published or is forthcoming at Clarkesworld, The Big Book of SF and other venues. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story (available narrated by John himself at EscapePod).
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.