The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Refugees from Nulongwe" by M. Shayne Bell: An Appreciation by Rhonda S. Garcia

When you decide to write, when you sit down and start writing (which is the only sure-fire way to learn how), when you take that plunge and decide to put words to paper for someone other than yourself to read, you start changing. You see things differently; you ask yourself "Is that sound dripping water makes really drip or plonk? Or is it something else?" You start trying to describe things to yourself the way they really are, not the way someone else wrote them in your favourite novel. You start listening to the way people talk, watching the way they act, so you can build realistic characters out of them later.

And you change the way you read. No, that's wrong. You don't really change the way you read--the way you read changes. Before you could read just for the pleasure of it. You could lose yourself in the perfect story, regardless of the imperfect structure. You could recommend something purely because you enjoyed it. But once you start writing, there's a voice in your mind that you can't shut off ever again. A voice that compares your skills to the writer you're reading, a voice that scoffs at the overuse of adverbs and "was." This seems to be true for all writers, no matter what genre they write.

In short, to paraphrase John D. Macdonald, you start reading everything with weary contempt or grinding envy.

What I talked about before was the weary contempt part. "Refugees from Nulongwe" . . . well, that's all about the grinding envy for me.

I call myself a writer because that's what I do when I'm being myself--truly myself. I've got jobs, dependants, lots of chores--the usual. I have yet to see my name in print in something other than a contest also-ran list. But I've been in this world of words since I was two, and I've been writing novels since I was ten, and I think that qualifies me to judge what works for me when it comes to writing.

This story worked for me. Worked like a dream that you're really enjoying, so much so that when you come out of it, it's a slow waking, a soft wondrous letting go that, nevertheless, stays with you as you return to the real world. I read "Refugees from Nulongwe" years ago, when it was first posted to the SCI FICTION site. When I was done, I sent a note to my sister (another struggling writer) asking her to take a look at it. She did.

It's that simple. If you love something, you pass it on. If you love a story, it's impossible for you to find the flaws or to critique from an unbiased place. You lose yourself in it, and when it's time to stop, you do so with some reluctance, but also with jubilation. You've found a story that didn't make you grind to a halt over an ill-chosen phrase or a cliché. You've found a writer that didn't make you roll your eyes over their pursuit of flowery prose.

When I told my sister I was going to do an appreciation, the first thing she said was "do that elephant story." I laughed. I thought she would have forgotten it by now. I should have known I would be wrong.

I remember quite a few stories from SCI FICTION, but none stuck in my gut all this time the way "Refugees" did. In M. Shayne Bell's story, the refugees are elephants, wise creatures that we can finally communicate with due to the technological advancements. The elephants, led by an amazingly graceful animal called Elizabeth, are running from the threat of genocide. Yes, despite the advancements, despite the clear evidence that elephants are intelligent creatures, there are still those who will not share the Earth with another intelligent species--even if they are no less human than…well, humans. Some things never change.

Bell managed to imbue the elephants with a dignity and wisdom all their own, yet we recognize their suffering and their courage, because it is the suffering of all displaced peoples. The courage of those that have no choice but to be courageous or die.

I won't spoil the rest of the story for those who haven't read it yet (this is an appreciation, not a review, so I get to be greedy and just gush), but I will say that at the end of the story, what really stuck it to me was the footnote. The footnote that pointed out that the work to protect and rescue orphans in the story was actually being done at that very moment.

That was amazing for me. The idea that I was not just reading a story, I was reading a real science fiction story. Because it was all about possibilities . . . and truth.

Good stories do more than tell a story - they open our eyes to new possibilities, new ideas. New truths. "Refugees from Nulongwe" is a story that tells the truth about our nature, our society and they way we see them both. How that one thing--that ability to finally talk to a being we never could before--can so completely change us and the world around us. If we let it. If we can overcome the flaws that sometimes, regrettably, make us so human.

"Refugees from Nulongwe" did all this without one useless line. With the perfect prose that made you see the beauty of what was being talked about without the fussiness. Beautiful prose that never drew attention to itself until you really, really read it, and then it made you sigh at the simplicity of it--the rightness.

Easy. That's the word. The whole story felt easy, like it had been written, from beginning to end, with no effort at all--and it was no effort to read either. For a writer, and readers as well, that's one way to recognize that the story is more than good. It's special.

I can't remember if "Refugees from Nulongwe" won any awards. It should have, in my humble opinion. If it didn't, though, it wouldn't matter. To this day, I still recommend it. This story lit me on fire, made me push to be a better writer. I knew then that I couldn't do something like this--I probably can't even now. Maybe I never will. But, oh, the sweet jealousy that made me say, "I want to do that. I want to write a story that sticks in the gut and doesn't let go. That never fails to impress you no matter how many angles you look at it from." I still want to write a story that makes people gush about it the way I gushed about M. Shayne Bell's "Refugees." It's the goal that keeps me going.

So I guess what I want to say is, thanks. Thank you, M. Shayne Bell, for sharing this amazing story, for touching the lives of at least two writers--and lifelong readers--in a way they'll never forget.

Thank you, most of all, for introducing me to the concept of grinding envy.

Link to story.


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