The Animal Women

My short story (novelette, for the technical-minded) is now up at Strange Horizons (Part 1, Part 2). Because I’m a compulsive over-sharer who can’t let art stand on its own spindly legs, there are a few things I want to say.

“The Animal Women” started as a bulleted timeline of 1968. It metamorphosed into a ramble-y story about a young girl in eastern Kentucky with a Polaroid camera and a speech impediment. At its most successful,[1] it would be about the fractured cultural landscape of the 1960s, the changing nature of race politics, white backlash, women’s voices, and magical transformation.

I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve written.[2] Not for any super objective reasons, but just because everything in it is…kind of very close to my heart.

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Me and my Dad, sometime after the Berlin Wall fell but before NAFTA.

It’s about Kentucky. The place I grew up, the place I circle back to, the place I hold in my heart next to the word “home.” Sometimes, when the light’s just right and the cicadas are so loud your teeth rattle and everything smells like wet summer clay—I think it’s just a half step away from heaven. Sometimes, when you’ve driven by four Confederate flags and a dozen “Coal Keeps the Lights On” stickers on your way to class only to have a student tell you racism ended in 1965—I think my partner and I should just drive north until we hit Nunavut and live like polar bears.

Maybe everybody feels that way about their home.

But when you feel such a snarled-up mess of love and hate and loyalty towards a place, you want to get it right. You want to steer clear of the stereotypes lying like steel traps in the path, about how poor and ignorant and hillbilly and white Kentuckians are.

Okay, so there are some ugly truths here: Out of the ten poorest, most difficult-to-get-by-in counties in the country, six of them are in eastern Kentucky. In Clay County, 21% of adults lack basic literacy skills. We’re 47th in household income and 45th in life expectancy (god bless West Virginia and Mississippi). In the 1960s, it was worse.

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My Mom, pretty damn pleased with herself for being in a tree.

But there are still two big problems with the way these numbers transform into stereotypes: First, they have a terrible habit of turning the crushing realities of poverty into comedy. God knows why. From Li’l Abner to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, poverty is some hilarious shit.[3] Second, white poverty is not the only story of Kentucky or Appalachia. It just isn’t.

By erasing African American (and Native American and Hispanic and immigrant and LGBTQ) histories in Appalachia, we’re erasing history itself, in all its complexity and depth and vital reality. We’re erasing lives. But we’re also pulling a sly trick, where we get to erase the history of racial exclusion and violence in Appalachia, too. And that was–and is–very real.

So—I wanted to write something that didn’t condemn or valorize or stereotype or fail Kentucky and Kentuckians. I wanted to write about the lives lived in secret, on the margins, half-hidden.

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Mom, sometime after the moon landing but before Watergate.

And I guess I wanted to write about my Mom, who really was running around eastern Kentucky in the 60s and 70s, looking into cameras as if someone just double-dog-dared her to. Your parents’ stories are the first ones you ever learn, I think, and when you hear them enough times and roll them around in your little-kid skull for long enough, they start to seem mythological, apocryphal. Like maybe she did get lost in the woods sometimes and find mad, wild things.

I know dedicating a short story isn’t a thing (it’s like holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Dollar General. Seriously, no one is impressed), but if it were—this one would be for my Mom.


[1] Like, if it were actually all the things I wanted it to be, which no story ever is.

[2] Including the thing I wrote in Storybook Weaver when I was five about a girl whose parents try to poison her with bread (?), but she runs away with her brother and leaves them in a cage, cogently titled, “Bread.” If you don’t know what Storybook Weaver is…well, you should.

[3] For the record, there’s another branch of the stereotype-tree that tends to elevate poor Appalachians as the last bastion of our noble white heritage. It was an invention of the post-Reconstruction Era, when white America was having one of its usual freakouts over, you know, black and immigrant Americans continuing to exist. See Nina Silber, “What Does America Need So Much as Americans?: Race and Northern Reconciliation with Southern Appalachia, 1870-1900,” in John Inscoe, ed., Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation.



  1. I am anxiously awaiting the second half of this story. Your writing is just luscious! And you can plot like nobody’s bidness!

  2. I still have the draft from over a year ago in my desk and I’ve gone back to re-read it from time to time because Candis is great. But mostly I’m happy to see it being published and available to the public. It’s about damn time.

    Now hurry up and get part 2 out so I can write a proper review.

      1. Part Two is perfect. PERFECT.

        I know writing can be a solitary business–and it’s a frightening thing to think that something you care about is just flying off into the void–which is why I’m always happy to give positive feedback when I feel that it’s deserved.

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