Of Flash, Queer, and the Myths of a Cave

Flash fiction reminds me of my childhood fascination with paleontology and archeology. I loved how, from just a chip of stone or a few improbable bones, one could glean all sorts of cool stuff about a dinosaur, an ancient fish, or one of our ancestors.

The fascination is still there, and the latest big news in archaeology comes from the Rising Star Cave System, South Africa. In an area known as Dinaledi Chamber, scientists spent two years excavating and analyzing the remains of a previously unknown ancestor, Homo naledi. In a field where one almost never gets complete remains, the Rising Star site held not one, but fifteen nearly complete skeletons!

For archaeologists, fifteen individuals is a dream come true. From their bones, researchers have inferred that members of this group were genus homo, systematically deposited their dead, walked a lot like us, yet had hands built for climbing, and brain cases averaging less than 1/3 the volume of our own.

It’s exciting stuff! In many ways, bone fragments are stories. If they are good stories, everyone wants more. Give us a few skeletons, and we want to know what they ate, what gods they worshipped, how they waged war and made love. Artists create vivid conceptions; sculptors mold clay faces over skulls, complete with thoughtful brows, perceptive eyes and racially ambiguous skin tones. National Geographic’s glossy article depicts a procession of solid, somber H. naledi men carrying a fallen comrade past a tribe of onlookers to the burial. One can almost hear a Peter Jackson-style soundtrack. There’s also a side-by-side comparison of “Lucy” (Australopithecus aferensis), “Turkana Boy (Homo erectus) and “Rising Star Hominin” (H. naledi), posed in front of an “Ecce Homo” backdrop, looking quizzically at each other like different races from a fantasy role-playing game.

And therein lies the danger. Under the trapping of learning, what is the fantasy? The prettier and more enticing the fragments, the more we want to know. Yet even with H. naledi, we are talking about only 15 skeletons. We don’t know if men or women (or children) carried the bodies to the chamber. We don’t know why they did it.

In fact, we don’t even know the age of the bones.

Researchers, however, know how a good story can fuel their research, academic standing, and personal fame. And so, overzealous archaeologists have ransacked and ruined the sites they were exploring. A so-called scientist used dynamite to excavate Troy, literally pulverizing much of the site. Yet while bones, fragments, shards of existence can tantalize us with their possibilities, we must be aware that our own desires, projections, and excavations might be destroying stories that we cannot perceive.

Researchers discover and contextualize significant fragments and bones, while academic and popular journals such as Nature and National Geographic lend their findings legitimacy and distribution. Likewise, literary editors search for stories they feel are significant, with literary journals contextualizing and disseminating their selections to hungry readerships.

All, however, should consider that the shiniest, most obvious stories and images are likely fragmented and possibly obscure other, more hidden stories. And when it comes time for that “very special issue,” solicited from a specific group, be they queer, POC, differently-sized, differently abled, it is important to remember that these fragments are positioned and nuanced in ways that we might not detect.
Also consider the prejudices endemic to short form fiction. Flash and queer intertwine because flash queers writing, the way good queering does to whatever it touches, to challenge institutional power and limits of definitions. To write and publish flash is more than an artistic choice for precision, distillation, or even a gesture to the popular concept of shorter attention spans.

We live in a world where power in expressed is not merely money, but through occupation of temporal and physical space—time served in prison, the space taken by a man on the subway, the guy filling the Starbucks with his phone conversation, waiting on hold for the DMV.
And editors, critics, readers themselves often enable this power. A novelist’s intellectual ownership of novels is lionized, while similar claims made over short-form work, from poems to songs to comedy, are often taken less seriously. Critics protest Harper Lee’s agent for green lighting Go Set a Watchman without Lee’s apparent comprehension—yet there is no similar indignation when standup comics have their jokes stolen, or when a relative prods a poet to read her work out loud (or reads it for her).

The dubious veracity of A Million Little Pieces triggered righteous outrage from Oprah Winfrey and her entire book club. But Sherman Alexie actually defended selecting work from a white poet writing under pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou” for 2015’s Best American Poetry. Perhaps this speaks to the relative character of Winfrey and Alexie, but Alexie’s indifference to blatant social and racial appropriation also reveals the almost cavalier attitude towards the authorship of shorter-length work.

This privileging of size especially harms writers of marginalized narratives, who, by definition, have less access to resources and support and consequently may often work in shorter forms. It is difficult to write a novel if you don’t have child care or a job, are worried about getting evicted, or are in the hospital with three cracked ribs and your jaw wired shut because someone thought boys should not be wearing makeup.

Thus many queer narratives may be short form, found, fragmented, in odd places, even evasive. Some of them will glitter, entice, affirm. Some will make you cry. Some will drug your drink. Yet in a place of rare and precious fragments, eagerness for the latest discovery can obliterate other, more subtle and thoughtful narratives.

The remains of H. naledi were found by Stephen Tucker and Rick Hunter, two adventuring amateur spelunkers. Apparently in trying to get past the other, one of them stumbled past a narrow opening, knew it had never been explored, and decided to go for it. There he found a chamber full of bones. The rest is, as they say, history.

The fast, easy story would have stopped there. In fact, Tucker and Hunter did get most of the initial notoriety, and yes, if news sources went by the typical “who made the first discovery” angle, that would have been fine. Men discovering something! There was a mandible! A skull! He had to dislocate his shoulder to get out alive! A tale filled with usual accounts of chance, danger, exploration, of the thrill of doing something new.

Fun—but also kind of expected. Oh well—yay! Onward to the next exploration!

But what did this loud, easy-to-digest story obscure? Those without a geeky love for archaeology might not have dug further to find that neither Tucker nor Hunter had the expertise to further analyze H. naledi. Those glazing over another tale of brave goofy men would have missed how the true work was done by scientists—among them six “underground astronauts” who were chosen based on their expertise, small size (to safely get to the site), and caving ability. More powerfully, especially because women are underrepresented in STEM fields, Marina Elliott, Becca Peixotto, K. Lindsay Hunter, Elen Feuerriegel, Hannah Morris, and Alia Gurtov, were all women—another fact ignored in those first sensationalistic reports.

Yet even that was not the only story. These scientists were found not through traditional academic channels but through Facebook. The same Facebook you waste time on every day! One can even find the original post. When was the last time a layperson was privy to an actual call for scientists—to actually see scientific history being made? Science has never seemed more social. Possibly, as one commenter suggested, this single post was one of the most meaningful scientific uses of social media ever.

So in the finding of H. naledi, in what we thought was another adventurous tale about explorers finding fossils, were stories that inform and challenge our present, and our future, as well.

And isn’t that what the best stories do?

If we solicit, edit, and publish queer work—which often is created in spite of, in opposition to, or in the margins of our present and future—we cannot be easy. Every story we find has survived its own sort of burial, inaccessibility, and excavation. No matter how vivid the fragment of sexual discovery, inspiring the shard of transition, or gritty the mandible of political struggle and otherness—editors and publishers who choose stories by queer writers based on their own or their readers’ preconceptions, may be actually pandering to and affirming existing prejudices rather than challenging them.

And even more urgently, we must remember that privileging such narratives, even those that seem difficult or challenging, may over-write and erase other narratives—other narratives that may also challenge, inspire, exalt, or do absolutely none of the above, yet so insistently, by the promise of their brilliance, need to be shared.

Ryka Aoki (Seasonal Velocities, He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) and Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul) has an MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University and is a professor of English at Santa Monica College. To know more, she asks that you visit www.rykaryka.com.