First Look: Unwieldy Creatures (2022)
By Addie Tsai
The following is an excerpt from Addie Tsai's UNWIELDY CREATURES, forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press (Fall 2022).
One day I woke up to a torrential rainstorm, and even though my mother hadn’t risen yet, I knew she would be too struck with trepidation to drive us into town. My bag, which I’d thrown haphazardly on the ground the day before, opened slightly to reveal an old copy of Lysistrata Hana lent me a few days prior, suggesting it would help me in my research. I was in no rush to read it as I assumed in my usual act of hubris it couldn’t offer me anything of substance given I had not found it on my own, but I had accepted it from her so as not to hurt her feelings.
Still, I was bored waiting for the rain to dissipate, so I started to read it. I also wanted to be able to say something to Hana if she were to ask what I thought of her gift. To my surprise, reading this book reminded me of the study Hana had found that caused that first display of fitful rage, and what it would mean if, as a society, we became less dependent upon men for societal needs, or even reproduction. Excited and unthinking, and desperate to speak to anyone about my discovery, I ran to my mother after reading the book for a couple of hours, who was preparing a spicy Malay stew to feed us for lunch that day. I tried to explain to her my epiphany as she stirred the stew with a wooden spoon unthinkingly with one hand and held the book in the other hand as she read the synopsis that graced the back of the volume. Without even finishing it, she exclaimed nonchalantly without giving my thoughts much attention: “Aiyo, Zo. Why you read this silly book? No point, basically.” She handed it back to me, her eyes barely looking up as she returned to the meal at hand.
Her reaction annoyed me. I was eager to find someone to talk out these exciting ideas with—and because of Hana’s father, I could never reach her on the phone. In a moment of vulnerability and intellectual fervor, I tried to reach out to Ezra.
“Ezzie, look!” I said, calling him by my old pet name for him without thinking. I could tell he wasn’t amused, but nothing could have stopped me at that moment. “I prefer Ezra, please,” he stated without looking up at me, and continued to read a book my father asked Ezra to write a report on by the end of that weekend.
“Have you read this play? I wonder what it would be like, not to depend on men the way we always have. What if, in the future, one could even have children without men entirely?” I blurted out, as though he was the old Ezra, the one I had spent all my childhood days with. It was a foolish mistake.
“Are you kidding? I often wonder who is filling your head with these ideas. Where you get these books from. Men will always matter. You’ll see.” With that, Ezra went back to his book without a second’s glance back at me. I was incensed, and devastated that there was no one with whom I could share my ideas when I was finally ready, that the two who I thought had been mine to cherish and love my whole life were slipping like sand through my fingers.
“What happened to you? You used to be my light. I don’t know who—or what—you are now.”
“Well, maybe it’s time you stopped treating me like one of your childhood dolls,” Ezra yawned, jotting down a note in his book. I stormed off and stewed in my room. No one noticed, or seemed to care. My mother left dinner trays for me outside my bedroom door. Eventually, loneliness and boredom got the best of me, and life proceeded as normal.
If my mother—or even Ezra—had offered a space for me to work out the ideas beginning to percolate in me after reading Aristophanes’ satire, then perhaps she would have expressed a deeper concern that day in the kitchen, and we would not be here now, you and I, speaking of how my ideas ultimately led to my ruin. Instead, it only assured me that the only people surrounding me were either not confident in my own abilities to surpass the innovations already performed by men, or disinterested in the kind of immersion of ideas I had already decided to devote my life to, and would no longer be anyone I could share them with. It was around this time that, aside from Hana, I would develop an admittedly troubling habit of easily and promptly casting aside anyone who I found no longer of use to me. My family and the small town in which we lived were no longer of any use to me. It was time to move on.
But as I attempted to make my plans for the future, time went on, and my connection with Hana deepened over the succeeding months, even continuing back in the city during the school year where Ezra and I were forced to attend school. Hana and I had to rely on other forms of communication to share our ideas and curiosities (and at times, tender moments of desire for one another) surreptitiously. Although I greatly missed her during those periods, I must admit it was freeing to be able to focus solely on my work without the distractions of erotic needs or making time for Hana to keep me from my higher purpose, that which I felt had been my destiny from birth.
Still, we continued to explore the ideas of other minds from afar, and began reading novels and critical texts that explored the dangerous power of men and other feminist ideals—we dug deep into Atwood and Butler, Wollstonecraft and Lorde, Rich and Carter. These writers imbued me with an ambition to reach for a pursuit deeper than just as a reader of giants and a potential future theorist in our little excitable pair. I wanted to penetrate the world and bestow on it something it had never been given before, just like so many men had done in decades past. It wasn’t enough for me to write critically about gender and toxic masculinity or to ponder the future potential of science, like these women writers I admired and read voraciously, and like Hana hoped to do after receiving her master’s degree. Even though I did not have any great desire to carry a child or parent myself—my only model left me wondering if one could ever raise a child with love and acceptance—but I was always contemplating how pairs like ours could reproduce without relying on a man (and being forced to accept all the conditions he would come with). What if I came up with a way to create an embryo and prove it could be carried to full term by a human without the need of men entirely? How unparalleled a voice I would embody next to all the men who could not discover anything even close to that kind of innovation!
Not long after this epiphany, my mother, Ezra, and I found ourselves on an unusual outing together. Uncharacteristically, my mother came into each of our rooms early in the morning, and demanded we get dressed and meet her in the car. My father was in town for the weekend, and I suppose she was trying to get us out of the house before he woke. Shuffling our feet and rubbing our eyes, we managed to find our way to my father’s car. I couldn’t imagine what possible destination could be worth the backlash we would receive at home, having taken my father’s precious mode of transportation. But, since this was a side of my mother I hadn’t seen before, I knew better than to question her.
We drove for two hours through West Texas. Each of us asked where we were headed, but my mother just snapped back, “You’ll see. Quiet,” and turned up the volume on her CD of various tracks of Indonesian monks chanting to the underscore of bells she often would listen to when she wanted to relax. It promptly put us both to sleep.
I naturally woke up when the car came to a complete stop. She had taken us to Monahans Sandhills State Park, a public park covered in sand dunes I’d heard about for as long as we’d lived in West Texas, but I couldn’t imagine either parent interested in visiting.
Standing next to the car, I stretched my legs and my back before taking in what stood before me. It was still early enough that the sun wasn’t too harsh yet, and the pre-dawn light allowed me to take in the stunning sight before me—sand as far as the eye could see. The wavy folds of sand in the enormous dunes looked like the ocean, and they brought me great comfort. My mother walked over to a nearby wooden bench, wearing a visor her mother had found at an Asian market in town, and began to read one of her beach reads. Ezra found himself a different bench, opening up his bag to return to our father’s work that he had been asked to analyze by the next day. I rolled my eyes under my sunglasses.
I took off my sneakers and my socks and I trudged through the sand. It felt good to work my legs after such a long drive, and I appreciated the ability to meditate on my own in such a tranquil environment. Because it was so early, the entire park was mostly deserted.
As I walked up and down the massive sand dunes, it was a struggle to walk against the wind, which whirred against my ears as I trudged along. I felt as though I were in a far away land, something I read about in a storybook, perhaps Arabian Nights. At times my foot caught against some debris, and it was only then that I remembered that there had been a torrential rainstorm just a couple of days before, and I reasoned that the debris was left over from the violent weather patterns, especially at a place so barren.
That’s when I came upon this eerie sculpture in the sand. It was white, and at first I almost mistook it for some kind of mollusk, or maybe a fossil. But, it seemed if it were a fossil, the park rangers would have confiscated it already, and brought it to authorities in charge of preservation. No, this had to be something else. It was the color of the sand, except maybe a shade darker, and it had uneven curves, like a strange kind of coral reef. But, in the desert.
I was transfixed by it, and after I found the first of its kind, I spent the rest of the morning scouring the park for as many as I could find. My mother and Ezra were so used to my various investigations that they barely looked up from their reading to discover what I was digging for. They must have thought I was just a silly girl looking for clay at the bottom of a sandpit.
I threw the lot of them—maybe a good 7 desert sculptures—into my backpack surreptitiously, hoping the park staff wouldn’t see me and tell me to leave them in the sand. After we made the trek back home, I scurried off to my room while my mother and Ezra both tended to my father, giving him enough attention so he would spare them his outburst of anger. After a bit of research, I discovered the name for my new discovery: fulgurite, a glass tube that forms when lightning and sand meet. When lightning strikes sand, the bolt travels down through the sand until it depletes itself of its energy source. As a result, the sand melts into a glass tube along the path of the lightning. Because the sand dunes at the state park are so deep, the lightning strike can travel a few inches before exhausting itself of its energy. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was leading me to some sort of connection within my own work, and I was determined to figure out what that would be. It made me think more about the power of electricity to cut one body into two, or to transform ether into a whole other shape that had never existed before.
It was from this witness I began to delve deeply into researchers who specialized in laser-assisted hatching and embryology. I gave up all my other pursuits, including the creative investigations I was exploring with Hana. I would not stop, I determined inwardly, until I could discover a way to create a life without the use of sperm. Perhaps there was a way, I questioned, that I could use a laser to sculpt an embryo out of material in ways we had never considered before.
When I look back, I can see it now—this young, excitable new mind desperately endeavoring to make a name for herself without thinking about the obstacles that prevented other minds from likewise discoveries. At times, Hana warned me not to get too ahead of myself, to think about some of the ethical concerns regarding the scientific direction I was headed, but stopped when she realized all her efforts were in vain. Perhaps destiny would always dictate that this story would inevitably find me, as well as my destruction.
Addie Tsai (any/all) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin. Unwieldy Creatures, their adult queer biracial retelling of Frankenstein, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2022. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.