April 6: “Familiar” by Carmen Lau

Humpday at Story366! It’s that time of year when everything is coming together. I’m meeting—for a second time—with thesis students. I’m meeting with advisees. I’m also putting together a reading here at MSU in a couple of days—Hadara Bar-Nadav and Sarah Freligh (I know, poets. Yuck!)—and there’s also a bunch of things to do around the house, like rake last fall’s leaves and find out where that smell is coming from. April in academia, surely the cruelest month.

Continuing today, however, with Books I Got at AWP Week. Today, I’m featuring The Girl Wakes by Carmen Lau, a book from  Palo Alto indie Alternating Current Press, which I acquired at the Alternating Current Press reading at AWP. I only caught the last couple of readers—I was doing stuff, namely this blog—and I missed Lau completely. Still, I bought her book and had her sign it, and here I am, writing about it, just four days later. That’s the magic of AWP.

The Girl Wakes has fifteen stories in it, and I’ve read the first five, a third of the book. Today’s focus story is called “Familiar,” the second in the book. It should be noted that in the table of contents, “Familiar” has a subtitle, “The girl is alive,” as do all the other stories, all of the subtitles of the construction “The girl _________.” From what I’ve read, the book isn’t about the same girl. Some are stories like “Familiar,” which are fairy talelike, and others seems to be about other characters, but not the same character. All so far, though, are women … girls … and maybe that’s what Liu’s getting at, just girls, a girl, in general.

As mentioned, “Familiar” has a fairy tale feel, as it’s about a girl taken from her home by a witch. The witch pretty much goes into houses and eats people—or takes them back to her witch pad to eat them later—but the protagonist here, an unnamed first-person narrator, is more like a pet. The witch kidnaps her, and when she asks to see her family one more time, before the witch eats them, the witch falls over laughing. Needless to say, there is no heartfelt good-bye and the girl’s family just gets eaten.

The story then becomes, more or less, a case of Stockholm Syndrome, as the narrator lives with the witch, helps her to sew together the pelts of her victims—both human and animal—wearing a jackal skin herself (furthering the notion that she’s the witch’s pet). On top of that, she also helps to cook the meat the witch obtains every night—it is every night—and even partakes. That’s just what you do when the witch picks you as her pet: You wear and eat her other victims and try to look happy, otherwise you might be on the table next.

The story is only five pages long, but spans over several years, all tracking the narrator’s experience as the witch’s guest/pet/captive. Without revealing too much more, there are highs and lows in this relationship—roommates, right?!—and eventually, the union comes to an end. How, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

I like “Familiar” quite a bit, a story that uses a trope or two, but makes something interesting, something new. I also like the straightforward, short sentences, making Lau’s prose tight and direct, told matter-of-factly like a fairy tale would be told to a child. That doesn’t make Lau’s stories simplistic, though, or even simple. The context and sub-context of all of her stories imply something more, like why a girl would allow herself to be held for so long, under such horrible circumstances. Again, maybe it is just Stockholm Syndrome, or maybe Lau is trying to say something about what this phenomenon is based on, the need to adapt, the need for acceptance, the need to survive. Another story, “Inside the Wolf,” uses Little Red Riding Hood in the same way thematically, but in a very different way literally. That seems to be Lau’s talent, to take what we know, what we expect, and turn it on its ear.

I’ve never read anything from Alternating Current Press before, but had heard of it, knew I wanted to search out their books. Glad I ran into them at AWP. Their founder and editor and publicity guru, Leah Angstman, could not have been more supportive of her authors, and I bought a couple of books, Lau’s and Erik Shonkwiler’s, so I’ll be writing about him soon. I enjoyed Carmen Lau’s book, though, and am glad to report that literature is alive and well in Palo Alto.