A gasp is better than silence.
Zen Cho's The Terracotta Bride is set in the afterlife. The protagonist, Siew Tsin, died when she was young: "while running across the road, she had been hit by a motorcar and dashed across the curb." Like most young people, "Siew Tsin had not given much thought to what happened in the afterlife until the afterlife happened to her." Hell "was hot and full of unkind people in a hurry; there was too much red tape; and the bureaucrats were all shockingly corrupt." The reality of hell is that it "was strangely like life." A distant relative, "a long-dead great-uncle," offers her refuge for a short time before marrying her off to "the richest man in the tenth court of hell." Siew Tsin discovers she's been married off as she is being whisked to her husband's home. The tenth court, Cho writes, "was the most desirable postcode in hell." First, Siew Tsin discovers she's a second wife to Junsheng, a man who died when he was fifty-four (at the end of the story Siew Tsin is the human equivalent of nineteen, but the story does not indicate how old she is when she dies), and then her husband brings home another bride, Yongshua, a terracotta bride, an experiment in placing consciousness in non-flesh.
Here, I have offered the barest outline of the setting.
Cho's afterlife is unsettled and unsettling, unlike the static images imagined by many established religions—nothingness, endless pleasure, endless fighting, endless suffering, or endless singing: "it was a quiet death, but not an objectionable one." The crux of her story is her learning to reclaim herself: "she lived, dead, unnoticed by her husband, the household, and even by her own self." Cho writes,
It was not a world Siew Tsin would have chosen to live in. But she did not want to be reborn, either, anymore than Junsheng did, anymore than all the spirits showering gold and favours on hell officials so that they could stay where they were. Rebirth entailed a true death, the severing of one's memory and the loss of one's self.
Siew Tsin has entered the afterlife, but has not experienced a "true death." She lives tethered to her memory and to a sense of self, but also "unnoticed [. . .] by her own self." Three interrelated states: life, afterlife, and true death as rebirth, which might also be called life. Life, we learn, is the accumulation of experience and memories; afterlife is experiencing the memories and obligations of life while also accumulating a few new experiences, and rebirth (or true death) is sacrificing the self memory provides. Afterlife is an attachment to a memory and version of a self that one does not want to abandon, though the risk of that attachment is being unable to notice the afterlife self, losing the desire that allows one to notice (and take care of) the self.
Cho extends ideas of the unchanging afterlife to describe an afterlife stuck in the past. The story does not indicate when Siew Tsin lives or dies. She is hit by a car and the story indicates she "had lived in a more modern time." Hell is patriarchal, a place where "Fourth Great-Uncle had been dead for a long while" and during "his lifetime women had lower expectations." To his mind, marrying her to a rich patriarch is a gift. Even though Junsheng, her older husband, has only been dead for twenty years, he has embraced the world known by Fourth Great-Uncle, a world dominated by patriarchal wealth and privilege. Three months after her wedding, Siew Tsin attempts to run away, hoping to find a way to return to her parents. She encounters an angel who, when asked to help, returns her to her husband. When she is returned to her husband, he lectures:
I am too old and indolent to lecture you . . . but you should remember that I have every right to do so, if I wish. Considering the unusual circumstances of our marriage, I cannot be said merely to be your husband. I am your mother and father as well—I have their authority over you, and you have the same obligation to me as you would have had to your parents in life.
At this point in the story, Junsheng is still having sex with Siew Tsin, and to my modern ears, the father-as-husband is beyond creepy (it reminds me of the relationships in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and in Gayl Jones's Corregidora). Cho reminds us that patriarchy—rule by the father—structures all heteronormative relations: husbands in ideological and often legal ways act as fathers to those in households. Because the afterlife holds so tenaciously to older forms of hierarchy, it makes visible structures of power that the "modern" time Siew Tsin comes from refuses to acknowledge.
One simple—but not simplistic—interpretation is that Cho is discussing the persistence of patriarchal practices and ideals. Modern women get married in ceremonies where their parents "give them away" to men, and testimony and evidence indicate that women still perform most household chores, even when both partners hold jobs outside the home. Heteronormativity thrives by promoting versions of gender roles that we had been promised would be obsolete. To enter into heteronormativity's promise—a home in a good neighbourhood, a rich husband, servants—is to enter gendering hell.
In this version of gendering hell, desire is banished: "it was a quiet death, but not an objectionable one"; "she lived, dead, unnoticed by her husband, the household, and even by her own self." As the story opens, Siew Tsin is unable to imagine or desire anything better for herself. She wants to retain her memories of the life before she died, her memories of the person she was, her memories of what she desired as that person, but doing so means evacuating her present afterlife of desire. To enter and remain within patriarchal, heteronormative structures of privilege often entails losing a sense of self—a story familiar to us from writers including Adrienne Rich and explored richly by Margaret Atwood. It is, also, increasingly a story narrated by many women in the twenty-first century who continue to discover the price exacted by heteronormative respectability.
When her husband brings home Yongshua, the terracotta bride, Siew Tsin starts rediscovering her desire. Yongshua wants to learn—she hears Siew Tsin playing an instrument and asks to learn how to play it. More crucially, Yongshua stimulates desire in others, as illustrated in a coy moment:
[Siew Tsin] forgot to announce herself when she got to the music room. She opened the door, the words already on her lips to tell Yongshua. But her mouth stayed open and the words never came out.
Ling'en [Junsheng's first wife] and Yongshua sprang away from each other. Ling'en was looking more human than Siew Tsin had ever seen her, her usually flawless hair dishevelled and her face a fevered pink, as if she had been drinking.
Yongshua was not flushed and her hair was tidy, but the look in her whiteless eyes was dazed.
For Junsheng, the story's patriarch, Yongshua represents the promise of what might be available to him: a consciousness placed in an indestructible body. For Ling'en and Siew Tsin, Yongshua stimulates other appetites. Siew Tsin hopes to convince Yongshua to escape with her from Junsheng's oppressive patriarchy. Yongshua's appetite for education teaches Siew Tsin to desire freedom. When she sees Yongshua and Ling'en having a moment, she experiences a "sharp pain at her heart," and begins to realize that her feelings toward Yongshua are not entirely platonic. Samuel Delany has taught us to think about the relationship between erotic desire and freedom, most significantly in the Nevèrÿon series: erotic desires and ties can help us imagine and pursue freedom. As Audre Lorde writes,
Once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.
As the story ends, Siew Tsin chooses reincarnation—to forget the past before her afterlife and her afterlife, because she has rediscovered desire.
From the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the leather-clad witches of Charmed to Terry Pratchett's deathscapes, hell is pretty heteronormative. I hadn't really considered this until reading The Terracotta Bride. Simultaneously, if the story is to be read as queer—and I want to use queer gingerly—this queerness takes on unfamiliar contours. Ling'en and Siew Tsin are both dead, albeit in a state of exquisite limbo. Yongshua, for all that she contains a human consciousness, is made of terracotta, and it's difficult to know what kind of vitality to assign to her: if she's dead, she's not dead in the same way as Ling'en and Siew Tsin and, is, the story suggests, immortal, as she has no flesh that can be destroyed by hell. The story uses "she" to discuss Yongshua and she practices "the female arts" to please her husband, as she has been programmed (though I'm not sure programmed is the right word), but that "she" has to be a courtesy, to the extent that gendering is so firmly attached to embodiment (flesh, blood, sweat, genitals, saliva, fingers, mucous membranes, heartbeats, brain functions). What, then, does it mean to experience desire for a terracotta bride, for non-flesh?
Savvy readers will point out that falling in love with the non-human has a long life in science fiction, whether that be aliens or plants or robots. As tempting as it is to claim all such human/non-human interactions as inherently queer, such an approach disembeds queering from the worlds it occupies and the roles gendering plays in those worlds. If a robot or a plant or an alien plays a conventional gender role and if that relationship receives approbation within the world inhabited by that human/non-human pairing, then to name such a pairing as queer risks missing the conditions of violence and normativity and abjection through which queerness is produced.
I do not want to dismiss queerness as the potential for joy and pleasure and livability celebrated by so much queer cultural production by insisting that queer be associated mostly with violence and abjection. Simultaneously, we live at a moment where the violence and abjection associated with queerness has been supplanted in the popular imagination by the achievements of marriage, fashion, and decorating. It has become deeply unfashionable to mention banal transphobic and homophobic violence and the ongoing devastation caused by HIV-AIDS among poor and minoritized communities in the global north and the global south. The difficult ethical task, then, is to hold on to queerness as a possibility for something else while recognizing the violence that still queers so many of us today.
In part, I'm tired of the ubiquity with which queer is wielded, often in ways that do not consider power and history and sociality and law and culture. I am interested in how Cho thinks about choosing rebirth as springing from the desire to experience desire, and how The Terracotta Bride maps the afterlife of limbo, for some, as the absence of desire.
Finally, Siew Tsin is dead, severed from daily communication with her living human family, but in the limbo world she occupies, she is still subject to the rules of patriarchy. When, at the end of the story, she chooses rebirth, she is also selecting a kind of life after life, and a cryptic remark by the guardian of rebirth, Lady Meng, suggests this is not the first rebirth-afterlife Siew Tsin has chosen ("this time, let us hope you will get to be old"). I have been thinking about queerness as truncation—the word queer gains its political use at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a moment when lives were cut short. To the extent that a formal strategy can invoke a history that is entirely unspoken, truncation returns us to that founding moment, and calls us to the ethical work that moment still demands.
Keguro Macharia is from Nairobi, Kenya.