Some stories aren't meant to be told. The more they get told, the more they change from what they once were, worn down and smooth like pieces of sea glass too beautiful to have ever been broken bottles. In the telling, mundane stories become colourful, colourful becomes fantastic, fantastic becomes legend, and legend becomes myth. Some stories aren't meant to be beautiful or mythic, they are meant to be true—chichi paramicha—and so those are better not told.
Three Songs for Roxy is a cycle of three linked short stories: a road trip, a musical mix tape, a science fictional meditation on themes of alienation and belonging. It is also a master class in the art of literary economy, of conveying rather a lot in a relatively small number of pages.
The first story in the cycle, "Free Bird," follows sisters Kizzy and Roxy as they prepare to drive from Seattle to Florida for a family wedding. Kizzy works at Macy's department store, Roxy is a fire lookout. They are both members of a tight-knit Roma community, their trailers parked up on a brownfield site beneath an underpass. Roxy is coming under pressure to get married. She has a pressing reason to spend some time with her sister, an important piece of news she is desperate to impart. Kizzy has her own reasons for feeling isolated. Although her family have been careful never to show any difference in the way she is treated, Kizzy knows she is not like her sister. She is a foundling, an outsider not just from her Roma clan but from the whole human race. Her mother has always felt convinced that her birth parents may return to claim her one day:
Instead of chasing baXt po drom, luck on the road, like the rest of the Gypsies, Mamo and Tate and Roxy—and, by choice, Mamo's brother Marko, his wife Gracie, and Grandma Olive Dei—were tied here. In one place. To the trailers rusting a ring into the ground behind the facade . . .
My family didn't want to take the chance that if my people came looking for me, when they inevitably realised their mistake in leaving me behind, they wouldn't be able to find me on the road like Rrom find each other.
"If you'd been gadjo," Dei told me, "we wouldn't care. They throw away everything. But your people lent you to us for a reason. They saw how we are for our children, and that's why they trust us with something so precious and beautiful."
Kizzy is seven feet tall, she has no lines on her palms, she has a difficult-to-treat skin condition and her insides "are not exactly as expected." As Mamo puts it, she straddles two worlds. "So what?" Kizzy shrugs, when Roxy comes out to her as a lesbian. "I'm an alien."
The rest of the story is comic, colourful, beautiful, and fantastic. First Roxy's girlfriend Natalie turns up. Then Kizzy's people come looking for her, a development which brings disorder on a grand scale. By the time Mamo and Tate and the rest of the family return from Kako Fatlip"s wedding, the trailer site is in disarray and Scott Lynn Miller, a security guard from Kizzy's workplace, has mysteriously turned up to help put things to rights. Scott is used to coping in a crisis—he's a survivor of Hurricane Katrina—but just how did Scott know there was about to be a crisis to be coped with?
He's almost a stranger, after all. But he's been watching.
Throughout the story's action, we hear Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," Roxy's favourite track from a mix tape recorded for her by Natalie when she was living in San Francisco. Scott Lynn Miller, obsessed by what he saw the night of the storm (the night of Kizzy's reunion with her birth mother), is on his way to visit the Iversons, a couple whose lives have been given over to collating the testimonies of people who claim to have been the victim of alien abduction. He is determined to tell what he knows, to look for answers.
But Scott's pilgrimage is more complicated even than that. Still suffering the traumatic after-effects of the hurricane, he has kidnapped his son Danny from the care of his ex-wife and gone on the run. Danny is obstreperous, vulnerable and obsessed with music like any normal kid. But a late encounter with Scott's ex-wife is revealing in more ways than one. In remembering his first job as in an industrial hatchery back in New Orleans, Scott reveals an unusual talent—he's a chicken-sexer with a ninety-five percent rate of accuracy. As his co-worker Cocoa insists, understanding gender has more to do with instinct than with biology:
"Dey all got a bump and a slit. Das not how you tell." She picks up another chick, milks out its shit, and holds the chick in her fist, stroking its head with a finger. She turns to you again, the light in her eyes. "I'll tell you de secret, boy. You gotta look at de shape datde bump and de slit make. Den listen to your voice. You got no voice, you got no job."
Scott's life is troubled – even more so since the head injury he sustained at the hands of Katrina – but he sees things others do not, and he loves his child.
This second story plays out to the tune of the Beatles' "Across the Universe."
In the third and final story, "Seven Wonders," we travel to San Francisco, where Natalie Mitchell – that's not her real name – has just arrived outside the bus station after a longer-than-usual journey. Here she meets drag artist Steven Parsons, who works in cabaret as a Stevie Nicks act. Steven loves everything about Stevie and his apartment is full of images of her. By coincidence, his sister is also called Natalie—she's a soldier in Afghanistan—which makes him feel an immediate connection with the very young-seeming and delightfully open woman who shares her name. Natalie goes home with Steven and they quickly form a deep and trusting friendship. When Natalie tells Steven she's searching for someone—a woman named Kizzy Jeneko whom she says she's known all her life—Steven is only too pleased to help track her down via the internet.
Kizzy doesn't seem to have an online presence, but her sister Roxy does. Natalie first makes contact and then falls in love. It seems the two are destined to be together. But what of Natalie's original mission, and who is she really?
She wasn't ready to tell the Elders she'd located Kizzy, because, logically, she really hadn't yet. She instead reported she was still safe and in acclimation and talked a little about Stevie using first the feminine form, then the masculine. An Elder immediately sent back a question about Stevie, and Natalie tried to find an Ooya word to describe her friend. As she was thinking, the Elder sent down an enquiry, an image of an Earth-based clown-performer, in full make up with a big, round, red nose and a pointed polka-dotted hat.
Stevie was not a clown. Natalie learned that this was not a positive image, and was angry and hurt at the implication.
She hissed, "No,' in Ooya, and slammed the communicator off.
The soundtrack to "Seven Wonders"? Stevie Nicks's "Seven Wonders," of course.
I hesitate to pull these stories apart too roughly. Three Songs for Roxy, in its delicate tapestry, its colourful simplicity, its unadorned articulacy, truly is one of those texts best discovered in the reading. This little book is brief enough to be consumed in a single sitting, but its emotional and metaphorical resonances reverberate far longer. These stories offer important insights into the life of the Roma community, and as such they are valuable on these terms alone. But above and beyond such specificity, this is a book about marginalisation on a more universal scale, the sense of community among aliens—a community to which we may each find ourselves belonging along varying axes. Gussoff examines issues of gender, sexuality, race and mental illness with a sensitivity that is all-inclusive and—if I may use such a term—wonderfully, refreshingly straightforward.
As science fiction, Three Songs for Roxy is a comic metaphor, fluent in its use of speculative materials, irreverent in its disregard for anything that might be branded Serious Science Fiction. The tropes here are just that—Tropes with a capital "T," appliquéd on like brightly coloured patches on a denim jacket, for deliberate effect. Gussoff isn't interested in "worldbuilding" so much as revealing the world as it is lived in by her characters. There is a playfulness to these stories, a delight in the burlesque, that belies the complexity of the questions at their heart. Gussoff's use of language is evocative yet piercingly direct. She has a song to sing, a song she seems happiest to express by inviting us to sing it alongside her.
I'm a lesbian, my sister said. And I answered So? I'm a lesbian, she repeated, and I asked, So what? It's different for you, she said. I scrubbed the tub until the ringing phone made me stop.
I could hear breathing on the other end of the line. "Whoever you are," I said, with a surprising amount of conviction, "stop fucking around". Then I hung up.
The hot tub shone in the lights from the trailer.
So what? Then I said it aloud. "So what? I'm an alien."
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional re-imagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story-cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.