Pseudopod 83: Heartstrung

By Rachel Swirsky

Read by Heather Welliver

One, two, three, the needle swoops.

Pamela squirms as the needle cuts into her sensitive heart tissue. “It hurts!”

“Shh,” the seamstress says. “It’s almost done, honey. Just a few more
stitches and you’ll be like mommy.”

The seamstress bends forward as she presses her needle into her
daughter’s heart for another stitch, squinting to make sure she sews
tight and even. As she pulls the thread taut, she realizes this stitch
marks the midpoint – she’s now halfway finished sewing Pamela’s heart
onto her sleeve.






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01
March 28th, 2008 8:53 am

I was dissappointed by Alasdair’s commentary on this one… I can’t see the story as a plea to ‘allow people to change’. Quite the opposite – it’s about how society forces a change.

Still, I liked this story and thought it a good companion piece to “The Mill”. Both are statements about coming of age, and the unreasonable things which are often demanded of both boys and girls as they come ‘of age’. It’s interesting that both stories ritualize the mutilations, it makes it easier for the reader (listener) to distance him or herself and deny the fact that both these stories are talking about children in the here and now…

02
David
March 28th, 2008 6:30 pm

eh

03
March 28th, 2008 6:40 pm

As a cold and rational bastard, i personally found the sentimentalism of the piece to be abit irritating. The feminist themes meanwhile, came off as somewhat clichéd, as does the basic plot.

I’m going to echo Lise in drawing comparison with ‘The Mill’. They have their roots in the same story and attitude of ethnocentrism. The main character has a revelation that the accepted practices of his/her culture are ‘wrong’ and rebells against the established societal norm. This, in and of it’s self is not particularly noteworthy, except that in each case this act of rebellion means embracing what amounts to mainstream western values in favor of their own. The message that i read into each story is a very loud “They should be more like us.” Or, if you want to insinuate that the author is pointing out or some perceived deficiency in our own society: “You should all be more like me.” .

What i would like to see is a story about a barbaric society where boys have the skin cut off of their genitals at birth and girls are pressured to perforate their earlobes as a rite of passage into adulthood.

04
Chris in Austin
March 28th, 2008 8:08 pm

This struck me as one of those “world of tomorrow has already arrived” stories with the strange ritual just a cipher for psychological drugs a la prozac, xanax etc.

Maybe I am a sap, but I find when “feminist” fiction is done well, it seems to reach out to people in general quite powerfully. I thought this to be the case with this story. Seemed poignant and powerful.

05
Mari Mitchell
March 29th, 2008 10:22 am

This has a strong female voice, both in subject but in the manner in which the words were chosen to create the modifiers.

Pain, blood, confines, hidden strengths, titles: mother, daughter, cook, teacher, good define as woman.

How many titles that might be intrepid as power and freedom that as a woman are negative: whore/ sexual freedom, bitch/ a woman in charge. When we are put down for the things we do, how many names are hurled us that parts, cunt, cum-sponge, ect.

As a mother, I want to protect my children from the world and keep their childhood as happy as I can, hopping this will translate to their later happiness and their love for me.

But there comes a time when childhood things must be put away, so that innocence does not become a social handicap.

We want so much for children. The trick is try and allow them to be themselves and you or that dream/projection you have for your children to let go of it. I try and not care about the reflection my children cast upon me, in the mirror I hold up, knowing that everything is not as it appears in the glass. It is all backwards and yet a what is in the mirror is me…

Rambling on, I go.

Mari Mitchell

06
Sam
March 30th, 2008 7:50 pm

In response to J’s comment, I kind of think that commenting on society as it actually is the purpose of these kind of stories. Especially since science and technology is so clearly not the purpose. A human being couldn’t survive having their heart exposed to the open air and even if you somehow found a way to make the procedure work, there’s no reason why it should have the effect that Swirsky posits.

The point is, this is a society that couldn’t possibly exist. What’s it’s utility but to comment on a societ that does? Though I have to admit, I don’t think ear piecings or male circumcision are really the axes that the author has to grind.

07
March 31st, 2008 8:40 pm

Great great story. I understand why someone wouldn’t want to listen to this, but I enjoyed all of the emotion.

Constantly, I find myself wanting to know more about the world within the story.

08
Anon
April 1st, 2008 12:35 pm

This one just didn’t do anything for me. Deep and very dialog-driven — to a fault. I skipped it because everything seemed in such slow motion, like this piece was more someone’s protracted essay on a woman’s emotional state rather than an effort to move the story along.

09
v
April 2nd, 2008 12:35 pm

When writers turn to extreme bodily horror to try and incite a visceral response, they usually fail, especially when they make this horror unrealistically extreme or biologically impossible. The Mill failed, and this story did as well.
There’s making a point, and then there’s smacking your readers over the head with a brick.

I find this use of bodily horror especially egregious when its clear that privileged middle class folks talking about physical pain in a dreamlike and and almost adolescent way, the flip side of a Freddy Krueger freak out. Even well regarded writers, like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter flirt with making the same sorts of mistakes.

To be honest, this story didn’t feel like horror to me. I’m really sick of the fake, often pseudo-Euro, sometime pseudo-pagan rituals and traditions many modern authors love to inject into their fantasy. Silly names and overuse of adjectives in the place of names doesn’t help either. (if I hear “the seamstress” one more time I’ll gag).

The last time you guys scared the pants off me was the massive evil itching powder spiders, I admit. So I’m not arguing for constant subtlety.

I guess this one just felt so forced.

Although I generally dislike Atwood, The Handmaid’s tale is better horror than this is, when she passes the figures hanging by the wall, sees the blood and thinks of snowmen. It hasn’t aged terribly well, but it has more power to scare than a lot of newer writing.

I’d be interested to hear some “postcolonial” horror, like the postcolonial sf of “so long been dreaming” which was uneven but intriguing.

10
scatterbrain
April 3rd, 2008 9:15 pm

I read this in my first issue of Interzone and I still think about from time to time.

Written by a radical feminist lark, but still well written.

11
Spork
April 7th, 2008 7:14 pm

Interjected?

Unhestinatingly?

Meh. Amateurish at best. The device of the heart on the sleeve didn’t work for me at all. I could suspend disbelief for The Mill, but not for this. Why? Because do you know how bad the seamstress’s sweater would smell after ten years or more!? Holy crap, that thing would be FUN-KAY!

Seriously, though. Why not a drug, since this story was very Soma-like? Or how about a device on the head, or about the neck? Ripping out a heart and sewing it on your sleeve does about as much to convince me of emotional neutering as does the prospect of having my lungs stapled to my forehead would allow me to breathe underwater.

12
JCM
May 19th, 2008 1:15 pm

I agree with V. on all points here.

For those reasons, this story made me want to stop reading, and then I realized I wasn’t reading, and that made me even more morose.

13
June 13th, 2008 1:28 pm

This was a very unusual story, to say the least. While I’m sure the author was attempting to build on the old saying about wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, this saying is applied to people who give full vent to their emotions, not suppress them. Not only that, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out what the author was trying to say, since I assume she was commenting on contemporary society. While children have little restraint on their emotions, I don’t see coming-of-age, in the here and now, as a time when emotions are suppressed, just better handled, to prepare them for relating with others. And if she wasn’t writing about contemporary society, why couch it in a setting, with the exception of the weird ritual, which sounds like any modern household. On the other hand, maybe the author grew up in a very rigid environment where expressing emotion was frowned upon. In which case maybe she was venting, which is OK.

14
Sgarre1
July 2nd, 2008 7:49 pm

Good reading of a fairly well-written story that, in actual content is mediocre and only adequately developed.

The central conceit (a world where the loaded symbol of “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve” is literalized), is undermined, IMO, by a lack of clarity (evident in some of these responses) on the part of the writer as to how “symbolic” this action is. Obviously, a bleeding organ is not being literally sewn onto apparel (too many logical problems) so this must be a symbolic action in a parallel world, some act of magic that causes the emotional reactions we are asked to accept (and thus, intended as a social commentary on our world) and helps sustain the repressive system put in place by Men (with a capital…).

But, as with a lot of stories of this type, the central conceit raises more questions than it wants to answer because we are asked to accept that this is a world where women wear the same set of clothes from puberty on and the violent removal of this symbol causes actual, biological death. And while all this could be smoothed out at length by a thoughtful writer (which Ms. Swirsky obviously is), the next question arises – is it worth expanding the story and asking a reader to invest time in service of what is, essentially, a small, cute idea. The other direction for making it work is to cut back the “world details” and the need for them, making the story more deeply symbolic but also surreal and thus, unlikely to raise too many “logical” questions.

For some 12 year old girl (or even boy) this could easily be a “greatest story I ever read”, if read at the right time. It would fit nicely into a Young Adults Horror Anthology. But adults deserve a little more writerly meat.

The enculturation horror/dark fantasy story, especially of the feminist variety, is a tough row to hoe nowadays, due to over-familiarity. Quite a while back, the sheer idea that women wouldn’t be happy with their lot in life provided enough conflict and friction to propel a story forward. Times have moved on and the situation has changed (not necessarily gotten better, just gotten more complex) but something like “The Yellow Wallpaper” is still complex enough to be examined and enjoyed today. The writer of a modern attempt at the same territory has much more to work with in our complicated world, but much larger expectations and responsibilities as well. “Heartstrings” was a nice attempt but cut a few too many corners.

Thanks for listening.

Description of performance “Cut Piece” (1964) by Yoko Ono
“She sat alone on a vast and gloomy stage, while members of the audience came up and cut bits of her clothes away with a large and very sharp pair of scissors – the proceedings gradually given over to the vulnerability and peril of this tiny, increasingly uncovered woman, as watchers were deliberately encouraged to discard conventional distance and cross barriers to get to her, stepping out of life into art, wielding death.”
Mark Sinker, Yoko Ono review, The Wire #144, February, 1996