A Note of Discord
Follow the Waves, written by Amal El-Mohtar, and collected in the Lesbian Steampunk anthology Steam-Powered, is a story filled with gorgeous, rhythmic language, of the sort to be expected from someone who is a poet first. It seems that nearly every paragraph is layered with multiple meanings, and contain phrases that we could even call verses, which work as well as metaphor as at face value. Sometimes the language blends the senses together – overlapping sounds with visuals, feelings with scents or flavors – yet without any real adjustment required by the reader.
The world El-Mohtar has crafted is one in which gems are cut and carved in such a way as to facilitate people having dreams tailored to their specifications. Yet, of course there is a necessary disparity in perception between dreamer and crafter, and so Hessa – a dreamcrafter and protagonist of the story – sometimes must imagine the unfamiliar, through a synthesis of her own experiences.
One particular dream, for an important client, required her to create a backdrop along the sea. But, having never visited the sea, and furthermore averse to the very description of it, Hessa struggles with the crafting of the gem. Not until she has a chance encounter with a woman named Nahla, who apart from the norms of this particular society wears her hair in loose waves instead of in the braids that indicate one’s profession and/or station, is Hessa able to successfully carve a vision of the sea into the gem.
This very concept evokes the poetic sensory oscillation that I referred to earlier, with a woman’s hair able to inspire another’s vision of the sea, which in turn is embedded into a gem, to be experienced within the dreams of yet another. The title “Follow the Waves” is particularly poignant for me, as waves make me think first of frequencies, rhythms – manifest in matter or energy, as sound, shape, taste, or the movement of water.
Something as abstract as these waves could indeed be transmitted between the structure of the Nahla’s hair, Hessa’s interpretation retrieved from the light bouncing off of it, rendered physically in the gem, and perhaps echoed along some unconscious frequency to occupy the dreams of the client.
It is this concept of waves that carries throughout the story, flowing with its own rhythm through El-Mohtar’s poetic language. Take for instance the following passage, in which Hessa crafts a dream for a client while masturbating to the memory of Nahla for inspiration:
Hessa ground a cabochon with her right hand while her left slid between her legs, rocking her to the memory of long fingers she built into feathers, sprouted to wings just as she moaned a spill of warm honey and weightlessness. Afterwards she felt ashamed. She thought, surely someone would notice – surely, some dreamer would part the veils of ecstasy in their sleep and find her burning behind them.
We start with the visual of Hessa grinding the stone with one hand, pleasuring herself with the other. El-Mohtar’s language oscillates effortlessly back and forth between the physical, the concrete, and the abstract, with the touch of long fingers becoming the idea of feathers taking flight. Then, again, as we return to the physical sensation of orgasm – weightlessness – and the taste and temperature of warm honey.
The “parting of the veils of ecstasy”, exposing Hessa’s moment of indignity, also evokes the parting of her legs, behind which she is physically burning with the pleasure of orgasm. All of this without any breaks in the rhythm of the language, nor in the continuity of the narrative. On the contrary, it is beautiful use of a physical metaphor to describe an abstract sensation.
Later in the story, Hessa meets Nahla face to face, who accuses her of co-opting her unconscious self – her dream persona – and using her as toy for Hessa’s own pleasure. Here again El-Mohtar plays with the idea of waves, now not only transmitted between physical and abstract mediums, but across the realm of the collective unconscious. It suggests a continuity that challenges our idea of discrete phenomena, which may be mere waves in a continuous universal rhythm more so than individual things defined by physical or conceptual boundaries.
It is quite an achievement to maintain such a rhythm, both conceptually and linguistically, and El-Mohtar does it for pages more until a sudden, jarring note creates a disruption.
“Yes.” She smirked, and there was something cruel in the bright twist of it.
There it is, one word – smirk – a single note of discord in an otherwise beautiful rhythm. “Smirk” is an ugly word, at least for me, both visually and phonetically jarring to the point where I refuse to even use it any of my own writing. Not only is it an ugly word, it is an ugly gesture, one that expresses an ugly mindset, or at least a moment of ugly thinking. So smug and facetious and condescending and self-important all contained within the twist of a mouth. I can even hear a certain sound – an ugly “hmph” that goes along with it.
Were this my story, or were I the editor, I would have suggested that El-Mohtar exclude it altogether, and merely infer the smirk through the “cruel twist of the mouth”. I might, in a moment of pretention, suggest that this would be more showing than telling. But as a reader, it occurs to me that this note of discord might have been intentional, that the jarring sensation it created was precisely the point.
Up to this moment, Hessa had found a rhythm of her own, precipitated upon her fantasies of Nahla. The thing about fantasies, though, is that they project virtues and merits upon people and objects that may not truly be reflected in those people or objects themselves. Indeed Hessa not only projects her fantasy upon Nahla, she molds her with it, carving and shaping her like she does her gems. In this way she is able to sustain the rhythm of her workflow, which the reader experiences through El-Mohtar’s use of language.
Then Hessa’s encounter with Nahla is itself jarring, a clashing of fantasy and reality that fractures both. Nahla is not the beautiful, sensual, accommodating lover of Hessa’s dreams, but a rather coarse and abrasive woman, revealed with no greater clarity than in the instant of her smirk. The disruption the word creates for the reader parallels Hessa’s own discordant experience with Nahla.
Now it is quite possible that this entire analysis is the result of my hypersensitivity to language, and the projection of my own philosophical ideas onto El-Mohtar’s narrative. But in that her word choice seemed so perfect, so precise, and so rhythmic throughout the story, and given the prevailing concept of waves – oscillating between the language of the writer and the sensory interpretations of the reader – I am almost certain that the smirk was chosen purposefully.
Although it is prose, El-Mohtar’s story functions more like a poem in that the aesthetic and layers of concept and meaning take precedence over the plot, which actually ends at a point where I crave to know what happens next. Yet for that reason it loses nothing for ending the way it does, instead giving readers the opportunity to go back over the story in their heads, to play in its textures and folds, to hear and feel its rhythm, and indeed to follow the waves.