Book Review: I Stole You (Kristen Ringman)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
During the past decade, disability literature has been expanding in a number of directions. One area of particular interest is speculative fiction. While the reason for this connection may not obvious at first glance, it takes little reflection to recognize that not only are traditional fairy tales, folk tales and myths full of characters with disabilities but their inclusion is frequently in the role of villain or representation of moral depravity. In the twentieth century, some of these older representations have emerged in a more pressing guise in science fiction. Because science fiction and the future of science are entangled with eugenics – that is with the possible elimination of variable bodies – writers with disabilities have been hitting back with stories of their own. Anthologies such as Kathryn Allen's Accessing the Future have been spearheading this trend. Work in older forms of speculative fiction, however, are progressing more slowly. While there is considerable scholarly interest in looking at Victorian fairy tales, new fantasy with a disabilities perspective is relatively rare. That is why the appearance of Kristen Ringman's book I Stole You: Stories from the Fae should generate interest.
Readers of Ringman's first book, Makara, will not be surprised that she has decided to devote an entire volume to stories about fantastic beings. In that novel mythical creatures such as selkies played a prominent role, interacting with human beings. The pivot that Ringman makes in I Stole You is to take this idea about the relationship between a fae and a human being and make it the central feature of each of series of brief stories. What qualifies this recent book as disability literature is not just that Ringman herself is deaf but that, in most cases, the primary human characters are deaf as well.
In constructing her collection, Ringman has set herself a task, much like that of a formal poet, of working within certain constraints. Each of the stories in the book opens with the words "I Stole You'". The speaker is a being from one of the world's mythologies who is addressing a human – the "you" of the initial sentence. In all of the stories (with one exception), the fairy, elf, or ghost is drawn to someone that they must ultimately destroy. I Stole You has the feel of a storytelling game in which each player must select four cards – a fae, a human, a setting and a rationale for stealth – with the pre-requisite that there be no repetitions. It is interesting to see as the book proceeds through fourteen stories how Ringman uses ingenuity to achieve this.
As a deaf writer Ringman, herself, has a two-pronged task. On the up side, the challenge is to represent deaf characters in a positive light (or at least not a negative one with all of the traditional stereotypes). Because the tales are short – almost vignettes in some cases – and the stories told are in the form of direct address from a fae's viewpoint, there is no real opportunity for development of human characters. Typical of the book's character description is the following passage from the story "Nang Tani":I hadn't singled you out for anything particular. There was nothing unusual or remarkable about your dark eyes and hair, your small frame and simple clothing you chose to cover it. In a crowd of local people from the villages around my tree, you wouldn't have stood out at all. You'd blend with everyone.
This format doesn't give the author much room to counter stereotypes. Ringman works around this limitation in an interesting way. In a number of stories, she makes sign language the default means of communication between the fae and the human being. While most fairy tales and myths tend to assume that non-human beings somehow speak the same language as the humans they are interacting with, there is no logical reason that this would be so. Ringman takes advantage of the fact that a more likely first means of communication would be through physical gesture. A sign language becomes the default language of communication in most of the stories making it occupy an unaccustomed place. In the story cited above the narrator says,
You approached my tree once again with an offering of incense and a small handful of sweets. This time when I stepped in front of you, your eyes widened and you stepped back. You made a sign with your hands again and again.
The negative prong of the task that Ringman is charged with is to avoid having bodies that are different (as the faes' frequently are) become negative metaphors or stand in for moral degeneracy. In this, Ringman succeeds well. While the faes may be thieves by nature, this is not the invasion of the body snatchers. The faes are shapeshifters –foxes, wolves, trees, part snake, even rocks– but none of their differences are the cause of or caused by any defect of character. In Ringman's tales, the fae's biggest impediment to having a successful relationship with a human being is their own immortality.One of the recurring themes in Ringman's book is the mutability of the world and all of the creatures within it. In "The Art Lover," the story's fae explains:
In my most natural form, I am formless, I am air. But I can shift into anything alive.
This connectedness to the world extends to human beings. In a passage that describes a pre-scientific world akin to Greek mythology, the narrator says,
Humans don't know this, but some of them have a tiny bit of fae blood inside them. It can't be helped really. Sometimes people have sex with fairies and they can't get pregnant just from that, but when they do have a child later on, there's a little bit of fae inside that child. It gets passed down to another child. It's not enough for any of them to shapeshift or become a fairy completely, but it's enough for one of us to notice it inside one of them. It's enough for them to see things in the woods in a different way.
It is no surprise, then, that this view of the interconnectedness of all things, as in Jainism or contemporary environmental studies, implies the necessity of a respect for all beings and nature. It is a respect that has taken a beating in recent times. Ringman recognizes that such a view does not mean the complete elimination of violence. After all, tigers have to eat and the fox fae of the book's opening story understands that it is in its nature to inevitably kill and eat what it loves. What this view does urge us to recognize is that the lines and categories we draw or devise that separate us from those who are different are, to a large extent, fictions. It is a theme that contemporary disability studies is constantly asserting from a social construction point of view, but Ringman approaches it from a different direction – one that probably is ultimately more congenial with the latest findings of science.
I Stole You is published by Handtype Press, operated by Raymond Luczak who has made it his mission to publish and promote the work of D/deaf writers. Luczak also has an imprint, Squares and Rebels, that champions LGBTQ literature. The connection between these two presses reveals itself rather subtly in Ringman's book because, being shape-shifters, most of the non-human characters are not assigned a specific sex or sexual orientation. While the majority of the human-fae relationships involve love, and a few sexual relationships, the nature of those relationships in most cases is indeterminate.
I Stole You is an enjoyable read. It is the type of book one is most likely to dip into from time when they have a few minutes and just want to let their mind be free to imagine. Though it is not armed with an obvious agenda, its placement of deaf characters in the center of its stories serves an important purpose and is reason enough for it to merit attention.
Title: I Stole You