Set in a Chinese-influenced fantasy world, “Throwing Stones,” by Mishell Baker is a slippery story about people with slippery shapes. An unnamed narrator is a man living as a woman in a “teahouse” in the city of Jiun-shi. He/she meets a Tuo, a “goblin” posing as a human being, making a living as a poet. The narrator wants to become a Seeress, and is earning enough money to pay for the entrance exam. He/she will worry later about whether they’ll let a man take the exam.
I liked the romantic tone of the story. The setting is interesting. And I like how no one is quite what they seem to be.
I did get hung up on words at times. Take “goblin”. Is there some particular Chinese spirit or demon? If so, why not just use that word? The narrator comments that by calling himself Tuo, the poet might as well be called “perfectly ordinary man”. What I get from it is the Indo-Latinate resonance of “tuo” with “two”. Still, that seems appropriate in a story about the boundaries between men and women.
The story attempts to turn our expectations about gender upside down, like the customers at the teahouse being powerful women, or the narrator blaming his/her shyness on being male (rather than just being born shy). And yet, I still mostly read both the narrator and the poet as men. Both feel stifled by the society they live in. Tuo wants the narrator to “throw a stone” into the lake of civilization, raising ripples that will someday lead to change.
But what is the change they want? The way the women in Jiun-shi are keeping (at least some) men from being what they want to be, suggests that no matter what, one side will oppress the other. Or maybe the idea of a city ruled by women is just trying to get us to think about how our world feels to some people. And this is where trying figure out what this story wants to be gets all slippery on me.
And that’s it for the Short Story Club at Torque Control.