Queer Hope is a Half-formed Being: Review of Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
Pranavi A R
Never Have I Ever. By Isabel Yap. Small Beer Press, February 23, 2021.
Have you ever wanted to hold something so tight but are afraid of crushing it, so you hold it and you don’t and you hold it and you don’t? The extreme tenderness of your grip stems from that voice in your head that says—you’re suffocating it! Let it go!
Queer love, as opposed to heterosexual love, is a lot like that. Why do we scarcely allow ourselves to love, let alone hope that it be reciprocated? A lot of us have had to unlearn the “wrongness” of our desires as adults. Even after you’ve come to terms with your queerness, the statistical probability that the object of your desire is straight is so stratospherically high that it makes no sense to hope, most of the time. There aren’t enough words in all the languages I know to sing of this specific heartbreak. Ask a queer person and you’d find bruises under un-mottled skin.
Isabel Yap’s debut collection Never Have I Ever consists of 13 stories—some short, and some novelette length—which deals with such desires that lurk just beneath the surface. Beings of all shapes and forms lurk alongside humans in these stories, and they sometimes get happy endings. The collection opens with “Good Girls”, a story about a manananggal trying to get the better of her hunger, entrails and all. Traditional lore says manananggals detach their torsos and fly around looking for pregnant women and foetuses to feed on, but the protagonist in Yap’s story, who is in a reformation retreat, claims, “I eat the babies they don’t want.” Life at school is a recurring theme in her stories, and it’s not all roses: we are witness to the specific cruelties young girls inflict upon each other, and how they make up for it. We see that in “Good Girls”, “Have You Heard The One About Anamaria Marquez?”, and most powerfully in “A Canticle for Lost Girls”, which is set in a Catholic school retreat. The horror of the girls’ powerlessness against the predatory adults in power is transmogrified into a Lovecraftian monster in this tale, which, like Yap’s other school stories, is deeply atmospheric. These stories also talk about growing pains and barkadas (friendship groups), and the many ways your body betrays you in adolescence.
Speculative fiction offers powerful opportunities to seek closure and to see that poetic justice is served. Several wrongs, in a world that does not care enough, can be righted, or at least addressed head-on, using elements of the fantastic—“Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” uses the underworld and afterlife to tackle issues of police brutality and its effect on both the perpetrator and the victims.
Another theme that can be traced across this collection is one of sisterhood and female solidarity. Yap’s women, despite their differences, stand up for each other where it really matters. In “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing)”, a group of friends just want to have a regular bachelorette party, but, of course, the evening has other plans for them; they end up having a smashing night out in every sense of the word. “Only Unclench Your Hand” features two girls from wildly different backgrounds—city vs village, rich vs poor—learning to trust each other, tentatively at first, and later finding solace in the strength of their bond to face off against the unknown. “How To Swallow The Moon”, which sets the precarious nature of queer hope against the supernatural, also deals with a similar theme, except that the stakes are much higher here.
My favourite story in the anthology has all things light and wonderful—queer love, pining, witchcraft, tea, Pride, meddling friends, and San Francisco. “A Spell For Foolish Hearts” is Patrick’s story. Patrick is a gay witch (not a wizard, mind you) who has it bad for the sparkling new boy at office, but is unsure if the strength of his feeling is mutual. Misunderstandings occur, pining ensues, and it all gets resolved rom-com style at the end. This is the heartwarming Christmas-style queer love story that we desperately need—somebody turn this into a movie already, please.
Filipino folk legends make frequent appearances in her stories, be it the kappa with a whole lot of love to give in “A Cup Of Salt Tears” (featuring some great wordplay, starting with the title itself), or Maganda-Malakas (the first man and woman in Philippine mythology) appearing out of bamboos across space and time in “All The Best Of Dark And Bright”. These aren’t mere stand-ins for authenticity in the stories: Yap uses the lore in inventive ways to propel the narrative. She also does not try to dumb down or explain these to a foreign audience, and her stories are richer and truer for it. Thanks to this collection, I ended up learning about many interesting myths that I might not have heard of otherwise—did you know that kappas are deeply interested in stealing the shirikodama, which is basically one’s life essence, which just happens to be wedged as a ball up one’s anus?
These are the kind of stories that you shore up and savour over time, because there’s only so many of them. They teach you to hope, in a world that seems hell-bent on crushing us, and that is never a bad thing.
Pranavi is an SFF aficionado who also loves to read queer fiction, romance and poetry. She hopes that whatever the future brings, it also brings good food. She recently got a haircut that makes sure no one mistakes her for a straight person. In another life, she’s a surgeon. You can find Pranavi on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah in February 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Small Beer Press.