Some books are an adventure – shining, sparkling, filled with swords and sorcery. The valor of the main character, their honorable devotion to doing the right thing (or sometimes the wrong thing). Others are suspenseful, bringing you to the edge of your seat while you jump at shadows from the corner of your eye. A new challenge or horror waits around every corner. Others, yet, have something a bit different that sets them apart. They are lyrical, prosaic, and seem to worm their way under your skin. Such books are more than words on paper.
When you read them, you get the sense that the author isn’t merely sharing a story with you. Instead, they’ve chosen to bare a piece of their soul for all the world to see. They have a certain bravery woven into their core, and they ask for a little of the same from their readers. Here I am, the author seems to say. Look at me. See me. See the story I wrote, see who I am, understand why I told this story, and connect with me. On the reader’s part, it requires a willingness to lower their own defenses, to be vulnerable, and make that connection happen. Even when you may not have much in common and may not be able to fully understand the characters, they will strike a chord in your heart. You’ll find yourself thinking back on them, time and time again.
The Four Profound Weaves is one of those books. While I’ve already waxed poetic previously on this novella’s merits in a full review back in March, a small reprise is called for as we near its release date. The prediction I made back then still holds true; I don’t think I’ve stopped recommending this book any time it’s even slightly relevant to someone’s interests.
To me, personally, it has an added layer of meaning to see a story that managed to show not only love and acceptance for those who do not fit neatly into their assigned bodies, but also strife and conflict when they choose to change into something that suits them better. Of the two main characters, Uiziya has had it a bit easier where gender is concerned. She may have been born male, but she chose to transition at a young age. With help from her family and using magical weaving techniques, she called down the mystical sandbirds to remake her body as she saw fit. She has been loved, dearly and whole-heartedly. Nen-Sasair, the nameless man, has had the opposite experience. His culture and family insists on misgendering him and casts him out from learning about the masculine half of his community. He is barred from not only from being taught magic, but also from the social experience he craves so deeply. The few familial connections he has are tainted by their insistence that he is merely a “manly woman.”
I fall somewhere in between where gender is concerned. I have, by and large, been very careful in how and where I disclose this. I am queer and I am nonbinary, but I am also feminine and traditionally “womanly” from an outside perspective. Unless someone is told that I’m other than what I seem, it’s not something they’d ever guess. When I first read The Four Profound Weaves, I hadn’t even settled on nonbinary as a label for myself. I wavered – somewhere in between woman, agender, or perhaps something else. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I discovered exactly why the idea of womanhood made me feel so uncomfortable, leading me to shuck it off and be free of it entirely. As a friend of mine put it, “You don’t have to be a woman if you don’t want to.” It’s odd how just being given permission to be who you want can make such a difference. Within the term nonbinary, I found that I no longer felt a need to box myself in anywhere. Rather than trying to say I was or wasn’t anything, I could simply be. There was space for me to exist as I wanted within that label. To label myself nonbinary was not to be placed in a box, but to be set free from one.
With this in mind, I truly appreciate the range of experiences covered across both Uiziya’s and nen-sasair’s stories. Realistically, I recognize that my status as somewhere in-between combined with my easy ability to pass as cis will bar me from certain social experiences even as it also forces others on me. Lemberg captures this with a deft hand, particularly with nen-sasair. While he may be barred from the “male” half of his culture, he has the “female” half forced on him.
There are countless times I’ve been shoeboxed or treated a certain way because people read me as “woman” and feminine. This isn’t always a bad thing, necessarily – often, it has allowed me to connect with people on a deeper level. I am feminine, and therefore I am a safe confidant. They can lay their woes on me, and I will care about them and help them. This is not something people can do as easily with someone who is traditionally masculine, generally speaking. However, this is a two-eged blade all the same. Because I look the way I do, because I have the body I have, I’ve endured quite a lot of trauma and expectations as to my behavior over the course of my life. People make assumptions about what I want, specifically regarding motherhood.
Nen-sasair not only has to manage the impact on himself, but also the impact that his identity would have on others. Lemberg explores his earlier experiences in more depth in the novelette ‘Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” which can be read for free online in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Magazine. He questions what use he’d be as a man when the artificers wouldn’t accept him as an adult, when he’d be no use to the woman-only trading groups. If he wanted to remain with his family, how would he live? If he transitioned but intended to remain with them… well, he’d just have to go into a different sort of hiding by dressing as a woman instead.
Ultimately, however, personal identity wins out over the ease of remaining a woman. “It’s not about what I do, as a man or as a woman. It is about how I feel, how I had always felt,” says nen-sasair when asked why he’s finally chosen to transition. Although he had some access to their male culture through underground channels, it wasn’t enough. He had lived a lie for too long, the weight crushing him into complacency, until suddenly he could no longer bear it.
Although change, transition, and identity are major themes in both The Four Profound Weaves and in Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds, the stories themselves take on much bigger questions – often ones which aren’t answered within the text. Nen-saisair and Uiziya are complex, messy human being who make choices that aren’t always right. They often endanger others with their decisions, sometimes placing them in mortal danger. Even after nen-sasair makes his transformation, he’s left with a multitude of questions – can he still use his old name, even with its cultural connotations? What welcome would await him at home? Where does he go from here? Some of these questions are answered in The Four Profound Weaves, but many other questions arise from their ashes.
These questions and concerns are ones that, again, prompted me to give a little bit of myself to the reading. I have often struggled with where my identity and my experiences diverge. Often, in fact, I have felt a need to speak as a woman – specifically regarding my experiences with sexual assault and trauma. It is challenging to speak of these things in the way that they impact women as a broader group when you no longer necessarily want to be a part of that group. Ultimately, it was the realization that the only time I felt I needed to speak “as a woman” was when discussing trauma, sexism, or other negative experiences. Those negative experiences, all of which were forced on me rather than chosen, defined how I thought of myself as a woman… and anything outside of that, such as the way womanhood is often equated to motherhood and sex, served only to make me deeply uncomfortable.
The Four Profound Weaves and Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds asked me to give them these little bits of myself while I read them. Certainly, I did not have to, but being able to give this in return and think about it in context of the book allowed for a richer, deeper experience. Even if I hadn’t had misgivings about my own gender, it would have been enough to think of the times I’d had social experiences forced on me. It would be enough to understand what it’s like to have a family you love, but whom do not understand you. It would be enough to understand loving someone even though they hurt you and others whom you also love. By giving these pieces of yourself over to the story, to the author, both of you might be seen and understood through the mere act of reading. No further dialogue is necessary – it will simply click into place. You will know that if you told them, they would understand your experience. You will understand their story, their writing, and through it, the author. Stories that can do this are special and meant to be treasured.
Thanks much to Tachyon Publications for organizing this blog tour! The Four Profound Weaves will be available for purchase September 1st 2020!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and many other venues. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. You can find more of their work on their Patreon (patreon.com/rblemberg) and a full bio at rblemberg.net
ABOUT THE BIRDVERSE
The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse works have been nominated for the Nebula award, longlisted for the Hugo award and the Tiptree award, placed in the Rhysling award, won the Strange Horizons readers’ poll, and more. The Four Profound Weaves is the first full-length work set in the Birdverse.