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[SOR] Leena Krohn’s “Their Mother’s Tears: Fourth Letter”

May 12, 2016

Less a short story than an excerpt from a novel, “Their Mothers Tears: The Fourth Letter” is clipped from the pages of Krohn’s novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City. Tanairon was first published in 1985 but it took until 2005 for it to be translated into English, at which point it won a World Fantasy Award.

It’s taken me a little while to circle back around to writing about this piece as I wasn’t sure that I had much to say about it other than the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I remember enjoying Tainaron. In fact, I even remember the review that sold me the novel. Looking back over the pieces I’ve written about this anthology, it occurs to me that there might be something of a pattern emerging as to which stories tend to excite me.

It used to be quite common for reviewers to engage in the infamous ‘genre debate of doom’ about whether a work should be considered science fiction or fantasy. No longer all that common, the genre debate of doom was driven by the fact that genre culture used to police the boundaries between those two genres and that policing was in turn driven by structural considerations such as the fact that working in different genres tended to qualify you for different sets of awards: Spaceship on the cover? Hugo Award, not World Fantasy. Dragon on the cover? BFS Award, not BSFA. In truth, it was all rather tedious.

The reason I mention the genre debate of doom is that it occurs to me that the fantastical stories in this anthology tend to come in one of two distinct flavours that might well represent two distinct traditions within the world of fantasy literature. I don’t know if there’s anything to this distinction but I thought it might be fun to share it:

One set of stories are not just postmodern but self-consciously meta-textual in so far as they tend to be stories-about-stories that situate themselves in a dialogue with existing bodies of text. These stories don’t just re-use tropes that were already present in the fantasy canon, they go out of their way to use these familiar tropes as part of some attempt to reclaim or reframe parts of the relevant cultural memory. These are pretty much exactly what I think of when I think of ‘literary fantasy’ and they are why I tend not to read a lot of literary fantasy: Some works are better written and better imagined than others but I there’s something very insular and self-involved about this type of textual navel-gazing.

Another set of stories is what I would refer to – possibly with VanderMeerian approval – as ‘weird’ rather than ‘fantastical’. These works resemble traditional works of fantasy in so far as they are neither realistic nor constructed with reference to scientific ideas but the unreality seems to result from the application of surrealist techniques rather than the use of tropes and images drawn from any specific literary or cultural canon.

Works of literary fantasy are works in which the world is made up of stories. Works of weird fiction are works in which the world is a series of subjective emotional experiences that have somehow been made both objective and concrete. “Their Mothers Tears: The Fourth Letter” is fiction in so far as it takes place in a world assembled from the twin dehumanising experiences of urban living and motherhood.




The fragment opens with a visitor coming upon a series of bizarre-looking buildings:


There are strange houses in one of the suburbs. They are like goblets, very narrow and high, and to a certain extent they recall piles of ashes; but their reddish walls are as strong as concrete. In them live a countless mass of inhabitants, small but very industrious folk, who are in constant motion. They all resemble each other so closely that I should never learn to recognise any of them.


I love the second sentence as it’s difficult to parse what image Krohn is trying to bring to mind. How could a goblet possible look like a pile of ashes and ashes tend to be greyish-white rather than red. After a bit of googling, I realised that she was describing something that looked like termite mounds but the difficulty involved in summoning an appropriate image to mind distances us from the story but it also distances us from the buildings in question.

I can’t bring to mind what Krohn is inviting us to imagine but I am reminded of the work of Anselm Kiefer and the vast alien cityscapes depicted in Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow:


There’s something so inhuman about this landscape that the author arguably tips her hand: What could talk of tiny, industrious, and indistinguishable people living in something that appears both artificial and a product of natural processes possibly bring to mind except for a colony of insects?

The narrator recognises one of the building’s inhabitants and asks for a tour. Oddly eager to get on with their business, the friend agrees to meet the narrator and immediately dumps them on a security guard who takes them straight to the queen:


Her dimensions were enormous: her egg-shaped head grazed the roof of the vault and, in its half recumbent position, her breadth extended from the doorway to the back of the room. As I stepped inside and stood by the wall (there was hardly room for anywhere else), there came from her mouth a creaking sound which I interpreted as a welcome.


The idea of cities being hives is usefully dehumanising in so far as it allows the writer to talk about almost any social and cultural process: Want to criticise capitalism? People living in cities are nothing but alienated worker drones. Want to talk about structural inequalities? People living in cities work themselves to death for a vast, bloated monstrosity. The story isn’t really long enough for that piece of metaphorical infrastructure to be put to use but the idea of cities as vast mechanisms that dehumanise their inhabitants for the sake of some unspecified goal is striking and memorable:


The tribe was increasing; the house was being extended. The city was growing.


Krohn then decides to focus on the subjective experience of the queen and how she sees herself:


“You think, don’t you, that I’m some kind of individual, a person, admit it!”


Here Krohn is taking the alienation and dehumanisation of the building’s inhabitants and turning it on its head as a means of shining some light on the experience of being a mother. After all, if the people living in the buildings are not individuals and possess no agency then what does that say about the creature that brings them into the world? Much like Kit Reed’s “The Mothers of Shark Island”, the queen is trapped in a system that treats her merely as the conduit through which the future must pass and the structure must be reproduced:


“But there is no me here; look around you and understand that! And here, here in particular, there is less of me than anywhere. You think I fill this room. Wrong! Quite wrong! For I am the great hole out of which the city grows. I am the road everyone must travel! I am the salty sea from which everyone emerges, helpless, wet, wrinkled…”


So yeah… it’s quite short, it’s quite good, it serves as a decent advert for the novel but I’m not sure I would have included it in this anthology.

  1. May 18, 2016 8:40 pm

    If link posts are a good way of encouraging a virtual community then comments are a way to sustain them.

    I read this extract a few days ago and a couple of things occurred to me:

    – It’s very Perdido Street Station, which given the publication and translation histories of both is more a comment on convergence of strange ideas than anything more substantive.

    – The two category of stories gets warped by the Alice Sheldon story next in the anthology, but that story and this extract sit nicely against each other of examples of leaning into an idea. Most of the earlier stories, mostly of the first set, don’t fully embrace the logical premises they setup. Although The Perfect Married Womanand The Forbidden Words of Margaret A. do. Their Mother’s Tears: Fourth Letter also does. I find it interesting how my engagement with these stories rests so much on this.


  2. May 18, 2016 8:45 pm

    There’s real rigour and depth to the Sheldon (piece going up tomorrow BTW) and a lot of these stories are content to carve out a reasonable idea and just let it sit there. The better stories do stick with their ideas and work them through. That’s a pretty good aesthetic yardstick for genre writing as a whole.


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