The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women

The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women

By Rosalie Morales Kearns (Editor)
Shade Mountain Press, 2015, 329 pages

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As a supporter of any initiative that aims to get more works by women writers published and reviewed, I was delighted when Shade Mountain Press came onto the literary scene in 2014.

To quote from its website, “Shade Mountain is committed to publishing literature by women, especially women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women. We publish work that’s politically engaged, challenges the status quo, tells the stories that usually go unheard.”

With this post, I want to highly recommend the press’s latest publication, The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. This page-turner of a story collection artfully blends the light and the dark, the bitter and the sweet, with a delightful infusion of the strange and surreal.

As Rosalie Morales Kearns, the editor of the collection and the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, writes in the Introduction, “There are many ways to describe the women in these stories: feisty, unruly, indomitable. Above all, they take action. They make change. They stand up for themselves, for each other, for their beliefs.”

Because the anthology comprises thirty-six stories, far more than I can do justice to in this post, I’m going to highlight my favorites from the book’s five thematic chapters: Resistance, Solidarity, Entanglements, Mother Figures, and Transformation.

I. Resistance

Catherine Haustein’s sci-fi-cum-adventure tale “Grave to Cradle” is as hilarious as it’s thought-provoking. The central character, Celeste, is a chemist for HiChemTek, maker of breakfast cereals and pet foods, who has won a visit with Isaac Newton, just one of several alchemists brought back to life by HiGenTek—and not for the betterment of science or humankind: “Resurrection hadn’t been cheap, and the company marketed the alchemists and exploited them for profit.”

Haustein’s description of the resurrected Newton (as seen through Celeste’s eyes) is a work of art unto itself:

A nicely dressed older fellow straight out of 1705, the year he was knighted, Newton stood in her lab looking more like the guy who prosecuted coin clippers than the genius who’d penned Principia. No surprise that he looked fatigued and a bit crazy. He’d been overworked. She’d seen him in advertisements for anything associated with force or gravity, products ranging from cologne to mufflers. The poor man’s eyes drooped and so did his mouth, as if he had a neural lesion. His hair still looked good, though, lush and snowy, and he had that cute dimple on his chin. … He smelled like old books.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Celeste and Newton join forces to resist their corporate overlords, get Celeste out of a sticky (and very funny) situation concerning her ungrateful elderly father, and find a better way of life, together. Although the story works as pure entertainment, it also delivers insightful social criticism, just two of its targets being the commodification of more and more aspects of our lives, and the expectation that women will take all or most of the responsibility for family caregiving.

II. Solidarity

In this chapter of the collection, I was especially taken with “Noelia and Amparo,” by Glendaliz Camacho. The setting is the Dominican Republic of the late 1950s, and the women of the title, Noelia and Amparo are, respectively, the wife and mistress of Federico (Fede), an engineer at a local sugar refinery.

The construction of the story, which alternates between Noelia’s and Amparo’s points of view, allows us to identify with both women, and to see the particular limitations of their lives. Noelia, though more privileged than Amparo, feels penned in by the roles imposed upon her—first as an obedient daughter, then as a dutiful wife. As Camacho describes Noelia’s situation, “Her life was like the tea parties she had with her dolls as a girl—she controlled the proceedings, but only until she was called for dinner by the real adults.” As for Amparo, she has faced a long struggle to support both herself and her young son. (When Fede presents her with a gift of diamond earrings, she accepts them reluctantly, understanding that she could pawn them in the case of a financial emergency.)

By bringing the predicaments of Noelia and Amparo to the fore, Camacho turns the traditional wife-mistress/unfaithful husband tale on its head. Far from being the romantic center of the story, Fede is a means to an end for both women: a source of income for Amparo and a way of achieving the expected social status (as a married woman) for Noelia. And because Camacho places us so squarely in each woman’s shoes, the way in which they eventually find common ground—after fraught battles waged through food (!)—feels equally natural and surprising.

III. Entanglements

This chapter is home to one of my favorite stories in the collection, “Silted Castle Walls,” by Megan Rahija Bush. Set in the small (fictional) Alaskan town of Carthus, it alternates between the perspectives of two twenty-somethings: Sam, a lifelong resident of Carthus who has no plans to leave it, and Katie, who is in town only for a summer job and who sees her time there as just another stop in her exploration of the world:

She never could make herself stay, she felt compelled to push on, to follow some nebulous compass that told her she was destined to impact the world in some way. It was her destiny, her debt to the places she loved, and if it meant she had to move from place to place, she would.

This difference between Katie and Sam, and the certainty that Katie will be leaving Carthus at the end of the summer, does not keep them from embarking on a love affair that, although temporary, clearly becomes significant to both of them. One of the things I admire most about this story is the way Bush conveys this significance, through beautiful observations, like this one that Katie makes about Sam:

He’d showed up right when he said he would, predictable; she smiled, never even late to a casual evening. He’d taken off his raincoat and boots on the porch so the mud would not cross her entryway. She loved that kindness in action trumped his guarded silences and gruff front.

Through passages like these, we get the sense that Katie and Sam have created something memorable together, even if their relationship itself cannot endure. In this way the story complicates conventional notions of the “summer romance” and of any love limited by time or circumstance: the truth is, if that love runs deep enough, however briefly, it can’t help but change us.

IV. Mother Figures

All of the stories in this chapter are so captivating that I had a hard time deciding which one to focus on. But because I am especially partial to the spooky and the Gothic, I must say how much I enjoyed Theodora Goss’s “Miss Emily Gray.” To give you a sense of the story’s dark delights, I’ll share an early passage, in which the title character takes shape from an oak leaf and a spider web, and is brought to life in a post-rain wind gust:

As this collection tumbled down the lane, it began to extend upward like a whirlwind, and then to solidify. Soon, where there had been a leaf and a spiderweb speckled with rain, there was now a plain but neat gray dress with white collar and cuffs, and brown hair pulled back in a neat but very plain bun, and a small white nose, and a pair of serious but very clear gray eyes. Beneath the dress, held up by small white hands so that its hem would not touch the sodden lane, were a pair of plain brown boots. And as they stepped carefully among the puddles, sending the mist swirling before them, they gathered not a single speck of mud.

Miss Gray gains employment as governess to a young girl, Genevieve, but she really is an answer to a spell cast by Genevieve—a request fulfilled, with disturbing consequences, ones the child could not have foreseen (and which I will not give away here). I loved the unexpected twists in this story and the lushly descriptive prose, which brought to my mind the writing of Angela Carter.

V. Transformation

This chapter is home to some of the more surreal and fantastical stories in the collection, all of them both insightful and entertaining. But I especially enjoyed “Devil Take the Hindmost,” by Rosalie Morales Kearns. The story is set in what feels like a not-too-distant future, in which bioterrorism is so real a threat that biochem shelters have been established across the country. The central character is Pilar Quiñones, a geochemist who is living a life of exile in more ways than one.

For one thing, she’s been reassigned from a job as a D.C.-based scientist (specializing in erosion control) to a gig as a fire safety officer in a remote state forest; this apparently is punishment for her having leaked information about an environmentally dangerous collaboration between the government and agro-businesses.

For another thing, once the bioterror alarm sounds in the wilderness, not one shelter will take Pilar in. Here is a hilarious exchange between her and the residents of one shelter:

The intercom ekes out staticky fragments of voices: “… back to the reservation!” “… back to Mexico!” (“I’m from Wilmington, Delaware,” she says. Fucking rednecks, she’s about to say—Keep your mouth shut, Pilar.) “Look at that short hair—she’s one of those …” “That’s what’s wrong with this country.”

Finally, Pilar looks, really looks, at the sign that she’d taken to be just an abbreviation for some organization or research lab. SOLS, the sign says in large letters, then, in smaller letters along the bottom:


“Oh, Jesus,” she says.

“Is she praying?”

“That didn’t sound like a prayer.”

One last try. “If you were true Christians,” she shouts, “you’d let me in.” She doesn’t wait for the answer, but hears it anyway as she runs back up the grave path.

“If the Lord chose you to be saved, you’d be in here already.”

In the end, not even Pilar’s Forest Service credentials can save her, and she discovers that in the afterlife, exiles and outsiders—in spite of the good they did while living, or perhaps because of it—are left to dance with the Devil, a.k.a. Dev. Fortunately for Pilar, Dev doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. Here’s one exchange between the two of them:

“You don’t have horns and a tail,” she says.

“I don’t torment souls either, but who can control the rumor mill?”

I loved the dark humor of this story and also the way it pushes back against biased and simplistic notions about who is worthy of kindness and justice in this world and in whatever afterlife may exist. It left me thinking long after I closed the book.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Anthologies of women’s writing mentioned in the Introduction to the book: Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers; Dreams in a Minor Key: Tales of Magic Realism by Women; and What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction
▪ The stories of Angela Carter
▪ Collections like the following: This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers; Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House; and Best American Short Stories