Aug 31, 2012

Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak

Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak

If I could have one wish granted, a question answered, I would ask them this: Did I hear you right?

Christopher Barzak’s Birds and Birthdays is a collection of three short stories and one essay, all dealing with the subject of “women’s self-representations in Surrealism”. The stories are “The Creation of Birds”, “The Guardian of the Egg”, and “Birthday”: the first draws from a series of paintings by Remedios Varo, and the second and third are named after the paintings (by Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning respectively) that inspired them. Barzak has written a series of posts at his blog about the art of these three Surrealist women and the impact it had on his writing; if you click over you can read a bit more about them and also see the paintings these stories are in conversation with.

As Barzak explains in “Re-Membering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism”, the essay that concludes this collection, women artists got the short end of the stick in the Surrealist movement. Despite the Surrealists’ self-professed goal of being subversive and revolutionary, the movement remained disappointingly traditional when it comes to gender roles:
As a movement, Surrealism had the intention of disrupting the systems of almost every tradition it encountered: political, scientific, artistic, literary, musical. It was meant to be a constant revolution, tearing down hierarchies and paradigms in the wake of its random (its purposefully random) attention. Despite the declaration of intent to free others from restrictive traditional customs and roles, though, Surrealism seems to have missed the mark in regard to the roles of women, both within the movement itself (where women certainly existed but were rarely acknowledged) as well as within the visual art initially produced, where the bodies of women were often depicted in various states of rupture, splayed open, or aggrandized to the point of making the female body into something mysterious and other.
I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of Surrealism is pretty limited: I know about its historical context and I’ve always been drawn to its aesthetics, but that’s pretty much it. However, in college I took a class on women in the artistic vanguards of the early 20th Century – it focused more on writers than it did on visual artists, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that the gender dynamics within Surrealism were pretty much the same as what I remember from that class. The women in those movements, writers and artists alike, were often drawn to them exactly because they seemed to promise an escape from the conventions that had always stifled them, both as artists and as human beings. And yet, no matter how at odds with the rest of society their circles were, they quickly realised that the same old troubling gender dynamics were being replicated. Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Among the Bohemians does a fantastic job of capturing what this kind of experience was like; reading Birds and Birthdays made me want to revisit it as soon as possible.

Anyway, I started with the essay that comes at the end of Birds and Birthdays because I thought it would be helpful to have some context for these stories. You definitely don’t have to read it first, as the stories do stand on their own, but they’re perhaps richer and more enjoyable if you understand how they’re in dialogue with the paintings that inspired them. Another thing the essay does is address the possible complications of writing about how these women were sidelined by the mostly male artistic movement they belonged to and how they struggled to make their voices heard when you yourself are a man. I really appreciated how open and honest Barzak was about this. I can’t claim to speak for all feminists or to possess the one true answer, but my position on this has always been that yes, I do want men to engage with feminism and to write about these things, as long as they acknowledge their possible blind spots and listen before they speak (after all, one of my all-time favourite feminist novels is by a man). This seems to have been exactly Barzak’s approach, and the result is every bit as sensitive and thoughtful as I’d hoped.

Let me tell you a bit about the stories themselves: “The Creation of Birds” captures everything I’ve always been drawn to in Surrealism: the imagery, the symbolic resonances, its startling and unsettling nature, the same sort of sensibility I find in the kind of fantasy I favour, and the suggestion of a universe much larger than a single story or painting could contain. The protagonist of the story, the Bird Woman, uses stars to make the birds she creates come to life. She used to be in a relationship with the Star Catcher, and over the course of the story the two get together again. The Bird Woman then has to negotiate the emotional demands the Star Catcher makes on her and the impact these have on her creativity, as well as try to decide whether trying to keep a balance is worth her energy at all. What “The Creation of Birds” does best is capture the arbitrary power imbalance between the Bird Woman and the Star Catcher: he has power over her because he has access to the stars she needs for her birds; but being given access to a resource that is necessary for her work comes at a very high personal cost. The parallels between this and the situation many early 20th century women artists were in barely need to be pointed out.

There was a scene in the story I particularly liked: the Bird Woman goes to see a psychoanalyst, and, following a brilliant image from one of Remedios Varo’s paintings, comes out carrying his disembodied head. This is what passes between the two shortly before that scene:
The psychoanalyst stares at the Bird Woman through round, foggy spectacles. He rubs his hands together like a fly. “This, my dear,” he says in his old man’s scratchy voice, “is why you can’t work. You’re depressed. Sorrow can make any of us stop in our tracks. Of course you can’t make birds.”
“But there isn’t enough light,” she explains. “The Star Catcher keeps taking the moons and stars. I need them. It isn’t just my own state of mind. The problem is out there in the world. How do you say it? Circumstantial?”
“Yes, yes,” he says. “That’s the word all right. But really, you must stop blaming others. If you are to help yourself, if you are to break this pattern of self-indulgent sadness, this apathy, then you will have to stop blaming others and be able to point your finger back at yourself.
I like how this conversation captures the tension between sociology and psychology, which is something that has been on my mind quite a lot these past few months. Psychology can of course be effective, and there’s comfort in the thought that we are not powerless; that change is in our hands. But if taken too far this idea can become a ruthless kind of finger-pointing – how do you balance individual agency with the knowledge that we’re all part of systems, that the problems “out there in the world” do have an impact on us and that sometimes the power to change them has been taken away from us?

The protagonist of “Birthday”, the story titled after the Dorothea Tanning self-portrait of the same title, is named Emma. The story follows her from her childhood to a moment of triumphant self-actualisation. Early in the story, Emma says:
I loved my parents. I loved them more than anyone that came after also. They were always giving me gifts, but never anything I wanted. As a child I often grew frustrated with them, but eventually I realized their ignorance of my desires was not intentional. This was when I turned sixteen and they flew me to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, when what I really wanted was to eat dinner with them at the little Italian restaurant where they had their first date. The Aurora Borealis frightened me to the point of muteness. I could only stare at those green and golden lights, my mouth hanging open, realizing how small and ridiculous my life was and, in the end, would be. My mother put her arm around me. “I know, Emma,” she said. “So beautiful.” I cried, and she thought they were tears of joy.
After that incident I became accustomed to receiving love that never matched my expectations.
The rest of the story is pretty much a movement away from this – from expectations so low they amount to self-abnegation to a place of comfort and confidence; from a terrible loneliness to the ability to word and voice desires instead of settling for mismatched love.

“The Guardian of the Egg”, based on the work of Leonora Carrington, was the story that I struggled the most with. It’s about Hester, an awkward seventeen-year-old girl from a small town who grows into a giantess, and whose transformation changes the community she grew up in forever. There’s a lot about it that I loved – as in the previous two stories, the use of imagery and the writing are stunning. There’s also the fact that Barzak is especially good at writing about small communities and the processes through which individuals who don’t fit the mould carve a space for themselves within them.

However (possible spoiler ahoy, although these aren’t really the kind of stories you can be spoiled for), the story uses the trope of the sacrificial lady, which I’ve grown increasingly weary of after spending a whole summer immersed in the Whedonverse. I’ll say that it uses it in a more thoughtful and complex way than most, though. If I think about it carefully, I realise that reading the ending as a death is perhaps more literalist than the story deserves. Here’s what the narrator, Hester’s brother, tells us towards the end:
Hester’s face swam up at me then, floating just under the water. She smiled, tilted her head at a quizzical angle, waved, then swam to the bottom again. The tree was no longer growing out of her head. Her body had returned to the young woman’s body I remembered. I wondered if perhaps she had been showing herself occasionally to my mother and father, and that these brief visitations kept them here in the hopes that she’d return one day for good.
Hester is not entirely gone, and yet the cumulative effect of the stories I’ve been consuming still frustrates me and makes me wish for something more tangible. I think part of the reason why I didn’t connect with “The Guardian of the Egg” as much as with the other two stories was the narration – as I mentioned above, the narrator is Hester’s younger brother, and this is the only story where the woman at its centre is only ever seen from the outside. The result is that she doesn’t feel like a fully realised person in the same way Emma and the Bird Woman do. I wanted to get closer to Hester, to what it was like to be her, than her brother’s perspective ever allowed me. “The Guardian of the Egg” is available for free at Endicott Studio, so I’m going to have to point out that you could go read it right now and then come discuss it with me.

As you can tell by now, I really enjoyed Birds and Birthdays: it captures everything that’s appealing about Surrealist imagery, but it also avoids its oversimplifications and voices the questions implicit to the work of the women it marginalised. I suspect this is one of those collections that become more and more rewarding the more knowledge you bring to it yourself, so I look forward to returning to it one day after I’ve done more reading on the subject (Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick is now on my wishlist).

Birds and Birthdays has just been published as part of Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces series, and let me just say that I don’t know what kind of rock I’ve been living under that this series hadn’t made it onto my radar yet. The Conversation Pieces series imagines feminist SF as a conversation stretching over space and time, and it aims to both document and add to it by publishing a mixture of classic and contemporary works. Needless to say, I desperately want to read them all.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book for review from the author.


  1. I've always been very drawn to Surrealist imagery, too, but really know very little about it. These stories sounds fascinating for so many reasons! I eager to pop over and see the paintings. Sadly, I'd never heard of any of these artists before.

  2. I'm now officially IMPATIENT for my copy to arrive in the mail! Thanks so much for the advice on reading the essay first. I think that'll be helpful for me too. These really do sound like excellent stories. I was excited to learn about this series of books too! Curious to hear about the others!

  3. My teens and I really enjoy Surrealist art, but until now,I hadn't read or seen anything about female Surrealist artists. This sounds fascinating.

  4. Remedios Varo is one of my favorite artists. It sounds like this collection does an excellent job of taking her art and using it as an inspiration. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this!

    Another book that was inspired by Varo's work was The Crying of Lot 49.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.