Review: A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qíouyí Lu

The cover of Transcendent 3, showing a person in a colorful floral shirt and yellow lipstick washing a brain with a sponge with a yellow background.

I’m not the kind of person that cries easily, but reading S. Qíouyí Lu’s “A Complex Filament of Light” made me tear up. Hell–I even wrote “SAD AF” in my notes while I was reading it. In this #ownvoices short story (another from Transcendent 3 edited by Bogi Takács!) Alicia Xu faces loss, depression, and loneliness on a research expedition in Antarctica, after having recently lost their sister to suicide. “A Complex Filament of Light” is a good example of how subpar allies can alienate people and lead them to lose connections they need to survive. It also is proof that stories about trans people don’t have to be about their transness–particularly when their transness comes into contact with other marginalized identities.

S shows just how important good allyship can be through the character Daphne Wong who, although she wants to help, ends up going about it poorly at first. Daphne seeks out Alicia because she sees unhealthy coping mechanisms from them, and she wants to make sure they have a support system. Her aims are truly commendable, but I feel she may have alienated Alicia when she first reached out to them. While she doesn’t misgender Alicia–and even goes so far as to check for their pronouns–she shows that she still has a way to go before becoming a perfect ally. When she asks Alicia about their pronouns, she clarifies that the reason why she asked is because “actually, my sister is trans–” (168). Alicia zones out; it reminds them of the loss of their sister, and they even say that what Daphne said doesn’t bother them. However, as someone who has been on the receiving end of this line, I can tell you it’s not something I want to hear. Pronouns should be acknowledged and respected regardless of some personal reason for knowing them, and the context here makes it seem like Daphne might not have respected their pronouns if it weren’t for her sister’s transness. It’s a moment that goes largely unmentioned, but while reading it I realized that I wouldn’t want to continue speaking to her had I been in Alicia’s position. This is doubly the case when I consider how hard it can be to reach out to people when depressed and grieving. That’s not to say that things would have been easy for Alicia had Daphne been perfect, nor do I think S. Qíouyí Lu intended to highlight Daphne’s room for growth, but it was a subtlety that I could not help but feel a connection with.

On the other side of my reading experience, Alicia’s story of grief and depression is one that I both empathize with and do not fully understand, making it a great example of intersectionality and how trans individuals can be so different. I almost chose not to write a review about this piece, actually, because of how close it hit to home. As someone who has dealt with depression for a large portion of my life and understands the feeling of self-censorship on the topic, I could relate to Alicia quite a bit. However, while mental health issues were stigmatized in my home town (passively, for the most part), once they were announced, mental health care was expected. For Alicia, their family’s responses to their sister’s mental health issues & care–rooted in a culture I am not a part of–were unfamiliar to me. The story of “A Complex Filament of Light” is not one centering Alicia’s transness, but their relationship with their sister, their family, and their own mental state. It is for this very reason that it is such a fulfilling story to read; it is open in an admirable way, while also showing how mental health is not so straightforward as a white reader might think at first.

I would certainly recommend this to both trans and cis readers. It was cathartic to read, and it broadened my view of the world; an ideal story. The narrative touched me, truly. I feel that in this day-and-age–with depression and anxiety on the rise, massive suicide rates, and continued stigmatization of mental health issues–we (across many societies) need to front stories that not only acknowledge mental health, but also show its many facets. Even beyond my own idealistic reasons for why “A Complex Filament of Light” is one that I would suggest to readers, there’s a beautiful scene with the aurora australis, which just goes to show that S. Qíouyí Lu is both a conscientious writer and a good one.

“A Complex Filament of Light” by S. Qíouyí Lu from Transcendent 3 by Bogi Takács

Publisher: Lethe Press (2018)

Paperback: Around $17

Number of Pages: 167-176 of 249 pages

ISBN: 1590217063

Content Warnings: Mental illness, isolation, medication, self-harm, suicide. Trans people do not die in this short story.

Note: This is the third of a series of posts examining some of the many short stories in Transcendent 3, edited by Bogi Takács. There are nineteen short stories from 2017 in total, so I cannot review them all before the fourth volume is released in Summer of 2019 [You can pre-order it here!], especially when I will also be reviewing some other transgender works and writing on other topics in between. In light of that, I’ve decided to just pick out a few that stand out to me. I encourage you to get the anthology, because Takàcs is also incredibly up-to-date on all things trans lit, so it’s a great starting place both for short stories and longer-form writing.

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