Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby (Penguin Books, 2022).
When I was in high school, my friends and I plotted revenge. Some strange guy had groped one of us in the hallway and she was gutted. To cheer her up, we brainstormed ways she could defend herself in the future. Wear spikes that would stab him if he tried it again. A belt that could electrocute him. We invented scenarios that left him in tears until finally my friend laughed. Then the bell rang and we reentered those hallways, each of us on our own again.
If we had been the women in Gwen E. Kirby’s debut short story collection Shit Cassandra Saw, we might have gone back to class actually armed to the teeth. Most of these twenty-one stories feature layered female protagonists; they have rage, courage, flaws, athleticism, and the audacity to be themselves. They live among men ready to hurt them, but these women are not victims. Some have rapiers, armies, and genuine fangs. At a minimum, they have the guts to confront themselves. Kirby’s collection brims with vitality—her scenarios are inventive, her deadpan humor inescapable. She plays with structure, writing one story as a single run-on sentence, another as a manual for re-tiling your bathroom. She weds playfulness with pathos.
Throughout the collection, Kirby explores women’s search for freedom from misogyny and patriarchal constraints. Intermixed with her contemporary stories are seven tightly written pieces about memorable—though frequently forgotten—women from history, among them the British warrior queen Boudicca, the pirate Mary Read and her fellow pirate and lover Anne Bonny, and the Japanese warrior Nakano Takeko.
The opening story sets the tone for the collection with its wicked mouthful: “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway.” In this version of the myth, the god Apollo, furious that the Trojan priestess Cassandra has resisted his sexual advances, curses her by spitting into her mouth. He dooms her to be able to predict the future and be disbelieved. With this cruel gift, she presages her own kidnapping, rape, and murder in far-off Greece, yet she also witnesses the future’s sly commodification of her fellow Trojans—their eventual reincarnation as condoms. Kirby’s story differs from the original myth in a crucial way: only men distrust Cassandra, who believes, “The women of Troy might listen. They know that Cassandra’s curse is their curse as well.” In this world, a woman’s word has less weight than a man’s; everything about women has less importance, less humanity. They, too, will be loaded onto foreign ships alongside gold trinkets. Meanwhile, Cassandra anticipates a distant century that holds the keys to their becoming masters of their own bodies:
The cordless Hitachi Magic Wand. Elastic hair ties.