Sweetlust, a short fiction collection written by Asja Bakić and translated by Jennifer Zoble, struck me first and foremost as unforgettably, intrinsically, born from its place on the globe, the author’s relationship to The Balkans stretched like a caul over the book. Mountains and former Yugoslavia, rakija and economic collapse, government control and witchcraft, fairy tales, and the remnants of the Communist bloc all pump through the stories in this collection, anchoring even the most fantastic, the most far-reaching, to the ground, to our planet, to earth, and deep in our human impulses. The stories also, each and every one of them, follow their own internal rules. Nothing from the world of one story could be relied on when entering another. Each one was a capsule, each one its own universe.
Her characters want things so badly that their want excludes, so often, moral pretext, the benefit of others. In “1740,” the protagonist, while her friends build a time travel machine to go back and reverse the climate change and flooding that has destroyed her home, thinks to herself:
“Traditional values had always mattered in the Balkans, and my parents were no exception. Family, money, and rakija. Rakija was always made at our house, the cabin where, after the warming, I was ultimately forced to live alone. I’ve often thought about our long-lost fruit trees. Plum, pear, apple. And especially the cherry tree. Sitting on this patio, I drank the entire supply of rakija my parents had stored in the attic for my future wedding, out of my mind with fear of drowning. One can still find potable water, but there’s no more rakija. My parents come to mind from time to time, but alcohol is there constantly. In truth, the memory of rakija compelled me, sweaty and tired as I was, to write code on that greasy paper. I’ve missed it something awful. The cemetery where my parents are buried is underwater. The Balkans are underwater. The only thing keeping me from drowning is the memory of višnjevača, the rakija that’s sweet and tart all at once, like life, like humanity. If the rakija is good, you never get a headache. I want to drink, forget everything, if only for a moment. I stare at the garbage dump, day in, day out. I stare at the consequences. I want to get away from them.”
This book is also, for lack of a better word, really fucking cheeky! In an execution of one of my favorite tropes — writers writing about writers, perhaps even in the vein of Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Resident” where the writer is specifically attending a residency — we see some of Bakić’s dry humor rear its head. In this world, writers exclusively churn out drivel for mass consumption, hardly caring about what they create, working to work, filling their novels with advertisements written into the text like Coca-Cola has appeared in the hands of countless TV characters throughout the years. While the critiques were maybe some of the most familiar to me, reader, the direction this story went WAS NOT. Bakić lulls with sarcasm only to keep twisting and twisting until you aren’t sure what your original thoughts were. The final story, a sort of retort to The Sorrows of Young Werther would seem like it does not belong, except for the fact that the tone of it. The heady elixir of glee and exasperation and rage that someone might feel humiliating a persistent pickup artist at a bar that runs throughout the piece pairs so well with the preceding stories. It does, in fact, belong, and its difference also serves as enough of a jolt to take us back out of the book, to let the reader know that we are almost finished here.
My favorite speculative fiction has always disturbed me — works by Carmen Maria Machado, K-Ming Chang, Theodore Sturgeon — hit too close to home and this book felt like Bakić was scraping my insides for material, like I opened a book and was confronted with dead skin I’d shed my whole life, turned back to me asking me to answer for the sins in my thoughts and the flaws in my hopes and the depravity in my dreams. In these stories, the fantastic is a dark mirror of our basest desires that looks back at us, giving us just what we want, regardless of the consequences.
Threaded throughout is the nagging horror of capitalism and patriarchy and its valuation and commodification of bodies, and, specifically, its over-valuation of certain bodies and undervaluation of others. In a world where something like The Fae exist, our protagonist is haunted most of all by the flickering halogen lights above the girls’ table tennis practice space, by the lack of financial support for the young women athletes contrasted sharply with the new shoes and equipment and brightly lit practice space provided to the boys’ team. A polyamorous marriage is also a business arrangement, where the married individuals must sell several homemade pornographic videos a week to their government to pay the bills: “When we’d gotten married, Otis, Runio, and I were never under the delusion that a marital contract meant eternal love. We just wanted to survive.” In “Gretel,” even in a world where men have been dead for decades, women still claim to crave the Beauty and the Beast fantasy, enraptured by a virtual reality program, trapped by the male gaze, with one trans woman hacker determined to free her sisters from their obsession with now-extinct men. In “Blindness” a pair of sisters travel endlessly, the extremely Catholic sister seeking the relief of saints for her blindness and her atheistic but faithful sister driving her and accompanying her from shrine to shrine, until they climb the witches’ mountain and find what waits at the summit. This is a deeply feminist work, but it’s not sanitized, commodified feminism. The feminism here is raw, living, harsh and at times, violent.
Salvation, for better or worse (and sometimes it is worse for the world and others) for our protagonists who are lucky enough to escape, comes from divestment from whatever norms they’ve been indoctrinated into in their respective lives.
With that, as with any SFF I’ve read, the most disturbing part of it all are the selfish ways the characters engage with each other and their environment. Once in a while, their pursuit of their own satisfaction is admirable, enviable. But most of the time, it comes at the expense of others. No robot or environmental catastrophe is as horrific as the indifference or betrayal of another person at the end of the world.
Sweetlust by Asja Bakić was originally published in 2020 and will be released in translation by Feminist Press tomorrow, February 14 2024.