(Originally published at Tor.com, February 12, 2015, edited by Ann VanderMeer.)
The Story Behind The Story
I think creative artists under-report how much inspiration comes from seeing someone else doing it wrong.
Sometime early in 2014, I came across a science fiction story where the protagonist had multiple bodies. It was a story of many beautiful sentences addressing gender issues, but the author seemed to only want the fact that the protagonist had multiple bodies for making a case for someone who could only be logically referred to as they. They weren’t even in different places at the same time.
“Heck,” I said, “if I had multiple bodies, the least I would do with them is win the World Acrobatic Gymnastics Championship.”
Okay, maybe my mind works in weird ways.
I did artistic gymnastics briefly at age five in the USSR, and then again in Ottawa in a community centre recreational gymnastic program from age eleven to thirteen — a poor program, such that although it had a balance beam and a vaulting horse (back in the days of vaulting horse), it had neither a sprung floor nor uneven bars, only mats spread on a gym floor and a single bar made from a set of old parallel bars. I had some natural flexibility but not enough conditioning for core strength, and the pinnacle of my accomplishments were awkward walkovers on the floor and a roundoff dismount on the beam. (My splits I got later, in taekwondo.) I longed to move to a better gym, but we could not afford it, and eventually my parents pulled me out when they realized that I had a permanent bony callus under my knee from a neglected bump against a steel vaulting box.
I sometimes wonder if I would have done far better in rhythmic gymnastics, where my knees would have been safe from steel surfaces. But in Canada, rhythmic was even more expensive. I abandoned the idea, and would just watch gymnastics in the Olympics on TV. (I am an enormous Olympic fan, both Winter and Summer; it is one of the few times you see amateur sports, especially women’s sports, on mainstream television.)
In late 2013 after the World Championships, I discovered the “gymternet,” the mostly-artistic gymnastics online fandom, and I stopped being an Olympics-only gymnastics fan. And also discovered videos of acrobatic gymnastics, a stunning sport that some people argue should replace rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympic Games. I am not sure of that yet; rhythmic, for all of its feminine prettiness, is a tremendously demanding sport, although acro has in its favour that it allows for both men and women of more varied shapes and sizes to participate.
The idea of a multiple-bodied acrobatic gymnast pair would not leave my head, so I wrote a few paragraphs of it and saved it in my ideas file for Clarion. I meant all along to write it, but finally got around to it in Week Four, when I downloaded the code of points and watched a lot of videos of world-class women’s pairs. To this day, I have not been in an acro gym.
(Those in the know may notice that the scoring I use in the story is a little off from the 2013-2016 FIG Code of Points. I claim artistic license. The epigraphs are real, with the correct paragraph numbers.)
The class loved my story, but hated the ending that I felt I needed to write, that tied everything together and explained what happened to Kimalana and why. N. K. Jemisin, who was teaching the class that week, pointed out that I could just leave the ending off; there was a natural point which made a much better ending, and I could leave what happened next to the reader.
The next week, I showed the revised version to Ann VanderMeer, asking for advice, and…she ended up buying the story for Tor.com.
Well, all that time I’ve procrastinated by reading gymnastics blogs did finally turn into money.
A friend of mine said that the story is about the erasure of identity in the name of sport in the Soviet system. After it came out, I was surprised to hear readers describe it as chilling and horrifying.
Maybe my mind works in weird ways.