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Today’s guest is speculative fiction author and editor Leona Wisoker! Her short fiction has been published in Cats in Space, Galactic Creatures, Sha’Daa: Inked, and other anthologies, and will soon be in Abyss & Apex as well. She is also the author of the stories and novels in Children of the Desert, a science fantasy series beginning with Secrets of the Sands. The last novel in the series, Servants of the Sands, was recently rereleased as two print volumes with a new chapter at the end.

Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover Bells of the Kingdom by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover Servants of the Sands: Part I by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover

Of Being So Damn Tired

Grand and sweeping pronouncements about women’s roles, whether fictional or factual, feel stale these days. Examining our historic oppression, whether globally or individually, feels the same. So much has already been written about emerging writers, about convention mishaps, about political fights, about the shifting world we live in. These are all excellently worthy topics, but I’m just not up to discussing them right now.

And that’s the theme, right there, isn’t it? We’re tired. We’re all so very, very tired. It’s been a ridiculous year and so many ridiculous months and so many, many ridiculous days. How often, in fiction, are women allowed to just be tired? When is the heroine allowed to get properly exhausted and collapse for a few days instead of Heroically Forging Ahead?

One of my favorite authors is Tove Jansson, a Finnish author who wrote and illustrated children’s books (and did illustrations for a satirical, anti-fascist magazine as well). She was bisexual in a time and place that absolutely did not accept such things, and her books are heavily queer coded.

Her Moominvalley series follows the adventures of a family of woodland trolls. Early books are highly improbable and whimsical, focused on the children (Moomintroll and his friends Snufkin, Little My, and Sniff, among others) and the patriarch of the family (Moominpappa). They involve comets, floating houses, and magical hats. The later books are where Jansson really sinks her teeth into the complexity of the characters. The magic retreats, replaced with a finely drawn network of connections, and Moominmamma becomes the center of every story — even in Moominvalley in November, when she’s not directly in the story at all.

I find it fascinating that the shift in focus from Moominpappa to Moominmamma is when the stories lose their ridiculous edge and move into deeper waters. Throughout the series, Moominmamma is consistently the voice of calm and reason against her husband’s pompous recklessness and her children’s flighty adventures. She treats crisis with good humor and gets the family through Situation after Situation without showing the least bit of strain — until Moominpappa at Sea, the next to last book in the series.

As Sea opens, Moominvalley is under a summer heat wave and everyone is cranky and snapping at one another. A small fire starts in the back yard, and is quickly put out by the family; Moominpappa, napping on the veranda, is furious that he wasn’t called in to handle it himself. He stomps and sulks and stands guard over the tiny blackened area until he’s sure the family is properly sorry for their offense. Unfortunately, they all think he’s overreacting, and Moominmamma can’t find a way to smooth Pappa’s bad mood this time. She’s getting tired, you see. The kids don’t see Pappa as infallible any longer, and Pappa’s getting grouchier, and it’s just so hot.

So the entire family bundles up into a boat and sails to an obscure island, in hopes of restoring the balance: Pappa being in charge, everyone else — especially Moominmamma — relying on him. The shift to severe isolation in a desolate location, the demand that Pappa do all the work, and the inevitable reality that Pappa isn’t, actually, able to shoulder Mamma’s load — it’s all so exhausting for Moominmamma. She’s given up her beloved garden, her friends, her work, her home, and she has to constantly encourage her flaky husband as he tries to fill a role he is simply, incredibly unsuited for.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson - Book Cover

This is still a kid’s book. There’s still a lot of whimsy. There are sea-horses — literally, delicate horses that live in the sea and come up onto the shore to prance and laugh; there is a Groke, a terrifying, sad creature that kills the ground she walks on. There are hiding places and exciting discoveries and mysteries. But woven through as an increasingly strong thread is the simple fact that Moominmamma is so damn tired.

At one point, she breaks. She starts painting flowers on the inside walls, and gets angry when Moominpappa tries to get in on that: this is mine, she says, and refuses to let anyone else add to her artwork. For Moominmamma, this is the equivalent of a volcano exploding. She simply never draws that sort of boundary.

As she continues drawing, she finds that she can literally step into her art: she curls up behind her painted flowers, and the family comes and goes, searching for her throughout the day and getting upset when they can’t find her. She ignores them and sleeps on. Again, for Moominmamma, this choice to center herself, to rest, is absolutely epic. She hides more than once, until she comes to a healthy place within herself and is able to rejoin the family with refreshed spirit and take proper charge again. At that point, she finds herself unable to retreat into the paintings any longer; she doesn’t need to. She’s reclaimed herself.

I cannot overstate how much it means for me, as an adult looking back, to see that sort of quiet acknowledgement that sometimes our families are just too much and we have to step back, hide for a bit, and rest until we’re recharged. The acknowledgement that kids are kids, and they’re self absorbed, and they’re just not going to notice that we’re in pain. Those of us who are caretakers so often have to handle our own burdens as well as the pain of the people around us, while not showing a sign of struggling.

This past year, these past four years, have been so very, very exhausting. We’re all struggling. We’re all cranky and snapping at one another like the Moomins in a heat wave. Many of us are doing the equivalent of retreating to a remote island in an effort to force control over an uncontrollable situation.

Tove Jansson had a gift for poking fun at society, for shaking assumptions and overturning norms. Terry Pratchett, in fact, pointed to Jansson as one reason he became a writer, and indeed when you look at the two side by side there are definite echoes from one to the other.

Jansson wrote novels for adults as well as for children. She was an artist: she held multiple solo exhibitions, painted murals, illustrated a Swedish translation of The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and other books. She worked to bring her Moomin series to the stage, and as her time in theater went on, she fell in love, at age 42, with the woman who would become her lifelong partner.

Looking at the list of everything Jansson created and accomplished in her life, I can only imagine how exhausted she became on a regular basis. She certainly lived a rich and complex life, and showcased that in her stories. I really wish I’d had the chance to meet her. I could have made it happen — she passed in 2001, just as I was settling into a full-time job and a new marriage in Virginia. If I’d thought to look her up in earlier years, I could have at least contacted her to tell her how much her stories meant to me. It simply never occurred to me.

Part of the exhaustion over the past years, for me, has been a steadily growing realization of just such missed opportunities. A stark awareness that I’ve put my energy into so many things that just haven’t paid me back proportionately. A sense that I’m getting older, and I really just don’t have the interest in saving the world the way I used to. Smaller, simpler, more directly effective actions suit me far more than tilting at windmills, lately. And reading. I’m reading more and more in recent years, and I’m finding my interests changing.

I particularly want to read more stories in which the women get to reclaim themselves and solve the problem, not by charging the enemy or setting a clever trap for the bad guy, but by resting. I want to write those kinds of stories. And do you know what…I just might!

Leona R. Wisoker writes a variety of speculative fiction, from experimental to horror, from fantasy to science fiction. Her science-fantasy series, Children of the Desert, follows several characters through a world slowly coming apart as dangerous secrets are revealed and centuries-long plots move into their final stages. Shorter works, such as Silver and Iron in the Sha’Daa: PAWNS anthology and Dragon Child in the Galactic Creatures anthology, reflect her early love of stories that involve demons and elves.

Leona’s work is fueled by coffee, chocolate, and whisky. She often contemplates exercise, decides it’s too much time away from working on really important things, then returns to creating bizarrities, researching random subjects, or planning her next garden project.

Leona’s web site is leonawisoker.com. She can most often be found on Twitter (@leonawisoker), talking about politics, writing, food, cute pet pics, and gardening.