Mirrors, Wings, and Invented Things: Individualism and Otherness in Katie Farris’s boysgirls

What is the price of true individualism? One might, at first, answer “Individualism is priceless.” Then, one might reconsider the question and refocus on the word “price.” One then forms an equality: price is synonymous with cost, so now one might rephrase the question. What is the cost of true individualism? That question, for so many, has a different answer, or perhaps multiple ones. Katie Farris’ boysgirls presents the roots of such an equation by exploring the grotesque, the unimaginable in fairy tale-like snippets pieced together like the unmovable parts of a philosophical equation.

In Italo Calvino-like style, the collection begins with a letter to the reader, and, similar to Calvino’s If on a Winters Night a Traveler, specifically addresses the reader as “dear reader.” This simple address establishes the narrator as an authority, a guide, an expert. The narrator, however, does allow the reader free will with invitations of “Come giddy yourself atop these sheer drops. Come shake victorious with delirium tremens and carpe diem. Come frolic with bared teeth.” If readers aren’t questioning their choices by this point, most likely they will then turn the page and enter a realm where what the normal deems as grotesque is actually the new norm.

At its core, boysgirls is a challenge to conventional society and the constructs—gender, beliefs, traditions, mannerisms—that from birth are imposed on individuals. Stories like “mise en abyme,” which focuses on a girl whose mirror-face holds its own set of blessings and curses and finds her wishing for a mouth with which she can eat, open conversations not only about social limits and standards regarding physical appearance, but also about talents. While the girl’s ability to reflect others causes everyone to fall for her, the narrator poses “And why not? They think not of the irony.” In many ways, stories like this pose the classic chicken-and-the-egg question—but at a level that scrutinizes the traditions and social constructs passed down historically, even generationally, especially when those traditions and constructs begin destroying the individual and their free will.

The collection, too, elaborates on the importance of diversity and otherness. By exploring society’s misunderstanding and manipulation of otherness and individualism, the collection, specifically in stories such as “the girl who grew,” investigates society’s awe-destruct mechanism. For example, in “the girl who grew,” a young girl, after wishing to grow up, begins to grow and grow. At one point, she consumes forty-seven pails of milk, gorges on blackberry brambles—thorns and all, and even eats the town’s cats and dogs. After she takes residence in a nearby bog, her dietary needs quiet, and the people of the town—who still seem slightly in awe of the girl’s appetite—begin making food offerings to her. The story’s narrator observes, “And she was feared, and needed, and powerful.” However, in a Frankenstein-like turn of events, fear becomes, as the girl notes, “what completes the story.” Because of a drought, the townspeople suffered, and they blame growing girl. The townspeople first begin by trying to chop her down with an axe, but then resort to using a chainsaw. The story’s moral becomes relevant, particularly to readers paying attention to current events: “regimes of fear end in pain,” a stark warning for many modern-day governments currently imposing anti-individualist and anti-human rights edicts on their constituents.

With stories and characters that bear a striking similarity in their structure and their commentary to Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions, a 2014 novel in which young Maximo explores the Central Library’s Encyclopedia of Medicine, encounters mythical misfortunes, and prompts readers to rethink the nature of disability, boysgirls also examines individuals who eventually become advocates for those rejected by traditional society. The nature of advocacy becomes most relevant in the story “The Boy with One Wing,” which features a character central to most of the stories in the collection’s latter half. The Boy with One Wing, described as “singular” by the eccentric Inventor of Invented Things, wants desperately to have his second wing. However, readers can interpret that the Inventor of Invented Things—who works backwards while creating his inventions and eventually returns to the rudimentary objects from which more complex objects developed—though sympathetic to The Boy with One Wing, is restricted by the confines of his field and reputation. Nonetheless, The Inventor of Invented Things soon grows obsessed not only with trying to replicate feathers in order to help The Boy with One Wing, but also with The Boy himself. The Inventor of Invented Things represents traditional society in that The Inventor is obsessed with one aspect related to himself, but because he did not invent The Boy with One Wing or the feelings he associates with The Boy, he cannot understand what he feels. Similarly, traditional societies fail to understand when personalities, ideologies, and identities fall outside their normal parameters.

By the book’s end, readers find themselves engrossed in a deeper conversation about social nets. As the Inventor of Invented Things goes to great lengths to invent what The Boy with One Wing needs, eventually developing a single feather, readers might find themselves thinking of progressive societies such as those found in modern-day Nordic countries—Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark—where society as a whole strives to meet its citizens’ needs and provide a high quality of life for all, regardless of age, gender, status, identity. The Inventor of Invented Things refocuses his efforts on helping The Boy with One Wing, and much like the aforementioned progressive societies, begins asking the question “Who are we?” rather than “Who am I?” Thus, this refocus allows readers to join the conversation about, and the advocacy for, The Boy with One Wing and determine that when individuals within societies become more comfortable asking “Who are we?” they are better able to then ask themselves, and answer, “Who am I?”

boysgirls concludes with yet another invitation for readers—one of reshaping. With one last address of “dear reader” the narrator leaves readers to participate in a communion-like interpretation of not only the book, but also otherness and individuality by inviting them to “Eat from it and live.” Readers questioning their own identities will embrace the narrator’s offer, and readers just now entering current conversations about gender identity, fluidity, etc. will find this book an affirming, Miss Peregrine-like adventure that invites, challenges, and advocates: Come one, come all, and live.

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as co-director for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven ChroniclesAppalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, is the recipient of a July 2020 Writing Residency at Gullkistan, Creative Center for the Arts in Iceland, and is a Tupelo Press June 2020 30 for 30 featured poet. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from the UK press Black Spring Eye Group in 2022.