Review by: Camilla Zhang
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Mermaids will never be a part of our world. They don’t look like Ariel or the glittery goddesses you see at Coney Island’s annual parade. In Alyssa’ Wong’s “The Fisher Queen”, mermaids are crude humanoid creatures. The catch is that they’re a red herring for the true monsters of the story (I have a soft spot for puns. #Sorrynotsorry).
"The Fisher Queen" just got nominated for a Nebula Award, but with an intro sentence like “My mother was a fish” this tale stands on its own merit. The heroine, Lily, narrates with a strong voice that hearkens to traditional oral storytelling. Reading about her youngest sister “[gathering] the sheets up around her, their folds cresting like the ocean’s breakers”, you can hear Lily very clearly in your head. And there are plenty of fish references (“I tuck the dangling tail of her blanket under her belly”), so I get the feeling that Wong might secretly like puns too.
The middle of three sisters, Lily is the only one interested in being a fisherman like her father. However, from the following description it’s clear that fishing is just a way to connect with her true love: “The breakers roll against the trawler, and as we buck over the waves, the breath is torn from my lungs and replaced with sheer exhilaration.” Lily’s love for the sea can be interpreted as a way to connect to her absent mother and to herself, since water is often used as a symbol of the feminine.
In spite of being the youngest and only woman in her father’s crew, Lily remains dedicated and her talent seems to earn the respect of most. That is, until they get a huge catch of mermaids, including a deep sea one with a secret that changes Lily’s fate, along with everyone else’s.
Lily is rumored to be the daughter of a mermaid, but she has only disdain for such a claim. Mermaids are just “fish” after all. They are caught and sold live to the highest bidders. Eating them is like eating forbidden fruit, because their flesh is akin to that of humans. It’s cannibalism’s more acceptable cousin and yet, things are much worse than they seem. Lily discovers that the men in her crew take turns raping the mermaids. “It doesn’t hurt the meat” is the terrifying justification that leaves both Lily and the reader in a cold sweat.
Look beyond the story’s obvious connection to the trafficking of women in this world. Wong weaves a metaphor through every character, a metaphor of the subjugation and consumption of women. In the end, Lily frees the deep sea mermaid and all the men in the crew eventually drown in separate accidents. Lily survives, but is left with a wound that “will not heal.” The overarching theme reveals how patriarchy affects everyone negatively, not just women.
I think Emma Watson said it best during her speech to the UN, about “men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes.” Much like the drowned male crew of Pakpao, they choke on their own emotions, because they are expected to swallow them. In turn, women are sexually and physically consumed, bite by bite. And these wounds won't heal, because they’re re-opened chronically.
Without basic freedoms like equal pay and reproductive rights, we don’t even have a chance to scab over. Lily’s initial scorn of mermaids as subhuman is akin to the misogyny many women internalize. However, in the face of truth, Lily makes a choice to seek justice and retribution. While it comes at a cost, it is worth the saving of her sisters. Let that be a lesson to us all.