Luke Dani Blue’s debut collection Pretend It’s My Body: Stories places trans and queer people’s experiences at center stage in these stories about identity. They blend features of sci-fi, the surreal, horror, and psychological realism to tell the story of what it means to live in between. One of the great strengths of this collection is Blue’s ability to create characters whose desires, anxieties, and insecurities feel urgent and stick with the reader.
Having established residence in liminal spaces, Blue’s characters are complex, nuanced, and forever suspended in moments of transition. There is an enduring sense that they are on the precipice of something, but whether they will ultimately cross that threshold remains unclear. This collection is populated with teenage psychics, grifters, runaways returning home, best friends burdened with unspoken affections, and parents who want to do right by their children but don’t always know how. Still, this is a collection mostly inhabited by shape-shifters.
There is an ongoing theme of rearing children, and Blue brings remarkable empathy to each character’s rendering. In “Bad Things That Happen to Girls,” a misguided mother wants to save her tween from the horrors of being an American teenager. In “Pig in a Poke” a charlatan couple adopts “a smart foreign kid, light-skinned enough to pass as [their] own” to add credibility to their shaman act, but the reluctant parent grows to care for the child, which ultimately shifts the power dynamic between the couple. These stories think deeply about our obligations regarding care, love, and protection when the ones we love are in flux. In “My Mother’s Bottomless Hole,” the mother admits, “It’s silly that mothers are supposed to love their children most. Of course I love you, but I have a lot of friends. I love some of them more than you and some less. It’s just a fact. You, I love in the middle.” Sometimes that love isn’t parental but framed within the context of chosen family. In “Crush Me,” boulders start appearing in large numbers along a riverbed and become a way to see the widening fissure between friends. The story is not about boulders but the protagonist’s desire to be authentically known by the person who matters most of all. The character asks, “How would I rather she see me: As the person we both wish I was, or the one who I am?”
These stories incorporate the unreal in a way that it doesn’t announce itself at the door; its rendering is nonchalant and frankly commonplace. While the strange dwells in these pages, it functions as a magnifying glass that heightens the emotional stakes and distorts and blurs each world’s edges. In “My Mother’s Bottomless Hole,” a character returns home during the pandemic to discover their mother has purchased a black hole and had it installed in the backyard. The mother spends her days gazing into the hole and using it as her personal garbage dump. She eventually asks her child to heave her in the hole when she dies. These surreal elements feel fresh and offer another layer to the liminalities Blue imagines.
Blue shines when they render the body through a consciousness that is at odds with the physical self. The body is cumbersome, taxing, and its care feels heavy even to the reader, who is entirely unfamiliar with this imagined body. In “Suzuki in Limbo,” a character returns home to tell her family that she will be uploading her consciousness as computer code in an alternate reality. “To go through with the upload—to delete her own meat suit—would require the bravery only desperation could inspire.” That desperation is palpable and affecting, yet the revelation is eclipsed by her mother announcing news of a transition to “Papa” or “Daddy Al.” There’s a low hum of deeply felt frustration and a sense of futility in the effort to be seen on one’s own terms, and still, the act of claiming the self remains essential.
This is a collection about swallowing truths. Namely that when we come into ourselves, we are not only coming out to the people who populate our worlds but also to ourselves. These declarations can be reluctant, sometimes overshadowed, and often never spoken aloud or entirely realized. Blue’s stories are unruly, frequently eerie, and unilaterally resist orderly conclusions. By each story’s end, Blue deposits the reader in that feeling of unease where these characters have made homes for themselves. A thread of tension vibrates throughout this collection, and there’s an ache that lingers long after the final line. Pretend It’s My Body, in its centering of queer voices, is essential reading for all. Readers, alongside the characters, are acutely aware of the gap between the lives they want to claim for themselves and the lives they actually have. Luke Dani Blue’s debut is both commanding and necessary.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Popa earned her Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech University and her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She now works as an Assistant Professor in Erie, PA, and as the Special Folios Editor at Pleiades. Some of Jennifer's most recent writing can be found in The Florida Review, West Branch, Ninth Letter, and Sundog Lit. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com