PSF6 Review: “Ashland” by Elyss Punsalan

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On November - 10 - 2011

This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco.

This is probably my favorite story in this volume of PSF6. “Ashland” is the story of a widow who is assigned to monitor an area where a strange type of ash falls, an ash that consumes sound. We’re never quite sure if this is a place on Earth or beyond it, but that just heightens the feeling of isolation that is essential to the story.

Really? I thought it was about ash. I’m kidding! I’m kidding! This is a good example of a story that is anchored on setting.

What I like the most about “Ashland” is how well the core concept of the story pulls all the other aspects of the story together. One of the things that distinguishes the best fiction from real life is the ability to create a sort of unity to events, a commonality of theme: as you might guess from the synopsis, most of “Ashland” revolves around sound, both its presence and its absence.

—- Aaaaw Counsel you’re getting poetic right there— the absence that is a presence and vice versa—- But yeah, I like the attempt of this story on deconstructing “sound”.

[Pao: Just goes to show how far I usually am from "poetic" if my using that kind of juxtaposition merits an "Aaaaw" ^_^]

— Hahahaha!

I’m impressed by how many variations Punsalan used to explore this theme: the scene where the protagonist doesn’t realize she’s screaming because she can’t hear herself until she gets away from the ash; the fact that no other human makes an appearance in the story, except through sound…

I would have been impressed by the execution of the concept of the absence of sound to show the emotions of loss, grief, isolation IF the story didn’t have comma issues or even single-line-paragraph issues (like in page 23). Try reading the story out loud— it’s not flowing— hence the whole “gray feel” of the story, that absence of sound, is constantly jarred.

[Pao: The thing is though, I'm pretty sure Elyss, of all people--she runs Pakinggan Pilipinas, for those who didn't know--would read her fiction aloud. Maybe she was going for something jarring, since the protagonist goes in and out of the ash, in and out of sound? I don't know, I'm still learning about story rhythms.]

— If it’s a case of providing distortions so as to break what could be a monotonous soundless reality…Well, there’s a difference between that and what could sound asthmatic. At least it didn’t sound like a mouth-breather…Or Darth Vader, yeah, yeah?

The absence of sound in Ashland gives the story its strangeness, the sense of Other-ness that makes it speculative fiction. And, as is often the case in spec fic stories, it’s this sense of the strange that allows us to think about things we’d otherwise take for granted:  the soundless setting means that every instance of sound seems important, and Punsalan makes sure that she describes these instances vividly.

Again it would have been better executed if there’s a starkness to the text. Meaning more spaces in between paragraphs/breaks— show that white space to show the underlying emotions and imagery in that absence of sound. Hence the words themselves— the words alone in the story— would be punctuations of this presented soundless reality. That the story as a whole will say “This is the sound of grief. This is the sound of loss. This is the sound of surviving cancer. This is the sound that a widow makes. This is what it’s like when there is no sound. This is what it’s like when sound is returned.”

What makes the story even better is that, for all the focus on the core concept, Punsalan doesn’t neglect to give us a protagonist who makes us care. We don’t know much about the nameless widow, at least not in the way of facts and details, but Punsalan takes care to show us the widow’s quirky personality, and that makes her more real, more likeable, even if we don’t know her name.

The story is still lacking that emotive power generated from what is essentially beautiful articulation. Look at the last paragraph in page 23— They seem to be just words and there’s no sound/image=feeling/meaning being escalated especially in the use of the present participle that becomes a gerund. So even if the character generates sympathy, there’s not enough oomph in the articulation to generate empathy.

However, while I really enjoyed most of Ashland, I must admit that the ending was a big let-down for me. It resorted to a common plot mechanism in order to provide a level of complete closure that I think the story would have been much stronger without.

Another common problem, making the endings is always a hair-pulling moment. To be vague or not to be vague? To be resolved or to hell with it? Is it ended as it should be? And so the story does invite another reading and maybe another.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.