Sunday Shorts—Birthday Girl by Rachel Swirsky

coverAs someone who writes contemporary spec-fic, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it took me almost until the end of this short story from Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction to spot the science fiction.

The story here is a woman visiting her niece on her niece’s birthday, bringing a present, and being very nervous as it’s been about a year since she’s been allowed to be around her niece, at the request of her sister. The details unfold slowly, and the niece has a meltdown mid-present unwrapping and needs a moment to regain her balance—she, like the aunt, is bipolar—and these revelations felt so contemporary to me I missed the reality of how everyone around them was reacting: which is to say, how my own circle of friends would react, with understanding and empathy and accessibility since so many of us are marginalized in some way.

After her struggle in the party, the niece finds her aunt, who is crying at the memory of similar moments in her own life, and they talk. And that’s when I got it. The story isn’t contemporary, it’s set in a future where this level of empathy and accessibility is just the new normal (well, for most, not all, as per another revelation in the story). The birthday party wasn’t necessarily made up of close friends and adults in the know who’d been taught and understood, but rather just like any other birthday party for a kid: randomly populated with their friends and some guardians. At that point, I had my aha! moment and things clicked into a different paradigm for “Birthday Girl.” The characterization of that generational gap between the acceptance and understanding was deftly written.

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