Grattan Street Press is a small start-up trade publisher linked to the University of Melbourne, to give hands-on experience of the publication process to graduate students. It’s designed to ‘showcase outstanding writing that does not fit neatly into conventional formats.’ This includes novellas, microfiction and experimental memoir. The Commissioning Editor Kiran Bhat sent me a copy of Mer (2020) by Samantha Amy Mansell, an intriguing collection of short stories about Merfolk by an author interested in ‘intersectional feminism, bisexual representation in literature and creating fantastical worlds.’
She has certainly achieved all of those things in these five stories that each feature Mer (or Merfolk – note: not mermaids or mermen) and Per (or people / humans / netters) and the interactions between them. Her exploration of the Other, of fairy tales, of a binary-based rather than gender-based species and her examination of the whole social construct of language is meant to deliberately wrong-foot the reader, dismantle familiar structures and present us with a fantastical world that she has constructed with care and detail. The mer in each story has a different physiology from the others and Mansell has played with physicality, form, shape and attributes to create highly ethereal and yet seemingly possible scenarios.
We are given the mers’ perspectives and this is not often pretty, with climate change and environmental damage tearing cruelly at their habitats. The plastic rubbish and debris found in oceans the world over is particularly problematic. My favourite story is The Aquarium, where a mer is held in captivity and forced to perform with the dolphins in shows for humans. A poignant story that shakes up our ideas about our relationships with other species.