What do we want?
When do we want it?
We spoke to C. S. Malerich about her novella, The Factory Witches of Lowell, publishing with Tor next month. In summary – go pre-order this now! now! now!
It is a popular trope to reclaim witchcraft for the feminist cause in modern fantasy fiction. Why do we love to reclaim something that was, for much of history, used for the oppression of women?
Reclaiming a trope — even a slur — feels good because it takes back control.
Feminism needs to be class-conscious, because the problem we’re trying to solve is the special exploitation of female-bodied people. Historically (thank you, Silvia Federici, the scholar/activist who has done the legwork on this), witch hunts coincided with the rise of private property and the conversion of the European peasant class into the working class. In the popular imagination, medieval peasants toiled in misery, but peasants of all genders had more autonomy than the average waged worker because they worked the land on their own schedule, shared the commons, treated and cared for one another with home remedies, etc. Witch hunts were a convenient way of disciplining those who resisted giving up that way of life; communities who might have otherwise posed some serious opposition were torn apart because witch hysteria broke down trust between neighbours.
So that’s the historical side. Not very glamorous or empowering. But then in fantasy fiction, when we want an escape and an alternative to that horrifying reality, the rebellious and empowered witch is a perfect metaphor, especially where magic is portrayed as something that’s inside us already. Exploitive systems take control of what a body can do — care for a sick elder, weave cloth, nurse a child, fix a gear shaft, give birth — and use it to prop up a social hierarchy. Every daily task feels oppressive when we do it at the pleasure of a ruling class. But what if we could take all this wonderous knowledge and skill — all the ability our body has — and use it for our own ends? The witch lets us imagine that alternative in fantastic ways.
What are your favourite witch and witchcraft tropes in fantasy? Equally, what tropes do you wish would go away and never be unearthed again?
I love the nature witch who works harmoniously with their ecosystem, the witch who talks with animals (especially if the animal is a sassy cat). I also like the collaborative aspect of witches: not the lone witch, but the witch who is part of a close-knit coven. On the contrary I’m pretty done with “drunk with power” stories, about an abused person who gets magical abilities and then becomes the horror show themself. I’m thinking of characters like Medea in Greek mythology, Steven King’s Carrie, Fairuza Balk’s character in The Craft, or Daenerys Targaryen. Abuse and oppression definitely leave psychological scars, but to me, this trope suggests that oppressed people must keep being oppressed, because allowing them power just makes things worse. I’m a lot more interested in how we can use power creatively to make a just world for ourselves and the people we love.
A workers’ strike is an unusual setting for a fantasy story. Why did you want to explore such a ‘mundane’ narrative in a fantasy novella?
Because it’s unusual, exactly. We don’t get a lot of strikes and labor organizing in popular culture, or even very class-conscious stories, and I think that’s partly because economic forces are complex and hard to dramatize. Fantasy works, though, because it makes metaphors literal. If you read Karl Marx, his writing is full of specters, werewolves, and vampires, so I thought, well, what if I wrote the magical equivalent of the Labor Theory of Value? Could I dramatize workers taking control of their own labor in a fantastic way? That was the germ for The Factory Witches of Lowell.
What do you think historical fantasy has to offer that differentiates it from secondary world fantasies? What are the benefits and drawbacks for writers and readers?
I read and write both, so it’s not a matter of preferring one subgenre over the other. Historical fantasy has the advantage of commenting directly on real-world events, obviously, and releases both the writer and the reader from the complexity of worldbuilding. With Factory Witches, if I’d had to create a setting, an industry, and a strike from scratch, I don’t think I could have gotten readers into the story as readily. But because readers are going to come with some familiarity about what weaving is and what kind of people would be walking around Massachusetts in the 1830s, I could get right to the crux of it: what does it mean for workers to organize with each other? Historical fantasy can also be more practical because, yes, there’s magic in this story, but we’re also talking about events that did/could/would/should happen in the real world. It can’t be dismissed as total make-believe. On the other hand, second world fantasy lets our imaginations play so much and introduce ideas that can’t be reconciled with a real place and time. I love the “what if” stories that introduce a concept and see what kind of society develops from that. It feels like a lab-controlled experiment, versus historical fantasy, which is more messy, with more conditions that the writer can’t set.
Pitch us The Factory Witches of Lowell!
For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the factory owners raise their rent, the girls go on strike, led by Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately her best friend Hannah – and maybe first love? – has a supernatural skill that will make their union unbreakable.
C. S. Malerich is the author of The Factory Witches of Lowell, publishing November 10, 2020. Her fiction often explores intersections of liberation and justice, with an infectious dance beat. Some of her work has appeared in Apparition Lit, Ares Magazine, and the Among Animals anthologies from eco-fiction publisher Ashland Creek Press. Her novel Fire & Locket was published in 2019. C. S. continues to live and work in the DC area.