This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Margo Lanagan (1960–) is an Australian writer primarily known for her dark fantasy short stories, some of which are influenced by folktale. Although Lanagan has been a published author since 1990, she first came to the attention of readers outside of her own country with the collection Black Juice (2004), for which she won a World Fantasy Award and a Michael L. Printz Honor Award. Subsequently, Lanagan has become perhaps the most critically acclaimed contemporary Australian fantasist, and her novel Tender Morsels (2008) also won a World Fantasy Award. New work includes the novel Watered Silk (2011) and the story collection Yellowcake (2011). The horrifying ‘Singing My Sister Down’ (2005) is Lanagan’s most anthologized story and one of several standout weird ritual stories included in The Weird. In this latest installment of 101 Weird Writers, returning contributor Kay Clay profiles Lanagan and her haunting, unforgettable story.
– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers
In 2001, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, requested that his execution be broadcast on television across America. This last request ignited a furious debate in the media at the time: Should executions be broadcast on television?
Both those for and against the death penalty favored broadcasting the execution. Anti-death penalty campaigner Sister Helen Prejean argued that by watching one execution it would polarize people against the death penalty, bringing home the reality of capital punishment. Others spoke against broadcasting the execution on the basis that inmates deserve humane treatment, even in death.
In the end, McVeigh’s execution was not broadcast nationally, but on a closed circuit television to approximately 250 grieving family members and journalists.
Should the once public experience of watching people die become public again? Or would it simply become schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others?
In Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down”, a young boy watches as his sister Ikky is publicly executed, not by lethal injection or firing squad, but by slow submersion in a tar pit. Ikky’s crime is never explicitly discussed, although it is inferred that she killed her husband with an axe (which calls to mind Lizzie Borden, the supposed female murderer who has become a part of American folklore and the public imagination at large). An intimate moment with family becomes a public event, as Ikky sinks further into the deeps, and a young woman accused of murder becomes fodder for the eagerly watching crowds.
“Singing My Sister Down” is an incredibly layered story, requiring several reads to process the complexity of what seems like a simple tale of a girl’s death. Lanagan is a master of “show not tell”, which adds to the puzzle of the characters’ backstories. It is in part a mystery, a horror story and a truly weird tale.
At first, the setting for the story seems almost primitive. Tar pits evoke images of wooly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers descending to their doom in ancient Los Angeles. Chief Barnarndra orders the punishment and presides over the execution, although his involvement in the story is merely as an authority presence. There is a tribal ritual, with a wreath of flowers laid over the disappearing girl’s head. Yet there are hints that this is not an old story but a dystopian present; Lanagan weaves in zipper slippers, ice-baskets, glitter, trucks, axes and guns with silencers. This is no primitive society.
There is a clear element of performance in the ritual; while Ikky’s execution appears to be an intimate moment between the family members, there are many people watching. The attempt to make Ikky’s last moments bearable becomes a performance for the audience, doing innocuous things like eating, dancing and singing, to avoid mentioning the inevitable: that the girl will drown in the tar pits.
The narrator insists, “But today we had to go out, and everyone had to see us go.” Not only do the viewers watch the execution but the family’s process of grieving. When the mother and child grieve together, the performance reaches its climax. The narrator writes:
That was when I realised how many people were watching, when they set up a big, spooky oolooling and stamping on the banks, to see Mumma grieve.
The dissonance between the grieving mother and the pleasure of the audience is reminiscent of the German idea of schadenfreude.
To drown out the sound of the watching crowd, the young boy comments to Dash:
‘There never was such a crowd when Chep’s daddy went down.’
‘Ah, but he was old and crazy… and only killed other olds and crazies.’
Yet the family is not allowed to embarrass the audience with their grief, trapped in a silent mourning. When the narrator breaks down once his sister has died, he says:
I made an awful noise that frightened everybody right up to the chief, and that the husband’s parents thought I was a very ill-brought up boy for upsetting them instead of allowing them to serenely and superiorly watch justice be done for their son.
With the method of execution comes a lack of responsibility on behalf of the community. Lanagan points out that the tar pit:
“…doesn’t require any violence on anyone’s part to bring on a person’s death… So it looks as if they kill themselves, really, and no one in the village needs to feel guilty, or to have any harrowing memories (except, of course, the family of the accused, who have to watch their family member’s agonizingly slow death).”
That a life can be taken with such callous disregard for the emotions of the grieving family and the process of death, going as far as the aforementioned feeling of schadenfreude, is one of the most sinister elements of the story.
Associated with the public execution is the shaming of the surviving family. When so many people come to watch the event, the narrator asks, “Is that an honour, or a greater shame?”
Shame is a powerful reoccurring theme in Lanagan’s work, which is often coupled with children coming of age through abuse and violence. It is this overcoming of shame that allows Lanagan’s characters to grow and move past the traumatic events of their childhoods.
In her novel, Tender Morsels, a young woman flees to a fantasy realm to escape the shame of both her father’s repeated rape and gang rape by a group of young men. In Sea Hearts, also known as The Brides of Rollrock Island, the hidden history of the selkies is referred to as “our greatest shame”. The young sea witch Misskaella shames her parents by having the ability to raise the selkie women from the ocean. She then seeks revenge on the men of the village by returning the shame to them.
When the family in “Singing My Sister Down” follows Ikky out to the tar pit, the narrator writes it “was like being punished, too, everyone watching us walk out to that girl who was our shame.” Auntie Mai doesn’t come to the death ceremony at first because she is too ashamed. Mumma says, “[Auntie Mai] sees shame where some of us just see people.”
What is the “shame” the girl has brought upon her family? As with many of Lanagan’s tales, “Singing My Sister Down” is a story that poses more questions than answers. It is up to the reader to examine the evidence and use their imagination to find the answers. Ikky’s crime is made complex by Lanagan’s subtle hints. Murderer seems a strong word for this girl, drowning in mud. Is she guilty? At first glance, yes. But Lanagan elicits sympathy for her plight by placing the viewpoint in the hands of her brother.
The relationship between Mumma and Ikky implies that Ikky is not yet an adult – she defers to her mother for aid and comfort, her mother calls her nicknames like “baby chicken”. Even the name Ikky hints at a child or teenager. And if Ikky is not an adult, she is a child bride.
If the mother kills Ikky while she is going down, she will also be executed.
‘You’d better not give me any teas, or herbs, or anything,’ said Ik. ‘They’ll get you, too, if you help me.’
The society strictly enforces the death penalty for anyone involved in the killing of another person, be it murder, manslaughter or euthanasia. Despite these consequences, the mother is willing to kill her daughter. Moral ambiguity surrounds the girl’s crime. If it were so heinous, wouldn’t the mother disavow her daughter? Would she really bring the family to see her? And would her Aunt mourn so much that she could not watch the girl die? This is a loved girl. Yet within the society murder is not a defensible crime.
While the readers may never know the reasoning behind Ikky killing her husband, the mother understands. As Ikky descends to the depths, Mumma says, ‘You could’ve let that handle lie,’ referring to the handle of the axe. Ikky’s response is:
‘No, I couldn’t, Mumma, and you know.’
‘I do, baby chicken. I always knew you’d be too angry, once the wedding-glitter rubbed off your skin.’
After the death of Ikky, Mumma says to her young son that execution is something the society needs and that the only way to protect against falling into the same fate is to be careful in the placement of his love. “Make sure it’s not someone who’ll rouse that killing-anger in you…” It is the only hint to the motive of the murder. What the husband did to inspire the “killing-anger” is only speculation, but it partially absolves the girl’s guilt.
Lanagan carries the torch left behind by Angela Carter, turning fairy tales to their original horrors, promoting the role of women in fantasy from beautiful trophy to the complex center of her stories. She is a daring writer – who else could place a tale of virgin/unicorn bestiality into a YA collection entitled Zombies vs Unicorns?
Awards come to her writing as if they contain electromagnetic particles in the text. “Singing My Sister Down” won two Aurealis awards, a Ditmar, the World Fantasy Award, and was nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula. A sample of her award shelf includes four World Fantasy Awards, two Printz Awards and a Locus Award.
Despite her high stature as a fantasy writer, her work is not without controversy; Tender Morsels was criticized in the UK for being too “adult” for a YA audience, particularly looking at themes of rape, incest and abortion. The Daily Mail referred to her work as “sordid wretchedness”. While “Singing My Sister Down” addresses complex issues such as public execution and violence towards children, this has not stopped it from being studied in Australian schools.
Lanagan has described herself as an honest writer, not shying away from difficult issues just because she writes for a younger audience. She is careful that any violence or sexual abuse is inferred and not explicitly described, as is the case in “Singing My Sister Down”. Anything confronting or disturbing in her work – and it seems, in the work of others with similar criticisms – is often assumed by the reader but blamed on the author. In defense of her work, Margo Lanagan expressed her view on what fiction should be:
“Fiction is a means to make parts of the world visible in all its complexity and ambiguity, not cover up its nasty bits and hope they’ll go away. Fiction (particularly fantasy fiction) provides a safe place where uncertainties can be considered and explored.”
By challenging what is expected of Young Adult writing, she has opened up new horizons for future stories. Her voice is entirely original, providing fresh evidence for the old arguments against genre being literature.
It’s this attraction to strong voice and unique perspectives that make Margo Lanagan an integral part of the weird movement. Her writing is an intersection of the literate and the fantastic, where families are entwined in supernatural transgressions, clowns shoot guns, men become bears, witches summon seal women and sisters are sung to their deaths.
 Margo Lanagan. Fredericksburg Academy comments. Among Amid While, 13 Sept 2012. <http://amongamidwhile.blogspot.kr/2012/09/fredericksburg-academy-comments.html>
 Danuta Kean. Rape, abortion, incest. Is this what CHILDREN should read? Daily Mail, 9 July 2009. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1198485/Rape-abortion-incest-Is-CHILDREN-read.html>
 Margo Lanagan. Margo Lanagan: How I wrote Tender Morsels. The Guardian, 24 August 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/childrens-books-site/2012/aug/24/margo-lanagan-tender-morsels?INTCMP=SRCH>
 Margo Lanagan. Cold Uncertain Feet – Bitch Media and Tender Morsels. Among Amid While, 3 Feb 2011. <http://amongamidwhile.blogspot.kr/2011/02/cold-uncertain-feetbitch-media-and.html>