If you’ve been feeling as hopeless as I have lately, you need to read Sarahland, Sam Cohen’s super queer, super sparkly debut collection of short stories. I borrowed it on audiobook from Libby because the algorithms put it in a list of similar titles to Violent Bent Backwards Over the Grass (previously my favorite audiobook, readers may recall). Prolific audiobook reader (you may have heard her in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise) and voice actor (gamers will recognize her as the Lore Lady in Smite) Suehyla El-Attar Young reads all 10 of Sam’s devastatingly brilliant stories about Sarahs. Her performance captivated me so fully that I restarted the book almost as soon as I finished it. I also restarted it because it filled a certain void. It gave me hope.
Sam’s Sarahs and Sarah-adjacent characters populate recognizable worlds, like college dorms, Thai restaurants, empty malls and therapists’ offices. They also live in less-recognizable worlds, like mystical horse camps and the distant past and far-flung future. Each Sarah is a different Sarah, but all of Sam’s central characters share a perspective of curiosity and bewilderment. Everyone in Sarahland is learning how to cope with the simultaneous brutality and beauty of their worlds.
These stories abound with pop culture references and gossip, transformation, soft science fiction and fantasy, and a recurring interest in dolphins. Not just dolphins; the Sarahs and not-Sarahs in this book often find themselves in communion with—even becoming—more-than-human people: horses, trees, cat women, crows, life-sized Barbie doll sorority girls, creatures from earth’s multi-million-year future, even Mother Nature herself, and God, too.
But before you encounter these better-than-Ovidian moments of communion and becoming, you read or listen to stories like the titular “Sarahland” and “Naked Furniture” (assuming you approach your reading in a linear fashion).
These stories embed themselves in the familiar rules of contemporary survival for girls, replete with hair straighteners, college degrees, dating apps and parking tickets. Like many of the Sarahs living in Sarahland, these early-iteration Sarahs must navigate both the power and the searing traps of their sexuality.
For instance, in “Naked Furniture,” Sarah once rebelled against the “story” of her life. In this story she played a nice, feminine girl who would one day become a therapist. But broke and depressed in Los Angeles, she finds that she must recapture that nice, feminine girl’s energy and harness it into a sex worker persona. Becoming Dorothy at the brothel where she works requires “a wide-eyed placidity that was just a ramped-up version of what everyone seemed to expect from her already…relaxing into it felt like weird relief.”
Mistress Mother Nature
Halfway through Sarahland, in “The First Sarah,” Sam retells the Old Testament story of Sarah and Abraham, who fathered many nations which are doomed to war with each other, and in fact still do. In Sam’s version, Sarah is a trans woman, but this was back before anatomy was a school subject; every hole could be any hole, so “being trans” wasn’t really a thing. This is the story where Mother Nature and God make their appearances.
As performed by Suehyla, God has the voice of a game show host, promising riches, wonders, solutions to problems, straight up miracles—if his people do what he tells them to. Mother Nature, on the other hand, has the voice of Lady Lydia, the Mistress at Sarah-from-“Naked Furniture”’s sex dungeon.
I’m obsessed with the implications of this detail. Of course Mother Nature is a pleasure facilitator. But under patriarchal capitalism, that facilitation doesn’t lead to generative abundance. Instead, it becomes a commodity.
Lady Lydia, pragmatic and straightforward, really gets capitalism. She teaches Sarah to “waft” “pussy energy” out the window to attract clients, even while she berates Sarah for not shaving her pits. She knows all about the powers and traps of her sexuality. She knows how to wield them, and presumably how to avoid them.
Or at least she did, until the internet inflated the supply of sex. Why would a man pay for a breathing body to hold when he could pay less for pixels? The girls who work at Lydia’s sex dungeon still make a living, but not like she once did. “If this were the eighties,” she says, “you’d have so much money you wouldn’t know what to do with it. In the eighties we all bought houses in West Hollywood, working here.” Like many people in their generation (myself included), Lydia’s girls will never be able to buy a house with what they earn from their work.
Mother Nature, “a fat, furry, and oozing dyke,” loves sex, open communication, and lesbians. “Lesbians should be the mothers of the future humans of this earth,” she says. “I do not do miracles,” she says, unlike God, who can make water disappear and reappear in the desert, and infertile women bear children, and whatever manipulative thing he wants. “He’s always trying to shrink things to fit his ego,” she says, already mourning her abundant earth. “He will kill me eventually,” she predicts. Is she right?
Lydia and Mother Nature are probably not the same person. But Lydia is part of Mother Nature, like everyone and everything is, and maybe Mother Nature speaks through Lydia. Maybe what she says through Lydia is, “There are many ways to survive under God, but they are shrinking to fit his ego, and eventually they will run out.”
So where’s the hope?
Need we enumerate the headlines that have me—us, maybe—fully spiraling about the future? Not just my future, or your future, but our future—as a species, as a planet, as a memory. When the horses and dolphins go, when the trees and cacti go, when the last person who has ever heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes, when the whole messy orgy that is earth gets busted by God’s cops, who will remember how hot it was to be part of? Who will remember how great it was to be in love, or even just in lust?
So, like I said, I’ve been feeling hopeless. But, like I said, Sarahland gives me hope.
I bought a hard copy of the book so I could be sure to get the quotes right. The last few pages are dedicated to a series of discussion questions for book clubs. “Is there any hope, in this collection,” one question starts, and my gut answered with a leaping affirmative. But then the question continued: “Is there any hope, in this collection, for the Sarahs to find home within society?” My leaping gut landed in a puddle of mud so polluted, it couldn’t even make a satisfying squelch. A home in society? But that’s not where the hope in this collection is!
The hope in this collection is at the margins. It’s in the people who are so sick of deciding between being “man” or “woman” that they become trees. It’s in the girl who gives up on her future to find her horse BFF. You find hope, in this collection, deep in the belly of the DREAM PALACE, a womb where your childhood bully seduces you, and you like it. Hope is at the end of the world, the real end, long past the wildfire orange skies and atmospheric rivers, when the entire orgy has burned out and even God’s cops are dead, when everything’s been over for so long it makes it’s way back to the beginning.
In Sarahland, the hope isn’t that the Sarahs will find a home within society; it’s that everything is capable of change, including society. The hope is that—fine, maybe not everything can change. But eventually, everything has to end.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (7/3/23) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Check out Hannah’s review of Lana Del Rey’s Violent Bent Backwards Over the Grass.
Learn more about Libby here.
To purchase Sam Cohen’s Sarahland, click here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Dolphins by Hamid Elbaz on Pexels, edited by Hannah to include a rainbow.
Middle Photo: Sam Cohen’s Sarahland book cover, courtesy of Hachette Book Group.
Bottom Photo: Horses by Annika Treial on Unsplash, with a rainbow addition by Hannah.