Magic, polyamory, trans solidarity, epic journeys, political intrigue, fear, loss, love, healing, and even Aunt Death all somehow fit — and more impressively come together in a powerful way — in R.B. Lemberg's new novella The Four Profound Weaves.
It is a supremely balanced book, focusing only on the most necessary details to get the story across. In that sense, the book is both ethereal and ephemeral: graceful, delicately wrought, and fleeting. That said, The Four Profound Weaves has an incredibly layered plot where we find that nearly every new character is someone our protagonists have met before. To me, though, what really distinguishes this work is how it embraces trans elders as leaders, changemakers, rabble-rousers, and magic users.
The Four Profound Weaves follows Uiziya e Lali and Nen-sasaïr when they meet (again) while trading tapestries. As they become friends, they find they have more in common than they thought: both have lost the loves of their lives, both are restless, and despite what Nen-sasaïr assumes, both are "changers" (trans). Shortly after their meeting, Uiziya e Lali decides she's finally ready to learn the last two of the four profound weaves from her aunt, who she doesn't entirely realize is Death, or at least a Death. Pretty much over his progeny and wanting to ask Death for his true name, Nen-sasaïr decides to join Uiziya e Lali, unaware of the pain and power that lie ahead.
Minor spoilers for The Four Profound Weaves lie ahead.
The fact that the protagonists are trans elders is powerful in its own right, but when we follow those elders to face first Death and then someone much scarier and somehow just as deadly, we get to see their renegotiated relationship to death. Uiziya e Lali learns to weave from the bones of the dead and Nen-sasaïr learns he's already spent too much time being dead inside.
In the same breath, the novella suggests that death is a part of life. That death is not a thing to be conquered or spurned. Rather a problem only arises when one tries to control and manipulate death to their advantage. When one accepts and honors death, beautiful things can happen, righteous things, just things.
Trans people have a complex relationship with death. For some, our past lives before transitioning were a kind of waking death. For some, the beautiful lives we've fought for are cruelly taken from us too soon. For some, just to step out onto the street, just to be visible, is to invite death threats. For some, the people we love still call us by our deadnames. And for trans elders, these issues take on another dimension of disparity due to age discrimination.
All that considered, I think it's safe to say that trans people understand the interconnectivity of life and death differently, not just because of the aforementioned violence that's been done to us in recent years, but because we've been discriminated against at many points in history — including in the destruction of our written history.
It's important to know the backdrop against which trans people — and trans elders in particular — have experiences of death because it also shows how we experience life. Even when we rejoice, we know that our joy is always set against a backdrop of pain, suffering, and hatred — and we dance and sing and remember and find one another anyway.
The Four Profound Weaves portrays the reality of that juxtaposition with fidelity, even though it's in a second world fantastical setting. In fact, the story may grapple with the particular way trans people experience the interconnectivity of life and death more powerfully due to its fictional setting.
There is a shocking amount of story and philosophy and heart and je ne sais quoi in this short novella, and all of those elements are, if I may borrow the metaphor, deftly woven together not to tell you one single moral or one single story. Instead, the novella brings those threads together to honor the way all our individual stories of being trans come together to form a whole, to form a picture we all belong in.
The Four Profound Weaves shows us death and transness from two sides, sides people tend to think of as opposite and sometimes in competition with one another, which is part of what makes this such a powerful story for trans and nonbinary folks. To eschew the binary in point of view, in protagonists, and in how a story unfolds is an act of resistance. To write a trans woman and a trans man becoming friends and healing through their friendship is a way of saying "We belong together." And, we do.
The Four Profound Weaves is on sale now.