Shit Cassandra Saw
Gwen E. Kirby
Penguin Books (2022)
288 pp. $17.00 (paperback)
Gwen E. Kirby’s Shit Cassandra Saw is a book of feminist short stories told through the lens of Cassandra, the Trojan priestess, who is not only seeing visions of her immediate future, but of today’s world, with its Uber drivers and Twitter feuds. It's a critique of modern feminism through the eyes of a woman who couldn't wear pants, who had no agency, whose life consisted of people disbelieving her at every turn. In many ways, this is a book both about how much things have changed as much as it is about how many things have stayed the same.
The book outlines its points through a variety of means: short stories, flash fiction, even Yelp reviews. Shit Cassandra Saw is an exercise of irreverence in form. How can we break literary tradition, and how can we use this breakage to outline ways to break societal tradition? In “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,” the female body becomes a form of pushback—this physical form has been used and abused, but now it is this same body that overpowers the patriarchy. Take the opening:
A woman walks down the street and a man tells her to smile. When she smiles, she reveals a mouthful of fangs. She bites off the man’s hand, cracks the bones and spits them out, and accidentally swallows his wedding ring, which gives her indigestion.
We start with a familiar moment: Almost everyone born a woman has experienced a man catcalling them. This moment is reversed in the next sentence—she smiles, but only as a precursor to danger. She bites the man’s hand off, and in an act of glorious violence, she cuts down his primary tools of violence. There is also the loss of the wedding ring, a symbolic severing of the relationship this man has with his wife, the toxicity of which gives the fanged woman indigestion. It’s a raw, primal scene, almost like the acting out of the woman’s most animal desire: to fight back, to overpower, to usurp. There is only so much whistling and teasing a woman can take, and it’s cathartic to see this alternate ending of such a familiar scenario. More than that, this scene is funny. This is a reclamation of walking alone at night, a thing our foremothers have taught us ends only in endangerment. We laugh when the woman has indigestion because this is such a turnaround from how these stories usually end. It is a triumph that she fights back and lives long enough to have her stomach hurt. This humor is both a threat to men and an encouragement to women—in a way many women are familiar with, the book changes its face to suit its audience.
As I read each story from Shit Cassandra Saw, I began to wonder: Is this a girl power book? Is girl power too reductive of a term, and if so, why? What is it about girl power that has become stale? Similarly, why do terms like girl power or girl boss have no teeth? Ultimately, I decided this is a book about girl power—or female empowerment—as well as an answer to why such terms have started to sound stale. Each story has something to say about the way women are treated, about how things need to change. Here is a wife through the eyes of her husband’s Yelp review; here is a woman haunted by the ghost of George Whitefield; here is the whore of Cwm Hyfryd, 1886; here is the same story, over again. These women’s stories weave together into a single narrative demanding freedom.
In “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,” the fanged woman is not the only one who can fight back. There are women with laser eyes, with cockroach survivability, with lycanthropy, with magical remotes that can do anything they want. There are women who then copy these abilities by wearing fake antennae or fangs in hopes that men will steer clear. And they do. In a way, I hate this—I hate that it takes fear to be safe, that the only language these men understand is violence, but I think this is what transforms the collection into a girl power or empowerment story. Here is what it takes to be safe; here is what it takes for a girl to seize power; what can we do to change that?
Girl power is stale because it’s become unbelievable. It’s become normative to expect girl power in our stories, yet it precludes systemic change—we watch a heroine in an action film flip around in her catsuit while Roe v. Wade is overturned. Shit Cassandra Saw reminds us of the stakes of its argument by showing us both sides of the story: the patriarchy losing at times and the lives of individual women still living under its shadow. Some of the stories in Shit Cassandra Saw are about fantastical women with strange abilities and powers, but others are simply about girls from a small town, falling in love for the first time. By putting these women on equal footing, we are reminded that we all have some degree of power in our day-to-day lives, and by fighting back in small ways, we equal an army.
It’s the framework of this collection that really makes Kirby’s point. Cassandra’s story is one of futility and disenfranchisement. She is never believed because (in many versions of the myth) she refuses Apollo’s sexual advances, and he curses her. She is not just a woman pressed under the thumb of mortal men who want to take advantage of her, but of the gods as well, the ultimate power. Even then, even when she can see her own bleak future on the horizon, she feels a quiet sort of victory in the way things will change.
And here is the best thing of all, the thing that makes Cassandra smile as the men storm her temple, exactly as she has always known they would: someday, Trojan will not be synonymous with bravery or failure, betrayal or endurance, or the most beautiful of women or the most foolish of men. A Trojan will be carried in every hopeful wallet, extracted with abashed confidence, slipped over the shaft, rolled to the base.
Shit Cassandra Saw is a book that makes us marvel at how much has changed and wonder what will change in the next 2,500 years. It’s written in the honest brokenness of the characters, in the bordering-on-wish-fulfillment against men: We can do better. Shit Cassandra Saw is a call to action, not just to get us marching in the streets, but to take a moment to remember the women who came before us, and hope that they’re still watching.
LEV BARRETT is currently working as the assistant managing editor of Southern Humanities Review while earning their master's in English at Auburn University. They have discovered a love for the odd and strange in fiction and hope to spend the rest of their life creating more of the same. You can read samples of their work on their website asb0107.wixsite.com/levbarrettportfolio.