Sundress Reads: Review of Cup & Dagger

A row of 17 mini-chapbooks on a white background.
Photo: Sword and Kettle Press

The Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook series transports readers through 17 diverse stories, all published in tandem by Sword and Kettle Press. Swinging from experimental horror and poetry to fairytale retellings and fantasy, these stories harmonize through the emphasis they put on women, trans, and nonbinary experiences, using the fantastical as a vehicle for understanding. It’s this centering of underrepresented voices beyond the binary that makes these mini-chapbooks important and like few others. In society, we too often prioritize male voices and stories; but in this series, a diverse range of female, trans, and nonbinary voices is offered, fearlessly calling out the treatment of women in society and the standards we hold them to, while delivering a commentary on our treatment of the environment. Each no more than 12 pages, they contend with body issues, model culture, male cruelty to nature and women, and so much more. These mini-chapbooks dare to imagine worlds where women unite in grief, women help each other through times when they are shunned by the world, and where love is always valid. This way of storytelling, combined with depth of emotion and experimental ways of writing, is what makes this series worth amplifying.

In an innately heteronormative society, the works in this series decimate boundaries; in the six mini-chapbooks featuring romance, love is love, a desire for romance isn’t required, and queer romance is celebrated. Women find peace and harmony with wolves and androids, with women and men and no one at all, and each romance—or even shunning of romance—is no more or less valid than any other. For example, Encounters with Wolves in Three Acts by Shreya Ila Anasuya gives power to queer love while simultaneously relegating gender in love to irrelevancy with the story of verdant love and acceptance between woman and wolf in the woods at the center of an unforgiving concrete city. Corporate America, patriarchy, homophobia, and the rigidity of an artificial city are contrasted against nature, nurturing, and play, cradled by a family of wolves in the deep woods in the center of the city, as woman and wolf find love even as they find themselves pulled apart. Although the wolf is mentioned as female, ideas of gender can’t be fully projected onto this romance since we cannot assume that our ideas of gender correlate to those of wolves. In this way, the gender of the wolf becomes almost irrelevant, perhaps showing the irrelevance of gender in relation to love.

The impossible standards for women’s bodies, the dark side of the beauty industry, and the vagaries of modeling are illuminated as well. In A Hole Walked In by Sarah Cavar, a woman bleeds from every orifice, streaming from eyes and nose and mouth in great vision-staining rivulets that are dismissed as unconcerning by all that see her. While bleeding in the mall, a modeling agent “solicits me like a street preacher cries hellfire. I pretend I have been waiting for him my whole life […]. You have the look, he tells me.” Her body seemingly becomes not her own, something for display and something to be ashamed of, to stuff and pinch and beat into submission as she emerges into the modeling industry. The blood gushing from her face, clotting in her lungs, becomes a casual talking point as the damage that is occurring to her body (perhaps a metaphor for internal wounds) is normalized as a part of the effort to be pretty. The way that this story shines a light on how we bleed for a society that cares nothing for our health, with the hope that it will value us for our emaciated bodies, is vital. This mini-chapbook and others unapologetically challenges our society and forces the public to reckon with the harm intrinsic in the beauty standards we hold for women.

Dealing with themes of death, patriarchy, and love beyond barriers, the mini-chapbooks in this series often return to one unwavering truth; in our darkest moments, it’s often nature and each other who can save us. We find each other despite all odds. Sometimes, these characters unite in love; other times, they escape together from a world not meant for them, build new homes, save each other’s lives, or sew each other back together. Mothers warn daughters of men and sailors while nature provides them a home, as in The Seawalker’s Flame by Rebecca Payne, and female sirens teach a drowned woman how to live again with nature, as in No One Saw Ophelia Drown by Grace Noto. But there is not always a path through the darkness. At times, women shop alone in psychedelic post-apocalyptic grocery stores reminiscent of the work of Kelly Link, as in Bury Me In Iron and Ivy by Monica Robinson; live forever gaslit by male society about their own body, their comfort found in men only temporary, as in Take Care When Made of Glass by Rachel Brittain; and sometimes there is nothing left but to stand together with the soul-wrenching music of grief, as in Our Ballad in Soil by Bisola Sosan.

In this way, by providing a balance of support and disorientation, love and grief, this series shows women, trans, and nonbinary folks in glory. I wish that in this time of intersectional feminism it had gone even further; I’d like to see a continuation of the series which includes an even more vibrant array of inclusion. But the current collection still does something vital in that it encourages women supporting women, validates women’s struggles, centers their voices, and encourages acceptance of all people. Every Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook is worth reading, with tales ranging from those of unusual creatures inspired by Chinese-Malay myths from Singapore, to vanquished love and mortuary work in Russia, to burning ballerinas and the things we do for our image. With these implications and this broad coverage of tales around the stories of women, the voices of these micro-chapbooks echo and stay with us far beyond the page. Much like the haunting voice of the singer in Our Ballad in Soil, the voices of these writers “would go on until those ashes in the ground felt satisfied. We would keep humming with [them].” And perhaps we will use them to build a better feminist society.

The Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook series is available at Sword and Kettle Press

A young white woman with short bleached hair and octagon glasses stands before a green background. She wears a collared shirt, gray sweater, and blue lace top.

Solstice Black (she/they) is a queer poet and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. They are currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, The Fantastic Other, and A Forest of Words, among others. They hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing and a BFA in visual art in the next few years. Her cat is both her greatest joy and torment.