Burning Men

by Maria on March 8, 2023

My rather long short story “Burning Men” was published this morning by the Australian literary magazine, Westerly. It’s the first story I felt I was channeling, not writing. Burning Men is about a world where the cost of sexual violence is born by the perpetrators and how that changes everything. It burst out of the personal experience of deeply loving someone whose life was fractured by this kind of violence, and also from the mood music of brexit and covid.

It’s taken a year to find someone to publish this story, but I’m glad I kept trying. Westerly’s editor, Catherine Noske, ran deft fingers over every thread of it and pushed me to make it clearer and better.

Burning Men is a lot of things – a friendly satirist even tells me it’s LOL funny, which is marvellous – but much of its work is to be a vessel for rage. Sometimes I think rage is biohazard or radioactive material and needs to be carried and stored with extreme care, and labelled to prevent harm to the bearer and to others. (Although the story is not explicit it has a content warning, and I respect and share the need for people to choose if/when to read this kind of thing.) Revenge fantasy is necessary, but there’s more of it just about Liam Neeson avenging his wife or kid than about all the people whose lives have been blown apart by sexual violence. But I also think rage is fuel for the road, or maybe the lee lines and desire paths change travels on. I hope this story can help point the way.

“Late on Wednesday afternoon, just after a desultory PMQs in which the leader of the opposition failed once again to achieve cut-through, the Prime Minister sagged into the backseat of his car, sighed at a red traffic light on Parliament Square, and spontaneously combusted.”



Sophie Jane 03.08.23 at 11:14 am

This is good, and also what I needed today. Thank you.


Sumana Harihareswara 03.08.23 at 12:12 pm

Maria, this is another powerhouse of a story. So many quotable lines — the first one to really slice me up was “where, as always, it is a far greater sin to besmirch the name of a man than the body of a child.”

I think I gathered a few places where “the mood music of brexit and covid” showed up in the piece, as in

“Not for the first time, our country chose in full public view to tear itself apart rather than admit it had fallen for an insultingly stupid lie.”


“All of society, the economy and the great ship of state must turn on a pin like an elderly elephant who, it turns out, could stunt-ride a unicycle all along”


“Who we once were is irretrievably gone. Nothing feels real. Each moment is hyper-charged and estranged from itself. The necklace is yanked and split, beads scattered across the floor. Surely we can fix this? I feel I could pinch the air into a curtain and pull it back to reveal what was solid before, to step back into that scene. I know you feel that, too.”

The reactions you have imagined and described, and the ripple effects, the politics of mourning, interspersed with declamations like the “when we lived under the previous order” paragraph — just so vivid and incisive.

I imagine I’m not the first reader to situate this story alongside Naomi Alderman’s The Power and the film version of Children of Men; did either of those serve as influences, or as stories you were reacting against?


Chris Bertram 03.08.23 at 1:18 pm

Excellent, Maria. I love the imagination on display here and how you’ve crafted a story that works as a story from your anger and compassion.


notGoodenough 03.08.23 at 5:21 pm

Powerful words, wonderful prose, and a brilliant ability to convey the tensions and conflicting emotions throughout (might I invoke the phrase “militant decency” in its Pratchettian sense here?). One of your many sharp observations (to avoid ruining the prose for others, the bit regarding Britishness and animal welfare) struck me as silmultaniously bleakly humorous and ruefully true, and your ability to turn evocative phrases commands both my admiration and respect.

I am grateful you created this, and made it available to read – a very deep thanks to you, and to your editor.


Maria 03.09.23 at 9:01 am

Sophie Jane, I’m so glad. I’ve been quite anxious about this one and one of my sisters talked me off the ledge the other day by saying someone you’ll never meet will read this and it’ll be just what they need.

Sumana! Thank you. (and I’m so glad we’re connected on mastodon now) I think this story is inspired by the same literature The Power came out of. I’d say it is in a small way reacting against it, as I was disappointed at how, early in that novel, the first moment a heretofore powerless girl might avoid being raped, the aggressors still prevail, and viciously. For that novelist maybe the scene serves another purpose, but for me, swerving the book’s only pure moment of comeuppance and justice was a betrayal of the novel’s conceit. IMHO you get to land one punch, then explore the consequences. But give me that one punch. What else is fiction for? I found it to be a novel that doesn’t like women all that much, or people in general. The notion that we’d rebuild thousands of years of patriarchy in a couple of years, but with a female face, just seemed very 2nd wave feminism to me – all those circular 1980s and 90s discussions of ‘women will build a better world/no, they’re just as bad’. So I’d say Burning Men – which ultimately lands in a more hopeful place, I think – comes out of the same tradition (Joanna Russ, etc.) but looks both for justice and to a better future based not on some notion of all humans as wicked and weak, but how the resources already exist to lift a massive brake on our species as a whole, if only we decide to use them. I guess in my story it also helps that all the existing rapists are dead.

I loved the film of Children of Men (and the book, hmm, sort of, interesting). It’s in the creative mulch somewhere. It’s so, so British. You feel ‘yes, that’s exactly how it would be’. And, sorry to lower the tone, arguably Clive Owen’s best role. But I feel very strongly that as a writer I want not just to show that individual people can find redemption and love, but that collectively there are good things to do that will help us all. Difficult to dramatise given our obsession with protagonists.

Post-apocalypse has for decades been my favourite favourite favourite sub-genre. If anything, it’s Earth Abides by George Stewart that I love the most.

Though in the last few years I’ve really gotten hooked on generation ships. Those stories have the same existential urgency – what are the middle generations to do with themselves, being merely carriers for genes and institutions? – but usually more pleasant surroundings.


Maria 03.09.23 at 9:06 am

Chris, thank you! That is very generous, and also I need to get you some story-related correspondence…

notGoodenough, many thanks. Pratchettian decency is a high bar. I’ve twice read the story to an audience and yes, the one you mention is the stand out laugh line of the piece.


J-D 03.09.23 at 9:36 am

I haven’t read the story yet, but I’m going to disclose my immediate reaction to the title, even though it may disclose the triviality and flippancy of my mind: I imagined somebody singing ‘It’s burning men! Hallelujah!’ (to the tune, if it isn’t obvious, of ‘It’s Raining Men!’).

This must say something about me, but I’m still not sure what.


Tim H. 03.09.23 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for that story, thank Westerly for allowing me to read it. I suspect it is less lust, more dominance, creating a fear that any man may harbor a rape fantasy, and you can’t, without a large investment in time, have any idea what lives behind someone else’s eyes. Not holding my breath for them to transcend their inner ape, but everyone else needs it.


J-D 03.09.23 at 11:31 pm

I have read the story now and–

One of your many sharp observations (to avoid ruining the prose for others, the bit regarding Britishness and animal welfare) struck me as silmultaniously bleakly humorous and ruefully true

I’ve twice read the story to an audience and yes, the one you mention is the stand out laugh line of the piece.

–my reaction to this was affected by the fact that the book my daughter and I are currently buddy-reading is The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams: the eponymous dogs escape from an experimental research laboratory (in England, specifically the Lake District) which is a place of horrors not lightly to be spoken of. Although the specific place is fictional, the author takes the trouble to note in the preface that although no one place would house the full range of horrors described, every one of them is drawn from an experiment actually conducted (admittedly, he doesn’t say specifically that they have all actually been conducted by British people).


Jim Harrison 03.10.23 at 3:44 am

Reminds me of the tale of Michael Kohlhaas, but I think von Kleist got it right.


Phil H 03.10.23 at 9:37 am

Loved it. Funny and angry.


JakeB 03.11.23 at 9:43 pm

I particularly like the line “Few had harmed animals. They were British, after all.” A perfect tone for the ghastly summary.


Sumana Harihareswara 03.13.23 at 11:32 am

Really appreciate the thoughtful responses, Maria!

I linked to “Burning Men” on MetaFilter and a few folks there are raising concerns about the treatment of gender in the story, in case you’d like to take a look.


Chris Bertram 03.13.23 at 2:37 pm

@Sumana, I find it a bit weird the way people read a story with that kind of inquisitorial mindset, but FWIW Maria’s paragraph starting “We’re just as venal and broken as before …” ought to set their minds at risk. I saw also the assumption that Maria is a British author, when she isn’t.


J-D 03.14.23 at 10:45 pm

I particularly like the line “Few had harmed animals. They were British, after all.” A perfect tone for the ghastly summary.

I took that to be what notGoodenough was referring to above (I responded on that basis)–is there anything else it could be?

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