Think about your fourth-grade class. There was Sarah B., Sarah L. and Sarah M. Sophomore year of high school it was Sarah P. and Sarah R. And lest we forget about kindergarten, where Sarahs Stiefvater (that’s me!) and Silverstein had to go by Sarah S.T. and Sarah S.I. (I’m not bitter or anything.)
Especially if you grew up between 1981 and 1989, Sarahs were everywhere, and they are also at the center of each of the ten stories in Sarahland, a strangely wonderful debut collection by Sam Cohen.
Through each of her Sarahs, Cohen explores queerness, womanhood, personhood and identity—Jewish identity, femme identity, gender identity. To do so, she subverts genre and incorporates elements of history, folklore and even the bible.
Let’s start there with “The First Sarah,” a reimagining of the biblical Abraham and Sarah. In Cohen’s version, Abraham is Abey and Sarah is Sarai, or Sari, a trans woman. “Sari was from before God created the gender binary,” Cohen writes. “How it was genitalia could look budlike or bloomed, zucchini-ish or more like a berry cluster, like an anemone or a starfish or a pair of sea cucumbers.” Despite all this abundance, however, Sari and Abey can't produce a child of their own, at which point Hagar, a handmaiden gifted to them by the Egyptian king, enters and the three become an unlikely family unit—in a story that takes raunchy and morally questionable turns.
Other stories are more contemporary or fantastical in scope. In “Exorcism, or Eating My Twin,” a Buffy-loving Sarah uses fan fiction to work through romantic obsession, and in the book’s last story, “The Purple Epoch,” Cohen imagines a world where new creatures are born from the remains of past Sarahs.
What ties these stories together is the way they’re all told through a queer, non-male lens. These Sarahs are fluid in their identities—often breaking free of what’s expected of them and reinventing what it means not only to be a woman, but to be a person.
But regardless of how far it dives into gender theory or strays from reality, Sarahland is still just a ton of fun to read—at turns thought-provoking, funny, strange and exhilarating.
With Sarahland, Cohen has asserted herself as a worthy contemporary of Ottessa Moshfegh, Elif Batuman and Carmen Maria Machado.