I'm trying to find a short story published sometime in or before 2017 that told about a first contact mission a specific woman participates in. This woman, who is part of a two-person crew (her and her commander actually go down to the planet to interact with the aliens) that travels to the aliens' home planet, is convinced that she will be able to communicate well with the aliens, especially since she has been studying their textual communications for months. However, when she and the commander make it to the alien planet, she cannot understand the basis for the alien leadership: there doesn't seem to be anything particularly special about the alien leader that makes them a "good" candidate for leadership. She also notes that the aliens sigh and cry a lot, a quirk she cannot understand. At one point the females and males are separated for meals (I remember them going into weird pods/cupboards to eat, where each person had their own enclosure and didn't come out until they had finished eating. Maybe because the aliens were embarrassed about their mouths or something? I think the females might have worn veils over their mouths as part of their cultural tradition) and the female aliens try to ask the woman about her life. Because the woman experienced many hardships (i.e. bad relationship with mother? Dead siblings?), she hides much of her life story to seem more competent. Unable to connect with the aliens, she leaves disappointed. It is only when she is back on her ship that she learns from her commander that the alien species values tragedy above all else; their leaders are chosen based on who has suffered the most. The woman laments that she was unable to establish good relations with the aliens because she was unwilling to open up to them. She could have established better connections with the aliens if only she had been willing to be vulnerable and open to them.

I'm maybe 80% certain that the author of this short story is a woman as well. It's incredible and heartbreaking at the end, but I cannot for the life of me recall the title.


1 Answer 1


Malka Older's Tear Tracks, published in 2015. The story is online here in full, and the details you mentioned all match. Thank you for bringing this moving story to my attention. A brief sample:

“It is in her honor,” Irnv continues, “that we now make the tear tracks on our faces, to represent her learning, sacrifice, and wisdom.” She runs her fingers along the deep grooves in her face.

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