[Update 8/20/21: Updates have been made to reflect the author's name change]
"They are a record. They tell the story of my life, the things I want remembered."
"They are tensed into my skin, into my flesh. I made them so they will burn into my bones upon my death."
"I do not want my existence to go unremarked upon. I do not want to be an anonymous set of bones scattered in the desert, chanced upon by travelers and discarded."
In Neon Yang's debut novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, Quarterlander Rider explains the purpose of their tattoos to Mokoya, a Tensor who can - simply put - manipulate the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and metal. It's a small, intimate moment between the two that, to some, wouldn't be worth remarking upon. It's a character building scene meant to strengthen the bond between them so that once the plot kicks into overdrive we the readers are staunchly invested in their brief but potent connection. The tattoos aren't a plot device, nor are they really brought up again after the initial pillow talk. They just are and yet I found myself latching on to their purpose and significance regarding ideas about records, memory, and autonomy.
To be fair, as short as it is there is a lot to be gleaned from The Red Threads of Fortune and its sibling novella The Black Tides of Heaven. According to Yang, these are just two in a planned Tensorate Series of novellas and novels, so the groundwork is being laid to explore ideas and themes within a larger context. Will Yang return to this particular practice of recordkeeping in another publication? Possibly, but until that happens, we'll have to use what we've been given.
Rider's explanation of their tattoos actually tells us a lot about how the Quarterlands and its people view themselves in relation to the larger governing body of the Protectorate that Mokoya, reluctantly, works for. They are the Other, the lesser, and should they die it's likely they will not be remembered by anyone. While there is some nascent steampunk-esque technology in Yang's world-building, the written record is likely the most common practice and - as we all know - history is written by those in power. That Rider even had to resort to magicking their story into their flesh and bones tells us exactly how often Quarterlanders make it into the societal narrative as anything other than a nameless outsider.
The archival profession has a long history of failure when it comes to documenting marginalized communities. Great strides have been taken in recent years to rectify outdated practices, but gaps still remain and the silences are devastating. Some communities, however, have taken ownership over documenting themselves and their stories. They know the value of their existence and what it means to be erased, diminished, excluded, etc. The end goal, above all else, is to be seen and acknowledged. To be real in the eyes of society.
Through their tattoos, Rider has taken ownership of their story. It's a curated narrative, to be sure, but it's their narrative. And by assuring that the story is burned into their bones upon death, they make doubly sure that they can't be ignored. Even as a passing curiosity, someone would try to decipher the script and in doing so they would discover the story of a Quarterlander named Rider. What they do from there is anybody's guess, but at the very least it gives Rider some piece of mind that their life will be acknowledged. They will not be nameless. They will be something worth remembering.