lunedì 16 ottobre 2017

Sycorax's Daughters: a very special Project

(The Italian version of this review has appeared in print on Hypnos Magazine 7, Autumn 2017, pp. 127-132)

Sycorax’s Daughters, by Kinitra D. Brooks, Linda D. Addison & Susana M. Morris, Cedar Grove Publishing, San Francisco, 2017, 536 pp.

When Linda Addison kindly asked me if I was interested in reviewing a collection of dark fiction and poetry by African-American women I was overjoyed and even more so when I received the pdf from the Publisher Rochon Perry, Cedar Grove Publishing (the over 500 page volume wouldn’t have been published, as in fact it was, until February 2017). I found myself facing an incredible project both for its significance as for the quality of the texts.

Sycorax’s Daughters is an extremely contemporary piece of work from a social and political point of view and thus indicative of a reality which is not just narrative. I am therefore grateful to Linda Addison, one of the editors of Sycorax’s Daughters, for having thought of me and given me the opportunity to talk about this work.

The anthology consists of 28 short stories and 14 poems. The blurb on the back cover is written by Jewelle Gomez, one of the most famous African-American speculative fiction writers in this particular publishing field:

Sycorax’s Daughters introduces us to a whole new legion of gothic writers. Their stories drip with history and blood leaving us with searing images and a chill emanating from shadows gathered in the corner. This anthology is historic in its recognition of women of color writers in a genre that usually doesn’t know what to do with us.

Horror, Oppression, Blackness. These are the closely-bound themes around which all the stories and poems contained in this anthology revolve around. The editors started from the second AstroBlackness conference held in March 2015 in Los Angeles, a public annual conference that aims to be “an imaginative space for artists and academics to examine how blackness is constructed, politicized, articulated and potentially reimagined via african-futuristic, surrealistic, gothic, fantastic and techno-cybernetic expressions of the “black experience.” 

AstroBlacness II focused on the three main ways in which ‘horror’ is linked to being Black in America. In this context Kinitra D. Brooks centred her speech on the intersections of both race and gender, underlining the way in which black women are either present or absent (or both at the same time) in most products of horror literature, as well as the message these products give about society, black communities and the concept itself of being a black woman.  

       Through these lenses, we see that horror as a genre often explores how we deal with those pasts that are not past, those corpses that refuse to lay quietly in their unmarked graves, those creatures born of pain, abandoned, who refused to die. In horror, we see the present through the eyes of the past. Sycorax’s Daughters allows us to explore our own connection to history, as individuals and as a society. […] Ghosts are the past that is not past.

These are the words of Walidah Imarisha, writer, educator and poet, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Sci Fi Stories From Social Justice Movements.
Kinitra D. Brooks explains the choice of the title in the Introduction.

We named this collection Sycorax’s Daughters because we insist that Black women have always been horror creators. Each author featured is a descendant od Sycorax, the deceased African sorceress in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Sycorax and her daughters reflect the culture critic bell hooks’ concept of the absent presence of Black women in popular culture.

Her presence/absence in ‘The Tempest’ creates fear and suspicion among the main male (and white) characters. This anthology wants to fill a gap and move the centre of horror literature, currently still dominated by male white authors and, to a lesser extent, female (white) authors for a lack of alternatives.
Kinitra D. Brooks asks the reader to pay particular attention to

 the unique horror epistemologies in their texts that interweave the ancient dictates of the African ancestors with the futuristic exploration of folkloristic values.

I started my reading bearing this advice in mind. As it is such a substantial reading, I selected some stories and poems, trying to yield the breadth and complexity that drives intentions by subdividing them into common features: the fantasy monster intended as a metaphor for diversity; ghosts that tell us about an abusive past (but also a present); revived elements of African folkloristic culture. Some of the stories move more clearly in a ‘horror’ dimension, while others sometimes take on fantasy, surreal or futuristic elements.

We can find many stories that deal with the concept of the ‘monster’ intended as ‘different’. These have as main characters, mermaids or tree creatures or strange female demons (naturally a lot of these comes from African and Caribbean folklore) such as Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight by Sheree Renée Thomas and Scales by Cherene Sherrard and in Ma Laja by Tracey Baptiste, in which we find female lead characters perceived as ‘strange’ or frightening by their normal life partners or those who meet them. It’s not uncommon to find that themes such as environmental protection are intertwined with the narrative, as it is in the first short story. Through a narrative language that often trespasses into fantasy these three stories tell us about a lack of acceptance, of being seen as something else, considered as normal, and of living life as a prisoner, as a life sentence.

Born Again by RaShell R. Smith-Spears displays all the traits (and clichés as we read in the story itself) of the role of the vampire: seductive, hypnotic, scary and evil. Once a slave, the main female character Jane killed her master during the slave revolt lead by vampires. In the first 142 years of life she supported the women’s suffrage movement during the early 1900s. During the 40s she helped black farmers gain back land stolen from them. But injustice is never-ending.  This story reminds us of The Gilda Stories by the previously mentioned Jewelle Gomez: the long period of time in which the lead character moves, the social implications that this allows the author to deal with, an African-American female lead and a homosexual love story.
I imagine RaShell R. Smith-Spears intended to figuratively ‘wink’ at Jewelle Gomez, so that she, as well could explore those themes that are so important in The Gilda Stories: a love that goes beyond your essence, etiquettes which are maybe just social ones, the relationship with faith (the presence of the Bible is very strong in many other stories), the understanding of what real evil is.

“You’re not evil.” Jane was emphatic. “We are what we are, but it is not evil. I have lived a long time, and I’ve seen real evil, remember? People who hate because others do not fit within their idea of normal are evil. People who would hunt and hurt those who are different are evil. People who subjugate those they perceive to be weaker, in the name of their perversion of righteousness, they are evil.

Stereotypes representing the differences between the North and South of the United States exist also amongst African-Americans and in The Monster by Crystal Connor the lead character introduces them in the way she speaks. After all this is a bit like ‘our’ South: ever present and plentiful food (mainly fried), accents and dialects which are so heavy and impossible to decipher, suffocating heat and so many superstitions. This story tells us that superstitions, what we believe in, the ideas we have grown up with – I would add: wherever we come from – are ineradicable and stronger than anything else.

Not all stories introduce positive protagonists: Summer Skin by Zin E. Rocklyn and Taking the good by Dana McKnight. In these we sense the suffering caused by being marginalised, by being perceived as different, by living in a violent world that, by extension, makes the female lead characters violent.  And we venture deeper into a world within the world and, before our eyes, infinite shades of black unfold. This is because if for white people black people are just black, for black people there are thousands of words to define the level of blackness and therefore, of origin, fusion and provenance. And those who are different appear as monstrous, taking on fantastic features or those of a seductive vampire or those of a terrifying and deadly mutant being.

Other stories are instead more ‘realistic’, even though they don’t abandon their fantasy status. Through ghosts of the past they introduce us to the abuse we still unfortunately hear about today. For example, Letty by Regina N. Bradley is a story that unfolds slowly and inevitably, until it hits you hard and hurts you. This is all the more evident linguistically and is reflected in the African-American English vernacular. This is a story which is full of irony and stark reality. A demon, harbinger of death wearing a mask sticky with mulberry syrup and fire ants running around wildly; a ghost that stays put as an accusation; the power of a brief fantasy story to expose a chilling reality. Kim by Nicole D. Sconiers is characterised by a powerful beginning which reverberates and amplifies as reading progresses:

She came that summer bearing nothing in her hands and she left with the bones of our dreams.

The Cherry Street Crew is the story of the first female rap crew (imaginary I suppose):

I didn’t know we could rap. Well, I knew we could but I didn’t know we were allowed. All the voices barking through the speakers of my brother’s Magnavox were loud, cocky. And male. 

The atmosphere exuded from this story gives me the creeps; the author is very good at creating tension and a sense of expectation for the looming danger we are soon made aware of.  I believe that this particular story together with Letty by Regina N. Bradley is truly representative of the anthology, even if the cross section of daily life doesn’t portray today’s reality as in Letty the story is set in the first years of the 20th century, I suppose, while in Kim the story is set at the beginning of the 80s when the Atlanta Child Murders took place. Both stories introduce a woman’s name in the title: she is black in the first story and white in the second.  In both stories, however, evil comes from the whites. Evil, from other African-American women, is abrupt in these stories and is essentially driven by a feeling of envy. In the case of Kim this is mutual: even the African-American lead character has a strong feeling of envy for this ‘pale’ little girl. A feeling that never trespasses into evil behaviour.

In some stories the impact of one’s own beliefs is very strong and religion and folklore become intensively intertwined.
How to Speak to the Bogeyman di Carol McDonnell seems to warn us: the Bogeyman here is a black woman or whatever remains of her and she seduces and turns an innocent into a serial rapist.  But the message that we need to get here is probably that an endured violence only generates violence and that no religious belief can instill terror or defy demons.
In To Give Her Whatsoever She Would Ask by R.J. Joseph we experience first-hand the competition between religious faith and ancestral beliefs, long entrenched, perceived as more powerful, more real and able to satisfy the requests of those who kneel down beseeching. Nonetheless there is always a price to pay and the lead character won’t delay discovering this, not before having shown us on the one hand a world we know very well and that in some ways is not just reserved to black women – a woman who sacrifices her independence and aspirations in order to enable her husband to dedicate himself to his independence and aspirations – and on the other hand a world inhabited by jumbies and soucouyants, namely evil spirits of the Caribbean folklore.

The end of my life sees me sent not to the white man’s paradise or the spirit world. It sees me sent instead to a netherworld that is bleached of colour and light, a place where I will wait until she needs me.
This netherworld is so devoid of substance of any kind I almost wish for the darkness of long ago when, as a frightened fifteen year old girl, I was snatched from all I knew and taken over water to a land of pain and misery – and the life of a lowly slave.

These are the opening lines of Mama by A.D. Koboah, and the long journey that brings the protagonist from Africa to the plantations of the New World where she will experience far more pain than a living creature could ever go through. It is a story that is also magical, full of evil spirits – obayifo, full of spiritual connections and a research for justice that only through the love of her children can find a glimmer of redemption. The initial description of slave deportation is vivid and painful. It is rendered through all the senses we have available and becomes even more excruciating as it still belongs to our terrible present day.

In Asunder, Lori Titus tells us of a magic that is a daily occurrence in certain African-American families: every member has a special gift that they use in every-day life.

Magic simply exists, and if you’re lucky, you will never have the misfortune of needing to explain it to people who don’t understand.

But obviously this is something which makes you different and the lead character already perceives the burden of her skin that makes her feel forever different.

We find a more futuristic approach in Of Sound Mind and Body by K. Ceres Wright: the government is overseeing a new program of downloadable consciences that transfer personality and memories from body to body to start a new life. And this is what happens to the lead character, a spy called Dara, who has experiences in bodies that differ in gender and ethnicity. The Ever After by L. Marie Wood is without a doubt more utopian. A tale of death, of the many questions we ask ourselves during our life and the answers we seek in vain. A story about an attempt to make death less painful. The result though is not the one hoped for and the questions life forces us to ask grow exponentially.

When we move on to the lyrical side of the anthology we straight away grasp the great diversity in each poem: some are formally more traditional, others more incline to prose, but they all differ in themes and approaches. We must bear in mind that African-American literature contemplates the different forms of orally transmitted forms of art and not just spirituals, religious sermons or gospel music, but also forms that are more contemporary such as blues and rap music.

A poem that particularly struck me, on the one hand for its style with its alliterations, its more formally poetic structure that is, on the other for the chosen theme, is Dyer Died in Silence by Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson. Here the last moments on the gallows of one of the cruellest female serial killers ever to live, that is Amelia Dyer, the Victorian Britain baby killer. This poem cries, without shadow of a doubt, for justice towards the poor innocent victims and is centred around a female figure that has no womanly traces and reveals the awful side of a creature that is inhuman.

The last poem is a lyrical afterword by Linda D. Addison, beautiful and powerful in its unmistakeable verses of hope and redemption:

As daughters of daughters,
we speak Our fables
from mouths full of lightning:
of mermaids, magic, demons, vampires,
journeys to hell and back, shape shifters,
ravished bodies & strengthened souls,
alternate futures, babies wanted & rejected,
firestarters, ghost, and transhumans.

Revoking banishment,
Read Our words & know:
We Are Here.

This collection of stories and poems has explored the magical, the macabre, and all in between, while centering the voices, experiences, and imaginations of Black women. Black women in these pieces are not reduced to magical Negroes, mammies, or martyrs, but are instead depicted as dynamic, smart, and complex heroines, villains, anti-heroes and so much more. Sycorax’s daughters are never sidekicks and they are never silent.
While Sycorax’s Daughters is a special project, it is also part of an already vibrant community of Black women writing horror. We hope that this collection, inspired as it is by the works that Black women horror writers have produced in the past, will inspire more poems, more stories, and more collections. We also hope that it will inspire readers to continue to seek out Black women horror writers so that they can return again to the delights of these dark worlds.

The collection closes with these words by Susan M. Morris. I’m convinced that this book sheds light on these ‘dark worlds’ in those like me, who are always seeking new reading materials that open up to new horizons and that don’t just shake the imagination but also the knowledge of a reality of which, whether we like it or not, we are part of.

The authors: Tiffany Austin, Tracey Baptiste, Regina N. Bradley, Patricia E. Canterbury,  Crystal Connor, Joy M. Copeland, Amber Doe, Tish Jackson, Valjeanne Jeffers, Tenea D. Johnson,  R. J. Joseph, A. D. Koboah, Nicole Givens Kurtz,  Kai Leakes,  A. J. Locke, Carole McDonnell,  Dana T. McKnight, LH Moore, L. Penelope, Zin E. Rocklyn, Eden Royce, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Andrea Vocab Sanderson,  Nicole D. Sconiers,  Cherene Sherrard,  RaShell R. Smith-Spears,  Sheree Renée Thomas, Lori Titus, Tanesha Nicole Tyler, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, L. Marie Wood, K. Ceres Wright, Deana Zhollis.

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